Special Double Review
Louis West & Douglas W. Texter
“Distinguishing Marks: None” by Jorge Eduardo Benavides
Reviewed by Louis West
This is a collection of nine alternate history stories translated into English from a variety of languages—French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. Each requires a careful reading to immerse yourself into the flow of the author’s culture because, without studied attention, you may miss the story’s key points. Some of the stories are quite good, while others were disappointing, with a number reading like political commentary instead of SF.
“Cinépanorama,” by Xavier Mauméjean, was originally published in 2004 (in French) and is about “how a matinee idol’s accident changes the face of international cinema.” The story runs from 1954 to 1967 with various news articles interspersed between short scenes. The main character suffers the loss of one eye and other injuries in 1954, during a drunken celebration in a stolen jeep, after the French and Viet Minh agree to an armistice in IndoChina. It takes another 13 years before he’s finally cast as the disfigured lover in the movie Angelique and the Sultan.
A difficult read. I don’t know who the main character is meant to be in our history nor do I have any idea how his disfigurement changed the course of international cinema. Perhaps a history buff familiar with the related events does.
Jorge Baradit’s “Contreras’s Dream,” originally published (in Spanish) as “El sueño de Contreras” in the collection CHIL3 in 2010, explores “the way Allende thwarted the coup attempt of 1973 and (unsuccessfully) resisted US meddling in Chilean affairs.” This tale reads like an embedded journalist’s report tracing events as they unfold during 1973 and 1974. Well presented, but SF only in that it’s alternate history. It could be interpreted as political commentary on American interventionist foreign policy during the Nixon years.
“Cousins from Overseas,” by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, originally published (in Portuguese) in the A República Nunca Existiu! anthology from 2008, is described as “how Portugal’s King Dom Luís II escaped to Brazil after the invasion of his country by Franco’s fascist troops,” but I would disagree. To me it reads as the ramblings of Dom Luis Filepe as he lies in the Brazilian jungle in an Imperial hunting preserve with a broken thigh, hoping to be rescued by his cousin’s hunting party before a lurking jaguar kills him. In this world, Franco’s troops (fascist Spain) invade and conquer Portugal with the aid of Nazi forces. Dom Luis II and his court subsequently flee to Brazil to seek sanctuary where the Brazilian Empire has plans, with the aid of the North Americans, if they ever enter the war, and British to reconquer Portugal and liberate Europe. Dom Luis is rescued, but not before a Brazilian German attempts to assassinate him. In short, this isn’t a tale about his escape to Brazil, but his escape from death once in Brazil. I also found the writing style clunky and repetitive and didn’t get the point of the story.
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ “Distinguishing Marks: None,” written in 1991, but first published in his collection La noche de Morgana from 2005, is “an allohistorical Peru in which Shining Path had defeated the armed forces.” The story portrays a Peru ravaged by violence, subsequent insurrection and shortages of all things–food, water, power, cigarettes, et al. The main character is part of the top four in the junta’s main command: Zapata, García Urquijo and Ramiro. The entire tale, though, is about the mental ramblings of the main character as he comes to believe that he and Ramiro are one and the same person, but he doesn’t know “Which one is you, really?” The backdrop of the story may be political commentary on how a Shining Path run Peru would turn out (badly, from the descriptions) and, perhaps, the lack of self-identity by the main character may be commentary questioning what is the real Peru. Outside of that, I found the story tedious and uninteresting.
“Mine-Wife,” by Karin Tidbeck, written (in Swedish) for the 2014 Uchronia issue, deals “with a string of famines and other catastrophes in mid-nineteenth-century Sweden that could have obliterated the Scandinavian peninsula.” This story is structured as a series of letters covering discoveries in an unexplored cave system that was found to house the mummified remains of some 100 villagers that vanished during the horrible winter of 1867. The story’s hook in the first letter thoroughly grabbed my attention: “we were about to be invaded, but for some reason we escaped. Why?” What follows is well paced, building tension and mystery throughout until ending with a chilling twist: Hundreds of human-sized Mine-Wife “dolls” had been discovered in the caves, “Standing in dead-straight rows.” The letter’s author then compares these dolls to pictures of American nuclear missiles and observes that “We don’t know when, if ever, they’ll be fired, or in response to what wrong or injury. All we can know for sure is that there they are, lying in the darkness and waiting.” Excellent. Definitely recommended.
Hernan Vanoli’s “Saint Lionel,” part of his 2012 novel, Las Mellizas del Bardo, describes “the picaresque underworld of a female soccer hooligan gang who has been entrusted to transport a reanimated cyborg of history’s greatest soccer star.” The soccer gang teams with a motorcycle gang to acquire Lionel the cyborg. Except the story begins after the heist is complete–which to me would have been the interesting part of the overall tale. Instead members of the gang ruminate about the heist and who planned what. Then they fuel up the cyborg with “cyborg-gasoline” (yep, you read it right). Once Lionel animates, he asks to play his favorite VR zombie game. Informed they don’t have such a game, Lionel goes nuts and asks for a handsaw. However, when they do find a VR helmet and the game, Lionel becomes happy. End of story. All I can say is “Huh?” I think many interesting things could have been written about this situation, but this story isn’t any of those.
