New Sci-Fi Story: 999 by Frank Passani

Photo: Marek Piwnicki / Unsplash

Having read my review of his debut novel, Void, Frank Passani contacted me about a new collection of science fiction stories that he is working on, and some of them are set in Singapore.

The following is one of the stories in the collection. If you have any honest comments or feedback, do leave it in the comments section and I will relay them to the author.


999

Fiodor Haldeman flushed the loo, washed his hands, brushed his hair with his fingers in front of the mirror and went back to his aisle seat. On his way, he noticed that the Filipino billionaires were still chitchatting in Cebuano in that lively way and the Japanese lady on the left, travelling solo, kept sleeping. He wondered why someone would pay for an interstellar tour just to fall asleep. He sat on his seat and politely smiled at the Indonesian couple who occupied the seats between him and one of the panoramic windows that allowed all passengers to gape at the galaxy.

          “Will you be the first passengers in the ship to reach home after landing?” he asked them to break the ice.

          “Not sure… We live in Kalimantan, so we’ll have to take a flight from Batam Interplanetary Station,” the man explained under his wife’s approving gaze. “But if you live in Singapore, the bullet train will take you there in five minutes.”

          “I do live in Singapore, but in a new floating condo off the coast. My name is Fiodor,” he introduced himself offering his hand only to him.

          “I am Iskandar,” he replied.

          “My name is Syadah,” she smiled at a distance.

          “Excuse me, you are Chinese Singaporean but your name is… Russian?” Iskandar asked, intrigued.

          “Yes, my late father was a Literature Professor at the NUS campus in Mars and he loved Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist. So he named me after him.”

“I see. But… do you live in Mars?” he asked.

          “No, no, on Earth. I was born in Mars but I just went to Primary school there. Later I moved back to Singapore with my mother after their divorce.”

          “Oh, I am sorry,” he replied whilst she kept smiling. “So your mother is still alive in Singapore?”

          “She was as of Monday!” he joked. “She is 105 years old but still keeping all right. By the way, may I ask if the two of you have ever been to Mars?”

          “We have,” she spoke.

          “So… well, I assume you are Muslim and you pray, right?”

          “We are and we do, indeed,” he explained. “I guess you want to know how do we pray to Mecca when we actually are in another planet?”

          “Yes! If you don’t mind…”

          “Not at all. It’s a common question. We carry a portable gravitational sphere with us. I am not sure you know about it…”

          “Oh, I think I saw a picture once…”

          “Right. So let’s say that you are on Mars and in the very moment when you must pray, Earth is, so to speak, below you, like drawing a line through the core of Mars straight across the solar system. So you get into the sphere, lock it and activate it with your voice, and the sphere isolates your gravitational pull and allows you to face Earth by facing the floor. You are floating in the air but sitting on the plate inside the transparent sphere, moving the plate in any possible position. You could pray upside down, if you wished, without falling to the floor outside the sphere.”

          “This technology is unbelievable!” Fiodor acknowledged.

          “And you don’t even need to point at Mecca,” she added. “The sphere does it automatically. It carries a universal GPS.”

          “Literally universal,” Fiodor laughed.

          “Dear passengers, this is your captain speaking. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. We are about to enter the wormhole that will take us from this solar system back to the outskirts of ours in a couple of hours, and from there back to Earth in ten more hours,” he announced.

          “What a trip, huh?” Fiodor remarked whilst fastening his belt. “Mastering this technology has changed our lives. If only my grandparents could see it…”

          “Indeed,” Iskandar agreed. “The world has changed so much! At the beginning only the billionaires could afford such leisure trips. Now the millionaires too! May I ask what your profession is?”

          “I am in the financial sector. Mars investments,” Fiodor replied nonchalantly. “And you?”

          “My wife is not working right now. I am the CEO of a small company in the terraforming industry. We are in the Jupiter project.”

          “That’s extraordinary!”

          “We developed the special coating that the giant robots need to penetrate Jupiter’s atmosphere. The factory is in Bintan.”

          “Those one-hundred-meter tall robots?” he said, raising his left hand. “They are like out of a science fiction story.”

          “Take my business card,” Iskandar said pulling one out of his spacesuit pocket. It was a new model of 3D card that included videos and audios. “I can arrange a visit if you have children. Or just for you. The robots are spectacular. We assemble them in the space station orbiting Jupiter.”

          “I have no children but I’ll gladly accept your invitation,” Fiodor responded with sincere enthusiasm. “Thank you.”

          “You are welcome.”

          Out of a sudden, the spaceship began shaking violently.

          “Is this normal?” Fiodor asked, grasping both armrests with undisguised fear.

