A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 25, 2016 edition of The Monitor
In the early 1990s, a Chicano from East L.A. published a pair ofA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 25, 2016 edition of The Monitor
In the early 1990s, a Chicano from East L.A. published a pair of science fiction novels that would go on to receive considerable critical acclaim and make significant inroads into the genre for Latinos everywhere.
Hewing more closely to weird, gonzo pulp fiction and comics than to the more politically active realism preferred by the Chicano intelligentsia, he was for many years unknown to his hermanos literarios. The culturally embedded nature of his narratives likewise made him less palatable to mainstream readers of sci-fi. Both of these oversights are gradually being corrected. Soon Ernest Hogan will be recognized as an essential, revolutionary voice.
By the late 1980s, Hogan had published several stories in Analog and other professional markets, and this success encouraged him to submit a manuscript to author Ben Bova, who was curating at the time a series of novels by up-and-coming writers for TOR. Their resulting negotiations produced in 1990 what is likely the first Chicano “hard sf” novel ever: the widely hailed Cortez on Jupiter.
Two years later, Hogan followed his debut up with the cyberpunk masterpiece High Aztech.
The story line is set in the year 2045, in a Mexico City that has returned to its ancient name of Tenochtitlan, the capital of a country to which Americans now flock due to the decline of the United States. This migrant flood complicates the revival of the Aztec religion, as Christian groups vie with indigenous Mexican beliefs, leading to the creation of biological virii that infect human minds with the ideology of one faith or the other. Xólotl Zapata, a renegade cartoonist, is the carrier of the Aztec virus, and he soon finds himself pursued by multiple groups hoping to stop the ascendancy of Mexico. Yet their plan to cancel out his infection with their own has consequences that they could never have imagined.
Now, I’m going to be straight-forward about something: High Aztech is not an easy read. That’s a good thing, however. Hogan crafted a novel that rivals the bizarrely cryptic genre work of Burroughs or Lessing, that takes linguistic, philosophical, and structural risks along the lines of A Clockwork Orange.
The frame story is an interrogation of Xólotl, but his erratic, ADHD stream of memories is interrupted by commentary from observers, notes from field operations, and other creative techniques for widening the narrative net. While these choices mean we don’t get as much character development and depth as perhaps traditional methods might achieve, for Hogan’s philosophical and politically speculative purposes, it’s a great fit.
Most spectacular, however, is the hybrid language with which Xólotl laces his responses to the interrogation. Called Españahuatl, this fusion of Spanish and Nahuatl (the indigenous Aztec tongue) is at times wildly funny and earnestly poignant, much like the “Nadsat” that Anthony Burgess once crafted.
Sadly, TOR pretty much abandoned the novel right after its publication, doing nothing to publicize a book that they clearly realized was more ethnic than they had expected. Fooled by his last name, many in the publishing world didn’t realize that Hogan was actually a Chicano (rather than a daring Anglo). His full-throated expression of Latino sensibilities within the frame of science fiction is only now being fully appreciated....more
Octavia Butler is best known as the award-winning author of some 15 novels of socially conscious speculative fiction. Sometimes associated with Afro-fOctavia Butler is best known as the award-winning author of some 15 novels of socially conscious speculative fiction. Sometimes associated with Afro-futurism, Butler often used marginalized protagonists to explore multi-cultural, hybrid societies that highlighted our own societal ills in unflinching ways.
Butler wrote very few short stories during her career, but seven of these have been collected in Bloodchild. Each story is accompanied by a brief afterword in which the author details its genesis. The collection is rounded out by two insightful essays on writing.
Each of the pieces is powerful, ideas and characters lingering in the reader’s mind for hours afterward. Stand-outs for me were “Bloodchild,” in which a boy must decide whether to serve as host for the larvae of an alien he’s spent his life serving; “Speech Sounds,” a post-apocalyptic vision of a violent world without human speech and the novelette “Amnesty,” in which a translator helps humans come to grips with their inevitable enfolding into an alien community.
