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: 001 & 002

Read:

  • Dreams from the Witch House, female voices in Lovecraftian Horror. Lynne Jamneck, ed.
  • Buffalo Soldier. Maurice Broaddus.
  • Wasteland, the Great War and the origins of modern horror. W. Scott Poole.
  • People’s Republic of Everything. Nick Mamatas.
  • Isherwood on Writing. Christopher Isherwood.
  • Neonomicon. Alan Moore.
  • Walking Awake“. N. K. Jemisin.
  • “The Medusa” and “Conversations in a Dead Language”. Thomas Ligotti.
  • Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory. Bobby Derie.

Watched:

Movies

  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Hereditary (2018)
  • Empire Records (1995)
  • Dumplin’
  • The Fundamentals of Caring
  • [Partial] Lovesong
  • [Partial] You Might Be the Killer

TV Shows

  • The Orville
  • Bull
  • Brooklyn 99
  • The Good Place
  • Deadly Class
  • Black Books
  • Red Oaks
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2010)

The article by Bobby Derie left me with more questions than answers, mainly: what exactly did Victorian anthopologists think was happening in pre-historic Europe? I have yet to fully understand what Margaret Alice Murray means when she speaks of a “dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe” in her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921).

I wonder which aspects of our own scientific presumptions will seem equally as arcane to future generations.

While the article is an excellent survey of the ways in which scientific racism influenced Lovecraft in his view of the world, it was lacking a strong critical voice. Given the present moment, it continues to feel irresponsible to repeat the racist and/or unsubstantiated claims of any past or current thinker without any recognition of its defects. (This was something Poole does very effectively and correctly in Wasteland, which I especially appreciated about the book.)


I have a lot of thoughts about how Aquaman, despite its critique of Lovecraft’s racist attitudes nevertheless bought in to and propagated a number of racial themes which comprise the subtle aspects of Lovecraft’s racism.

But they need a little more time to percolate.


Without getting into all of it, The People’s Republic of Everything was absolutely amazing. The novella Under My Roof which finishes the collection is a hilarious and incisive look at the nature and meaning of borders, nationalism, and citizenship.

It seemed hilariously a propos that I should find the following quote from Isherwood after finishing Mamatas’ book:

…this psycho-nuclear revolution, the invention of the atomic devices, has rendered their nationalism obsolete.

Christopher Isherwood, Isherwood on Writing. 151.

On the topic of nationalisms, I particularly enjoyed the view of an alternate North America as presented in Buffalo Soldier. I struggled with some of the action scenes in the book – my inner eye seems to like action sequences as much as my outer eyes do… Which is to say, “Not much.” But the chance to visit a North America that could have been, one where Western expansion is halted, and where the First Nations have a chance for self-determination was beautiful and heartbreaking.


I don’t want to linger on the topic as most of what I needed to say about sexual assault and Neonomicon has already been said on Twitter. But I had one interesting revelation, nonetheless.

One of the reasons I find the narrative turn from a supernatural, existential horror to the comparatively mundane horror of sexual assault so disappointing is that it is a horror which does not require aliens or time travel or a complete paradigm shift. It is merely someone opening the box of Shroedinger’s ego-death (as effected by a denial of personhood) to reveal what femme individuals have always known: Our sujectivity and agency never mattered, at all. It is not an apotheosis, but an inevitability.


Pulled from the draft pages:

The impossible will always be able to recognize itself. All monsters are kin.

06 JAN 2019