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.)

Week in Review 2019: 005-7

Read:

  • The Hounds of Tindalos. Frank Belknap Long.
  • The Crisis of Criticism. Maurice Berger, ed.
  • Introduction, Age of Lovecraft.
  • The Baffler: Issue 43. [partial]
  • “Intra-European Racism in Nineteenth-Century Anthropology,” History and Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 37–56. Gustav Jahoda.
  • Broken Stars. Ken Liu, ed. [started]

Watched:

  • An appalling quantity of Comedy Central’s “This is Not Happening” on Youtube.
  • Anime Crimes Division, seasons 1 & 2.
  • First 3 episodes of Hap & Leonard

SF44 : the Boston 24-hr Science-Fiction Film Marathon

  • Innerspace (1987)
  • Dr. Cyclops (1940)
  • Rollerball (1975)
  • Woman in the Moon (1929)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Annihilation (2018)
  • Sourcecode (2011) [partial]
  • Sunshine (2007)
  • Escape from New York (1981)

There were a few movies I slept through which I have not included in this list. For a full schedule, check out the Boston SciFi Film Fest forum. They have complete lists of all movies shown at the ‘Thon in a variety of configurations.

The stand-out films for me (and my coterie of Youths) were Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

Despite its 3+ hr runtime, the Lang film was completely engrossing. The film was written by Thea von Harbou, who also wrote the screenplay for Metropolis. I was particularly impressed by the nuance of the romantic tensions in the film. While it is obvious that Friede (Gerda Maurus) is in love with Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) she is nevertheless set on marrying Hanz Windegger (Gustav v. Wangenheim). The crux of these relationships is that Helius is deadset on protecting Friede at the expense of her desire to see the mission she has worked on through to the end. Hanz, meanwhile, is perfectly willing to support her choice to travel with the men to the moon.

Because I hope that some of you will have the chance to see the film for yourselves, I’ll not tell you how it all shakes out. But I will say that I was impressed by the characterizations and the choices made throughout. It is quite clear to me that Hollywood can only benefit from revisiting the silent era if they’re tired of being told they don’t know how to write convincing female characters.

Sunshine was completely different. Alex Garland successfully incorporated a similiar level of nuance in the interpersonal relationships throughout the film. Similarly, the film focuses on the intersection between the quest for scientific knowledge and the personal, individual desires of the people who have set out to accomplish an immense task.

It is difficult, now, to separate entirely what I was thinking at the time from the brief scroll through the movie’s Wikipedia page in the immediate aftermath. I know Danny Boyle wanted to present an apocalyptic narrative which could have the gravity of climate change without sharing any of its fundamental characteristics. I certainly believe he achieved that feat.

Sunshine focuses on the second manned mission to the sun, who are hoping to deliver a nuclear payload which will re-ignite the dying star and preserve human life on Earth. While they should be able to make the trip back, it is not guaranteed.

If you know anything about Alex Garland, then you know it is something less than possible that they will make it home.

I cannot help but compare Sunshine to the other Alex Garland film they showed, 2018’s Annihilation. Ultimately, I think Sunshine succeeds in evoking that ineffable quality which is present in the Jeff Vandermeer original, but which was lost in Garland’s translation of the story from book to screen. Both the 2007 film and Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy rely on a transcendental quality which Garland never manages to evoke in his adaptation of Annihilation.

Pervasive throughout Sunshine is the understanding that the mission at hand exceeds the comprehension of any of the individuals undertaking it. The combination of urgency and fixation–echoed in the combined life-giving and destructive powers of the Sun–overwhelm the crew. The action they are undertaking is the greatest thing that they will ever accomplish, literally an achievement which will overshadow not only anything else that they have ever accomplished or will accomplish, but argueably, greater than anything anyone has ever accomplished in the whole of human history up to that point.

Yet none of them can be said to exist as meaningful individuals, despite the singularity of the mission.

