Trials of Communication and Triumphs of Empathy, a review of Avi Silver’s Two Dark Moons

DISCLAIMER: I do have a personal connection with Avi Silver, the author of this work. We met in freshman year of college and roomed together the following year. It is up to the reader to decide if that kind of intimacy and co-habitation makes a critic more or less likely to extend unreasonable courtesy towards a given author. I was graciously sent an electronic advanced reader’s copy of the book, and the review that follows is as honest and thoughtful as I am able to render a personal opinion. 

The world of Ateng is one rife with ritual and auspice. 

Ama and Cheheng, the two moons in the night sky over Ateng, govern most aspects of life in the hmun. In Ateng, the heavens do more than assign purported characteristics of personality, as the zodiac is said to do in our world. The moons one is born under determine most aspects of one’s life in the hmun; they govern gender assignation — male, female, or both; they inform what marriages would be considered beneficial; what positions one may hold in the community (leadership, responsibilities, etc); and more, in addition to the more familiar behavior and personality traits. 

The struggle of being out of joint, an interruption in the flow of life and tradition has been a part of Sohmeng’s life ever since her birth. But a catastrophe which resulted in a total collapse (literally) of the traditional migration of the hmun between its two mountain top territories, also ultimately stole the lives of her parents and stalled any chance of Sohmeng and her generational cohort of completing the ritual known as tengmunji which would usher them into adulthood.

The trappings of childhood grate at Sohmeng Par (the second name supposedly denotes the aspect of the moons in the sky on the night of her birth), and her impetuous, “speak first, ask for forgiveness later” character has gotten her into trouble again. The beginning of the novel finds her arguing with her brother as she goes to plead her case to the council of hmun elders.

The narrative of Two Dark Moons is the deceptively simple outer garment of a complex mystery. It follows in the tradition of “Young Adult Fantasy” or “coming of age” novels in that it includes a home, a fall, an adventure beyond the boundaries of what is known, and the journey to return, during which it becomes clear that the person who left the village at the beginning is a stranger to the one who now attempts to return. 

Instead, I believe that the beating heart of Two Dark Moons are the questions of language and communication – epistemology and belonging – which it engages so effortlessly. These questions are so intrinsic to the characters and the story that they are almost rendered invisible.

Every world, every community, every person has a story, a mythology, a structure which defines them and their place in creation. One of the great myths of humankind, passed down from the Ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, that encompass the Torah, the Talmud, the Bible, the Quran, ties language to divinity. We need not invoke the fall of Babel and the fracturing of mankind into disparate groups unable to communicate. Prometheus may have given humankind fire but Thoth taught Pharaohs and their priests to write and in so doing changed the fate of humanity forever.

The utilitarian definition of language sees it as a means of conveying information, words become signs which point to objects or abstract concepts thereby allowing individuals to articulate information about the world. It is also the framework within which any group or community makes sense of the world around them, and of their place within it.

Without sliding into linguistic determinism, Silver’s novel carefully lays out how language reflects and perpetuates the knowledge and structures of a given community. It is no surprise to those familiar with the convention of the “coming-of-age novel” that the limitations of culture and community, and the impositions they place upon the conception of the self, are tested by the experience of travelling outside and beyond them. 

Constructed languages (or “ConLangs” [1]) are a misunderstood though increasingly prevalent aspect of science-/speculative-/fantasy-fiction. In Two Dark Moons, Silver does more than apply the anti-censorship obfuscation tactic of TV (“She’s a fracking Cylon!”) or the use of “foreign” language as a way of making the Other more remote and unknown (“Cthulhu fhtagn” or “the practice of Kelno’reem”). Language is a vital component of life in  and structure of communication in the book form an important dimension of the story from the very beginning.

Language is a constant battle in Two Dark Moons. Sohmeng, the hot-headed protagonist, struggles to communicate, her “speak first, apologize later” attitude has landed her in hot water (the ‘again’ is implicit) at the beginning of the novel. 

As she makes her case before the council of elders, 24 total, representing each of the lunar phases, with the exception of Minhal – the darkest night, the “bad sign” of the new moons, when the Gods’ eyes are turned away from the hmun

As she prepares and makes her case to the council of elders, it becomes clear that Sohmeng is no stranger to the difficulties of communication. The complexities of clarity and diplomacy are rendered vividly. 

The struggle to remain both truthful and diplomatic (the first of which, for Sohmeng, is fundamentally compromised by the circumstances of her birth), to balance being understood and to convince others to give you what you want, is put front and center. 

