South-of-the-Border Speculation

'Three Messages and a Warning' presents a broad swath of Mexican SF

South-of-the-Border Speculation

The notion of Mexican science fiction may, to some minds, go no further than that Borges story "There Are More Things," a pastiche of interdimensional Lovecraftian terror that starts out in Austin and ends near an alien's corpse in Argentina. But with the publication of Three Messages and a Warning – a groundbreaking anthology which gathers nearly 40 Mexican writers and holds a diversity that includes an underground comic book artist as well as a world-renowned neurologist – that paradigm may shift.

In an effort to display the breadth and dynamism of the current state of Mexican speculative fiction, most of the pieces are, out of necessity, "short shorts," known in Spanish as microrelatos. "And if they could have been longer," says Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, "then you could really see what these guys were doing."

The San Antonio-based Mayo, co-editor of Three Messages and a Warning and a frequent translator who earned his Ph.D. in Spain's Universidad San Pablo, doesn't mince words when it comes to his estimation of the current state of sci-fi writing, regardless of length. "What we have in this book is way better that what you're going to typically find published in Mexico today, and way better than the crap you'll get in America, where there is hardly anything worth reading, anyway."

The uniqueness of the pieces gathered – which range from Lacanian takes on Día de los Muertos to ecologically ectoplasmic nightmares – are what first enthralled his co-editor, Chris N. Brown. A tireless enthusiast of a genre that he believes encompasses everything from fanzines to Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, Brown was invited as a panelist to attend the 2009 Festival de Mexico literary symposium on the theme "Parallel Worlds: science fiction as part of the literary avant-garde." He returned form the event much more excited about the young Mexican writers who moderated the discussions than the Anglo-American science-fiction luminaries who were the featured guests.

"Mexican science fiction treats the fantastic as an essential component for depicting contemporary life," says Brown, who is building a "bunker house" in an industrial neighborhood in East Austin based somewhat on the work of J.G. Ballard.

"Mexican science fiction is not Mexicanized space opera," Brown cautions anyone thinking that Three Messages and a Warning will resemble a series of John W. Campbell-like jaunts set in Zacatecas. "Contemporary Mexican fantastic literature tends to be less about adventurous escapism – Mexicans in space – and more about using the tools of science fiction and fantasy writers to depict the unexpected 'realities' of contemporary life."

Perhaps for the same reason, Mayo disregards the idea that the stories in Three Messages and a Warning, which he views as being a direct descendant of the grand tradition of la literatura fantástica, are science fiction at all. "The only thing 'sci-fi' about Mexico is the fact that Mexico has just as many mad scientists as any other major nation on the planet. Mexican science fiction exists thanks to them, no doubt," he says.

At any rate, the label is devalued. Mayo and Brown's effort to display the varieties of the south-of-the-border speculative experience have brought together an intense company of disparate voices and styles in a book that should be considered as inaugural an anthology as Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions.

"The writers we have collected are from such divergent cultural castes that they would never appear together in the same book in Mexico. But read from the distance of the other side of the border, I think it is clear that they share a common sensibility," says Brown.

A special emphasis was made by the editors to incorporate, aside from economic and class differences, gender politics as well. "And this wasn't anywhere near as easy I hope the finished product would suggest," says Brown. "Gender seems to drive a much more divergent perspective in the stories we saw than has been my experience with American writers, with women often depicting a much darker, almost gothic contemporary reality," he notes, citing Amparo Dávila's "The Guest," a story about a housewife dealing with the subtle horror of her husband's indefinite monstrous houseguest, as a prime example. "As is the case in ours and other national traditions, fabulism is employed as effective tool to depict our universal condition of alienation, but in the case of the Mexican women writers we found, the alienation is often darker, more disenfranchised, and more real – experienced with all the senses, especially the sense of pain."

The potpourri of speculative polyphony achieved by this anthology might never have happened if not for the dual tenacity of these two men, who both happen to be lawyers but come from such different aesthetic assumptions as to seem irreconcilable in their tastes.

Brown insists the speculative literary work happening right now reflects a multicultural 21st century society that is defined far more by the consequences of electronic communication networks than by the usual folkloric tchotchkes of Mexican culture one might find at the neighborhood import shop. "Our anthology," he explains, "showcases writers who use the tools of SF to liberate themselves from the tropical languor of old-school magic realism and express the authentic feeling of a media-drunk, technological-mediated, postmodernly alienated contemporary life – one where if La Virgen appears, it will probably be in the low-resolution pixels of YouTube."

Mayo – who refrains from reading contemporary work and had pitched his idea for an anthology of great Mexican stories to about 30 publishing houses before being embraced by Small Beer Press, a publishing house that was at first wary of putting out even a small zine devoted to the subject – says of the fantastic: "All science is fiction, but not all fiction is science fiction. Likewise, not all literature of the fantastic is science fiction. The difference between science fiction and literature of the fantastic is that you don't need a mad scientist to write a story of the fantastic, whereas you do need one to write a story of science fiction."

Brown believes that the problem with American science fiction these days is that America has lost the future. He thinks this anthology, along with introducing authors and entertaining its audience, will educate hopeful writers.

"Mexican writers have much to teach us about how to use the science-fictional imagination to envision our lives without the fantastic delusions of utopian or dystopian futures. Mexican writers can teach us how to write science fiction without the future," explains Brown.

For his part, Mayo thinks that American science fiction has not yet recovered from the death of the Polish author Stanisaw Lem, and he believes that the best Mexican science fiction writers of today – like Iliana Estañol, whose contribution "In Waiting" reads like a telenovela by Agnès Varda – live in Switzerland. He also feels that the quality of the work in Three Messages and a Warning has less to do with The Gutenberg Galaxy and more to do with the actual Gutenberg.

"The best Mexican writers whom I have encountered in my lifetime, in or outside of Mexico, chose speculative fiction because they read the Bible as children and realized that they could do better with the genre of the fantastic than the anonymous authors and amanuenses of sacred scripture. The worst," he notes, "probably noticed that Shakespeare sold lots of tickets thanks to the weird sisters of Macbeth, and they bet that they might be able to sell as many tickets doing the same, adding tequila and a slice of lime."

BookPeople hosts a reading Thursday, Jan. 26, 7pm, featuring co-editors Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, as well as two authors from the anthology: Bernardo Fernández and Pepe Rojo.

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Three Messages and a Warning, Mexican SF, Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Iliana Estañol

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