REVIEW SUMMARY: From editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng comes a unique and vibrant collection of steampunk tales from a Southeast Asian perspective. So grab a copy and watch out for that butandig, because this is gonna get interesting.
PROS: a diverse selection of stories from writers out of the Philippines, Singapore, and more; exciting twists on Western steampunk tropes; good mix of fantasy, myth, and cyperpunk elements.
CONS: a glossary/footnotes explaining various terms/tropes unfamiliar to American readers would have further enriched the reader’s experience.
BOTTOM LINE: Southeast Asian steampunk. ENOUGH SAID.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my interview with editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng on the genesis of this collection. As they explained, The SEA is Ours is a unique and exciting effort to broaden the boundaries of the subgenre we know as “steampunk” while simultaneously creating alternate colonial histories, ones that imagine people using airships and automatons (among other things) to beat back invaders and keep alive traditions in an evolving world.
Here, Goh and Chng have brought together a group of talented, exciting writers who draw on the stories and histories of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and more to imagine volcano-chasing airships (“Chasing Volcanoes” by Marilag Angway), wooden carvings that speak and fight colonial invaders (“Between Severed Souls” by Paolo Chikiamco), organically-enhanced fighting spiders (“Spider Here” by Robert Liow), and more.
And because I don’t have the space to discuss every story in this collection at length, I’ll just focus on two of my favorites: “Working Woman” by Olivia Ho and “Life Under Glass” by Nghi Vo.
It’s not every story that starts off with a runaway hearse, and in “Working Woman,” it just gets crazier from there. After all, it isn’t just any body that escapes from the hearse- it’s an amalgamation of many women and machinery fused together when an explosion occurs at the dirigible field where they work. Though this “woman” is repaired by a toy-maker after the runaway hearse incident, her troubles are just beginning as Chinese and British interests try to get to her first (a top-secret British experiment is at stake). Ultimately, the “woman,” Khairunnisa (the toy-maker), and Ning (a Chinese woman working for the criminal underworld) form an unlikely but powerful trio in order to help one another survive.
In “Life Under Glass,” we meet two sisters who have been scouring the Trường Sơn mountain range for specimens to bring back to Saigon for that year’s Universal Exposition. After buying a strange frilled lizard from a boy who hangs around their camp, Thi insists on trying to find more like it. While working her way through the forest, she comes across a much larger version of the lizard- a full-fledged dragon. It is this discovery that helps her begin to move past her recent breakup with An and find a reason to continue her work as a scientist.
These are just a couple of the fascinating stories in The SEA is Ours, and I can only imagine how much richer my reading experience could have been had I had more context for some of the historical and mythical references. Despite my attempts to read widely and diversely in both fiction and non-fiction, I am woefully uninformed when it comes to Southeast Asia. This collection, though, has given me even more of an incentive to learn more about this part of the world and how its cultures inform speculative fiction writers working today.