By collapsing the whole into the singular and the singular into the human totality, Garland and Boyle manage to produce an existential narrative which succesfully encompasses multiple registers of meaning ranging from the most fundamentally human to the most abstracted divine view of humanity.

It helps that both Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans are able to project both unlikeability and decency without forcing the audience to believe one supercedes the other.


This week is also the French Film Festival, here in Providence. So I’ve got a full week of new French movies to take in. I fully anticipate that my capacity to consistently produce one language at a time will have completely evaporated by the time March rolls around.

HUMAN VOICES, an in-depth review of Dreams from the Witch House

Cover and Illustrations by Danielle Serra

Dreams from the Witch House edited by Lynne Jamneck is a gorgeous book.

It’s a larger than usual format—25.5 cm by 17.8 cm—soft cover, with beautiful full bleed, color illustrations by Danielle Serra. With a smooth, matte cover and generous layout, it feels good in the hands and easy on the eyes.

“There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows much strike before reckoning the consequences.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In her introduction to the collection, Lynne Jamneck muses on the fragility of male sanity, particularly in Lovecraft’s own work, and the willingness present in the feminine experience to encompass unknown and unimaginable possibilities.

She lightly admonishes the puritanical impulse in some corners of Lovecraftianism, a reminder that the genre is dedicated to exploring the far reaches of all possible universes. This is a task which demands the greatest possible plurality of voices, a mere fraction of which she has gathered here.

Jamneck opens the collection with a restrained and dreamy historical piece, “Shadows of the Evening” by Joyce Carol Oates, which sees a young woman travel from her German-Hungarian neighborhood in upstate New York to the home of an aged aunt in Massachusetts. Its Lovecraftian elements come through in the setting and the manner in which the young, innocent protagonist is drawn in by some force far beyond her ability to understand, only in part because she has literally left her known world behind. The style is exquisitely crafted, harkening back to the language of a by-gone age, melding an early-20th century style with something older still.

Oates cleverly builds tension throughout the story by compressing time and allowing the future to project itself into the narrative of the past. The reader knows that the young woman will live to be quite old and that she will get married and have a family, which creates anticipation as the audience – aware they are reading a horror story – is rushing ahead of the story to figure out where and what will go wrong. The answer, of course, is almost impossible to describe.


The globe spins. In the next story, the reader finds themselves in an untamed wilderness during the early days of white settler incursion into New Zealand. Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill” is an epistolary story in the form of one letter and a single footnote. It lingers on the terror of wandering out into the hills only to encounter something too old to even recognize. It draws on the primal fear of the wilderness, how it has always been able to close around people and make them disappear, while also asking, “What comes back?”

The story poses an implicit question about the dangers of curiosity and empathy as the land – far more ancient and dangerous than anything else the settlers have encountered – makes its victims into accomplices, consuming them, spirit and flesh, until even their attempts to save the people they care become acts of complicity.


Cat Hellisen’s story “The Face of Jarry” will…

Ridiculously Terrifying: Kevin Smith’s Tusk

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The trailer for the Kevin Smith’s 2014 film Tusk is as ambiguous as the film itself. For two and a half minutes, it is impossible to tell if you are watching a trailer for a comedy movie, a shlock horror flick, or something somewhere in between – a loving, though no less mocking, send up of the horror genre of the sort which were the rage in the first half of the 2010s.

The basic set-up has a young, hot-shot podcaster going to Canada to interview a well-traveled old man, only to be drugged and abducted by his prospective interviewee who plans to transform him into a walrus. (That’s right.)

Obviously, the events of the film defy all logic – be it scientific, medical, or rhetorical – but they are executed with such unflinching dedication and apparent sincerity so as to demand the audience suspend their disbelief and meet the movie on its terms.

Justin Long is deeply hateable as Wallace Bryton, host of a successful humiliation comedy podcast with the puerile, though provocative, name: “The Not-See Party.” At the risk of attributing meaning where none was intended, Long’s performance may succeed thanks to the implicit moral law: only a complete asshole could find himself in such a situation.

