Otherworldly . . . sci-fi’s globetrotting wealth of diversity
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In addition to being an award-winning sci-fi writer, Israeli-born UK-based Lavie Tidhar is also a tireless champion of international sci-fi. Having launched the Apex Book of World SF series of anthologies, he now brings us The Best of World SF (Head of Zeus, £25), a hefty collection of short stories by authors from around the globe. The product of 10 years’ effort on its editor’s part, its 26 tales showcase how much more there is to the genre than the Anglo-American tradition that has dominated for decades.
Here are contributions from as far afield as Iceland and Ghana, Singapore and Cuba, filtering established sci-fi tropes through cultural lenses that may be unfamiliar to most anglophone readers.
Thus we find new, witty, sometimes unnerving takes on such subjects as aliens (Nir Yaniv’s “Benjamin Schneider’s Little Greys”), robots (Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots”) and time travel (Tade Thompson’s “Bootblack”). Cloning features in Chen Qiufan’s dark and sweepingly space-operatic “Debtless”, and post-human body modification in Gerardo Horacio Porcayo’s grimy but sweet “Rue Chair”. There are also stories dealing with less easily classifiable themes, such as Ekaterina Sedia’s “The Bank of Burkina Faso”, a neat play on email scams.
Most of the stories are reprints, only four being published for the first time, so the book is less a prediction of world sci-fi’s future, more a snapshot of how it currently stands. But it’s an excellent, lovingly curated collection that is also uniformly well translated.
Science fiction has a tradition of normalising otherness, making the exotic familiar and acceptable. That was certainly a motive behind the creation of superhero character Black Panther. In 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — then Marvel Comics’ two main creative powerhouses — introduced T’Challa, an African monarch who moonlights as a super-powered masked adventurer. Lee and Kirby drew inspiration from the real-life heroes of the Civil Rights movement, but also wanted to counteract racism by showing a black man as a strong, positive role model. Moreover, in the Afrofuturism of Black Panther’s high-tech homeland Wakanda, they made a conscious attempt to sidestep the stereotypical portrayal of the African continent as backward and benighted.
The 2018 Marvel movie Black Panther was a huge commercial success, bringing the character mainstream recognition, and now comes Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda (Titan Books, £17.99), an anthology collecting brand new stories exclusively by authors of African heritage.
In his introduction, editor Jesse J Holland describes the importance to him of Black Panther, and others like him, as “an unapologetic, proud, intelligent paragon of Blackness, our personal King Arthur”. The narratives Holland has assembled dig deep into a canon that has built up over 50-plus years, while still being accessible to relative newcomers.
Specific political issues are addressed, for example in “Kindred Spirits” by Maurice Broaddus, which highlights the effects of colonialism on Africa, both in history (the British empire) and today (China). There are light-hearted romps too, such as Harlan James’s “Bon Temps”, which finds T’Challa’s spirited sister Shuri fighting vampires in New Orleans. It’s well worth your time, especially if you are a fan.
Also well worth your time, although very different, is My Brother the Messiah (Barbican Press, £9.99) by Czech author Martin Vopenka (and translated by Anna Gustova Bryson). A century hence, a bold attempt by scientists to reverse climate change goes disastrously wrong, triggering a new ice age. Europe is left bedevilled by drought and an influx of displaced persons. In Prague, a child is born named Eli, who grows up to become a Christ-like eco-activist, railing against humankind’s abuse of the planet, and is eventually martyred. His older brother Marek carries on his legacy, keeping the flame alive in a settlement in Greece.
As an old man, having been condemned to a life of self-denying apostledom, Marek falls in love with Natalia, a younger woman who offers worldly, physical connection. In tight, unsparing prose, Vopenka tells a dystopian tale about hope amid chaos, and about the drawbacks — and the consolations — of faith.
The drawbacks and the consolations of friendship loom large in Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror (Doubleday £12.99, translated by Philip Gabriel). This intricate fantasy novel has been a tremendous success in its author’s native Japan, scooping awards and selling half a million copies. Bullied Tokyo schoolgirl Kokoro finds that her bedroom mirror is a portal to an otherworldly castle presided over by the mysterious, mask-wearing Wolf Queen, who charges Kokoro and six other teens with finding a hidden Wishing Key. The group of loners and misfits have a year to complete the task. If they succeed, one of them will have their fondest wish granted. Breaking a rule, however, has potentially fatal consequences.
The book is slow-paced in its early passages but comes together in its final third with a couple of neat twists and a genuinely affecting denouement. It’s a story about collaboration, empathy and sharing truths, a modern, all-ages fairy tale that should appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman and Studio Ghibli animations.
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