The Apex Book of World SF: Book 4 (edited by Mahvesh Murad)

Book Cover: The Apex Book of World SF 4I received this as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer title – it’s the latest in a series of collections of speculative / science fiction shorts from around the world. I took it as a great opportunity to broaden my horizons and get to know the works of non-Anglo/American authors, many of whom I hadn’t previously heard of. And generally, the quality here is very good – even the stories that weren’t to my taste were well-written and accomplished.

‘World SF’ is a very broad theme – I think the collection would have felt benefited from some sub-themes within the book to group stories a little more naturally. As it was, the collection jumped from space opera to horror to apocalypse to mythology and so on with no particular rhyme or reason. I found it slightly jarring, not least because it left me uncertain at any stage what I would get next.

A number of stories fell into the horror end of the spectrum, which is not to my taste, and a couple dabbled with concepts that I found squicky (such as a man burning a girl alive (against her will, natch) to send her through time to be his nephew’s wife). That said, I expect SF to challenge me with difficult ideas and I’m not afraid of noir, so I mostly take this sort of dark imagining on the chin. It was really only the time travel by fire story that left me aghast – but at least it got a reaction out of me. Nearly half the collection left me indifferent, because stories were not to my taste (horror rarely works for me), were confusing or just fell flat. Thankfully, the other half were good to awesome, leaving me with a positive impression of the collection overall.

Particular favourites:

  • The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family (Usman T Malik), in which a girl with unusual powers fights rage and despair in the face of the human capacity for violence, which was both unusual and moving.
  • The Language of Knives (Haralambi Markov) was also affecting, being a sombre, pathos-laden tale of a father trying to create a bond with his estranged daughter over (disturbing) burial rites.
  • The Last Hours of Final Days (Bernardo Fernández) followed a teenage couple awaiting the apocalypse in the ruins of Mexico – this was both well-written and well-observed, the prose clearly evoking the shattered ruins through which they went joy-riding in stolen cars and skateboards.
  • I also thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s The Boy Who Cast No Shadow – this managed to be more accessible and more human than many in the collection, with Olde Heuvelt capturing a tone of voice that suited his teen protagonist. Rather than equating weird attributes with superpowers, the story examines media attention, bullying and both the fragility and quality of life, being rather more introspective than I expected.
  • My favourite of the lot was The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul (Natalia Theodoridou), an excellent space-castaway story that gets bonus points for using one of my favourite artists as an inspiration.

I found the second half of the collection weaker than the first, although thankfully there were some more good stories towards the end:

  • The Good Matter (Nene Ormes), once again treating unusual attributes as things to be lived with rather than superpowers (in this case, 2 people who sense context / history of items – and people – through touch, handling three unique artefacts), and almost more powerful in terms of the imaginative implications than the story on the page (which remains very good). Apparently there are novels set in the same world, which I may now have to seek out.
  • The Four Generations of Chang E (Zen Cho), about immigration (to the Moon – this doesn’t make it easier) and integration, which I’d read and enjoyed previously in Spirits Abroad
  • Pockets full of Stones (Vajra Chandrasekra) filled my head with interesting ideas that it didn’t pursue, but was a solid story in its own right – a woman on a relay station in the outer solar system must decide what to do when a message transmitted by a colony starship infects her systems with an alien virus.
  • Sarama (Deepak Unnikrishnan) and A Cup of Salt Tears (Isabel Yap) both left me feeling I would have got more out of them if I were more familiar with the Ramayana and Japanese mythologies respectively, but I particularly enjoyed A Cup of Salt Tears anyway with its delicate handling of grief, love and sacrifice.

Overall, the collection left me entertained and there are stories here I will revisit as well as authors I must now explore, which is rather the idea with this compilation – so job done!