We See a Different Frontier: A postcolonial speculative fiction anthology - Sixteen authors share their experiences of being the silent voices in history and on the wrong side of the final frontier
We See a Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology. Ed. by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, Futurefire, 2013.
This anthology of speculative fiction stories on the themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism focuses on the viewpoints of the colonized. Sixteen authors share their experiences of being the silent voices in history and on the wrong side of the final frontier; their fantasies of a reality in which straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males don't tell us how they won every war; and their revenge against the alien oppressor settling their "new world".
Stories by Joyce Chng, Ernest Hogan, Rahul Kanakia, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Sandra McDonald, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gabriel Murray, Shweta Narayan, Dinesh Rao, N.A. Ratnayake, Sofia Samatar, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Lavie Tidhar and J.Y. Yang
"The strength of this collection is, not surprisingly, its diversity in story, approach, and form while still being focussed on a theme. This is a book that anyone that wants to pay more than just lip service to the idea of diversity needs to read." - Sean Wright
"Many anthologists, when asked about the lack of diversity in their work, declare that they care about quality and not quotas. This book shows that diversity needn’t come at a cost, and is in fact an extremely valuable quality for an anthology." - Stephen Theaker
"But it’s not only for its subject and themes and its presentation of oft-excluded perspectives that We See a Different Frontier is essential. The entire book and many of its stories deserve inclusion on award ballots and in the best-of-the-year lists and anthologies for 2013." - Cynthia Ward
"I think this is, overall, the best multi-author anthology I've ever read." - Rrain Prior
Fernandes and al-Ayad, editors of webzine The Future Fire, have compiled an innovative and trenchant anthology of 16 postcolonial speculative fiction stories. In Sunny Moraine’s haunting “A Heap of Broken Images,” an alien serving as a tour guide to snap-happy humans tries to come to terms with the genocide of his people. Sofia Samatar’s “I Stole the D.C.’s Eyeglass” is a vivid, moving tale about unexpected consequences, the love between sisters, and ways of resisting colonialism. Another highlight is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s well-crafted “Them Ships,” which explores class divisions through a cynical, practical protagonist from Mexico’s slums, who sees little point in joining a rebellion against her alien overlords. Though uneven in quality, all the stories, as Aliette de Bodard says in the incisive preface, center on the voices “of those whom others would make into aliens and blithely ignore or conquer or enlighten.” This is not just an interesting and entertaining collection, but also a necessary, convincing critique of the colonialist tropes that mark many of speculative fiction’s genre conventions. - Publishers Weekly
Justin Landon introduced the concept of “Under the Radar” two weeks ago with his inaugural post—the goal is to give a helping hand (or, at least, a waving one) to recent books that, in our personal opinion, deserve more attention than they’re currently getting.
When we started bandying around the idea, I was midway through my first pick—and, to me, there couldn’t be a book that’s a better contender for this category: We See a Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad—one of the best speculative fiction anthologies I’ve read this year.
The anthology follows a strict theme, that of “colonialism and cultural imperialism,” with a focus on “viewpoints of the colonized… the silent voices in history.” I’m a sucker for a themed anthology, and this is one that is deliberately different from everything else on the science fiction shelf—stories that aren’t about the inevitable Star FederationTM victory, or how Jones-the-clever-engineer saved the day. Those are hoary old campfire tales of space war and power tools. By definition, We See a Different Frontier is about new perspectives and, with them, new stories.
We See a Different Frontier comes conveniently packaged with its own critical insight—courtesy of a detailed afterword from Ekaterina Sedia—meaning I don’t even need to feign some sort of analytical perspective. Instead, I’ll cherry-pick some awesomeness:
J.Y. Yang’s “Old Domes” is my favourite story in the collection, and given how many great stories there are, that means quite a bit. Jing-Li is a groundskeeper—a profession with a very different meaning in this context. She’s trained to cull the Guardian spirits of buildings, the phantoms that inhabit structures and, in an abstract way, give them “meaning” and presence. She lures out the Guardians with the proper ritual offerings and then ends their existence: swiftly and painlessly with a plastic sword. Except, in Jing-Li’s case, her assigned prey isn’t so obliging: Singapore’s 1939 Supreme Court is refusing to go easily into that dark night. The spirit isn’t hostile as much as coy, challenging Jing-Li’s assumptions over what her occupation entails, and how successful it is.
