Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Ombak issue #3 (October 2020)

Ombak: Southeast Asia's Weird Fiction Journal, ed. Aden Ng. Issue #3 (October 2020). Online at ombak.org.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Ombak is at first glance a funny little journal, seeming to appear about once a year, slender in pages, and with the front cover missing from the downloadable PDF and e-book formats; there is no editorial or attribution of the editor·s, and no table of contents given (masthead and stories are only printed on the front cover), just the (four, in this issue) stories, one after the other. Although it is billed as a Southeast Asian journal, this issue of Ombak covers international themes: stories are set in Africa, Japan, a non-specific Anglophone setting, and Singapore respectively. The blurb on the website promises themes of life, death and rebirth, and certainly there is a recurring trope of cheating (or trying to cheat) death throughout the pieces in this issue.

The first, and perhaps most straightforward, story in this volume is “That Day With the Elephant” by Brian Low, which is set in a post-extinction (but not postcolonial) African wildlife park. The story opens with a doctor “poaching” parts from clockwork animals, and the dénouement is our discovery of the dark reason for committing this crime. This piece has a linear plot with minimal tension and one-dimensional characters, as you would expect from a pulp adventure—it is a concept story, not a subtle one. There is at least one glaring plot hole, involving building a mechanical heart to replace a stolen one; one wonders why the characters could not just have made a new heart in the first place, obviating the need to steal anything?

In contrast, Kim-Dan Doan’s “1945” is the more confusing, nonlinear (as time-travel stories tend to be), but emotive story of a watchmaker and his family trying to survive the end of WW2 in Japan. No tidily tied up endings or unproblematic resolutions here. Similarly, “Baby Blue” by Joseph Anthony Montecillo is a not-entirely straightforward ecopocalyptic story (or perhaps it is contemporary-realist in a country with endemic droughts in summer?) that utilizes the old chestnut of horror trope, postpartum depression and an undead baby—with the slight twist being that it is the father who sees the dead baby after losing both his child and wife. The protagonist is  never entirely sympathetic, since we see others’ suffering through his insensitive eyes, and then there is his indelible guilt, but the unreliable narrator equally keeps the story from being simple or tidy.

Finally, Brie Atienza’s “That Where I Am You May Be Also” is a weird and experimental, second-person narrative of the Rapture, complete with aliens that look like devils (foretold, it is suggested, by the collective human unconscious), and small children who start to “Ascend” simultaneously all over the world. This story is a highly philosophical, theological and intellectual ramble, more about the thoughts than anything interesting happening or characterisation, but it is an unusual and original take, and undeniably speculative.

This whole issue of Ombak: Southeast Asia's Weird Fiction Journal perfectly captures the spirit of Golden Age Pulp: the contents are eclectic, risk-taking, genre-bending, breathless, surprising, entertaining; with no pretensions to high-brow élitism, but also unflinching in their attention to important issues. I am very pleased this weird little journal is still going, and I look forward to future issues.

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