Written in accessible, supple prose, these stories push us beyond our boundaries, expanding our understanding of what it means to be human...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the November 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Jesús Salvador Treviño is a trailblazer in Latino speculative aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the November 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Jesús Salvador Treviño is a trailblazer in Latino speculative arts. His early career as an activist filmmaker documented the rise of the Chicano movement and the power of that work led to his becoming an award-winning television director, helming episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Bones, NYPD Blue and a host of other series.
Among his many creative endeavors are several books, including Return to Arroyo Grande, a short story collection that continues to explore the fictional border community established in The Fabulous Sinkhole and The Skyscraper That Flew.
The intertwined stories in this latest book dispense with some of the modern fads in genre fiction, taking an old-school approach to plotting reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. The inhabitants of the border town of Arroyo Grande find their lives shaken in unexpected ways as interdimensional rifts yank people and objects from one reality into another.
Yolanda Mendoza has to choose between immortal stewardship and her art career in “Where Lost Objects Reside.” In “Lost and Found,” her former boyfriend and nascent filmmaker “Choo Choo” Torres finds himself working at an amusement park where people disappear … and then are sometimes replaced by strange doppelgangers. During “A Tex Mex Night in Chelsea,” Yoli has to choose again between art and otherworldly artifact, and then her friend Jeannie gets a second chance at a long-dead love in “Builders of the New Templo Mayor.”
Of the remaining stories, the titular “Return to Arroyo Grande” stands out for me. A deceased matriarch appears to the scattered protagonists of the other tales, urging them to come home to fight against land developers looking to convert an old barrio into a gambling complex. The fantastic resolution to this problem harkens back to Treviño’s other collections in a richly rewarding way.
With this third book, Jesús Salvador Treviño is well on his way to crafting the sort of detailed fictional community that Rolando Hinojosa established in his Klail City Death Trip Series and in fact Hinojosa features briefly in one of the stories in a quick tip-of-the-hat cameo....more
Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most exciting voices in modern genre fiction, her Nigerian-American heritage informing her work in richly rewarding ways.Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most exciting voices in modern genre fiction, her Nigerian-American heritage informing her work in richly rewarding ways. An associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University at Buffalo, Okorafor has proven especially adept at tweaking elements of African myth and legend to fit seamlessly within the framework of modern fantasy and science fiction, whether YA or adult.
With Lagoon, the author takes on the alien invasion trope: a space ship plunges into the waters off the coast of Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. Yet Okorafor avoids the typical trappings of such a tale, co-opting instead the patterns of folktale to explore a city not often the subject of a major mainstream work of fiction.
Deeply philosophical and political, Lagoon uses its three protagonists — a marine biologist, a rapper, a soldier, all transformed by the aliens — and a host of supporting characters to take stock of what it is that makes us human, that makes us a community.
Killer & Victim by Chris Lambert reminds me in many ways of The Last Projector by David James Keaton, another challenging, genre-bending book thatKiller & Victim by Chris Lambert reminds me in many ways of The Last Projector by David James Keaton, another challenging, genre-bending book that seems to build toward something that must happen in your own mind and not the page. Set in a vaguely dystopian near-future “crowd-sourced” city, the plot plunges into its citizens’ lives as a madman makes his way through the metropolis....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 19, 2015 edition of The Monitor
My recommendation for kids today is “Ambassador” by William AlexanA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 19, 2015 edition of The Monitor
My recommendation for kids today is “Ambassador” by William Alexander. A Cuban-American professor of creative writing, Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his debut middle-grades fantasy “Goblin Secrets.” His most recent book, “Ambassador,” is a work of science fiction that blends humor, great adventure and serious topical concerns into a really compelling narrative.
Gabriel Sandro Fuentes is an 11-year-old from Minnesota, son of highly idiosyncratic parents who met, of all places, in India. He has an older sister, Lupe, and two toddler younger siblings that he often must babysit. Gabe doesn’t mind the responsibility, really. Differently from many pre-teens, he has a powerful sense of empathy for others, working hard to preserve their feelings and dignity. Even his numerous pets get amazing respect and care from the boy.
