The Blog is Dead… Long Live the Blog!

This post will officially wrap up Once and Future Mexico, but it’s not dying so much as it’s being reincarnated, so you’ll still be able to consume the same O+FM goodness at the new blog, SF Around the World.

Just over a year ago I shuffled my priorities, among other things becoming non-fiction editor at International Speculative Fiction, a free speculative fiction magazine published quarterly in PDF, ePUB, and Kindle formats.  ISF has some truly awesome authors in its pages, including winners of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards.

Along with my other duties at ISF, I write a column called Around the World that collects news, gossip, videos, announcements, and other flotsam from world speculative fiction. Interested in catching up on science fiction, fantasy, or horror from China or Chile, from Iran or Israel?  Then ISF is for you, and so is Around the World.

ISF issues 4 and 5

ISF issues 4 and 5

Once I started the column, it quickly became obvious that there would be a lot of things I could do in an online format that can’t realistically be crammed into a downloadable ebook.

On top of that, some folks would happily surf over to a site, but wouldn’t get around to downloading the magazine.

Finally, a quarterly publication just isn’t timely enough for some news items.  But a monthly blog post–with the option of posting immediate bulletins when necessary–could handle the short fuse just as well as the slow burn.

Embedded videos

Two of the things the Around the World blog can do well that the ebook format can’t match: embedded videos (above) and embedded music files (below).

Embedded music

So Around the World now comes in two flavors–there’s the chocolate goodness of the magazine and the rich caramel of the blog (or whatever flavors you savor).  They have overlapping content, but each one is tailored to the strengths of its particular medium.

So I’ll still be posting about Mexican science fiction, it just won’t be at this particular url, and it’ll be blended with similar material from countries all over the world.  Come on by and see–I think you’ll like it.

In fact, the second column (September 2014) will include an item about the upcoming English translation of an awesome-looking Mexican graphic novel, Inés Estrada’s psychedelic science-fiction epic, Lapsos.  (Well, it’s sort of a graphic novel–three issues of the comic have been translated and are being bound together in hardcover.)

And just to underline the increasingly international nature of speculative fiction, the English edition of this Mexican comic is being published in Sweden!

And illustration from Inés Estrada’s Lapsos.

An illustration from Inés Estrada’s Lapsos.

Finally, if you’ve been here before and saw the old site, you may be wondering why I’ve updated the design of the blog just as I’m ending it.  The reason is that I’m standardizing the look of all my various blogs and pages.  This page won’t have any new posts, but it won’t disappear either, so I wanted it to fit seamlessly into that overall aesthetic.

Besides, being a contrarian, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend time refurbishing something immediately before closing it down.

So join me over at Around the World and be sure to download International Speculative Fiction for free.

Around the World

Click the banner to check it out.

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Mexican Science Fiction, Part IV: Monsters

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

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The previous installments of this series are:

Mexican Science Fiction, Part I: The Double Identity of the Movie 2033

Mexican Science Fiction, Part II: Death Comes Calling One Last Time

Mexican Science Fiction, Part III: Three Messages and a Warning

The movies I’ve looked at previously have been Mexican productions.

Monsters (2010) is a U.K. production, but it was shot on location in Mexico and, like the other movies discussed in this series, its subject is a science-fictional Mexico.

This is a Matryoshka doll of a movie, with a tale of alien invasion wrapped around a metaphor for “aliens” from Mexico who cross the border into the U.S., which is in turn a cocoon for the love story that lies at the heart of the film.

Monsters Poster

Monsters Poster

Although, honestly, that makes it sound like a lot less fun that it is. Still, it’s not watching-Gojira-crush-Tokyo fun. It’s more elegiac, lie-back-and-enjoy-the-details-of-the-ambiance fun.

The premise is straightforward and much of the backstory is laid out succinctly in title cards that open the movie:

Six years ago… NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A space probe was launched to collect samples, but broke up during re-entry over Mexico. Soon after new life forms began to appear and half the country was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE.

Today… The Mexican & US military still struggle to contain ‘the creatures’…

The “half the country” that’s infected is a large swath of northern Mexico, along the border with the U.S.–a border that is now guarded by a huge, apparently impregnable wall to keep the aliens on the southern side of the border.

Kaulder examines a map of the infected zone in a still from Monsters

Kaulder examines a map of the infected zone in a still from Monsters

Against this backdrop, a simple story plays out.

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a cynical photographer who documents the destruction caused by the monsters, always hoping for the money shot of a child killed by the aliens, which will net him a cool $50,000.00 from his heartless boss.

Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) is a rich girl who’s in Mexico doing good works when she’s injured (in a very modest way) during an American air-strike against the behemoths from outer space.

Kaulder’s heartless boss is also Wynden’s doting dad. He orders Kaulder in no uncertain terms to get his daughter safely home, meaning that they must either circumvent or traverse the infected zone.

Romeo and Juliet with Aliens

Romeo and Juliet with Aliens

They’re all set to take the first, safer option courtesy of a mercenary ferry operator, whom they’ve paid $5,000.00 to get to the U.S. Then Kaulder’s bad behaviour costs Wynden her passport–stolen in the night–so they have no choice but to hire the Space Invaders version of a coyote to smuggle them through the danger zone on land.

If you’re expecting a smash-em-up you’ll be disappointed (as many viewers have been).

On the other hand, if you’re into the atmosphere and the slow build of a love story set against the backdrop of an alien-infested near-future Mexico, you’ll likely be pleased and a little charmed (as many other viewers have been).

The latter way of viewing the movie has garnered it praise–and in some instances raves–from such folks as Roger Ebert, Salon, and The Village Voice.

I enjoyed Monsters a lot, and I mostly give it a thumbs-up, but I do have a complaint or two. Mostly two.

