The landmark anthology series of international speculative fiction returns with volume 5 of The Apex Book of World SF. Cris Jurado joins series editor Lavie Tidhar to highlight the best speculative fiction from around the world.
Cyberpunk from Spain, Singapore and Japan; mythology from Venezuela, Korea and First Nations; stories of the dead from Zimbabwe and Egypt, and space wonders from India, Germany and Bolivia. And much more. The fifth volume of the ground-breaking World SF anthology series reveals once more the uniquely international dimension of speculative fiction.
The latest editor to take on the reigns of the Apex Book of World SF series is the endlessly enthusiastic Spanish author and editor Cristina Jurado, who here compiles some of the very best of international speculative fiction of recent years. – Lavie Tidhar
"Certainly the series of Apex World SF anthologies founded by Lavie Tidhar has been highly instrumental in broadening our sense of what's going on around the planet. Tidhar edited the first three books solo, then, while maintaining high-level duties, turned over responsibility for compiling volume four to Mahvesh Murad. The latest installment, put together by Cristina Jurado, continues the series' valuable tradition of horizon-broadening, while providing great entertainment besides."– Locus Magazine review
"This is a wildly imaginative anthology that skillfully redefines the range and borders of science fiction while still feeling satisfyingly unified."– Publishers Weekly review
"If this would be your first volume of The Apex Book of World SF, you won't want it to be your last. As a starting point for exploring other cultures' perspectives on speculative fiction, they can't be beat; as a quick way to find a bunch of new-to-you writers to follow, they're a must-have."– SkiffyandFanty.com review
Excerpt from "A Series of Steaks" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 5
Lily Yonezawa (darknet username: yurisquared) arrives at Nanjing High Tech Industrial Park at 8.58 a.m. She's a short lady with long black hair and circle-framed iKontakts. She's wearing a loose, floaty dress, smooth lines of white tinged with yellow-green, and there's a large prismatic bracelet gleaming on her arm. In comparison, Helena is wearing her least holey black blouse and a pair of jeans, which is a step up from her usual attire of myoglobin-stained T-shirt and boxer shorts.
"So," Lily says in rapid, slightly-accented Mandarin as she bounds into the office. "This is a beef place, right? I pulled some of the records once I got the address, hope you don't mind—anyway, what do you want me to help print or render or design or whatever? I know I said I had a background in confections and baking, but I'm totally open to anything!" She pumps her fist in a show of determination. The loose-fitting prismatic bracelet slides up and down.
Helena blinks at Lily with the weariness of someone who's spent most of their night frantically trying to make their office presentable. She decides to skip most of the briefing, as Lily doesn't seem like the sort who needs to be eased into anything.
"How much do you know about beef?"
"I used to watch a whole bunch of farming documentaries with my ex, does that count?"
"No. Here at Splendid Beef Enterprises—"
"Oh, by the way, do you have a logo? I searched your company registration but nothing really came up. Need me to design one?"
"Here at Splendid Beef Enterprises, we make fake beef and sell it to restaurants."
"So, like, soy-lentil stuff?"
"Homegrown cloned cell lines," Helena says. "Mostly Matsusaka, with some Hereford if clients specify it." She gestures at the bioreactor humming away in a corner.
"Wait, isn't fake food like those knockoff eggs made of calcium carbonate? If you're using cow cells, this seems pretty real to me." Clearly Lily has a more practical definition of fake than the China Food and Drug Administration.
"It's more like … let's say you have a painting in a gallery and you say it's by a famous artist. Lots of people would come look at it because of the name alone and write reviews talking about its exquisite use of chiaroscuro, as expected of the old masters, I can't believe that it looks so real even though it was painted centuries ago. But if you say, hey, this great painting was by some no-name loser, I was just lying about where it came from … well, it'd still be the same painting, but people would want all their money back."
"Oh, I get it," Lily says, scrutinising the bioreactor. She taps its shiny polymer shell with her knuckles, and her bracelet bumps against it. Helena tries not to wince. "Anyway, how legal is this? This meat forgery thing?"
"It's not illegal yet," Helena says. "It's kind of a grey area, really."
"Great!" Lily smacks her fist into her open palm. "Now, how can I help? I'm totally down for anything! You can even ask me to clean the office if you want—wow, this is really dusty, maybe I should just clean it to make sure—"
Helena reminds herself that having an assistant isn't entirely bad news. Wolfgang Beltracchi was only able to carry out large-scale forgeries with his assistant's help, and they even got along well enough to get married and have a kid without killing each other.
Then again, the Beltracchis both got caught, so maybe she shouldn't be too optimistic.
* * *
Cows that undergo extreme stress while waiting for slaughter are known as dark cutters. The stress causes them to deplete all their glycogen reserves, and when butchered, their meat turns a dark blackish-red. The meat of dark cutters is generally considered low-quality.
