Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech is in many ways a hybrid creature—a mixture of the hard-boiled cyberpunk associated with William R. Gibson and his ilk, and a reasonably optimistic fantasy about the end of religious intolerance. It is also somewhat unstuck in time; first published by Tor in 1992, it was reissued by Strange Particle Press in 2016, with a new, retrospective Introduction (“How High Aztech Hijacked My Brain”) by the author, and three cheerfully grotesque illustrations, also by Hogan himself. This new edition is extremely timely, in light of recent controversy over inclusiveness and diversity in the Hugo Awards, and the great strides being made by women and minorities in the Nebula Awards. Science fiction and fantasy might still be genres largely dominated by white men, but a new awareness of the need for diversity is undeniably emerging, however slowly and painfully. Nonetheless, High Aztech is, in many ways, still very much a product of the early 1990s—everyone is rather quaintly dependent on landlines and voicemail; recycling is depicted as futuristic and cool; and millennial anxieties loom very much in the foreground. However, the emphasis on globalisation, on post-secularism, and on a riotous celebration of cultural relativism also feels very relevant, even urgent, in a world seeing the return of far-right sensibilities and serious back-pedaling on environmental and socially progressive issues. The book is therefore both very much of its time and remarkably prescient, not to mention really very enjoyable, though some readers may take a little convincing to acclimatise to its commitment to (as Samuel Johnson said of the metaphysical poets) the violent yoking together of heterogeneous ideas.
Indeed, Hogan (who identifies as Chicano) explicitly describes the book, and the process of writing it, in terms that strongly echo Mary Shelley’s description of her novel Frankenstein as her “hideous progeny.” The Introduction recounts his experiences of working with his wife (Emily Devenport, herself a science fiction writer, who has also published under the names Maggie Thomas and Lee Hogan) as a cleaner in the already spotless homes of the rich in Arizona, a mind-numbingly dull task that left “the frontal lobes […] free to toss around stuff to entertain itself.” Hogan asserts that, while searching fruitlessly for the “three or four crumbs of dirt somewhere in the house,” he suddenly had an epiphany:
Then the vision hit me: A face. A grinning Aztec wizard/warrior, perhaps Tezcatlipoca himself, daring me to look into his crazed eyes and see another world, the world of High Aztech. Could that be where all this was heading? I was suddenly seeing it all. I already had an idea rattling around back there: a futuristic Aztec cult where people sacrificed their hearts and replaced them with artificial ones—only someone hacks into the system, people start dying for real. Could have been a thriller/whodunit, but that didn’t seem to be enough. […] The idea of the viruses that can download religions into people’s brains materialized, and suddenly I had a living monster of a story coming to life on my hands. All I’d have to do is get it going, follow it around, and take notes on how it crashed through the landscape. […] I was walking around with this world in my head. If I didn’t do something with it, it may have destroyed me.
In many ways, Hogan’s depiction of his work is not merely accurate but extremely resonant. Like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, High Aztech is a queasy patchwork of genres and ideas that combine to make something radical, unsettling, and quite possibly monstrous, but by no means in a bad way. The story is told from the point of view of Xólotl Zapata, a controversial fiction writer and journalist living in Tenochtitlán (the Aztec capital the ruins of which can still be found in Mexico City) in 2045. Xólotl wakes up the day the action begins to a set of persistent death threats by the Neliyacme, a militant cult seeking to revive the old Aztec ways by cutting out the hearts of the faithful and replacing them with artificial ones. The threats are interspersed with a series of more commonplace video messages left on Xólotl’s answering machine, which function as a useful way into the narrative, introducing us to his family, friends, lovers, and enemies, and smoothly incorporating the recurrent motif of “demonizing” communications equipment with viruses that turn machines against their owners. From here, a series of increasingly bizarre events catapult the reluctant, deeply confused hero around the city, where he encounters media moguls, religious fanatics, mafia bosses, a diva-ish eco-warrior known as the Garbage Queen, and a dizzying panoply of gods, goddesses, and dead celebrities.
