The Sea Is Ours: Tales Of Steampunk Southeast Asia
Editors: Jaymee Goh & Joyce Chng
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing, fiction
THE Sea Is Ours: Tales Of Steampunk Southeast Asia is a collection of 12 stories written by South-East Asian writers, featuring this region’s locales, history, and culture, and incorporating folklore and mythology from within the region.
Notably missing is Malaysia, however, and the majority of stories in this round are set in the Philippines.
The editors of the anthology, Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng, hail from Malaysia and Singapore respectively, and are writers who have been involved in various capacities in the science-fiction and steampunk worlds for quite some time.
Like most other anthologies, the quality of the stories here varies widely and their appeal depends heavily on the tastes and preferences of the reader; however, there is consistency throughout in terms of the originality and scope of the ideas, and the attentiveness to detail and worldbuilding.
The opening story by Timothy Dimacali, “On The Consequence Of Sound”, weaves together Filipino folklore and history to create a magical, almost dreamy atmosphere that brings into question family ancestry as well as the possibilities and burdens of history. It is a subtle but lyrical effort.
The pace changes dramatically with Marilag Angway’s “Chasing Volcanoes”, a tightly-constructed, fast-paced and forward-moving tale; it achieves a cinematic level of descriptiveness in a short story even if its central premise of unlikely friendship across class lines – that a commoner and member of the royalty might get along because the latter is smart and kind – isn’t particularly progressive.
L.L. Hill’s “Ordained” is a philosophical meditation on Thai Buddhism – and Eastern religious practice on the whole – set against the propulsive and colonising forces of Western modernity. But while it was interesting to note how the language and structure of the story strove to give shape to the Buddhist philosophy of self-knowledge through meditation and attentive observation, the writing lapses into mundane, purple prose and the ending is abrupt.
Alessa Hinlo’s “The Last Aswang” is one of the best stories in the collection, for its significant fusing of Filipino myth and history with anticolonial politics and feminism; the latter two factors provide the framing that gives the story its incredible force and energy.
Following this, Nghi Vo’s “Life Under Glass” has a lot to live up to, but it works its own discreet charm through an imaginative greenscape of life-size, sustainable terrarium domes in Saigon. The heat, humidity and greenery of the tropics and the beauty, magic and menace of unexpected life-forms – all of this is delicately rendered in the author’s clean prose.
The two long and central stories in the book, Paolo Chikiamco’s “Between Severed Souls” and Kate Osias’ “The Unmaking Of Cuadra Amoroso”, are less impressive despite the clearly ambitious attempt at ideas and storytelling.
Ultimately, “Between Severed Souls” feels a bit like a detailed encyclopaedia entry with characterisation as an afterthought, while “The Unmaking Of Cuadra Amoroso” suffers from bloated prose and an attempt at grandiose myth-making that takes itself far too seriously.
Some use of humour would have brought the pitch down a notch. Both of these stories also valorised the idea of a few individuals as exceptional, tragic souls because they have innate powers or talents; in a sense, a rehashing of conservative ideas about self-expression and genius where only the “special” ones thrive and or suffer magnificently.
Olivia Ho’s unabashedly feminist and smart “Working Woman” uses snappy dialogue and a clever subversion of Frankenstein’s monster to interrogate some heavy themes such as labour as exploitation and the colonial-capitalist goal of profit. It is a straightforward rendition of the “subaltern fights back” genre of alternative history, but done with wit and empathy.
Robert Liow’s “Spider Here” similarly demonstrates smarts and creative incorporation of Singaporean history, this time with a disabled protagonist and a multicultural group of characters, including Chinese, Malay, and Thai people. The protagonist is an engaging character and the conceit is clever; however, this ending too feels somewhat abrupt. It reads like it could be part of something longer – if so, I’d be very interested in reading it.
Z.M. Quynh’s “The Chamber Of Souls” is a moving account of the journey undertaken by Vietnamese refugees, with a creative sense of worldbuilding that incorporates tracking and mapping technology right into the beings that populate the story.
Ivanna Mendels’ “Petrified” is the sole Indonesian entry; the story opens with a Papuan character who is introduced by physical description alone, is then part of an interrogation process that features a lot of exposition instead of storytelling, and is finally relegated to the sidelines as the Indonesian characters take centre-stage. Considering West Papua’s bid for freedom from Indonesian rule, this story seems to be the one key text that goes against the anthology’s thematic focus and ethos by centring the perspective of the dominant majority. In this context, the emphasis on the Papuan’s physical appearance strikes an odd and uncomfortable note.
The closing story, “The Insects And The Women Sing Together” by Pear Nuallak, explores sexual identity and the legacies of ancestry through a feminist lens. It emphasises the value (and burdens) of knowledge acquired by women through socially devalued means like gossip and seemingly idle chatter.
This is an engaging and valuable anthology that will appeal to all curious readers, regardless of one’s familiarity with steampunk tropes. It is an excellent intervention into the subgenre – it doesn’t just subvert Eurocentric perspectives but ignores it all together to focus on the cultural riches of South-East Asia as the creative starting and end point for storytelling. This is a wholly distinctive and thought-provoking collection.