There are books you pick up because of their author. There are books you pick up because of their title (rare, these days), or because of their cover. And then there are books you pick up because they promise something new, and you look at them, go ‘nah, it cannot be’, put them down - and go back, just to check. The Sea is Ours, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng, is one of those. I’ve read some steampunk - frequently formulaic, but also frequently fun. And I’ve read some Southeast Asian SF and Horror - frequently different, and frequencly pointing out that there are some gaps in need of filling in concerning my general education/knowledge (even if I frequently only go to Wikipedia for this).
I’ve not been exposed to Southeast Asian Steampunk before, though… but that’s my loss, telling from this collection assembled by Joyce Chng and Jaymee Goh!
The subtitle is programme - all stories here are steampunk (even if the definition is used fairly loosely, and some steampunk elements feel patched on), and all come from Southeast Asia, with, as the editors note, some gaps in coverage in terms of countries of origin.
But this is also a book of politics, and born of frustration - however real or perceived (and definitely not only imagined, I hasten to add!) at women, feminists, ethnic minorities, and especially Southeast Asia’s writers being overlooked by the big, bad UK/US white male dominance (I paraphrase). So far so Puppygate, of course, albeit rather towards the opposite end of the spectrum. And entirely valid as both a programme and a theme to assemble a collection of stories and writers.
And yes, the contents and especially the contributors appear to definitely have been picked and filtered, so I appreciate that a) they were very open about their thrust, and b) that the result turned out as magnificent as this!
Below is a run-through of stories, their topics, and some thought on them - I don’t think there was anything here that felt weak or unfinished, even if topics, approaches, and writing styles (and maturity) vary, as with every collection.
If such detail bothers you then stop here, and simply take away that this a splendid and unusual collection, and highly recommended for everyone who likes SF, Steampunk, or Mythology (as a number of stories take local Mythology as a jump-off point), and who do not require their reading matter to be white, male, and UK/US centric.
Ok, here goes with the capsule reviews:
On the Consequence of Sound - Timothy Dimacali
A story based on the Philippine myth of the butanding, the Sky Whales, and of a girl learning the art of making objects (especially airships) float/fly through the use of music. It’s a great story, set in a fascinating world, and leaves you yearning for more!
Chasing Volcanoes - Marilag Angway
The crew of an airship which syphons off volcanic gases - with both defuses the pending eruption and provides them with energy for their ship, get embroiled in the (violent) politics between feuding royal clans. This feels like a classic adventure story, and some of the technology presented put me in the mind of Jan Lars Jensen’s Shiva 3000.
Ordained - L.L. Hill
A tale of two brothers, and of the tension (if not conflict) between the traditional life of a monk dedicating to live at and look after a sacred site (and creating flying mechanical marvels - something which keeps recurring in these stories!), and his European-educated, court-based brother. It’s interesting, it’s fun, but with what I found a rather weak and unsatisfactory ending.
The Last Aswang - Alessa Hinlo
A country with ‘magic’ technology (also a recurring theme here), including animating mechanical animals and other beings; but also rooted in their ancestral beliefs and gods/beings - confronted with a renewal of hostilities from España (current or former colonial powers are, for obvious reasons, a frequent part of the settings here) and its priests and steam-driven machines.
A fascinating, mythical, and classically violent world. Another one which makes you feel that there will be, must be!, much much more.
Life Under Glass - Nghi Vo
The narrator is on an expedition (together with her sister) to collect flora and fauna for the Vietnam Dome at the Universal Exposition in Saigon. She also is running away/hiding from a failed relationship with one of her colleagues - a lesbian relationship her family did not really approve of. The setting is exotic, the story, but its themes of family ties and failed relationships is rather run of the mill I felt.
Between Severed Souls - Paolo Chikiamco
A fascinating if unfinished-feeling tale of a carpenter/wood-carver, making war machines including flying ones to strap on - like the one which killed his beloved wife.But now he’s faced with a type of wood he’s never seen before - this wood, apparently, allows only to be cared in one way, to release - something - from within. All that against the backdrop of local squabbling over ‘lost’ kingdomships as well as the conflict between the colonial powers vying for influence in the region , and shifting their local allegiances with the wind…
The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso - Kate Osias
Four scientific prodigies - a gastronomist, a machinist, a pianist/mathematician, and a dancer - have entered into an illicit love quadrangle. But when their greatest member, the mathematician is called upon to use this music for war he refuses, and is subsequently killed. This is the story of his lovers’ revenge.
A splendid tale, set in a world you want to her more about, her more stories from. One of the highlights of the collection for me.
Working Woman - Olivia Ho
The most ‘classical’ Steampunk story here - flesh/clockwork hybrid humans, steam and spring driven machinery, the British (of course), secret societies, mysterious assassins, upper/lower class society, derring-do: you ask for it, you got it! That, besides the huge entertainment value, we also get well-executed social commentary here really speaks for the skill of the writer. More, please!
Spider Here - Robert Liow
A slice-of-life story, following a disabled girl who, when not in school, specialises in creating biological shells - casings - with nervous systems and sensors created from dead animals, which are manned and animated by spiders, and fight out one-on-one battles which people bet on. But there is a whole world in the background, with politics, and with a low-grade war/terror campaign. Another story with a huge potential for more - both from the protagonist as well as set in that world.
The Chamber of Souls - ZM Quynh
A boat full of Vietnamese refugees is picked up by an airship from another world/dimension - and whilst their rescuers are decidedly Vietnamese the are also clearly something else. We follow of the refugee’s path through a refugee camp to their new home - including conflict with other tribes/societies and an adventure with Ngoc, the only mechanical begin in that world. But underneath there lurks more, much more than the story in the foreground. Fascinating, if slightly cliched I felt.
Petrified - Ivanna Mendels
A ship - the Sweet Water - is patrolling the sea (flying above it) around the new Republic Nusantara to guard against the Dutch returning, or other Colonial powers coming in. Now she is missing - and the only survivor tells an amazing tale. Very reminiscent of Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian books, for better or worse (the similarity is in the setting, and not the politics of the author)
The Insects and Woman Sing Together - Pear Nuallak
Another story with magic-enabled technology, although it is the women who (apparently unbeknown to the men) have a huge edge in the technology department, and use it to steer events and history towards where they feel it should go - all without the men, who are formally in charge, noticing too much of this.
Interesting from a cultural point of view, and could well be the blueprint for a full novel (which I’d happily buy!)
The book closes with short biographies of all authors, as well as the editors.
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
More Joyce Chng
More Jaymee Goh
Title: The Sea is Ours - Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia
Editor: Joyce Chng
Editor: Jaymee Goh
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Publisher URL: http://www.rosariumpublishing.com/
Publication Date: 30 Nov 2015
Review Date: 151122