These characteristics draw the attention of the Envoy, an ancient, shape-shifting ball of translucent gel whose job it is to select an ambassador from Earth every few years to represent our planet in the vast arena of galactic affairs. Luckily for Gabe, he doesn’t actually have to leave the planet — through a very clever sci-fi twist, particles of his body are “entangled” and their twins sent through a black hole the Envoy creates in the family dryer. Gabe’s diplomatic work is to happen when he falls asleep or into a trance, his mind connecting across the gulf of space to a virtual body in a diplomatic hub of sorts, where the physical form of thousands of bizarre species is “translated” to be more relatable (though if you squint and look sideways, the crowds of young ambassadors reveal their true shapes).
Not long after his first visit, Gabe finds that his life has been turned upside down. First, after a routine traffic stop, the police discover that his parents are undocumented, and they are rounded up unceremoniously. With the threat of his father’s impending deportation hanging over his head, Gabe also finds himself being attacked repeatedly. The black hole in his basement refuses to close, swallowing his home. He is shot at from space. A bizarre alien vehicle claws its way out of the ground to pursue him.
The boy soon finds himself on the run with the Envoy, one step ahead of death. In order to save his own skin and return to his family in their darkest hour, he will have to unravel with no training at all the secret of what alien ambassador is responsible for the attacks and negotiate a diplomatic solution.
Skillfully written, full of laugh-out-loud humor — especially from the deadpan Envoy — as well as well-rounded characters and gutsy exploration of issues of immigration and family, “Ambassador” is a must-read work of middle-grades science fiction. The narrative ends on a nail-biting cliff-hanger, so I can’t wait for book two....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 8, 2015 edition of The Monitor
In the 1960s and ’70s, a certain type of science fiction was in voguA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 8, 2015 edition of The Monitor
In the 1960s and ’70s, a certain type of science fiction was in vogue epitomized by the writing of Philip K. Dick: odd, talky books dripping with philosophy and quirkiness, exploring deep ideas of identity and reality with kludged-together pulp tropes.
Rudy Ch. García has crafted a work that evokes that free-wheeling age of sci-fi with The Closet of Discarded Dreams. A young Chicano awakens in a strange, impossible landscape: a vast, enclosed realm littered with the detritus of human existence, piled high and inhabited by a mind-boggling array of people who are added to from time to time when a gargantuan door swings open to throw more folks and objects inside.
The protagonist discovers that he is in what is called the Closet and that its inhabitants and contents are the sloughed off fantasies and hopes of humans back in The Other Place (earth). Ignoring the rules that are posted throughout this virtual space, the young man sets off on a journey to learn the real nature of his prison and find a way out. This trek is punctuated by long, strange dialogues with odd folk, smacking a little of Cormac McCarthy. Finally, with the help of many “Dream People,” including whimsical versions of Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe and a host of others, the Chicano manages what no one else has done: he escapes.
What he finds beyond the Closet and what it implies for himself is a clever and unexpected twist, though one certain to drive people nuts (endings to weirdly metaphysical works are always controversial … think Lost).
I was constantly reminded of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series, not only because of its vast post-mortem realm, but also because of the determination of its protagonists to wrench answers from the universe, whatever the cost. Full of great characters, gonzo humor and solid insight into the human condition, The Closet of Discarded Dreams will linger in your mind; a heady goulash doused with some very spicy salsa....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 10, 2015 edition of The Monitor
In a near-future Los Angeles, the cultural barriers have come dowA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 10, 2015 edition of The Monitor
In a near-future Los Angeles, the cultural barriers have come down between people in a process called recomboization, creating fascinating hybrids like Dead Daze, a three-day celebration blending Día de los Muertos, Halloween and Mardi Gras — a bacchanalian revel during which only corporate-sponsored street gangs dare patrol the crowded streets and the drug Fun is consumed openly.
On the eve of Dead Daze, Beto Orozco, ladies’ man and game developer, decides to put to use the god-simulator program he has stolen from Xóchitl, an engineer from Mexico City. Unfortunately, he selects Tezcatlipoca as his test deity — the Aztec Lord of Chaos, trickster brother of Quetzalcoatl — and he does so without any safety measures. The simulation gains access to the Internet and attains sentience, reaching out to control Beto’s body first through hypnosis and then a cerebral implant.