First, Scoot McNairy’s Kaulder isn’t bad. He’s reminsiscent of (though far less intense than) a Salvador-era James Woods. But seriously: if you’re going to set the movie in Mexico, couldn’t the photographer have been a local stringer? There are only two real characters in the whole movie (apart from the aliens) and both are white Americans (using that word colloquially), which is more than a little gauche.

Besides, if the photographer had been Mexican, it might have ramped up his conflicted feelings about what he does for a living. It’s one thing for a gringo photographer to be parachuted in to photograph dead Mexicans for a U.S. publication. It’s quite another for a Mexican to collect a paycheque for the same job and then go home to his family and friends and have to explain himself. Photographing dead Mexican kids for money is a lot more poignant when your kids are Mexican and tomorrow it could be them who die.

As for Wynden, she’s an awfully slight character. I don’t blame Whitney Able for that–she just isn’t given much to do apart from look fetching and be imperiled.

If McNairy’s character puts me in mind of James Woods in days gone by, Wynden’s reminds me of 1970s vintage Farrah Fawcett back when she was eye candy. I’m thinking of things like Logan’s Run and the original Charlie’s Angels, before Fawcett got some clout and started taking very different roles (like the battered wife who fights back, pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White, and Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld).

Wynden could have been just as alluring to Kaulder while also having some character in her character. She seems ambivalent about her father and not very comitted to her upcoming marriage–but that’s about it. We have no idea why, or what she’s thinking.

I don’t need her to start rattling on about it at length, but without any reason to be dissatisfied, the plot mechanics get a little transparent. She’s not committed to her marriage because… well, because that makes Kaulder tempting and that moves the story forward, period.


On the whole, though, this is an interesting and enjoyable watch as long as you don’t go in expecting Cloverfield.

Side note: much of the film was improvised, both by the leads and by the local non-actors who played the secondary roles. And some of the secondary folks–like the ferryboat guy–are very well done. Take a look at the third embedded video below for a featurette that documents this aspect of the film.

Monsters Trailer

Monsters Featurette

Monsters Improvisation Featurette

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Retro Science Fiction in Mexico City

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

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Days since the election: 93

One of the things this blog does is look at Mexico in science fiction. Usually this means looking at a future Mexico, but not all science fiction is set in the future and, after all, the full title of this blog isn’t Future Mexico, it’s The Once & Future Mexico.

Today we look at a Mexican moment in science fiction and in real life, both in the past.

Real Life: William Burroughs and William Tell in Mexico

William Burroughs was one of the original Beat Generation writers, along with friends of his like Jack Kerouac (author of On The Roadrecently made into a movie) and Allen Ginsberg (author of Howlalso recently made into a movie).

William Burroughs and Joan Vollmer

William Burroughs and Joan Vollmer

Burroughs overtly identified as gay, but in 1944 he began living with Joan Vollmer and they became a common-law couple, having a son in 1947.  While living in New Orleans, Burroughs — a heroin addict at the time — was arrested for heroin possession. When the police searched his home they found letters from Allen Ginsberg indicating the possibility of a shipment of marijuana, something taken far more seriously then than now.

To avoid going to the notorious Angola State Prison , Burroughs fled to Mexico City with his family, planning to stay at least five years. They settled in and Burroughs (then still unknown) worked at his writing while attending classes at the Mexico City College, studying Spanish, Aztec codices, and Mayan languages. He and his family seemed to have made a successful escape, but the worst was yet to come.

Neither Burroughs nor Vollmer had personalities or habits conducive to a peaceful, harmonious life. Burroughs was a heroin addict and Vollmer was a benzedrine addict, meaning they had clashing pharmaceutical inclinations. And Burroughs had a fascination with guns that lasted his entire life, in evidence in the scene below from the movie On The Road, with Burroughs portrayed by Viggo Mortensen.

In 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer were drinking with friends when they drunkenly engaged in a “William Tell act” in which Vollmer balanced a glass on her head and Burroughs shot it off with his pistol. Except he missed, killing her. He was charged and spent two weeks in jail, but was released on bail after his brother arrived and reportedly bribed officials. He ultimately fled Mexico and was convicted in absentia, received a two year suspended sentence.

(On the advice of his lawyer, Burroughs at one point denied the William Tell version of the incident, hence the headline below, but he admitted it before that and after leaving Mexico.)

A contemporary report of Joan Vollmer's death.

A contemporary report of Joan Vollmer’s death.

Burroughs had been writing for some time before this incident, but it marked him and his dark, difficult writing for the rest of his life.

Science Fiction: The Ghost of Joan Vollmer

So where’s the science fiction?

Along comes Rudy Rucker — right now, in 2012.  Rucker’s an award-winning science fiction author, best known for his Ware tetralogy, which won him two Philip K. Dick awards.

The Ware Tetralogy, flanked by Software and Wetware

The Ware Tetralogy, flanked by Software and Wetware

His new book is Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnick SF Novel, published last month, which features British mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing and William Burroughs as characters.

Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnick SF Novel

Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnick SF Novel

In real life Turing was a genius, who helped the Allies win the Second World War and created the theoretical foundation for modern computing, as well as founding the science of artificial intelligence and making important contributions to biology, all before his death by apparent suicide at 41. (You can learn about Turing and the international Alan Turing Year at my site, The Turing Centenary.)

Turing was gay and in the early 1950s gay sex was still illegal in Britain. He was charged with having had sex with another man. He pled guilty and and was forced to take estrogen treatment, which was supposed to curb his libido — it didn’t, although it did cause him to grow breasts. To make matters worse, his conviction meant that he could no longer work on sensitive government work. Two years after the incident, he apparently killed himself.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Rucker’s novel is science fiction set in the 1950s. In it, Turing isn’t suicidal, he’s the target of an assassination attempt by British intelligence. The attempt fails, but Turing fakes his own death to throw off his pusuers and flees to Tangier, where he meets up with Burroughs. A series of increasingly surreal adventures follow.

