Singapore—like many young nations—has a penchant for talking about its identity. What does a Singaporean look like? What key features makes one Singaporean? And more widely, what makes Singapore the country it is?
Instinctively we know the answers to these questions extend beyond concrete labels like citizenship and terrestrial geography. But knowing that does not clarify the factors that make a person Singaporean, or makes Singapore, Singapore.
In the anthology Fish Eats Lion Redux, editor Jason Erik Lundberg tackles this question with a fresh(-ish) angle: speculative fiction.
I say fresh-ish because, as the name suggests, the book is the second instalment of his Fish Eats Lion series.
In this collection of speculative fiction—whose theme, simply, was stories with a Singaporean connection—Lundberg gives the authors space to explore, allowing them to chip away at what it means to for a people and a land to have a unique identity.
Some chose to do that by exploring Singapore’s past, with established writers like Ng Yi-Sheng and Sithuraj Ponraj writing about the island nation’s histories and myths.
Others, like Stuart Danker and Izzy Liyana Harris, chose to travel to the future, looking at the Singapore of today and extrapolating.
And while this kind of story can be entertaining—most of them were—the Achilles’ heel of such stories lies in the fact they often are written in response to current issues and current cultural consciousness. Most of the time it works, but at times it feels like the authors are leaning too far into their response that they risk being polemical. Harris feels at times like she is simply trying to invert the existing geopolitical situation of Singapore and Malaysia, while Ponraj’s story—which, to be fair, I found very clever—relies somewhat on the reader being familiar with Singapore’s current national
The stories that best reflected Singapore, its land and its people, I found, where those set in the present, where the authors wrote stories set in Singapore rather than about Singapore.
In these we truly get to see Singaporeans for who they are, and Singapore for what it is.
Of course, not every author was aiming for that, and in truth, some of the stories would read perfectly fine even if Singapore was changed to Bangkok or even Vancouver, but the stories that did utilise their Singaporean connection were outstanding. Both Daryl Yam’s and Wen-yi Lee’s pieces capturing many quintessential elements of Singaporean culture, from premise to character development to conclusion.
Considering the arrangement of the stories, Fish Eats Lion Redux plays well to its strengths. It is no secret in collections that some stories will be stronger than others, and that there are stories which fit better at different points in the anthology, and Lundberg has done a fine job of arranging them in pull readers in, keep them going, and leave them wanting more.
If anything, the only major weakness the collection suffers from is consistency in the writing. Every writer is different, no doubt, and each anthology will have a crew of veterans and newcomers, but in some areas the adverbs flood the page, and in others it seems a thesaurus was overused in the writing process, both problems which a bit of harsh editing could easily solve. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see old hands and fresh blood try their hand at this unique genre again, and without a doubt the book can stand on its own two feet in the world of speculative fiction.
Fun fact: if you squint at the top photo you
might will spot Ted Chiang in the audience.
You can buy a copy of Fish Eats Lion Redux here from Epigram Books. No, I do not get a fee or referral bonus or discount vouchers or a unicorn in exchange for putting the link here.