          “Not with this intensity,” Iskandar responded whilst his wife looked suddenly frightened. “I’ve travelled through wormholes before and this is really…”

          “What’s going on, Isk?” she asked terrified, with her gaze glued to the front seat.

          “I am not sure, sayang. Just…”

          “Dear passengers, this is an emergency. Please stay calm and put your helmets on. We are…”

          Fiodor woke up. That headache was killing him, as if he had been enduring it for centuries. He pressed some buttons on his left forearm display and the spacesuit injected him with a painkiller dose in the neck. He looked to his right. His vision was blurred but Iskandar and Syadah seemed to have fainted like him. He heard someone vomit in a seat some meters behind him. Other passengers were already awake and complaining. A flight attendant, with her hair dishevelled, rushed down the aisle to the back of the ship.

          “Dear passengers, we are decelerating as we approach Earth. Keep your seatbelts… fastened and… and…” the captain sobbed, “and… I am sorry… I can’t explain… I am sorry…”

          Another flight attendant walked down from the front of the ship. Her eyes were puffed. She was crying and muttering something about her child in kindergarten. When she was next to Fiodor, she fell on her knees and began shuddering. He unfastened his belt, stood up and held her shoulders from behind.

          “Miss, what’s wrong? Please, stand up. You’re scaring me and everyone else! What’s wrong?” he prompted her.

          “What happened? Did the whole ship faint?” Iskandar asked, already awake.

          She wouldn’t stop trembling. Fiodor helped her stand on her feet and stared at her. Insanity was engraved in her countenance. Her gaze was lost and her jaw shook whilst she tried to articulate a few words.

          “Miss, can you explain…”

          “Nine… hundred… and… ninety-nine,” she stuttered, staring through him as if he were not there.

          “What did she say?” Iskandar asked from his seat whilst his wife rubbed her eyes.

          “Miss…”

          “Nine hundred and ninety-nine,” she repeated with a clearer voice.

          Fiodor stared at Iskandar. “She keeps repeating nine hundred and ninety-nine. I don’t know what she means.”

          Iskandar’s eyes opened wide. Fiodor thought they would roll out of their sockets. A male attendant approached Fiodor and asked him to sit down. His face couldn’t disguise that he would rather be dead than living through whatever had happened.

          “I’ll take care of my colleague,” he added, hugging her as if it were the end of the world.

          Fiodor sat down and grasped Iskandar’s left hand. “Do you have any idea of what’s going on?” he asked him out of his wits. “You have to tell me… If you understand what this is about, you must…”

          “Nine hundred and ninety-nine…” Iskandar slowly replied, spacing out the syllables as if he needed to make sure he himself understood it.

          “So…” Fiodor pressed his hand.

          “Fiodor, this is… something they said… well…”

          “Well?”

          Some passengers were screaming at the bottom of the aisle, as if insanity were taking over the ship.

          “You see…” Iskandar mumbled, “it’s in the Terms and Conditions of the ticket we purchased… of course, nobody reads so many pages and this is only a highly hypothetical event that shouldn’t happen… but it has happened…”

          “What has happened, for God’s sake?”

          “Fiodor, we took the wrong wormhole or something happened inside the wormhole, who knows… Our understanding of cosmic mechanics is not that exact as it may seem… The thing is that we travelled at the speed of light, as expected, and we have lost consciousness due to unknown reasons… for how long? Two hours? We have not aged but… we took a detour and… in Earth’s time, this detour means nine hundred and ninety-nine years.”

          Fiodor stared blankly at him. His brain couldn’t process that information.

          “What are you…” Syadah tried to ask her husband, but she swallowed saliva and broke out in tears.

          Iskandar left his seat and knelt in front of his wife, caressing her head whilst talking to her in Indonesian.

          “Do you mean that everyone we have ever known is… dead?” Fiodor asked Iskandar. “Like… we have been gone for a millennium and now we are back and the authorities… our governments…”

          “Back from the dead, from History books. We are live legends,” Iskandar concluded with a bitter smile.

          The broken voice of the captain was addressing the passengers on the speakers but Fiodor wasn’t listening. He suddenly noticed that the robotic lenses implanted in his eyes had just automatically updated the information on the display via the new signal boosters scattered through the solar system: new condo units for sale in Jupiter, heavy rains in the Far East during Chinese New year, Manchester City had lost a Champions League final for the umpteenth time, the PAP had won Singapore’s General Elections again with an android as a candidate and would stay in power for fifteen centuries in a row. His mother had passed away more than nine centuries earlier. His friends were dust. He couldn’t help but think of his brand new panoramic penthouse in The Floating Residences between Singapore and Batam, a luxury condo unit purchased the year before his interstellar leisure tour. A 999-year leasehold according to Singapore’s law. He had lost his property by one year.


