Archive for ‘Vector’

June 24, 2016

Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad

I started reading Zen Cho’s collection of short fiction in that ancient past when it was only available as a paperback from Buku Fixi. By the time I actually got around to starting to review it, the ebook, with all its extra material, had come out, and naturally I wanted that as well. I promised Vector a review sometime in late 2014, and only delivered it sometime in 2015; luckily, they decided they’d like to carry it alongside a much more timely review of the author’s novel Sorceror to the Crown. (That review was by Maureen Kincaid Speller, and I’ll be linking to it when it’s available on her blog.)

 

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Cho 1One of the difficulties with reviewing a book that exists in two separate editions is that in some crucial ways you might well be reviewing two different books. Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad is a paperback published in Malaysia by maverick publisher Fixi Novo, consisting of ten short stories divided into sections titled “Here”, “There” and “Elsewhere”. Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad is also an internationally-available ebook consisting of fifteen stories (divided into sections titled “Here”, “There”, “Elsewhere” and “Going Back”), as well as commentary from the author. The second of these is, naturally, the more readily available; the first is the original book, and all that added content in the ebook is classified under “extras”. The ebook as a form is flexible enough to make this possible, of course, and I’ll willingly accept all the fiction Cho is willing to give me, but it’s hard to see this much added material as merely supplementary.

Place is important here, as those section headings show. The three stories that make up “Here” are all set entirely in Malaysia; “There” consists of four stories of Malaysians in the UK. There’s an implicit statement being made about where this book’s cultural centre is, about what is normal and what is strange. It’s a statement that chimes with Fixi Novo’s manifesto, published at the front of the (paper) book, in which they pledge, among other things, that they “will not use italics for non-American, non-English terms. This is because those words are not foreign to a Malaysian audience […] italics are a form of apology.” As the necessity for such a manifesto indicates, globally, English language fiction (including SFF) is still dominated by a sense of the West as cultural centre, so that even for those of us from (or in) other parts of the world, placing ourselves in that position can feel a bit radical. Here, if there’s a culture that needs to explain or justify itself it’s that belonging to England, not Malaysia. (“‘People brought sambal?’ Hui Ann noticed people hastily squirrelling away jars of dark red paste. ‘You brought that all the way from home? Eh, here in England they also got food one, you know or not?’ ‘I don’t like fish and chip,’ said one of the sambal smugglers defiantly.”) More usually, though, Cho draws on both cultural sources, the “here” and the “there”, as do her characters who realistically, because that is what the world is like, inhabit them both. One of my favourite moments in “The House of Aunts” comes when Ah Lee, its protagonist, has revealed her supernatural identity to the boy on whom she has a crush, and asks him “You want to say it? You want to tell me what am I?”  It’s funny because it’s an inversion of a similar scene in Twilight (one of “The House of Aunts”‘ more obvious intertexts); it’s great because so much of what is good about the story rests on the precise differences between “vampire”, the western cultural concept both of these teenagers are relatively comfortable talking about, and “pontianak”, which is what Ah Lee really is.

Two of the stories in the collection have supplementary stories included as ebook extras. “The Persistence of Angela’s Past Life” takes a side character from “Prudence and the Dragon”, Prudence’s best friend Angela, and gives her a back story that not only fleshes out these characters and their history but reframes the original story as well—the reader of “The Persistence of Angela’s Past Life” is reading a different “Prudence and the Dragon” entirely. This may all seem obvious; of course stories exist in relation to one another, and of course increased knowledge of a world/context changes how we read the stories it contains. But all this is also crucial to Cho’s larger project—this opening up of the worlds that we “know” and reminding the reader that other characters, other stories, already exist (have always existed) within them. It’s most evident in her dealing with British history; in Sorcerer to the Crown, in her romance novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, and in this collection in “起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion – The Lion Bows)”, a story about a ghost-busting Lion Dance troupe in England, hired to exorcise a haunted cabinet. The ghost in question turns out to be a small African child, a legacy of British imperial history, whom the troupe choose to adopt, even if it means carrying an unwieldy cabinet around forever after.