As a low-quality person waiting for slaughter, Helena understands how those cows feel. Mr Anonymous, stymied by the industrial park's regular sweeps for trackers and external cameras, has taken to sending Helena grainy aerial photographs of herself together with exhortations to work harder. This isn't exactly news—she already knew he had her details, and drones are pretty cheap—but still. When Lily raps on the door in the morning, Helena sometimes jolts awake in a panic before she realises that it isn't Mr Anonymous coming for her. This isn't helped by the fact that Lily's gentle knocks seem to be equivalent to other people's knockout blows.
By now Helena's introduced Lily to the basics, and she's a surprisingly quick study. It doesn't take her long to figure out how to randomise the fat marbling with Fractalgenr8, and she's been handed the task of printing the beef strips for Gyuuzen and Fatty Chan, then packing them for drone delivery. It's not ideal, but it lets Helena concentrate on the base model for the T-bone steak, which is the most complicated thing she's ever tried to render.
A T-bone steak is a combination of two cuts of meat, lean tenderloin and fatty strip steak, separated by a hard ridge of vertebral bone. Simply cutting into one is a near-religious experience, red meat parting under the knife to reveal smooth white bone, with the beef fat dripping down to pool on the plate. At least, that's what the socialites' food blogs say. To be accurate, they say something more like "omfg this is sooooooo good," "this bones giving me a boner lol," and "haha im so getting this sonic-cleaned for my collection!!!," but Helena pretends they actually meant to communicate something more coherent.
The problem is a lack of references. Most of the accessible photographs only provide a top-down view, and Helena's left to extrapolate from blurry videos and password-protected previews of bovine myology databases, which don't get her much closer to figuring out how the meat adheres to the bone. Helena's forced to dig through ancient research papers and diagrams that focus on where to cut to maximise meat yield, quantifying the difference between porterhouse and T-bone cuts, and not hey, if you're reading this decades in the future, here's how to make a good facsimile of a steak. Helena's tempted to run outside and scream in frustration, but Lily would probably insist on running outside and screaming with her as a matter of company solidarity, and with their luck, probably Mr Anonymous would find out about Lily right then, even after all the trouble she's taken to censor any mention of her new assistant from the files and the reports and argh she needs sleep.
Meanwhile, Lily's already scheduled everything for print, judging by the way she's spinning around in Helena's spare swivel chair.
"Hey, Lily," Helena says, stifling a yawn. "Why don't you play around with this for a bit? It's the base model for a T-bone steak. Just familiarise yourself with the fibre extrusion and mapping, see if you can get it to look like the reference photos. Don't worry, I've saved a copy elsewhere." Good luck doing the impossible, Helena doesn't say. You're bound to have memorised the shortcut for 'undo' by the time I wake up.
Helena wakes up to Lily humming a cheerful tune and a mostly-complete T-bone model rotating on her screen. She blinks a few times, but no—it's still there. Lily's effortlessly linking the rest of the meat, fat, and gristle to the side of the bone, deforming the muscle fibres to account for the bone's presence.
"What did you do," Helena blurts out.
Lily turns around to face her, fiddling with her bracelet. "Uh, did I do it wrong?"
"Rotate it a bit. Let me see the top view. How did you do it?"
"It's a little like the human vertebral column, isn't it? There's plenty of references for that." She taps the screen twice, switching focus to an image of a human cross-section. "See how it attaches here and here? I just used that as a reference, and boom."
Ugh, Helena thinks to herself. She's been out of university for way too long if she's forgetting basic homology.
"Wait, is it correct? Did I mess up?"
"No, no," Helena says. "This is really good. Better than … well, better than I did, anyway."
"Awesome! Can I get a raise?"
"You can get yourself a sesame pancake," Helena says. "My treat."
* * *
The brief requires two hundred similar-but-unique steaks at randomised thicknesses of 38.1 to 40.2 mm, and the number and density of meat fibres pretty much precludes Helena from rendering it on her own rig. She doesn't want to pay to outsource computing power, so they're using spare processing cycles from other personal rigs and staggering the loads. Straightforward bone surfaces get rendered in afternoons, and fibre-dense tissues get rendered at off-peak hours.
It's three in the morning. Helena's in her Pokko the Penguin T-shirt and boxer shorts, and Lily's wearing Yayoi Kusama-ish pyjamas that make her look like she's been obliterated by a mass of polka dots. Both of them are staring at their screens, eating cups of Zhuzhu Brand Artificial Char Siew Noodles. As Lily's job moves to the front of [email protected]'s Finland queue, the graph updates to show a downtick in Mauritius. Helena's fingers frantically skim across the touchpad, queueing as many jobs as she can.