In one episode, Turing, Burroughs, and their entourage make a pilgrimage to Mexico City so that they can summon the ghost of Joan Vollmer, who revenges herself upon Burroughs. This was a difficult passage for Rucker to write, as he told me in an interview:

One of the challenges in writing a William Burroughs character was that I had to deal with the fact that, a couple of years before the start of my novel, Burroughs had shot and killed his wife Joan in Mexico City. At first I felt like this was too explosive and difficult to write about directly. But then I realized that I had to face the killing.

So my Turing and Burroughs end up going to to Mexico City, resurrecting Joan, and letting her run a number on Burroughs. I wanted to give Joan a voice, and to give her a chance to get even.

I wrote the Mexico City chapter from the Burroughs point of view, writing very fast. It was like I was possessed—but in a good way. The experience was heavy and ecstatic. For months I’d been anxious about writing the chapter, and all at once it was done

Rucker does an admirable job of dealing with Joan Vollmer’s death without either minimizing it or becoming bogged down in sentimentality. Joan has her revenge and Burroughs is the better for it, the boil of his guilt lanced at last.

And Mexico has one more science fictional incarnation, bringing some peace to a sad moment in its past.

Rucker, Burroughs, Turing & Resurrection

But wait. Why was I interviewing Rudy Rucker about his book?

And where the heck is the rest of the interview?

Here’s the thing. As far as I know this is the first time fiction has revived Burroughs and Vollmer, but Turing? He’s come in for a lot of posthumous fiction.

I wrote a novel called Luck and Death at the Edge of the World in which Turing is an off-screen character. In researching and writing it, I discovered that he appears or plays a role in a number of fictional settings, from the early short story Tangents by Greg Bear, to a star turn in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.  

Just a few of the books that feature Alan Turing in a fictional context.

Just a few of the books that feature Alan Turing in a fictional context.

This discovery led to my upcoming book, Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Life of Alan Turing, which will take stock of this ficitonal legacy. This is a Hipper Tiger Reader’s Guide, which means it’s intended for all readers, not just academics.

As part of that accessible approach, and in order to add an extra dimention to the book, I want to include as many interviews as possible with the authors of the stories and novels I’m writing about, which is what led me to interview Rucker.

Rucker’s book is excellent and I recommend it highly. If you aren’t sure whether you want to buy a copy or not, no problem: you can try reading an online version before deciding. Check it out over at Transreal Books.

And directly below is the rest of the interview — a little teaser for my upcoming book.

(The unusual numbering of the questions and answers is to allow this interview to be added to Rucker’s ever-growing collection entitled All The Interviews.)


Long May He Wave: Nas Hedron interviews Rudy Rucker about his book, Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel (September 13, 2012)

Appearing from Transreal Books, September 22, 2012

Q 363. I wonder if you can set the stage for us with reference to Alan Turing, you, and writing. Who was Alan Turing to you before you wrote Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel? And what gave you the impulse to write your novel about him?

A 363. In the course of getting my Ph.D. in mathematical logic, I learned the technical details of Turing’s theorems about the idealized computers that came to be called Turing machines. I read his epochal 1937 paper “On Computable Numbers numerous times, and I was struck by the clarity and the depth of his thought.

Being interested in the possibilities of intelligent machines, I also studied Turing’s 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a non-technical paper in which he proposes the so-called Turing imitation game as a test for true AI: you might say that a program is intelligent if you can’t tell it from a human when you’re exchanging emails with it. It’s worth noting that Turing initially framed his “imitation game” in terms of someone trying to distinguish between a woman and a man.

Later I became interested in using so-called cellular automata programs to simulate the patterns that emerge in the tissues of plants and animals—patterns like the the spots on leopards, the markings­ on butterfly wings, the zigzags on South Pacific cone shells. This is what Turing was working on near the end of his life. In 1952 he published an amazing paper, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” In the morphogenesis paper he explains how, by dint of days of hand computation, he emulated a biological cellular automaton process to produce irregular black spots like you might see on the side of a brindle cow.

To me Turing is a heroic and inspiring figure. He worked on deeply fascinating things without getting lost in merely technical mathematics.

The other compelling aspect of the Turing story is that he was openly gay, he was persecuted for it, and that he had a strange and tragic death—which is usually described as a suicide.

Regarding Turing’s death by cyanide poisoning, I’ve always felt there’s a real possibility that he was in fact assassinated by agents of the British government. This seems even likelier now that we know Turing was involved in a top-secret code-breaking effort during World War II. In the 1950s, there was a collective hysteria over the possibility of homosexuals being a security risk.

Before I began contemplating my own novel, I’d read some stories and plays about Turing. But I didn’t feel that any of these works captured the vibrant image of Turing that I wanted to project. There can be a tendency to write about homosexuality in a lugubrious tone—as if a homosexual is a pathetic person who’s afflicted with a lethal disease. But Turing was anything but downcast about his predilections.

In the spring of 2007, I wrote a short story about Turing, “The Imitation Game.” And this story later came to be the first chapter of my novel. In the short story, Turing escapes being poisoned by British government agents. And to escape, he swaps appearances with his dead male lover. And here comes the science fiction: Turing grows two new faces by using principles that he described in that paper where he generates the shape of a spot on a black-and-white cow.

As sometimes happens to me, I had difficulty in selling my story. Maybe it wasn’t sufficiently solemn and lugubrious—and I was presenting Turing was a gay outsider, heedless of proprieties, and by no means a victim. In any case, in 2008 my story appeared in the British magazine Interzone and in 2010 in The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates.

