Review

Shelly Bryant's Launch Pad depicts future where Singaporean quirks remain

Short-story collection Launch Pad by Shelly Bryant is written with a dash of realism and humour.
Short-story collection Launch Pad by Shelly Bryant is written with a dash of realism and humour.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF SHELLY BRYANT, EPIGRAM BOOKS

FICTION

LAUNCH PAD

By Shelly Bryant

Epigram Books/Paperback/ 187 pages/$20.22/Books Kinokuniya/ 4/5 stars

A half-Singaporean, half-alien diplomatic ambassador tells the story of her mother's home planet, Earth, while explaining its integration into the Interstellar HoloNetwork nearly 300 years ago.

Back on Earth, a man waiting with three companions on a jetty at night reimagines the grisly tale of serial-killer barber Sweeney Todd - as Tan Swee Nee, also a barber, but from Fuzhou - set in colonial Singapore.

These premises may seem far-fetched, but they feature matter-of-factly in short-story collection Launch Pad - with a dash of realism and humour.

This is the latest speculative fiction work, based in Singapore, which has been released this year. Others include Surrogate Protocol by architect Tham Cheng-E, about an amnesiac who has hidden from secret agents in Singapore for over a century, and Altered Straits by linguistics student Kevin Martens Wong, in which merlions are weaponised through pair-bonding with child soldiers.

While imagining a technologically advanced future, Launch Pad accurately captures a slice of Singaporean life - complete with references to events of our time.

A man giving orders to his robot tells it in passing that he likes having a cup of Milo in the evening while he watches television, referencing the popularity of the hot chocolate malt drink here. In another story, a ship's captain muses that finding a piece of the missing plane MH370 would send him home a hero.

Each tale may take off from different points in time, but the opening narrative of the ambassador sets the tone for a journey of exploration, priming readers for the endless possibilities that follow.

Bryant does not entertain readers with science fiction alone, either.

The tales that she tells, with tempo and finesse, bring to mind discussions surrounding policies such as national service (NS), that Singaporeans may have grappled with.

A local military woman remarks to her Australian friend that he has "always taken NS as a bit of a joke, like it's not real military duty", adding that she would not compare the armed forces here with that of his country. He responds with a frustrating: "Too scared you'll suffer by comparison?"

In another instance, the man giving orders to his intelligent house robot verbally abuses the helper for being unable to predict his wishes: bringing to mind the dynamic between employers here and their domestic workers.

Bryant intersperses such interactions with the humdrum of daily life - told through the actions of people at MRT stations along different rail lines - harking back to a line in the opening scene.

"If (the stories seem) unnecessarily focused on one small part of her home planet, it is because this is how we all see our worlds - at least until someone opens our eyes to wider truths," explains the half-alien ambassador, referring to her mother's accounts of Earth.

On the surface, the aptly titled Launch Pad, also the title of the first short story, explains the islandnation's role in pursuing space exploration for Earth.

But the book serves another role. It is a fictional, convincingly imagined "launch pad" for its readers, introducing them to the quirks of our 52-year-old nation.

If you like this, read: The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid (Epigram Books, 2017, $20.86, Books Kinokuniya), about a young medusa who flees with her sister to an underground settlement after inadvertently turning an entire village to stone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'A future where Singaporean quirks remain'. Print Edition | Subscribe