Over the last couple of years, I've worked my way through all the books that Emily Devenport has published under her various pseudonyms and I've enjoyed how she clearly writes what she wants to write rather than what a publisher might prefer. That apparently goes double for her husband, Ernest Hogan, as I have to say that I've never read anything quite like 'High Aztech' before!
That said, it's not too tough to see the influences. This is paranoid gonzo cyberpunk, an amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson and Philip K. Dick, but phrased from a completely different ethnic background, which has led to Hogan being described as "the father of Chicano science fiction". It could be seen as a sort of road movie, given that the lead character doesn't actually do much except be passed from one captivity to another, serving as both an unwilling and unwitting guide to a rather mad future.
He's Xólotl Zapata and he begins this novel as a poet and comic book writer in the Mexico City of 2045, now known once more as Tenochtitlán because the world is wildly different from what we know today. Armageddon happened, as a nuclear war in the Middle East that practically wiped out monotheistic faith and left North America in ruins. Science and medicine come out of Africa now and Mexico is rising again as a polytheistic Aztec nation.
What's left of the US is now a racist Christian fundamentalist nation and, get this for a novel originally published in 1992, there's a southern border wall, a Tortilla Curtain, to keep the heathen pagan Aztecs out of God's own country. It's not complete because people keep blowing it up, whether Aztec or "freedom-loving Americans". The government agents we meet see whoever it is as being in league with Satan. I mention all this for its prescience but it's hardly the focus of the book.
The focus seems to be Zapata trying to escape a succession of fates. At the start of the book, he's sentenced to death by the Neliyacme, a street gang who have taken offence at his usage of their leader as a template for one of his characters, but they have to wait in line to kill him because the story shoves ahead of them and everyone else suddenly wants him too. That's mostly because he's infected with a virus by his girlfriend, Cóatliquita, but not a traditional one.
This one is a religion, which is a glorious concept. In particular, it's the Aztec religion which is making something of a comeback in Tenochtitlán, with televangelists calling for people to have their heart removed in sacrifices to the gods but replaced by an artificial equivalent so you can live on in their good graces. Starting there, humanoid tacos suddenly make utter sense.
Anyway, Zapata is no diehard follower of the Aztec ways until he's infected and now all he can do is look forward to a flowery death as a warrior, while touching everyone he can to infect them too. What's most wonderful here is that this doesn't work as an either/or. If the virus infects a person of no particular faith, then they gain it and powerfully too, but, if it infects a person who already has faith, then it combines with it to create a hybrid of the two. As you can imagine, that gets weird, and Hogan is blissfully happy to make it as weird as he can. One late chapter is truly joyous.
Having been sentenced to death by someone else, infected with Aztec religion by someone else and, frankly, seduced by someone else, Zapata finds himself promptly bounced around a whole bunch more someone elses until we can figure out exactly what's going on and who's behind it all. There are a lot of wild groups, gangs and organisations in Tenochtitlán and they all apparently want Zapata for their own reasons: the evangelists, the mafia, the street gangs, foreign agents, the pepenadores who recycle the garbage, even Zapata's old friend, Itzcóatl O'Gorman and his Surrealist Terrorist Voodoo Network.
And Hogan tells all this, rather appropriately, in a rather bizarre hybrid language. He writes in English but his characters frequently dip into what's known as Españahuatl, an unholy merger of Mexican Spanish and Nahuatl, the native tongue of Mexico. This is instantly daunting but surprisingly easy to grasp. For all the myriad words we don't understand that Hogan dips all the dialogue into, he deliberately keeps it understandable.
"Get the xixatl away from me, you ocotitotl maricóntl!" includes almost as many words I don't know as those I do, but the meaning is clear and we don't need to consult the glossary until we've finished the book, just to see how much we got right. I should add that Españahuatl isn't the easiest language to pronounce, but it's not the long words that are problematic, like the few mentioned above or the names of the many Aztec gods, or even the key word "ticmotraspasarhuililis"; it's words with far too many vowels right next to each other, like "jodioaing", that are the most overt reason why I'm never going to attempt to read this aloud to my wife.
There's a lot here to take in, because it's hurled at us at rapid speed and we keep on moving. Every time we come to terms with what one of these groups does and why, we're bounced on to another, like the ball in a game of ulama. Every one is there to serve as social comment and, not being Mexican, I can be sure I didn't grasp everything that Hogan wants to impart. I did get some of it though and it rings very true.
Perhaps that's why I like the characters more than I should. I found them a quirky bunch but I'm pretty sure they're archetypes, just not ones I tend to recognise. I like how they don't appear how they should, with a pair of them spouting on racial issues while neither of them being of the race that they then resemble, courtesy of the plastic surgery masters in Guadalajara. That reminds that there's a heck of a lot of technology here, used like Philip K. Dick would as ways to shape the background. It is 2045 after all.
I adored this. It's not the most polished book I've ever read and it breaks most of the rules of fiction, but it's wild and weird and wonderful and I'm happy with that. It's also fiercely original, doing things that I've never seen done before between the pages of a book. I am annoyed with myself for taking so long to track this novel down and I'm now frantic to find 'Cortez on Jupiter' and 'Smoking Mirror Blues'. Hopefully they're as cuallioso. ~~ Hal C F Astell