“Old Domes” takes the reader through the full emotional cycle: first we learn how the past is being coldly replaced, then we object to it with an instinctual nostalgia, and finally, we’re led to a wonderfully optimistic conclusion, in which the past, present and future can all co-exist. This is a beautiful story.
Ernest Hogan’s “Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus” is on the other end of the spectrum, challenging any erroneous assumptions that post-colonial SF can’t be commercial—and joyous. It is wild, madcap fun with a stolen airship, steampunk madness and, er, Hollywood ambitions. It is steampunk at its finest: unrepentant anachronism and swashbuckling adventure, but, scratch that chromed surface and there’s a serious message underneath.
Shweta Narayan’s “The Arrangement of Their Parts”—a tale of sentient clockwork animals in India in the 17th century. The story balances a number of meaningful parallels: the “native” and the colonist, a machine and a scientist, a tiger and a brahmin. It is also as masterful a piece of world-building as I’ve read in some time, all the more impressive due to the tight space. By juggling history, folklore and fantasy, “The Arrangement” brings to life a setting that is begging for a series of novels (hint).
“Lotus” by Joyce Chng was one of the most thought-provoking stories in the collection. The set-up, a post-apocalyptic/post-flood world, is not particularly unfamiliar—nor is the core conceit: a young couple find a stash of a rare resource (fresh water) and must deal with the “curse” of this rare success. In many ways, this feels almost like a the set-up of a classic Golden Age SF story: a problem that’s invariably solved by our Hero becoming Lord Mayor of the New Earth Empire and leading the Great Reconstruction. But “Lotus” brings an entirely unanticipated resolution to the story—one that both satisfies and surprises. Perhaps more than any other story in the anthology, “Lotus” reinforces the need for We See a Different Frontier—an influx of new perspectives on scenarios that readers now take for granted.
Those are my four favourites of We See a Different Frontier, but, as a collection, the quality is incredibly high—from the alt-history madness of Lavie Tidhar’s “Dark Continents” (straddling the unpredictability of his award-winning Gorel and the historical insight of The Violent Century) to the classic hard SF of Fabio Fernandes’ “The Gambiarra Method” to the stomach-punch revelations of Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s “What Really Happened in Ficandula” and the penetrative character study of Rahul Kanakia’s “Droplet,” a story of secrets and wealth.
For all its literary excellence—and again, this is a book I recommend without reservation—We See a Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology is presented to readers as an anthology with an agenda. “These stories need to be read,” the editors write in their introduction, and, as much as I agree, I wonder how much being an “overtly political work” (Locus) has contributed to its under-the-radarness amongst the US and UK’s general SF readership. That is, the people who arguably need to read it the most.
I’d be curious to see what would happen, for example, if We See were to swap titles and covers with something incredibly generic—and overtly commercial—such as one of the year’s many interchangeable Year’s Best SF anthologies. The results could be fascinating.
As Aliette de Bodard says in her forward, these stories will “make a different world.” Let’s help them out shall, we? Pick up a copy of We See a Different Frontier, read it, and then share it with a friend. Or six… - Jared Shurin
Despite this theme, the anthology does not simply present a series of dreary, bitter polemics. There’s variety here, and quite a few of the stories are entertaining, a lot of fun – particularly for readers who enjoy revenge tales. There is also anger and tragedy, and looks back into history that may open the eyes of some Western readers. In genre terms, the authors have cast their stories in a variety of modes. I found less straight historical fiction than alternates, as well as science fiction and fantasy and a few pieces that don’t slot so easily.
Quite a few stories feature a reversal of roles, often in futures where the formerly colonized peoples are now in the ascendant over the former colonizers, fallen into decay. In the majority of the pieces, the colonizing power is Anglophone, either British or US, as witness to these nations’ imperial activities in the last few centuries. There is a sad irony in the fact that these stories have been written in English, arguably the most dominant imperialist tongue since Latin, which still exercises its influence from the grave of history.
