Special Double Review
Jason McGregor & Chuck Rothman
(WorldWeaver Press, May 2018, tpb, 284 pp.)
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
Solarpunk is composed of Brazilian stories from 2012 which aim to deal with green energy and ecology. The preface cites Le Guin, Callenbach, and Robinson as exemplars but notes that Brazilian green energy is not necessarily seen as an issue of the Left or as a good thing. It also notes that these stories are not as utopian as many on similar topics. My reading confirms this, as only a couple touch on things which are obviously political to this American and are often quite dark.
The reviews below try to ignore issues of style and translation because I felt it wouldn’t be fair to the stories, but I have to note that one person translates all the stories poorly. The first line of the translator’s note is: “It should come as no surprise the fact that the first solarpunk anthology came from Brazil.” That is a mild sign of things to come as Puritans are “ignominious to the point of not communicating,” a person’s patience is “running scarce by the second,” there are klaxons instead of sirens, semaphores instead of stoplights, things are “as out of context as a bill of one hundred in my pocket,” a person says he has people “in my target,” Rural Workers “are a very radical dissidence from the MST,” the “notion that implants made their users stronger and healthier was established as unquestionable unanimity,” a woman has “a slender body, umbilical and soft, possessed of a certain je ne sais quois,” and on and on,
“Soylent Green Is People!” by Carlos Orsi
When a man is found dead and his elderly mother can’t be found at all, the man’s girlfriend (and potential heiress) calls in a private eye. Through his narration, we learn about the case, the technological gimmicks of his near-future society, and its corrupt Puritan Church. When the PI meets a scientist four-fifths into the story, the infodump makes everything clear (if one hasn’t guessed already) and the final fifth is unnecessary denouement.
This second-longest tale of the book executes a conventional plot skeleton with a science fictional idea regarding alternative fuel sources which is key to the mystery but also contains a lot of extraneous material (the entire Church sub-plot is essentially irrelevant, for instance).
“When Kingdoms Collide” by Telmo Marcal
The protagonist seems like a gang member but turns out to be a cop whose partner gets killed by rich people modified with chlorophyll. In the moment after discovering her remains in a freezer and being mocked by the killers, he says, “I got my girlfriend’s head out of a bag by her hair and walked right to them so I could rub it in their faces.” The story’s framing scene has him anticipating killing green men, women, and children. Bad character, no plot, no redeeming feature.
“Breaking News!” by Romeu Martins
There’s an idea in here about artificially weaponizing a natural bioweapon but the first half of the tale is an action-oriented bit about an attack on a greenhouse narrated by a radio reporter in War of the Worlds style (and one of the characters is named “Orson”) which renders the action inert in print, while the second half moves in close for third-person narration but is just one vast infodump, so none of it works.
“Once upon a Time in a World” by Antonio Luiz M. C. Costa
After the World War featured an atomic bomb, a world government was instituted, capitalism was abolished, and fossil fuels and nuclear power were banned in this (very) alternate world. While Orwell is a crotchety anarchist and solar panels and wind turbines make the landscape ugly, people are generally happy with their “freedom” except a band of malcontents led by Marinetti and featuring Capt. Mussolini, Lt. Franco, Cpl. Hitler, along with Pound and Heidegger. This band of fascist terrorists has a plot to make a statement. Can they possibly be thwarted?
Given that the “decimal” system (I think “metric” was intended) has been in use for 200 years (though it and measurements of time and so on use different terms), it must be about 1995, especially since we have an internet and people on Mars but it’s only been 50 years after the War, so it must be around 1970 but, given the birthdates of all the players, maybe it’s as early as the 40s? But it turns out to be 1929. Yep, nukes and Martians in 1929. This is the first story to seem like the sort of “green socialist world government” that might be expected and has an absolutely incoherent concept of history, alternate or otherwise, while the plot is extremely simplistic and doesn’t even engage until very near the end. When it dragged on Cpl. Hitler and the rest, Graham Chapman’s “Stop! This has got quite silly!” Monty Python bit came to mind.
