Pocket Universe

Review of Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asia Speculative Fiction, Issue #6, edited by Jason Erik Lundberg, Kristine Ong Muslim, and Adan Jimenez (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016)
by Eric Norris

 

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In reading Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asia Speculative Fiction, Issue 6, the greatest pleasure for me was the discovery that such an imaginative world like Lontar exists in the universe: a place populated by short story writers, poets, and graphic artists of such a broad range of integuments, interests and talents.

As a genre, speculative fiction receives short shift from the literary establishment for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery. No individual can redress this, but I think we ought to try. Some of the greatest writers of the last century—Borges, Nabokov, Orwell, C.S. Lewis, to take just a few examples—altered how we regard reality, time, language, politics, religion, morality and ethics, in ways that we are still trying to fathom.

Add to their efforts the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, A.C. Clarke, R.A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, S.R. Delany, Rod Serling, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and we find ourselves in the fortunate position of having more fascinating questions about the past, the present, and the future, and fewer firm answers than when we first started speculating in this fashion—long before H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Johannes Kepler planned trips to the Moon. No, I mean way back: when the anonymous hands weaving flying carpets on the magical looms of the Arabian Nights were busy. And even before: when Ezekiel was seeing strange whirling lights in the sky and Marduk was but a boy in Mesopotamia, creating new worlds with mud and reed mats in the morning. The authors of Lontar carry on this tradition.

I like to think of myself as tolerably well-read for an American. Lontar reminds me how much we take for granted about ourselves in the West is actually based on ignorance and vanity. Reading the table of contents of Lontar at Sisters Coffee in Portland, OR, in that dusty galactic backwater known as the United States, editors Jason Erik Lundberg, Kristine Ong Muslim, and Adan Jimenez exposed my provincial prejudices rather painfully. Each of the authors in Lontar was new to me.

From the first story, “Running Shoes,” by Ken Liu, I was hooked:

Her foot caught on something on the ground. She dropped her load and barely avoided banging her head against the machine in front of her by grabbing onto it with her hands. The girls had often complained about how dangerous it was to leave broken machine parts around the factory floor, but Vuong just said they were careless.

I’ll just take a little break, she thought.

Time seemed to slow down, each moment lingering in her consciousness like a memory of childhood.

She felt the pressure on her fingers, and then a brief moment of unbelievable pain as the cutter blades sliced through.

Nhung’s shouts and screams seemed to come from a great distance. Sorry, Giang thought, I didn’t mean to get you in more trouble.

As she fell, she saw a broken, rusty spike at the foot of the machine rushing up at her face. She closed her eyes.

This is a story about a young country girl in Vietnam, Giang, who finds herself working in a sneaker factory, under the all-seeing eye of Foreman Vuong, a man who seems directly descended from the line of meticulous sadists that operate the machinery in Kafka’s story “The Penal Colony.” Unlike Kafka, the machinery in Liu’s story is both real and allegorical. The punishment Giang endures for missing her quota of sneakers is to be forced to run around in circles during the heat of the day, under the tropical sun. In the passage quoted above, she passes out at her sewing machine. We might even read the rest of the story as a dreamflash of insight she receives as she dies.

Giang falls into the machine and she is violently transformed into a pair of running shoes. Thus transformed, she travels the world. She finds herself part of an economic system that destroys her way of life, her family and, finally, her. Though not before that system grants Giang’s dying wish of becoming friends with the birds, in the most poignant way possible. I will not give away the ending. But, I do not exaggerate when I say that I will never look up at the sky in my neighborhood, while jogging past telephone poles and power transmission lines, in quite the same way again.

Not all of the stories in Lontar are likely to change the way I view the casual features of my immediate neighborhood, or yours, I suspect, but these stories and poems all contain surprises. “The Boy, The Swordfish, The Bleeding Island” by Ng Yi-Sheng is a good example of this. Listed in Table of Contents as ‘Non-Fiction,’ this tale is a terrific example of what we might call a Borgesian fantasy. Yi-Sheng takes us somewhere familiar, but altogether other: that phantom zone where myth and history, scholarly hijinks and geological mystery meet in the ground we tread; in this case, the reddish soils that compose the island of Singapore:

At this point in the tale, storytellers will point to the ground beneath their feet, indicating the deep crimson hue of Singapore’s soil. This, they declare, is evidence that the land still bears the stain of Hang Nadim’s martyrdom. (Geologists, in contrast, attribute the coloration to the presence of weathered lateritic soil, high in iron oxides.)

