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★★★★☆ Book Review: A Fickle and Restless Weapon by Jason Erik Lundberg

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Well-crafted fantasy version of Singapore brings the satire and drama in full force.

Singapore is a country that’s often touted as so modern, it belongs in a science fiction film. Heck, even HBO’s Westworld filmed here on location for its third season. So it’s little wonder that with a little imagination, our island home serves as the perfect base for a refreshingly original science fiction story, as Jason Erik Lundberg does in A Fickle and Restless Weapon. 

Spanning an alternative history from 1999 to the mid 2010s, A Fickle and Restless Weapon is simultaneously new yet hauntingly familiar to any Singaporean. Set in the fictitious country of Tinhau, a multi-racial, multicultural island-nation where government-run ministries are the norm, the novel follows multiple protagonists as they find themselves increasingly embroiled in an anti-establishment plot that threatens to unhinge and destabilise the government.

There’s ‘Zed’ Quek Zhou Ma returning to Tinhau for his elder sister’s funeral, a theatremaker who’s dealing with how much the island has changed in his absence. Encounter a terrible bombing on opening night of his new Ministry of Culture-sponsored show by local resistance group Red Dhole, he falls into a state of ill-repute when the government turns against him and defames him into nothingness. He encounters Tara, a graphic designer with the Ministry of Culture, and is herself somehow related to the resistance group and tries to recruit him, yet soon finds herself increasingly unable to. And Vahid Nabizadeh, Zed’s creative partner and a master puppeteer, just wants to live his life as a migrant, but unwittingly gets involved as well, while nursing his own share of grief and new love. Each of them struggling with their own respective identities, place and purpose, things come to a head with the sudden appearance of the Range, a mysterious cloud formation and weapon ready to destroy Tinhau at a moment’s notice.

Lundberg has evidently spent much time thinking through the world of Tinhau, neatly weaving in ideas of Chinese funerals, hawker centres and local culture with sci-fi elements, from multi-armed races, shapeshifting powers, and alien invasions. There’s a wry sense of humour employed throughout the novel, its characters finding themselves in wildly improbable situations (and reacting appropriately). Lundberg knows how to find the ordinary in the extraordinary, and keeps us reading thanks to his keen understanding of characterisation, where every person we meet may possess incredible skills and backstories, yet are realistic and believable in their presentation (if you lived in this fantasy world, that is).

Lundberg expertly paces the story as well, weaving between big, bold action sequences and quieter, reflective ones as characters take time to themselves to consider their positions and futures. There’s more than enough twists and turns to keep readers on their feet as well – by no means should they expect a straightforward narrative at all, with double agents, and a timely reintroduction of a character from the prelude who reappears later on. While there are times one wishes certain concepts were explained more (the idea of mutant ‘swees’ with powers is never fully explored, and not particularly integral to the plot), there is enough going on that we remain curious about this world Lundberg has built and its inhabitants, that one would appreciate a follow-up resource that helps document the concepts and history of Tinhau.

At the heart of A Fickle and Restless Weapon however, is the theme of identity, and one that Lundberg uses the sci-fi genre to bring out well. Characters are distinctly queer – specifically gay, and transgender. The former is integral to the character’s choices and his relation to his future partner (a closeted gay man of high social standing) affecting the way he chooses to live his life. The latter comes as a surprise, and uses the idea of transformation to deal with sexual discrimination and disparity, a fluidity to their identity that offers in equal parts pain and understanding. And when it all comes down to just what A Fickle and Restless Weapon is about, well, it really is about humanity’s ability to adapt, change and survive in the face of incredible change and pressure, thanks to our ability to empathise and relate to one another.

A Fickle and Restless Weapon is armed with rich imagination refined by good writing and editing, layering an already culturally rich city with even more lines of meaning and mythicism. Easily immersing us into this bizarro world with enough heart and humour to keep us reading, Lundberg’s novel is a fascinating addition to the Singaporean sci-fi canon, one that for all its oddities is a strong reflection of our current and future state of identity politics, and one that’s worth reading for its sheer audacity, bold ideas, and unforgettable characters. 

Recommended for: Readers looking to reimagine Singapore in a new, yet oddly familiar light, and are hungry for a riotous, drama-filled adventure about identity politics.

A Fickle and Restless Weapon is published by Epigram and available here

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