Mexican Science Fiction: The Northern Corridor
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Gabriel Trujillo-Muñoz
Latin American science fiction has had a long trajectory, though it is little known beyond its borders. Similarly, Mexican science fiction has steadily developed since its colonial beginning, eventually leading to a state of boom and bust in the 90s. After offering a chronology of Mexican science fiction in the article titled “Terra Incognita: A Brief History of Mexican Science Fiction”, we now turn our eyes towards northern Mexico and the development of science fiction in this region of the country.
The north of Mexico – that region spanning from Baja California to Tamaulipas – is hot, arid and known for the accent of its inhabitants. To be someone of the North means to be someone of the frontier, to exist in a peculiar, particular kind of culture which mixes bastardized English words with a certain gusto (‘vamo a parkear la troca’) and rolls semi-close to cowboy culture.
As Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta and Salvador C. Fernandez explain in El Norte y su Frontera en la Narrativa Policiaca Mexicana (The North and its Border in the Mexican Detective Narrative), in the past two decades there has been a discussion of North and frontier literature, focussing on its geographical limits, definition and identity, separate from the rest of the country. “The North of Mexico is not simple geography…it is a way of thinking, acting, feeling and talking against the medium and the culture of the United States, bizarre and absorbent.” 
The Mexican North, is an odd space, trying to find a balance and a sense of self between the two opposing forces of Mexicanism and Americanism. Perhaps due to this odd conjunction, the North has tended to develop genre fiction more arduously than other parts of the country. It is well-known, for example, for its thrillers (inspired by the drug activity in that region of the country) and “hard-boiled” books. It has also produced science fiction books, stories and novels.
Guillermo Samperio, considered one of the best living short story authors in Mexico, once stated that fantastic or science fiction scenarios “have been expanding in the North of the country, a fertile ethno-geographic spot for imagination and invention.” 
Mexican science fiction expert Miguel Ángel Fernández wrote in Panorama de la Ciencia Ficción Mexicana (Panorama of Mexican Science Fiction) that “some states of the frontier with the United States have had much [science fiction] activity since the decade of the 1980s…Tamaulipas is one of the principal producers of science fiction of our days.” Miguel Ángel Fernández recognize several “centres” of Mexican science fiction: Yucatan (southern state), Tamaulipas (in the north) and Puebla (centre) are the three most important ones.
Not surprisingly, the proliferation of Northern science fiction coincides with the Mexican science fiction boom of the same time period. However, the genre was not entirely new to the region.
The oldest Northern Mexican science fiction story is likely “El Barco Negro” by José María Barrios de los Ríos, posthumously published in El país de las perlas y cuentoscalifornios (1908). It was written at the beginning of the 19th century in La Paz, Baja California, when Barrios de los Ríos worked in the courts of this port and liked writing down legendary stories of the sea of Cortez. The story, taking place in 1716 in the mission of Loreto, relates the appearance of a fantastic ship, piloted by an aristocrat who is half Faust and half captain Nemo.
Almost half a century later, Narciso Genovese, an Italian-born novelist and journalist then living in Baja California, wrote a novel titled Yo he estado en Marte (1958) about an encounter with Martians and a trip to outer space. It is a utopic work which contrasts with the nuclear arms race of the time period, in which the Martians serve as an example of kind, sensitive society looking for universal peace. In the 70s, Genovese also published La nueva aurora, another science fiction book, this one focusing on the theme of immortality.
Genovese died in the 80s, at a time when a new generation of writers from the North was blossoming. These included Jesús Guerra, Daniel Gómez Nieves, Gerardo Cornejo, Gabriel Trujillo and Lauro Paz. There were also anthologists like Federico Schaffler and Guillermo Lavín, who would found important magazines like Umbrales and publish anthologies like Más allá de lo imaginado (1990-1993, a total of three volumes), all part of the boom. Schaffler, in particular, would become one of the most important faces of science fiction by virtue of leading the Fantastic Literature Workshop “Terra Ignota” (1990 to 2003) and publishing 50 issues of Umbrales (1992 to 2000).
Guillermo Lavín, for his part, founded the award-winning magazine A Quien Corresponda and his work appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. He also won several speculative fiction awards (Kalpa, Alberto Magno, Axxon Primordial) for his science fiction work.
Also from the North is Gerardo Sifuentes, winner in 1998 of the international Phillip K. Dick prize for Perro de Luz (1998, given by Asociación Gallega de CF y Fantasía, España).
And, here is a curiosity: musician Gabriel Gonzales Melendez of Matamoros staged an opera base on Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. It was titled (what else?) The Martian. Melendez also published some science fiction, including Los Mismos Grados más Lejos del Centro (1991), which is set in the north of Mexico, some centuries in the future.
