I try to read almost everything. But for books, I admit to having favorite genres and categories. Right now, I’m into (soft) science fiction, speculative fiction and creative nonfiction (food/science/travel writing; not so much auto/bio these days, but I still like them), and have been focused on those for the past year or so.
It’s good to have favorites and know what I like, but so is reading books outside my wheelhouse. I figured it was time to once again hear from new voices (new for me, anyway) coming from other places. The popular authors can wait, and maybe I need a break from all the Filipinoness.
I remember how I felt after reading Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López’s classic work The Eternaut. I had no idea politics and science fiction can be merged into a long-running post-apocalyptic story, and in graphic-novel form! I think it’s what got me interested in reading science fiction and speculative fiction in the first place — and writing my own stories in those genres.
Not your usual fiction
Going off into the unknown paid off again these past few months. The three books I’ll talk about today — Etgar Keret‘s absurd short-story collection The Girl on the Fridge: Stories; the contemporary Chinese science-fiction collection Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu; and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s displacement- and otherness-focused Foreign Soil: And Other Stories — are quite varied in content, a solid reminder that it’s OK to subvert story formulas and reader expectations.
Tonally, these three fiction collections are wildly different. If you’re not familiar with Keret’s work (as I was), you’ll need time to get used to his casual, sarcastic and funny tone. His concepts are brilliant, and he really goes for it: most of his stories lead to weird and unexpected endings, with some meta twists, as in his story “Alternative”. It doesn’t always work, though; flash fiction can be jarring with its sudden starts and ends, and some of Keret’s stories left me hanging or outright uninterested.
The Girl in the Fridge: Stories is also worth a long look in another way. I’ve always admired writers who use a direct, punchy writing style (someone like science writer Mary Roach, for example). Even if Keret is economical in his style, he can convey life’s truth in the barest of sentences. The way he does it, it’s so damn good, and also frustrating because I know I can’t do that.
But some of the stories just pissed me off. “Freeze!”, “Boomerang”, and “Atonement” featured horrible depictions of and acts toward women; while “Goody Bags” included a “Finippino” housemaid as a non-speaking character. Ugh. Just… ugh. You could do better, Etgar.
Similarities in fiction styles
As for the Invisible Planets anthology, aside from the fact I’ve never read any Chinese science fiction before, I also wanted to know how they go about it. I’ve mentioned before that Filipino science/spec fic writers have this tendency to set up beautiful scenarios and worlds through the intro and middle portion, go wild by the climax, and offer bitin endings. What writing patterns do Chinese sci-fi writers have?
For the most part, I love how the writers in this fiction anthology came up with unique and outlandish “what ifs”, and mixing those in with their histories and current/prospective environments. Say, an entire city being folded three ways, with unequal surface hours distributed amongst social classes, like in Hao Jingfang’s award-winning “Folding Beijing”. Or Gods coming down to Earth to be taken care of by humans, as in Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God”, probably the story I loved the most. (Humans are hypocrites. Sorry, Gods.) Or citizens unable to speak freely, with more words and freedoms taken away by the day, as in Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” — a concept similar to Jeffrey McDaniel’s poem The Quiet World.
There was none of the bitin factor in our stories, although sometimes I felt the writers could’ve gone further. Like in “Folding Beijing”; I was looking for a more comprehensive resolution, instead of the story ending the way it did. Then again, some would say this is like Filipinos’ tendency to ask for moral lessons in their stories. Sometimes, it ends that way because it has to.
The three essays at the latter part of the anthology also did an excellent job providing an overview of how science fiction developed in China. It’s a bit like here in the Philippine setting: it started out as imitations of Western stories, then grew into something uniquely ours. And apparently, Chinese sci-fi is plagued with the same question of identity as Filipino stories and Filipinoness. But unlike in China, as far as I know, science fiction hasn’t been used as propaganda here. Or… not yet? And despite editor Ken Liu’s repeated pleas not to associate the stories here with China’s current political, cultural and social stance, I’ll admit I couldn’t help it. Come on, given where I’m from… really? That’s a tall order.
Like with The Girl in the Fridge, I found some lines and characters in this anthology offensive. For example, some characters emphasize that women should be quiet and delicate; and another character asks why the protagonist loves his child even if she’s “only” adopted. Yeah, no.
One particular story in Invisible Planets, “Tongtong’s Summer”, got a visceral reaction out of me. It’s about a young girl, her grandfather, and their robot assistant. It was complete ugly cry from middle to end — the same way I reacted to The Kite Runner back in 2007. Prepare your tissues…
…and when you get to Maxine Beneba Clarke’s fiction collection, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, prepare your emotions and self-control as well. I had a tough time controlling mine.
This fiction collection from the Aussie writer focuses on physical and emotional otherness. She puts her characters in various places (Australia, Africa, the UK, Uganda, and Jamaica), but their struggles can be experienced by anyone at anytime. The issues tackled range from racism and prejudice to partner abuse, migration, bullying and social isolation, teenage pregnancy, death and loss, rebellion, and the murder of African-Americans. You know you’re reading fiction, but if the stories don’t make you angry in some way, you better check yourself.
I also loved that the stories have a distinct flow, showcasing Clarke’s background as a spoken-word poet. That helps given the stressful content, although some stories are quite bitin and unresolved. Then again, this can still be seen as a good thing because Clarke was able to make her readers invest heavily on the story/characters.
The following stories were my favorites. Hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did!
The Girl on the Fridge: Stories:
- “Crazy Glue”
- “Hat Trick”
- “An Exclusive”
- “Vacuum Seal”
- “Not Human Beings”
- “The Night the Buses Died”
- “On the Nutritional Value of Dreams”
- “Cheerful Colors”
- “Goody Bags”
- “So Good”
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation:
- “The Fish of Lijiang”, Chen Qiufan
- “Tongtong’s Summer”, Xia Jia
- “The City of Silence”, Ma Boyong
- “Folding Beijing”, Hao Jingfang
- “Taking Care of God”, Liu Cixin
Foreign Soil: And Other Stories:
- “Foreign Soil”
- “Shu Yi”
- “Gaps in the Hickory”
- “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa”