The Infinite Library And Other Stories by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (book review).

November 9, 2020 | By | Reply More

For some time it has been a tradition to ask contributors to an anthology to write stories on a particular theme. Since the imagination can head off in any direction, the stories often take varies approaches with only the theme linking them. Single author collections with a theme running through the stories is rarer. Two excellent ones are ‘The Palladin Mandates’ by Mike Chinn and ‘Where Furnaces Burn’ by Joel Lane. The stories in both of these were written and published separately in various places but have the same principal characters and settings. Then there is the collection where a common element runs through all the stories.

The stories in Victor Ocampo’s collection, ‘The Infinite Library And Other Stories’, are very varied ranging from supernatural to Science Fiction, from the philosophical to the surreal and within each one is the idea of the Infinite Library, a place where everything that has or will be written can be found. In some stories, this is a central aspect such as ‘Synchronicity’ where, after surviving a car crash in the middle of nowhere, Felix is able to catch a passing bus. The only other passenger is a Jesuit priest. The ride is non-stop to the Infinite Library. During the journey they learn about each other and themselves. In some senses this an after-death story using a bus as a vehicle for carrying the passengers on the next stage of existence.

Thus the library can be regarded not just of all written materials but of that which unwritten. There is more than one way of reaching the library. In ‘Brother To Space, Sister To Time’, siblings are sent in the last warp capable ship into a black hole which they discover is an access point to the Infinite Library. ‘Resurrection 2.0’ is an end of the world story in which the last librarian on Earth is attempting to upload all knowledge to the Infinite Library before the final destruction.

In other stories, the Library appears as a concept or even in a dream. This may seem like a cliché but, when the material is as skilfully handled as in ‘Exit Quiapo Station’, that doesn’t matter. Quiapo Station is a waypoint on the lift system to a city in geostationary orbit. Annie is one of the workers keeping the lift and is trapped when it is hit by a meteorite. A lot is packed into the story and the dream is not Annie’s but that of Lance, one of the wealthy passengers. It also occurs in a dream in ‘Big Enough For The Entire Universe’.

This, however has more detail and features the infinite number of monkeys at their typewriters. One of them gives the dreamer an algorithm that portends the destruction of the city. ‘Entanglement’ could be considered a sequel to ‘Big Enough For The Entire Universe’. It references the story and the protagonist uses an algorithm to create his ideal woman. Both consider different aspects of love. Joseph in ‘Mene, Thecel. Phares’ also dreams of the library. He is a young Filipino writer in exile who takes refuge in a sanatorium. The dream gives him the clarity to decide his future.

Sometimes, there is only the briefest glimpse of the library. In ‘Here Be Dragons’, the child Isabella finds a shop of that name that sells only maps. She has a passion for maps and orders a map of her life. As the Infinite Library contains everything, the glimpse she has is of where the map will ultimately be stored.

One of the most thoughtful and memorable stories is ‘Blessed Are The Hungry’. The setting is in the steerage section of a generation ship where something has gone wrong. The people are ruled by a Catholic hierarchy that expects the population to keep growing even as the food resources diminish. The events are seen through the eyes of Elsa, the spirited eldest daughter of one family. The story is able to convey the idea of a suppression of the masses in the name of religion, the issues surrounding hunger and the class system. The Infinite Library with its million monkeys gets a passing mention as well.

One of the joys of reading the stories in this volume is the way that they are intertwined and reference each other despite having very different settings and characters. Authors are frequently told to write about what they know, thus the main characters are Filipino and Ocampo draws on his experiences to create them. The styles of the stories vary from the standard narrative to the academic paper in ‘An Excerpt From The Philippine Journal Of Archaeology, 4 October, 1916’ complete with footnotes, to the futuristic text speak in ‘I’m d 1 in 10’ in which the lottery for advancement comes with terms and conditions that most people don’t bother to read until it is too late.

Ocampo successfully experiments with different approaches to the story he wants to tell, many of them are not linear in the telling.

A number of the stories draw on the mythology and customs of the Philippines. Even if the idea of the Infinite Library isn’t part of the folklore it feels as if it should be.

All the stories in this volume are excellent and the volume deserved its short-listing for the 2018 Rubery Award. It is a delightful collection of stories.

Pauline Morgan

October 2020

(pub: Math Pater Press, Singapore, 2017. 252 page paperback. Price: $19.00 (SGD) ISBN: 978-981-11-3851-5)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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