One of the key reasons for development of this type of literature in the North: the proliferation of university literary workshops and classes, which led to the appearance of venues like Umbrales. Northern academic institutions were cordial to science fiction, and thus you get projects like Editorial Yoremito, which published a series of genre titles, including science fiction, starting in the 1990s (Yoremito, with funding from the Tijuana Cultural Centre, focused exclusively on frontier narratives). More recently, in 2011, the Faculty of Humanities of the Autonomous University of Baja California published a series of “minibúks” showcasing Mexican science fiction. This year, Federico Schaffler is working on assembling an anthology of Mexican speculative fiction, which will include science fiction stories, to be published through the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas.
With the bust of Mexican science fiction in the post-90s, the support of universities and cultural institutions in order to finance speculative literature has become even more vital. But the real future of science fiction may lie in cross-genre works, in short, in combining it with the thrillers, the novela negra (literally black novel), which have a stronger foothold in the country. After all, a new line of thrillers published by Almadía (called Almadía Negra) just hit bookstores this past year.  The future of Mexican science fiction may be in the end, found in merging its science with hard-boiled Northern narratives and crime thrillers. Only time may tell.
About the Authors:
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an author and editor from – you guessed it – the North of Mexico. She moved to Canada several years ago, which is as North as she could get. Her stories appear in The Book of Cthulhu, Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing and other places. Find her at silviamoreno-garcia.com.
Gabriel Trujillo-Muñoz. Born in the city of Mexicali, Baja California, in 1958. He is a scholar in science fiction studies and an author of novels and collections of stories in the futuristic genre. His most recent novel of science fiction is Trenes perdidos en la niebla (Trains lost in the mist, Jus, 2010). His non-fiction book focusing on science fiction Utopías y quimeras (Utopias and chimeras) is due out this year.
El Norte y su Frontera en la Narrativa Policiaca Mexicana (The North and its Border in the Mexican Detective Narrative) By Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta, Salvador C. Fernández. 2005.Page 13.
 The concept of genre fiction is more fluid than in the United States or Canada. Books tend to be shelved in a broad “literature” category if they are written by Mexican authors, without sub-genre distinctions (crime, science fiction, drama and magic realism may sit on the same shelf). This, however, has not stopped the development of sub-genres, the most important one being the Mexican thriller, with some important festivals and author representing this type of writing. This in turns means genre fiction is found more easily in what might be termed literary journals.
Norte y su Frontera en la Narrativa Policiaca Mexicana (The North and its Border in theMexican Detective Narrative) By Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta, Salvador C. Fernández. 2005. Page 15
El Futuro en Llamas Gabriel Trujillo. http://www.ciencia-ficcion.com.mx/default.asp?uid=2&cve=11:04
 Panorama de la Ciencia Ficción Mexicana byMiguel Ángel Fernández.http://www.ciencia-ficcion.com.mx/default.asp?uid=2&cve=11:26
“Los cartógrafos del infierno en México .”Publicado en El oscuro retorno del hijo del ¡Nahual! Ciencia-Ficción y Fantasía. No.8 Abril 2002 http://www.angelfire.com/va3/literatura/CIENCIAFICCION.htm
Damien Walter writes in the Guardian on Is science fiction literature’s first international language? He profiles the World SF Blog, gives The Apex Book of World SF 2 (only a few days left to get the special advance edition!) a plug, discusses Liu Cixin, and asks, “Who are the other international SF authors we should all be reading today?”
The World SF blog edited by Israeli born author Lavie Tidhar has been cataloguing the emergence of international SF since 2009, and the increasing cross-pollination between SF communities in Europe, South America, Asia, China, India and elsewhere. It’s an absolute must read for anyone still hardwired in to the Americanised, anglophone conception of SF. Much of the focus of translation efforts in the international SF community so far has been short fiction gathered in anthologies such as the Apex Book of World SF and Phillipine Speculative Fiction, but an increasing number of full-length novels are finding translation.
The work of Liu Cixin, eight-time winner of the Galaxy award and arguably the most popular SF author in China, is now available in English translation. Liu Cixin’s writing will remind SF fans of the genre’s golden age, with its positive focus on scientific development, combined with a consistently constructive vision of China’s future role as a global superpower. It’s characteristic of an SF genre which has been embraced by Chinese culture because it is seen as representing the values of technological innovation and creativity so highly prized in a country developing more quickly than any other in the world today. – read the full article.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are currently using Kickstarter to try and raise funds for a new anthology of feminist speculative fiction. They are trying to raise $12,000. Please consider supporting this project! This is what they say:
This project will fund a speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, & horror) anthology devoted to feminist themes. Editing the book will be Hugo Award winner Ann VanderMeer and World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer. Together respected and successful team has edited such anthologies Steampunk Reloaded, The New Weird, Best American Fantasy, and, most recently, The Weird Compendium, a 750,000-word, 100-year overview of weird fiction including writers from over 20 countries.
