In a world where a ruthless police-state controls access to dreams, a young security official rebels by turning dreams into art. A time-traveler awakes from hibernation into a future where people dye their skin in bright colors to reflect their inner personalities and create a utopia – but all is not what it seems. With the help of her lover, a shape-shifting being escapes from a government-run facility where she has been held captive for years, but makes a new enemy in the process. A young couple goes on a sightseeing spree after committing a brutal murder. A jaded soldier living in a post-apocalyptic Kuala Lumpur blighted by an unnamed virus discovers a pearl of new wisdom while reflecting atop of a monkey-infested skyscraper.

These and other stories make up the world of 2020: An Anthology: a new, haunting collection of tales and narratives ranging from the whimsical to the fantastic, from the comical to the horrifying, from the mundane to the moving, and featuring dream-like narratives, sentient animals, queer protagonists, dystopian fables from a near future, and stories of love, loss, belonging and identity, besides much else.

The twenty short pieces in 2020: An Anthology have been collected from some of Malaysia’s emerging contemporary writers, who represent a range of genres, talents and literary interests, and thus reflect the outlook of a generation of youth on the progress of their country. The genesis for this collection appears to be Wawasan 2020 (or Vision 2020), a Malaysian government policy first announced in 1991 by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which called for Malaysia to become a fully-developed, mature and liberal society (amongst other things) by the year 2020.

Naturally, the stories tend to be oriented around the lofty vision laid out by this document, using the tools of speculative fiction, non-fiction and even comics to critique and analyze Malaysia’s progress towards this goal. While the common threads between these stories are easily identifiable, their full scope isn’t apparent until after a full reading of the collection, upon which they fall roughly into three categories.

First, there are the stories concerned with themes of division, unity, identity and aspiration: a middle-aged lawyer contrasts her success as a professional with her failures as a spouse and a parent, as she mentors the young, privileged daughter of a childhood friend (“The Accidental”); an expatriate writer reflects on the voluntary and imposed nature of identity, how it both oppresses and liberates, and emerges naturally at the confluence of various accumulated experiences (“Geographical Constant”); a rebellious time-traveler seeking to escape her past in the year 2020, wakes up in the year 4040, only to realize how much her past gave her life meaning and perspective, and seeks to rebel against her new utopia by resurrecting the past (“Skin Dyes”); a young Malaysian recounts the thrills and absurdities of his travels in the United States, his narrative becoming a touchstone for the perspective of visitors from emerging markets to the West (“Standing in the Eyes of the World”).

The second grouping of stories revolves around the themes of tribalism, development, corruption, poverty and social justice: a popular food vendor belonging to a minority community has to contend with the changing politics of a country as it shapes how her business is perceived, despite selling the same product, unchanged, for nearly 20 years (“Masalodeh”); the discovery of a body and a pouch of cash in an alleyway near a neighborhood eatery uncorks long-dormant ambitions, and a spiral of violence that ends in tragedy for many, but hope for a stray dog (“The Alley”); a criminal is forced to relive the sexual crimes he inflicted upon his daughter through the use of advanced, state-sponsored, simulation technology designed by his daughter (“Hukum”); an account of the inaugural Malaysian space mission to the Moon becomes a scathing satire of the flaws, corruption and compromises of Malaysian society and polity as the mission devolves into debacle (“Program #Angkasaraya2030”).

The last thematic grouping of stories focuses on relationships, traditional society and social empowerment: in “The Last Farewell”, a dying millionaire is reconnected to his estranged son by well-meaning friends, only for a horrifying truth about their relationship to come out; Malaysia’s transformation into a Kafkaesque, culturally-majoritarian, Muslim society is analyzed in a thinly-veiled satire through the eyes of a member of a religious and ethnic minority (“The White-Clothed Society”); and a young gay couple weighs the pros and cons of coming out to their traditional parents while reflecting on how their identities have been shaped as much as by their parents’ approval of them, as their own approval of themselves (“Is It Safe To Come Out Now?”).

Resonant through this collection is a note of weary resignation with the pace of progress in Malaysia, which anyone with roots in an emerging market society can relate to, and these pieces possess an ethereal, readable quality to them even as they’re freighted by the visceral problems of Malaysian society. In fact, while the Malaysian setting, use of the Malaysian vernacular, and Malay cultural references may make them inaccessible (at least initially) to a non-Malaysian reader, the spare, unapologetic prose gives them an incisiveness that all readers will find refreshing and familiar, making them universal in scope, relevance and appeal.

Malaysia’s rich history as a peninsular state located a strategic geographic juncture, carved out of the carcass of a dying empire, peopled by multicultural communities deposited by the social ebb, flow and maritime traffic of centuries, and fractured by the trauma of Western colonialism and imperialism (from which it is still recovering), is never quite addressed directly, but looms unacknowledged in the background, colouring much of the insights on the page. Taken together, these pieces paint a portrait of the fractured, multifaceted nature of Malaysia, a society still at odds with itself and its identity (between a rich multiculturalism and a reactionary tribalism, between a pluralist past and a dogmatic present), which refuses to neatly and easily conform to expectations riddled with contradictions that contain their own nuances.

While the setting for these stories is squarely Malaysian, they transcend their cultural limits by appealing to timeless, universal themes – the struggle for equality, dignity, justice and empowerment in a time-and-chance universe; the desire for recognition and familiarity in an impersonal society; the maddening, kaleidoscopic fragility of relationships and the faux-precision of identity; the anchoring, securing nature of love, loss and belonging in an ever-changing world – and are strangely evocative of the more mature works of Kazuo Ishiguro, V.S. Naipaul or Jeffrey Archer. It was the Italian fabulist Italo Calvino who once remarked in a 1983 speech that “most of the books I have written and those I intend to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it”. It seems as though the authors the pieces in this collection were motivated by a similar instinct.

It is this fine balance between the Malaysian and the international, the contemporary and the timeless, which gives this collection its heft, its stories their edge, and makes one keep turning the pages in one’s mind long after the book has been read. They’re rickety, but impactful, and range from science fiction to incisive drama to hard-hitting social criticism. What they lack in subtlety and polish, they make up for in inventiveness and raw impact. While the quality of the prose is spare and minimal, it works in this context, imbuing these stories with weight and candor that more florid prose might dilute. These stories will no doubt be all-too-familiar to self-described global citizens, expatriates and a third-culture kids who struggle to reconcile their national origins with their transnational identities. And if nothing else, they’ll at least provide stimulating entertainment to lighten up an evening of quiet reading.

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Prashanth Gopalan
Prashanth Gopalan is a writer based in Toronto. His writings have previously appeared in the Huffington Post, Actionable Books and tech-related publications.