Aztec-Futurism, Mental Monster Movies, and Chinese Speculative Fiction

Quick fiction recommendations featuring Latine fiction, mesoamerican mythology in a variety of configurations, Chinese history and politics, and a variety of possible futures.

Lords of the Earth

Rating: ★★★★★

The high concept movie pitch for this book is: Mesoamerican myth meets Godzilla. But Hollywood would never make this movie, and not only because they’re afraid of having a predominantly Latine cast. (Although now I’m imagining Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo Del Toro teaming up to bring this to the big screen … It would be amazing.) The real reason Hollywood could never bring this majestic adventure to the screen is that it would require a fundamental reconfiguration of the archetypes they rely on to make up the difference between “high concept” movie pitches and “great stories.”

This book has, at its core, the very thing that made the original Japanese Godzilla movies so good (and that which has been largely absent from any Western remakes) – there is no singular epistemology which will account for everything humanity is set to encounter. Just as in Mothra it is necessary to return to the folk stories to save Japan, so in Lords of the Earth must Western science meet and meld with indigenous knowledge to save Mexico and the world from the creatures awakened in the Earth’s mantle.

Bowles does a wonderful job fleshing out his characters in unexpected (though nevertheless natural) ways. He manages that nigh impossible feat of presenting genuinely complex – and at times irritating – characters in a way that lets them be fully human. We get to know them in the way you know old friends, full of faults and genius and particularities that make someone we can love.

The form of the novel shifts between points of view (always in the third person) and carefully unfolds the tangled history binding the different voices of the novel together. The famous physicist and TV host, the decorated general, and the Indigenous archeologist form the core of the story, with a shared, semi-public history spanning decades. Now, trapped together by the apocalyptic events set in motion by the emergence of huge, unknown creatures from Mexico’s volcanoes, that history is determined to meet its denoument.

In many ways, reading this book is more like being along for the ride than the slow unspooling and discovery of the narrative which can be said to characterize other SF/F stories. Despite its conglomoration of mysteries (What happened to bind Elena and General Marcos? Where did these monsters come from? How does an upstate New York transplant to Texas in the 1930s factor into all this? How did Elena and Alfonso end up so at odds with one another?) the action never abates.

So, if you like giant monsters, science, mythology, and adorable, kind of fucked up people trying to save the world, you should definitely take this one for a spin.

High Aztech

Rating: ★★★★★

Another book from the Latine SF/F Story bundle curated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and another unadulterated triumph. I’ve already described it elsewhere as “The book American Gods wishes it was,” but that feels like a diminishment of what High Aztech achieves. (No insult intended to Neil Gaiman.)

High Aztech has all the best parts of cyberpunk/futurepunk speculative and science fiction. It makes me want to convince you of the potential for Aztec-Futurism as a mesoamerican corralary to Afro-Futurism. The novel has mind altering viruses, weird technologies, and a new world order following a global cataclysm (never fully explained). Hogan grabs you, the reader, and immerses you without remorse in the vibrant, familiar unknown world of Tenochtitlan – a new Mexico City undergoing a cultural revolution oriented toward bringing back Aztec beliefs.

The novel overflows with the mid-80s to early-90s hallucinogenic perpetual reconfiguration, like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Repo Man, except that to survive this story you had better get familiar with Nahuatl and the Aztec pantheon. It’s all worth it.

I haven’t been so moved or so convinced by a transcendental, spiritual apotheosis since I finished Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Finally, at a moment when the U.S. and Mexico are poised to alientate themselves even further than already provided for by history, this is a story about perspective, and has more than enough political allegory for those not won over by awesome futuristic polyphonic insanity.

Broken Stars

Rating: ★★★★☆

The English-speaking world owes Ken Liu an enormous thank you. With 2017’s Invisible Planets and now with Broken Stars, Liu is bringing some of the best contemporary science fiction to audiences who cannot read Chinese.

Trying to compress my gushing praise and enthusiasm for Invisible Stars to comply with the limitations of coherent English is essentially impossible. Thus far it has most effectively been conveyed through immediate purchase and distribution of Invisible Planets to friends and loved ones, as well as fractured sentences, hand waving, and pleas for people to believe me when I say they must read it, if they wish to experience the full spectrum of what this life has to offer. In short: It’s amazing. Waste no time. Go read it immediately.

But that’s not Broken Planets. Broken Planets is also a requirement for anyone who wishes to experience the totality of human experience. It also requires slightly more patience and is possibly best considered as a more advanced continuation of what Ken Liu started with Invisible Planets.