Release of the book will be a co-publishing arrangement with PM Press, an independent press devoted to provocative and engaging books, CDs, and DVDs via any means available, including distribution to the book trade (bookstores, libraries, etc.).
The anthology will emphasize women’s speculative fiction from the mid-1970s onward, looking to explore women’s rights as well as gender/race/class/etc. from as many perspectives as possible. The contributors are not yet established so we hesitate to name names, but rights to reprint stories from Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree Jr. would be sought in addition to a wealth of newer voices in the field. Ann and Jeff consider the anthology “to be an opportunity to contribute to the existing conversation about feminist speculative fiction, a conversation that has taken many forms over the years and has a long and established history.” Funding covers the editors’ fee, contributor fees/advances, book design, printing, as much advertising and promotion as possible. To help the project get off the ground the editors have agreed to take a small honorarium as their fee, with no share of royalties.
Michael Iwoleit got in touch recently to tell us of an incredibly cool thing he’s organising – a virtual book reading in the world of Second Life, by 5 science fiction authors each from a different continent!
On May 5th an event will take place in Thorsten Küper’s and Kirsten Riehl’s steampunk location Kafé Kruemelkram that may be unique in the history of the 3d Internet world Second Life: Five science fiction writers from five continents, all writing in English, will read from their works live. The invited writers are:
For Asia: Guy Hasson (Israel)
For Africa: Jonathan Elorm Dotse (Ghana)
For Europe: Michael K. Iwoleit (Germany)
For South America: Gustavo Bondoni (Argentina)
For North America: Ahmed A. Khan (Canada)
Fadz can be found occasionally updating his blog (http://www.fadzjohanabas.com), sharing random thoughts on Twitter (Fadz_Johanabas), and lurking around on Google+ (still getting acquainted with it).
Flight of the Ibis
“Master, I am afraid.”
Issa kept his eyes trained on the curved ceremonial dagger resting on a bed of rare white silk. Even in the dim slivers of light whispering through the stone grills on the ceiling, the ebony dagger made from star metal gleamed, as if glowing with an inner light of its own. Clear, crystalline veins ran along its length, glittering like the Red Sea at midday.
“Only the bravest of men could say what you have said.” The High Priest of Amun kept a respectful distance behind Issa, but his soft voice carried clear and pure in the high-ceilinged Hypostyle Hall. “What you have been committed to is a rare and great honor, child.”
Issa sighed, his shoulders slumped. “The honor, the burden, is too great for me to bear. This was supposed to be my brother’s destiny, not mine.”
“And who are you to question the wisdom of the Gods?”
Issa turned to face the High Priest. The tall, austere man’s forehead was creased with stern lines. Standing this close, he looked more imposing in his leopard skin cloak, his shaved and oiled head gleaming.
“Forgive me, Master. I did not mean to be impudent.”
Issa expected to be chastised, but he did not expect to hear the chuckle escaping the High Priest’s lips.
“There is nothing to forgive, child. The Gods’ works are beyond our understanding. Have faith that they have chosen you for a reason.”
“I am just a scribe.”
“Just a scribe? You sound ashamed when you should be proud. I have seen you in the Hall of Records late at night, translating ancient scripts for others to print. Your work is exemplary. You are not just a scribe.”
For a brief moment, Issa’s chest rose with pride. To his knowledge, the High Priest never praised anyone. Then he looked at his right arm, dangling shriveled and useless like a dry branch. When he looked up, he knew the High Priest noticed where his eyes had lingered.
“You have survived, you have prospered all your life without the use of your right arm. Do not think yourself unworthy in the eyes of the Gods. They have chosen you, child.”
Issa nodded and kept his eyes on the floor between them, humbled by the High Priest’s words. He still had doubts, but he did not wish to shame himself further in front of his revered Master.
“Come, child. There is something you need to see.”
The High Priest walked past Issa to the back of the great hall. Issa followed quietly, and stopped to face the wall that was filled from ceiling to floor with hieroglyphic murals recording the history of Mother Kemet and the city of Waset from its founding. He watched as the High Priest disappeared into the darkness and reappeared in another pool of light near the eastern end of the wall.
“Here,” he said. “Read this.”
Having spent years as a temple scribe, Issa knew the murals decorating the back wall by heart. The High Priest was standing before the section that depicted the arrival of the Aether, encompassing the Heavens over a thousand years ago during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Along with the Aether, the Gods had returned and raised their children out of darkness and ignorance. The High Priest pointed at a picture of an ibis, the representation of the great vessel lying dormant just outside the walls of Ipet-Sut. Beside it was an empty space the length of two hands.
