The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

It’s just you and me, on the counter stools, enjoying our ice cream as the buzzing, shuddering air conditioner labours to tame the exuberant heat of sunlight, blazing through the windows. Just another one of our summertime visits to Harfu’s Creamery. Until in strolls who you could be, all seersucker and gabardine in assured motion. With the charisma of a star actress on break during a movie shoot, she orders two scoops, one sweet cream, the other ginger, all topped with crushed pistachios—clearly a superior selection to our picks: my blueberry single scoop and your mango double with coconut shreds.

You, as usual, pay her no attention and carry on like she’s not even there. I, however, become that much more enamoured with her. As she stands mere steps from me, my senses gather delightful nuggets of detail.

A short story from Myanmar by San Lin Tun

Moe did not know what he could do while he sat in his chair and his mind drifted like a kite floating with the free flow of wind. Something dampened his strength and he felt frayed. He had been feeling this way for a couple of days. It started gradually till it took concrete shape in his mind, tending to block his mental processes. That is why he could not  focus on his job. He decided to try to deal with it…

Though he felt it, he could not name the sensation. He picked up the pen from the rectangular lacquer pen holder in front of him on the table, unconsciously. He did not intend to use the pen but his laptop. He sighed at his confusion and looked at his watch — fifteen past four in the afternoon. He stood up, pushed his laptop away and picked up his shoulder bag that lay in a slant against the foot of the table.

Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

Title: Best Asian Speculative Fiction

Editor: Rajat Chaudhuri

Series Editor: Zafar Anjum

Publisher: Kitaab, 2018

Speculative fiction can no longer be dismissed as low-brow, trashy or pulp, or at the very least, unimportant and weird fantasy if one reads the collection edited by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. To many readers’ surprise, this marginalised genre has lot to contribute philosophically to the dream of a technocrat’s world. The present age that can be well-described as an era of artificial intelligence (AI) is surely complementary to human intelligence developed with the purpose of mitigating our works in future. But the rise of AI and the philosophy of technocracy have, at the same time, given rise to multiple speculations regarding future of humanity — the fear of Frankenstein.

Speculative fiction is too large a subject to be represented exhaustibly in a book or a collection of Asian speculative narratives. The unique character of this specific genre lies in an impossibility to hold all its threads within a watertight definition. It encompasses several genres under its shed. Chaudhuri’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction is indeed a suitable example of this broad compass.  We are on an enchanting rollercoaster ride as we leap from one imaginative narrative to another coming from diverse authors from sixteen countries of Asia plus more diasporas.

By Farouk Gulsara

Malaysia National Day Special

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Like the Sword of Damocles, his domestic troubles hung over his head. There was nothing much he could do about it. It had gone on too long, too deep. He just had to live with it and move around it. He could not give up everything. There was a nagging heaviness in his temples. He knew things were going to take a nasty turn and it might get worse. He had created some arbitrary goals to improve his life, but this one had crashed it all. But still, life had to continue. As they say in showbiz, the show must go on.

He knew it was a bad idea. With all these problems plaguing him, he thought it was inappropriate for him to participate in this event. But then, it was also a lifetime achievement — a success hailed by his kinsmen as the epitome of his checkered life. Akin to a water lily, growing wild amongst the filth of marsh, stench and reptiles infested wetland to glorify the lotus feet of Buddha, it was an achievement enviable to some but yearned by all and privileged to only a few!

The problem, as he understood, was not something that developed overnight. Like a crystal, the lattice had developed over the years slowly but surely to its full wrathful glory. How could he be so dumb? Or was it beyond his control and was decided by the constellations and the genetic predisposition?

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction
Stephanie looked up at the corner of the kitchen. The dome was blinking again, but this time with a green light.

“No harm done.”

“I see you started cooking.”

Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?

“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”

“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”

“How can it be too little garlic? I followed Mama’s recipe to the letter, the only thing I changed was to add sambal.”

“I tailor the recipe accordingly, depending on who you are cooking for. The taste preferences are shared with me by the Dianas of your guests.”

TBASS

“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.

The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.

For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.

By Rinita Banerjee

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It was the rainy season. July, Some Year, Some Place.

Against the serenely cool breeze of the after-rains, Tuli’s little face stood still, warm, a throbbing circle of fire and smoke. She had a little round face, very big eyes, a pug-like nose set right in the centre of her face, and small lips — like one fine petal of a red tulip. Her eyelashes were wet. The before-tears had run their course. She breathed in rapid, short gasps – each lasting less than a second – the gasps, moving somewhere behind the throat and the nose. They came in groups of three and sometimes two. She blinked from time to time, looking out through the window facing which she sat, cross-legged, on the chair that Baaboo, her father, had built for her so that she could see the world outside the window of her room.

