Today we have a guest review from Friend of No Award Rivqa, who is reviewing The Sea is Ours: Tales From Steampunk Southeast Asia, eds Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng. Rosarium Publishing, 2015.
Stephanie was approached by Rosarium Publishing to review The Sea is Ours, then after she said yes palmed it off on Rivqa on the grounds that Steph is friends with both Jaymee and Joyce and it’s probably not super appropriate.
Some editorial comments from Steph remain, cos she’s Southeast Asian and Rivqa isn’t.
I have a tricky relationship with steampunk. Like most genres, it can be wonderful or it can be dismal. Perhaps because steampunk is also an aesthetic, though, there’s a very visual element to its tackiest literary iteration.
But tackiness isn’t steampunk’s biggest flaw. Mainstream steampunk idealises and idolises 19th-century trappings, with a major focus on the British empire (usually, but not exclusively, London). The misogyny and racism of the time are at best ignored and at worst, celebrated. Steampunk’s version of feminism often starts and finishes at ‘disobedient girl proving the men wrong’. And its uncritical glorification of a colonial power is deeply problematic.
However, these critiques didn’t just occur to me. I was still eyerolling at the terrible iterations of ‘get to the dirigible!’ some years back when I stumbled upon Jaymee Goh’s Silver Goggles blog and my eyes were opened. Since 2009, Goh has used this space to study, critique and discuss steampunk, including how it can be decolonised, and to promote steampunk by people of colour, and I have a deep appreciation for this body of work.
So it was wonderful to pick up a book Goh co-edited, with the excellent and incisive Joyce Chng, that – subverts is an insufficient word – demolishes these tropes. Of course, I’m not South-East Asian, so I approached this anthology from an outsider’s position. This didn’t diminish its accessibility, though, or my enjoyment of it – rather, it made for a voyage of discovery through myths and locales unfamiliar to me. I had the sense, though, that at least some of these stories would be deeply meaningful with a personal connection, the way that Jewish speculative stories can be for me.
In their introduction, Goh and Chng note that the region isn’t comprehensively represented, and that they aim to do more in future. That said, although I was pleased to see that both local and diasporan writers are featured, every story is set in South East Asia. Some stories tackle European colonialism, either obliquely or head on. But some don’t have a single white character. In broader speculative fiction terms, particularly in the context of the exhausting, endless whitewashing of Asian characters in film, this feels like an important act of resistance.
As with most anthologies, some stories appealed to me more than others, and indeed the breadth is very good. Some stories are more in the action-adventure style I associate with steampunk, while others are more literary. Regardless, I loved the characterisation and setting in every one; there’s nothing generic to be found in this book. The steampunk elements are often subtle, but not always; however, they always fit the story perfectly and are never overdone.
Hard as it is to pick favourites, I’d like to mention a few. In Nghi Vo’s “Life Under Glass”, a zoologist’s last field trip of the season is achingly intertwined with her memories of a lost love. Sometimes the journey is mostly internal, and this is flawlessly done here. As if the queer love and science weren’t enough to win me over! Kate Osias’s “The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amaoroso” is a work of aching, lyrical beauty. A polyamorous quartet, each gifted in different ways that are part magic, part science, rebel against those who seek to use them. The elegant worldbuilding in Robert Liow’s “Spider Here” sets the stage perfectly for the story’s gutsy, disabled young protagonist. Survival is resistance. Carrying on in the face of terror and tragedy is resistance.
If you haven’t read much (or any) South East Asian speculative fiction, this is an excellent primer, even if you don’t think you like steampunk.
4.5/5 pandan leaves out of 5.
Disclosures: I am friendly Twitter mutuals with Joyce Chng. I bought The Sea is Ours for my own enjoyment before Stephanie asked me to review it.
Steph’s editorial endnote: I’m giving myself the luxury of a ramble, despite this anthology being curated by my friends. I loved this anthology, for all the reasons Rivqa mentioned in her review. And I DO love throwing people into dirigibles!
I loved the difficult decisions that came with Alessa Hinlo’s “The Last Aswang.” I loved the politics of Marilag Angway’s “Chasing Volcanoes.” (I love the way reading this anthology will always be so firmly grounded in familiarity for me, because I was living in Singapore when I read it.) But most of all, I loved the echoes of so much of it, and the knowledge that this is an era I wouldn’t be murdered in (well, I might be, but not in the same way I’d be murdered in white person steampunk).
It was a joy to reread this book, and I hope that more stories like these come from it. (Also why don’t I have a steampunk tag? Hashtag oversight.)
Rivqa Rafael is a writer and editor based in Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press), and elsewhere. In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. She can be found at rivqa.net and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.