Until a few years ago, I was beginning to think fantasy would never recover from Tolkien and his plagiarists: It was going to be elves and dwarves all the way down, driven by a mass market that would no longer wait for readers to discover quirky, offbeat writers.
Mercifully, I was wrong. We now have scores of high-quirk fantasy writers ranging from China Miéville and Charles Stross to Luis Alberto Urrea and the late Mal Peet. Now, I'm happy to say, we have another: A Mexican-Canadian named Silvia Moreno-García.
I discovered her in one of the fantasy/SF roundups in The Guardian, where I've learned about other excellent writers. Her first novel, Signal to Noise, deserves a lot of attention—not just from fantasy readers, but fantasy writers.
The novel gives us two key periods in the life of Mercedes (Meche) Vega, a bright young misfit in 1988 Mexico City who grows into a computer genius woring in Oslo in 2009. As a teenager, she doesn't fit into her school; her only real friend is Sebastian, an equally geeky young guy with a family as dysfunctional as Meche's.
Is this beginning to sound perilously like yet another YA novel about teenage angst? It's not, if only because we also see Meche and Sebastian as thirty-somethings still coping with their adolescent sorrows.
Those sorrows aren't just raging hormones; Meche's father is a DJ dreaming of writing a definitive book on pop music, who eventually dies alone in a grubby apartment jammed with thousands of old vinyl discs. As much as her dad drives her crazy, Meche has picked up his love of music, and stumbles on the power of magic through listening to a classic pop song and then seeing a school bully laid low by it.
I responded to Signal to Noise on both personal and intellectual levels. Personally: I grew up in early-1950s Mexico City, when we listened to American pop music on radio station XEL and suffered through the exquisite sorrows of expat teens at the American High School. We hardly knew how to make sense of our world until some Hollywood movie arrived. (The Blackboard Jungle, about inner-city juvenile delinquents, caused a major discipline problem at AHS when it first played in Mexico City.)
So it's nice to see that matters did not improve by the late 1980s, though the 1980s music was light-years beyond the early-50s drivel we loved on XEL.
Intellectually, Signal to Noise makes a point usually lost on North American anglophones: Latin America is a culture even more cosmopolitan than our own (because we barely notice the Latin Americans). Meche and her buddies are fully conversant with American and European music, as well as their own. For Meche's alcoholic dad, that foreign music is worth throwing away his life on—and Meche finds it worthwhile to try to turn his manuscript into something publishable.
So it's a witty and literate exploitation of our pop music to make it the source of the magic that Meche learns how to wield, if only to exact revenge on her jerky classmates. It's also a reminder than Mexico is a fully modern country (even in its violence and corruption), fully engaged in the world whether the gringos notice it or not.
Even on basic technical terms, the novel works very well. Meche's gradual descent, from discovering her power to abusing it, is entirely plausible. As the surviving father of two teenage daughters, I was sorely tempted to try some percussive therapy on Meche with a baseball bat. That's a tribute to Moreno-García's ability to evoke character, and she then shows Meche growing beyond her follies into someone we can understand and respect.
And what can other fantasy writers learn from Signal to Noise? Well, it tells them to ditch the elves and dwarves and look for the magic in the people around them. For Moreno-García the magic is in the music; it could as easily be in the annotations to the Torah in some Talmudic school, or an obscure corner of calculus that unleashes demons. As Leonard Cohen observed in his 1967 novel Beautiful Losers, "God is alive, magic is afoot."
Magic is certainly afoot in Signal to Noise, and other writers should pay attention.