Early on, I began wondering if there might be some way to expand my Turing story into a novel. At the end of my story, Turing escapes to Tangier, and I formed the notion that he ought to connect with the Beat writer William Burroughs, who was living there at that time. Two brilliant men, gay, outcast—perhaps they’d hit it off.

I’ve been a huge Burroughs fan ever since I first came across an excerpt of Naked Lunch in the beatnik magazine, The Evergreen Review—this would have been back in 1960, when I was fourteen. My big brother had a subscription to the magazine, and I’d leaf through it, looking for smut. Instead I found a literary career.

I particularly admire the irresponsible and laceratingly funny style of the letters Burroughs wrote to his friends from Tangier. And so I decided to write my second Turing story in the form of letters from Burroughs to Kerouac and Ginsberg.

This second story, “Tangier Routines,” was so gleefully scabrous that I didn’t bother sending it to any magazines, science-fictional or otherwise. Instead, in the fall of 2008, I printed it in a webzine Flurb that I’d managed to start. And then in 2010 and 2011, I ran two further Turing & Burroughs stories in Flurb.

I was still unsure about how to build my tales into a full novel, but in 2010 I finally read Alan Turing: The Enigma, the wonderful biography by Andrew Hodges, And here I learned that Turing was everything I could have hoped. Stubborn, unrepentant, impulsive, and with a very warm and human personality.

I discovered that, as part of some psychological therapy he was undergoing, Turing himself made a start at writing a transreal speculative novel late in his life—and this allayed any uneasiness I’d felt about dragging his name into the gutter of science-fiction.

So why did I write a beatnik SF novel about Alan Turing? In short, I’d come to think of him as my friend, and I wanted to give his character a cool place to live.

Q 364. What interested you about bringing the mathematician Alan Turing together with the Beat writer William Burroughs?

A 364. To some extent this was a matter of convenience. I needed Turing to flee England in 1954 to escape assassination by the secret service. Even though Turing has changed his face in my novel, it seemed like he’d feel safer taking trains and ferries than in trying to get on a plane.

From my familiarity with Burroughs, I knew that Tangier was an open city at this time, a good place to take refuge—Burroughs often referred to it as Interzone. And, checking my references, I realized that he was indeed living in Tangier at this time.

Having my two heroes meet seemed perfect. Having them connect also solved a problem I was having in figuring out how to write a gay male character in an effective way.

William Burroughs is a queer writer whom I’ve always found easy to identify with. He has an outspoken zest and a defiant rudeness that make it seem cool and reasonable and entirely desirable to be a homosexual heroin addict.

Even though I myself am merely a punk SF writer, I sometimes feel a certain social opprobrium regarding my esoteric interests, and, over the years, I’ve occasionally girded myself by adopting Burroughsian attitudes and mannerisms. Wearing the old master’s character armor.

One of the challenges in writing a William Burroughs character was that I had to deal with the fact that, a couple of years before the start of my novel, Burroughs had shot and killed his wife Joan in Mexico City. At first I felt like this was too explosive and difficult to write about directly. But then I realized that I had to face the killing.

So my Turing and Burroughs end up going to to Mexico City, resurrecting Joan, and letting her run a number on Burroughs. I wanted to give Joan a voice, and to give her a chance to get even.

I wrote the Mexico City chapter from the Burroughs point of view, writing very fast. It was like I was possessed—but in a good way. The experience was heavy and ecstatic. For months I’d been anxious about writing the chapter, and all at once it was done

I’m always happy when I’m being Bill Burroughs. He didn’t give a f*ck what people think. And neither did Alan Turing.

Q 365. Its impossible to read Turing & Burroughs without comparing and contrasting Turing’s real life with his life in your novel. Two of the simplest ways in which one might develop a story about an outsider’s relationship with the world are victory and defeat. In a victory story, the outsider transforms the world into something more congenial; in a defeat story, the world crushes the outsider.

In Turing’s real life, defeat was the way things played out. But throughout much of The Turing Chronicles, it looks as though Turing is headed for victory or at least for a rapprochement. He and his allies are turning everyone into shapeshifting mutants like themselves—what you call “skuggers.” But then, at the end of your novel, you return to something closer to Turing’s real life, something like defeat. Your Turing character saves the world, and he dies. Did you plan this in advance?

A 365. That’s a very interesting question, and I hadn’t thought about this so clearly before.

I’ve always been piqued and annoyed by the defeat aspect of Turing’s actual life. Either he was goaded into suicide or he was murdered outright. So, as I mentioned before, In writing Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel, I wanted to create a world in which Turing escapes his tragic fate and lives on to have wonderful adventures.

But I knew from the start of my novel that, even though my Turing character has escaped England, he’s a marked man. The pigs, the bullies, the scumbag straight-arrows—they’re unrelenting in their efforts to bring down our Alan. So my novel takes on the quality of a long chase.

It would have been possible, at least in principle, to write a novel in which Turing manages to convert everyone in the world into a shapeshifting skugger like himself. But fairly early on, we begin to understand that this wouldn’t be a pleasant endpoint to reach. We want to be ordinary humans, not skuggers.

So I needed for Turing to somehow undo the mutations—but without killing off all the people who’d become skuggers. And this wasn’t going to be easy, with the cops and feds breathing down his neck. So before long, Turing was heading towards a world-redeeming self-sacrifice. But this felt like the most dramatic way to go. Turing as Savior. It’s a big, strong ending.

I think one can argue that Turing doesn’t truly suffer defeat here. He transcends. As the Beat writer Jack Kerouac would put it, Alan ends up safe in heaven dead. And in the context of my novel’s world, heaven is a real place.

