Or, things I planned to read in #SciFiMonth and didn’t get round to…
This gorgeous collection of short stories by Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad, is split into three sections: ‘Here’, ‘There’ and ‘Elsewhere’. The stories in ‘Here’ are set in our world with a darker twist, while in ‘There’, characters spend more time in fantastical settings that are still linked to the real world, and in ‘Elsewhere’, they could be anywhere at all, from the Chinese afterlife to outer space. The collection is also geographically split; the stories in ‘Here’ are usually set in Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur, while the stories in ‘Elsewhere’ often have British settings, and at least two are set at Cambridge. It’s not exactly original, when reviewing a short story collection, to say that you liked some stories more than others, but what struck me about Spirits Abroad was that if it had consisted solely of the first section, ‘Here’, plus everything but ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’ from ‘Elsewhere’, it would probably have been one of the very best collections of short stories I’d ever read. Every one of these stories was a knock-out, and they also have an incredible coherence while never becoming repetitive. Cho expertly combines dry wit, Malaysian folklore, a hint of horror, and her own brilliant imagination. These are difficult elements to balance, but somehow she pulls it off every time.
Apart from ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’, which I reviewed back in November, my favourite stories included ‘The House of Aunts’, which draws on vampiric Malay tales of the pontianak but also tells a heartwarming tale of how teenage Ah Lee both loves and resents the older female family members with whom she lives – often with good reason (‘Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it had been a half-hearted telling off. The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate.’). I also loved the family matriarch, Nai Nai, in ‘The First Witch of Damasara’, who is disturbing her family by threatening to become a kuang shi [zombie] unless she’s buried in Penang (‘You know why I wanted you all to call me Nai Nai? Even though Hokkien people call their grandmother Ah Ma?… In the movies, Nai Nai is always bad!’). Meanwhile, ‘The Fish Bowl’ is a less flashy story about a teenage girl who makes a deal with a koi fish as she struggles with the pressures of school, but it moves beautifully towards its joyful ending. ‘Liyana’ is a gentle, sweet story about a family who grow their own houses from the ground, while, for all the ghouls and zombies here, ‘Odette’, which lacks either, is easily the most horrifying tale.
It’s a shame, then, about ‘There’, which went badly off-kilter for me. The stories in this section tilted far too far towards being silly, losing the darker edge that rooted the rest of the collection. The only one I came close to liking was ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’, where the depiction of a group of Malaysian students who stick together at the University of Cambridge was so realistic and well-observed that it grounded the rest of it. (Personal bias: there’s something about stories of fairies/faeries that never works for me, so any mention of fairyland was an instant no.) But, on the other hand, the way this collection is grouped does at least suggest that Cho knows very well what she’s doing, and the stories in ‘There’ have obviously balanced perfectly for some readers. All in all, I was so impressed by this collection, and I can’t wait to try Cho’s novels.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory is the third in his ambitious, hard-SF series that began with Children of Time and continued with Children of Ruin. I had a mixed experience with the first two books – I struggled with the amount of evolutionary biology that Tchaikovsky included, especially in Children of Time, but loved the horror elements – ancient AIs, abandoned spaceships and invading consciousnesses – that were more prominent in Children of Ruin. Children of Memory sits somewhere between the two. It’s set on another planet that was targeted by human terraformers as they sought out new worlds to live on after the destruction of Earth. This planet, Imir, has not fared very well – the small human population has struggled to set up a functioning eco-system, and they live at a subsistence level. Our main protagonist is a teenage girl called Liff, who encounters Miranda, a woman who claims to have come from one of the ‘out-farms’ that encircle the main settlement on Imir, but who seems to originate from a much more distant place. As Liff tries to work out Miranda’s secret, she also encounters the Witch, a powerful woman who is determined to seek out Miranda.
This plot-line was compelling (and I loved the final twist). There’s not enough SFF that mixes SF and fantasy elements like this, and I was reminded of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars. However, I was frustrated by the more cerebral material in this novel, especially when Tchaikovsky invents yet another Earth species that has followed a different evolutionary pathway – this time, birds. This felt unnecessary, and the bird chapters were so intensely annoying that I had to skim them. I would have preferred to be immersed in Liff and Miranda’s story. I guess I have to conclude that I’m not the right audience for the harder SF elements of Tchaikovsky’s work, even though I’ve enjoyed much of this wildly intelligent and original series.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.
I’m still trying to find the right time to start Gwyneth Jones’s Life, which looks fascinating but a bit too cerebral for my currently frazzled, end-of-semester brain. Its take on sex and gender looks like it will chime well with some of the reading on trans identities I’m doing at the moment, so watch this space!
Have you read any speculative fiction in December?
5 thoughts on “A #SciFiMonth Coda: Speculative Fiction in December”
I loved Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, and although Black Water Sister took me longer to get into, I ended up warming to it, too—so hopefully you’ll enjoy her novels as much as her stories! The only Tchaikovsky of that series that I’ve read is Children of Time, which was fascinating and engrossing, but doing another species-uplift storyline in a sequel does seem like a bit of a cop-out, narratively…
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He does it in both sequels! I liked it better in Children of Ruin (octopuses there) because it was creepier and less focused on the biology, so more differentiated from how he used the idea in Children of Time.
Sorcerer to the Crown is first on my list, but I’d like to read both!
Also octopuses are genuinely a bit scary in the same way that spiders are (it’s something to do with the legs, and their upsetting quickness). Birds are scary too but in a very different way. I don’t know why that would make a difference, but I feel it does.
Sorcerer to the Crown is really great, I remember laughing out loud when I read it!
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