“Your place, child, is here on this wall. This empty space will be adorned with the record of your sacrifice. Not even I am worthy of that honor.”
Issa felt his breath catch. Never in his life had he dreamed of being remembered by people other than his parents. He felt his shoulders weighted down by an oppressive weight. This was not what he wanted.
“The eclipse will not take place for another three days,” the High Priest added, not taking his eyes off the wall. “Go home. Make peace with your family, with yourself.”
“What if I do not come back?”
“I have faith in you even though you lack faith in yourself.”
* * *
The ship Issa boarded docked just before the branching of the Nile at the Delta, where the wide waters churned yellow with mud. Issa could see barges of varying sizes transporting trade goods and foodstuffs down- and upriver. After his father had sent him to Ipet-Sut at the heart of Waset at the age of six, Issa managed to visit his home in Lower Kemet three, at most five times a year. Even so, not much had changed in the past fifteen years. The smell of dried fish hung heavy in the humid air, burying deep into his nostrils. Flies abounded, flying between people and wares. Issa took off his white linen headdress and swatted the insects that buzzed too close.
The sandals he wore did not help much in preventing mud from soaking his feet. Issa sloshed and shouldered his way through the throng of folks congregating around the dock. Men and women alike haggled for wares at the top of their lungs, from wheat and other grains, to clothing and jewelry, and to the finer barley beers of Upper Kemet. The fineries here were crude compared to those made by master craftsmen of Waset; people of the Delta would never be able to afford such jewelry. The market scene was both familiar and alien to Issa at the same time.
More than once he had to nudge and force his way through the crowd. More than once he had to avert his gaze from people who openly stared and pointed at his shriveled right arm. Likely they were jeering at him, calling him a living mummy, a name he had earned among the scribes and temple workers. Had he slung his palette over his shoulder as tradition dictated, common folk would show him more respect. But soon enough Issa would be the center of the whole of Kemet’s attention. He needed this anonymity. Nevertheless, some of them noticed the fine quality of his linen tunic, for they lowered their eyes and made way for him to pass by.
Just before he left the market, Issa saw a poster made of papyrus paper nailed onto a board. The black ink print showed an illustration of the great vessel back in Waset, and below it was news of the ritual that would take place during the eclipse. Not many people of the Delta knew how to read, but Issa was thankful his name had not been mentioned. He stared at the illustration for a while before continuing his walk home.
By the time Issa’s house was within his sight, the sun was well into its descent toward the western horizon. His mud-caked legs ached, and his mouth and throat were parched from the sweltering heat. The square single storey mud-brick hut was just as he remembered. His father’s fishing net was splayed on a rope tied between two stunted mangrove trees, signaling that he was home. The old net was well-maintained, obvious even from afar. Salted fish lay on the ground near the net. Issa could not help but wonder if his parents’ life would go on as usual like this when he was no longer around. Issa pushed the thought away and strode home.
He hesitated in front of the crude door made of planks. He heard his parents conversing with each other, but the words were too muffled for him to make out. He settled with just listening to the tone and sound of their voices.
“Mother,” Issa finally called out when he could no longer bear standing in silence. “Father?”
His mother pulled opened the door and rushed out to wrap him in a tight embrace. She stood on tiptoes for she was almost a full head shorter than him, but that did not make her grip any less strong. Issa breathed in her comforting scent of earth and salted fish.
“I had hoped you would come back to see us. The Gods have answered my prayers.” She held his arms and studied him. “You haven’t been eating well. What do they feed you there? You’re all bones!”
He in turn studied her. The fine linen tunic he had brought home for her was stained and yellowed with use. He should have stopped by the marketplace in Waset to buy more for her. She wore no finery, and her shoulder-length hair had more white than he remembered. Her olive skin was tanned brown where his was much fairer from spending all those years indoors. Her fingers were rough and calloused, and Issa felt a pang of guilt; his left hand, though permanently stained with layers of ink, was soft as a babe’s skin.
“You look no better off yourself,” Issa replied with a smile.
“Come, make yourself comfortable. I am preparing dinner.”
Issa followed his mother into the small hut and saw his father sitting by the window, repairing his second net. Age was catching up to him, but he was still the strong, broad-shouldered man Issa remembered. His father stopped mending the net and bored straight into Issa’s eyes.
“What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at the temple for the ritual.”
“The High Priest sent me home. I have time.”
His father grunted and continued mending his net. Issa settled down on his own rickety bed and burned into his memory the familiarity of his home: the scents of fish and stew being cooked, his mother humming an old lullaby in the kitchen, the swishing sound of shuffling net, the soft heat emanating from the ochre walls, warmed by the sun, and the cool floor at his feet. Outside, the riverbank was teeming with life. The calls of ibises and geese lulled Issa into closing his heavy lids.
