The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria
by Carlos Hernandez
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 29, 2019
The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria is a collection of twelve stories, the earliest published in 2006, with two original to this book released in 2016. In addition to his fiction writing, Carlos Hernandez is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York, as well as a game designer. He is Cuban-American, which informs much of his work. The majority of the main characters are Latinx, although not always Cuban, at least one is Puerto Rican. There are several conversations and some exposition in Spanish, but I only googled a few words, some I already knew or I grasped the meaning through context. It's a mix of science fiction and fantasy, with the fantasy, especially that of Santeria, described as if it works through a scientific method. Santeria is a religious practice prominent in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other Latin American countries, having been imported from West Africa during the slave trade. Its rituals are for healing or to manipulate reality through sacrifice or incantation. Quantum physics is the study and manipulation of matter at the molecular level. These stories help us view the disparate methods from a similar perspective.
A recurring theme is of family, or in some cases friendships/romantic relationships. Some deal with heartache, sometimes it's a special bond of empathy and compassion. With one exception I read these in the order of original publication rather than the way they're presented here, but I will discuss them by grouping them into four different categories. To start, the three most closely associated with Santeria, including the title story from 2009, which comes last in the collection. Salvador, a CalTech physics professor, is walking across campus when he almost kicks a pigeon, which causes him to recall the time in his youth when he sacrificed a pigeon to attract a new mate for his widower father. It seems to imply that the occasional reappearances of his dead Mámi were manifestations from an alternate universe. In 2013's "More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give," a man travels to Cuba because his uncle believes a Santeria priest can bring back the soul of his mother, who had been killed when he was two, executed by Che Guevara. The ritual does bring back a soul, only it's not his mother's, but rather that of someone else shot the same day against the same wall. It's not clear in "Bone of my Bone" (2007) whether either the man or his estranged wife said or did anything to cause the phenomenon, but what he originally thinks is just a pimple on his forehead continues to grow and harden. He can't lance it or pop it, eventually deciding it must be a horn. But how or why? His bewilderment continues until he gets word of his ex's internal distress. Somehow something missing from her body is manifesting within his own.
The earliest published story is "The Macrobe Conservation Project" from 2006, among a few that are pure science fiction. Set on a scientific research space station orbiting the colony planet New Hope, where a boy is visiting his father, the head of a project studying a parasitic species indigenous to New Hope. Almost wiped out on the surface, they are now being studied in orbit to determine if the macrobes can be reintroduced to the ecosystem and survive, and whether they might be beneficial to mankind rather than destructive. While he is visiting, the boy has an asiMom and asiBro, androids to keep him company while his father works long hours. His real mother and brother are on New Hope, or at least he thinks his mother is there. 2009's "Homeostasis" introduces a technology that will recur in a later story. A man suffers brain damage when attacked by a man interrupted while robbing a gas station. He gets an implant called an eneural, which is designed to replace his devastated autonomic nervous system. His wife has to deal with the sensation he's not really her husband anymore, but someone else, maybe something else entirely. New to this collection is "Entanglements." A man is devastated when he learns the woman he loves is actually married, even more shocked when he learns her husband has just been injured by an IED while deployed in the Middle East, losing both legs below the knee. He surprises her by saying she needs to focus on her husband now, surprises her again by attempting to mitigate their circumstance. He's a quantum physicist, working on a project called the Classical Information Aggregator. In this case, information doesn't mean just data, but matter in the quantum realm. He hopes to show them different versions of themselves in alternate universes, so that his lover's husband can live a fuller life by proxy.
Three stories could be considered science fiction or fantasy, a mix of both, or in once case neither. The collection opens with 2011's "The Aphotic Ghost." The aphotic zone of a body of water is the depth to which only about 1% of sunlight reaches. It postulates that a woman may not have died after giving birth in an ocean procedure, instead she may have transformed into an aquatic creature. 2015's "American Moat" reminded me of the recent news story of a militia patrolling the southern border in New Mexico. What if they had been approached by real aliens? They wouldn't be the best representatives of humanity, especially if the aliens, who present themselves in the guise of flamenco dancers, refuse to be referred to government officials. Thus Earth loses out on the chance to be incorporated into a peaceful coalition of planets. "Los Simpáticos" from 2009 is set in the near future, maybe an alternate world, in which a highly rated reality TV show entices people to contact a hit man to kill someone for them. It only makes sense if all the episodes had been filmed and edited before ever being broadcast, otherwise how could they continue fooling people with their actor hit man when they also refer the contestants to the police for prosecution?
The final group of stories feature the same character. Gabby Reál is a reporter for the San Francisco Squint, which I think must be an internet venue, since on one occasion it is stated her stories have millions of readers. Her first appearance, or at least the earliest story in this collection to feature her, is the one I held for last since I had already read it. 2013's "The International Studbook of the Giant Panda" was in the previously reviewed Future Fiction, also from Rosarium Publishing. In order to accurately report on a project that is trying to help pandas to mate, Gabby dons an electronic suit which controls an animatronic panda. She becomes so immersed in the animals' world she is reluctant to leave it. In "Fantaisie-Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66" from 2014, Gabby visits the widow of a famous concert pianist. The woman doesn't think of herself as a widow, she thinks the soul of her husband resides in the eneural mechanism he helped develop after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's. Gabby gets to wear a suit which is controlled by that eneural, and is able to play the title Chopin piece even though she would not have been able to do so unaided. She thinks the pianist's wife may be on to something, because each time the piece is played it is with slight variations, as the man had done on occasion during his career. In another story original to this collection, "The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory," Gabby is vacationing in England when she gets the chance to investigate the possiblity of unicorns in our world. It is theorized they are from an alternate dimension, brought into our own due to experiments at the Large Hadron Collider. Based on a synopsis of Hernandez's first novel, it's possible a younger version of this character (with a different spelling of her name), and the one from the title story, are featured in Sal and Gabi Break the Universe. It interests me even though it's a Middle Grade title, recommended for ages 9-12. I may read it one of these days.
This is a great collection, and I look forward to future work by Hernandez. It's clear his Cuban heritage and his family are very important to him, and that love shines through on every page. Quite a variation of subject matter, but the style is consistent. Clear and lucid prose which helps immerse the reader in these worlds, into the Cuban-American experience, past, present, and future, making even the most fantastical elements believable. Recommended.
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