Genesis Rodriguez plays Ally Leon, Bryton’s longtime girlfriend. Rodriguez is the true star and emotional core of this film, without her tender and engaging performance the movie would have devolved beyond its barely manageable absurdity into pure farce.

Haley Joel Osment carefully navigates the divided loyalties familiar to anyone with a best friend completely outclassed by their better half. Osment’s Teddy Craft struggles to balance his involvement with Wallace’s podcasting fame fueled antics and his recognition of increasingly unattractive qualities his friend has developed as a result of success. Osment manages the convoluted emotions demanded of his character with grace and a persuasive friendliness.

Meanwhile, Michael Parks and Johnny Depp (almost entirely unrecognizable under a terrible wig, false nose, and exaggerated not-quite-Quebecois accent) compete for the distinction of most bizarre and unsettling performance.

Parks projects an unsettling menace without ever appearing physically threatening. The psychosis he reveals with every wild-eyed pronouncement is a performance wasted on his would-be interviewer. Long’s Wallace is dedicatedly vacuous and self-involved, ensuring that each scene he shares with Parks incites a piteous horror of the sort usually reserved for small, stupid animals. Parks unflinchingly executes a performance which demands everything from waxing poetic about an animal otherwise banished to satiric 19th century poetry (familiar from another Kevin Smith film, Dogma) to deranged vocalizations and low brow caricature.

Depp’s Guy Lapointe is a washed-up Inspector Clouseau, beaten down by the world and haunted by his past failures, keeping all of the exaggerated ridiculousness of a Peter Sellers’ character and adding an incongruous sense of grief and world-weariness.

Were Depp’s character the beaten down, veteran gumshoe in any other film, he would certainly drink too much. Instead, Smith writes in the fast food diner equivalent of the raw egg hangover cure routine, leaving the desperate protagonists to lay their plight in the dubious – and, in this case, greasy – hands of the only man willing to take them on.

When Parks and Depp share the screen, scenes that would have, at best, been satires of stereotype, become distressingly unsettling and perverse, suffused with a menace that originates as much in the distorted portrayals as it does in the narrative context.

The special effects have that rubbery quality particular to practical effect, yet are no less unsettling or horrific for it. Give the propensity for gory realism and smooth CGI in so much of contemporary cinema, the return to silicone and painted foam exacerbates the conflicting impulses present throughout the film. They are patently ridiculous and heighten the un-reality of the mechanics of the plot, simultaneously, however, they have the inescapable materiality of something that exists.

Smith’s filmmaking is impeccable. He wields the misdirection of the frame and the editing suite to maximum effect, especially in the scenes which delve into the unexpectedly complex relationship ensnaring Wallace, Ally, and Teddy. The film establishes a pattern of flashbacks early on, lulling the audience into a sense of security. The slow unfolding of a dreamy, already unreachable, sun-dappled status quo illustrates the depths of Wallace’s douchebaggery, while demonstrating the genuine affection – rooted in what little remains of the young man she fell in love with – which ties Ally to this undeserving cretin.

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The commitment to seeing the film through without giving in to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of irony is quite possibly the thing which makes it surpass all other recent horror films in terms of absolute perversity. It has none of the ironic trope inversions which made Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods so delightful. Instead it operates with the white-knuckled sincerity of a horror film unselfconscious of genre.

Somehow, regardless of the way it should absolutely be a bad joke, Smith never breaks the tension, keeping the audience captive (quite possibly against their will and their better judgement) up until the very end. The audience is left dangling over the abyss, uncertain if the soft cushion of a punchline awaits them at the bottom. Without ever telegraphing whether the story will end on a laugh or a piteous cry, Kevin Smith has brought the metahorror of cognitive dissonance to its apotheosis. The film traps the audience in that moment where they are uncertain whether or not they should laugh.

After all, a joke without a punchline is a horror story.

 

Content Warnings: mutilation, suicide, kidnapping, infidelity, crass language, douchebaggery.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)