The stories in Broken Stars are longer and combined with Liu’s push to include both more material from authors featured in the original collection as well as new authors, the editor freely admits the limitations this introduced on how many stories he could present from each author. Hopefully, galvanized by the response of Western audiences to the initial collection, Liu also chose to include some stories which draw more heavily on Chinese history, culture, and genre forms (such as wuxia novels). So while Invisible Planets could readily be given to someone with limited knowledge about Chinese politics, Broken Stars is best appreciated by readers with a little more experience. (For example, Baoshu’s “That which has already passed will in a kinder light appear” is entirely contingent on the reader being able to track events between existing history and a new one.) Footnotes are included throughout, but Liu and his fellow translators work hard to keep them minimal to avoid interrupting the flow of the stories.

Ultimately, I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the work of Xia Jia. Her work has been as a sunbeam cutting through the winter gloom for me. Every single story of hers I’ve read has made me cry, and every one has been worth those tears. (It is not hard to make me cry, but it can be difficult to make me not resent it.)

DRM, the Designated Regret Model for ebook readers

Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

The need to ensure the profitability of people’s work, especially for small and/or independent publishers and authors is obvious. Digital media formats have absolutely changed the game in terms of ease of “unauthorized” redistribution of materials. (The very concept of redistribution of intellectual property being “un/authorized” poses a number of significant philosophical questions.) At the same time, there is something very wrong with the way in which DRM software has been implemented.

The metaphysics of intellectual “property” – do you really own the ideas? can anyone be said to own an idea once it has been put out into the world? where do we draw the line between influence, extrapolation, and plagiarism? can two people spontaneously produce the same ideas? how do you litigate such a case? – are impossible to cover here, if onlyb because there are so few good answers. (And even fewer which are acceptable to the Disney corporation, Bono, and, presumably, the entity or entities which make up the romance novelist “Nora Roberts”.)

One of my issues with ebooks, like many others, is the way in which they destroy the materiality of books. In this case, I don’t mean the way they feel, or smell, or sound, or taste, or whatever sensory aspect people usually invoke. I mean that almost every book I own, and certainly the ones I love, are the means with which I discourse with the author.

Unlike the sterile overprotectiveness which causes such divisions amongst “Booktubers” – the collective reader/writer community of YouTube – my books are heavily marked up. I have usually extensively highlighted, annotated, dog-eared, and sticky-noted any book I found worth my while, in addition to having dropped, sat and spilled and slept on it. I like to lend my books out, and get them back with a little additional wear showing that the other person enjoyed it enough to carry it around with them. (Obviously, I’d prefer that my books come back in a form where they are still legible and mostly intact, but I’m never particularly concerned about their physical status beyond those basics.)

In other words, I’m exceedingly particular about the ways in which I’m allowed to interact with my books. Ereaders, such as the Kindle Paperwhite (and certainly its predecessors), were never going to work for me, because highlighting and annotating are low-priority functions. For now, the ebook app which works best for me is Google Play Books. This is largely thanks to the automatic syncing of highlights/notes to a Google Doc.

Other apps have attempted similar features, but Google has done a remarkable job of making it easy to annotate your reading and make those annotations accessible and usable. Four highlight colors, which are all imported along with their content to the annotations document (It shouldn’t be necessary to remind developers that exporting the color of the highlight is as important as exporting its content but here we are. I’m looking at you, Xodo), allow a range of different active reading methods, and any notes added to a given highlight are exported as a related annotation along with the highlighted text (Again, I didn’t think we needed to remind people of this, but…). It isn’t fully customizable, but it is remarkably flexible.

This isn’t to say that Amazon’s Kindle app can’t or doesn’t do some or all of these things. I merely happen to like Google’s material design. But I’m not actually here to extoll the virtues of one ereader or ebook app over another.

I’m here to talk about personal preference. Almost everyone has had an experience where the format, layout, or design of a book has negatively impacted their experience of it. Some people have almost certainly found themselves unwilling, unable, or at great pains to continue reading a book based on one of those factors, be it font choice, page gutter, or book size. Ebooks are intended to be less susceptible to those types of user experience failures thanks to flowing text, which allows the reader to resize and reformat the text to their liking, making it easier to read purely in terms of eyeball mechanics. (Obviously, format contingent works, such as House of Leaves, are unable to benefit from this kind of malleability.)

When the use multiple and/or variable devices – in a range of sizes and weights – is factored in, the portability and maneuverability made available to readers is unparalleled. (Consider the difference between reading something like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years (534 pages), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (641 pages) or K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (891 pages) in a physical format versus a digital one. It’s the difference between being able to read them in bed and needing a table.) Additionally, for people who like to annotate as they read, the digital space is without limitation, because comments and ideas are liberated from the confines of the margin.

This kind of flexibility should make ebooks vastly appealing to people. In so many other parts of our lives, we have been converted by the adaptability, convenience, immediacy, and shareability of the digital world. Newspapers, magazines, videos, television, etc…. And yet, not so with ebooks. This is not down merely to the fact that “book people” are all luddites who prefer the “physicality” of the book.