Lois Tilton in Locus Online
We See a Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, is an anthology of sixteen stories, and also a special issue of the magazine The Future Fire, which publishes fantasy work with a political edge. After a year’s hiatus, the magazine encouraged applications from potential guest editors. That led first to Outlaw Bodies, edited by Lori Selke, and now to this book. The submission guidelines set an interesting challenge: to approach science fiction from the point of view not of those pushing the frontier out, in their wagon trains to the stars, but from the perspective of those who have experienced the expanding frontier from the other side. When I read the guidelines, my thoughts went towards the alien experience of human expansion, but the introduction makes it clear that the editors were more interested in “us, the aliens from Earth. Foreigners. Strangers to the current dominant culture.” And so only a few of the stories are set in space, most being set here on Earth, using science fiction to address historical, contemporary and controversial issues directly, rather than retreating to the safe Star Trekkian distance of metaphorical alien planets.
But those stories that feature aliens use them well. In “Them Ships” Silvia Moreno-Garcia considers how the flattening of human social structures by an alien invasion might not be entirely unwelcome among those currently at the bottom of the pile. A spacecraft hangs over the city in “A Bridge of Words” by Dinesh Rao, broadcasting an incomprehensible message, while Riya researches the tattoos of the country she left behind. Both are good stories, but Sunny Moraine’s “A Heap of Broken Images” is astonishing. It’s the heartbreaking story of an alien guide showing insensitive human tourists around the scene of a massacre. The story’s point is made by how unsurprised the reader is to learn what happened.
“What Really Happened in Ficandula” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is the only other story to take us off-world. It begins with a strong taste of Battlestar Galactica, as Gemma’s ship arrives at New Cordillera after six hundred and twenty leaps to throw off their pursuers, but it develops very quickly into a fine story with its own flavour that draws on the kind of shameful incidents that go hand in hand with imperial power and colonisation: forced migration, forced adoption, trigger-happy soldiers.
Some stories show us the survivors of global catastrophes, such as Joyce Chng’s “Lotus”, which shows people surviving in a waterlogged land, who find a wonderful source of fresh water and must decide whether to claim ownership of it, given all the consequences that defending it might bring. “Fleet” by Sandra McDonald is the story of a girl called Bridge who used to be a boy named Magahet Joseph Howard USN. She’s married to a man whose other wife hopes she’ll “be gored to death by a goonie pig”. Bridge’s people live on an island which was once part of an empire, and isn’t any more, and they have mixed feelings about re-establishing contact with whatever’s left of civilisation.
Shweta Narayan’s “The Arrangement of Their Parts” is set in 1665, where an Englishman is trying to exploit clockwork life forms, while “Forests of the Night” by Gabriel Murray is told by the unacknowledged son of an English captain, who brings him back to England from Kuala Lumpur. The mother is left behind, the boy employed as a valet. Something is killing sheep, horses and then men, and it needs to be hunted. Though they’re not writers one would expect to meet at this party, Kipling and Doyle came to mind, and the story isn’t embarrassed by the comparison. “Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus” by Ernest Hogan sees Tesla creating a helicopter-borne death ray for Mexican revolutionaries, only for it to be hijacked by a guy angry about Hollywood’s cultural appropriation of his girlfriend. It’s the kind of pulpy cartoon story with a serious theme that would fit neatly into an Obverse anthology. “I Stole the D.C.’s Eyeglass” is about a girl who worries for her stubborn sister, Minisare, who disappears off into the forest and doesn’t want to be given a husband. Sofia Samatar shows a community ruined by commercial exploitation, so used to the roar of machinery that the children can all read lips – but it ends on a hopeful note.
Lavie Tidhar is one of my favourite writers at the moment and “Dark Continents” is another excellent story from him. “We began to edit, but we were sloppy at first”, we read. That process created a new role for Livingstone, an African invasion of the confederacy, a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Style, ideas, storytelling: Tidhar’s stories excel in every area. A sentence here sums up the injustice of colonialism: “We had moved en masse to this land, empty but for its people, granted to us by the power of British empire and its King and parliament.”
Another of my favourite stories in the anthology was “Old Domes” by J.Y. Yang. Jing-Li is a cullmaster of buildings: when they are to be knocked down or refurbished she must clear the way by killing their guardian spirits. The story looks not just at the ongoing after-effects of colonialism, but also at the histories lost as colonial powers impose a new year zero. And it also has some good fights! “How to Make a Time Machine Do Things that Are Not in the Manual or The Gambiarra Method” is a Rudy Ruckerish story by Fabio Fernandes about researchers who discover time travel “during experiments on locative media and augmented reality as applied to elevators”. This makes sense, since even ordinary lifts are known to cause time dilations. “Droplet” by Rahul Kanakia inverts the usual story of the Indian emigrant who agonises over having taken their skills abroad – see for example the film Swades – to show what happens when they return to India, in this case because the USA has begun to dry up.