“Escape” by Gabriel Cantareira
A woman steals a data card in order to save the world but is chased by lackeys of the Powers That Be which are bent on evil. It starts well enough but, between her getting out of the building and getting on a train, there’s a massive infodump which seems to lack confidence as it overexplains. Later, a reversal is revealed which was unfair to the reader and awkward. Overall, this story is conventional and uses its “solar energy capture space station” as a mere mcguffin in a crime story.
“Gary Johnson” by Daniel I. Dutra
A narrator tells us a tale from the early 1900s about a scientist/priest and another scientist who worked on capturing people’s souls from another dimension which turns out to be a powerful energy source if you’re willing to almost instantly age people almost to death. Despite starting the project for what he thought would be great spiritual benefits, the priest comes to believe it’s actually a powerful evil he must do something about.
Though it is more fantasy than science fiction, is only arbitrarily connected to the anthology’s theme, and is a conventional tale in many ways, there’s much here that could be worked to great effect and is worked to some effect, but perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s buried in a nest of “I poorly translated an old manuscript from my grandfather in another language telling of how he received an older manuscript from someone else in some other language, etc.” which needlessly complicates the structure and distances the reader.
“Xibalba Dreams of the West” by Andre S. Silva
A second alternate history story, in which the Chinese seem to have taken over everything up to the Bering Strait and the New World was never discovered by Europeans, contact with the old world only coming over a reconnected strait. The story is set in Gunabara Bay but is heavily Maya-flavored, with a political structure that sacrifices many convicts by sending them out to sea, ostensibly to die. When a school teacher whose father was sacrificed when she was a child witnesses a trio of Mayans go haughtily to their sacrificial deaths she is perplexed. When a Batman-like figure appears at her home and warns her that everything she believes she knows is wrong and that they must meet later, she is thus open to the idea. As the story progresses, she finds he told her the truth.
This got too comic-book-like by the end (which was less an ending than something which felt like the setup for a sequel) but it was a fleshed-out milieu with a nicely paced plot and a main character with some tangibility. One of the better tales.
“Sun in the Heart” by Roberta Spindler
In a future in which the sun’s gone haywire, plants and animals are dying off so people have gotten medical tattoos of sorts which enable them to extract nutrition from that haywire sun. This follows the travails of a boy recovering from leukemia who’s past due for the procedure, his reluctant father, and his mother with a family secret. If you can accept the premise, the family dynamics are reasonably presented.
“Cobalt Blue and the Enigma” by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro
This is an almost comic-book-like tale of a quadriplegic Brazilian intelligence soldier being outfitted with a “biocybernetic suit” of nanobots and going off to face an essentially supernatural creature that acts as an agent of “Palmarine” interests. The essence of the tale is two large chunks culminating in combat scenes on Europa and a space station and a short denouement that takes things interstellar.
I know virtually nothing of Brazilian history but it seems this is almost a form of alternate history as Palmares seems to be an actual state rather than the remnants of a previous pseudo-state. Further, there may be many sociopolitical resonances with the blonde, blue-eyed Brazilian superspy and the monstrous magical “child of the night” of Palmares which I’m not getting. It also tries to work in everything under the sun (from Jack the Ripper to vampires) without working in the sun, itself. This doesn’t seem very topically connected to “solarpunk.” Taken purely as an action adventure, there is an entire subthread with a reporter that contributes nothing but some backstory and should have been cut, and has an awkward ending to the second combat which seems somehow disappointing given the viewpoint of most of the story, but is otherwise exciting enough.
More of Jason McGregor’s reviews can be found at Featured Futures.
“Soylent Green Is People!” by Carlos Orsi
Reviewed by Chuck Rothman
I always enjoy reading science fiction in translation. People from non-English-speaking countries have a different and often interesting take on the genre. Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World is an anthology of stories originally written in Portuguese, with authors from Portugal and Brazil, set in futures where cheap sustainable energy is easily available.