When his mother woke him up, the sun was setting, bathing the land with an orange glow. Dinner was served on the uneven surface of the wooden table, illuminated by the single oil lamp in the hut. Issa stretched and yawned as his mother retreated to put food into clay bowls. The three of them ate in silence until midway, when his father spoke up.
“You are going back to Waset in the morning?”
Issa played with his food, weighing his answer. He looked at each of his parents’ faces in turn. “I do not want to go back there.”
The initial silence was deafening. When his father spoke again, his voice was soft and even, the growl of a leopard ready to pounce. “Are you out of your mind? Do you wish to shame our family?”
“I do not wish for anything, Father. This fate is not mine. Akil was supposed to be the one.”
“Your brother is dead!” His father’s fist slammed onto the table, toppling his bowl with a loud clang, spilling stew and bread on the floor.
“And I wish to live.”
Issa heard his mother catch her breath and felt her holding his knee. This was breaking her heart, he knew, but surely they understood his predicament?
“What do you plan to do then?” He pointed at Issa’s right arm. “You’re useless as a fisherman.”
Issa registered the disgusted look in his father’s face before he stormed out of the hut. They had never been close. Akil was the one who had been close to his father’s heart. Akil was learning to be a fisherman just like his father, as was tradition with firstborn sons, before he was enlisted into the army. Akil looked handsome and majestic driving a chariot. He was deadly with a bow. The Vizier himself had taken personal interest in Akil’s meteoric rise in ranks, and approached him not long ago with an offer of a lifetime. Akil had agreed, committing his family with this great honor.
That was before they carried him back home from a skirmish with an arrow shaft protruding from his chest.
Issa was never close with his father, but he had never looked at Issa with open disgust and hostility either. He turned to his mother for support, but he could only see the tears welling in her eyes.
* * *
Issa sat on a stump by the riverbank. He watched the ibises scattered across the marshy shallows, their pristine white feathers making them look like a layer of cloud had settled on the surface of the river. Their stilt-like legs made tiny ripples on the otherwise calm waters, and their discordant warbles broke the stillness of the air. Issa ignored the mosquitoes, only once in a while scratching his neck or legs. At night, the riverbank looked even more beautiful, and the Nile gave off an ethereal bluish-green glow, reflecting the Aether that spread across the Heavens.
It was never truly dark, not even in the deepest of night. Issa craned his neck and studied the sky. The moon hung low in the heavens, a pale round eye that watched over the world in silence. Beyond and around it were the majestic clouds of Aether, nebulous masses of blue and green and orange, and every shades in between. The Aether had always been a mystery to the brightest of scholars, appearing one night and bringing gradual enlightenment. Showers of rock and metal that fell from the Aether teemed with beautiful, unfamiliar plant life. Scholars knew there was more to the Aether than they currently knew, possibly more complex life as well, perhaps the dwelling of the Gods themselves, but it was always beyond the reach of humans.
Issa tried not to think about what he should be facing instead of cowering here at home. In some of the ancient papyrus scrolls he transcribed, the heavens at night had been said to be black velvet, littered with cold, distant points of light called stars and constellations. Issa tried to imagine a dark, empty sky, but couldn’t. The ever-shifting clouds of Aether were so beautiful, so divine. A small part of him was curious about the Aether and what lay beyond it. But a bigger, dominant part of him was deeply rooted in the harsh lands of Mother Kemet, and among the scrolls in the sacred Hall of Records.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Issa’s mother stood beside him with a woolen shawl slung across her shoulders. Issa leaned against her and felt her trace the contours of his face.
“I miss Akil.” Issa held an unspoken jealousy toward his elder brother for his charm and strength, but most of all for his wholeness, for his ability to use both arms. He still did, even though his elder brother had passed away. But he loved Akil, and missed him dearly.
“As do I,” his mother replied. “A mother is not meant to outlive her children.”
“Is he still angry?”
“Your father is grieving over one son, and now he has to start grieving for the only one he has left.”
“He hates me, doesn’t he?”
Issa’s mother let out a long sigh and sat next to him. “Angry, yes. But your father can never hate you.”
“You saw his face. There was nothing but contempt.”
Issa’s mother took his atrophied right hand in hers. “When you were born, the midwives found your birthing cord wrapped around your arm. They knew it was dead, and they thought you were better off left in the wilds, as it would be kinder for you and for us.”
Issa felt himself stiffen. He had never heard this tale before. “Why didn’t you?” he whispered.
“I was weak and only half awake. It was your father who stayed their hands. He said you were a blessing from the gods.”
Issa choked back his tears. His father had said those words.