“Vector” is a cyberpunk story told in the second person by Benjanun Sriduangkaew: “You. Are. (A weapon. A virus. A commandment from God.)” You are literally plugged into the internet, and the hope is that you’ll do something to reverse the exploitation of your country and the steamrolling of its culture, a recurring theme in the book: “This is how to rewrite a country’s past, and when a past is gone it is easy to replace the present with convenience.” Similar themes are explored in “Remembering Turinam” by N.A. Ratnayake, despite its more historical (or fantastical?) setting. This wasn’t my favourite of the stories here, its protagonist Salai a bit too self-righteous and unpleasant to carry the reader. The story is essentially a conversation, the subject the active erasing of the Turian language by the Rytari invaders, and the question of whether it should be restored, and if so how. An exploration of the viral nature of language might have been very interesting in this context – you can’t keep a good word down! – but language is a topic big enough to inspire an anthology in itself, and a story shouldn’t be blamed for not exploring every angle.
The book was hardly published in hopes of a pat on the head from a white Englishman, and even the act of reviewing it – issuing my judgment upon the hard work of these plucky foreign types! – seems to go against the spirit of the book. The afterword by Ekaterina Sedia is a more sensitive response to the book’s themes than I could ever write (though if I had thought like her that the stories shared an anti-scientific theme I would have seen it as a weakness rather than a strength). But, for what my opinion is worth, I thought the book was absolutely terrific. The short length of the stories meant none had time to waste, and there is a great deal of variety. It’s full of surprising plots and perspectives, and if the premise of the book might make you expect a lecture, don’t think of the finger-wagging kind, think more of an inspirational guest speaker who opens your eyes to new ideas and new approaches. Many anthologists, when asked about the lack of diversity in their work, declare that they care about quality and not quotas. This book shows that diversity needn’t come at a cost, and is in fact an extremely valuable quality for an anthology.
On the technical side, the Kindle edition is fine, apart from (on my devices, at least) being set in block paragraphs with a line space between. That could be a deliberate choice – it does look rather elegant – but it means more page turns, especially on smaller screens. Other than that, the book is very highly recommended. - Stephen Theaker
A criticism that I think can be levelled at the science fiction community is that when it comes to diversity we are still not quite there. Sure there are lots of authors that include a more diverse range of characters in their stories but where I think we struggle is with supporting and promoting diverse authors. Paolo Baccigaluppi gets noticed for writing about Thailand, but what about Thai writers writing about Thailand using Science Fiction and Fantasy as the framework?
I think that white western writers need to be careful that in the rush to write more diverse characters that they aren’t indeed silencing authors from those diverse backgrounds – the result if you are not careful, is almost a second wave of colonisation.
For this fact alone I find We See A Different Frontier to be a very important book. Some stories engage directly with the effects of historical colonialism, some tap into the experience, all the stories have something of value.
Beyond that of course is the fact that they are enjoyable fiction for the good stories they tell and the choices the authors make in structure and form.
The Arrangement of Their Parts by Shweta Narayan opens the collection and examines the arrogance that the coloniser displays in regards to the colonised, the perception of the colonised as inferior, especially intellectually. In this steampunk India Shweta skilfully weaves an moralistic folktale with the main narrative of the story to underline her point.
Sticking with the steampunk theme, so often the preserve of western writers who want to experience the grace and refinement of the Victoria age without examining how that was arrived at, we have Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus by Ernest Hogan. An American tale ( in a geographic sense) that manages to combine Tesla, Deathrays and Hollywood. A subtle dig at American cultural colonisation is had here.
Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, examines what American rescue might mean for different parts of a society colonised by Aliens. Mexico has been invaded by largely benevolent Aliens, their Jellyfish-like ships hang over the city and rich and poor alike are contained in cells until the aliens find a use for them. Silvia contrasts the plight of the different classes, the rich and the poor in Mexican society. She asks the question would an American rescue mean freedom for everyone? The story, however, presents the reality that sometimes you just need to do what you can to survive.
