I stared at her, wondering how I had come to suspect she was a shape-shifting fox demon. Was it like human rights, something that existed if enough people in the country believed in it? When I returned to America, would I still think she might be a demon?
-–Urania Fung, "The Right to Eat Decent Food"
The twenty-first century has seen many urban fantasy novels featuring were-creatures, but comparatively few dealing with foxes who become human. Asiatic aliens have a long history in western science-fiction, from Ming the Merciless to the original Klingons to George Lucas's Trade Federation, but occidental writers of SF have created few plausible Asian characters. All too often, English-language authors have looked to the East to give their work an exotic patina, without seriously attempting to understand the cultures they were raiding. North America in 2010 has a substantial Asian population-- yet in one sees comparatively few writers or actors from these backgrounds in the SF world, or anywhere else in the media. The Dragon and the Stars, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, tries to redress the situation with eighteen (in Chinese lore, a lucky number) new tales written by English-speaking writers of Chinese ancestry.
Title: The Dragon and the Stars
Edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi
ISBN: 978-0-7564-0618-9, 0756406188
First published: May 2010.
The covers contain a broad range of stories and approaches. Melissa Yuan-Innes's "Dancers with Red Shoes" gives us an urban fantasy where traditional magic works. The tale succeeds in being nothing like Harry Potter. "Papa and Mama" by Wen Y Phua could easily have appeared in a collection of conventional fiction, with its tale of an orphan who believes her parents have been reincarnated as a fish and a bird. Of course, her belief may be correct. Other stories feature SF, magic realism, traditional fantasy, and alternate history, all with a Chinese influence.
"Goin' Down to Anglotown" by William F. Wu takes place in a North America where the immigration laws which barred and restricted Asian immigrants were never passed. As a result, Chinese culture dominates the west coast. Wu's youthful protagonists hit San Francisco's Anglotown seeking exotic pot roast, sensuous white girls, and general shenanigans. As their adventures unfold, Wu inverts every racist cliché Euro-Americans have ever repeated in pulp stories, comics, and films about Orientals. Rarely have the Yellow Peril's shadows been crossed so thoroughly and hilariously.
Tony Pi's well-wrought "The Character of the Hound," Urania Fung's "The Right to Eat Decent Food," and Emery Huang's "Lips of Ash" all make excellent use of a shapeshifter mythology that differs significantly from the lycanthropic lore most English readers know. Crystal Gail Shangkuan Koo's magic-realist "The Man in the Moon" illuminates its title character through his efforts to find a bride. The story recalls Neil Gaiman, but the cultural perspective does not.
A couple of writers give us alternate looks at history. Ken Liu's "Beadou" presents a speculative Chinese past where lost technology plays a decisive role. It recalls Ray Bradbury's "The Flying Machine," though Liu gives us a different kind of story, one which shows us how technology affects conflict. Eric Choi's "The Son of Heaven” provides a plausible alternate life for Tsien Hhsue-Shen. The strength of that story lies in how entirely believable the results read. Someone with little historical knowledge might think it an authentic biography.
Shelly Li, seventeen as of this writing, contributes "Intelligent Truth." She has a fine sense of craft and has created a memorable central character. Perhaps the bar, however, for female teenage writers of SF/fantasy/horror has been set impossibly high; I found the story somewhat predictable and derivative. Nevertheless, she's clearly a writer to watch. I cannot imagine anything I wrote at the same age faring nearly so well.
Gabriela Lee's "Bargains," as in many other fantastic tales, features a protagonist who makes a deal with a decidedly dark twist. She even does it in that most hoary of exotic clichés, Teh Mysterious Asian Shop, "a movie set, a fantasy Chinatown land, replete with stereotypical lacquer boxes against a scarlet-painted wall" (170). In this instance, however, the protagonist has a better understanding than usual of what her arrangement means, and the final revelations say much about her character, the artist's drive, and human nature.
Mak and Choi did not merely solicit and collect stories by writers of a particular background; the tales themselves had to have some Chinese cultural element. A few of the stories left me wondering if I was missing something because I don't share the background that informs them.
The stories vary in their overall originality, but the concept of the anthology provides a perspective often missing from SF/fantasy, and western literature in general. With so many submissions to consider, Choi and Mak could select strong crafters of language, so the stories generally succeed on their own terms as well. You won't necessarily like every piece in this anthology, but I do recommend it to readers of SF and fantasy. Its voices help fill a void that, at some future date, will not exist at all.