“And he is right. You are a blessing. Your father sent you to the Temple of Light to learn to read and write, not because of your arm, but because you were quick to learn everything. He knew you were meant for great heights.”
“I do not wish to die.”
“None of us do. It pains me to think you will no longer come and visit. I am happy you came back.”
“You made my favorite dishes.”
“It is the least I can do for you.”
Issa turned to see silent tears flowing freely from his mother’s eyes, glittering like precious diamonds from the southern lands. She was looking at the heavens, and her shoulders were straight and unmoving, but she did not try to hide her tears.
“I don’t know what to decide, Mother.”
She turned to face him then, and cupped his face in her warm hands. “Whatever it is you decide, know that you will not cause us shame. We are proud of you.” She kissed his forehead and stood up, squeezing his shoulders one last time before walking back into their hut.
Issa stayed seated on the stump long after the calls of the ibises had subsided, and the only sounds he heard were the lapping of the river on the shore, and the songs of the crickets. When he entered his home, both his parents were already asleep. He committed their peaceful forms into memory before drifting off to slumber.
When Issa woke up late in the morning, his father was nowhere to be seen, along with both his nets. His mother had prepared a simple breakfast of bread and fruits, and she sat looking at him as he ate. Issa knew he had to return to Waset no matter what he would decide. He owed the High Priest of Amun that much. Issa and his mother wept their goodbyes, and when there were no tears left to shed, she packed food for his trip upriver. She gave him another long hug before he left, and he felt his feet heavier with every step away from home.
As he reached the last hillock before the dock, Issa saw his father waiting there. Issa hesitated at first, but approached him nonetheless. They stood looking at each other for long moments, his much taller and broader father looking as imposing as the High Priest. He suddenly broke the tense stillness by embracing Issa in a fierce hug.
“I love you, son. I’m proud of you.”
Issa’s breath caught in his throat. His father had never said those words before, not to him, not to Akil. He returned his father’s embrace.
“I love you, Father.”
“The Gods watch over you.”
Throughout the trip upriver, Issa kept replaying the conversations he had with his parents. It was all that kept him from running away. When he finally reached Ipet-Sut, the whole temple grounds were abuzz with talks of a substitute. He rushed to meet the High Priest of Amun with both dread and hope warring in his head.
“Issa, I knew you’d come back.” The High Priest was smiling.
“Is it true? There is a substitute?”
“The other High Priests did not share my faith in you. They feared you would not come back, and this opportunity comes only once.”
“If I choose not to proceed? What happens then?”
The lines on the High Priest’s face deepened with his frown. He studied Issa’s face before replying. “You will continue to work as temple scribe. Your flair for the written word is much too precious to waste. But is that what you want?”
“I need time to think.”
Issa wanted to say more, but the High Priest had already turned his back. Issa felt hurt by the curt dismissal, but more than that, for the first time in months he felt a glimmer of hope.
* * *
Before he left, Issa’s mother had told him that his life was in the Gods’ hands, and that there was nothing finer a mother could ask for her son. When he stepped into the sacred lake just outside the Temple of Amun with the first rays of sunlight, Issa knew the Gods had given him a choice, that he was no longer forced to sacrifice his life because of circumstance.
Priests from each of the temples within the grounds of Ipet-Sut attended him in this ritual cleansing. They had shaven off every strand of hair from his body so that he could immerse himself into the still, pristine waters of the sacred lake and emerge anew, reborn with no sins, no wrongs. They lathered him with scented oils until his body gleamed as much as the vessel waiting between the Avenues of Ram and Sphinx. Finally they clothed him with a simple robe of finest white silk and clamped a thick belt of pure gold around his waist. Its weight made his steps heavy, but his spirit was light. He knew he had made the right choice.
The procession line was long and grand. Issa sat on a palanquin carried by ten temple guards, behind the statue of Amun carried by four guards. The priests behind him chanted an ancient prayer praising all the major Gods watching over Mother Kemet, their voices beautiful and resounding throughout Ipet-Sut.
Issa had seen the vessel since its construction, but it still took his breath away. Shaped like an arrowhead, the vessel had been forged from rocks and metals that fell from the Aether. Hieroglyphic reliefs were carved into its white outer surface. It was said that Thoth Himself had appeared in the young Pharaoh’s dream one night and inspired the god-king to gather sky rocks and metals and craft them into such a vessel that would unlock the mysteries of the Aether. Pharaoh himself had designed and overseen the completion of the vessel. He had named it Ibis, after the sacred bird of the Gods.
As he stepped off the palanquin to stand on a platform in front of the vessel, Issa noticed a detail he had never seen before. Near the narrow, pointed bow, a relief of a masculine face with closed eyes and mouth had been carved, beautiful and perfectly symmetrical. The vessel itself was large, the length of six great elephants from bow to stern, and three from wingtip to wingtip. The face was only slightly larger than a man’s, but it stood out in its fine detail.