“Scandal,” by Aldo Nove, is taken from his 2014 (Italian) novel, Tutta la luce del mondo about “St. Francis of Assisi’s peculiar life story as told from the perspective of his nephew Piccardo.” This reads as a mix of poetry and prose, a rambling diatribe about fear of the devil and the harshness of life interspersed with bits about Piccardo’s life and the mystery of his uncle’s alleged scandal. The scandal itself must be (painstakingly) pieced together from clues dropped throughout the story. Evidently, Francesco (who later becomes St. Francis) didn’t want to follow in his father’s mercantile footsteps. He gave away his money to the priests, “not properly… as an offering so we’ll be commended to the saints,” which angered his father because then the family didn’t get the good works recognition. It got so embarrassing that the father publically denounced his son as a thief who’d betrayed his family by giving away money without authorization. Except Francesco declares himself a holy man: “he’d decided to be free, a freedom entirely incomprehensible to his family and the majority of the citizens of Assisi.” He returned his clothes and all the money to his father and, before the gathered town, dropped his trousers, completely naked… and free.
St. Francis did renounce all worldly possessions in protest against the purely mercantile attitudes of both society and the church at that time. This story captures the essence of the painful emotions his family and fellow townsfolk must have felt in response to his rebellion against everything they believed was proper. Although a little hard to follow, I did enjoy the telling.
Bernardo Fernandez AKA Bef’s “The Beast Has Died,” taken from his 2010 (Spanish) book, El llanto de los niños muertos, is about “the subsequent transformation of Mexican society after Emperor Maximilian I is not executed in 1867 and Benito Juárez’s brain is digitized by a European psychocyberneticist.” This tale is set in a 19th century where the French Empire is ruled by Napoleon III and the Austro-Hungarian Empire rules Mexico. More telling, though, is that technology is far advanced, including dirigibles, servant robots, war droids, smart bombs, cybernetics, cell phones and internet Web sites.
Harshly imprisoned for years by Mexico’s Emperor Maximillian, Benito Juárez is finally freed after extensive pressure from the international community. He takes refuge in New Orleans but is dying from advanced cancer. Consequently, he chooses to be a human guinea pig and have his brain digitally saved. The process was invented by the world renowned psychocyberneticist, Sigmund Freud, but never tested on a human because it destroys the brain. The result is that, ten years after it’d been crushed, the Mexican revolution finally succeeds through Juárez’s use of a new weapon, cyber warfare. And the beast? While originally used to refer to Juárez by Maximillian, it could also be construed to represent the European domination of Mexico until its final liberation.
I enjoyed this tale. It flowed well and the tension built nicely. The world setting is complex but realistic, the various characters intriguing, and the ending is a wonderful twist. Solid SF. Recommended.
“Distinguishing Marks: None” by Jorge Eduardo Benavides
Alternate Pasts: An Introduction to International Uchronia is absolutely breathtaking. This online collection of foreign alternate-history tales presents something needed in the world of Anglophone counterfactual fiction, dominated as it is by endless variations of World War II imagined by the likes of Robert Conroy, John Birmingham, and Harry Turtledove. Most of the stories here, all translations from the languages in which they were written, possess the literary merits of the alternate history produced by Philip Roth in The Plot Against America. Taking us to the history of other countries and turning that chronology on its head, these stories intrigue, trouble, and delight readers willing to do the necessary background reading to understand the history that’s wonderfully inverted here.
Karin Tidbeck, in “Mine-Wife,” delivers an epistolary story featuring letters and other materials exchanged between Viktor and Inez, a speleologist. I was immediately reminded of a much older novel told in letters: Dracula. This story isn’t quite alternate history, but it’s very interesting. Inez investigates a series of caves in Ovart Parish in Sweden. In 1867, during an event that an article calls a potential Swedish Jonestown but that might be better termed a Swedish Roanoke, an entire town disappeared. During her investigations, Inez discovers hundreds of bodies in a cave. She also discovers something else that proves far more than she had bargained on finding in these Swedish caves.
