I love speculative fiction for its not-real-but-still-real vibes and the stark contrast of a futuristic world grounded in current reality makes the issues feel even more sombre. Some things in human communities would never change.
I particularly enjoy spec fiction that are satire or social commentary; a challenge or reimagination of the status quo, steeped in cultural associations or based on a particular society. I’m pretty new to the genre, having (re-)discovered it through a couple of translated Korean spec fiction, so I was super excited to dive into this collection of homegrown Malay speculative fiction.
I’m terrible at reviewing short stories, because there’s too many and I feel like I’m going to do them an injustice. So I’ll pick out 3 of my favourites:
Mother Techno: A woman’s conversations with an AI-based voice assistant to communicate with her mother (who only speaks Bahasa) and the worries about her fertility. There’s a twist at the end, and I find it a particularly poignant piece on the pressures on women in society, and intergenerational communication.
Gold, Paper and Bare Bones: 10,000 points guarantee a comfortable retirement, and that’s the goal that everyone works toward. A blue-collared worker does the same, changing jobs along the way for a better chance to earn more points, but just 50 points shy from his goal, he gets killed in a workplace accident. Makes you wonder what we are really working for.
Isolated Future #2 MacRitchie Treetops: There’s an abandoned housing estate in the middle of the forest, where a community has now formed. A researcher interviews them on their communication system, built from coexistence with insects in the forest. I love how the story questions the role of efficiency in systems and how the community embrace inefficient activity as a meaningful way to co-exist.
My favourite quote is also from that story.
A part of me wishes to send a drone or a virtual assistant to run tasks for me (…)So I can unslave myself from undesirable constellations, be completely inefficient and lose myself in whatever wormhole of self-entertainment I’d like to find myself in.
Sounds like a dream.
Translated literature is rich in cultural nuances and it’s a bridge for me to better understand a different culture or society. I love how certain Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesia, Arabic terms or phrases in the book, particularly those with cultural associations, are left untranslated and readers are made to either guess the meaning from the context, or to refer to the very helpful glossary at the back. I definitely learnt things from the glossary.
When reading translated fiction, I don’t want everything to be reframed in a way the English reader would comprehend, but rather, I want to actively engage the text and understand the differences. I want to guess, to find out, to read up and to understand.
As a member of the majority race in Singapore, there are few things that I would struggle to understand. English is the common language, and I could just fall back on Mandarin if the need arises. But reading the book gives me a taste of being in the minority this time, and it also makes me reflect on a lot of things that I’ve probably taken for granted, and my own lack of understanding of Singapore beyond my (Chinese) frame.
I like it when reading throws up questions beyond the stories and make me think about my identity, perspectives and society at large. A great read, and I wish to see more anthologies of short stories from Singapore.
Can we also take a minute to appreciate the cover?! I love how there’s a page dedicated explaining the illustration and how it incorporates elements in the stories. I had a fun time trying to figure out what’s from where.
Get yours at Ethos Books.