JY Yang gives us Old Domes, the first of series of stories that tap into hidden or obscured history. I think this is about the third Yang story I have read and I like her mixing of traditional concepts with modernity. The erasure or forgetting of place due to colonialism or progress struck a chord with my experience of living in Darwin, a city where new seemed to replace old within decades.
Dinesh Rao’s A Bridge of Words, carried through this theme of hidden histories. Our protagonist Riya is a outsider in her own culture- part coloniser, part colonised. This story is a mystery and comment on the way important cultural information can be conveyed through art.
Lotus by Joyce Chng is I think a piece that stresses the need for a different paradigm, a different way of viewing and being, one that does not require endless exploitation of finite resources or theft or control of resources that are needed by everyone. It’s a post-environmental apocalypse piece that argues that we need to stop making the same mistake.
Lavie Tidhar’s piece is perhaps the most experimental story in form. Dark Continents gives us an alternate Israel set in Africa. Tidhar remixes and restarts history before our very eyes, examining and imagining a wealth of possible histories and ending perhaps with an unlikely utopia?
Sunny Moraine in A Heap of Broken Images, focuses on humanity as colonisers of an Alien world where a great atrocity has been committed against the Aliens in the not too distant past. Our protagonist is a tour guide of sorts who works to guide human scholars and students around the scenes of the atrocity. It is a beautiful story that at its heart discusses the way in which the coloniser and the colonised set up structures to avoid having to deal with what has happened.
Remembering Turinam by N.A. Ratnayake, has shades of Steampunk but is really the story of a benevolent society colonised by an aggressive and militaristic one. It is also a brilliant examination of the way in which colonial powers destroy or subsume cultures through language ie the insistence that the colonised speak the language of the coloniser, either through threat of force or by making the Colonists language the one that is most beneficial or necessary. Ekaterina Sedia has some sombre thoughts on this very point in her afterword. What did astonish me was that this was Ratnayake’s first professional sale. I hope we see more from him.
Vector by Benjanun Sriduangkaew left me breathless due to the second person present tense. It is a story whose form reinforces the sense to produce a direct hard hitting effect. It places you the reader in the driving seat, demands that you experience the feeling of being the colonised.
I have not mentioned all the stories in the collection, but this is not a comment on their quality. I need to leave some surprises for you to discover. I can’t sign off however without mentioning the story that bookends the collection. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz leaves us with a very solid and thoughtful piece in What really happened at Ficandula. The story is based on a historical incident that happened during the American occupation of the Philippines and weaves a historical tale with that of the fantastic. I had the privilege of talking to Rochita for Galactic Chat and discussing the story and her decision to frame it within speculative fiction. Her answer was that “facts” surrounding the incident were limited and biased and that this story was the only way to present elements that needed to be spoken about or remembered. This story left me contemplating my own country’s colonial history. How, stories and histories disappear for both the colonised and the colonists.
The strength of this collection is , not surprisingly, its diversity in story, approach, and form while still being focussed on a theme. This is a book that anyone that wants to pay more than just lip service to the idea of diversity, needs to read. It is also a collection that I think you can point critics of speculative fiction toward when they say that the genre can’t deal with serious issues.
Kudos to Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad for bringing these writers together. - Sean Wright
There’s a saying my grandmother likes to use when people are eating dinner: instead of saying ‘I’m full’, she prefers ‘I’ve had an elegant sufficiency’. It’s this phrase which sprang to mind as I finished We See A Different Frontier: because everything about it, from the overarching themes of the stories themselves to their place and number in the collection, feels perfectly designed to amaze, impress and satisfy. It is, in every way that matters, an elegant sufficiency of stories; the kind of anthology that leaves you feeling eager – but not starving – for more of the same.
Bracketed by a preface from Aliette de Bodard and an afterword from Ekaterina Sedia, Frontier is a powerful, fascinating and deeply necessary examination of colonialism through an SFFnal lens – and, by extension, of its real-world history and legacy. In a genre which so often deals with questions of technology, expansion, power and revolution – spacefaring explorers discovering new worlds, rebels battling empires and dystopian states, humans negotiating with elves and aliens – the Western, imperial roots of much classic SFF also dictate that, even though there’s a glut of stories championing the underdog, exulting in their endless against-the-odds victories over a sea of evil masters, it’s comparatively rare for the oppressed heroes of science fiction to resemble those groups most oppressed in real life.