It’s because publishers have done next to nothing to make the ebook an appealing alternative to its physical counterpart.

The real advantages of the physical book over the ebook are as follows: anything with the prefix “re-”. Re-selling. Re-gifting. Re-mixing. Re-using. Re-reading. Books, unlike most other commodities, are rarely entirely personal. Cars, underwear, and plates of nachos are all things we acquire with the understanding that they are not intended to be shared. I don’t offer to give you my car or a perfect nacho just because I enjoyed it. Books, on the other hand, are regularly swapped, lent, borrowed, entrusted, assigned, given, and gifted.

Adam Driver and the perfect nachos in What If? (2013)

The treatment of a book like a single-use, limited-use, or personal commodity is to fundamentally misconstrue the social use and function of “the book” as a cultural object. Intellectual property may cover the ideas embedded within a book’s pages and may need protecting. But books, in general, exist and proliferate explicitly because those ideas are intended to be distributed.

Why, specifically, am I so mad about this? How does DRM software specifically tie into this screed about the nature of books and ebooks?

The issue moved from the theoretical (intellectual property management in the digital age) to the personal. In the capitalist fashion, this was through financial investment and subsequent “buyer’s remorse”.

It is now abundantly clear to me that the primary way of ensuring that an ebook is not wildly proliferated across the web is to tie the file (in my case, an epub) to a specific reader application (in my case, Adobe Digital Editions). If you do or cannot buy your ebook through one of the combo purchasing/reading ebook ecosystems in accordance with your personal preference (Amazon → Kindle, Google Play Store → Google Books, Barnes & Noble → Nook, Kobo → Kobo, etc.), you may make the mistake of attempting to purchase a DRM protected ebook from somewhere else.

I made the mistake of not reading the fine print.

Always read the fine print. Even if you have to search for it, always, always read it.

Ebooks.com was, I thought, an oasis in the desert. It seemed I would be able to purchase an epub of K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (which is not available through Google Play Books) from them. In my unbridled enthusiasm to dig into the writing of Mark Fisher, I did so.

Don’t want to download the ebooks.com app? Click this link and download an epub, instead. (This was were reading the fine print comes in.) But I didn’t get to download an epub, actually.

What I could download is an acsm file. ACSM stands for “Adobe Content Server Message” and it is a file format which Adobe uses to pull content protected by Adobe’s DRM software to your computer. My unmitigated irritation does not permit me the patience to dig into the technical details of how Adobe uses this method to enable permissions across devices through Adobe Digital Editions to access the ebook. Suffice to say, you create or use an account associated with Adobe products and are able to sync that account’s library.

Just to add insult to injury, once you have opened the ACSM file with Adobe Digital Editions, a copy of the epub (as in, an actual booktitle.epub file) does come to live on your device. Forget opening it, though. It is impossible to open with any software other than an Adobe product. (While someone has undoubtedly designed software specifically designed to crack the DRM code embedded in the file, but I’m not actually interested in stealing anything today.)

The end result of all this is that I cannot read a book I paid $13 to access using the ebook reader of my choice.

Reading is an incredibly personal, intimate experience. Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

You know what I found really galling, though? The thing that finally pushed me over the edge, after paying to be digitally inconvenienced?

Ebooks.com says they cannot accept returns, because they have not handed over a physical object. Therefore, there is nothing to return, according to them. Given how many times I had to feed my email address into Adobe Digital Editions and ebooks.com, I find it exceedingly improbable that they would not be able to revoke my access to any DRM encoded file which requires the usage of their proprietary software to be read.

This isn’t Schrödinger’s epub. The file can’t both exist enough to be monitored and secured with proprietary software and simultaneously be so immaterial that I can’t have my access to it revoked in return for my $13.

It is probable that neither publishers nor the wider “book people” community care very much about how ebooks are managed. The publishers are probably happy to conform to the digital mediocrity produced by proprietary DRM software, as it does the work of securing their IP and therefore their profits, while “book people” are happy to take it as proof that the physical book is still preferable to the digital one, and everyone else is more interested in audiobook integration than anything else.

So this is my rallying cry into the void:

We all deserve better ebooks. Authors and publishers deserve DRM software that limit the amount of mass, “unauthorized” distribution of the material that produces their livelihood, and readers deserve DRM software that doesn’t completely incapacitate their engagement and enjoyment of that same material.

Whether this means cutting out the middle man, so I can buy my ebooks directly from the publisher, or if it means an aggressive diversification of the distribution channels so that more books are available across more services, I neither know nor care. Ideally, it would involve a practice of building new DRM code which enables transfer of the files without copying them, in addition to non-proprietary or locked formats.

Whatever publishers and authors decide, at the moment, the only ones with any respect for their audience are the ones brave enough to distribute their ebooks DRM free.

