July 11, 2007

Cosmic Caribbean Cowboys: A Review of Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell

Crystal RainOne of the delights in reading speculative fiction is recognizing themes that we consider important without the natural prejudices that we bring to the text. We want to be in unfamiliar territory, yet we also want to see ourselves in the adventure. In Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell, by staging his drama on the futuristic world of Nanagada, confronts one of the primary themes in Caribbean writing while at the same time subtly raising the issue of privileging and ethnicity in speculative fiction. In Crystal Rain, it's as if Buckell has taken the calabash of the Americas--its history, culture, and politics--smashed it, and recreated an alternate universe. In Buckell's world, Aztecas, following the urgings of their murderous gods, sacrifice innocents by ripping their hearts out of their chests. The gods of the Aztecas, the Teotl, wage war against the Loas and the Nanagadans, who are led by Prime Minsiter Dihana and her general, Edward Haidan.

In the midst of the battle, John deBrun, space trader with the Black Starliner Corporation and his sidekick, Pepper, lead a group of ragamuffins and mongoose men over the Wicked High Mountains to the cold Northlands to recover the mysterious Ma Wi Jung that will save the Nanagadans from the Aztecas and Teotl. Unknown to John, there is a traitor in the pack, Oaxyctl, a man who once saved his life, but who has been charged by his god to stop John deBrun from getting the Ma Wi Jung.

It's all great fun as Buckell weaves an artful tale in which the characters eat saltfish stew and say things like, "You think you go find me during carnival?" (54). But there is also serious play when one of the characters kills his god. Or consider the plight of the protagonist, John deBrun, who is plagued with the congenital wound of New World heroes:

A few more heaves and he was finished. He stood with his head against the chipped wall, eyes closed. How could he go on? Everything that balanced him was gone. No memories. No nothing. What was a person without memories? A child. (162)

For it is not merely in the language that Buckell shows his Caribbean background. Amnesia as a metaphor for cultural and historic rootlessness has been widely used in Caribbean writing and it informs the writing of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite. . It's also interesting to watch how Buckell cleverly slips in the neologisms and misspellings of Caribbean life and literature into the text--over the centuries, Brun's Town becomes Brungstun.

I really enjoyed reading Crystal Rain and my only criticism is that it dragged a bit in the second third when it should have been racing to the conclusion. But that is an editorial decision. For when a writer has fascinating characters such as John deBrun, Pepper, Oaxyctl, Haidan, Dihana, and a whole posse of ragamuffins and mongoose men, it's hard to leave them alone. That's where an editor steps in and makes the necessary cuts that will make the novel shine. And if the writer is smart, he will take the hit, cry a little, and get on with the work that will make the novel better.

I can't wait to read Ragamuffin.

This Friday!!!

I will be posting a very important interview/podcast with Kamau Brathwaite.
In this interview, Kamau Brathwaite speaks with Rod Semple on harambeeradio.com about his struggle at Cow Pastor, Born to Slow Horses, and his ceremonial re-naming in Kenya.


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