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2011/02/03

The Apex Book of World SF




The Apex Book of World SF is a mixed bag. It has a good variety of authors -- much better than the old World Treasury of Science Fiction, which had a heavy emphasis on Anglophone authors -- but many of the stories fall flat. However, the best stories -- The Bird Catcher, Wizard World, and Into the Night -- make up for the duds.

(Note: The ebook doesn't contain Compartments by Zoran Zivkovic)

S.P. Somtow - The Bird Catcher *****: A young boy in post-War Thailand befriends a serial killer. There's nothing SFnal about this story -- if anything, I'd compare it to Peter Straub's writing in the late '80s and early '90s, particularly Houses Without Doors -- which makes it an odd choice to lead off the book, though the quality of Somtow's writing make up for that.

Jetse de Vries - Transcendence Express *: You ever have that experience after finishing an anthology where you look at the table of contents, and there's one story that you know you must've read, but you have absolutely no memory of it? This is it.

Guy Hasson - The Levantine Experiments ***: Evil scientists with undefined goals keep children isolated in featureless white rooms. One day one of the girls in the experiment notices a crack in the wall of her chamber, which both terrifies and fascinates her. Conceptually this is an interesting story, but the execution is flawed. The little girl is strangely uncurious before the crack appears -- supplies are delivered to her room while she sleeps, but she's never tried to find out where they come from. She doesn't even seem to've created a story to explain it. Why would a crack in the wall inspire her imagination, but not the rolls of toilet-paper?

Han Song - The Wheel of Samsara **: A more fantastical version of "The Nine Billion Names of God," but ultimately just as silly as the original.

Kaaron Warren - Ghost Jail *: In a dystopian Fiji (sadly lacking in sheep with water wings), a couple dissident reporters hole up in an abandoned village that's filled with ghosts. Warren does a horrible job with the world building -- the nature of the ghosts remains vague despite being important to the plot; the dystopian nature of Fiji is more assumed than shown -- all we get is government goons harrassing the reporters, who are such jerks that it's hard to care (the protagonist has gone beyond aggitating for change and started burning down houses).

Yang Ping - Wizard World *****: I think we have a new genre on our hands: stories about people who play MMORPGs. We have This Is Not a Game and Deep State by Walter Jon Williams, Slum Online by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and this story. In Wizard World, Our Hero, a sysadmin for the titular game, is lured to what's supposed to be a really awesome custom level, but which appears to be a badly rendered implementation of Zork -- except the house is designed to be a virtual death-trap. Turns out there's a bug in the system -- it's possible to register a new profile in the name of a character who just died and gain access to that player's account. The window to do this is so small that the game designers decided it wasn't worth fixing, figuring it would never happen by chance and would be impossible to use in a malicious attack. They forgot the first rule of computer security: Never underestimate the tenacity of a hacker with too much time on his hands. Soon the hacker has Wizard World on the verge of shutdown, and millions of nerds cry out in agony at the thought of having to get up for something other than Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

This story is awesome. From a literary standpoint, it's not as good as The Bird Catcher or Into the Night, but it's by far my favorite story in the collection.

Dean Francis Alfar - L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) ***: A girl falls in love with a young astronomer, but he's so obsessed with the stars that he doesn't notice her, so she asks the greatest kite-maker in the city to build a kite that she can fly on. He tells her this is impossible, but when she insists he gives her a list of necessary parts. She then embarks on a quest that takes her half a century and around the world to complete.

I really enjoyed the style of this story, which is very reminiscent of S. Morganstern without the pomposity, however the plot eventually devolves into an itinerary -- she goes here to get that, and then there to get this, but than she loses that and has to backtrack.

Nir Yaniv - Cinderers ***: A very strange story about a schizoid pyromaniac.

Jamil Nasir - The Allah Stairs ***: A very good dark fantasy about a boy who escapes into a magical realm to get revenge on an abusive father. Has the feel of Victorian weird fiction, where two guys are walking down the street and they spot something weird that they don't fully comprehend.

Tunku Halim - Biggest Baddest Bomoh ***: A poor office schlub is in love with his boss's secretary, but she won't give him the time of day. After a co-worker tells him about a Bomoh -- a magician who can give him whatever he wants -- he sets out to get a geas placed on the secretary. The story starts out well, but is ruined by a Twilight Zone ending.

Aliette de Bodard - The Lost Xuyan Bride ***: An alternate history where China colonized North America in the early 15th Century and allied with the Aztecs to keep the Spanish out. Nevertheless, the United States exists and Richard Nixon is President (well, she doesn't go that far, and she does make the US much poorer than in our timeline). Our Hero in this story is an American PI who's set up shop in Xuyan (Chinese North America), and is hired to find a runaway bride. The case leads him to uncover shocking connections between the the wealthy and organized crime, ya-dee-ya-dee-ya-da. Decent enough mystery, the idea of the alternate universe is interesting, but I think the world building could be improved. In particular, I have a problem with the idea that in a world that diverged so significantly would still have a World Wide Web that uses domain.tld/file.htm addressing.

Kristin Mandigma - Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang **: This story is about the thing the story is about. If you understand the thing the story is about, you will probably like the story. Me? I don't get it.

Aleksandar Ziljak - An Evening In The City Coffehouse, With Lydia On My Mind ****: Meet Our Hero, a sleazy pornographer. But unlike sleazy pornographers today, Our Hero locates attractive women online and then inserts microscopic flying cameras into their homes without their knowledge. One day his cameras discover a prostitute who has sex with exotic aliens. When the aliens find out, they send goons to kill him and he has to take it on the lam. The first 9/10 of the story were great, but Ziljak ruins it with a deus ex machina at the end.

Anil Menon - Into the Night *****: This is the Singularity story I've always wanted to read, about an old man who doesn't understand the new technology that surrounds him, who is befuddled by all the people walking around in consensus reality and having conversations with the air. That old man, the Hindu equivalent of a fundy creationist, believes his biologist daughter has abandoned her heritage and worships a Western god called Evolution. When he tries to learn the new technology, he blunders around and, in an almost Mr. Magoo like misunderstanding, ends up doing the future equivalent of hooking up with someone on MySpace. This is far and away the best story in the book.

Melanie Fazi - Elegy **: After a woman's children disappear, she becomes convinced they've been eaten by a demonic tree. Yeah. This is one of those horror stories told in a stream of consciousness style that hints at the delusional mind of the narrator. It's told well enough, but ultimately she's rehashing Poe and Maupassant.

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