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Sordidez coverDystopian fiction often makes revolution look easy—thrilling, too. The enemy is clear to most everyone, and there’s an intuitive sense that the protagonist already knows most everything they need to know to defeat the baddie, bring down the oppressive state, and raise up a new world in its stead. Oh, sure, maybe the main character needs a little confidence, or support, or Just the Right Tool for the Job. But ultimately, in so many fictional contexts, a Big Bad Order can be brought to its knees by a motley young crew, and then the work is done.

Sordidez, by E. G. Condé, is not such a story. In it, there are revolutions (plural), there are overlapping cultures, and there are differently wounded people trying to build up oft-competing visions of something better from the ashes amid active, insufficient governments.

This collision of human struggles—individual, local, historical, and systemic—goes about as smoothly as one might expect. Even if one group of activists has the right idea, they might not have the knowledge or adequate resources to pull it off yet. And even if a new community is enlightened in some ways, those ways might not serve the needs of every citizen. Some might long to remember. Some might want to forget. All ways of resisting oppression matter—but not all will suffice to build a stronger, more supportive home.

Told through intersecting character POVs, and set across a few island and Indigenous communities currently afflicted by other cultures’ climate change transgressions, Sordidez inverts the very concept in its title—a state of ruin, and of a ruined and abandoned people—to imagine sórdidos (those cast into the worst eco-social traumas and displacements) as precisely the changemakers who will be able to imagine other ways to rebuild the world.

We meet Vero first, in a Puerto Rico sold off to the Chinese to settle a US debt—though that’s hardly the end of conflict between those superpowers, as Vero knows from his university studies into the full history of colonial oppression. With extreme weather assailing the island home of the descendants of Taíno peoples, China’s presence recedes just enough to allow native residents like Vero a chance at reclaiming their cities. Their revolution comes with a heavy cost, though—because, for all Vero’s education, he and his local group still don’t have all the experience necessary to get sustainable transformation right the first time.

Even when a new world order, the UN Parliament, emerges out of the war between distant superpowers, this changing of the guard to something seemingly more helpful doesn’t mean an end to local struggles. How can a new monopoly ever heal all the problems of monopoly itself? Nevertheless, the existence of this new UN—and with it, the promise of a whole new range of global experiments in doing better—allows Vero to choose a different path for himself. His kin stay behind, including his twin sister Anacaona, to continue the local fight from the ground up, while he finds a life as a journalist elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Abuelo, in his seventies and living under the care of Doña Margarita, in a refugee encampment that she has gently improved with traditional know-how, has lost his memory from the hydrophage, a biological blight that harms humans and plants alike. The camp of Casa Sórdida is home to “displaced Tzeltal and Tzotzil peoples from the highlands of the former state of Chiapas, uprooted Lacandones, the forest caretakers, and Yucatec-speaking Maya from the coast … [and] the Ladinos, peasants of mixed ancestry like José Antonio, who lost everything in the war.” Whereas those around Abuelo remember the brutality of life under a dictator named Caudillo, and although Abuelo knows that his home lies along a key route for resistance fighters called the Lobos, his own life consists of being present with Margarita in the daily tasks of fetching water, tending to the gardens, and gradually helping to make their humble abode a thriving home. He is part of a daily, quiet path to building something better.

This status quo is disrupted with the arrival of Aleja—a woman from the People’s Government, with a promised course of treatment that might help Abuelo recover his past and reconnect with family. This promise will lead Margarita to her own story, some of which she’ll try to explain to a young man named Juaco, who later comes looking for Aleja.

Margarita’s approach to healing, justice, and rebuilding will flourish in the end, but not without all the aforementioned characters going through other transformations first. Massive social contracts rise and fall around the protagonists in Sordidez—but at the core of each individual journey is one simple question: which history will I lean into, to carry me forward now?

For some characters, history demands consequences, retribution, a cleansing of old and brutalized slates. For others, history can be a bludgeon against fresh hope—at least, until one chooses to be remade by a story of the past that can defy the fatalism of dominant narratives.

But for others—for Margarita—the greatest lesson of history is its warning against wasting any further time on hate. When she discusses her own family’s separation and suffering under Caudillo’s reign of terror, this glimpse into her character is revealed:

Margarita searched for the butterflies, but they had moved on. “I mourned them. The soldiers. The workers. Even our captors.” She’d never told anyone of how she’d wept for the brutes who had stood over them, had pointed guns at them. Even that had seemed like a profound loss—of potential, of recovery. She didn’t know what kind of person that made her, that she’d felt sorrow at this loss. But somehow she trusted Juaco with her confession.

Margarita lives out this egalitarian philosophy of grief and care in her approach to a character who has been many things to many people: some terrible, some beloved. Moral complexity also shows up in the book’s representation of the UN Parliament: an organization that some regard as helpful, but which also bears great culpability in preceding acts of harm, and which still uses many severe tactics to achieve its supposedly human-empowering ends.

Critically, too, although the book draws strongly on Indigenous histories, there is no fetishization of native empires with their own brutal pasts. Rather, the characters who draw upon such fierce ancestry to inspire present action do so while conscientiously reforming the spark in those ancient stories to offer a foundation for more compassionate living now.

There is no clean arrival at a better world, then, in E. G. Condé’s Sordidez—and therein lies its strength. Although the book carves a few paths from current struggle to potentially kinder ends, it also illustrates how the distinctness of individual and cultural histories will always create new points of tension, and necessitate further acts of renewal over time.

We needn’t always be at war with one another, of course, and we needn’t always be fighting some great monopolizing power simply to exist in our surroundings. But in a world where everyone is working through trauma all their own, we do always need to be in conversation with our histories—and learn to seek out the ones that will help us best to heal.

[Editor’s Note: Publication of this poem was made possible by a gift from Marissa Lingen during our annual Kickstarter.]

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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