“Soylent Green is People!” by Carlos Orsi uses the hard-boiled detective format as a structure. The narrator is brought in to a seeming suicide, where Raul Goncalves de Nobrega is found dead in his garage with the car motor running. Strangely, his mother—with whom he lives and to whom he is devoted—is missing. The question is whether she is dead, and who died first, since it makes a difference whether her fortune goes to the Church of the Puritans or to Raul’s secret wife. The church is willing to do anything it can to get hold of the money, and there’s a question about some new form of energy that Raul has been working on. I found the story a top-notch SF mystery with some good psychological depth and easily a standout.
Telmo Marcal contributes “When Kingdoms Collide.” The kingdoms involved are the plant and animal ones. People have found a way to take in all their nourishment from the sun—chlorophyllization. The protagonist finds the idea appalling, but is asked to investigate goings on at one of the greenie sanctuaries. But it turns out they also need to supplement their diet. The hostility of the narrator is a bit offputting, and the ending is just an attempt to be gross. The story also suffers from being placed next to the previous story, which deals with a similar issue in a much more imaginative way.
“Breaking News” by Romeu Martins definitely violates the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and not to a particularly good effect. It’s mostly a newscast covering a protest about a company that is working on genetically modified foods, having people describe the scene instead of having them actually in the middle of anything. Then it switches to a secret cabal telling each other about their nefarious plot. It’s all made of long paragraphs of explanation and the characters are just talking heads, not people. I didn’t care for it at all.
Antonio Luiz M. C. Costa also has a penchant for long explanations in his “Once Upon a Time in a World.” It also starts out with a broadcast—a talk show this time, where there is an interview on setting up a Martian base, but quickly switches to an anarchist attack on a factory complex. I’m afraid the story quickly lost me; the characters don’t really show much personality and I just couldn’t get involved with it.
“Escape” by Gabriel Cantareira starts out slowly, lecturing us about the history of the future it talks about. Once you get past that, it’s the story of Mariana, who breaks into the headquarters of a multinational corporation to steal information about a deadly plan they’re carrying out. The story turns into a frenetic chase as Mariana tries to avoid the company security forces. The ending is a nice twist, too. Overall, a pretty good story, which would have been even better if the author managed to integrate the background without explaining it all.
Things pick up a bit with “Gary Johnson” by Daniel I. Dutra. The narrator has discovered the journal of his great grandfather, which includes information about a mysterious fire in a church in 1909. His grandfather had worked with one James Paulsen, a scientist who has little scruples and a strong streak of racism. The story slowly begins to show what happened that night. Like many of the others here, it has a strong streak of explaining everything, but it fits in better with the narrative and the characters are strongly handled.
“Xibalba Dreams of the West” uses a Mayan culture that punishes people by “sacrificing” them and sending them to the West. Maiara is a schoolteacher who fully believes in the system, but is met by a stranger who promises to reveal that everything she knows is wrong, and that her father—sacrificed when she was a little girl—still lives. It’s not a particularly new notion, and Andre S. Silva tells a story that is too well worn to stand out.
“Sun in the Heart” by Roberta Spindler starts with Laura and Lucio worrying about an operation for their son to implant a device that will allow him to get energy from the sun. Elio is old for the operation, since he’s been battling leukemia and the parents are nervous, both for the danger and for things in their past. Still a bit too much explaining, but the story does a better job than most with making us care for the people involved.
Gerson Lodi-Ribier rounds the anthology out with “Cobalt Blue and the Enigma.” A secret group called the Palmares has been in operation for centuries, with the help of an immortal creature much like a vampire. Aware of the threat, the military creates an exoskeleton to combat the creature, who is heading for the moons of Jupiter. The story has some good elements, but never quite coheres.
The big problem with most of these stories is that the authors are so enamored of their concepts that they give the characters and story short shrift. Just about all of them suffer from spending too much time explaining the situation instead of dramatizing it. It also doesn’t help that some of the themes are used in multiple stories. While there is some good work here, the anthology as a whole just doesn’t succeed.