Science Friday Book Club: Conjuring An Alternate History Of Colonization
This is a part of our fall Book Club conversation about the short story collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By Writers of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl. Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or record a voice message as you read on the Science Friday VoxPop app.
It’s week three of the SciFri Book Club’s exploration of New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. This week’s story is ‘Burn the Ships,’ by author Alberto Yáñez. It’s set in a world that could be the Cortés-conquered Aztec Empire of 1520—but in this fictional version, the Spanish conquerors have modern guns, radios, railroads, and even scientific developments like vaccines. And as the Indigenous people are contained and slaughtered in camps, they use powerful magic to animate their dead against the invaders.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews and University of California Santa Cruz professor Catherine S. Ramirez talk about how a story about the past can still be science fiction, and introduce Chicanafuturism—a literary cousin of the Afrofuturism we discussed in last week’s conversation about Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House.’
We’re closing out Fall Book Club with a virtual, call-in celebration! Christie Taylor and co-host Aisha Matthews will chat with speculative fiction author and editor Nisi Shawl, on Monday, October 26. Register now!
Aisha Matthews is managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and the director of Literary Programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity conference in Washington, D.C..
Catherine S. Ramirez is a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’ve been following faithfully along with our book club, you know we’ve been stuck firmly in the future with short stories from the collection New Suns, Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color.
But this week’s story, time travels to a different place, a reimagining of events from the past. For example, what if the Aztec people had used magic to fight back against Cortez’s conquistadors in the 1500s? Hm, sci-fi book club captain Christie Taylor has more.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Last week in our ongoing discussion of the short story collection New Suns, we talked about Afro-futurism and how Afro-futurist stories place culture is stereotyped as primitive into multicultural, technological futures.
This week, we’re taking on Alberto Yañez’s Burn the Ships. It’s a story about an alternative history of the conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico. The Indigenous people are still being exterminated, but this time in prison camps by invaders called the Dawn Comers.
And a woman named Citlal is plotting to use magic to turn the tables back in favor of her people, this time by reanimating the dead. In the process though, she and many other women will sacrifice both their lives and some of the future spiritual gifts of their people. You might be surprised to hear that this too is part of a futurist tradition. This one, Chicana-futurism, which centers people of Mexican origin.
Joining me again to talk about this story is Aisha Matthews, managing editor of the Journal Science Fiction and director of literary programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity Conference. Hey, there Aisha, welcome back.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Hi, Christie, always a pleasure.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Always a pleasure. I want to start with genre, actually, for a second. It really seems like pure historical fiction. Burn the Ships, as a phrase, seems like a really clear reference to Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, which was in 1519. He ordered his men to scuttle their boats, they had no option to retreat from battle.
But then there are all these references to the invaders having technology that I wouldn’t expect at all from that century. We’ve got radios, railroads, and guns that seem a lot more advanced than the muskets that Cortez’s men had. What’s going on there?
AISHA MATTHEWS: A lot of people ask about the difference between speculative and science fiction. And I, in my scholarship see science fiction as kind of a type of speculative fiction. Where speculative fiction the point is speculating about how different variables would change the past, present, or future.
So alternate history is definitely a form of speculative fiction. And I think it gives us that ability, as you’re saying, to bring in technology that wouldn’t have otherwise historically been there and see how that may change things.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, and we’re also bringing back kind of another trope that we’ve covered in past conversations, which is this relationship between technology and magic. The magic is definitely working, we see a lot of zombies ripping apart conquerors. And its positioned as this kind of opposite of technology. But it still also has this kind of order, and logic, and a systemic nature to it. In a lot of ways, I guess it feels like the Indigenous characters are wielding it as a technology.
AISHA MATTHEWS: So I would definitely say that they’re wielding it as a sort of technology. One of the things I’d love to return to later is the characterization of the Dawn Comer technology as cold technology. This cold, mechanical versus living magic. And I think technologies like language, for instance, which are also a big part of the Afro-futurist canon are also really prevalent here, highlighting the ways that technology is not always digital.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, I would really like to return to that too. First I’m going to bring another researcher whose work has looked at futuristic storytelling, but in a different tradition, Doctor Catherine S. Ramirez, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Welcome, Catherine.
