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All Souls, All Warnings – a Review of THREE MESSAGES AND A WARNING edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo, Chris Brown, and Bruce Sterling

A member of the family passed away on All Souls, November 1. As a resident of San Antonio, TX, I am very familiar with the importance of this day. It is the day when spirits return to visit their living relatives, and feast with them. The Feast of All Souls is the Day of the Dead. As I was packing to travel to the funeral, I grabbed this book that was very much the sort of book to read at this sort of event, that I had left half-finished once upon a time, on some nightstand, and remembered, then, when I was packing for my journey to the funeral.

Today, Day of the Dead is big business with popular films and products swelling shelves. When this anthology came out, in 2012, most people in America did not know what this festival was, or what it was about. It formed the symbolic backdrop to a few moments in films, but on the whole, the country was not understood. Much of Mexican culture remains a mystery to us, just a few miles north. It sounds unfair, but we have a similar relationship with Canadian culture (poutine, snow, hockey, and…?).

One thing the introduction mentions is that Mexico doesn’t really have an industrious middle class that idealizes solving all the problems, like in American SF. It’s a culture with wealthy people and poor people, and very little in between. In their science fiction writing, there is not the same clear distinction of boundaries between genres, and most of the characters seem content with their lot in life, high or low. Things are the way they are, and the way things are is imbued with a lamplight of spiritual energy. Ghosts siesta on park benches. Technology turns criminals into fireflies. Time travelers don’t even know they are lost in time. Boys hunt for iguanas in the jungle just as their ancestors have done, and find a lake that might be haunted with the ghosts of European explorers. And on the whole, technology is not a liberator or oppressor, but just a new way to interact with the magic of the world.

A few stories truly stand out. “Murillo Park” is either a ghost story or a time travel story depending on how one interprets it. A middle aged man who works in an office takes his lunch on a park bench, and meets a woman about his age, who becomes a close friend and companion. This man never married, never fell in love, and seemed to be very lonely in a quiet and dignified way. The woman he meets seems perfectly normal, at first, but anachronisms pile up. Is she a ghost? Is he? Are one of them somehow traveling in time upon a park bench? The story does not provide a simple solution, and no one sees their plight as a great love story if only they jumped up and engaged with the mystery. They both merely accept the way things are, an unrequited love that dissipates as mystically as it began.

“Photophobia” is unforgettable. Mauricio Montiel Figuero begins with a quote from J. M. Coetzee, about ghosts, and then begins “The apocalypse, for him, was an everyday concern – corroborated each morning by the light which pierced his pupils with thousands of pins shot out from a mute atomic explosion the moment his eyelids opened like floodgates to scatter the water of his dreams all over the floor.” From this glorious and beautiful imagery, that sets such a scene and unsettling strangeness, the main character of the piece continues on against the end of times, when the whole world is moving towards the fall of the bombs. What will the ghosts do at the end of times? When the bombs fall, will the ghosts die? It’s a gorgeous tightrope walk between prose and scene and sadness, and I applaud the translator, Jen Hofer, for (I assume) doing this piece justice in English.

“Future Nereid,” by Gabriela Damian Miravete, is the sort of story one would expect in an episode of Doctor Who, except approached with a beauty and closeness to character no whimsical episode of a mass market TV drama could produce. A young woman is drawn to literature with a force and fervor that is excessive. She is a future Nereid, someone who has been invented and discovered by someone who is not even yet alive, who has invented a machine that can go back in time and find his true love: a hidden book!

There are a few lackluster tales, which I shall not mention, but as they are often very short, and still carry the cultural ideas of SF that the anthology is exposing, they are still of great interest and add to the overall effect of the complete anthology. It is a completely different way of approaching the literature of speculation, with a whole set of traditions and mores rooted in the literary traditions of Kafka, and Poe, and Carpentier than Asimov and Heinlein, and for this, it is a breath of fresh air. Instead of opening the vault of the future and finding clean, cold Modernism, a sea of butterflies and city parks crowded with dreamers.

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Categories: Book Reviews, Short Story Collections

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