By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
This is a different review than any other I’ve written to date. The reason is, I’m a proud participant in the book in question – The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror volume IV!
This is an anthology, and a big one at that with 22 stories and the same number of contributors, and from 13 different countries. (Published by Altair Australia; it’s a little over 450 pages long). The genius behind this project is an Australian himself, author-editor Robert N. Stephenson. It was done at minimal cost and provided to the world, online, for free, even before it hit the library and bookstore shelves in print form. The objective behind the book is clearly to showcase a new and diverse set of talents from around the world. Nothing could be more timely or praiseworthy.
From my own limited experiences as an author from the Global South, it’s very hard to get noticed or appreciated, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that an Australian is helping tip the balance in our favour. Australia is about as multicultural a country as you can get. (An American biology professor actually told me it’s the most genetically diverse country in the world, and a good thing too. Which is more than I can say for the future of Trump’s America). And it’s great to get to see just how much talent is out there. Traversing the language zones I had no idea there were so many SF and fantasy authors in the non-Anglophone world, each bringing a distinct feel to the text and the subject-matter. Netherlands in particular, totalling 5 contributions and most are very imaginative and entertaining. Romania, with only one contribution, left quite an impression on me. And the same goes for Italy with two heavy-duty contributions. Not to discount the two Australian contributions.
It left you wondering why only one Arab – yours truly – was able to rise to the occasion. There have been Arab contributors before, namely the youthful Zayan Guedim (from Algeria) in volume 2. I suppose we’re too focused either on the domestic market, if there is one, and think of the foreign market in purely Western terms – the US and Europe. We forget that Australians speak English themselves and are a stone’s throw away from the East Asian market.
Jordan’s Fadi Zaghmout did the English version of Heaven on Earth with a Hong Kong publisher. Probably couldn’t get any Anglo-Arab publishers or Westerners interested with a serious sci-fi piece. We’ve really got to our eyes checked in the meantime!
Piece by Piece
I can’t give the whole collection of stories the credit they deserve here, so I’ll summarise as much as possible and focus on the stories I found particularly endearing or perplexing in a good way. The first story, The Valley of Despair - Michaele Jordan (USA), is an emotional treat, full of human suffering and weakness written with great artistry and verve. If you wanted to express it in a phrase it would be the superfluousness of sacrifice. The story, in the fantasy mould, is about a slave girl named Yevka who falls madly in love with a swashbuckling hero, just because he treats her with a modicum of civility. He’s anything but the gentleman, more a hired gun, and is mortally wounded during one of his escapade. Yevka gives her life for him, literally snatching him from between the jaws of Death, only for him to take a magic pendant she gave him – looks like a gold coin – and use it as a down payment at an inn.
It’s the epic feel of the story, with swordfights and evil spells, and the woman’s perspective that’s so harrowing. You get some of that in story two, In the Dance of Lightyears - Mike Jansen (Netherlands), with two women rebelling against the gender codes of their long-distance colonial spaceship, but it’s not nearly as effective. (The humour was good though, such as calling the asteroid-spaceship a ‘potato’).
The third story, None So Blind as Those Unseen - Richard Zwicker (USA), is downright hilarious. You have the Frankenstein monster as a private detective dispatching his hunchback Igor in search of an invisible man who turned a wealthy man’s daughter invisible too. In the meantime, the monster is trying to get plastic surgery done to repair his look!
I’d class the story as borderline SF and fantasy because you have some hard science in there, such as an invisibility potion that has to be smeared on the skin and injected to make both your outsides and insides become transparent. (Never thought of that myself). There’s lots of psychology and identity issues in there too, and the language games are wonderful: “The wind shrieked outside, its fist smashing against my windows. My door swung open, and in its wake stood a sad-eyed man with curly dark hair and a short moustache. He wore a ruby red vest over a white-collared shirt. His teeth were clenched, as if to prevent the escape of heat.” (The dialogue isn’t as snappy though).
Zwicker’s story is noteworthy also for recreating a world we’ve almost forgotten – the industrial age before instantaneous communications (mobiles and internet). You have repeated scenes where someone tears off a piece of paper and sends it off to someone, via messenger boy. Today we can’t imagine that they had perfectly feasible means to get in touch with someone, thinking that the technology of today is the only viable technology and that nothing existed prior.
Summerland - Gustavo Bondoni (Argentina) is a fairytale type story set in an enchanted forest as a band of not so heroic individuals heads to the source of evil controlling their world, with peculiar encounters along the way. There are, however, little political hints in it, such as how the oppressed can become even greater oppressors themselves. One of the victims is the forest itself where the tale unfolds and you ‘feel’ this is a reference to everything from Robin Hood’s forest to the rain forests of South and Central America, a natural refuge for freedom loving rebels from tyrants.
