“Prime Meridian” and Its Many Marses
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Prime Meridian” is about Mars, though not the red planet nor the Roman god of war. Instead, this story features a black-and-white Mars decorated with cheap studio effects, another Mars that exists only as a bond between a young couple that cannot survive the chasm of their inequity of wealth, and a third Mars that calls to Amelia’s soul from a billboard. Each Mars drives the plot and situates the story in terms of real world history, culture, and the history of science fiction.
In Moreno-Garcia’s near future, Mexico City’s wealthy exploit the despair of vast masses of disadvantaged youth in a hyper version of today’s gig economy. Amelia, our protagonist, abandoned her studies of urban agriculture to care for her ailing, dying mother and is saddled with ferrying her sister's children around in the bargain. Amelia calls herself a freelancer on her CV, noting it is a “euphemism for unemployed.” Her bleak possibilities recall Birdie’s options in Disch’s “Problems in Creativeness,” but what is at stake for Amelia is not the right of procreation but merely basic survival. At the story’s inception Amelia’s current gig is Friendrr, where lonely rich people pay her to be their friend for an hour, and her sole client is Lucía, once a “middling starlet” in 1960s Mexican cinema. From Amelia’s description, comparing her to “the core of a dead tree,” her house “artificial, too-calculated, too overdone” and her hospitality as generous as an infrequent dish of pomegranate seeds and glass of mineral water, our heroine clearly despises the ex-actress.
They watch Lucía’s second movie, dated 1965, which is set on Mars. At one point, Lucía says, “The real Mars is bland compared to the one the set designer imagined.” Amelia volunteers to the actress how she wants to go to the colonies. Amelia reinforces her wish in later conversations as well, but Moreno-Garcia underplays these exchanges, so the payoff at the story’s end is unexpected (at least to me it was.)
The author plants the story in the real world by amply seasoning the tale with Mexican culture. Lucía’s casona, for example, is plausibly placed in Coyoacán, the neighborhood where Frida Kahlo lived, where she was jailed after Leon Trotsky’s assassination. A wealthy ex-actress “who got lucky and married a filthy rich politician” who lived there certainly might decorate her home with colorful talaveras. Moreno-Garcia adds other recognizable elements—pulquerias, champurrado, esquite, rebozos, huipiles, and tinacos—but in Amelia’s world the pulquerias are being replaced by fusion restaurants, the huipiles are designer brands, and the rebozos are made in China. “Folkloric bullshit,” our protagonist opines, but these references illustrate the Swanwickian large, philosophical question of the story, the postcolonial effects upon the Mexican poor. The rich are free to enjoy Nahuan tamazcal in Peru, while the poor scrape by in purposeless hand-to-mouth existence.
Moreno-Garcia also reinforces her setting by adding real world references. Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Buñuel were active in Mexico’s film industry. In fact, Buñuel’s film Fando y Lis caused a riot in Acapulco. The producer of Lucía’s film, however, Nahum (Eduard) Landmann, is actually an inside joke, a reference to the “legendary founder” of Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar’s (who wrote the novella’s introduction) literary journal, The Jewish Mexican Literary Review (Tidhar).
In any case, Stanley Weinbaum (“A Martian Odyssey”) and A.E. Van Vogt (“The Enchanted Village”) would recognize Lucía’s Mars, because it is not Mars but “Mars. The moons are paper and the stars are tinfoil. So, it is possible to step forward [without a spacesuit].” The Mars of Lucías heyday is only for stories. It is the same Mars early SF stories were set, one for SF but not for science.
The Mars of the colonies is the same of the tender couple’s dreams, however rich Elías is bound to Earth. A creature of privilege, when he ghosts Ameli, he blames his father. Once he finds her on Friendrr, he transforms her into a willing, if unenthusiastic, whore. When she catches him in his stalking lie, he expresses regret saying, “I should have gone to New Panyu [a Martian colony] with you… My dad wouldn’t give me the money, but I should have done something.” Amelia compassionately offers him another chance, but at the story’s end, when Amelia announces her get-out-of-squalor-free card (Lucía’s gift), he chooses instead a boring life with Anastasia, the meat exhibition virtuoso. (“No offense, Amelia, but what do you know about art?”)
Moreno-Garcia’s story of income discrepancy is well founded in Mexico's current conditions. The author just tightened the screws already present a few more turns. According to its public site, Mexico City is the “eighth-richest urban agglomeration” and produces over a fifth of Mexico’s wealth, but its distribution of income is sinfully unequal. In 2010, Reyes, Teruel, and Lopez determined the truth was worse than the official numbers, demonstrating “the richest 1% of the population receives the same amount of income as the other 90%.” These people are rich enough to pay poor workers for an hour of cuddling, friendship, or even less savory duties.
Perhaps Elías did once dream of a life with Amelia in New Panyu, but when asked to choose, he chose the dream he already lives. “Cut the shit,” he tells her. “Come with me to Monterrey. I’ll rent a place for you there. I’ll pay your expenses.” He is offering her a long-term constant side gig until he gets bored again and ghosts her. Amelia, who despite misgivings of being a bad friend (though she cleans out her life savings for Pili), deserves more, and Lucia’s “shaky words… scrawled with a black felt pen” leave her no confusion. “Do what you want, Amelia,” they say. The gift transforms Amelia into the woman on the billboard, the “confident” girl who “knew things” (in numerous asides she recites Martian facts) and “knew people” (enough of them at least.) Through Lucía’s gift, she is ready for her final Mars, her exit from Mexico City. She may struggle, but after Mexico City’s grind, she is ready. The story’s satisfying conclusion, though the gift is unexpected, feels earned.
On Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s patron page, she describes her work as “magic realism, horror, fantasy and noir.” She also won a World Fantasy Award as editor for She Walks in Shadows. “Prime Meridian,” set in a near-future Mexico City with musical tattoos and “dancing, singing, 3D hologram[s] [of] teenage avatar[s] in a skimpy French maid’s outfit who… call you “Master” and wake you up in the morning with a song” recalls Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” perfect mechanicals, albeit with spicy upgrades. Read as a tale of a collection of Marses, it fits Zelazny’s SF definition too, but the story itself feels more like literary fiction. Moreno-Garcia adds a parallel aside, told in script form, which draws attention to the prose, and despite the protagonist’s enormous efforts to change her destiny, she is ever the target rather than the instigator of events. In any case, this is a thought-provoking story by a versatile author (Zombies!) and a fulfilling end to a semester of exploration.
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