Two young priests helped Issa shrug off his belt and robe, and he stood naked on the platform in front of the whole of Waset. Priests in their finest white linen tunics stood around the platform and vessel in a horseshoe pattern, readying themselves for the ritual. Common folk crammed against one another farther off, and Issa did not know if his parents were among them. He hoped they were safe at home. Then he saw another smaller procession making its way toward a higher-raised platform not far from where he was standing. Pharaoh Ramses himself was at the head of the procession, followed closely by his Great Wife and the Vizier. High Priests of each temple walked behind them at a respectful distance, their leopard skin cloaks billowing in the desert wind. As Pharaoh, his Vizier and his Great Wife stepped onto the pavilion, one of the High Priests broke off from the procession and walked toward Issa’s platform. It was none other than the High Priest of Amun, Issa’s master and mentor.
“I told you I have faith in you, did I not?” The High Priest awarded Issa with a warm smile.
Issa nodded at the High Priest and turned his head toward the pavilion. “He is beautiful.” He had never seen Pharaoh up close before. The god-king was a child, his bare chest oiled, golden headdress and beard rings glinting sunlight, bathing him in a halo. The boy, the god-king, was all Issa could concentrate on.
The High Priest chuckled. “He has that effect on people.” Then he cleared his throat to gain Issa’s full attention. “I will ask you this again, child. Are you ready to face your destiny?”
This time, there was no hesitation. “I am, Master.”
“May the Gods welcome you into their arms. It is time.”
Both of them looked up, and saw a small dark shadow creeping at the right edge of the great fiery orb. The eclipse had begun. The High Priest took out the ebony ceremonial dagger and laid it flat on his palms.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” The invocation of the Gods were soft at first, spoken by the male priests that surrounded Issa’s platform. Issa felt the skin at the back of his neck prickle with each name.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” This time, melodic female voices joined in, and the chant became a song, rising in volume and intensity.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!”
The chant continued as the shadow crept further to engulf the sun. Before long, Issa could only concentrate on the resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart was beating faster; he still felt fear deep inside. He looked up at the progressing eclipse.
As the shadow completed a full circle, the last rays of the sun flared brilliantly, as if unwilling to give up its dominance. Then, true darkness. In those brief moments, Issa finally saw the black velvet sky he had read in the ancient scrolls. A fat tear rolled down his cheek. After that brief darkness, the Aether gradually reappeared, visible as it always was during the night.
Issa knelt down before the High Priest and tried his best to calm his shaking body. He knew the only part not shaking was his dead right arm. Issa chose to face his fears and searched for the calm within his soul.
“Osiris, take my soul and guide me. Amun, take me home.” His voice was barely a whisper, but he saw the High Priest smiling his approval.
Just as the High Priest repositioned the dagger and held its hilt in his right hand, a flock of ibises flew overhead, warbling their discordant song above the voices of the chanting priests. After they had passed, a single white feather floated earthward, and landed at the tip of Issa’s head.
“The Gods have spoken, child,” the High Priest said with an awed edge in his voice. “Your sacrifice has been accepted. May your journey be blessed.”
Issa heard another resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart beat so hard his chest felt like bursting. He closed his eyes and faced heavenward.
The blade plunged deep into his chest, and his heart stopped beating altogether.
* * *
The whole congregation, including Pharaoh, held their breath as Issa’s form slumped onto the platform. With another brilliant flare, the sun returned in all its glory. The only sound heard throughout the hallowed grounds of Ipet-Sut was that of the billowing winds that carried sand and desert heat.
For long moments, nothing happened. Then, a silver glow came to life on the hieroglyphic depressions on the vessel, Ibis. The High Priest, who was the closest to the vessel, kept his eyes on the carved face on the vessel.
The eyes became slits of golden light at first, but gradually both lids opened fully and blinked like a human’s would. The mouth opened and closed, as if testing the function of the lips.
“I remember that body.” The voice that came from the mouth was raspy and metallic, but rang clear throughout temple grounds. “I remember you.”
The High Priest knew the face was talking to him. He bowed low.
“I have a name. I cannot remember.”
“You were once Issa. You are now Ibis.”
“It is a good name.”
“Your parents will be well taken care of. They will not want for anything their whole lives.”
“Thank you, Master.”
With that, Ibis gazed heavenward. A deep rumble growled at its stern, and intense white flames spewed forth. Heat emanated from the vessel as it angled upward until the arrowhead pointed straight at the heavens.
With a mighty blast, Ibis shot upward, flying toward the Aether.
Ibis surged ever forward, drawn toward a purpose delayed, but not forgotten.
