The International Conversation: Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Francis Alfar & Nikki Alfar

The Philippine Speculative Fiction series has been running since 2005, but the earlier volumes have just recently been re-released in digital form—including Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, which was originally published in 2009 and re-released in digital form at the end of May this year. The purpose of this series has been, as the editor says in his introduction, to “provide a venue for Filipino writing of the fantastic sort, even as we struggle against the labels, deliberately break the barriers of genre, and claim/create space in the realm of Philippine Literature – and beyond all that, to have great reads.” Philippine Speculative Fiction IV contains 24 stories, predominantly from authors publishing in the series for the first time: new voices, at the time of the book’s original release.  Only one story is a reprint, while the rest first appeared in this volume.

I’m glad to see these volumes reprinted in digital form. As part of a larger genre conversation concerned with post-colonial and international narratives, these books are an invaluable collection of voices speaking stories in their own ways, claiming and redefining the speculative to encompass their own vital narratives.

Some stories in this collection are stronger than others; several of the pieces included here are the writer’s first published story, or even their first attempt at writing short fiction all together. While that occasionally results in intriguing narratives from fresh voices, often the stories’ execution could use polish. However, other pieces in the collection balance out that uneven quality, and the book as a whole is a decent and entertaining read, as well as a pleasant introduction to several Filipino SF writers—many of whom are still actively writing and publishing. Some of the better stories include:

“The Secret Origin of Spin-man” by Andrew Drilon, the first piece in the book, a story about comic books, brothers, and loss. The image of a Filipino superhero that is so powerful for the narrator at the opening of the story turns out to be his brother, who was sucked into the alternate universe of the comic book their uncle created. In the comic, he’s “Spin-man,” protecting the multiverse. In real life, he simply ceased to exist, as if he’d never been—only the narrator remembers him. His ultimate goal, at the end of the story, is to buy out the company that had published those two issues of “Spin-man” and to write his own ending to bring his brother home. The strength of the story lies in its imagery—the comic book store, the bargain comic bins, the obsessive love the young boys have for the stories and characters, all familiar and heartwarming—juxtaposed against its emotional freight: the loss of a brother.

Vincent Michael Simbulan’s “Mang Marcing and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” is another, more fraught story about family. Marcing’s four children are avatars of the four horsemen; he and his wife each disapprove of different children, including his refusal and abandonment of his queer son while his wife tries to convince him to accept the young man. The casual homophobia of the neighborhood and the father are sharp and painful, as are the mother’s attempts to insist he accept their son with no result. This is an atmospheric piece that plays with its metaphor to explore the tense relationships in this family, from the drunk, angry son who is the avatar of War to the dead daughter whose avatar is, of course, Death.

Charles Tan’s fanciful “A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale” is an imagined history of a web-based company that sold diseases, from its inception to its eventual collapse. It’s short, playful, and entertaining. The development and eventual collapse of this business plan—selling folks temporary diseases—is believable and fascinating. While this is a small piece, it was one of the more memorable in the book; the nontraditional narrative structure of the fake article on this company is an enjoyable shift. 

“Breaking the Spell” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a lyrical fairy-tale pastiche, in which a young woman in one world accidentally looks under her wizard father’s bell jar at a world he has created—therefore falling under a sleeping curse—while another young woman, in that created world, becomes something like a prince to go and kiss her awake. The familiar tropes of the fairy-tale quest are all present in this story, but Loenen-Ruiz twists and turns them to create a story that’s off the usual track: the young woman is in the role of the prince, but she’s still guided by a slightly older wise woman; the reason she is going on this quest is not for desire of power or wealth or even a princess to marry, but to uncover her own capabilities for adventure. This story is fun, queer, and rather enjoyable.

“Parallel” by Eliza Victoria is another piece that plays with genre tropes—in this case, the ability to travel to parallel universes. Christopher has lost his little sister to a bus crash; his friend and brother-in-law Ben agrees to take him into the parallel world where his sister is still alive and take her back to their world. When they arrive, though, Christopher can’t go through with it. Instead, he talks to the other Olivia for a little while, then stops Ben from killing the alternate-world version of himself. The few moments he had with her were enough. This story is using a familiar trope, but the characters and their emotional cores tilt it slightly on its axis. The speculative element is used to explore family dynamics and the reality of loss quite well.

On the other hand, “Press Release” by Leo Magno is one of the weaker pieces, and is emblematic of the issues present in a few of the stories. “Press Release” is a dystopic story told via press releases in which a military spy of the North, taught astral projection, accidentally swaps places with a spy from the other side—and therefore discovers the evil plot of the government to commit genocide against the South, but the news never gets out. Instead, he’s executed, and the story closes with an old-school reporter knowing that there must be more story underneath the press releases he’s been given but unable or unwilling to investigate it. Unfortunately, the prevalence of “As you know, Bob” dialogue and over-exposition burden this story, as does the muddled ending. The execution isn’t up to the task of the story the author wants to tell; this crops up occasionally in the book, predominantly with the very new writers.

Overall, though, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV is a worthwhile read that presents an engaging collection of Filipino writers exploring and telling speculative stories. These stories are all part of a post-colonial and international conversation that is defining what a broader field of speculative literature can and will do. The stories are both speculative ways to explore Filipino culture and identity, and Filipino ways to explore the speculative genre—each reflects on the other, creating a harmony of invention and narrative extrapolation. In particular, the stories are for the most part set in and concerned with the Philippines, whether today, in the future, or in an alternate fantastical universe. After reading this volume, I look forward to the newest installments of this series, which is still ongoing, and to the re-released older volumes, newly available electronically.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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