The View is Different From Here: Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction

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37784-coverI hadn’t expected to find a horror story in the first issue of Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, but there it was. In “The Yellow River” by Elka Ray Nguyen, a young Vietnamese serviceman travels to a haunted part of the jungle. More than anything, this Lontar story sticks with me, perhaps because the rather innocent characters in it are compelled to complete military service in a setting very different from their normal lives. I didn’t know military service is compulsory in Vietnam. Maybe the bit about the ghost is true, too.

Learning real things about a region of the world relatively unknown to me is an unexpected bonus of the great stories in Lontar. With each tale, I was allowed a view through the eyes of someone whose experiences and orientation are so far separated from my own and yet so similar that the journey is wondrous.

In “Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue,” Paolo Chikiamco offers a proposed line of academic study that includes FLK 401, a semester about Barang Barang, “a type of magic where the sorcerer sends insects or animals to appear inside the body of the victim.” In RLC 103, the mythology and iconography of anting-anting will be discussed, including “the letters ‘AEIOU’ to represent the secret names of Atardar, the whale-like dragon that is a symbol of evil.” The thrust of Philippine magic had been unknown to me, but I thought I was familiar with the name “Becca.” I was wrong. In RLC 403, the prospective student can learn about “symbols associated with Becca (Lucifer) and other evils.”

“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi was my favorite story in Lontar’s first issue. Nominated in 2009 for both a Nebula and a Hugo Award, “The Gambler” tells of a Laotian refugee, Ong, in the near future. Ong’s having trouble adjusting to life in the U.S.A. He’s landed a good job as a journalist for an online paper similar to others that grew up in “the smoking remains of the New York Times Company,” but Ong’s compelled to write stories about the failures of government. No one wants to read his stories. “I am drawn to them, as though poking at the tiger of the American government will somehow make up for not being able to poke at the little cub of New Divine Monarch Khamsing.” To me, “The Gambler” was about communication. For the Laotian protagonist, “Real news was too valuable to risk in public.” Ong struggles with this particular conviction, especially when his career as a journalist is given a public chance for success in the company of a world-famous starlet.

Lontar’s first issue is filled with interesting and thought-provoking stories. It’s worth a read, and it’s available DRM-free from Weightless Books.

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