There are, for instance, any number of dystopian stories that lament the narratively-imposed lack of heteronormative romantic choice, but none I can think of that mimic the actual, real-world oppression of queer love. Similarly, and despite the awful volume of historical evidence that human colonialism and Western expansion have invariably been fraught with violence, evil and bigotry, our stories tend overwhelmingly to suggest the opposite, couching human colonists as either enlightened liberators or scientific progressives, and Western (or Western-style) hegemony as the system that supplants, rather than endorses, tyrannical empire, or which at the absolute best is shown to be open to abuse, not because of any inherent flaws, but due to the temporary lack of a Good King. All too often, we shy away from stories whose oppressor/oppressed dynamics purposefully and overtly reflect our many real-world inequalities: at best, we brush them off as didactic, simplistic and agenda-laden, their messages so obvious as to go without saying (because doing so makes us uncomfortable, natch), and at worst, as biased propaganda designed to make “us” look like the bad guys.
Which is what makes Frontier such an important – and deliberate – departure from the norm. Its diverse group of authors have infused their narratives with their own real-world understanding of oppression, colonialism and privilege, creating a richer, more nuanced, and more fundamentally honest collection of SFFnal stories than I can ever remember seeing.
First up is Shweta Narayan’s elegant and powerful The Arrangement of Their Parts – a subversive piece of Indian steampunk wherein an imperial Englishman’s dialogue with a clockwork peacock reveals the former’s bigoted, scientific cruelties and the latter’s intelligence. Structured against a brahmin fable, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking piece, and an excellent start to the anthology.
Next up is Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus, by Ernest Hogan, a title perfectly chosen to contrast the philosophical absurdity of Monty Python with a retrofuturistic story extrapolated from Pancho Villa’s real, historical decision to give Hollywood proprietary rights to film his battles in the Mexican Revolution. Truth being stranger than fiction – and this fascinating historical detail not being much promulgated in classrooms – I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some readers assumed this story’s entire premise to be an invention of Hogan’s, but knowing that it isn’t makes both the comic and political dimensions of this story all the more satisfying.
In an all-over strong anthology, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Them Ships is one of the strongest pieces; it went straight on my Hugo ballot as soon as I finished reading it. Written from the perspective of a formerly-oppressed woman who finds that the alien invasion of Earth has dramatically improved her lot in life, much to the disgust and confusion of her formerly-privileged roommate, Them Ships is the sort of thought-provoking, powerful story that stays with you for years.
By contrast, J. Y. Yang’s Old Domes is memorable and emotive in a completely different way, intertwining a thoughtful examination of Singapore’s colonial history with one of the more engaging short fiction premises I’ve seen for a while. Here, old buildings develop anthropomorphised, essentially magical guardians who need to be destroyed by trained cullmasters when their locations are due to be demolished or refurbished, in order to make way for their successors – but what else do these culls destroy, when a building retains old memories that people have forgotten?
Switching from the fantastic to the futuristic, Fabio Fernandes’s The Gambiarra Method is an intimate look at the consequences of time-travel in a multicultural future. Though the science details are both convincing and interesting, it’s the human element that really sells this story: the relationships between the characters, the pressures imposed by bureaucratic management, and the knowledge that the world is both bigger and more complex than we can easily understand.
Dinesh Rao’s A Bridge of Words is a gorgeously story of language and history and aliens, one I adored even as it challenged both my assumptions and my privilege. As a reader with only a very general knowledge of Indian history and culture, I could identify its relevance to and influence on the story without being able to contextualise it further – by which I mean that, as a white Westerner, it was possible to read the story as being wholly science fictional, one that was set on a planet other than Earth and dealing with an imagined culture whose rhythms resembled things I found familiar, but without ringing any specific bells. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realised that my own ignorance was clouding my analysis; that it was just as plausibly a story set in a future India with science fictional elements. Which made me wonder in turn whether the ambiguity – if it was ambiguity, and not just a consequence of my lesser knowledge – was itself deliberate: a way in which the story’s focus on the loss of origin and identity was subtly mimicked by making the reader uncertain whether events were rooted in fact or fiction. Either way, the story not only succeeded in engaging me, but in making me think further about the issues it raised, and the question of my own default settings.
