I have now read about half of the stories in The Apex Book of World SF 4 and would like to say a few words about them (the last three I will discuss are my favorites). I happen to like fiction on the “literary” side of SFF: stories that suggest more than they say, that make their point obliquely, that contain intertwining themes, that are stylistically subtle or innovative. And the editor of this volume, Mahvesh Murad, is of the same mind; not that there aren’t a few straightforwardly-told entries, too. Many stories here are magical-realist, weird, or surreal rather than pure SFF.
Some of the stories are very challenging to read. “Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith”, by Shimon Adaf, went way over my head. It gets into very esoteric Jewish mysticism, it takes the form of a letter exchange between two scholars, who are interested (among other things) in people who may have returned from the future, entwined with a story about a woman asked to act as midwife to demons, and it’s even more confusing than that sounds. “Pepe” by Tang Fei (trans. John Chu) is also difficult, a somewhat diffuse piece involving mechanical children which can only tell stories instead of ordinary speech; it tries to convey a lot and I’m not sure if it succeeds.
However, there’s an exercise in sheer surrealism called “Six Things We Found During the Autopsy”, by Kuzhali Manickavel, which I’ve read twice and wound up really liking; some schoolgirls recount their “autopsy” of one of their number which, rather than revealing anything much about that girl, paints a picture of their own thoughts and judgments.
Horror stories: “Setting Up Home” by Sabrina Huang (trans. Jeremy Tiang) is brief and quite effective in building from an apparently-harmless opening to an appalling end; I’m not sure if familiarity with its cultural setting would increase or lessen its effect. I personally find that the troubling effect lingers, even increases, in retrospect. “Black Tea” by Samuel Marolla (trans. Andrew Tanzi) brings nothing much noteworthy to a trapped-in-creepy-house-with-monster story.
“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov, on the other hand, is definitely not lacking in originality. What I actually think of this extravagantly gruesome, emotionally laden story, I really don’t know.
Zen Cho’s “The Four Generations of Chang E” transposes a paradigmatic immigration story to the moon; it’s beautifully written. “Djinns Live by the Sea” by Saad Z. Hossain satirically confronts a jaded rich man with djinns even older and more cynical than him. “Colour Me Grey” by Silayi Swabir is a political fable, which might be very pointed to some people (such as in the author’s Kenya) but didn’t connect with me.
From the Caribbean, the short piece “Single Entry” (i.e. a contestant in a carnival parade) by Celeste Rita Baker is wondrous and doesn’t give up its meaning easily. Marigi John’s “The Corpse” is a genuinely disorienting magical-realist story (mostly a character portrait of a coroner), but not one of the best of its kind I’ve read.
“The Good Matter” by Nene Ormes (trans. by the author and Lisa J. Isaksson) is described as urban fantasy and does, I think, fit nicely into that category in the depiction of the characters with paranormal powers in it. The ideology represented in it was bound to displease me, but I suppose it was competently written.
Two traditional science fiction stories: “The Gift of Touch” by Chinelo Onwualu, a disappointingly clunky depiction of a small starship’s crew and their encounter with various religions; and “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” by Julie Novakova — humans and posthumans explore the outer solar system: sense of wonder promised and delivered.
Dilman Dila, from Uganda, wrote “How My Father Became a God”, the most charming of these stories. It is in the style of an oral tale and set in premodern times; the child Akidi tells of her misfit father who is always looking for technological innovations (wonderfully kooky ones), which is one reason he doesn’t get along with his brothers, but the real reason is that his values (shared only by his wife and daughter) don’t fit with the narrow minds of the family squabbling over money and status. I do recommend it, along with the other two that made the strongest impression on me:
“The Lady of the Soler Colony” by Rocío Rincón (trans. James & Marian Womack), set in the author’s hometown Barcelona. Six “colonies” (factories) based around goddesslike machines, the “Ladies”. An industrial society with a pervading wrongness to it, with creepiness gradually revealed, but the real nastiness is the mundane economic exploitation. No tidy resolution, but an impression of layers-upon-layers of unease.
“The Farm” by Elana Gomel. It is set during the Russian Revolution, and the main character is a Jewish man leading a small group of rural Bolsheviks; what is noteworthy is the use of the device of his encounters with strange beings called Eaters to draw a remarkably rich picture of both the character and the times.