Q 366. In Turing & Burroughs, Turing experiments with what one might call computational human flesh. This bears a certain family resemblance to “flickercladding,” the soft robot flesh you imagined in the Ware Tetralogy, in which each grain of the cladding acts as a processing unit. This particular feature of your work puts me in mind of the effects that director David Cronenberg uses in his movie version of Naked Lunch—I’m thinking of his Burroughs character’s soft, genitalia-like typewriters. Are you conscious of a reason why you like conflating computation and flesh?

A 366. I’ve always been bored by the idea of rigid, clunky, machine-like robots. I wanted robots to be funky and wiggly and sexy. I think it’s likely that if we ever have really useful and intelligent robots, they’re going to be more like tentacled octopi than like brittle ants. Of course thirty years ago, when I started writing about flickercladding and piezoplastic “moldie” robots in my Ware novels, this wasn’t at all a familiar idea.

Having gotten used to the idea of soft machines, it became natural for me to turn things around—and to have the cellular structure of human flesh become as malleable as the material of a computer display.

In my Ware novels there’s a drug called “merge” that lets people melt together inside a tub called a love puddle. And in Turing & Burroughs, a person who’s a skugger can turn into something like giant slug. There’s a scene where Turing and another skugger have sex by twisting themselves around each other while hanging from a rafter at Burroughs’s parents’ house. Mrs. Burroughs throws them out.

Reading a draft of Turing & Burroughs, my wife said, “Oh, you’re always doing this, having people merge together, it’s so icky.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s sex, isn’t it? That’s how it is.”

We’re biological organisms—we’re not computers, and we’re not machines.

Q 367. In your free downloadable book-length Notes forthe Turing & Burroughs novel, you mentioned the possibility of having J. Edgar Hoover be a character. I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t make it into the book. I had a hankering to see Turing and Hoover go head to head. What kinds of considerations are important in making decisions about what to leave out and what to put in?

A 367. My sense was that I didn’t want to put too many famous people into my book. If you overdo that, then you’re name-checking, and it gets to be like a bus tour of the homes of the stars. And the stars dazzle away the reality of the characters whose lives you want to delve into.

If I am going to recreate a historical character, I want it to be an interesting person whom I like. And for sure that’s not J. Edgar Hoover! He’s a dead horse. Just because I write something in my notes for my novels, doesn’t mean I’m really serious about using it. Often in my notes I’m just killing time and goofing around. Waiting for the Muse.

Given that I had Burroughs and Turing in my novel, I did feel that I ought to bring in some other Beats and at least one other scientist. I went for Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

Ulam isn’t too well known, but he did a lot of fascinating things. He helped invent the hydrogen bomb, he wrote some of the first interesting computer programs, and he worked with lava-lamp-like continuous cellular automata. His friends thought he was too scattered, too much of a playboy. My kind of guy.

I was happy to have Ginsberg and Cassady show up in a Cadillac. My friend Gregory Gibson read a draft of the novel and he said that scene was like in a circus when you see the wild clowns getting out of a car.

I held back from putting Kerouac into Turing & Burroughs, as Jack would have been too much. He would have taken over. Remember that the main Beat I wanted to write about was William Burroughs.

When I was in the middle of writing the novel, I happened to see some video footage of Burroughs at his house in Lawrence, Kansas, taken a year or two before he died. And I knew right away I could use this scenario for the last chapter of my book. So the last chapter is set as a transcript of Burroughs talking to a video camera.

“And now I’m turning off the machine.”

That’s the book’s last sentence, with Burroughs talking. I like that ending. You might say that it captures the theme of the book.

You can turn off the machines and get wiggly. Even if you’re Alan Turing. Long may he wave.

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El Grito de la Independencia Set to Music

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

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Days since the election: 75

This blog has been on a brief hiatus as I took care of some other projects, but we’re back just in time for Independence Day.

To tell the truth, national holidays aren’t my favorite kind of celebrations. They tend to be too full of jingoism and self-delusion for me to enjoy them.

But there’s something genuine and heartfelt about celebrating the independence of a country that lives next door to a superpower. I’m originally from Canada, so I can identify with the Mexican experience of having to share the continent with the US of A. (No doubt the Poles experience some of the same feeling in relation to Russia.)

Independence Day celebrations, 2008 (photo credit: Thelmadatter on Wikimedia)

Independence Day celebrations, 2008 (photo credit: Thelmadatter on Wikimedia)

There’s plenty I like about the USA, but there’s no doubt that its omnipresence — culturally, politically — can get oppressive at times, most of all for the countries that happen to be right next door.

So it may be misguided, but I tend to see independence for Canada and Mexico as victories for the underdog.

One of the earliest and most powerful impressions I had of Mexican independence came to me the first time I visited the country, and it came through the music. Canadian music has largely been absorbed by the U.S. music industry, so while Canada has produced a pretty impressive array of musical talents since at least the 1960s, you’d be hard pressed to identify a Canadian style of music that’s distinct from what comes out of New York or L.A. or Duluth.

Mexico isn’t like that. Sure, music has crossed the border from the north, but to a very large extent the music you hear on the street, coming from cars, and in restaurants and homes, is very deeply Mexican and not at all gringo. Hell, some of the best music from the USA is Mexican in every way that matters.

So to celebrate September 16, I intend to kick back and listen to a long, unbroken set of awesome Mexican music, ranging from traditional music from Chiapas and Oaxaca to Mariachi to Trios to Plastilina Mosh and  Instituto Mexicano del Sonido.

Some traditional Mexican music.

Some traditional Mexican music.

Now, I’ve written about my love for Mexican music before (you can find my previous post here). But I have a new project.

As you’ll see if you read the post linked above, I wrote my novel Luck and Death at the Edge of the Worldon a steady diet of Mexican music, which is fitting since a large part of it is set in Mexico City (which I visited in 2006 to do research and to meet the people who were camped out in the Paseo de la Reforma to protest what they believed to be electoral fraud.)