All of this is set in motion by a combination of the death threats and the fact that Xólotl’s former lover, Cóatliquita (whose name is both a diminutive form of the goddess Coatlicue’s and a perfect encapsulation of the book’s gleeful mixing of Aztec/Nahuatl and Spanish languages, along with Japanese and pretty much anything else that comes up), has been infected with a highly communicable virus that transforms people into religious zealots, driven to effect the rebirth of Aztec beliefs and practices—though it emerges eventually that the virus can be reprogrammed to instil belief in any or even all religions. Cóatliquita arrives in Xólotl’s apartment as he’s lolling around in his underwear with Patiyonena, a beauty-obsessed rich kid whom he initially contacts for casual sex and distraction. Cóatliquita is clearly very sick, and expires (rather too quickly and with less ceremony or emotional response than might be expected) just as a team of hazmat-suited officials show up, take the body, and attempt to quarantine Xólotl and Patiyonena, who are (possibly accidentally) rescued by a protesting crowd demanding religious freedom. It’s here that things start to get interesting.
Patiyonena initially responds with what appears to be religious naivety, praying fervently to the now-revived Aztec gods, though their “rescue” makes it far from clear whether her prayers are answered or not. Xólotl, and indeed the reader, initially takes her to be little more than “a typical contemporary mixed-up kid who couldn’t tell one side from another in the rococo, byzantine politics of Tenochtitlán.” This (especially considering the speed with which Cóatliquita is dispatched by the narrative, just after Xólotl admits tiring of her charms) would seem to suggest that High Aztech is just one more misogynistic, tough-guy, cyberpunk offering. Once they get clear of the men in hazmat suits and the violent crowd, however, Patiyonena undergoes an abrupt but satisfying transformation. She swings into action, first bringing Xólotl on the Metro to help avoid detection, and then to what turns out to be her parents’ offices, in High Aztech, S.A., where they rule a cultural empire, fulfilling much the same function as Effie Trinket and Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games, spreading a particular variant of Aztec belief via tacky pop videos and uncritically positive, hyperbolic interviews with believers.
So far, so interesting, but one thing that might potentially mar the excitement of reading all this is what initially seems to be a somewhat clunky prose style. Xólotl’s virus makes it difficult for him to tell the difference between reality and religious hallucination, as becomes clear when he finds himself strapped to a hospital bed with nothing to do but watch TV. Inevitably, Patiyonena’s parents dominate the screen, and they merge vertiginously with the Aztec deities he cannot help but worship. We are told that,
They were Tenyotecuhtli and Tenyocihuatl, Famous Lord and Lady, Host and Hostess of the High Aztech Channel. I once watched more of their nonstop pleading for money, promising a better future for Mexico, and attempts to attract a larger audience by trying to co-opt wrestling and yaya music to their cause than I could deal with for several lifetimes for scathing articles that I was sure would get me killed and eaten if I ever made the mistake of passing by the High Aztech Building any slower than at a full run.
The writing here, much like that of the early stories in Gibson’s 1896 cyberpunk collection Burning Chrome, is slightly convoluted, under-punctuated, and easier to grasp on the second reading than on the first. A similar thing happens a page or so later, when Xólotl tells us,
When I wrote those articles way back when, I couldn’t understand how anyone could watch this channel for a few minutes, much less the hours that addicts throughout Mexico’s cable and satellite systems—and some converts in other countries, including the United States, if you believe the hype—put up with.
However, once I figured out that it’s the addicts who are putting up with things and not the United States, and as I found myself increasingly drawn in by the plot, the style itself began to make more sense as an element of what the book is trying to do. The long-winded style certainly adds to the Chandler-esque element of the writing, giving it a sort of breathless fluidity that approximates a stream-of-consciousness quality in places. What’s more, as the hard-boiled prose merges with what could be read as a subtle form of resistance to Anglo-European rules regarding punctuation and subordinate clauses, the reader is effectively dragged through tangled, confusing sentences just as Xólotl finds himself bundled unceremoniously around a city that has suddenly become strange and hostile to him overnight. For this reviewer at least, this linguistic and stylistic labyrinth is a large part of the book’s ideological thrust—and indeed its charm.
