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.
Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai
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.
Dante stood alone in the dark wood. Which way should he turn? Instinct told him that stepping forward would surely lead somewhere of consequence. Midway in his life, he thought how he might never achieve the goals he had set for himself as a public figure, a secular Church scholar, and laurel-wreathed poet of his city. None of it would happen. Banned from his city and society destiny was a messenger pigeon with a broken wing. His life shifted in flux. A squadron of soldiers had not set out to find his hiding place beyond the city gates this fine spring morning, no Guelph guards from his White faction or Black Guelph supporters of Pope Boniface VIII. The Pope’s agents were more bent on bringing Florence to heel since his banishment. False corruption charges for awarding plum positions with garnered bribes weighed upon him. Yes, the name Dante Alighieri was as good as dead to the city. He could never go back to prove his innocence in a court of law. The arrow of exile had left the bow. Where would it land?
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.”
Little Fen’s funeral took place three days later. I walked woodenly among three dozen fellow villagers in a procession led by Widow Liu, accompanied by the sad tune of trumpet and suona horns. It was a cold spring day. The sun was shining without giving away much warmth.
It pained me to look at the mother of my deceased friend. A piece of white cloth tied around her head, like a bandage on a head injury. She was being supported on each side by a friend. Her grief had whitened her hair and aged her twenty years. And her thin form resembled that of a dried shrimp.
The funeral procession came to the village’s graveyard, which lay on a gentle slope of a mountain some twenty minutes’ walk from the village. Little Fen’s body was put to rest on the edge of it, next to a large plot with castor-oil plants. When the wind blew, millions of tiny castor seeds made disturbing noises. Black crows squawked, their cries echoing in the trees, like whimpers from those no longer able to speak.
It had been forty-two days since the incident. Pulling money out of his body became a daily routine. He had no choice. When he ignored the piece of paper sticking out, the side of his body ached, he became nauseated, forcing him to vomit. And so, every morning, he would lock himself inside the bathroom, turn on the shower, and pull out money from his body.
The first few days were challenging. He told his parents that he had a particularly bad case of the flu. He forced himself to cough hoarsely. When someone entered his bedroom, he hid under the covers, shivering, trying his best to impersonate someone who had the chills. He had hoped that his condition would pass after several days, much like the disease he pretended to have. He went online and searched for anything about humans that made money using their bodies. He found stories and interviews about prostitution. He found porno videos of Asian hookers who specialised in fetishes, from BDSM to peeing on the face of their customers. He found articles and posts about modern day slavery. He found Reddit threads filled with people who desperately hope that they could shit money, fish it out of the toilet, and purchase everything they have ever wanted. However, there was nothing about any medical condition that made a person biologically manufacture actual money. It was unnatural. He was officially a mutant, an aberration, a freak of nature. On his third “sick day,” he decided to just ignore it, like what many teenagers had done once they find something growing on their body.
By Tan Kaiyi
“You change to 165 from here. It’ll take you down the road and then to Holland Village. You can’t miss it,” he said.
“Ok, thank you. It’s so late at night now and my phone battery is flat. Thanks for your help,” she said.
“And it’s awfully dark.”
“The lights down the road are spoilt. It’s usually better lit.”
“And we’re under a highway.”
“Yeah. It’s not the most accessible bus stop in Singapore.”
He swept his gaze on her from head to toe. “Who are you?” he asked.
She turned towards him and stared back. “I’m the pink rose you kept on top of this table here,” she explained, pointing at the table by his bed.
He ran towards the table. Frantically he looked around for the rose. The king noticed that around the soles of her feet there were rose petals. “DID YOU STEAL IT?” he yelled.
“No, I did not. I am that rose. I’m here to tell you that …”
“LIAR! GUARDS, TAKE THIS THIEF TO WHERE SHE BELONGS!” he shouted, cutting her off mid- sentence. He grabbed her upper arm and threw her down to the floor.
He felt the ground for the reassuring grip of his cleaver. Once he had it in his hands, he crouched down and heard for sounds. The night was dead quiet. Not a good sign. It was a shade of absolute silence that was all too familiar to Lao Seng. He gripped his cleaver tightly. He peered over the barrier that marked out the activities area for the elderly to look at the field between the two blocks. The electric lamps had dimmed as well, creating a darkened no man’s land. Something metallic hit the floor violently and from the sound, Lao Seng knew where it was. One of the offering bins had been toppled and thrown against the pavement. The sleepers in the apartment upstairs would only hear it as a minor nuisance before they roll up their blankets to return to slumber. For Lao Seng, it would be a different story.
He eyed the area under the tree where the offering bin lay. It was now somewhere in the covered walkway between the two blocks. In its place, was a black figure, hunched over like an ape. Its form was indistinct, as if one could see through it. Dark smoky trails rose out of it, like it was burning from a black fire. The ape figure was rummaging through ashes of the joss paper as well as several food pieces scattered around the field. It was hunched over, totally focused on picking through the burnt heap.
Our ascent to the mountain peak was predictably long and tortuous. I was sweating and blaspheming in my mind, trying to maintain my balance and resisting my inner urge to give up the climb. My snowboard grew heavy on my shoulders and it was painfully bumping against my spine. When we had left careless shrieks of the skiing crowd far behind, it suddenly started snowing. Fluffy snowflakes were melting on my face and infiltrating unpleasantly under my collar. I could hardly see Clara, purposefully making her way through the thick lace of the snowfall curtain enveloping the earth all around us. That is why, when she suddenly stopped, I bumped into her nearly causing us both to fall into the abyss below. She stood there immobile, her hand raised in a warning sign.
“I think I saw her,” she said in a low voice. “Who?”
“The Mountain Maid.”