I'm going to briefly discuss two SF novels published a little under a quarter-century ago.
The first is Aztec Century by Christopher Evans, who is Welsh. Published by Victor Gollancz in 1993, it imagines a world where the Aztec Empire conquers Britain (also the world, as an afterthought). It won the BSFA award for Best Novel in the year between Red Mars and Feersum Endjinn and keeps company in particular with a number of Best Novel winners and nominees like Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy and McDonald's grand tour of India, Brazil, and Turkey. Appropriately, our point of view into the narrative of Aztec Century is that of the princess-in-exile of the British royals, Catherine.
The second text is Ernest Hogan's High Aztech, published by Tor Books in 1992. High Aztech is relatively lesser known: it has not won any of SF's major awards, or minor ones. Hogan is a Chicano writer with an Anglo name. (In his own words: "The Irish surname comes from an Irishman who jumped ship in San Francisco and wound up in New Mexico in the days of Billy the Kid.") He's talked with Strange Horizons before about his difficulties with New York publishing in the 1990s.
In Aztec Century, Catherine spends the entire book being a pawn and a dupe: of the various Aztec factions, of her cheating husband, of her sister, and of her minion Bevan, the gruff Welshman who supplies agency, know-how, macho taciturnity, and disdain for royalty. She starts off a fugitive, is quickly captured, and spends the rest of the book as a prisoner and highly compromised cat's-paw futilely attempting not to graduate to running dog.
The point-of-view character for High Aztech, meanwhile, is Xólotl Zapata, poet, writer, and comic-book creator, who also starts off his book as a prisoner. The framing device is Zapata's interrogation under truth drugs, where he is being forced to narrate himself dry. This is interspersed with surveillance reports that give us (and his interrogators, for whom we stand in as readers) different perspectives on the events he describes, often providing a sober, "objective" report that lets us know the "truth" of the events that Zapata describes in hallucinatory and self-serving terms.
(If Bevan the Welshman could be considered Evans' rhyming stand-in, then perhaps Hogan's is Itzcóatl O'Gorman, Irish surname and all. Itzcóatl is Zapata's friend and manipulator just like Bevan is for Catherine, the man who understands the plot and has the agency denied to the protagonist.)
There is obviously an angle where Aztec Century's positioning of the Aztec Empire as the dominant world power and the various humiliations suffered by conquered England works as a critique of the British Empire. I've never found this role reversal an especially compelling technique in invasion lit—it's simultaneously a criticism of typical actions of empire (for example, the Aztecs modify the school textbooks so that British children learn an Aztec-friendly history) and a masochistic fantasy of being spanked by Mrs. Be-Done-By-As-You-Did in a dominatrix costume—but it must read differently to a British reader possessed of the guilts and anxieties that it plays on. The titular Aztec Century is a direct comparison to the century of the Pax Britannica, but how that comparison actually functions in a reader's mind, the tilt of the power exchange on which the device is balanced, depends on whether that reader already considers the Pax Britannica an atrocity or not.
Zapata spends all of High Aztech in a state of frustrated machismo. He wants to see himself as a player and a warrior, but he's not actually either of those things. His zumbador remains flaccid, his yearning for a flowery death unfulfilled. In fact, he spends a big chunk of the book trapped in a transparent, air-tight box being the McGuffin in a power struggle, a mechanism by which Zapata stands still while the narrative moves him about in a tour of Tenochtitlán's powers that be. This underlines his lack of agency or control and how increasingly ridiculous his macho posturing is while he's manipulated and traded like a game piece, infected and reinfected with new faith viruses: first by his girlfriend Cóatliquita, who turns out to have been a militant activist; then by a sect of extremist Christians; ultimately, even by his scientist mother:
“...and then when my mother gave me all those other viruses,” I went on.
“What? Other viruses?” Professor Moeketsi looked concerned.
“Your mother?” Itzcóatl looked equally concerned. “How Freudian!”
A major running theme of Aztec Century (arguably the major one, by the end) is that the Aztecs are somehow carrying out a great, pan-societal deception: their Empire is officially Roman Catholic, but this is
just an ethical veneer, adopted for diplomatic reasons during their rise to world power status. It hid, it was said, the older religion, which was still secretly practised in all its brutal horrors.
This is a recurring source of anxiety throughout the text. Another example:
To me, the Aztecs, courteous and correct though they usually were, seemed to retain a secret life which was hidden from outsiders. How much devotion did they retain to their pre-Christian heritage, with all its horrific trappings?
Given that in this history the Aztec Empire has never fallen, it may seem confusing why they should have converted to Roman Catholicism in the first place. Catherine blames this on a sixteenth-century ruler of the Aztec Empire who
established the basis of a modern state by defeating the last of the conquistador armies while at the same time giving freedom of entry to missionaries so that his people could profit from European knowledge. The empire owed as much to the civilizing effects of Spanish culture as it did to Aztec prowess at war.
But this is perhaps beside the point: the purpose is not to posit a plausible alternate history of the spread of religion in the western hemisphere but to evoke a frisson of horror at the alien beliefs of brown people, a well that SF has returned to many times.
Like many xenophobes no doubt fervently and secretly wish, Catherine soon finds out that her anxieties are completely borne out: the Aztecs are indeed carrying out human sacrifices and ritual flayings and whatnot under their false veneer of Roman Catholicism. As one does. And unlike the Pax Britannica, the Aztec Century isn't going to stop: it's graduating from conquering nations to conquering worlds, and we end on a grim note of infinite conquest, empire without end.