In much the same way, as with much science fiction, the dialogue can be slightly stilted at times, as characters seem to become mouthpieces for exposition. The following exchange between Xólotl and Patiyonena, for example, reads almost like an official company policy document, laying out rules for engaging with the bands of rogue recyclers that roam the city, scavenging anything left behind. When a group of them appears in a fancy restaurant to which Patiyonena has dragged him, Xólotl remarks,
XÓLOTL ZAPATA: Pepenadores. They seem to come and go as they please.
PATIYONENA: Of course, they don’t bother us about the environmental impact of our medical experiments as long as we give them all our waste products. I don’t really know why they want all that awful stuff.
This kind of dialogue, which feels more like advertising bumph than casual chat, is nonetheless clearly central to the book’s insistence that large corporations reify religion, language, and society at large in ways that limit personal freedom and agency—even the feisty Patiyonena is transformed here into a parrot for her parents’ aggressive marketing strategies. Similar language is employed by Blanca Maria de Vega (the so-called “Garbage Queen” who rules the scavengers, known as pepenadores), but to rather more progressive ends. She captures Xólotl, now a valuable commodity due to the pioneering virus in his system, and attempts to sell him to the mafia boss Don Gabriel, in exchange for sexual favours. When Don Gabriel, rejecting her offer, sneers at her chosen profession, she spits back,
“Yes! We take care of the garbage because somebody has to and nobody else wants to! We also provide energy and renewed raw materials to keep Mexico from sliding back into poverty! We invented self-degrading plaston! We build the desalinization plants and the drainage pumps that keep Tenochtitlán from sinking!”
It makes sense here for de Vega to talk as if she’s delivering a political manifesto, since she is after all not only defending her way of life, but publically asserting its social virtues. To a certain extent, awkward dialogue of this kind can be seen as the inevitable result of combining a reasonably complex future world, which requires a certain amount of explanation throughout the novel, with a first-person narration. The latter is useful and even necessary, however; Xólotl’s virus-addled consciousness is the perfect vehicle for narrating the rather trippy religious free-for-all with which the book culminates, as multitudes of gods and goddesses invade the streets of Tenochtitlán, just as the virus itself, when programmed to encourage strong belief in every religion, breaks down the barriers of intolerance and superstition that breed violence and discord in the city.
That such intolerance is Hogan’s primary target in this novel, but also that his approach is relatively nuanced, becomes clear when Xólotl is kidnapped once again, and finds himself in the clutches of yet another set of fanatics, belonging this time to the Christian minority, who are now persecuted Others in the newly successful Mexico, following the collapse of the United States (due to a number of vaguely specified catastrophes). He wakes up
on a couch that was upholstered in a fabric decorated with screaming bald eagles on a field of red and white stripes and patches of blue speckled with white stars. An American flag hung from the ceiling, right over me, like a gaudy guillotine blade. The room had no windows, like a basement or bomb shelter. On a brick wall painted shocking pink was a portrait of Jesus Christ, but not the usual, dark, bleeding, masochistic-looking Mexican Christ; this Christ showed no pain or suffering in his burning blue eyes. His neatly-combed hair and trimmed beard were almost blond, his overdeveloped muscles strained as if he were about to tear himself off his cross and machine-gun down any nonbelievers that were within range—this was a red-blooded, hamburger-eating, all-American Christ.
