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Wholly Irreverent Holy Beauty: A Review of Carlos Hernandez’s THE ASSIMILATED CUBAN’S GUIDE TO QUANTUM SANTERIA

10255907_10208110816958859_5714001170563328498_oI wish I’d written this review last March.

Carlos Hernandez and I were barely friends then. We’d met briefly at Readercon in 2014, became the most casual of Facebook acquaintances, collaborated on a story in January 2015 on a whim, saw it was good, declared ourselves unwilling to stop writing to each other, struck up a correspondence, and became true friends (and then some) pretty quickly after that.

In those early months of our new friendship, I read Hernandez my collection Bone Swans: Stories, which was about to come out in July 2015.

Carlos Hernandez reads on Hour of the Wolf—at WBAI 99.5 FM New York.

Carlos Hernandez reads on Hour of the Wolf—at WBAI 99.5 FM New York.

He, in turn, read me his collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, slated to debut in early 2016.

After experiencing his book for the first time, back in March, I could have said, with very little bias–or no more than I have for any other writer in our small, genre-loving, literary community–and with all honesty:

“I don’t know the man very well, but his writing! Oh, boy. Let me tell you ALL about his writing.”

But now I know the man very well, and love him still more, and there is no hope of any lack of prejudice to rein in my hand from lavish praise or sculpt this review down to the pithiest of paragraphs. But I can start with the first thing I said back then in summary, which I kept all these months to use as the subject line for my eventual review:

“This book is wholly irreverent holy beauty.”

Now let me tell you why. But first, you should watch this. It’s four minutes, and it’ll give you a taste of what’s to come.

ACGTQS is a collection of twelve science fiction and fantasy stories. Most, but not all, take place on our world, right here and now–or maybe just a half a breath into the future. The technologies are plausible, the science keenly researched, and through his large cast of mainly Latin@ characters, Hernandez explores what it is to be human and broken. His characters are “people who have assimilated but are actively trying to reclaim their lives.”

And his characters. His characters. He doesn’t make ’em easy. “No es facil.”

12620866_10156499509145204_2081413353_oNah, Hernandez does ’em “the Cuban way: mix a few shit-jokes and pranks in with the heartbreak”–and as we follow them through their stories, we end up, like them, diced up, bleeding out, trembling on the summit of revelation, or at the chasm-bottom of despair, caught in that breathless gulf between sob and guffaw, and for all this–or perhaps because of it–somehow more whole.

Murderers and murdered (though with a technology called the “eneural” dead sure doesn’t mean what it used to mean), reporters, physicists, border police, martyrs, musicians, TV producers, teachers, faithless husbands, feral children (and aren’t all children feral, after all?), each character is fully realized, faceted as a fly’s eye, difficult, exquisitely complex, and so gorgeously, shatteringly human.

I have my favorites. “More than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give,” for one–a story about the consequences of sucking ghosts from a bullet hole-riddled wall left over from the Cuban Revolution. For another, the three Gabi Réal stories: “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda”; “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory”; and “Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66.”

12562676_10156499509080204_723777974_oWhen I first met Gabi Réal on the page (back in December 2014, just kind of out in the wild in a magazine called Crossed Genres), I instantly knew her for a friend.

Not all fictional characters are folks you’d want to go out for coffee with (well, Gabi would probably drink coffee; I’d drink tea), nor should they be. But Gabi is one of those rare fictions–a woman I want to be when I grow up. She stands alongside the mastercrafted science fiction heroines of Kage Baker and Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s quick-tongued, brutally honest, flirty, feisty, and she’s lived in the world and encountered its weirdnesses: piano’s possessed by their late players, unicorns from another dimension, and what it happens to be like inside an Ailuropoda melanoleuca.

What’s more, she’s reported on it. Gabi always has a story to tell, and something to take from it.

Plus, I want to go out dancing with her. She’s worth knowing. And it’s also worth knowing that there are more Gabi Réal tales to come, outside of the three you’ll be finding herein.