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: Hi, thanks for having me.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, welcome. So a while ago now, you coined this word Chicana-futurism, which may sound like something related to the Afro-futurism that Aisha and I have just been sort of touching on. How would you define this term, Chicana-futurism?
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: So Chicana-futurism is indebted to Afro-futurism. And Chicanca-futurism refers to Chicanx cultural production such as literature, visual art, music, performance that engenders cultural transformations by articulating, by linking and enunciating new and everyday technologies. And like Afro-futurism, Chicana-futurism is concerned with histories of colonialism and displacement. It explores a nexus of race, gender, science, technology, the environment, and the future.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So if we can unpack that a little bit more in the context of this story Burn the Ships, which feels like a story that takes place in the past, in a lot of ways, how is that Chicana-futurism?
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: So as Aisha noted, one of the tropes of speculative ficition is anachronism, alternative or alternate history, parallel universe, that’s what Burn the Ships is about. It’s a kind of parallel universe to the history of settler colonialism in the new world.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Speaking of sort of science fiction as a genre, Catherine you’ve been a sci-fi geek for a lot of your life. Is it a genre or has it been a genre that produced a lot of Chicana-futurism or works that you would categorize as Chicana-futurism so far?
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: So, increasingly, yes. There is a work that I use to try to teach and it’s called Lunar Braceros. It’s about these workers who are sent off to the moon to dispose of Earth’s waste. And there’s an uprising as well.
But around the same time, this film by Alex Rivera came out called Sleep Dealer, that’s what it’s called. And in Sleep Dealer the wall between Mexico and the United States has been built. And so these workers in Mexico work in the United States, but remotely. They basically operate robots on construction sites or in restaurant kitchens.
So the Mexican workers are doing the work that so many Mexican immigrants do do in this country, in our time. But they’re doing it from Mexico, on their side of the wall in Sleep Dealer. And this is the sort of fantasy of xenophobes, but also capitalism. It’s a convergence of these fantasies.
AISHA MATTHEWS: So that actually kind of reminds me of the way that the Dawn Comers are portrayed as there’s a lot of language of unwanted visitors, unwelcome refugees, effectively. And it seems like they were an intellectual curiosity when they first showed up, you know. I think they call them blonde-haired jetsam. But now they’ve become this invading force.
And so one of the things I found most interesting right out of the gate was that portrayal. We often hear it from the colonial side of things, of civilizing savages. But to see from the more Indigenous perspective saying, in many ways you seem like refugees in the way we are now. And it really makes you consider how we treat refugees.
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: There are many narratives of Indigenous uprisings, from Tupac Amaru in Southern Peru in the 1780s. And then also the murder, the assassination of Captain James Cook in Hawaii in the 1700s. And when Cook and his men arrived in Hawaii, they were welcomed by the Hawaiians. This is not an uncommon story. These newcomers are different, they spark curiosity. But then things went south and the Indigenous Hawaiians ended up driving Cook and his men out.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: There were some actual uprisings. And this seems to tell a story of what could have happened. It’s not one where we see the Indigenous people fully victorious. They don’t actually kick the invaders out. They do enough damage instead to sort of change the terms of bit, or to give them a bit more of a fair footing. But it’s not a complete, like, what if they had never succeeded sort of story.
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: So it’s interesting that you read this as, I guess, an incomplete victory. Because I read it as a wiping out of the invaders. But this victory comes at a cost. The women who lead it, they die. And they’ve also, for lack of a better word, made a deal with the devil.
They have aligned themselves with the [NON-ENGLISH], the goddesses of death. Citlal has also had a sort of falling out with the putatively good god, though. And she realizes that the god that was worshipped as the god of life is actually just as voracious as these goddesses of death.
AISHA MATTHEWS: It struck to me, the juxtaposition of that feminine magic which is forbidden, and the masculine magic which is orthodox. The history of the African diaspora is slightly different because, especially in the context of America, Africans were brought from various countries and kind of lost their history and religion.