Xólotl, it emerges, has fallen into the hands of his own cleaning lady, Mary Jane, who has been exploiting her appearance to pose as just one more blond, pale-skinned North American, so that her more radical tendencies would go unnoticed, knowing full well that her employers would assume she is nothing more than an illegal immigrant, fleeing religious persecution, and with little or no Spanish. She is in fact an agent of the Christian US government, spying on those who look down on her, and strongly in favour of the “Tortilla Curtain,” a “Southern Border Wall” that she sees as “necessary to keep the pagan influences of your country from infecting our Christian culture, and keep the traitors from coming down here and being unfairly exploited by your people.” Xólotl retorts, “But I’ve seen all kinds of interviews with illegals who are grateful for the opportunities provided in the border zone, not to mention those coming to get safe, therapeutic abortions, and those fleeing your Christian oppression.” While Xólotl becomes a puppet for the novel again here, what he says is nonetheless worth paying attention to. Between the militant, violent, consumerist Christ and Mary Jane’s racist, even misogynist views (which ring rather too true for readers in 2017), it is evident that Hogan’s satire is aimed squarely at those who currently hold the most privilege—white Christians living in the United States—and whose ideologies oppress and harm those without such privilege. At the same time, the book as a whole suggests that all religious dogmatism is dangerous and frightening, and the ultimate message seems to be that multiplicity is always better. Specifically, it should not be imagined that the version of the Aztec religion espoused by a number of the book’s characters is presented as unproblematic or even authentic—far from it. There is a sense that those who attempt to keep it “pure” are both dangerous fanatics and naïve idealists, living in a past that should not be revived unaltered. In the modern world, mingling is not merely inevitable; it is, the book insists, desirable, even urgently necessary for peace, harmony, and mutual understanding—or at least for diffusing violent social discord. Early on in the book, when he and Patiyonena are arrested and she begins to chant, a chant which is taken up by the crowd around him, Xólotl begins to feel that
The chanting—several chants to several gods all at once—was overwhelming and infectious. I found myself joining in, not with any particular chant, just hummed the locoa rhythm and spat out a god’s name for accents and punctuation. I didn’t have to think about it. It just happened. I couldn’t stop.
I wanted to get out of there.
I wanted to knock the xixatl out of somebody in the name of the gods.
Not either/or. Both.
This emphasis on a “both/and” rather than a “either/or” approach is in no way a throwaway moment—indeed, it is the very premise of the novel. This is made clear when Xólotl finds himself at dinner with Patiyonena, and becomes horribly aware that the food he is eating has been engineered from human tissue. He describes himself as “finally working up the courage to take a bite of taco, remembering that since it didn’t come from an actual human being, it wasn’t cannibalism, but since it was genetically the same, it was like participating in a time-honored Aztecan ritual.” In other words, the virus (despite its many negative side effects, such as making him far too willing to die fruitlessly for his beliefs) encourages him to see and understand fundamentally opposed perspectives, and to accept both without much internal conflict. Later on, however, his attitude to precisely this kind of food product shifts revealingly. When the Garbage Queen tries to give him “an elaborate North American-style mock turkey dinner” he finds that he “couldn’t eat much of it. My appetite just wasn’t there. I felt too much like a turkey being fattened up for the kill, or a captured warrior waiting to be sacrificed.” This is not long after unusually gentle treatment at the hands of Blanca and her lackeys makes him feel “feel like a commodity or raw material—not quite human anymore.” He is, in other words, more valuable for what he contains than what he is. While this trope is familiar from science fiction texts like Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic,” here, it is given an added inflection via the emphasis throughout the novel on religious and cultural multiplicity. He may be happy enough to see both or indeed many sides of everything, but there are limits—anything goes, except when it comes to treating people like objects.
As The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction puts it, “[t]here is a pleasing gonzo energy to Hogan’s work, though not to date any sense of any outbreak into work of radical originality: but he continues to seem capable of storming into general view.” High Aztech is the only novel by Hogan that I have read so far, but I’m inclined to be far less harsh than this in my assessment. Displaying as it does a real knack on Hogan’s part for packaging progressive politics in imaginatively lively and entertaining ways, I’ll certainly be looking for more.