Something peculiar happens to stories when they are housed in the same anthology, especially when an overarching theme or rubric comes into play. Aside from the sensibilities of the editors informing the curation process, the stories themselves cease to become autonomous units of narrative. Difference in writing styles become sharper by contrast, premises are either reinforced or disputed by the stories that come before or after it.
In Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology Volume 6, editors Nikki Alfar and Kate Aton-Osias continue the annual tradition of gathering short fiction in with a speculative vein, with works of publishing newbies mingling with those by seasoned, award-winning authors. Kapres, supervillains, galactic warship captains, and (alleged) cannibals are among the archetypal characters featured this time around. The stories that stand out for me explore the unease that is often overshadowed or glossed over by the flashier aspects of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
“Carpaccio (or, Repentance as a Meat Recipe)” by Arlyn Despi, “The Bookshelves of Mrs. Go” by Charles Tan, and “Hollowbody” by Crystal Koo all possess a quiet, almost mundane style of storytelling that belie the uncanny and disturbing themes that they tackle. I hesitate to say more for fear of divulging too much and ruining the experience but I was really taken by the careful way these stories build up and how their endings, particularly Koo’s subtle but sharp last scene, provides more questions than answers.
Jay Steven Anyong’s “Lament of the Counselor,” while disappointingly short, is a funny, off-beat take on the local myths of which I would like to see more. Danilo Madarang, marriage counselor the supernatural, explores the trials and tribulations that come of inter-species (inter-spiritual?) dating. His patients include diwatas bickering with their human husbands about children, the future, and different expectations within their relationships. However, I doubt Margie Holmes ever had a counseling session that included the sentence “I didn’t let you carve your initials in my inner thigh for nothing, you insensitive beast!”
The steampunk (clockpunk?) story “On Wooden Wings” by Paolo Chikiamco is a deceptively simple one about a young girl engineering a set of mechanical wings. Buoying the plot is its setting, an inventive and elaborate alternate Philippines with a consolidated Muslim sultanate in the South successfully resisting the Spanish Invasion and a floating academy moving across the islands of Mindanao. The additional tension between The Philippines That Is and The Philippines That Could Have Been adds a level of metacommentary into the story. A wonderfully detailed analysis of the story’s post-colonial implications is available on the Silver Goggles blog.
My favorite in the collection is Eliza Victoria’s “The Storyteller’s Curse,” about a writer receiving a gift that he never really wanted. This is the kind of formal ambition I really admire, juggling the different tropes of horror and metafiction to create a tight, tension-filled story. It has one of those double plot setups that can be challenging to maintain, but Victoria does it masterfully here. The convergence of the two narratives leads to a climax whose implications are as horrific as they are intoxicating. It has subtle nods towards the style of writers like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, using horror elements to tackle issues of artistic creation, survival, and choice. The last line was a sucker punch in the gut the first time I read it.
Very small nitpick, but I dislike the title quite a lot. I feel that it reveals too much and misleads the reader at the same time? This comes down to personal taste, however, and such a small quibble at that.
Some of the stories in PSF 6 feel incomplete, acting more as scaffolding for big ideas than fully fleshed out narratives. But the biggest disappointment for me is the very first story, Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez’s “The Big Man.” I realize that I may be a minority in this (the story won a Palanca, after all) but I don’t think the story offered anything new or transgressive aside from transplanting a mythological creature and placing him in a contemporary setting, this time a kapre named Bolado de Makiling entering the NBA.
The elements that make it unique fell flat for me. It’s fiction masquerading as non-fiction–using the sports article as its format–but it doesn’t have the kind of verisimilitude and rigor I expect from pastiches. It also relies heavily on the reader’s ability to recognize real-life people, places, and organizations to provide the needed tension in the story, which doesn’t bode well for people who either don’t know or care who Noli Eala or Tim Duncan are. It becomes very exclusive that way, making a clear demarcation between people who can recognize the references (by accident of interest, generation, or what have you) and people who don’t.
I think the story also missed an opportunity by not interrogating the obvious wish-fulfillment and neo-imperialist aspects if its entire premise. Bolado’s star lives and dies according to international validation, and the outcome of his NBA career is presented as a national tragedy. But why is it so important for a Filipino to play in the NBA? I am uncomfortable with the idea that the legacy Bolado ultimately leaves to future Pinoy basketball players is the hope that, one day, they too may get scouted by the Atlanta Hawks. Not to mention the entire subplot of basketball coach Norman Black braving the wilds of Makiling to scout for a player strikes me as having problematic whiffs of Kevin Bacon in The Air Up There.
(Bet you never expected that reference, huh? I’m so uncool.)
Despite some stumbles, PSF 6 succeeds in presenting a varied landscape of current SFF writing in the Philippines. Having read through 3 of its 6 volumes, it impresses and delights me that the Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology continues to offer stories that push the boundaries and definitions of Filipino writing.
(Disclosure: My review copy came from Charles Tan back in August, whose work I praised within the piece. All the opinions presented here are my own.)