Retold Tales, Reflected Realities, and Dreams of What-Ifs – A Review of The Sea is Ours by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng (Eds.)

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Steampunk is one of those genres that I think is amazingly fun and interesting, but at the same time, it can be quite frustrating. Most writers playing in the steampunk sandbox are quite happy to celebrate all the technological advances of the aforementioned time periods by filling their stories with as many steam-powered contraptions and tight corsets as they possibly can, but at the same time, they are reluctant to discuss the darker side of all that innovation. Many of them “politely” ignore, or outright refuse to tackle the fact that all the great Western powers (the United States included) were involved in brutal colonial campaigns abroad – and where they could not colonise (such as in China and Japan), they manipulated and undermined local power in order to get the concessions and privileges they wanted.

Fortunately, there are some writers who are trying to work against the tide. Authors like Sam Starbuck (The Dead Isle) and Elizabeth Bear (Karen Memory) are starting to show that steampunk not only can, but should be used to address such pressing issues as racism, classism, and of course, colonialism and imperialism – in fact, their works prove that steampunk as a genre is especially qualified for such questioning. While writers can certainly do the same with sweeping sci-fi space operas or grand epic fantasies, there is still something to be said about using alternate history to tackle such themes.

But aside from the need to write about such themes, it is even more important to hear those stories from those very same people who suffered the colonial yoke in the first place. Nowhere is this more true than in Southeast Asia, where various Western powers once held sway – and where, some might say, they still do to this day, though they are no longer a physical presence in their former colonies. Colonial powers linger in history, in memory, and their legacy continues to shape the countries they once occupied – for better and (some might say “more often”) for worse. While many Southeast Asian writers have indeed tried to address such weighty themes in fiction, almost none of them have tried to address them in genre fiction.

This, of course, explains my excitement when heard about The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia. At the time it was a Kickstarter project, with the editors requesting funding so that they could cover publishing costs and author payments. At the time I was a little short of funds, and so could not contribute even a minimal amount to the project, but I promised to myself that, as soon as I had sufficient funds and it was on sale, I would pick up the collection for myself. That has finally come to pass, and I have practically swallowed the collection whole.

The Sea is Ours is a collection of twelve short stories, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng. Each of the contributors comes from a particular Southeast Asian country; some of them are still living in the countries they write about, while others are part of the diaspora that live elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, they all look back to their own history, their own mythology and folklore, and filter that through the steampunk lens to tell stories of love and hate, peace and war, subjugation and revolution. Since each piece is unique, I have decided to review them individually.

On the Consequences of Sound by Timothy Dimacali

“To fly,” he said, “You must learn to surrender yourself to the music.”

He touched a finger to my forehead.

“Trust the music. As long as you hear it in your head, you’ll be fine.

One of the best features of steampunk is a sense of wonder: a sense that the world is opening up to the reader, of breathless excitement at what lies over the far horizon. Dimacali captures that sense of wonder right from the get-go, with a description of flying, singing butanding (whale sharks) and a child – the narrator – looking up at them in awe. His chosen setting of an alternate-universe Philippines where the skies are dominated by airships driven by engines that run, not on steam, but on music, plays well into the musicality and love of music that Filipinos are known for. It also offers a type of technology that has nothing to do with the steam-driven machines of Western steampunk, and thus distances Dimacali somewhat from the “brass gears and corsets” imagery so often associated with the genre.

But quite apart from the setting is Dimacali’s theme. I’ve read a lot of Filipino short stories, especially while at university, but one theme a majority of them seem to tackle is “sacrifice”. I do not know if this is a culturally-embedded sort of thing, or if it is one introduced by Western colonisation, but it is a hallmark of a great many Filipino short stories. Dimacali’s story is no different. It is a story of sacrifice – on one hand, a child sacrificing their innocence to finally grow up; on the other, a parent sacrificing their place in their child’s world as said child enters adulthood. Dimacali’s plot acts as a beautiful frame for those themes: just big enough to hint at a larger, more wondrous world, and just small enough to frame the coming-of-age drama at the heart of the story with a proper delicacy.

Chasing Volcanoes by Marilag Angway

Volcano chasing was illegal in the south, and meeting up with a sheltered Cebu City woman might bring with it a fleet of soldiers waiting to confiscate what energy they’d siphoned. Hypocrites, the lot of them, Caliso thought.

Angway’s story is more “typically” steampunk than Dimacali’s, in that it features an airship and steam-powered machinery. However, the highlight of Angway’s story is the intense regionalism that is deeply embedded in Filipino culture. Though she does not mention it directly, Angway demonstrates throughout the story how it is this regionalism that prevents her alternate-universe Philippines from recuperating from a major geological disaster – and that only cooperation, and putting aside personal gain for the greater good, can bring the country together.

Angway does not, of course, frame any of this on a grand scale, choosing instead to play it out as the interaction between the story’s two primary characters. The interactions could, perhaps, be tightened somewhat, and the world could probably be broadened a little bit, but on the whole the story works wonderfully, and is an excellent commentary on the things that keep a people divided when they should, by rights, stand together.