Finishing 50 Books in a Year (2017)

My reading goal in 2017 started with a desire to finish a number of the books which I had started over the past three years for the purpose of getting them off my “Currently reading” list. On the list, those books which I started before 2017 are marked with an *. I’ve sorted the books into four categories: F (Fiction), NF (Non-fiction), E (Essays), and P (Poetry). Additional notes have been provided for distinctive experiences, or other informational tidbits.

Most interesting was the way the type of book I read evolved. In the last few years, I’ve displayed a propensity for non-fiction, particularly high theory and neo-Marxist economic treatises (lots of things published by Verso and Semiotext(e)). In the name of expediency, I turned to both poetry and fiction. Around the time I picked up Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (an excellent alternate history where the short-lived Futurist state the Regency of Carnaro, does not fail), with its introduction by Warren Ellis, I determined that I should attempt to read more fiction. That path led me to The Ballad of Black Tom, the genius of Victor LaValle, and a taste of the recent spate of Tor Publications of new Lovecraftian stories focusing on the voices that H.P. himself would have overlooked.

Working with the Lovecraft Arts and Science Council opened up a wealth of opportunities to pick up more Weird fiction (contemporary and otherwise). My time with them began in earnest around October, which is reflected, somewhat, in the wealth of Weird fiction novels that make their way onto the list around that time.

  1. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco [01.09] *F
  2. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams [01.11] – F
  3. Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams [01.17] – F
  4. Governing by Debt by Mauricio Lazzarato [01.19] *NF
  5. Hellboy’s World, Monsters in the Margins by Scott Bukatman [02.11] – NF
  6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine [????] – P
  7. Six Memos for the New Millenium by Italo Calvino [03.13] – E
  8. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling [????] – F
  9. Patient by Bettina Judd [04.10] – P
  10. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle [04.17] – F
  11. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle [04.27] – F
  12. The Agony of Eros by Byung Chul-Han [05.06] – NF
  13. Curious Visions of Modernity by David L. Martin [05.20] – NF
  14. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West [05.26] *P
  15. No Accident by Aaron Anstett [????] – P
  16. The Panopticon Writing by Jeremy Bentham [06.03] *E (more @ this post)
  17. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion [06.11] – E
  18. Between Ghosts by Reno Dakota/SJ Lee [06.18] – P
  19. The White Album by Joan Didion [06.23] – E
  20. Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell [06.24] *E
  21. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery [06.29] – F (French)
  22. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White [07.05] – NF
  23. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the End of Heroism by Paul Young [08.06] – NF
  24. Censorship Now!! by I.F. Svenonius [08.14] – NF
  25. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 3rd Ed. by Timothy Corrigan [08.26] – NF
  26. Girls Omnibus by The Luna Bros. [08.30] – F (Graphic Novel)
  27. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod [09.09] – F
  28. Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti [09.10] – F
  29. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder [09.21] – NF
  30. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Franco “Bifo” Berardi [09.22] *NF
  31. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer [10.11] – F
  32. Authority by Jeff Vandermeer [10.13] – F
  33. Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer [10.14] – F
  34. Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling [10.28] – F
  35. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera [11.13] – F
  36. Looming Low Vol. 1 by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, eds. [11.20?] – F
  37. Songs of Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti [11.25] * – F
  38. King Lear by William Shakespeare [12.01] – F
  39. War of the Foxes by Richard Siken [12.03] – P
  40. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlyn R. KIernan [12.05] – F
  41. Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw [12.05] – F
  42. Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman, ed. [12.08] – F
  43. Parasite Life by Victoria Dalpe [12.09] – F
  44. Beta Decay #1 & 2 by Andrew Jackson King [12.15] – F
  45. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson [12.19] – F
  46. A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax [12.28] *P
  47. Beta Decay #3 & 4 by Andrew Jackson King [12.29] – F
  48. A User’s Guide to the Demanding Impossible by Gavin Grinden and John Jordan [12.30] – NF
  49. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb [12.30] * P
  50. City, rediscovering the center by William Whyte [01.11.18] – NF

Obviously, I extended my deadline of “the end of 2017” by a little, but I needed to motivate myself to finish City by William Whyte, not because it was bad, but because the last few chapters deal almost exclusively with the issues facing zoning boards and their habits. Without underselling my enthusiasm for city planning, descriptions of zoning board decisions don’t even have the excitement of watching them come about as one is able to do in transcripts or in person.

A list of 50 books does pretty much no one any good, however, so instead, I will tease my list of Top 10 Books I recommend after 2017:

  1. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  2. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West
  3. The Elements of Style by Strunk and Whyte
  4. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  5. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  6. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  7. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod
  8. Beta Decay (whatever Issue you can find) by Andrew Jackson King
  9. Girls Omnibus by the Luna Brothers
  10. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb

More on those ten books to follow.