Tuesday 15 May 2012

Guest Post: I Didn't Know I Was an Alien, or: How I Became a Recombocultural Sci-Fi Guy

text and art by Ernest Hogan

It's the 21st century. Modern media interconnects the world. Suddenly, we have a global civilization, and it is diverse.

Actually, that's an illusion. Civilization has always been diverse. Unless you are part of an isolated tribe that never contacts the outside world, you have to deal with cultures not your own. It's a basic survival skill going way, way, way, way the hell back.

This illusion is part of the colonial tradition. The conquerors come in and bring “civilization” to the natives, who are expected to cooperate if they don't want to be wiped out. In my part of the world, the Wild West, AKA Aztlán, AKA The Southwest (of the United States of America), it gets interesting – especially since I'm of Mexican descent, with some Irish thrown in, and I accidentally have the same name as the controversial Father of Ragtime.

I find myself to be a vintage, veteran multicultural (though I prefer the term “recombocultural” for reasons I'll explain later) science fiction writer.

Some folks would say speculative fiction – and they may be right, but let's get to that later . . .

I didn't intend to become Mr. Sci-Fi Recombozoid. It was thrust upon me, like my ethnic identity and place in society.

I was a wee tot way back in 20th century, in the Fifties. I was born in East L.A. – some folks call it the Barrio, my parents called it the Neighborhood. For me it was the flowers in my grandmother's garden that towered over my head. I thought the whole universe was like that.

Science fiction came in through the television set. Space Patrol and Commando Cody taught me about the larger universe. Later, Forbidden Planet landed at a local drive in. My developing mind learned early about crossing borders, and new frontiers.

At first the monsters scared me. I was plagued with nightmares, but couldn't stay away. Eventually, I came to love the monsters. They were easier to identify with than the whitebread-kid mold that the media was trying to stuff me into. I found it was easier to tell the kids at school that I was Martian rather than explain myself.

Those were the days of Godzilla multiculturalism: Japanese monsters, Mexican vampires, Russian space epics, European sleaze, and Filipino horrors were mixed in with the low-rent Hollywood fare. We can't forget that after Bruce Lee, guys in the ghettos and barrios felt they could be heroes, too.

It was the fabled Sixties. Besides comic books and monster movies, there was the space program, UFOs, ESP, LSD, and a world gone mad on the evening news. After the Chicano Moratorium riots, I found out I was part of a minority group.

Before that, Chicanos were invisible. Teachers would talk about “Mexicans” – as if we weren't in the room with them. Suddenly, we were problem. It was easier being a Martian.

So I let my overdeveloped imagination go wild. I wasn't just into science fiction – I was into surrealism, satire, underground, art films, low-budget obscurities, anything weird and out of the ordinary. Cultural mutations became a life-long obsession. Science fiction was a focus, but never a limit to my interests.

By the Seventies, my reading went to Edgar Rice Burroughs, to Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Dangerous Visions and the New Wave were a big influence – yes, “speculative fiction.” I also read translations from other countries when I could find them. I was always happy to find a new kind of sf.

I also reveled in writers like William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Hunter Thompson.

I boldly started writing and trying to sell my work, I didn't limit myself. I tried to come up with the most daring, outrageous stuff I could, inspired by the diverse world I lived in.

Yeah, it took me years to get good – but even after I improved, I noticed that the genre and I were going in different directions. After Star Wars, science fiction became popular, but suddenly, everyone thought they knew what it was – traditional melodrama in funny clothes – and it wasn't what I was doing.

It was also assumed that the audience was white and male – all heterosexual nerds.

I was told things like “You have blacks and hispanics in there – you have to be careful, they get offended, you know.”

My name – that I share with a black historical figure – had them thinking I was white.

By the Eighties, I began to sell stories. These were out in the fringes, but I had my foot in the door. Some readers were confused as to what I was doing in their sci-fi magazine.

And I wasn't just submitting to sf markets. I sent my stories everywhere – especially if they paid well. It just happened that most of the places that have published me have the words “science fiction” as part of their title. There seems to a tolerance for strangeness in some of these places. It also may be a hold over from when science fiction was a catch-all term for things you didn't understand.

When I sold Cortez on Jupiter, I didn't mention anything about the Chicano or Aztec stuff. Or the Spanglish. I played up the science fiction elements. I had learned how to get away with things.