I’ve just released the second edition of Luck and Death, which includes a new section called The Facts in the Fiction that looks at some of the factual background behind the fictional story. One of the things I would have loved to do, but couldn’t, was to embed some  Mexican music right in the ebook.

Oaxacan singer Lila Downs

Oaxacan singer Lila Downs

But, no worries. I’ve also launched a Luck and Death web site ( that includes sample chapters from the book, a sample section of The Facts in the Fiction, and other goodies.

The web site lets me do is three things:

  • introduce Luck and Death to people who haven’t read the book yet in a way that’s more effective than a little intro on Amazon
  • update and expand on the content in the ebook with new material, and
  • deliver content that I couldn’t include in the ebook, like music.

So if you go to the Luck and Death home page you’ll find a bunch of cool stuff, but if you click on the L&D Jukebox tab over there you’ll get to enjoy a bunch of embedded videos featuring some of the awesome Mexican music I had going in heavy rotation while I wrote the novel.

The L&D Jukebox Page (click image to go there)

The L&D Jukebox Page (click image to go there)

And the Luck and Death home page is an ongoing project that will continue to grow, which is where you come in. I’m always looking for new and wonderful Mexican music to add to the Jukebox.

If there’s a Mexican song you love that’s on YouTube (or any other video service that  provides embed codes), drop me an email or leave a comment below, and be sure to include a link to the video.

Hell, maybe you’re from the DF or Tijuana or Monterrey or wherever and you have a band of your own and you want me to include your video. Send me a link and if I dig it, I’ll post it.

And if you suggest a song, be sure to include your email and tell me what ebook format you prefer, because:

  • anyone, anywhere who sends in a link to a video of a Mexican song that I use in the Jukebox will get a free copy of the new edition of Luck and Death by return email, and
  • any Mexican artist who sends in a link to a video of a song they recorded, whether I use it or not, will get a free copy of Luck and Death.

[Note re Email: my email is down briefly while I change service providers. Please email to until I remove this notice.]

So happy Independence Day, Mexico! You rock, in this case literally.

Posted in Independence Day (Mexico), Luck and Death, music | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mexican Science Fiction and Latin American Realities

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

Days since the election: 6

In December of last year I published the first in an ongoing series of posts on Mexican science fiction, a film review titled The Double Identity of the Movie 2033.

I wasn’t really won over by 2033 and the review looks at some of its weaknesses, but I also pointed out that watching  it while in Latin America gave it extra layers of meaning that might not have been apparent to me had I watched it in my native Canada.

One of those layers had to do with the fact that the protagonist, who has been raised by leading members of an oppressive ruling class in a futuristic Mexico, finds out that he is actually the son of a rebel leader. (Trailer below.)

A Future Mexico in 2033

A Future Mexico City in 2033

Today I want to update what I wrote about that detail of the film.  My original comments are below, in red.

Thing Three: Child of the Rebels

Finally, there is the fact that the main character is the child of a rebel who has been raised as a member of the ruling class. In the U.S. or Germany this might just seem like a plot device, and not a terribly credible or imaginative one. In Latin America, this aspect of the movie has a whole different meaning.

In Argentina, for instance, it is well known that children orphaned by political repression were then adopted by members of the ruling class. Laura Oren’s paper “Righting Child Custody Wrongs: the Children of the ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina” (14 Harvard Human Rights Journal 123-195 (2001)) documents the horrific facts in some detail. The abstract is below, but you can download the entire paper here: Righting Child Custody Wrongs, the Children of the Disappeared in Argentina [pdf].

Abstract: Between 1976 and 1983, the Argentine military dictatorship “disappeared” as many as 30,000 of their own people whom they perceived as subversive. At the same time, it is estimated that more than 450 young children of these disappeared were kidnapped by the regime and given or sold to childless military or police families, or otherwise wrongfully adopted by families whose knowledge of their origins ranged from innocence to willful ignorance, to guilt. An organization called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) organized to identify, locate, and demand the restoration of these children to their biological relatives. More than 20 years later, most of the children have never been located. But the clash of claims over the fate of these children in Argentine courts and politics has a lot to say to us about the difficulties inherent in righting child custody wrongs. In Argentina there were both legal and extra-legal resolutions of these “child custody wrongs.” Examination of particular cases that had contrasting outcomes illuminates the meaning of “the best interest of the child” within a full political context, with reference to substantive and procedural Argentine and international law, and by comparison to United States constitutional doctrine.

This phenomenon was also the subject of an Oscar-winning film, The Official Story, which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1985.

Nor is this an issue of merely historical interest. Even now, while families continue to look for the children of missing parents, the children of wealthy families are driven to DNA testing to establish whether their parents were among the disappeared (also see this excellent article in the International Journal of Epidemiology). By 2002, genetic tests proved the identities of 59 children who had been kidnapped and adopted during the military rule (and 31 of the children were returned to their biological families).

In one famous 2010 case, the parentage issue has become a political football between a current administration and one of its media detractors and the children are the subject of an application for a court order that would force them to be tested.

To return to 2033, what might seem to one viewer as a contrived plot twist that simply reverses the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker “I am your father” plot point, may well carry real emotional heft for a viewer from the part of the world where I now live.

So 2033 has something of a double identity — it’s not a terribly good film, but it’s an interesting prism through which to look at the world.

And the update?

Just a few days ago, on July 5, 2012, this particular element of Latin American reality reached a new stage as former Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted (with others) and sentenced to 50 years in prison for executing a systematic program of stealing children from people his government “disappeared” during his time in power.

As The Guardian newspaper reported:

Argentina took a giant leap forward in its struggle to come to terms with its bloody past during the 1976-83 dictatorship by condemning former dictator Jorge Videla to 50 years in prison for masterminding a plan for stealing the newborn children of political opponents and handing the babies over to be raised by “good” military families after killing their mothers.