A wooden chair with tall legs and a round seating space with a pillow on it. On the lower portion of the chair was a small box-like structure with three steps carved into it. Baaboo had made it for Tuli to be able to climb to and down from the high chair.

The inside of the back-rest of the chair had an engraving that said ‘Baaboo’s Tuli’. Baaboo had engraved it for his little Tuli two years ago; she was six then. She had sat on it many a time. In fact, before she went to bed at night, most nights, Baaboo had read her stories while she would sit on that high chair dangling her legs, leaning a little on her Baaboo with her lips stuck into a small pout. The pout was the measure of Tuli’s concentration. Much before he finished reading her the stories, the dangling of the legs would stop, and the weight of her little body would gather on Baaboo like the many bubbles from the ‘bugbugi’ settling on one. The many flurries of bubble from soapy water blown through the circular ring on streetsides? Tuli called those bugbugi. Like she called her father ‘Baaboo’, not Baba or Papa or Dad or Daddy or Bapi.

TBASS

Eric looked up from his music player and realized that the series of speeches was over. He removed his earphones and handed them, along with his music player, to one of his classmates. Clad in their white judogi and black belt, he and Dennis marched to the centre of the quadrangle and cued for their background track to be played. Eric limbered up when he heard the first beat of a Mortal Kombat theme song, while Dennis approached from behind and was soon pretending to attack him. In defense, Eric swiftly turned around and grabbed Dennis’s upper arms and threw him over his shoulder. He followed through with another shoulder throw, a basic martial arts routine which nonetheless drew loud cheers. Eric carried on oblivious to the cheers, wishing he could fast-forward their number. It could have been worse—Mr. Santos had initially suggested that they perform their routine to Eye of the Tiger.

After their performance, Eric and Dennis dashed to the farthest bleacher. Eric put his earphones back on. A few minutes later, the emcee announced the exhibition game line-up: Warriors versus Tigers, billed as THE basketball match between the strongest teams. “How did basketball become so popular here? These guys are half the height of NBA players,” Eric whispered to Dennis, who rolled his eyes in response.

Just then the Warriors’ cheering squad, in orange costumes, emerged chanting, “We are the Warriors, never the worriers! Warriors mean victory and Tigers will soon be sorry!”

 

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“I have always loved books,” the head librarian confessed, “and my love of books led me to the love of scholarship. After reading so many books, studying so hard throughout my youth, it was a dream come true when I was appointed as a librarian here. What better place for me to have ended up than in the greatest library in the world, among so many books, so many treasures of scholarship. So I read and studied, until no one could match my erudition, not even the librarians who were older and had been here longer. So it was inevitable that I ultimately became the head librarian.

“But then, in the midpoint of my life, I was overcome by a terrible loneliness. I had spent so much time among books that I had lost touch with everyone I had known, including my family. I knew that both of my parents had died at some point, but I was too busy with my studies to attend their funerals. I know that they loved me, and I vaguely remembered loving them, but all that seemed like a story I read in book a long time ago.

“One day, while I was perusing a newly acquired work in my study, I heard some voices outside the window. When I looked out, I saw one of the younger librarians speaking with a girl from the town who worked as a cook at the library. They were holding hands, smiling at each other, and saying things that made them blush with happiness. The way the sun was illuminating them, they looked so fresh and beautiful that it caused a terrific pain in my heart. Perhaps it was a vision of what I missed out in my life, or perhaps it was the awakening of a feeling that lay dormant in my heart.

TBASS

Labli was woken up by the dawn chorus. It was hard not to smile at the chirping of the sweet birds. She grabbed her long scarf from the foot of the bed and threw it over her head. Brushing back a loose strand of black hair from her forehead, she opened the door quietly so as not to disturb her younger brother, Joynal. He still had a few hours of sleep before waking up to go to school.The door squeaked as she pulled it shut behind her.

Labli looked down at her red shalwar kameez and tried to brush out the creases. It didn’t look as rumpled as it had before. Anyway, it would have to do; her only other set was still drying in the kitchen after yesterday’s thunderstorm.

As she felt her way along the cold, dark hallway, she noticed her parents’ bedroom door was ajar. Her mother was stirring on the bed; her father’s place was empty. Labli unlocked the front door and made her way to the tube well at the bottom of the veranda steps. The air was crisp and cool. Doel birds flapped overhead and one landed in one of the betel palm trees, lifting its white tail as it whistled. The Adhan, the call to prayer, blared out over the masjid’s loudspeakers. She filled up a plastic jug with water and made ablution. After praying the four units of the dawn prayer, she collected firewood from around the courtyard and milked the cow. She had just lit the fire when her mother walked into the kitchen.