So in a world where both are accessible and both are clearly real, it’s very interesting to me. And it feels like a way that is much different from the Western way of thinking of both the kind of balance of the masculine and feminine.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I did want to ask, actually, so going back to Aisha’s really good point about cold technology versus living magic, this also makes me think of conversations we’ve had sort of behind the scenes at Sci Fri and also on the air about recognizing knowledge systems outside of quote, Western science. And that all feels very connected here in sort of the cold versus the living. And these dichotomies of understanding.
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: There’s definitely a dichotomy there between Cartesian thought, Western rationality, and then these other ways of knowing, seeing, understanding, being in the world. I do want to talk about the cold technology though, just in relation to the science fiction genre. What makes Burn the Ships science fiction.
And so science fiction, historically, it was defined as this genre that focused on science, on tech, and in terms of race, African-Americans, Latinx were usually not associated with science, technology. In images of these clean, bright futures. This is very much a science fiction story, because it is about that cold technology.
Burn the Ships is also science fiction though if we think about science fiction as a genre that prompts us to look at our world, or our history from a new perspective by alienating us, by showing us our world, our history from a new vantage. I prefer that second definition of science fiction. I think it’s much more capacious and flexible.
And what Yañez is doing with Burn the Ships is he is alienating us from our history and our present of settler colonialism and casting it in a new light. And that to me, that’s the essence of science fiction.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder that this is Science Friday and I’m Christie Taylor, talking to Aisha Matthews and Dr. Catherine S. Ramirez about the short story Burn the Ships by Alberto Yañez.
My last question is actually from one of our listeners. Samantha Davis suggested that rather than being a story about an alternative reality or history, this might just be storytelling from a cultural perspective that differs from the Western understanding of what actually happened. Is this a useful frame for reading this story?
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: I think that it is a useful way of framing the story. Indigenous languages endure, Indigenous people survive. There are ways in which we continue to resist. I think we also have to acknowledge the gory history of conquest.
AISHA MATTHEWS: That ties in to the similarities between this story and a lot of tropes in Afro-futurist stories. In particular there was the idea that they’re still celebrating or still trying to observe their holy days in captivity in these camps. But I think the difference there is obviously the ways in which colonialism and the Middle Passage kind of changed the enslaveds’ relationship with their history.
But between that point where Cimistalin has been chosen as a subcommander’s bed warmer, effectively. And it gives her access to supplies and information, which is definitely a historical strategy. Firstly, women who were taken by their masters, using that to their advantage. And as I mentioned in the beginning, the significance of writing as a means to freedoms.
And so in a very real way, for Afro-futurism and for African-American history, literacy was a means of attaining freedom. Both the ability to forge passes that you’ve been freed and the ability to free your mind from enslavement. We still have that fundamental respect for writing as a technology of liberation. But in this iteration, it is magical, whereas in many it is more literal.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: How should people reading these stories take their understandings to the world as we live in it now? Should they?
AISHA MATTHEWS: The radical feminist movement, I think, would say yes. That burning it all down is the only way to kind of start over. But in the same vein, I think bringing to this the memory that the racial violence we see is not new. But I think it’s also equally important to tell the stories of the marginalized who fought back even at the cost of their very lives.
And in the way that we try to oftentimes whitewash history, or try to focus on a more diverse future, we often lose that fact, that people were willing to die for their beliefs and their culture. And I think if people bring that to the real world, it might help them understand why often people are so unwilling to let go of the past. This is the culture of our people that has endured.
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: I just want to paraphrase from the title of a story by NK Jemisin, the title of that story is too many yesterdays, not enough tomorrows. And I think that we need new ways to narrate our yesterdays, just as much as we need new visions of our tomorrows. We need both in order to build the world that we want and we need.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, that feels like a really good place to leave it. I want to thank both my guests, Dr. Catherine S Ramirez, professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Aisha Mathews, managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and director of literary programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity Conference. Thank you so much for being with me today.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Thanks, Christie.
CATHERINE RAMIREZ: Thank you.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: One last thing, we’ve got two more weeks left of our New Suns speculative fiction book club left for you. Join us in our online discussion group, subscribe to our newsletter, read an excerpt of this week’s story, and sign up for a live Zoom event with editor Nisi Shawl, all on our website, ScienceFriday.com/BookClub.
And stay tuned for next week, when we read The Shadow We Cast Through Time, by a Indrapramit Das. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.