At home, among the hmun, Sohmeng has already lost the battle and tipped the scales more toward brutal clarity, and suffers the subsequent social isolation familiar to anyone with an undisciplined tongue. Sohmeng is the victim of another trait of those who find themselves too close to the edge: she sees with great clarity the threads of responsibility and choice that bind her community together. She has the consigned/committed pariah’s certainty that if people would just take her seriously, life might be easier for everyone.

Somheng’s parents were traders and as such, she speaks the trader pidgin used to conduct transactions between different hmun[2], putting her a full step closer to bilingualism than anyone else in her community. The cognitive and intellectual flexibility introduced with any form of bilingualism (a trait the novel engenders through the use of the incorporation of hmunpa into the narrative), a subtle alienation from a unified or totalizing description of the world which can sometimes develop as a result of monolingualism, primes Sohmeng (and encourages the reader) to successfully re-evaluate the world around her and her position within it. 

Two Dark Moons does not limit itself to exploring language as an instrument of epistemology. It also commits itself to the complex project of understanding sentience and communication in both non-human and non-linguistic terms. In our world, the efforts of conservationists, naturalists, and cognitive scientists have done their part to show that the rest of the animal kingdom has as much claim to sensibility and complex cognition as does humankind and, moreover, that the distance between “human” and “animal” is insignificant.

The forests in the valley from which the five fingers of Ateng emerge shelter a reptilian apex predator, the Sãoni. Even from the safety of the hmun they are all too real to be dismissed as some kind of boogeyman. Like the stories European explorers brought back of panthers and leopards – natives ceding territory to the uncontested regents of the jungle – the Sãoni are a death sentence to those exiled or separated from the community. 

Where Silver’s world building and empathic sensitivity shine, setting the shared world of Eiji and Ateng apart, is their refusal to recognize the traditional barriers of intelligence and love. Anthropomorphized animal narrators are a staple of fantasy fiction, as is the reversal of the seemingly “animal” into an intelligent Other. Silver chooses to remind us that speech is not the be-all, end-all of communication. 

Even as our own scientific exploration now shows that elephants, whales, and dolphins possess a greater capacity for complex thought than previously afforded to them by humanity, the colony of Sãoni she joins show Somheng that viewing language-based communication as the pinnacle of intelligent evolution is an affectation of humanity. 

Ultimately, the demand for complex empathy across species is a lesson which prepares Sohmeng (and the audience) for the much more complicated business of empathizing with those human strangers who look and speak in unfamiliar ways.

It is easy to focus on the tradition of social commentary which has defined speculative fiction from early eu-/utopias through the tradition of feminist and queer SF/F, a tradition of which Two Dark Moons is undeniably a part. Indeed, the novel works diligently to challenge the audience’s assumptions regarding the “natural” organization of human beings and expands the possibilities of gender assignations, linguistic conventions, and reproductive configurations, in addition to more common topics in mainstream SF/F such as styles of governance and environmental systems. 

Silver is also able to impart a wisdom so often lacking from the ever-rising tide of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction which threatens to overwhelm every imaginable media outlet. They recognize that a community and a culture, even in the midst of crisis, is often able to carry on with a semblance of normalcy which can conceal impending catastrophe. As an author, Silver is willing to confront the re-traumatization inherent in history and discovery. There are questions which lurk in the caves and hollows which will never yield answers and the grief of them is something Sohmeng, and ultimately her hmun, must learn to live with, without hope or promise of closure. 

There is a transcendental impulse in Two Dark Moons, best recognized and understood by looking out at the world and knowing enough of life and death to be able to name what is before and around us, that great cycle of which we are a part, as “One.” The decision not to hold one’s self apart from the complexity and intricacies of “everything” reminds us that we are governed as much by the salt of the earth as we are by the movement of the heavens.

Perhaps my only complaint, and it’s merely a matter of form and personal preference, is that the story ends not quite on a cliffhanger (that comes at the start of the novel, actually) but with an unrepentant promise of a sequel. There is much still to learn of Ateng, Eiji, the hmun and the travails that await them, but in a world gone mad for sequels, prequels, series, et. al. it can be exhausting to add another to the list. That having been said, I would not trade my experience traveling through Eiji for anything. 


Two Dark Moons is now available at Amazon. Grab a copy! (Not an affiliate link)


1. “Constructed Languages” can refer to a variety of different types of languages which are intentionally developed by individuals. There are conlangs which are nominally dedicated to facilitating global communication or even communication with extraterrestrials, such as Esperanto and AI. However, the kind currently proliferating are those often referred to as “Art Languages” or “ArtLangs” which are languages developed as part of a wider artistic endeavor or for personal use and/or entertainment. The most well-known artlang is undoubtedly Tolkien’s Elvish, though Dothraki (developed for television by David Peterson) and Klingon are not unfamiliar. Both art- and conlangs are held to fairly stringent linguistic standards, and to be a fully developed “language” must meet the same requirements as any organic or naturally occurring language. For example, they require grammars and vocabularies which exceed a specific quantity. Therefore, most conlangs are developed over years and decades and are the result of an astounding quantity of work and thought. For more information about Constructed Languages and the people who love them, check out the Language Construction Society. (They have a really great convention, I went to it once, it changed my life.)