Sri Maharaja was later assassinated by his political allies, an act that precipitated the utter downfall of his kingdom. Abandoned by its people, the land languished in obscurity for half a millennium, until its annexation by the British East India Company in 1819. Under colonial rule, the ruins of the old kingdom were demolished to make way for a modern metropolis, virtually obliterating its existence from the archaeological record. A just punishment, perhaps. For as the book states:

When this boy was executed, the guilt of his blood was laid on Singapore.
(Seri Lanang: 26)

The tale of the swordfish, the boy and the soil is told in three parts: Malay Myth, Alternative History, Vandalism. Each version of the text is supplied with a floribunda of questionable quotes, all amply footnoted and pedantically verified, forming an apparatus criticus bound to send some readers chasing down wild geese on Google and leave others smiling. (For the sake of honesty, I spent a little time on Google and lot of time smiling, so I can personally vouch for both approaches.)

The longest section of the story, part two, the center of the tale, is breathtaking in its audacity and sense of fun. The young Leonardo Da Vinci—a handsome and much debased and abused refugee from Renaissance Italy, persecuted for his homosexuality—finds a more tolerant home in the sultanate of Singapore. He lends his technological genius to the (new) Sultan. Leonardo joins the men of the Eastern branch of House of Knowledge (a sort of Malay Bletchley Park) and together they transform Singapore into the colonial master of the world.

Of that, I will say no more, except “You go girl!”

I love it.

Lontar #6 is not only devoted to speculative fiction and non-fiction. There is a healthy sampling of speculative poetry as well, from the pens of: Russ Hoe, Christina Sng, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde, Marco Yan, Ang Si Min, Jonel Abellanosa, Sokunthary Svay, and Brendan Walsh. A nice example of the unexpected worlds one is likely to encounter among these poets comes from the spoon of Krishna Udayasankar:

Spoon

For all the times I felt your teeth on my face.

For all the times your spittle ran down my body.

For all the times I was burnt by the steam, by water boiled to rage, because you made me bring to you that which you did not dare touch with your bare hands.

For all the times you let me fall to the ground, only to pick me up and push me aside, because I was now tainted, stained, and of no use to you.

For all the times you left me trapped in plastic darkness amidst the rotting refuse of your leftovers, unable to see, to breathe, to be free.

For all those times you scrubbed me down with stripping soap and steel wool, so that I could be shiny and clean, when your guests came. For all those times you let them touch me.

Shove my anger in your mouth.

For I am not going in there.

It’s time to bite your tongue.

With an anthology as diverse as this, no reviewer could treat the entire range of talents on display with equal care. I found seasoned veterans and startling debuts. Names and nationalities will have to suffice for the moment: Eka Kurniawan (trans. Tiffany Tsao), Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo, Jennifer Anne Champion, JY Yang, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo; Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Cambodia, USA, India. The styles of stories and poems featured runs the gamut from allegory, through sequential art, to classic sci-fi, with many diversions and dreamy divagations along the way. I mean, how do you classify “Her Majesty’s Lamborghini and the Girl With the Fish Tank”? It defies description. You really need to read it.

Picking a favorite here is impossible for me. But the last story in the collection, “Brother to Space, Sister to Time” by Filipino author Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, sticks in my mind. It is the most hard-science science fiction story in the collection, taking place, as it does, on the fringes of a black hole; and involving, as it does: time travel, tachyon particles, neural computer interfaces, hyperspace, rickety spaceships, and the whole range of fan-servicing verbal engineering one expects and enjoys. More than anything, “Brother to Space, Sister to Time,” tells the story of three Filipino siblings under stress, with an interstellar backdrop. In the exploration of alternative realities, Ocampo never loses touch with the idea of family and roots, literary and national:

The thumping sound in the HVAC vents had become unbearable. All over the Quijano De Manila, every metal object vibrated as if it were singing the most dissonant of songs.

“Idiots!” younger sister yelled, as her levels of cortisol and norepinephrine overwhelmed her digital dream-catcher. “Why do I have brothers and not sisters? Boys are never on the ball. We’re at the wormhole already and you’re still arguing about what to do! There is a fucking library we need to go to, an infinite library at the heart of a pocket universe.”

“Bullshit!” elder brother screamed. “There’s nothing there! We’ll just die! Are you all deaf? Don’t you hear the singing? It’s a dirge, a death-korido.”

The thumping sound in the vents was keeping time to a strange melody streaming in from outside the ship. Each note seemed to escalate the tension between us, plucking the strings of every hurt and all the secret resentments we had locked away in our hearts.

“Stop this! Stop this!” I cried. “We’re a family!”

“An infinite library at the heart of a pocket universe”. I would be hard pressed to find a finer or more succinct metaphor to describe Lontar. Or for what it means to be human, I think.

 

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Eric Norris‘s poems and short stories have appeared in Softblow, Assaracus, E-Verse Radio, Jonathan, New Walk, Glitterwolf, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Raintown Review. He lives in Portlandia, USA.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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