High Aztech is notable for the delightfully anarchic use of combined Spanish and Nahuatl words it calls Españáhuatl. This regularly leads some reviewers to complain that the book is dense or difficult, which is manifestly untrue. I don't speak Spanish or Nahuatl, but apart from the one word that Zapata also doesn't understand, everything else is straightforward. (The Junot Díaz quote about Elvish and Spanish applies here.) Typical usage is unitalicized and unexplained, but obvious from context:
You just have to listen to my hijacked mouth go on like this, my Cóatlicue/basal ganglia/R-complex/reptile brain is out of my control again, first by those chamagoso viruses that you’re so ixmictiada over, now your drug forces me into putting on this show for you. I’d rather have a zumbador on max to my ahuilotes!
Call me molocoa, but I just love the Metro during the rush hours; the apachurrón is like Tenochtitlán herself caressing me; the popoloca of all the different languages, accents and dialects makes the chachalaqueo of all those overlapping conversations; and I have a theory that I get endrogoa on the magnetic levitation fields.
(There is a glossary at the end, but by that point it's unnecessary.)
Compare this to the careful use of non-English words in Aztec Century, where they are italicized and promptly explained in context:
For three days we visited vineyards and citrus plantations and coastal waters which shimmered at night with shallow plantations of tonatiuhacatl, the 'sun reeds' which were the very basis of Aztec technological superiority.
In pre-Christian times, the Aztecs often pursued the xochiyaoyotl, or flowery war, whose chief purpose was to secure prisoners for sacrifice rather than conquer enemies or acquire new lands.
I was surprised to learn that Extepan had been educated in the calmecac, where traditionally the emphasis was on a religious training, rather than the telpochcalli, where the sons of nobles usually received a thorough grounding in military skills.
In general, wherever Catherine uses a Nahuatl word, she picks it up with tongs and holds it delicately away from her body while explaining its usage with a pointer, while Zapata is happy to babble away with both historical words and words he just made up on the spot in up to three languages at the same time. (Of course, in both cases this fits the character perfectly.)
In High Aztech, the one Españáhuatl word that Zapata doesn't understand (and one that Hogan didn't make up) until his friend Itzcóatl explains it to him, is ticmotraspasarhuililis, which means "you will transfer it to someone." Whatever it originally meant in the sixteenth century, in High Aztech it's the slogan of the proponents of the faith virus, an ideological weapon transmissible by touch and against which there is no defense. But this weapon is also its own antithesis: the first faith virus is a forcible conversion, but as you're reinfected again and again by all the competing faith viruses, the synthesis results in a new kind of human: one whose view of the world is filtered through a constant haze of hallucinations and mystical experiences, layers and layers of belief that build up and contradict each other until they eventually neutralize themselves.
High Aztech's climactic apocalypse is therefore aimed inward into consciousness (where Aztec Century's was aimed outward into empire). This ideological levelling is the goal of the conspiracy behind the faith viruses: when they've succeeded, they (and Zapata along with them, believing whatever he's been infected with) believe that they've created a world of humans whose minds are as free as they can be, existing in the gap between many opposed beliefs pulling in all directions and in the syntheses that result from that tension.
Of course, they're all infected and they would sincerely believe themselves to be possessed of the truest belief system. Zapata never wavers from this perspective through the whole book despite being forcibly dragged through multiple incompatible worldviews. If it were possible for us to achieve the neutral, mechanistic point of view of a surveillance drone, we might say that they have instead destroyed the world by destroying human free will and forever tainting all human agency.
Since there is no such objective point of view, no fulcrum, and no solid place to stand, the viral post-apocalypse is just our world (which, I assume, was the point) where free will and agency are the fictions spawned from the nest of incompatible and competing beliefs, uncontrollable drives, inescapable neuroses, and irresistible puns that we facetiously refer to as our minds.
Both books are well worth reading, and very comparable: they came out around the same time; their protagonists are similar in their circumstances and frustrations (though not so much in other ways); both books fetishize Aztec culture (though in different ways); they're both largely set in Tenochtitlán (though versions of it very different from each other, and from our own Mexico City with its nightclub named after M. N. Roy); and they both imagine devastating, world-changing events (of different types).
They also differ in important ways both inside and outside of the texts proper. It makes a huge difference, I think, that Hogan is Chicano and that his Zapata is a member of the Aztec cultural revival, an insider and active participant in the language and culture he's reviving, enacting, navigating. The gleeful, gonzo energy, the playfulness of the language-mixing, it all comes from that insider-ness. Evans is telling a very different story, and for his Catherine, Aztecs are very much the implacable, incomprehensible Other, and their culture is exotic, alien, and frightening. All else being equal, that would have been just another difference between the texts, nothing more—but of course, all else is never equal, so this is about more than the books. What bothers me is that the respective fates of the two books seem so predictable from this difference.
I appreciate what Hogan's doing in particular because I look for books like this: SF that isn't about the "representation" of non-Anglo cultures (both books could be said to do this, which is why it fails as a metric) but rather about the inclusion of non-Anglo writers into the field and about giving them room to create their own kind of work, differently centred, differently made. That kind of work matters to me as a reader and as a new writer myself: it gives me hope and encouragement whenever I can see it as an ongoing tradition that's been there in SF since Kylas Chunder Dutt, as an alternative canon that's closer (in spirit, if not in geography) to home.
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