This week, Charles Tan interviews Portuguese editor Roberto Mendes about his new anthology, Vollüspa, genre fiction in Portugal, and more!
Hi Roberto! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, could you tell us about your latest project, Vollüspa?
I was truly feeling the need to shake things up and give more opportunities to writers to publish their works and I am still feeling that need. I know it would involve many challenges, but I really had the time of my life creating Vollüspa.
What was your criteria for your contributors and selected stories?
How has your experience with your magazine Dagon influenced the way you worked on the anthology?
What are currently some of the challenges?
They are so many… first off all, I am not familiar with the International market, so I’m speaking intensively with international writers, editors, readers and publishers to get an idea of how things work. Secondly we have the greatest issue of all: the translation of the stories. I’m still trying to seduce some translators to help out, but they must be capable of getting the job well done and they must have the time to do so. In the first number we will translate from Romanian, Portuguese, Spanish and all other languages. It’s going to be difficult and extra expensive, but hey, well survive it and get the number to come out!
Will the stories be translated? From what language to what language?
Anything else you want to plug?
Ken Liu writes to let us know of the publication of issue 2 of Pathlight Magazine, “a new English-language literary magazine produced by Paper Republic and People’s Literature Magazine (《人民文学》杂志社). It is currently in trial publication period—the first issue came out on November 20, and the second issue has been published in advance of the 2012 London Book Fair, where China is the Market Focus.” The issue is currently available for a free download.
Ken has translated a story from Chinese SF author Liu Cixin in the second issue, “Taking Care of God”. Ken writes:
Liu Cixin is among China’s most prominent science fiction authors, and People’s Literature is something like a Chinese version of Ploughshares. It’s very rare for a literary magazine like People’s Literature to go genre — but with Pathlight, edited by a Western staff, the idea is to introduce Chinese authors who’re a bit more outside the well-trodden path to English readers.
I’m really honored to have been given a chance to translate this work. Liu is a literary hero of mine and influenced me more than a little.
The issue also includes a story from prominent Tibetan-Chinese author Alai, who is well-known to SF readers as the one-time editor of the world’s biggest SF magazine, the Chinese SF World.
I was delighted to find out yesterday that Lily Herne‘s novels, Deadlands and Death of a Saint, published in South Africa by Penguin, have been picked up at the London Book Fair by Constable & Robinson, under their Corsair imprint, for UK and Commonwealth publication in 2013.
Herne is a pseudonym of author Sarah Lotz (who, together with Louis Greenberg, wrote South African horror novel The Mall, as S.L. Grey) and her daughter Savannah.
Deadlands is a young adult zombie novel set in Cape Town. It has been described as “South Africa’s first zombie novel” and as “the South African Hunger Games with zombies”.
I have been incredibly interested in these books for a time, and am delighted to hear they will soon reach a wider audience!
In order to promote the forthcoming release of The Apex Book of World SF 2, we’ve decided to offer a very special edition to anyone pre-ordering the paperback edition. While the trade edition is scheduled for August, anyone ordering a copy by April 30th will receive their copy in May (three months early!) and with unique bonus content.
Pre-order the anthology and it will include, as a special bonus, Nir Yaniv‘s never-before-published-in-English novelette “Undercity” (8800 words) as well as Charles Tan‘s essay, “World SF: Our Possible Future”!
Edited by Lavie Tidhar, The Apex Book of World SF 2 collects works from award-winning SF writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East. Featured authors include Will Elliot, Hannu Rajaniemi, Shweta Narayan, Lauren Beukes, Ekaterina Sedia, Nnedi Okorafor, and Andrzej Sapkowski. Several of the stories are published for the first time in English.
Preorders of the special edition can be placed at http://www.apexbookcompany.com/collections/books/products/the-apex-book-of-world-sf-2-edited-by-lavie-tidhar
We are aiming for 100 pre-orders – please consider supporting Apex and the World SF Blog by pre-ordering!
I regret very much to say that our hard-working fiction editor, Debbie Moorhouse, is stepping down due to personal reasons. Debbie has been with us since November last year, taking charge of our shambolic approach to fiction publishing and breathing new life into it, with original stories from India, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and China, and reprints from Malaysia, the UK and the US. Check out our full list of short stories published to date.
I’d like to thank Debbie for all her hard work and dedication – I honestly don’t know what we would have done without her!
I am glad to say, however, that our fiction publishing schedule will not be interrupted, as we welcome on board our new fiction editor, Sarah Newton. Sarah is a writer of both SF/F and role-playing games who lives in France. She will be taking over from Debbie effective immediately, and is already at work on the remaining slush and various editorial duties. We will resume our short fiction publication next Tuesday.
Our submission guidelines remain the same and, as always, we’re looking for new material, so do get in touch if you have anything suitable!