About the Author

Frank Passani (Barcelona, Spain, 1975) obtained his Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Barcelona with a dissertation about the Platonic and Aristotelian influences on C. S. Lewis. He became a Modern Greek translator while working in Greece as a Spanish language teacher. He is currently based in Singapore, where he still teaches Spanish. He self-published his first novel, Void, with Notion Press in India since Singaporeans deemed it to be “polarising.”

[Book Review] Beyond The Village Gate by Tan Mei Ching

Beyond The Village Gate

Mei Ching Tan

Ethos Books (2012, 2nd ed.)/ 148 pp.

SGD 20.01 (local)/ 18.70 + shipping costs (overseas)

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today I’ll be encountering Beyond The Village Gate by Mei Ching Tan, published by Ethos Books.

When I was on my usual visit to the bookshop, the cover of this book caught my eye and I thought it was a new novel by a local writer. I was surprised to find out that this novel was awarded the commendation award in the 1992 Singapore Literature Prize and was first published in 1994. The copy I have is a recent reprint under the Ethos Evergreen series. Considering that it received some attention when it first came out and a publisher would take the risk of reprinting it as an evergreen title, I decided to give it a shot and was rewarded in a few ways.

The story is set in a fictional village in China and revolves around an orphan, Shi Ying (which translates as Lost Child) who was abandoned as a baby, found by a villager, and was given to a family of fisherfolk. Growing up, she has always felt distant from her adoptive family and wonders who her biological parents are. An incident with a village outcast, who was pregnant out of wedlock, led Shi Ying to form a bond with her. This interaction sparked off her journey in search of her identity.

The novel excels in dealing with the theme of escape in a nuanced manner while telling the story through the child’s perspective. To give you a sense of the effort and sensitivity that goes into developing this theme, here are a few things that really struck me.

Names play a big role in the book. We can easily understand why the protagonist is named 失婴 shī yīng (“Lost Child”). But the name is also a pun on something else that symbolises freedom and escape. As Tan chooses to disclose this intended pun towards the end, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Another pun, which I’m unsure if Tan intended it or not, is 适应 shì yìng (getting used to something). The conflicts between these puns encapsulate the main thrust of the plot beautifully. It is because she’s not used to her situation and feels isolated that she dreams of escape. Names come into play yet again when she asks her friend to give her a new name; a new identity.

One of the key features of the story is how myths and legends make up the cultural fabric of society. Shi Ying is very taken with such stories because her own origin is a legend which keeps changing every time it’s retold. Her unknown origin gives her the possibility of rewriting it and determining how her future will unfold.

They also capture Shi Ying’s child-like wonderment which gives the novel hints of magical realism. Whenever she’s out in the fields working or running away, the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred. While we may disregard it as childish hopes and fears, that is the reality of her experience. Tan did well to maintain that and not let the adults correct that or offer the “truth” as such.

Tan cleverly uses myths and legends to give Shi Ying complexity as well. It presents her desire for escape not simply as running away or waiting for her parents to take her away. Escape can also be a form of transcendence. Shi Ying often wish that the wind would take her away or she could ride on the back of a wild creature.

As with myths and legends, the supernatural and death loom in the background. Death can also be a form of transcendence as Shi Ying would even welcome it if it provided her an avenue of escape. This reveals the extent of her desire to be somewhere else and someone else. One should not paint it with a broad stroke and view it as depression or having suicidal thoughts.

I love how Xiao Ling, the outcast of the village who is pregnant out of wedlock, complements Shi Ying. Her tragic situation is a counterpoint to that of Shi Ying as she has to deal with her child while Shi Ying wonders about her biological parents and deals with her adopted ones. The strange bond that both characters form allows Tan to showcase her sensitivity of language as she develops certain metaphors throughout the whole novel to great effect. I shan’t cite any examples now for it’ll give away too much of the plot.

Speaking of other characters, I can see why most of them are less developed. This is how Shi Ying views them which explain her loneliness and isolation. The only exception was when she had to take care of her father and she bonded with him when he talked about his love for his wife. It is unfortunate that it was only a chapter long as I often wondered why the couple agreed to adopt her in the first place. Having extra help on the farm is hardly a strong incentive as compared to the large responsibility one has to shoulder to bring up a child.  I sometimes wished Tan could leave a couple of hints for the readers without Shi Ying knowing. I would definitely enjoy this novel even more if it were a couple of chapters longer.

That said, I’m surprised how Beyond The Village Gate has so little mention and I would have missed it had it not been the chanced encounter at the bookstore. To end this review, I shall read the last paragraph of the first chapter just to give you a taste of all the points I’ve mentioned thus far. This paragraph really sets the stage for the novel and it’s worth noting that this is not even the best passage.