Mostly on the right track, but not without faults
The stories in Nicholas Yong's Track Faults run the gamut from refreshing to forgettable
By Chua Xin Rong
Track Faults and Other Glitches: Stories of the Impossible in Singapore
Nicholas Yong's first collection of speculative fiction showcases his broad imagination and willingness to tackle a range of sub-genres. The stories can be categorised as follows: those that paint an unfamiliar Singapore that nevertheless retains classic Singaporean characteristics; those that depict everyday Singapore life with a surprising twist; and a couple of modernised folk tales. The breadth of the collection suggests that the reader willing to stick around will eventually find something of interest.
To that end, Yong opens the collection with its most attention-grabbing story, "The Ministry of Zombie Advancement". It depicts a fully functioning Singapore society – comprised of zombies. Beneath the "mud and bloodstains" and the wails and moans the zombies use as greetings, the rank-and-file protagonist has concerns that are very familiar. He has to miss out on a warm home-cooked dinner to take notes at an important meeting, where he has to face a bad-tempered superior. Except, as a zombie, these concerns manifest themselves somewhat differently. His daughter is cutting off her lips to showcase her rotting teeth; the dinner is a "prime cut of brain" from a Japanese supermarket; the angry superior might tear chunks of flesh off his unfortunate subordinates with his teeth.
At the meeting, shocking news is delivered: a virus is turning zombies into humans. The ensuing debate showcases a very recognisable bureaucracy. An inter-ministerial working group is proposed. A hard-nosed, well-connected official suggests that the infected be culled, an approach that endears him to no one. A senior zombie recalls a conversation with the Zombie Mentor about adapting to the inevitable. This advice gives the protagonist the composure to assure his wife that "everything's going to be all right". By analogy, Yong implies that the willingness to embrace the unknown and the ties of family will allow society to endure through great change.
Yong expands on the theme of kinship using devices from science fiction and magical realism. In "Wake Me up When It's 2116", a couple sends their terminally-ill son to the future to await a cure. They die before their son is revived, but their old friend sees the task through for them. In this way, trust and kinship allow love and hope to outlast the confines of a mortal lifespan. Elsewhere, a dog ("Haru") offers dog treats, her blood, and prayers to summon the dog god. When the god appears, Haru explains that she wishes to protect her owners out of gratitude for their love. The god tells Haru about the tragedy that has nearly broken the hearts of her owners. This knowledge helps guide Haru's actions in the linked short story "Hui Ling". While readers of this book are probably not in the habit of leaving dog treats as offerings or popping over to a hibernation centre for treatment, they can certainly identify with the willingness of the characters to endure hardship and risk for their loved ones.
As the collection progresses, there is a shift towards the opposite tack of destabilising a familiar setting. The most effective of such stories begin with a mundane setting and a supernatural happening that seems almost plausible. "Track Faults" earns its status as the titular story by transforming a routine subway malfunction into the mysterious disappearance of a train that shocks, intrigues and, in a way, unites the country. The narrative begins with a family separated by the disaster. One brother is on the train that vanishes. Oblivious to their fate, the passengers treat it as a regular breakdown and begin to post irritated messages on social media ("Train break down again. FML"), or are glued to their screens in an attempt to find out if the "handsome soldier" and "beauteous surgeon" of their Korean drama will get together. The other brother has to field the angry enquiries of the public: "How long is [the inquiry] going to take? Do you know that my fiancée is on that train? Do you really expect me to be patient?". He earns the cooperation of the crowd with the revelation that his brother is on the missing train. This connection reminds the reader that what we think of as cogs in an organisation are also people with families.
The disappearance rapidly becomes conversation fodder islandwide. Amidst cigarette smoke, friends at a coffee shop attribute the event to aliens and time travel. Another suggests that the mascot of the train operator, Captain SMRT, should be sent out in his "garish, skin-tight red outfit" to investigate. Slowly, as the loss sinks in, people spontaneously leave flowers, cards, keepsakes and soft toys at the station where the train had disappeared. In doing so, the force of the crowd transforms the station into a memorial that symbolises the shared loss. Yong is a journalist by day, and his reporter side shines as he depicts the routine preoccupations of Singaporeans as well as the wry humour and gestures used to cope with disaster.
The other stories in this category, however, are less compelling. "Polling Day" has a reporter flit from a world where the Opposition Party wins six out of 89 seats to one where they win 28. There are amusing tidbits that will resound with those familiar with Singaporeans. There are voters who curse the government "in the most imaginative Hokkien phrases he had ever heard", but pretend to "study their smartphones" upon "spotting his reporter's notebook or camera". The delighted Opposition Party supporter appears as if he had "just struck 4D with the numbers he obtained from a car crash". Sadly, the story does not explore the possibilities within this counter-factual future; a more compelling narrative might have resulted from the approach of Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, where a story arc sees the opposition leader Lim Chin Siong become the prime minister.
"You'll Believe a Man Can Fly" also features a reporter, this time one who is burnt-out to the point that he hears an imaginary superhero telling him that he can fly. A concerned colleague/love interest comforts him and he wonders "why he had never had the courage" to chat her up. However, in the concluding paragraphs, this cautious optimism abruptly vanishes, leading to an unsatisfying ending.
In "A Dream Within a Dream", a patient taken off life support remains breathing for the next hour. The story shifts back and forth between the perspective of the patient and that of the young doctor supervising the procedure. The intention seems to be to zoom in on the process of death so that we can contemplate the closure we seek when our end is imminent. What results is a jumble of settings to mark each shift to the patient's perspective. We are first floating on a boat at sea, then sitting in a park, then watching an opera. Eventually, the backstory of the patient is revealed, but without much justification for why we should sympathise with his plight.
Yong rounds off his tour of sub-genres with two campfire staples updated for the modern age. The narrator of "Three Nights in Camp" recounts the nights when a "tall hooded figure in black appeared in the army bunk", wearing a cloak like "one of the Ringwraiths in the Lord of the Rings movies", and the exorcism that follows. The collection closes with "The Uncle in the Kopitiam". In the story, the narrator meets an old man in the coffee shop who tells him "the classic folk tale, with a love story, a magic spell, divine intervention, a tragic ending, and a talking animal to boot", complete with a "once upon a time". The story (and book) ends on a frisson of realisation that perhaps gods and spirits still walk amongst us -- a fitting ending for a collection that mines the mundane for the magical.
On the whole, the collection succeeds in using ordinary happenings as gateways into alternate realities. Yong applies his detailed knowledge of the quirks of life in Singapore with deft humour in the bizarre realms of his "what if"s. The collection thus maintains a connection with reality and emotional truth. Taken as a collection, Track Faults is more than just a series of thrills and chills. Rather, it serves as a reminder that kinship and compassion are the strongest talismans against the terrors of the unknown, particularly those that lie in the mysterious world of the future.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018