The verdict on Thursday evening capped a 16-year trial during which hundreds of hours of testimony were heard proving that the kidnappings were not just collateral damage in the “civil war” between the military and leftwing guerrillas, as supporters of the dictatorship have claimed, but rather a deliberate policy put in place by the top leaders of the regime.

“The kidnapping of newly born babies is the last crime that former members of the military regime are willing to admit,” says British journalist Robert Cox, who was one of the main witnesses at the trial last year. As editor of the small English-community daily Buenos Aires Herald in the late 1970s, Cox was one of the only journalists in Argentina who dared report on the crimes committed by the military as they happened, including their kidnapping of infants. “It’s like the Nazis, what they did was so terrible they could never admit it,” Cox said in Buenos Aires upon hearing the verdict that his testimony helped bring about.

The reading of the verdict was followed by a huge crowd outside the Buenos Aires court who viewed the proceedings on giant video screens set up on the street in a carnival-like atmosphere organised by human rights groups with some of Argentina’s top rock bands playing to the assembled crowd after the verdict was heard.

A television report on the conviction is embedded below.

Posted in 2033, Argentina, cinema, science fiction | Leave a comment

Does the Future Hold Two Mexicos?

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

NOW AVAILABLE for instant download! Click to find out more.

Days until the election: 1! Be sure you vote!

If you want to immerse yourself in a future Mexico (and Los Angeles), click on the Luck & Death banner above to find out more

So tomorrow is the long-awaited election, a moment this blog has been counting down to since my first post (The Future That Happened & The Future That Didn´t) last November.

(And this comes less than 10 days after one of my other blogs, The Turing Centenary, marked its big day: the 100th birthday of computer pioneer Alan Turing.)

So what can we expect tomorrow and — since this is a blog about the future of Mexico — what can we expect in all the tomorrows after that?

It seems clear that the PRI and their candidate Enrique Peña Nieto will win the presidency, a comeback that seemed distant and unlikely when the party first lost the office 12 years ago after decades of uninterrupted power.

PRI Logo

PRI Logo

Sr. Lopez Obrador — who looks set to come second for the second time in a row in a national election — won´t be happy, but he´s promised not to repeat the mass protests of 2006.

Post-Election Protests in Mexico City, 2006

Post-Election Protests in Mexico City, 2006

The Yo Soy 132 movement won´t be happy either (see How the Future of Mexico Temporarily Paralyzed My Blog About… the Future of Mexico), but if they have the stamina they´ll carry on with their core mission: the democratization of the media in Mexico.

Yo Soy132 Poster

Yo Soy132 Poster

One possible trend that seems to have been developing and that may intensify in the post-election period is the increasing gulf between the Distrito Federal — the federal district in which Mexico City is located — and the rest of the country.

Politically, the DF heavily favours the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the PRD.  This is the home turf of Lopez Obrador and Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, both of that party.  The next mayor will almost certainly be Miguel Angel Mancera, the candidate for the PRD and two smaller left-wing parties, who is polling around 70% of the vote.

PRD Logo

PRD Logo

As David Agren noted in an article in the Global Post:

Ebrard cannot run for re-election, but his party and its allies are expected to retain Mexico City in a landslide in the July 1 local elections. That’s the exact opposite of other parts of Mexico, where the once long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) leads polls for the presidential contest scheduled for the same day.

There’s almost a bipolar situation, with Mexico City going against the rest of the country,” says Jorge Zepeda, director of the online publication Sin Embargo. He attributes the party’s popularity as much to competent governance, in a city prone to earthquakes and water shortages, as ideology.

The city, as immense and brutal as it is, functions fairly well in operational terms,” he says. The PRD holds a hammerlock on the Mexican capital, known locally as the Distrito Federal, or DF, and home to nearly 9 million residents. (Another 12 million live in suburbs belonging to Mexico state, which surrounds DF like a horseshoe.)

And while the PRD´s success in the capital seems to hinge largely on its competent governance, having the PRD in office has meant that policies there skew to the left: decriminalized abortion, liberalized divorce, and legalized same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, from a very different part of the media´s political spectrum than the Global Post, the journal Foreign Policy notes another trend that is increasing the divide between Mexico City and the rest of the country: a crime rate that is either decreasing or increasing more slowly than elsewhere in the country, depending which crime you look at.

In an article entitled Mexico’s Bright Light, Foreign Policy author Larry Kaplow reports, among other things, that from 2002 to 2011 the DF´s murder rate rose only 2% while nationwide it went up 47%:

… over the past decade, even as the country around it has descended into drug-fueled bloodshed, Mexico City has transformed itself into an unlikely crime-fighting success story. And what’s more, that achievement has come amid a transition to democracy — a process that has often been accompanied by a rise in lawlessness in many other parts of the world. It was just 12 years ago that Mexico, a historically divided and restive country, ended 71 years of one-party rule sustained by rigged elections and brutal repression. In the years since then, Mexicans have watched rival mafias capitalize on weak domestic institutions as they fight each other and prey on the innocent for access to the booming U.S. drug market. Some 50,000 citizens have lost their lives in the resulting violence.

But Mexico City has managed to escape the carnage. According to the United Nations, the capital’s murder rate in 2009 was 8.4 homicides per 100,000 residents (approaching New York’s 5.6). That contrasts starkly with a national rate of 14.6 nationwide the same year; last year that figure soared to 19.4. From 2002 to 2011, the capital’s murder rate increased by a mere 2 percent; nationwide it was up about 47 percent over the same period, according to government figures. Where 163 cars were stolen daily in Mexico City in 1998, police say, 53 are stolen today. There’s a feeling of comparative safety in the capital. “It’s relative, but it’s real,” says Pablo Piccato, director of Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies, who researches the history of crime in Mexico City. People and businesses now move there from areas dominated by violent gangs. Once-ubiquitous pirate taxis were impounded and you can now hail a cab off the street. People use their iPads on the crowded subways.