The Freaks - Florin Purluca (România) is particularly touching and well written. You have a bleak landscape after some unnamed apocalypse, only to discover that the two heroes are vampires who are struggling with their nature, and fight against their own kind to save what is left of mankind. Your nature isn’t your destiny, thank heavens, and mercy and extending the hand of understanding – the few surviving humans accept the two heroes – is very refreshing indeed, but not told in a way that is tacky or predictable in the slightest.
Scent of Hope and Cinnamon - Jonathan Shipley (USA) is about a boy, a human exchange student, on an alien planet populated by evolved lizards and amphibians. You got the feeling that the ordeals facing the hero are modelled on the world of student loans in the US, with multiculturalism (alien races converging despite their ancestral differences) being a solution!
Sorcery is the Body’s Pronunciation of the Soul… - Sergio ‘ente per ente’ Palumbo (Italy) is noteworthy for being exactly translated and for being borderline SF and fantasy. You have super string theory being the root of magic, with the magicians beating the scientists to it. You also felt that a central theme here was isolation. Kids, apprentice magicians, who are more hooked into the other dimensions they’re exploring (alien worlds and threatening life forms) than the world they live in here and relationships with other young people. This could all just be allegory for the cloistered, alienating world of science and scientists, minus the sense of personal and ethnical responsibility the magicians enjoy.
Socrates’ Army - Eric Del Carlo (USA). This is a semi-satirical story about a grunt, a soldier who is forced to be a high school teacher – part of his terms of service – and is allowed, by law, to use violence against the little teenage monsters. As a teacher myself (university isn’t that much different from school nowadays, and I taught briefly at a school) I sympathise, but I thought the sex was uncalled for, and some of the yucky references (tumours) and the future reality is too close to the ugly reality of today, so it’s not satirical enough. (My favourite movie in this regard is The Class of 1999, with killer robots disguised as teachers. If only we had that kind of authority!)
Me and Septimus: IN EXTREMIS - Kain Massin (Australia). The title of the story is a dead giveaway. Normally in English you say so-and-so and myself. Here it’s the other way around, indicating that the real fulcrum of the story is the witch working with the Roman Septimus to stave off possible threats to the Roman empire involving black magic. The subject nations are in the driver’s seat, so to speak, more so here since the subject-nation is in the form of a woman and the main magical tool they’re after is a young girl with tremendous powers, being utilised by a cult against Rome.
The little girl (a Greek being parlayed to the Roman god Mars) is transformed into a healer in the end, finding a passive outlet for the popular rage she represents. I presume Septimus is a stand-in for the American empire?!
Pirate with a Cause - Peter Hagelslag (Russian Federation). This is a kind of semi-Utopian story, set in the past, with a Mayan pirate leading a multicultural crew and they decide in the end to set up a free republic. This story, while speculative fiction, actually contains historical truths. A great many pirates in the past were rebels and anarchists and many European pirates converted to Islam, from the time of Byzatium to the time of Robinson Crusoe, to escape serfdom and even slavery. For some (devious) reason I also suspect the story is about Castro’s Cuba!
The Life and Death of George Hayes - Floris M. Kleijne (Netherlands). This is a very good story. Its’ beautifully written and deals with the Faustian choice between facing up to death or trying to cheat it. The hero, Mr Hayes, heads off to what I assume is the Galapagos searching for the fountain of youth or elixir of life, relying on secret annals of Darwin, encountering enchanted characters that try and dissuade him off his mission. He does experiments to see if the immortality solution works and discovers its negative consequences and calls it a day, and reconciles himself to his estranged loved ones and in a way that is not clichéd in the slightest.
I assume the winged insect he conducts the experiment on is a reference to angels, hence the women he encounters with their heavenly mission. But it still would have been nicer if he got cured and reconciled himself along the way too.
Operation Sylphinephrine - Ville Meriläinen (Finland). This is a magical tale about giant insects that dress and walk around and live much like humans, with dysfunctional hives plagued with crime and delinquency with the absence of a queen. (Dysfunctions in human history are chalked down to the interference of magical elements too). The heroine – females tend to be stronger in the insect kingdom – is a mercenary hell-bent on rescuing a kidnapped princess, with both gangsters and the authorities on her more than metaphorical tail!
Through Tiled Spaces - Dennis Mombauer (Germany). This is a very well written and dreamy story in Odyssey mode, about a group of people who have spent years helping a race of people with their technology, then head back through the wild and the booby traps besotting them. Even when they get home, or one at least gets home, they can’t be sure if its’ really home.
Timkha - Laurence Suhner (Switzerland). This is a very interesting story that pushes the limits of what we consider to be science fiction. It does end in a slightly anti-climatic fashion but is commendable nonetheless. You have a woman, an anthropologist from India, on an alien world (Timkha) studying the ‘primitive’ inhabitants, fish-like sentient creatures that live on the land that nonetheless can travel across space. The anthropologist, and another one of the human crew, figure out that these pre-scientific creatures (they have no maths) use myths to ‘control’ the laws of physics, communicating with the universe and getting it to cooperate with their benign intentions.
