I'm having an absolutely blast this month with different cultural voices in the science fiction I'm reading. I explored a god-drenched Lagos in the Suyi Davies Okungbowa debut, 'David Mogo, Godhunter' and I also booked a return trip to the unique mind of Ernest Hogan for his debut, 'Cortez on Jupiter'. I adored 'High Aztech', as ruthlessly unusual as it was, and yearned for more.
Now I've read this, I think I can safely say that I preferred Hogan's follow-up to this, but that's entirely appropriate for first and second novels. We should get better. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this too and some of these scenes and ideas are surely going to stay with me. What's more, the sheer audacity of what Hogan attempted here deserves its own praise because this is truly imaginative, something that we should be able to say about every sf novel but usually can't.
We're here to find out why Pablo Cortez is a celebrity. He must be one because the book is built like a documentary on him, interspersing interview clips with him in his zero gravity splatterpaint studio and those of other people filling in gaps in his story from their own perspectives. But why is he a celebrity? If you take that not as a simple question but as the theme to a novel, 'Cortez on Jupiter' will make a lot more sense and seem a little less weird.
Ben Bova picked this up for his Discoveries series of paperbacks and published it in 1990. That means that it predates what we understand as reality TV and a lot of the soundbite-infused American docu-drama style that television pitches to sufferers of ADD today. Yet Hogan nailed it. I see the Odysseus mission to Jupiter as a much more biting a jab at reality TV than 'Rollerball' and 'The Running Man' or other famous takes on future media. And yet that doesn't seem to be the point, except that it is. The most telling line in the book is when Pablo Cortez invents splatterpainting on a zero gravity flight and his friend is devastated because he didn't record it.
Cortez starts out a nobody who thinks he's a somebody. He's a Chicano graffito in Los Angeles and he can't stand being part of the mainstream. He's punk and outsider and ruthlessly driven by his own sense of integrity and, let's admit it, his rampaging ego. He hijacks a set of art students and turns them into a movement, the Guerrilla Muralists of Los Angeles. They mount what amount to a set of publicity stunts in the holy name of art, things like detonating paint bombs so that an entire three mile area around the Civic Center turns orange.
When they're stopped, because of course they're stopped, most of them start to behave again because they're law abiding citizens and that's how they've been conditioned. Pablo, on the other hand, uses the notoriety he gained to move on up, literally. He wangles his way onto the Space Culture Project, frustratedly trying to give them what they want so that he can do what he wants, but never manages it satisfactorily because doing what someone else wants just isn't who he is. Everything is about him and his art, pure and unfettered.
He has to do things that haven't been done before and that's what leads him to Jupiter, because you know from the title that he was going to get there. There are microorganisms inside the Great Red Spot and they're intelligent, though in a way that we've ever encountered. We certainly can't communicate with them, so the Odysseus Project is lowering people into the Great Red Spot to try to find out how to do that. And they're dying. Somehow, and this really doesn't count as a spoiler because a) it's detailed on the back cover blurb and b) is brought up early in the novel as the start of the great Pablo Cortez documentary, he's the one who manages to do so, channelling the Sirens of Jupiter into a new and vibrant form of art.
This is wildly imaginative stuff but it's also told through wildly imaginative language. This novel is often seen as the creation of Chicano SF because Hogan wrote it with a Chicano voice. It's more in English than 'High Aztech' but it's really told in a sort of Spanglish, the foundation of English enhanced with an abundance of Spanish words whenever applicable. And it isn't just the inclusion of Spanish that makes it so wild. There are names as utterly glorious as Nuke Damballah and the following line isn't that unusual:
"Hey, maybe there was something about ATL causing mutations, or maybe it's because I was raised neo-Aztec in a relocated barrioid then ended up in a paleofuturoid instant suburb fighting a psychwar with the melting pot upwardly mobile SoCal zombies."
Yeah, it's that sort of novel. But it's also a celebration of ego, the artist's confidence that he's right and everyone else is wrong. It's a look at what art really is, because the book is phrased as a work of art, albeit a written take on an audiovisual piece rather than a splatterpainting. It's about integrity. It's about exploitation. It's about dedication.
And it's inherently, fundamentally, totally about sacrifice. It's about how a true artist is a starving artist, because a starving artist is an honest artist and he sacrifices convenience and easy commerciality for his own very personal vision of value and truth. It's also about literal sacrifice because I haven't read all the Aztec symbology in Hogan's novels to not read the dipping of live volunteers into the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, knowing that they'll surely die on camera, as a form of ritual human sacrifice, especially as nobody feels that bad about dead Sirenauts if the viewers are still tuning in.
There's a lot here, though a surprising amount of it isn't traditional science fiction in the slightest. And that's one reason why I love Hogan's unashamedly gonzo take on the genre so deeply. Now I need to track down his third novel, a much later publication called 'Smoking Mirror Blues'. ~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Ernest Hogan click here