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.