Humans understand knowledge as conquest and domination, polluting their own world and threatening to do the same with others. I also suspect that the portrayal of the sea-world planet, with thousands of teeny tiny islands, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Switzerland, the isolated mountain top fortress group of separate communities that it is.
The Beautiful People - Bo Balder (Netherlands). This is quite a raunchy story, about a girl living in the era of horse drawn carts. She’s kept indoors constantly and has to cover her hair with a veil and wear gloves all the time. (Sounds like Holland at the time of Vermeer!) It emerges however that she is being protected from men who can’t keep their hands off her, something about her ‘scent’ drives them wild, and also to conceal her bizarre appearance. She’s beautiful and feminine but also half white and half black, like a horse and with only four fingers. It transpires at the end that she’s some sort of forest nymph, her mother was raped by the humans that are taming nature in their arrogance, and the forest desperately needs her kind to thrive and even function along with the seasons.
The author depicts the ‘desires’ of this girl, not just sexual but existential, very effectively and keeps you wondering throughout. You feel the story is about how conservative, male-dominated society perceives women and their natures as threatening and inexplicable. The same way they look at ‘mother’ nature.
In the Field – With Janet 201 - Felice Picano (USA). This is a mind-boggling story about the battle between the sexes, taken to a galactic scale. You have an anthropologist and her female android, Janet 201, investigating a primitive seed colony planet suffering from an unexpectedly harsh ecosystem. Then they discover that the males have an edge over the females, which is technically worrisome given that the duo work for the Matriarchy. There the anthropologist meets a male counterpart, from the few worlds not controlled by the Matriarchy. The anthropologist and Janet try to expose what actually happened here but the matriarchs prevent this from happening, proving (I presume) that any ‘archy’ (power structure) is equally bad, male or female.
The planet, separated as it is between male and female tribes, is meant to be a microcosm of the galactic order of things – I presume. He ending is a bit anti-climactic, but endings are always hard when you have such an interesting and rich storyline. The humour was very refreshing too.
Lambs of the Desert - Emad El-Din Aysha (Egypt). This is a reasonably well-written story, if I do say so myself, though not nearly as nicely written as the Romanian and Italian and Swiss stories here. It’s set in what I call the Arab quadrant on the terraformed-colonised Mars. A secret operative who calls himself Abu Jozeif (means father of Joseph) is tasked with managing the quadrant and keeping the peace with the obnoxious, land-hungry neighbours; the superpowers and their lackeys. I open the story with a mundane suburban scene with the so-called hero and his Iberian wife, Nour (means light in Arabic), having lunch. What are they eating? A prickly pear!
A specially bred large one with special armour. It’s tasty, nutritious and full of pharmaceuticals, an exaggeration of what real prickly pears are like in the Arab world. Cut to the next scene where you have a Bedouin and his son (called Ali) lost in the desert at night. They chance on the cactus farms, which glow in the dark, and discover the planets are solar powered and give you a nasty electric shock if you touch them. The Bedouins work for the so-called ‘Bureau’ like Abu Jozeif, and the whole Bedouin tribe is schooled in revolutionary warfare techniques, especially Ali’s cute sister Fatemah. (The military commander of the desert tribes is a portly, ridiculous Englishman). Their training comes to bear when war does finally break out with the American colony to the North. I have a battle sequence involving camels up against tanks, and the camels win, followed by a guerrilla war up against the American occupier in the third section of the story. The kids lead the resistance, Ali and Fatimah, winning a planet-wide victory.
Why do this? Apart from revenge for what happened to Iraq, it’s to prove Arabs can become civilised, once again, and learn from others along the way. Tactics and technology win the day, not mindless sacrifice and misplaced bravery. You can see this in the shopping mall sequence set in the city of New Bukhara. (Won’t tell you how I got the idea for that!) Bukhara may be any old Central Asian city to Westerners but to Arabs it’s almost a city from legend, a centre of civilisation and learning. A great Muslim scholar who chronicled and authenticated the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is known simply as Al-Bukhari, which is where he came from. (Ibn Sina, the great medical doctor, also came from this city in Uzbekistan. Please reference Hamid Ismailov’s Sufi-themed novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan. If only I’d written my story after meeting Mr Ismailov!)
Striges - Nicola Lombardi (Italy). This is depressingly delicious story about a man recounting his childhood and how one of his friends is cannabalised by a bunch of witches, with the boy’s now-possessed mother going along. (H.P. Lovecraft is mentioned). It’s a gripping tale that relies more on suspense than gore and it’s very recognisably Mediterranean. The talk of the poor boy, Francesco, and his inheritance and peerage, and the frequent usage of exclamation marks in the text and the expectation of hospitality and things. It also brought back childhood memories of how attracted us Arab boys are to all topics macabre, from black magic to UFOs. It also, in my opinion, explores the very direct bond between father and son and the suspicion and jealousy that may intrude between husband and wife.