I’ve heard Hernandez describe some of his stories fairly flippantly: “The Aphotic Ghost,” for example, summarized tongue in cheek as, “My Were-Jelly story.” Or, cackling to himself, “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda,” simplified into, “Oh, that’s the one all about Giant Robot Panda Sex.”

Neither of which is…untrue.

But while such goofball elevator pitches might get readers to the page, what they’ll stay for is the zinging wit. The pacing and urgency and breastbone-puncturing adrenalin punch right to the heart of stakes that matter. So much, too, deals unflinchingly with the ferocious melancholy of loss, with gasping moments of drenchingly sensual beauty that surround you like the musk of a fully functioning animatronic animal suit and demand your total surrender.

12620703_10156499509075204_1089676914_oThis book flayed me, man. Pierced me right through, too–like a pigeon slaughtered by a child priest and offered up to some god in exchange for a desperate favor. (See what I did there? No? You will. Once you read the book.)

I do not regret becoming that sacrifice.


rosarium-musecc-the-peolpe-profiles-carlos hernandezThe author’s website

The Awesomeness that is Rosarium Press




When: Sunday, February 7, 2016
What Time: 6 PM – 8 PM
Where: Nuyorican Poets Café
236 E 3rd Street, New York, NY 10009





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It’s a Ludic Kind of Love: On Games, Dates, Playtimes, and Poems

9781495607394I’ll tell you something about my beloved, if you like.

First of all, he wrote this book. But that’s not what this blog is about; he wrote that book WELL before we ever met, so I had nothing to do with it. (Although he did read it aloud to me, story by story, and that was very fine. I shall blog more on THAT, later. My short review is: “Wholly Irreverent Holy Beauty.” Which requires some unpacking, I think. Story by story.)

This blog is about games.

Because if there’s one thing Carlos Hernandez (AKA “Doctor Doctorpants, Professional Professor”) is about, it’s games. (Except he’s about other things too, like all of us, “containing multitudes.” Even his Twitter handle speaks to his tripartite vocation: @writeteachplay!) And since he writes and designs games, among all the other AMAZING STUFF he does, he likes to play them too.

Now, I… I am not a gamer. I have gamer friends. I have occasionally sat down (twice, actually) with buddies at a table (once at a coffee table, the other time, we all just sprawled on big fat embroidered cushions on the floor) to play an RPG. I used to play, like, “Clue” and “Yahtzee” as a kid. As an adult, I don’t know. Do I still even remember the rules to “Go Fish”?

That said, the gentleman, he likes games.

And during his semester, he gets very busy. He wakes up between 1 AM and 4 AM to grade and plan class. He’s editing pedagogical periodicals, he’s fine-combing the ARCS of his forthcoming collection, he is sending me FABULOUS TEXTS. So. He does not get to play them very often.

PREVIEW_SCREENSHOT4_463278_1437744645So then I thought, “Why don’t we have a little Sunday afternoon DATE, with some PIZZA, and I could learn a bit about GAMES, and he could play something FUN, and it’ll sort of be like being a kid again, when my brothers all played ‘Frogger’ on ATARI and’Donkey Kong’ on some way-early-version of NINTENDO, and it was all super interesting??!!”

We’d intended that he play Fallout 4, because that’s what EVERYONE and their MAMA is talkin’ about on the Facebooks. But in the end, on GAME DATE DAY, we ended up playing two other games entirely.

We played “N++” and a thing called “Journey.” The first deals with ninjas solving puzzles and getting blown up a lot. And the second is, just… Almost indescribable.

Indescribably beautiful. The strange serenity of isolation, unexpected friendships communicated solely through sound not words, the ebullience and joy of an infinite horizon, ruinous depths and impossible heights, and gods who bend down to show you your life as written on the wall.

I say “we” played because, even though I didn’t actually PICK UP the controller, I was actively involved in WATCHING.

journey_by_kuro_mai-d5d32aqWatching is a TOTALLY plugged-in experience when one’s beloved ninja-thief keeps getting BLOWN TO SMITHEREENS in puzzle mazes (N++), or is a gorgeous, genderless, childlike desert-spirit skidding along sand dunes and riding updrafts of air with a scarf billowing behind it in the wind, all illuminated in runes, and there are pretty colors and interesting music, and, and, and…

It utterly excites my brain. It makes me want to play. I was not ready that day; I’m shy of new things. But I’ve been thinking about playing ever since.