Ordained by L. L. Hill

“Sometimes, even the proudest people have to get close to the Lord Buddha.”

Some readers might wonder what Hill’s story is doing in the collection. It is, after all, a very quiet piece, more like a parable than anything else. The only thing that the reader might recognise as “steampunk” are the windup mechanisms mentioned throughout the story.

But Hill’s story also shows that steampunk, as a genre, is not limited to high-flying adventure and action stories. “On the Consequences of Sound” shows that steampunk can work in quieter stories, but “Ordained” is perhaps the clearest example of what steampunk is capable of accomplishing, even at its quietest and most meditative. There is tension here, and hints of a larger conflict at its edges, but its heart is calm – or mostly calm. It also tackles the interesting tug-of-war between Buddhism and the wider world, as well as the ancient traditions of Thailand and the lure of the West. In capturing both conflicts – one spiritual, the other socio-political – Hill is able to contain a deeper story in a small, tidy package.

The Last Aswang by Alessa Hinlo

The ambassador had been gone a long time. No matter how good her intentions, growing up on foreign soil changed you.

Hinlo’s story plays with an aspect of colonialism that a lot of people seem to forget (not least writers of steampunk): colonies do not exist in isolation. In referencing the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade in her story, she reminds the reader (especially the Filipino reader) that the Philippines was not alone in its struggle against the Spanish, that there was a parallel struggle across the vast Pacific, and that struggle was, in many ways, similar to ours. The story also poses an interesting what-if: had the Philippines been able to repel the Spanish, but continued to trade with them and their other colonies, could we have offered those colonies aid in throwing off their colonial masters? If so, what kind of help could we have offered them? And what could they have offered us, in return? When one includes mythology and magic into the mix, then one can see just how fascinating and entertaining Hinlo’s story can be.

But what really makes “The Last Aswang” so delightful is how Hinlo uses folkloric figures like the diwata and the aswang as a way to discuss the struggle between pre-colonial culture and tradition versus the new Western customs brought in by the colonisers. The tug-of-war between the old and the new, the local and the foreign, the pagan and the Christian, is presented as a conflict between two worlds – and what happens to those who are caught in between. They are the ones who must make a choice, and in many ways, it is their choices that shape the course of history, alternate or otherwise. I hope Hinlo chooses to expand this story, because I would absolutely love to read a sequel or a prequel to it.

Under Glass by Nghi Vo

If I walked faster, perhaps I would be able to outpace the memories that seemed to crowd close whenever I thought of An and of the six years we had spent together. The memories weren’t as sharp as they where, but as my father had always told me, dull knives are the most dangerous.

Like “Ordained”, it can be hard to see what makes “Under Glass” steampunk. There are a few touches, here and there, that suggest a steampunk world, but since the story does not draw much attention to those details some readers might wonder how in the world the story made it into a collection dedicated to steampunk.

However, like “Ordained”, Vo’s story shows how the typical, Western understanding of what steampunk is can be altered and redefined. As I mentioned in my discussion of “On the Consequence of Sound”, one of the key features of steampunk is a sense of wonder, and that is precisely what “Under Glass” focuses on: the importance of wonder and discovery, and how it can change a person. Sometimes that change is negative, but in Vo’s story the change is positive. It also emphasises the importance of moving forward, of not being bogged down by one’s past – of being aware enough to know that the past shapes us, will always shape us, but that it does not define us.

Between Severed Souls by Paolo Chikiamco

“The future’s the only thing worth going to war for.”

Chikiamco’s story is, in many ways, what most readers think of when they think of steampunk: action, war, and flying machines galore, set in a world that is almost-but-not-quite reminiscent of actual history. But the best stories are more than just the sum of their set dressing – something that quite a few other steampunk writers seem to forget.

Chikiamco, however, is entirely aware of that, and though his setting feels deep enough and roomy enough for a longer piece, he chooses to focus on what matters: the characters and the themes. The former are interesting because of the their hinted backstory, though I do hope that Chikiamco will expand on them further, because this is an interesting world and an interesting bunch of characters, and it would be fun to return to them when they have a bigger, heftier story in which to grow fully.

As for the latter, they are not quite as well-developed as I might like, but again, I attribute this to the fact that this is a short story, and hence there is a limited space in which to develop the grander theme of revolution that interest me so much about this story. However, it is just long enough to talk about the story’s emotional heart: what it means to love deeply, both as a husband and a father.

The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso by Kate Osias

Our end began not with the unwitting discovery of our secret, but with music.

The nature of genius is a theme that steampunk touches upon quite frequently. Many a steampunk novel will feature engineers and scientists who always seem to be several steps ahead of their peers: sometimes they are villains, sometimes protagonists themselves, and other times they are nothing more than names mentioned in passing, but whose influence still touches the story’s characters.

Osias tackles a similar theme in “The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso”, but the angle she takes is somewhat different. Geniuses are people, after all, and in many ways more vulnerable than regular folk. She describes what it means to be a genius in a world where everything comes with a price – and what a world like that can do to geniuses. She also describes the power of love and art: how they can bring out the best in people, as well as the worst, and how they can bring down an entire regime.