2. I think it is a collective noun, it could follow the plural prefix format and be bahmun as a plural, but that might be a human/animal plural instead. Without a full grammar for the language, this will have to remain speculation. I hope that we do get a chance to dig into the linguistic world of Ateng in the future. 

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 008

A busy week, from meeting Patton Oswalt and swapping reading recommendations to visiting the Bauhaus centennial exhibit at the Boston MFA.

Reading:

  • Broken Stars by Ken Liu, ed.
  • Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore.
  • European Identity and Citizenship: between Modernity and postmodernity by Sanja Ivic

Listening…

  • The Magnus Archives

Watching:

Movies:

  • Plaire, Aimer, et Courir Vite (2018)
  • Le Livre D’Image (2018)

TV Shows:

  • AP Bio
  • Russian Doll
  • The Marvelous Ms Maisel
  • Deadly Class

I’m exhausted. I can’t believe it’s been only a week, possibly because the last few days have felt like an entire week just by themselves.


On Saturday, I had the absolutely unparalleled good fortune to meet Patton Oswalt. He was in Providence to perform a comedy show at the Veterans Memorial Theater, and he graciously accepted our invitation to visit the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council. I cannot thank him enough for taking the time to visit us, and it was such an absolute privilege to make his acquaintance in person.

We swapped reading recommendations. Mr. Oswalt suggested “WET PAIN” by Terence Taylor which can be found Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III co-edited by Tananarive Due and Brandon Massey. He said he learned of it from Ms. Due who, in addition to her work as an author and editor, executive produced Horror Noire: a history of Black horror (2019) which can be streamed online through Shudder. We discussed Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” briefly and so I recommended (as ever) Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.


The latter half of my Friday was spent pleasantly with a friend in Boston. We visited the MFA to see the Bauhaus exhibit. There is also an exhibit of Bauhaus works up at the Harvard museum, which we will hopefully have the opportunity visit.

This year is the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus School (1919). There are times I lament my passion for their particular modernist style, if only because it can seem conventional, bordering on the cliché. Nevertheless, the way Moholy-Nagy creates a sense of a three dimensional interaction and interrelation of objects in his abstract paintings will never cease to delight me. In one of the paintings of his they have on display, the transparency of the paint where two of his shapes overlap makes it seem—as my friend so eloquently phrased it—as if one were a fabric appliqué.

I was also quite taken with the Kandinsky pieces they had on display. It feels as though I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much white space his drawings contained, but I was. I could happily have spent all evening in front of his “Little World” pictures trying to figure out how he achieved such balance in an otherwise random-seeming distribution of elements.

Mostly, what I love about the Bauhaus is the way the work of these artists fills me with a sense of possibility. Every time I have the opportunity to steep myself in their abstract geometries, I can feel the edges of a new language pressing up against me. Movement and essence are made concrete, not something that can be pinned down, but something inherent which can be expressed with lines on a page.

(Other design movements which make me feel this way are Russian Constructivism and Punk/DIY collage.)


This week, I accidentally got into it on Twitter with the MAG fandom. Shockingly, 280 characters is not really enough space to adequately convey nuance and context. I found being accused by strangers on the internet of wanting to censor people or command moral authority to be extremely insulting.

I work in a front-facing position within a dedicated fan space, in a fandom defined by a serious controversy. My personal and professional experiences have lead me to believe that “fandom,” far from being a space insulated from disagreement and political and cultural debate, must be a place where people are able to engage critically with the mores, biases, personal and historical narratives, and other foundations and assumptions which are inherited from the original work or developed within the surrounding community.

I work at an organization dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes the only thing you can say in response to another fan’s interpretation is, “I disagree strongly – possibly to the point of considering your position to be harmful – and this is why.” Because it is only in that moment where we are part of the same community – as fans – that we can have this discussion as people who share in something bigger than ourselves.

But I don’t wish to linger on this topic; it is exhausting, unproductive, and has already claimed too much of my time.


Ideally, I’ll have a little something up this week about Broken Stars, the second collection of contemporary Chinese SF translated and edited by Ken Liu. I adored Invisible Planets, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. (Upon finishing it, I immediately bought two copies to give as gifts, and pre-ordered Broken Stars. I have also leant out my copy of the first collection so that the people in my life can share in its wonders.) Go read both of them!

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.