All of which to say, I had the most moving, sometimes terrifying, sometimes oddly peaceful, certainly captivating afternoon, all the while engaged in a medium I don’t usually bother to give the time of day to.

I started thinking about things I’ve never had to think about! What makes a game different than a story? Different than film? What is happening in the brain when your own personal agency meets an alien atmosphere created by unknown collaborators; when you must abide by rules in a win/lose situation and you must learn those rules as you play; when you suspend disbelief and engage in pretend like you’re a child again, but you problem-solve like an adult; when death is so ubiquitous and entertaining it loses all meaning; or when death becomes, through repetition, a luminous and transcendent mystery once again?

Gosh, it was cool.

Hernandez and I write poems and songs to each other when we have time. We try to make time as best we can in these busy days.

That week, I asked for poems about his game experience on our date day, and he sent me these.

I treasure them. He gave me permission to share them with you.

Actually, Vicariously
by Carlos Hernandez

I kept dying. I’d land
On a mine and explode and
My head would bounce off the black pixel walls
In entertaining ways: even in death, physics is fascinating. Or
I’d miss a jump and the height of the fall
Would cause the sticks of my body
To fly in six different directions,
Artistic blood blooming to emphasize the failure.
Ha ha ha, I said: dead again.
Once more, then; that goal isn’t going
To reach itself. A running start,
X to jump, finesse the landing with
The joystick. Or not. Or dead again
And try again and so on.

I’ve learned not to take my death so hard. It’s just feedback
From a world that is, by design,
Forgiving of fatality. Try again
And die again until I don’t and learn
And move on to level two. But you:
Barefoot, dressed in morning light
And a diaphanous scarf that from the side of my eye
Were indistinguishable from one another,
Curled on the couch and watching with a cat’s intensity
My leaps and launches and experimental
Forays into unanticipatable reactions with
Robot enemies and springboards and homing missiles and
That tracking laser that was
Particularly frustrating, particularly good
At killing me–Love, you love me,
And even in this life of two dimensions,
When failure simply means reset and
Take another try, you bit your Venus’s mound
And clenched your whole body like a flexing bicep
And yelled when I died and died and
Only after remembered it was a game, so even
In this hypothetical space of play
Your love arrived and took too hard–thank you for taking too hard–
the hyperbolic suffering that’s only there in games
to make winning that much sweeter.

By Carlos Hernandez

My voice is a flute.
I want to tell my friend
That our insectival pointed legs
Can surf the dunes, and
It is such joy to soar over the dunes,
But the breathy tones that I generate,
Though pentatonically incapable of dissonance,
Could mean anything.
I long to be understood; it is
So joyful to surf the dunes.

The gods wear robes of gold and white,
Mostly white. The masks they wear
Have beaks that never open.
They are so large. They radiate a casual terribleness
That is wholly belied by the way
The circles of their eyes blink to serene lines.
I summon a god–the same god as before?–and the god
Reveals a fresco of my past and of my future.
We stand for a moment in wordless audience
With one another before the vision
Vanishes and I move on to other altars
From which I may summon more gods.

I am alone mostly.
The landscape is mostly dunes
Convinced of their own featurelessness.
There are markers that may be graves.
My life began as a falling star;
Was is wise to leave the sky and come to this place
Where loneliness is a kind of reverence?

I have traveled through aqueous air,
Flown on the backs of carpet kites as playful
As fairies or hounds, been attacked by the terrible
Mechanical dragon with the red cyclopic eye that shines
A light that hunts me, seen the scarf that is my life,
That holds the words of power, shrink to almost
Nothing. Now, as I seek the mountain, snow. Deep, slow,
Enervating. The globe of life contracts around me.
My robe and I ice together.
I freeze to death like a cricket in winter.

Again a star!

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