Whatever else comes of this election, increasing the differences in political culture between Mexico City and the rest of the country, reducing their commonalities and undermining their solidarity, should be avoided if at all possible.

I have to wonder, though, if the PRI and the PRD can work together to prevent it.

And now — on to the election.

Posted in Andrés Manuel López Obrador, distrito federal, Election 2006, Election 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How the Future of Mexico Temporarily Paralyzed My Blog About… the Future of Mexico

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

NOW AVAILABLE for instant download! Click to find out more.

Days until the election: 23

If you want to immerse yourself in a future Mexico (and Los Angeles), click on the Luck & Death banner above to find out more

My blog posts recently went on an unexpected hiatus when, among other things, my hard drive crashed, taking with it the most recent version of my novel, Luck and Death at the Edge of the World, just before its publication deadline, along with all of my emails and a host of other things I foolishly hadn’t backed up.

There followed a mad scramble to repair the computer, try in vain to recover any important data, re-write and re-edit all the lost work, and complete the work that was already in line to be done beforethe crash.

The book got published, but blog posts had to be put on hold to make sure it happened. But a more interesting disruption came when the Mexican presidential election derailed my workflow at about the same time.  How?

Pancho Villa meets Guy Fawkes at Yo Soy #132 Protest

Pancho Villa meets Guy Fawkes at Yo Soy #132 Protest

A significant portion of the book takes place in Mexico and I needed to have a person on the ground in Mexico City to help set up a very cool Luck and Death online event that I have in the works.

I can’t give details on the event yet, but it requires that I have the cooperation of some outside participants — local businesses in areas where the story takes place — and they had to commit to being part of the event before I could finalize the novel for publication.

Some of these outside participants had to be businesses in Mexico City and to get their participation I needed someone who was there and who knew the local scene.

And I had such a person. He’d already been very generous with his time, giving me helpful notes on the parts of the book that take place in Mexico.  I hadn’t asked him about the preparation for the online event yet, but he’d been very supportive so I was sure he’d be fine with it.

So far, so good.

Then the election in Mexico suddenly got very interesting and very intense in what seemed like no time at all with the eruption of the Yo Soy 132 (“I Am 132”) student movement.  This is a non-partisan grassroots campaign demanding that the mass media in Mexico start functioning as  something resembling an impartial source of accurate information rather than as cheerleaders for entrenched power.

That sounds very left-of-center, and the movement certainly has much support on the left, but the participants come from a broad political spectrum of people who are simply tired of business as usual.  In some quarters it’s being referred to as “la primavera Mexicana,” the Mexican Spring, in reference to recent populist movements in the Arab world.

The name “yo soy #132” derives from a protest on May 11 at a university in Mexico City where a crowd of 131 protestors jeered front-running presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI.  He dismissed the protest as being “not genuine,” claiming that the protestors weren’t real students but outsiders who were planted by rival parties.

It was a dumb thing to say.  The students — because they were students at the university, not “infiltrators” as he had called them — then went on social media, identifying themselves one by one and showing their student ID, giving lie to his claim.

When the mainstream media in Mexico ignored their gesture, they staged new protests directed specificallyat the media, which have a widespread reputation in Mexico for pandering to the powerful, including the man everyone expects will be the next president.

And that’s when things really took off, as the students from the original protest were joined by thousands and thousands more. As my Mexican correspondent wrote me:

What innocently began as a demonstration, has become a movement, it has acquired life of its own. We number now in the tens of thousands, and the numbers just grow and grow.

With the slogan “yo soy #132,” each protestor declares themselves to be part of the crowd that the candidate derided and the media ignored — it’s an expression of solidarity, like shouting “I’m Spartacus” or putting on the Guy Fawkes mask used by Anonymous.  And since this is a campaign founded in social media, it’s also a hashtag on Twitter: #YoSoy132 and a web site has been set up.

Yo Soy #132 appears to have very quickly and unexpectedly taken a chunk out of Peña Nieto’s large lead in the race.  He’s still far ahead of the other candidates, but until now nothing had even slowed him down so it must have come as an unpleasant shock to the PRI.

To add drama, the candidate who moved into second place around the same time is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the guy who just barely lost the previous presidential election in 2006 (by about 0.58% of the vote).  That result was widely believed to have been the result of fraud, leading Lopez Obrador to call massive, paralyzing protests.

(I was in Mexico City at the time and one of most popular topics of conversation in the 12-kilometre-long tent city that housed the thousands of protestors was media bias, the very issue that’s blowing up now.)

So when all this happened my guy in Mexico, who’s a politcally engaged student, suddenly had to ask himself “do I participate in an important mass movement to improve democracy in my country or do I help this guy with his book?” He did exactly what I would have done and went back to the protests.  He contacted me and apologized before he left.  I told not to apologize and wished him well.

Which is all good, but it still left me in a difficult position.  I had a deadline bearing down on me and no one in Mexico to help set things up.

Enter Veronica French, a gringa journalist resident in Mexico City whom I encountered through my Once & Future Mexico blog.  (Veronica tweets at @veronicafrenchy and blogs at Urban Android.)

She didn’t know me from the next guy, but she thought the event sounded cool, understood the urgency, and immediately jumped in and got everything sorted for me.  Amazing.

So a thousand thank yous to Veronica.

To those of you in Mexico: lots of love, peace, and good luck.  I look forward to seeing the DF again.

And now my workflow can get back to normal.  Well, right after this one last video — watching this one to the end is worth it.

Posted in Election 2006, Election 2012, Luck and Death, YoSoy132 | Tagged | Leave a comment