When it came out, I got good reviews (The best [first novel] I've read in science fiction since Neuromancer.Locus), and bad (an avalanche of excessive verbiage and abominable prose styleLocus, a few pages later). But nobody called it dull. And some folks really liked it.

When my second novel, High Aztech, came out, the publisher did not promote it. The ad in Locus showed the cover, but had no text. No review copies were sent out. People told me that they had to call the publisher and cuss them out to get copies.

Still, High Aztech gained an audience. People still discover it and put good reviews online. You could say it has a cult following.

And in the introduction to the glossary for the Españahutl slang is my first use of the word recombocultural. I coined to explain what I do in my work, that was rapidly being label multicultural – a term that was becoming maligned, and associated with political correctness. The recombo is as in recombinant DNA, emphasizes that what I am writing about are the cultural mutations that happen when cultures come together, fuck & fight, damage chromosomes, and generate fascinating new monstrosities.

But, back in the Nineties, they weren't ready for diversity. The New York-based publishers wanted formula entertainment for their sci-fi consumers that didn't present disturbing concepts. They assumed that the audience was white and middle class. Non-white characters were either pale or only showed the back of their heads on the covers.

Ideas became scarce. I kept meeting readers who said, “I like science fiction because I always know what's going to happen.” I wondered what I was doing trying to write in this genre.

Also, word spread about my ethnicity. It seemed like I was being treated differently – like the most talented leper they ever met. Like an alien. And it didn't seem to matter if I was legal.

I could still sell occasional short stories to far-out fringe markets, but New York wouldn't touch my novels. The rejections followed the same format: They would praise my work as highly original, then tell me that it wasn't what they were looking for. Then they'd inform me about the latest hot, new trend – military sf, sexy vampires, zombies . . .

After years of rejection, I published my novel Smoking Mirror Blues through a small press. I got a hint of why New York wouldn't touch it when an artist refused to do the cover because of a tantric sex ritual in the beginning. There was also a Chicano mad scientist, lesbian lovers, religion, politics, and the world-as-we-know-it reconstructed to illustrate conflicts that are shaping the future. Yet it has attracted a following.

As the 21st century lurched along, I gave up on New York. They still saw me as an unpublishable alien. The audience is now seen as being young women who are sexually attracted to the undead. And publishing is going through a crisis, with the economic turmoil and the arrival of the e-book. They say they only want to publish bestsellers, but nothing seems to be selling.

In the midst of it all, I see young writers coming on the scene, doing the sort of thing that I have been doing for decades. I hope they get treated better than I was. My advice to them is to write the most exciting fiction they can, inspired the world they live in.

Projects like We See a Different Frontier show promise by doing things in a non-traditional manner. We need these experiments. I expect to see traditional publishing dropping dead very soon.

Empires are falling. Colonies are rearranging. Cultures are mutating.

Recomboculture is in the air.

I have given up on being “commercial.” I am releasing my novels as ebooks, and working on ideas that the dying publishers wouldn't dare touch – like my science fiction bullfighting novel. I have seen the audience, and they are diverse.

The funny thing is, I am not alien – I am native. I am impure, a Chicano, a mestizo, a mongrel. And that is the future.

Ernest Hogan's Cortez on Jupiter is available as an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords. Smoking Mirror Blues and High Aztech be available later in 2012. Links to short fiction that can be read for free can be found at his blog, Mondo Ernesto.


Fabio Fernandes said...

Excellent post, Nesto! I'm your fan since I read "The Frankenstein Penis" - and, by coincidence or not, that story was in the same anthology that Bruce Sterling's We See Things Differently, from where I borrowed the name of the project.

Thanks for the kind words - things are definitely changing, and I hope that in the very near future we can stand side by side, both in person and in anthologies, mongrel and alien. You are so right, brother. This is the future.


Thanks, Fábio. "The Frankenstein Penis" has been been made into two student films, one from Brazil, and it will very soon be back in print and anthology THE LOVE THAT NEVER DIES. I also wrote a sequel, "The Dracula Vagina" that appeared in an obscure one shot magazine called PROUD FLESH. Mongrel power, my brother.

Ursula Pflug said...

Love this.