Debut collection crammed with ideas

Victor Ocampo's The Infinite Library is the kind of book that you ought to savour, but cannot help tearing through in one sitting. Like the neverending bibliotheca it is named after - an image which runs like a leitmotif through many of the 17 stories here - this debut collection from a Singapore-based Filipino writer is crammed full of ideas, invention and subversion.

"Here be dragons" is the legend that can be found, peppering Ocampo's fantastical tales: the graffiti on an ancient ekranoplan here; the name of an enigmatic map shop there.

Yet, here, too, as with the best of genre fiction, is the manic energy of a million monkeys typing towards a feverish sociological dream, the author's imaginative powers harnessed to make incisive comments and digs at the cultures he inhabits.

In the first story, Mene, Thecel, Phares, a young writer named Joseph Mercado drifts in an alternate, steam-punk Europe after his family in the Philippines ships him off to escape political persecution by the Spanish.

Told in the third person, interspersed with excerpts from fictional non-fiction books and with a choose-your-own ending, the story is a remix or through-the-looking-glass version of Filipino national hero Jose Rizal's narrative.

The story's title references a note left behind by a character in Rizal's second novel, El Filibusterismo. Fiction echoes history, which in turn echoes fiction, and so on, in a verbal hall of mirrors.

  • [FICTION] THE INFINITE LIBRARY AND OTHER STORIES

  • By Victor Fernando R. Ocampo

    Math Paper Press/ Paperback/257 pages/ $20.33/Books Kinokuniya

    Rating: 4.5/5

Similarly, Blessed Are The Hungry refracts the People Power revolution, which helped topple the Marcos regime in 1986 - except the uprising takes place on a space ship, with the help of a telepathic novice monk.

Faux documents appear often in Ocampo's writing, lending authenticity to his layered worlds, as well as a convenient way to lay bare bias in our own contemporary world.

An Excerpt From The Philippine Journal Of Archaeology, 4 October, 1916 is a story in the form of a scientific paper co-authored by a pair of archaeologists from the "Miskatonic University, Arkham, Massachusetts", examining an enigmatic mass grave on the slope of Mount Pinatubo. Ostensibly objective, the footnotes to the paper reveal prejudice against local people and lore, along with something more sinister and mythical at work.

In a final footnote, one of the archaeologists, a Dr Ashley, is quoted: "The natives here are good-natured, but simple minded. It is a sad fact that it will be the burden of America to write their history."

It is both a critique of the problems of, and inherent power residing in, representation in a post-colonial world, as well as an attempt to rewrite and excavate history through literature. Writing, thus, becomes an act of national salvage and recovery.

Elsewhere, Ocampo gleefully takes leaves from Argentine short story great Jorge Luis Borges, as well as from science-fiction luminaries such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Ken Liu, and even Japanese anime.

How My Sister Leonora Brought Home A Wife recalls the gender-less civilisations of Le Guin's The Left Hand Of Darkness; while I M D1 In 10, written in hard-to-decipher but to-the-point SMS/Internet spelling, is a manifesto in the form of an end-user licensing agreement that cautions against blind conformity.

Synchronicity takes Beckett's black, nihilist humour - a widower finds himself on a long bus ride with a priest - and puts a Greek myth-plus-romance stamp on it.

Neat narrative and mental loops feature in tales such as The Old Blue Notebook and Dyschronometria, Or The Bells Are Always Screaming. And Infinite Degrees Of Freedom plays out like a mash-up of the Alien franchise with Disney's Big Hero Six.

Most fun of all, Singapore and its soul, or lack thereof, comes in for light ribbing in a couple of stories.

In Big Enough For The Entire Universe, a cold interrogator grills the inhabitants of a Bukit Batok housing block involved in a disaster of surprising proportion.

Continuing in the same vein, a creepy lover in Entanglement has a book titled Reprogramming Singaporeans For Fun And Profit on his shelf.

Lovingly spun and told with a keen eye on familial relationships, as well as the inexorable desires of humankind, these stories signal that Ocampo may well be becoming the gold standard in South-east Asian speculative fiction.

Here's looking forward to more stories from the infinite library in his mind.

If you like this, read: The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories by Ken Liu (Head Of Zeus, 2016, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of speculative fiction which tackles the big questions of human evolution, discrimination, war and peace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2018, with the headline 'Debut collection crammed with ideas'. Print Edition | Subscribe