Dealing (also?) with a future India, Rahul Kanakia’s Droplet takes a very different approach, examining the experiences of first, second and third generation Indian-Americans in a water-scarce future. This is an emotionally and socially complex story, extrapolating family tensions as adeptly as it does generational and cultural ones, with racism and its politically-sanctioned microaggressions a constant background presence.
Joyce Chng’s Lotus is concerned with a different future: not one of water-scarcity, but of sea levels that have risen so dramatically as to almost eradicate dry land, turning humanity into water-travelling nomads. Both gentle and political, this is the sort of story that enlightens through clarity, evoking compassion, not through outrage, but empathy and calm, without ever feeling saccharine. Given its midpoint occurrence within the anthology, this is also a particularly well-placed story, giving the reader time to pause and replenish themselves as the heroine does likewise.
Next up is Lavie Tidhar’s excellent Dark Continents, which skilfully interweaves various real and possible histories of the English colonial incursions into Africa with parallel, science fictional ones, where alien races travelling through dimensional portals turn the would-be colonisers into the colonised. This is alternate slipstream history at its best, and left me grinning for quite some time afterwards.
Sunny Moraine’s A Heap of Broken Images is, by contrast, wholly science fictional. Written from the point of view of a very convincing alien reflecting on the violence, both psychic and bodily, done to their species by aggressive human colonists, this is a pitch-perfect examination of the crucial relevance of different perspectives in parsing events, and how those perspectives are defined, not only by their originating cultures, but the ways those cultures can be altered by unanticipated tragedies.
Fleet, by Sandra McDonald, is a futuristic, after-the-fall style offering with a fa’afafine narrator, something I’ve never seen in fiction before, but which works particularly well in a story that’s as much about the impact of outsider/insider identities as it is about isolationism and politics in a dystopian future. That being said, Fleet still gave me pause, not for being in any way poorly written or overtly disrespectful (or at least, not in ways that were immediately obvious to me, given my own cisgendered privilege), but for being the only story in the anthology written about a culture and personal experience that was profoundly and clearly not the author’s own. That doesn’t make it a bad story – it was, after all, selected for a reason – but given the cultural specificity of fa’afafine as a gender identity, it was something I felt worth noting.
With N.A. Ratnayake’s Remembering Turinam, we return again to a wholly imagined setting – this one fantastical, rather than futuristic – and the pivotal consequences of the colonial erasure of language, particularly given the extent to which language both shapes and is shaped by thought. This is a touching story with a strong familial core, and an emphasis on the idea that rebellion isn’t just swords and fighting, but the viral defiance of words.
Sofia Samatar’s I Stole the D.C.’s Eyeglass also deals with defiance, but of a different kind again: as a refusal of both the sexism of one’s own culture and the racism of the oppressor. This is a powerful intersectional narrative, weaving together forbidden magic, sisterhood and faith to make a profoundly satisfying whole, and one whose concluding sentence gave me shivers.
Every time I read a new work by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, I feel like someone is jimmying open my brain and pouring in liquid brilliance. Her prose is both electric and poetic, supporting original, dazzling stories that never cease to impress, but which always defy both ready description and easy categorisation. Vector is no different, a powerfully political piece of feminist Thai cyberpunk that also went straight on my Hugo ballot. All I can say is: read it. Read it now.
Returning to the theme of the British colonial empire, Gabriel Murray’s Forests of the Night – a title which, given the story’s focus on the presence of an impossible tiger in England, pays a neat homage to Blake’s The Tyger – is both haunting and profound. This is a story that isn’t what it appears to be, and which neatly dissects the questions of genetic inheritance and personal identity in the face of familial racism.
Finally, with What Really Happened in Ficandula, Rochita Lonen-Ruiz’s provocative, fantastic retelling of a real occurrence from the Western colonisation of the Philippines – a well-executed story that is equal parts harrowing and hopeful – the anthology draws to a close. We See A Different Frontier is an impressive, polished collection of incredible stories, and the only thing I can find to say that’s even remotely negative is that it’s deserving of a far more beautiful cover. (The existing image, alas, is more reminiscent of MS Paint than professional design.) But there’s a reason we exhort readers not to judge a book by its cover, and if there was a ever a volume destined to cement the vital importance of that sentiment, this is it. We See A Different Frontier is an anthology I’d have no hesitation in recommending to everyone and anyone, and which I hope is given the widespread respect and admiration it so manifestly deserves, not only within our current SFFnal community, but in the future. - Foz Meadows