NOVA HELLAS: STORIES FROM FUTURE GREECE edited by Francesca T. Barbini & Francesco Verso

Nova Hellas: Stories From Future Greece
Edited by Francesca T. Barbini & Francesco Verso
Luna Press Publishing — March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387389
— Paperback — 152 pp.


CONTENTS:

Introduction by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Roseweed” by Vasso Christou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Social Engineering” by Kostas Charitos (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“The Human(c)ity of Athens” by Ionna Bourazopoulou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Baghdad Square” by Michalis Monolios (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“The Bee Problem” by Yiannis Papadopoulos & Stamatis Stamatopoulos (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“T2” by Kelly Theodorakopoulou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Those We Serve” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

“Abacos” by Lina Theodorou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Any Old Disease” by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Android Whores Can’t Cry” by Natalia Theodoridou

“The Colour that Defines Me” by Stamatis Stamatopoulos (Translated by Stephanie Polakis)

I’d originally meant to review this anthology of Greek science fiction for Speculative Fiction in Translation. However, I became delayed in writing the review and Rachel Cordasco got her own review of it posted onto her site in the meantime. I agree wholeheartedly with her general praise for Nova Hellas, but I had different personal favorites from it. Her review is definitely still worth checking out for comparison.

The collection starts strongly, with a pair of my favorites. “Roseweed” is set in a post-climate change dystopia where divers and engineers explore the lower floors of partially submerged buildings for structural integrity. They are hired as part of a plan to turn these spots into ‘escape rooms’ for rich tourists looking for the thrill of visiting abandoned locations filled with the allure of danger and risk among the decay. The story highlights one of the repeating themes of the anthology: that amid disheartening futures, people find ways to go on and live amid the changes. Even when it is still the rich that are carelessly exploiting environments and the classes beneath them, regular people find some semblance of optimism amid those challenges or frustrations.

The story that follows, “Social Engineering” likewise does a great job establishing one of the unifying features to the anthology, the merging of the Classical Greece with the Modern and the Future. This short story literally overlays the periods in an Athens that is cloaked within artificial, or ‘augmented’ realities. The protagonist of the story has been hired to influence an upcoming city referendum, and the plot delves into how engineering at the level of physical urban planning but also through directed social interaction may create more issues than solutions.

Those themes of society hidden underneath veneers or layers, and the interplay between the architectural hardware of a place (with its loaded history) and the individuals who fit into that system like cogs comes up again in different ways in “The Human(c)ity of Athens”, and then another artificial reality in “Baghdad City”. Interestingly – and I assume intentionally – that specific portmanteau of ‘humancity’ appears in a later story of the anthology as well (T2, if I recall), striking alternate tones to the same theme(s).

Like Rachel, I enjoyed the classic science fiction vibes of “Those We Serve”, with its artificial intelligences that have ‘replaced’ human counterparts, and the mystery of “Any Old Disease” that called to mind questions of what we consider biological versus not. “The Bee Problem” similarly evokes thoughts on the intersections between the biological and the artificial when the performance of drones becomes affected by a return of native bee populations.

Very short, “Abacos” had a transcript format that I didn’t really enjoy, though it is certainly well composed as that. It shares with “Android Whores Can’t Cry” an element of trying to reconstruct a past, the truth, from recording, which is interesting. I remain uncertain over that last story, probably the most challenging in the anthology, and needing a reread.

The story that closes out Nova Hellas was another of my top favorites. “The Colour That Defines You” occurs in a future world where some unexplained event has caused humans to no longer see colors. In general, people are left only seeing shades of gray from black to white… except for one specific color that is unique to each and every person. Pure happenstance leads some to discover the identity of that one color their brain can process. Others haven’t yet found it. Through the story we follow the threads of several intersecting characters and how this unique situation ends up defining their existence. What if the only color one could perceive was that of fresh, scarlet, blood? The set up for this is pure MacGuffin, but Stamatopoulos takes the literal plot, as well as its symbolisms in fascinating directions.

I can’t say as I’ve ever read science fiction – or even any fiction – from Greece before, but I’m glad to have had this opportunity to discover new authors and see their visions of common, but varied, themes in the genre. A huge amount of thanks to Luna Press Publishing for making works such as this available, and as always to my friend and partner in crime Rachel Cordasco of SF in Translation for helping to spread the word. [For legal reasons, Rachel and Daniel do no actually engage in criminal enterprise.]


NEXHUMAN by Francesco Verso

Nexhuman
By Francesco Verso
Translated by Sally McCorry
Apex Book Company — August 2018
ISBN: 9781937009656
228 Pages — Paperback


The discarded detritus of human civilization has overwhelmed the near future Earth, submerging society in kipple junk that many turn to scavenging for survival. This dystopic landscape of garbage has triggered further ecological misbalance, cultivating new endemic pathogens to menace humanity. Coupled with technological advances in bodily transformation and the expansion of immersive artificial realities, people are left disconnected from the natural world, and emotionally from one another.