Plunging into the celebration, Tezcatlipoca — using the recombo name translation “Smokey Espejo” — takes control of a corporate gang and soon becomes the center of the festivities, his musical talents, suave presence and seeming omniscience attracting the attention of the media … and other groups. Ti Yong/Hoodoo Investigations sizes up the threat this AI god represents (to wit, he wants to use music to foment chaos across the globe, partying hard as he does so), and they decide, with the help of the simulation program’s creator and a handful of Beto’s original friends, to stop Tezcatlipoca and free Beto (whose mind has been imprisoned in his own brain).
Their mission is complicated by the Earth Angels, a shadowy organization of monotheistic terrorists who believe the only way to stop Smokey Espejo is by creating a cybernetic version of their “one true God” using the same software. As these three groups head toward a collision, one thing is certain: the gods humanity has crafted will hold a dark and smoking mirror to our collective soul.
Hogan’s style is both deftly self-assured and gleefully madcap, harkening to the very best of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany. Shifting viewpoints are intercut with commentary from news reporters and the communications of different organizations. Steamy, explicit scenes are juxtaposed with philosophical conversations and political machinations, but the narrative flows smoothly, drawing a reader deep into this imagined world.
And what a world! Most of the protagonists are Latinos (“latios”), but people of color in multiple variations appear (including a president who is African-American … sort of … it’s complicated). The shamanistic cyberpunk vibe of El Lay (Los Angeles) during this “trimili era” is unique while feeling familiar, as if Guillermo del Toro had collaborated with Terry Gilliam to craft a fictional universe.
If you love great speculative fiction and/or Chicano literature, you owe it to yourself to give this a read. To use the hybrid future slang of the book, “It’s sumato!”...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 17, 2015 edition of The Monitor
One of the most powerful roles that speculative fiction, especialA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 17, 2015 edition of The Monitor
One of the most powerful roles that speculative fiction, especially dystopian sci-fi, plays in the literary community is that of cautionary prophet, spinning visionary depictions of what the sins of the present may lead us to. Classics like “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”and“Nineteen Eighty-Four” have become staples of high school and college curricula precisely because of their startling oracular power, that gut punch of plausibility that leaves readers reeling.
With “Ink,”Sabrina Vourvoulias — a writer, journalist and editor with Mexican-Guatemalan roots — has added a powerful meditation on immigration to this growing sub-genre. Set in the very near future, the novel depicts an America in which immigrants are required to receive a biometric tattoo in place of documentation, with colors corresponding to status.
The novel, which spans several years, depicts how this first repressive step (not as unbelievable as I would hope, given the current anti-immigrant climate in our country) leads to further persecution: the banning of the use of Spanish in public, creation of sanatoriums for supposedly sick “Inks” (as recipients of the tattoos are called), reversal of the rights of naturalized citizens, installation of tracking devices, sterilization and finally mass deportation.
Vourvoulias makes the brave choice of telling this story broadly and loosely, using four very different characters in New York State whose intersecting narratives weave together a compelling tapestry of communal victory. Finn is a journalist whose interest in the Inks is at first a reflection of his desire to sell news, but whose love for an immigrant embroils him emotionally and intellectually with the movement. Mari came as an infant to the United States from Guatemala with her American father, fleeing the massacre of her mother’s people (from whom she inherited a spirit animal to which she is twinned at birth and which protects her and other Inks in moments of direst need).
Del, Finn’s brother-in-law, is a painter with a spiritual bond that links him to his land. Drawn to the movement by his relationship with fellow workers and Meche, the Cuban chemist whose artificial skin allows immigrants who “pass” as white to cover up their tattoos, Del uses his earth magic to help establish a sanctuary for those escaping the increasingly harsh regime. Abbie, an almost preternaturally gifted teenage hacker of indigenous North American heritage, volunteers at the “inkatorium” her mother runs, and she also risks everything to protect immigrants from the dehumanizing practices that begin to snowball into fascism.