Tasting the Data Flow - Marcie Franks (Australia). This is a very dark story indeed, even by cyberpunk standards, but happily there is a little light at the end of the tunnel. The imagery is that of pure vampirism. The story is told from the perspective of a pregnant housewife, of sorts, who watches television with her husband and then hands over the information to the ‘Takers’, literally through the blood and accessed through puncture wounds in the neck. People in this future world are full of electronic cables or fibre-optics and, in typical vampiric fashion, the young couple can no longer withstand the sunlight. (Is it a coincidence they move to a sleepy town, leaving the ‘bright lights’ of the big city?) Fortunately the pregnancy changes everything, altering the Takers and helping liberate them of their dependence on information from others, while the newborn child has internal wiring that will give it some freedom as well. An evolutionary trick, apparently, against an information-obsessed society. All hail biology!
The Story of Mynheer Reinaerde and the Purloined Tails - Tais Teng & Jaap Boekestein (Netherlands). This is another one of those funny and creative fantasy-type stories, with the hero being an immortal fox (from Holland) that can take human form. He’s hired by three female ‘foxes’ (in more than one way) from Japan to get their furry tails back from the evil sorcerer Svengali and his terrifying hypnotic stare. Another key character is none other than Mark Twain, and while the story is all hocus pocus its Twain’s scientific reasoning that helps save the day. (Much of the magic in the story is powered by the friction of the tectonic plates).
The story takes place in San Francisco, a city that is always seen as a symbol for openness to the world and multiculturalism – and I don’t think its coincidence the authors and the hero are both Dutch.
Wake - Maarten Luikhoven (Netherlands) is an interesting if a bit abrupt story about humans in the future searching for their origins, the original planet Earth, only to discover that other creatures (chimps, dolphins, squid, cockroaches) have evolved and become intelligent and are moving in much the same direction as humankind. People in this future world have designer cloned bodies made to suit the gravitational environment they choose for themselves and have more than just two parents. Nonetheless, parenthood is still important and learning from past generations, and even spaceships behave like overbearing mother figures, making sure to steer clear of certain star systems that may hold unpleasant revelations. You ‘feel’ that there is a directing hand behind all this and that the spaceships and maternal figures are stand-ins for the hand of the Almighty.
Chimeras - Agrippina Domanski (United Kingdom). The story is set in Scotland, as far as I can tell, in a very sickening place where a local family practically runs the place and can get away with anything, including their specially bred hunting dogs gobbling people up. It reminds me of Under the Skin (2013), the existentially unpleasant movie about an overly satisfied, stuffy Britain with people living in isolation of each other, just in a more astrological format than the hard sci-fi of the movie.
Are things really that bad in the UK since I left in 2001?!
All the stories are very crisp, in terms of dialogue and length of individual scenes, and have a goodly focus on the characters. (Mine is a bit more longwinded and impersonal than it should be, to be honest). We can chalk this down to the exceptional selection and editing skills of Mr Stephenson. The changes he requested of me were purely cosmetic and that’s probably why the other stories each have their distinctive voices. I’m still a bit new to writing-publishing but from my limited set of experiences but I can tell you straight off there are some editors out there that are simply unbearable – down-putting, uninspired and uninspiring. They complain about a formulaic use of phrases, only to replace them with another formulaic set. They talk about radicalism in themes, then chicken out when push comes to shove and often out of political correctness. And especially when it comes to storytellers from the nether regions of the world trying to push their own distinct cultural set of perceptions and esoteric subgenres, like yours truly. Not so here!
The presence of humour in such quantity, and quality, in this anthology is a good sign that things are changing in the world of SF. Apart from Robert Heinlein and Douglas Adams, most sci-fi authors don’t like to toy around with humour, as if SF has to be dry and technical and blandly lifeless. Same goes for tragedy and emotional drama, and romantic tragedy. Philip Jose Farmer and Jeremy Szal are the big exception in this regard. Them, and this anthology, that is. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the focus of this anthology, again, is authors from the lesser known parts of the world – Jeremy’s an Australian himself, and half-Lebanese.
It seems we non-Western authors are finally beginning to have an emotional impact after all. Even the stories by American and Western European writers went beyond the usual frame for science and speculative fiction. (The Australian stories certain carried a visceral and emotional punch). So, all in all, I can comfortably say that, even if I wasn’t a contributor to this volume of genre stories, it is well worth reading and reviewing. And I encourage everyone to buy this book, downloads or no downloads.
It will help finance the changes we’re all looking for in the world of mainstream SF – and get me paid for the story I send to the next edition inshallah!!