“Distinguishing Marks: None,” by Jorge Eduardo Benavides, presents a Peru in which the Communist Shining Path guerillas seized power in the 1980s. Part of a novel, this tale doesn’t exactly tell a story; it sets a post-revolutionary mood: the checkpoints, the fear of counter-revolution, the continuation of strikes, the blackouts, and the curfews. Essentially giving us a slice of life of several government workers who gather on Friday nights for dice and card games in post-revolutionary Peru, “Distinguishing Marks: None” shows us a world in which not much happens other than game playing and thinking about the past. This lack of action may be exactly what the author hypothesizes life after a victory by the Shining Path would have looked like: a land of stasis. Indeed, Benavides captures well, I think, the seediness of post-victory revolutionary states. Parts of this tale reminded me of London in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In “Cousins from Overseas,” Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro presents us with a very nicely extrapolated Brazilian-Portuguese alternate-history tale worthy of either Harry Turtledove or S. M. Stirling. The nexus moment happens about eighty-five years before the beginning of the tale: Brazilian imperial prince Dom Pedro Alfonso survives instead of dying as a child in 1850. Over eight decades later, the tale opens in Brazil immediately after a Spanish Civil War that saw Francisco Franco, with the help of the Luftwaffe, invade and conquer Portugal. The Portuguese king, Dom Luis II, flees his homeland, with the aid of the British Royal Navy, to lead a government in exile in Portugal’s former colony, Brazil, now ruled by Emperor Dom Alfonso. “Cousins from Overseas” describes a hunting trip embarked upon by Dom Luis and Dom Pedro, the son of the current Brazilian emperor. Seeking to hunt a jaguar, Dom Luis is pursued by a very different kind of predator in South America. One of the best in the collection, this tale presents alternate history of the most sophisticated and entertaining variety.
In “The Beast Has Died,” the Mexican novelist and comic-book writer Bernardo Fernández takes us to a neon-plastic nineteenth-century world straight out of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon or Against the Day. In this nineteenth century, which features droids, psycho-cybernetics, dirigible gunships, and the world wide web, Benito Juarez, who in our world served as President of Mexico and helped to defeat the French occupiers under Emperor Maximilian, ends up spending his waning years first in a dungeon and then in exile in New Orleans. With his impending death in 1872 (the year in which the real Juarez did die), a conspiracy to digitalize the hero of the Mexico that never was here is led by the liberal (and, in the world of the tale, a man who should have been president and ended up a rebel) Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, with the help of the real French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his young assistant, Sigmund Freud. “The Beast Has Died” is truly a magnificent and hilarious intellectual romp through a quasi-steampunk Mexico.
Hernán Vanoli’s “Saint Lionel,” or at least the parts included here, is not really a story, but a collection of scenes set in an Argentine cyberpunk future. The tale concerns members of a female soccer hooligan gang who possess the reanimated and at least partially automated corpse of Lionel Messi, who in our world is one of Argentina’s most successful soccer players. It would have been nice if more of the tale had been included. We get a tad of reanimation horror here, but we don’t have enough of the story to see either plot or characters fully develop.
“Contrera’s Dream,” by Jorge Baradit, tells the tale of what would have happened if Augusto Pinochet Ugarte had been arrested for sedition by Chile’s Allende government. In our world, Pinochet led a successful U.S. backed coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. To be honest, while fascinating, this piece isn’t really a story in that it doesn’t have character development, dialogue, or, really, any of the structural elements that one would expect in a short story. What Baradit’s piece does do, though, is present, in summary fashion, a fascinating alternate history of 1970s Chile. Some of the historical turns in this piece, such as a Chilean declaration of war on the United States, I find somewhat unbelievable, and the author appears to be driven by a vision of historical determinism. Still, though, “Contrera’s Dream” delivers a treatment of a very interesting history that U.S. counterfactual writers ignore.
Xavier Mauméjean, a French writer, presents in “Cinépanorama” a very tricky tale for an American to read. The story presents an alternate history of the life of the French actor Alain Delon. The tale begins with the real Delon’s actual military service in French Indochina in 1953 and 1954, which culminated in the actor’s dishonorable discharge. The nexus point involves Delon getting an eye poked out during a jail stint. His acting career thus gets sidelined. Mauméjean presents a series of fictional newspaper-article excerpts showing other actors playing roles that in the real world Delon starred in. The ending of the tale is delicious. This is a fun story, but American readers are going to have to do some research in order to understand the rather macabre plot here.
The absolutely haunting “Scandal,” by Aldo Nove, tells the tale of Francis of Assisi and the Saint’s estrangement from his father, Pietro, who believes his son to be absolutely mad. Nove tells the story from the point of view of a child, Francis’s nephew, Piccardo. Even in translation, the writing is absolutely exquisite. And the tale more than adequately captures both the love and the hostility between one of the most famous Catholics of the last two-thousand years and his father. This man, consumed by visions of his first son carrying on the family name, can’t possibly understand the renunciation of the world that Francis gleefully engages in. “Scandal” borrows two conventions from literature and uses them well. First, Nove uses a device that the other perhaps more famous novelist dealing with Francis, Nikos Kazantzakis, employed when writing about the saint: telling the saint’s tale from another point of view. This technique allows the reader to maintain distance from the subject and thus brings wonder to the portrayal. How could we ever get inside the point of view of someone who embodied such spiritual otherness? Second, like William Faulkner and Mark Twain, Nove employs a child’s perspective on Francis. This tale haunts me.