The novel consists of three broad arcs in which these individuals’ almost vignette-like stories, driven by relationships and characters, show how the immigrant community and its allies struggle to survive and finally fight back against the repression.
Rather than resolve itself through the actions of a single heroic chosen one, the conflict in “Ink” is refreshingly dealt with — after heartbreak and loss and betrayal — by the tenacity and solidarity of an entire movement who network and take action, never giving up until injustice is overturned.
Vourvoulias pulls off a real feat through her deft dialogue, arcane plotting and insightful characterization: spinning a complex and completely recognizable world that seems to be waiting just around the bend. Even the magic in this genre hybrid feels tangible and authentic, a deepening of cultural traditions and indigenous religious beliefs.
At a time like the present, when immigrants are in such physical/political danger and law enforcement’s violation of minority rights is tragically underscored with frightening regularity, brave novels like “Ink” become not only a necessity, but a moral obligation....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Though not a memoir, some of the science-fiction, horror and faA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Though not a memoir, some of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy pieces in Bradley’s book have an autobiographical feel, drawing on the author’s youth as a Latina in South Texas. Certainly the innumerable facets of female identity glitter at the heart of these darkly beautiful treks through otherworldly landscapes of desire and pain, belonging and loneliness, creation and destruction.
Standouts for me were “No Patron Saint,” in which a young woman discovers she can bear the weight of her boyfriend’s grief; “Red Eye,” about a woman’s nightly excesses; the eerie and moving title sequence; the borderline bizarro “Teratoma Lullaby,” in which an absorbed twin struggles for the upper hand; “The ‘Ludes,” a great tale of addiction; the terrifying apocalyptic mythology of “Gehenesis”; and the novelette “Bilingual, or Mouth to Mouth,” a fascinating South Texas cuento de hadas … literally.
Bradley possesses a real gift for language and unflinching insight into the best and worst of human nature. You owe it to yourself to check out this rising star of speculative fiction and verse. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 29, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Imagine living your life in a city that physically intersects withA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 29, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Imagine living your life in a city that physically intersects with another city, sharing the same geographical space but with very different customs, architecture and language. Imagine further that you are not allowed to actually look upon or listen to the sights and sounds of that sister urb, even if they are meters away from you. Nor can you cross into the other city physically, except through one central border crossing.
If you do, you have breached. And the feared organization called Breach will step from the shadows to mete out punishment.
This is the setting of The City & The City by China Miéville. Otherwise the world is much like the one we know. People are drawn to the odd dual metropolis of Besźel and Ul Qoma there at the edge of Eastern Europe, but to get in requires rigorous training in the “unseeing” and “unhearing” that citizens grow up learning. Students of archeology flock to the strange ruins and digs, searching for answers to the Cleaving.
Among these is Mahalia Geary, a Canadian doctoral candidate convinced in the veracity of legends of a third city lodge in the interstices of Besźel and Ul Qoma. When she turns up dead, Inspector Tyador Borlú of Besźel’s Extreme Crime Squad finds himself drawn into a harrowing “international” investigation with Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt.
Together the two cops navigate an even stranger fringe of unification groups and ultranationalists, locked into a struggle to either merge the two cities or destroy one so the other thrives. But the true nature of the growing threat to their way of life and of the Breach itself will shake both men to the roots of their culture and change them forever.
In many ways a departure from his other weird fiction Miéville is known for, The City & The City is a fascinating piece of speculative fiction boasting more stripped-down, nourish prose and Chandleresque plot turns. It may not satisfy fans of his science fiction and fantasy work, but anyone hungry for evocative mystery with a wholly unique setting will enjoy the book.
Most significantly, Besźel and Ul Qoma serve as stand-ins for places around the world where cultures overlap in politically tense ways, such as Cold-War Berlin or Jerusalem. The idea of “unseeing” and “unhearing” one’s immediate yet culturally different neighbors resonates profoundly, and I kept thinking of ethnic and racial groups here in the US that live life as if the others didn’t exist.
Thought-provoking and thrilling. Definitely top-shelf. ...more