cho 2The “Going Back” section of the collection, exclusive to the ebook, rather destabilises the tidy geographical demarcation of the “original” book. If Here, There and Elsewhere are Malaysia, Britain and fantastic (or SFnal) spaces respectively, from where and to where does one return? All three of the stories in this section are set in Malaysia, but they speak of other sorts of return as well. “The Fish Bowl” revisits adolescence, “Balik Kampung” involves a return to the world of the living. (“The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat” revisits myth and Cho’s fanfiction roots, possibly, or may be where this neat reading breaks down). But the theme of homecoming bookends the main body of the book as well—it’s as integral to “The First Witch of Damansara” (which opens Here) as it is to the closing section of “The Four Generations of Chang E” (with which Elsewhere closes). “Balik kampung” (returning to the village), Cho explains in her notes to the story of that name, is a tradition “embedded in the urban Malaysian psyche”; it’s tempting to read this theme of return, the impossibility of return, and the various inconveniences encountered in the attempt, as equally embedded in this collection.

Those same story notes, however, left me conflicted. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that the ebook allows the author to annotate and provide extra information about the stories and their genesis—whether or not that information is particularly helpful. For example I’m not sure “The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote”, which works mainly by being told in a really charming tone, is much improved by the information that it’s Legolas/Gimli slash, as amused as I was by this fact—whereas the revelation that “The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat” is a “five things” story changes everything. Too often, though, the notes take a tone that feels to me contradictory to the joyous, unapologetic spirit of the book—they explain. The presumed reader of the ebook, unlike the presumed reader of the paperback, has to be told what Balik kampung means culturally rather than knowing/inferring/being content in their ignorance; needs to be reminded not to read “Chang E” as “the one true narrative of diaspora”. And if such a reader needs to have it explained to them that “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia”, the best story in the collection with its crotchety, vulnerable old lady protagonist and its deadpan reporting of committee proceedings, is supposed to be funny, then they do not deserve to read it. It’s tempting to read the inclusion of the notes as a reflection of the ebook’s wider audience; in reality, they’re probably just there because the format allowed them to be.

In part because of her constant engagement with earlier literature, Cho has tended to attract the Author X + Author Y sort of review (“Susanna Clarke plus Georgette Heyer–with a soupçon of P.G Wodehouse and infused with the Mitford sister of your choice”). I feel guilty for adding to it, but I’m just going to come out and say it—a good Zen Cho story has the charm and the precision of a good Joan Aiken story. And there are several good Zen Cho stories in this collection.

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May 13, 2015

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity

A review of this in a recent issue of Vector.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reviewing a couple of children’s literature shortlists recently and I’m so bored of having to stick “this is a very white list of authors, isn’t it?” into my reviews of things [and it's such a dull thing to keep having to write (always stuck somewhere unobtrusive, because it's such a ubiquitous annoyance that it's never the most interesting thing about the book)]. I’m not sure what Irregularity‘s excuse is; I had a related complaint with another Jurassic London anthology last year.

Some good stories in here– Rose-Innes and Roberts in particular. As a whole I was insufficiently whelmed.

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Irregularity (edited by Jared Shurin) was published to coincide with the Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. This connection sets the collection in a very specific context—the 17th-19th centuries in the history of science, the age of enlightenment. Most of the stories sit comfortably within this framework; the earliest, Richard de Nooy’s “The Heart of Aris Kindt”, is set in 1632; the latest, Simon Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought”, in 1854.

