The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria comes out of nowhere, blindsides you with its witty play on language, and steers you into a realm of delightful science fiction which blurs present and future with fingers steady on the pulse of modern culture as it is now. Carlos Hernandez, in this one collection, has managed to convince me he belongs in my heart as a favorite. He has shown me how to boldly contort structure in short fiction without taking any hostages and in the instances he succeeds, the payoff is significant and rewarding, leaving the reader a beast contented after a feast.
Hernandez performs the ultimate vanishing act with his endings, which force you to reexamine both the story you just read and your own expectations, but what really stands out is his writing: a potent, flexible force, which can easily strike an emotional chord, as we read in “Homeostasis”—
Everyone loves Chase because he has big eyes. Those eyes are locked onto his mother. He says “Mommy?” every once in a while, yanks on Angela’s sleeve. To no avail. After today, he will trust the word “Mommy” a little less.
—or to elicit a hearty laugh in “More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give.”
The pig sat like a finishing-school valedictorian between Jesús and me, smiling and enjoying the ride. She was surprisingly clean. Fresh from the markets was my guess.
It’s this malleability of language and unbridled imagination which make his stories magnetic and satisfying, even when they’re no more than vignettes. Such as in the case of “American Moat”—the unlikely encounter between two redneck patriots guarding the US-Mexican border and two omnipotent travelers. This outlandish tale capitalizes on Hernandez’s lighthearted sense of humor and also plays on the multiple definitions of “alien,” finding footing in both science fiction canon and current immigration politics in the U.S. In contrast, the symbolic “Bone of my Bone” is quiet, almost somber, in the way it gives you space to figure out the transformation that its protagonist, Martín Esposito, undergoes and its personal meaning, even though the story feels unfinished in a way.
Hernandez cares deeply about his craft, and you can see his dedication to every detail and scrap of research. “The Aphotic Ghost” grounds itself in the real immortal jellyfish, which he writes about in a clear and confident manner before stepping off into fascinating waters. All the clues are laid out like a map, which leads you to the end before finishing the story, but all accomplished with subtlety—a refreshing quality. As an opener, the story sets the tone for what’s to come.
Nothing really prepares you, however, for the larger-than-life, you-want-her-as-your-best-friend, fourth-wall-breaking journalist Gabrielle Real, who surfaces as your guide in three stories and brings the house down. When writing in the mind and voice of a journalist, Hernandez allows himself to include highly specific and detailed research to pad his fiction. He’ll convince you that he must moonlight as a pianist in “Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op.66”, where Gabby finds herself investigating if the eneural of the famous pianist Vaclav Balusek possesses his soul. (Hernandez introduces the concept of the “eneural” first in the quaint but thin “Homeostasis” as a tech that images the mind of a person and keeps their neural activity normal in the event brain matter is severely injured or compromised. Here, it’s an exoskeleton.) Then you’ll learn all about how the Hadron Collider has brought unicorns in “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory”, and you’ll become the leading expert on panda sex in your social circle after you’re done reading “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda.”
The way Hernandez slows down the pace to unload his research is also a risky technique as it more or less pauses the events of the story to slip into brief factual narration. However, the information is vital for readers in the stories’ context and it’s easily embraced, rather than interrupting our pure enjoyment of the narrative. His brand of science fiction hovers closely over our real life timeline of events, as close as a second skin—so his ideas of mecha-inspired panda suits or exoskeletons retaining the ability of brilliant pianists are identifiable as an inspired continuation of our current efforts in animal husbandry to offset the disastrous processes of animal extinction we’ve caused, in the case of the former, and advanced prosthetics in the latter.
The stories I loved best, however, are the ones rooted in Latino/a culture, with Cuba sitting front and centre. I first got a little taste of this in “Entanglement” where we have a brilliant Cuban scientist ponder his identity as a Latino man—and in which we also get a taste of microaggressions in action, something I don’t think I’ve seen acknowledged in speculative fiction until now. It adds much-needed texture to make the world real without being heavy-handed about it.
“Los Simpaticos” is surprisingly devoid of a speculative element; here, Hernandez emerges in the role of a gripping mystery writer, but I certainly didn’t mind, because the sixty-one-year-old Desideria Ayute commands attention as she delves into the particulars behind the death of Xavier Morales, the star of Ayute’s reality show, ¿A Quien Quieres Matar? With the ubiquity of reality shows, the story brings expected preconceptions such as the ridiculous premise (people being filmed on candid camera hiring a hitman), but swiftly packs them away, moving on to surprise you with one of the unlikeliest gangs in New York and a guilt-riddled grandmother who’ll do anything to protect her grandson.
Speaking of incredible women (examples of which Carlos Hernandez delivers consistently throughout), “More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give” gives us Milhuevos—The Woman with a Thousand Eggs, and she’s not even alive, or the main character. We’re taken to Cuba on Pedro’s quest to commune with his mother’s spirit, but instead he summons someone else entirely. The story is a labyrinth of the history of Cuba and Pedro’s mother’s elevation to a legend, family relations and rituals for invoking spirits, all delivered in Spanish. I enjoyed the story even more for making me work a bit and perfectly representing how bilinguals speak, speaking here from my personal experience mixing English into my Bulgarian. The story is well-balanced, building in tension despite being the funniest in the collection.
This brings us to the eponymous “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria”—one of my favorites in the collection and a perfect closing story, encompassing Hernandez’s care with details and research (focused this time on Santeria), offbeat sense of humor, penchant for science fiction that’s subtle and somewhat unsettling, and skill at delineating complex familial relationships. It’s a wonderful, tender story filled with dimensions intertwining and just a little bit of animal sacrifice to give it an edge. I read it rapt as each scene unraveled and the line between magic and science began to blur.
That’s not to say The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria is without faults or missteps. “Homeostasis” felt slight in the sense that it read more like an exercise or a test run for a story, with a meandering end which didn’t deliver emotionally. “The Macrobe Conservation Project” suffered from an ineffective child narrator and for me, the story seemed to begin somewhere in the middle with the first half written as prep work. At the same time, the narrative shielded the particulars of the setting, which took away from the overall story. But these are minor bones to pick.
“The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” is a riot of a read, generous with its humor, and poignant when the aim is to engage the reader’s empathy. Animated, sly, and pure of heart, the stories pull you in with their charm and then surprise you with grounded scientific research, succeeding in making science fiction fun and exciting. Hernandez has a unique perspective on the world and you see it in his choice of characters, the situations he populates them in, and their endings. It’s damn refreshing.
The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria is available from Rosarium Publishing.
Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, he enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors…usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Electric Velocipede, Tor.com, Stories for Chip, The Apex Book of World SF and are slated to appear in Genius Loci, Uncanny and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on a novel.