Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The SEA is Ours - Jaymee Goh & Joyce Chng (Editors)

The SEA is Ours is an anthology of steampunk fiction, set in and around South-East Asia. It has a combination of new and previously published authors, and a very broad range of subject matter.

That breadth of material is one of the reasons that this collection is so interesting. There’s a whole range of imaginative perspectives on display. There’s  living wood, brought to life by a sculptor in defence of a homeland. There’s spiders in mechanical battlesuits. There’s a couple of mentions of the Aswang, demons of folklore, though they’re used differently across the narratives. There’s even one story which hinges upon the animal grace of flying whales - a spark of whimsical brilliance which evoked a sort of tense wonder in the reader. Essentially, these stories each have something of their own to say, and the way that each of them looks to say it feels different .
In part, this is due to the other distinction of this collection. It feels like there’s a diverse range of views here, a cultural and social understanding of humanity distinct from that with which we’re typically presented. Each author has their own style, of course, but there’s a cohesiveness here, a flavour which is hard to define, but absolutely present.

Perhaps some of it is highlighted in the several narratives of resistance – archipelago dwellers using clockwork colossi and grey-skinned monsters to defend themselves from external aggression. Or in the lucid dream-weft of a man using nano-machines to retrieve skin-flakes of the Bhudda from a rockface. There’s a sense of community, of cohesiveness and reaction against invasion, and the suggestion of an energy within that community which cannot, and indeed should not, be suppressed.

So as a whole, the collection is imaginative, in part because it opens a window onto a rarely seen perspective. But the broader question remains – are the stories actually any good? The broad answer is that yes, they are. Characters are written in with swift brush strokes, but largely given enough room to define themselves to the reader. For example, we may not know the details that led to a tense interaction between two brothers in a workshop in one story, but the sense of a shared history infuses the text. It works its way off the page, and makes the characters feel real. Or there’s the curiously fraught father-daughter relationship in another tale – as the latter attempts to emulate the former’s rise into the skies, she learns some unpleasant truths about both her father and her society, and has to cope with that knowledge.

And it feels right. It feels raw, and slightly askew, and filled with a kind of fiery complexity. Not all the characters are like this of course, but the protagonists for each tale manage the trick of seeming relatable, even those who might easily have been incomprehensible.

The plots range from the fantastic through alternate history, and each of them feels like an effective narrative unit. There were some abrupt endings, which was unfortunate, because one thing that was shared by all of the stories is that I wanted to read more of them. The collection, taken as a whole, exudes a sense of the familiar made strange, accentuated by delving into a diversity of cultural approaches which aren’t often seen, each approached in a nuanced and effective fashion.

Is this a collection worth reading? If you’re looking for something different, absolutely. It promises, and delivers, a series of compelling imaginative journeys, often showing off new directions, and conceptual spaces I, for one, was unfamiliar with – and delighted to be introduced to. On that basis – yes, this one is worth a read!

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