The focus of the anthology (helped along by, to put it mildly, not the most diverse list of contributors) makes it inevitable that the majority of these stories are of Northern Europeans doing science in Northern Europe. But the age of enlightenment is also the age of empire (what did we think they needed all those ships for?), and occasionally this fact comes into play in these stories as well. The fatal game in Rose Biggin’s story is played out in Port Royal, and the role of empire is explicit in Roger Luckhurst’s “Circulation”, which is proper Victorian horror. It’s also the disturbing undercurrent to Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Animalia Paradoxa”, one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Rose-Innes’ unnamed protagonist is in search of a spectacular new animal for the collection of a rich patron in France, but he’s prone to thinking of the African men he’s hired to help him as collectibles as well.

As is often the case with a themed collection, a number of the stories here are variations on the same central idea—that ordering and knowing and mapping and exerting power upon and destroying are all inextricably bound up in one complex knot. (“’He’s mapped us,’” says a character in Rose Biggin’s “A Game Proposition”, “in a tone that meant murdered us.”) The strongest of these is E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm” in which a young girl befriends the spiders that live under her bed, only to unwittingly kill them one by one as a visiting scientist tells her their names. This is basic fairy tale logic—to know a thing’s true name is to have power over it—but it’s also at the heart of the enlightenment project. The child protagonist makes these two systems of understanding the world fit together surprisingly well. “Knowledge is power” is hardly an original idea, but the lonely, detached perspective of Swift’s Eva would make up for greater sins than this, and “The Spiders of Stockholm” really is powerful and lovely. Though it’s unfortunate for both stories that Swift’s should be placed immediately after Biggin’s, which treads similar ground.

In Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out of Time” humans aren’t the ones imposing order upon the world, but the creatures upon whom order is imposed. Unknown forces (in my head a version of Terry Pratchett’s Auditors) watch Emilie du Chatelet in alarm as she threatens to discover too much too soon. Humans are not entirely powerless, though, and Curran’s nameless narrators have plenty of help from the patriarchy.

It sometimes feels as if all of Irregularity is at war with Linnaeus—he is indirectly responsible for the death of Eva’s spiders, is one of the driving forces that leads Henrietta Rose-Innes’s protagonist to hunt for the chimera in Africa, shows up (as a sympathetic figure) in Tiffani Angus’ “Fairchild’s Folly” grappling with the question of whether or how one might classify love. It always comes back to the question of classification—to what extent it’s harmful, to what extent it’s natural and human, to what extent the universe is classifiable. None of these stories makes reference to William Blake’s Ancient of Days; I’m not sure if this is a pity or a relief.

This drive to impose order, whether innately human or not, extends in some ways to Irregularity itself. The Afterword, by Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring, suggests a relatively ordered understanding of the history of scientific progress; dependent on success and failure (the collection is dedicated to “failure”), strewn with “false leads” and “dead ends” but largely teleological. But then there’s the best story in the collection, Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle”.  This story is gloriously silly, the whole thing is an extended pun; but it’s also chaotic, its framing of the history of human thought destabilising the collection completely.

Some of the most powerful (and the most powerfully weird) SF stems from this sort of chaos—the thing that doesn’t belong exploding into the world. Nick Harkaway’s framing narrative tries to place the book Irregularity itself in this position, but it feels rather inconsequential. More successful is M. Suddain’s The Darkness”, a version of the great fire of London, as told by Samuel Pepys, but with an inexplicable black hole and multiple instances of cruelty to bears.  It’s very cleverly done, with Pepys’ account (convincing, at least to me, in its stylistic details) of life going on as normally as possible juxtaposed with the giant vortex slowly consuming the city. Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought” takes for its starting point another great moment of literary rupture, that megalosaurus “forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill” at the beginning of Dickens’ Bleak House. Guerrier’s alternate history brings together the history of this book, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and Ada Lovelace but it doesn’t have anything like the same effect; the story is too concerned with signposting its sources.

This is a problem general to a number of the pieces that make up this collection. There are honourable exceptions—Swift, Suddain, Rose-Innes, whose quiet, clever story bursts into weirdness at the end, James Smythe’s brilliant, over the top prose. But too often these stories are a little too well-researched, a little too carefully signposted, a little too written to spec. And the whole is underwhelming as a result.

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