Her chopsticks scrape the bottom of the mycefoam cup, and she tilts the container to shovel the remaining fake pork fragments into her mouth. Zhuzhu's using extruded soy proteins, and they've punched up the glutamate percentage since she last bought them. The roasted char siew flavour is lacking, and the texture is crumby since the factory skimped on the extrusion time, but any hot food is practically heaven at this time of the night. Day. Whatever.
The thing about the rendering stage is that there's a lot of panic-infused downtime. After queueing the requests, they can't really do anything else—the requests might fail, or the rig might crash, or they might lose their place in the queue through some accident of fate and have to do everything all over again. There's nothing to do besides pray that the requests get through, stay awake until the server limit resets, and repeat the whole process until everything's done. Staying awake is easy for Helena, as Mr Anonymous has recently taken to sending pictures of rotting corpses to her iKontakt address, captioned "Work hard or this could be you." Lily seems to be halfway off to dreamland, possibly because she isn't seeing misshapen lumps of flesh every time she closes her eyes.
"So," Lily says, yawning. "How did you get into this business?"
Helena decides it's too much trouble to figure out a plausible lie, and settles for a very edited version of the truth. "I took art as an elective in high school. My school had a lot of printmaking and 3D printing equipment, so I used it to make custom merch in my spare time—you know, for people who wanted figurines of obscure anime characters, or whatever. Even designed and printed the packaging for them, just to make it look more official. I wanted to study art at university, but that didn't really work out. Long story short, I ended up moving here from Hong Kong, and since I had a background in printing and bootlegging … yeah. What about you?"
"Before the confectionery I did a whole bunch of odd jobs. I used to sell merch for my girlfriend's band, and that's how I got started with the short-order printing stuff. They were called POMEGRENADE—it was really hard to fit the whole name on a T-shirt. The keychains sold really well, though."
"What sort of band were they?"
"Sort of noise-rocky Cantopunk at first—there was this one really cute song I liked, 'If Marriage Means The Death Of Love Then We Must Both Be Zombies'—but Cantonese music was a hard sell, even in Guangzhou, so they ended up being kind of a cover band."
"Oh, Guangzhou," Helena says in an attempt to sound knowledgeable, before realising that the only thing she knows about Guangzhou is that the Red Triad has a particularly profitable organ-printing business there. "Wait, you understand Cantonese?"
"Yeah," Lily says in Cantonese, tone-perfect. "No one really speaks it around here, so I haven't used it much."
"Oh my god, yes, it's so hard to find Canto-speaking people here." Helena immediately switches to Cantonese. "Why didn't you tell me sooner? I've been dying to speak it to someone."
"Sorry, it never came up so I figured it wasn't very relevant," Lily says. "Anyway, POMEGRENADE mostly did covers after that, you know, Kick Out The Jams, Zhongnanhai, Chaos Changan, Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues. Whatever got the crowd pumped up, and when they were moshing the hardest, they'd hit the crowd with the Cantopunk and just blast their faces off. I think it left more of an impression that way—like, start with the familiar, then this weird-ass surprise near the end—the merch table always got swamped after they did that."
"What happened with the girlfriend?"
"We broke up, but we keep in touch. Do you still do art?"
"Not really. The closest thing I get to art is this," Helena says, rummaging through the various boxes under the table to dig out her sketchbooks. She flips one open and hands it to Lily—white against red, nothing but full-page studies of marbling patterns, and it must be one of the earlier ones because it's downright amateurish. The lines are all over the place, that marbling on the Wagyu (is that even meant to be Wagyu?) is completely inaccurate, and, fuck, are those tear stains?
Lily turns the pages, tracing the swashes of colour with her finger. The hum of the overworked rig fills the room.
"It's awful, I know."
"What are you talking about?" Lily's gaze lingers on Helena's attempt at a fractal snowflake. "This is really trippy! If you ever want to do some album art, just let me know and I'll totally hook you up!"
Helena opens her mouth to say something about how she's not an artist, and how studies of beef marbling wouldn't make very good album covers, but faced with Lily's unbridled enthusiasm, she decides to nod instead.
Lily turns the page and it's that thing she did way back at the beginning, when she was thinking of using a cute cow as the company logo. It's derivative, it's kitsch, the whole thing looks like a degraded copy of someone else's ripoff drawing of a cow's head, and the fact that Lily's seriously scrutinising it makes Helena want to snatch the sketchbook back, toss it into the composter, and sink straight into the concrete floor.
The next page doesn't grant Helena a reprieve since there's a whole series of that stupid cow. Versions upon versions of happy cow faces grin straight at Lily, most of them surrounded by little hearts—what was she thinking? What do hearts even have to do with Splendid Beef Enterprises, anyway? Was it just that they were easy to draw?
"Man, I wish we had a logo because this would be super cute! I love the little hearts! It's like saying we put our heart and soul into whatever we do! Oh, wait, but was that what you meant?"
"It could be," Helena says, and thankfully the Colorado server opens before Lily can ask any further questions.