The only problem I have with this story is that it feels a bit too short for the kinds of ideas that Osias tries to tackle. Plot-wise it is as long as it needs to be, but in terms of handling its themes and developing its characters I feel like it could do with being a bit longer. Hopefully Osias will expand this at a later date.

Working Woman by Olivia Ho

“… These things make sense to me—more than words, or numbers, or cooking—gears always speak the same language.”

The interesting thing about this story is how it reminds me, not of the typical steampunk story, but of a sibling genre: cyberpunk. Anyone who has seen the movie Blade Runner or played the Shadowrun tabletop games or video games knows that “cyberpunk” mixes advanced technology like cybernetics with organised crime and a world undergoing social breakdown. This is not a bad comparison, by the way: after all, other steampunk stories have focused on similar settings and plots.

But what makes Ho’s story enjoyable is how it focuses on women, race, and power. Set in British Malaya, it tells the story of three different women from three different races and walks of life, who must somehow deal with the consequences of what happens when their paths cross. While there are other stories in this collection that focus on women and womanhood in relation to other themes, I just find Ho’s female characters utterly delightful – particularly Ning Lam.

Spider Here by Robert Liow

“This is Khuai Boey. Ask you, who last night cannot sleep?”

People tittered, and some of them yawned.

“Ya. Me too, so I made this.”

It is not very often that I come across short stories that know how to play with tension while using very few words, but Liow succeeds in creating tension in this story. The entire story is strung tight with it: none of the characters knows what will happen next, so they do the only thing they know how to do – and even that provides them with only very scant relief.

What really makes this story work, though, is how subtly Liow handles the conflict at the heart of the story. By only giving glimpses and hints of what’s really going on, he lets the reader piece the whole situation together for himself or herself, based on the actions and reactions of the characters in the story. Also, it is a quiet tribute to the children who suffer under the conditions of war, who must learn to live their lives as best as they can when they are victimised by conflict, whether psychologically or physically.

The Chamber of Souls by z.m. quýnh

“It is time for a new era, a new focus, one that will bring us back where we belong. Your memory and your contribution will be priceless, and your place among us cemented.”

I am not quite sure what to make of this story. On one hand, I think it is quite fun: quýnh’s setting is interesting – more sci-fi than fantasy, actually – and the plot has the potential for being even more interesting than it already is.

Unfortunately, quýnh does not reveal enough about the protagonist/narrator for the reader to really get attached to said character. It is entirely possible that I am missing something in the story, but at the same time I cannot help but think that quýnh has actually held back more information than necessary. I have a similar problem with the setting: by eliding certain details, or obscuring them, quýnh makes it rather hard for the reader to grasp just what is really going on. Again, it is entirely possible I am missing subtler cues for world-building and characterisation, but nevertheless, I still think that quýnh could have added some more details in order to really develop the story to its fullest extent.

Petrified by Ivanna Mendels

It was all a game, and Biwar was not good at games.

This is another one of those stories that I wish was longer, because while it works well the way it is, there is just so much hinted at around the edges of the story – both in terms of world-building and of characters – that I found myself turning my Kindle over and shaking it in the (vain) hope of finding more to read. Mendels’ characterisation is strong enough to get the reader attached to her characters in a short amount of time, but again, the reader gets the sense that there is more waiting in the wings.

It also helps that Mendels has chosen to tackle the nature of heroism as a theme. After all, steampunk is populated by characters that aspire to heroism, but there are many ways one many define the concept, and Mendels chooses to investigate how one may define a “hero”. However, as with “The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso”, I find myself wishing that this story had been longer, because it would have given Mendels more room in which to expand upon not just her chosen theme, but upon the setting as a whole.

The Insects and Women Sing Together by Pear Nuallak

Oh, men can speak of women’s gossip, but what is gossip but knowledge, and what is knowledge but power?

What does it mean to be a woman? More importantly, what does it mean to be a woman with aspirations, dreams – even a desire for power? Those are the questions Nuallak tries to tackle in this short story, which also tackles the place of women in revolution and in war. While the other stories in the collection play with similar ideas, Nuallak’s story attempts to do so more-or-less head-on. It certainly helps that the characters are all remarkably easy to get attached to, and while some of them might not necessarily be “good people”, they are all good characters.

Nuallak also incorporates the theme of sisterhood, elaborating via subtle details in the story what it means to have that kind of relationship not only with one’s biological sisters, but with the women one chooses to share that bond with. It is this notion of women’s shared sisterhood – a bond that cuts across race, religion, and politics – that holds the story together and forms its backbone.

Overall, The Sea is Ours is a strong collection of stories that take the (typically) Western notion of what steampunk is, and reshape it in order to tell stories that matter to those of us who live in Southeast-Asia, or who used to live here, but have since gone elsewhere. Those stories might have a wide range of tones, settings, characters, and themes, but one quality they do share is that they all break down the notion of steampunk as an exclusively Western genre, criticising the genre’s colonialist and imperialist leanings while still telling entertaining tales of wonder and adventure.

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