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Bookworm 2015: Coming Across Sideways

Posted on | December 30, 2015 | No Comments

16131502One of the things I really love about genre is the way it produces stories that are altogether different. Yes, by definition, a genre is a set of tropes that should, in theory, limit what you can tell, but in science fiction and fantasy the very rules of the genre are frequently aimed at breaking out of boxes and thinking laterally, at exploring wholly new ground. One such new ground that is slowly opening up to me is Hispanic literature in its original form. Having started Spanish lessons a couple of years back, and having moved along at a relatively leisurely pace, I am reaching the point where something like Augusto Uribe’s anthology Latinoamérica Fantástica is just within my capacities. It is a lovely little mid-eighties primer on the state of the genres in South America, with a selection of stories intended to showcase the uniquely flavor of science fiction and fantasy that exists south of Rio Grande, but outside of magical realism. It mostly succeeds in this, though there is a definitive slant towards a very peculiar sort of Latino fantasy that is almost, well, the very magical realist fantasy they attempt to veer away from (e.g. the story by Angélica Gorodischer, probably the most high-profile author included). As is to be expected with any anthology, there are a few duds, but there are also works of pure genius, and what’s best, the book is mostly accessible to someone who is at an upper-intermediate level. Unlike Julio Cortázar, with his Bestiario, a book that is fascinating in what I could make out of it, but more than half of the stories remain outside my reach for the moment due to the heavy language used.

18505844Generally speaking, stepping outside the usual Anglophone area often leads to such interesting voyages of discovery. This year, for example, I’ve finally discovered a Scandinavian author I actually like in Emmi Itäranta. Her Memory of Water is a strange book in that it breaks with the usual tropes of dystopian fiction, particularly of the YA variety. It is about a girl inheriting her father’s title and role of tea master in a village in Finland in a post-catastrophic world of scarce water where all of Eurasia is ruled by a Chinese military dictatorship. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the book is that the language flows like gorgeous near-poetry, despite the fact that it is a translation from the original Finnish, though perhaps not that surprising if we know that the author did the translating herself. The fact that there is no “chosen one” and “world-saving” narrative, the focus instead being on an intimate story of discovery and peril, seems to be elbow-chewingly boring for some people, but for me it was perfectly meditative, like the much-featured tea ceremony.

636223Of course, discovering rare and weird gems does not require leaving Anglophonia altogether. Often times, the very English will spring something truly, disturbingly original and sideways on us, like Anna Kavan’s Ice. As a friend put it in her review that made me pick up this weird nugget of a short novel, it is “a housewife on heroin writing Ballardian SF about a world freezing over, from the standpoint of a (probably) psychopath tortured by sadistic visions of torturing and killing a frail blonde girl he hounds across unrecognizable continents”. The novel flows in wave-like repetitions, slowly meandering with ever-increasing violence and feelings of perdition towards an inevitable universal heat-death, making this definitely not the book if you are feeling a bit down on the weather and in need of a jolly pick-me-up.

263812Much better for that kind of thing to go for something like Fremder by Russel Hoban. Over the years Hoban has become my go-to guy when I just cannot choose the next book, when I would like something intelligent, weird, but not too self-important. Fremder is unusual in being, well, a spaceshippy-SF novel, which is, I’m told, atypical for Hoban, but again, he approaches the entire subgenre from such an offbeat trajectory, weaving existentialism and the Old Testament into the ultimately very personal story of self-discovery and being of an astronaut discovered drifting in space as the sole survivor of the explosion of his ship, that despite all the trappings of the genre present and accounted for, it doesn’t really feel like actual SF, more like beautifully written philosophical mainstream with a skiffy paintjob.

23282249To round off the weird circle, I have to mention a book that drew me in simply because of the title. Archivist Wasp sounds like Nicole Kornher-Stace just smashed two random words together, but once you start reading, it makes sense. Well, the title does, anyway. The book claims to be of the postapocalyptic YA subgenre, yet in all actuality it escapes strict pigeonholing in any one precise drawer. Our titular protagonist is an Archivist, one who collects the wispy and incoherent ghosts of the people from “before”, trying to obtain information and dispatching them to the afterworld so as not to trouble the living. She has to fight to the death every year to retain this position, yet after discovering a ghost that is both physically and mentally present, she undertakes a perilous journey of discovery into the otherworld to find the key to, perhaps, dismantling the tiny dystopia of her village and the system that is keeping her prisoner. The novel has its minor problems, but like most of the works listed in this post, it more than makes up for it with its sideways approach, nudging my slightly “seen-it-all-numbed” brain down interesting new pathways of thought.

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  • Goodreads

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
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    Crackpot Palace: Stories
    The Fractal Prince
    The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter

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