Categorized | Fiction

Apex Book of World SF Review

Posted on December 11, 2009 by Steven Dawes

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    Hey pals & gals, let me ask you something. Have you ever read a collection of short stories where the title suggests a particular genre, but it turned out to be all over the place? Have you ever picked up the same sort of book and basically misinterpreted what the title was even referring to? I ask only because if this has happened to you, you’ll find familiar territory with The Apex Book of World SF. But if you haven’t, then this collection won’t just break that particular piece of ice, it will shatter it!

    When I got a reviewer copy of this book, I wasn’t entirely sure if I could give it a proper review. I’m really only a sorta-kinda-maybe Sci-Fi fan at best. I mean, I get the point of the genre and I’ve enjoyed some awesome Sci-Fi tales in my life, but my first love is Horror whom is followed by my favored mistress Dark Fantasy. But never the less, since I was entrusted to review this bad boy, I e-cracked open my shiny new e-book and read away.

    I’ve never reviewed a short story collection before and I’m not sure about the best way to review one, but since the average page count of each story is only fifteen to twenty pages, I’m not going into much depth on the stories themselves. Any attempt to do so would basically tell the whole story. So instead I plan to tackle the main points, my thoughts and ideas and so on. But then again, I’m infamously known for my digressing so who knows where this review will take me (and therefore you the reader).

    The first discovery I came across is that the “SF” in the title is misleading. While there are a few tales rooted firmly in Sci-Fi (like Transcendence Express and Wizard World), the rest find their footing in Fantasy, Adventure, Dark Fantasy and straight up Horror. Naturally this made for a strange ride as each story was different in theme and tone from the next. This constant change of pace kept the collection from getting boring or stale, but it also proved to be a distraction on several occasions and didn’t make my reading & reviewing the book any easier.

    My second discovery was that the “World” in the book’s title was the key ingredient of these tales. You see, the authors are from literally all over the world. Thailand, Netherlands, Israel, China, Fiji, Malaysia and other hoods across the globe are found here. Once I got the idea of what the “world” SF meant, I found this aspect to be one of the best attributes of the collection. The majority of these tales takes place in the author’s native land and therefore made for some really unique visions and themes.

    However, it must be said that the book’s greatest asset is also its greatest weakness in my opinion. Each story has a short intro about the author, and nearly every author wrote their tale to speak to their native readers via newspapers, websites, magazines books and whatnot. While this offers the American reader a unique look at the culture and country the fiction is based in, they’re also loaded with terms and words that I’ve never heard before. This could be completely my own fault as I’m an uncultured swine in many respects anyway, but this became a continual source of frustration for me.

    Just off the top of my head, I found words new to me like Coolies, Hakka, babu, farang, bourgeoisie, bohmo, lamasery and others throughout the book. Of course every time I came across one of these “worldly” words, I needed to research it to get the scope of what the author was trying to convey.

    It’s also only fair to note that I think the weakness of the worldy authors mentioned above trickled into the stories themselves. What I mean by that is the simple fact that at least a few of these stories had very familiar subject matters that have long since been explored here in America. One tale in particular that I figured out right away was “Biggest Baddest Bomoh” by Tunku Halim, who hails from Malaysia. In the story’s intro it was noted that Tunku is regarded as Malaysia’s premier horror writer. While it was indeed a good horror story (with no Sci-Fi involved), I have read several similar stories in pulp horror magazines & comics or watched play out on episodes of the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Night Gallery and others; so I knew where Tunku was going with his narrative long before he got there. This isn’t really knocking Mr. Halim’s writing (he was one of the better authors in fact), but I suspect Malaysia hasn’t progressed as far as the USA has in terms of the volume of available horror stories.

    Another point of this weakness came through in the editing department. Again, this may come from the author’s in question being from a different culture and writing to that specific culture’s audience. So while their home land may have enjoyed the story very much, to me it was confusing to follow at times and required rereading portions or drawing my own conclusions. One example would be to point out the story Cinderer’s, which was written by Israel native Nir Yaniv and took place in his home town of Tel Aviv. I suspect that the author’s strange writing style is not so strange in his hood, but I honestly got lost trying to follow it several times. Another quick editorial note worth mentioning was Aliette de Bodard’s use of the word “whilst” instead of “while”. While I’m not an editor (as if you couldn’t tell that my chicken scratch scribes) I kept getting distracted by the word as it didn’t fit the author’s writing style.

    While I’m on the subject of Aliette’s work, this is good time to bring up the fact that some research was required to follow her story The Lost Xuyan Bride. Much in the same fashion as Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, Aliette’s story take place in a re-imagined world that’s been fleshed over several stories. I’m not familiar with her previous work and this tale obviously wasn’t interested with informing new readers about what’s what, so I had to do some research on how her world works. In the end I spent more time researching her world than I did reading her story. On a more interesting note, The Lost Xuyan Bride turned out to be one of my favorite stories and I really enjoyed the world she created and I see lots of potential for stories within it. I just wish the intro could have taken the time to add some notes that would have explained the setting ahead of time.

    The other story that required some researching to understand was The Kite of Stars by Dean Francis Alfar. Besides being a playwright, editor and writer, Dean is also a part of an anthology series via the web called the Philippine Speculative Fiction. As is common with anthologies, Dean has written several tales set within what he calls “Hinirang”, which is a re-imagined Philippines set during a time when the country was a colony of Spain. In my desire to better understand his work, The Kite of Stars became a Social Studies project for me to understand the difference between the real Philippines and Dean’s vision of “Hinirang”. Again, I don’t think this is an issue for the native Philippines, but for those not familiar with the land or culture will miss things unless you research them.

    Finally, I feel compelled to bring up one story I gave up even trying to follow titled Ghost Jail. It’s a ghost story that’s obviously tied to the eastern theory and belief of ghosts (ala The Grudge, The Ring, and the Fatal Frame video game series). But I’m personally not a real fan of these kind of ghosts (or at least I fail to fully understand them) and between these ghosts and the authors strange writing style, I couldn’t get into this one and eventually abandoned it, moving onto the next story.

    So I know I’ve knocked this book in a lot of ways, but I’m not saying the book isn’t without value. There are some great pieces of fiction to be found in here. For example, the earlier mentioned Kite of Stars and The Lost Xuyan Bride were two of my favorite tales in spite of the fact that I had to research them. There’s also a few horror related pieces like The Bird Catcher, which told a creepy story about Thailand’s version of the Boogeyman. There’s one story titled The Levantine Experiments, and its theme lies somewhere between horror and science fiction and it really got under my skin and stayed there for days.

    When all is said and done, this book may have something for everyone to appreciate as it’s got an eclectic supply of stories which takes you to a lot of different places. If you think you’d enjoy reading from the perspective of different cultures, writing styles and possibly putting some time into researching them as you go, this one would be for you. But if you simply want a leisurely reading session, you’d best look elsewhere. I will also mention that with a price tag of a measly $5.00 via ordering it on drive thru Sci-Fi, even if you only enjoy a few of the stories, the cost is well worth it.

    Review by By Steven Dawes

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