Teenage Peter Payne lives with his mother and elder brother Charlie, but spends his time out working for Charlie by scavenging among the kipple, and running with The Dead Bones, a gang led by Charlie. Although his elder brother’s presence dominates his life, Peter doesn’t look up to Charlie with much respect. Sibling rivalry and Charlie’s abuse of Peter for personal gain span years, back to a horrific accident that left Peter with artificial limbs.

Whereas Charlie and other members of The Dead Bones look to the broken world and respond with further cruelty, Peter’s temperament eyes the world seeing the flashes of beauty that still remain, including a young woman, named Alba, who treats Peter with smiles, conversation, and a yearned-for general kindness that is otherwise absent from his existence.

However, one day that small spot of beauty in Peter’s life is savagely torn apart when Peter witnesses The Dead Bones take Alva and rip her into pieces. Peter realizes that Alba is a nexhuman, an advanced artificial human body that has had a human consciousness uploaded. Charlie and his gang have taken the one spot of beauty in Peter’s life to use for violent, carnal thrills, and ultimately profit from the sale of Alba’s parts. Society doesn’t consider nexhumans as really alive, and thus there is no murder, but Peter cannot see how this brutality could be any less heinous.

Peter sets out to recover Alba’s parts with the dream of restoring her to consciousness and life, to then profess his love and devotion to her. However this obsession places him squarely against his brother, alienates him from his mother and friends, and puts him at risk of more bodily harm.

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman is thus a melange of Frankenstein and transhumanist cyberpunk, adopting the term kipple from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the short length of the novel is packed with grand ideas of biology, transhumanism, consummerism, and human interactions. Sally McCorry’s translation of Verso’s Italian into English flows lyrically and brightly even through passages of dark violence to contrast with the dim, dank rubbish of the novel’s setting.

As a piece of speculative fiction set in the near future, Nexhuman contains both scientific and technological details to enrich the story. As a microbiologist I was ecstatic to see microbes mentioned repeatedly, where changes in the microbial communities that form the base of all life end up effecting the human characters in significant ways. While praising this inclusion I have to also criticize the errors in some of those details though. The text sadly conflates different groups of microbes: protists, bacteria, viruses, etc. To what degree the confusion between a bacteria and a virus here (for example) is due to translation or in the original I’m uncertain. But even with those errors I’m glad the subject is there, with changes in other organisms highlighted alongside the changes in human biology that the Nexhuman setting provides.

The overarching theme of transcendence amidst global ecological changes sits central to all aspects of Nexhuman. The increasing separation of humanity from the natural world and traditional human relationships drives people further into existences of distance and artifice. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, the uploading of a mind into the nexhuman form to live past death. To overcome that defining natural relationship of mortal fate. How diverged from the human body can one be while remaining ‘human’? Can virtual relationships supplant the absence of physical ones? Can existence in the world still proceed when no longer balanced with the rest of ecology? Can we transcend the biological when that foundational ecology it is built upon breaks apart under the weight of human impact?

Verso writes his characters dealing with these questions in largely non-judgmental strokes, leaving it up to the reader to see a mixture of both the promisingly good and disturbingly bad in Peter, secondary characters, or the world of the novel in general. There is much nobility in Peter, yet his obsession over Alba is also disturbingly intense and possessive, bearing little consideration over whether she would actually be grateful for his help, have any romantic feelings for him, etc.

Peter’s relationship (or really non-relationship) with Alba thereby illustrates the separation that has occurred between people in Nexhuman. Individuals have a harder time understanding both the nature of themselves, and of the Other. Peter defines Alba solely through his own emotions and desires. A nexhuman woman who simply smiled and is kindly polite to him is now an object of sexual obsession, someone who he imagines with be beholden to him when he ‘saves’ her. The lack of emotional interaction between people has left everyone, even Peter, with an ability to look past selfish considerations. Though he occasionally wonders if Alba would stay with him or reject him were he able to restore her body to life, Peter never fully seems capable of looking at her realistically as someone apart from his desires.

The thematic depth and elegant prose of Nexhuman make it a powerful and throught-provoking read that will also entertain without requiring a large time commitment. I originally picked up a copy of this on Rachel Cordasco’s recommendation (Speculative Fiction in Translation), as a possible text to use in a Biology in Fiction course I teach. With all the discussion this book could provoke, I certainly intend to use it. I hope you’ll check it out too if you’re intrigued.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for one more review of an Apex title here later this month.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.