As a part of the Sportula Special, our good friend Cristina Jurado reviews Broken Symmetries (Simetrías rotas in the Spanish translation) by Steve Redwood on her blog Más ficción que ciencia (which I strongly recommend if you read Spanish). She has been so kind as to translate her review for us. Thanks, Cristina! And hope you all enjoy this review.
The power of humor
Humor is a difficult device to use skillfully in literature. Authors, differently from actors or standup comedians, don´t have the help of physicality or voice intonation to accentuate comedy. As allies, they only have the ability of their own pen and the reader´s imagination, even though this one is a nut hard to crack. The writer can only control its competence to evoke laughter because you can never take for granted the reader's predisposition.
Defining Broken Symmetries by Steve Redwood -published in Spain by Sportula at a very affordable price-, as a collection of humorous tales of fantasy and science fiction would only be an oversimplification. In fact, of the twenty stories, the one I liked the most has no hint of humor. "Unto The Last Generation" is equally disturbing and beautiful because it presents a painful love constrained under the rules of civilization. Criticism of socially accepted ways is a constant in all of Redwood's texts, but in this story it becomes a lyrical lament that captivated me.
The story I less enjoyed, "The Monster of Madrid", is a corrosive caricature of the political landscape in Spain. In it, there are self-references, allusions to politicians of one side of the spectrum, and irreverent insinuations toward religion. In my opinion, it's too long and it abuses of satire and parody, though it contains elements that occasionally bring your smile. I prefer irony and sarcasm as formulas for denunciation, but surely there's an audience for this kind of tales.
"The Heisenberg Mutation" is an amusing story with a Kafkaesque air that examines the surreal side of human condition. Like in "Nose Trek", the protagonists undergo transformations that reflect their psychological qualities. The first story vigorously criticizes the wealthy layers of society, while "Nose Trek" is a caustic portrait of the foundational truths of religion.
There is a group of stories in Broken Symmetries mainly devoted to question Catholic moral, like "Hot Cross Son", "Split Decision" and "Bait!”. Criticism towards religion is another recurring theme in the stories by Redwood but, in this bunch, forms the core of the narrative. They expose the contradictions of Church traditions and the hypocrisy of their daily practices, coating them of a veil of terror in "Bait!”.
I think that religion is an easy target. In general, irony must be managed to prevent the text from getting lost in the burlesque. Redwood is able to do this with apparent ease. I say "apparent" because handling humor is more complicated than it seems, requiring controlling of the tempo and intensity of the jokes to avoid falling into clowning. Another easy target are bullfights, like in "Sanctuary", where senior citizens become gladiators. Society reflects about itself in an arena sustained by greed and disloyalty, a clear nod to the title of the collection.
The limits of human cloning are explored in such stories as "Age Cannot Wither Her", "Sacrifice" and "Family Values". The breach of ethical standards is addressed in a melancholic way in the case of the first two, and in a cynical and terrifying form in the latter. This way, the jokes containing references to psychological horror would be able to disturb the reader.
Most of Redwood´s surprising stories reveal the fantasy hidden in every crevice of daily life. A good example is "Cybersoul", which deserves a special mention as it mixes intelligently and seamlessly cyberpunk with a touch of biopunk. The shop specialized in virtual reality immersion is a topical scenario for an unusual interaction between the manager and a potential customer, who will receive an unexpected bonus in the rendered services.
The British author reveals himself as a true voyeur of life, judging by his critical view that delves into the existential wounds opened by hypocrisy and social games. The aforementioned story "Age Cannot Wither Her" uses voyeurism to justify an obsession that defies the laws of genetics. In "The Honor of Nastassja", a tribute to celluloid classic Cat People, voyeurism literally structures the narrative. The reader is immersed in a surreal atmosphere that emphasizes the alienation of modern men. This is what a serious reviewer would say. In my opinion, Redwood is unhinged.
I found "Jeanne" very interesting since it musters both Kafka and Nabokov in a fiction-tinged of hebephilia and entomology. Doing a little research I learned that the Russian-American writer was also fond of entomology and I wonder if Steve Redwood knew it. The story not only is reminiscent of the novel Lolita but also of the disturbing and insinuating movie called The Collector, directed by William Wyler in 1965. An interesting way of probing the borders between reality and insanity is to treat obsessions as taxonomic love.
Broken Symmetries addresses the ravages of guilt through time travel in "Going Back". Guilt is an extraordinary engine of conflicts that can lead to inaction or transgressed action. The tranquility of consciousness can only be attained by forcing the karma, as proposed by Redwood.
"Circe´s Choice" is a complex text in which different points of views block a compelling story with an interesting mythological background. I admit that I didn´t understand it and cannot pinpoint its goal. Some of its inner monologues were amusing but I am not able to discern the vision of the British author in this one.
In Broken Symmetries there is room for gender-satire as in "Two Legs Bad," a dysfunctional view of alien integration. While Burroughs and Bradbury described the adventures of humans on the Red Planet, Redwood brings the Martians to Earth and transforms them in beings more conventional than earthlings themselves.
I purposely left for last several of the stories that I liked the most. "The Burden of Sin" updates the movie The Highlanders and bows accomplice to the quasi-eponymous story by Borges. Redwood dares to tell the story in a comic key and surprises us in the final twist. The text is peppered with humorous references related to the globetrotting author. For a nomad like me, these allusions take on a special meaning, especially the final scene. The first person narrative portrays an absurd situation that highlights throughout history the cynicism of many social customs. I laughed even during the scatological references (do not miss the passage about the turds of India).
I conclude with the first two stories in the anthology. That's me: I always finish with things from the beginning. "Off the Shelf" and "Virus" portray men and women relationships from opposing viewpoints. If the woman is a commodity in the first story, in the second is the owner of Universe and the man is relegated to a sideshow attraction. In this story, humor scratches the crust of gender conventions and discovers the contradictions that lie dormant beneath the surface. Men can be objectified in the same way than women. Jokes with a naive air acquire critical proportions camouflaged under mockery and absurdity. This dual view of the same subject, this opposed reflection, works in the two stories at the same level revealed by the title: women are objects in a story and lead characters in the next. Perhaps not as explicitly as in other stories, Redwood links symmetrical visions not only about gender but also about cloning, religion, voyeurism, politics, mythology or human identity.
The Spanish version of the anthology does not include all the stories of its British counterpart, published in 2009. Redwood added some stories adapted to our national nature, reflecting his more than 20 years living in our country.
Broken Symmetries will appeal to those who appreciate the ability of humor to uncover Pandora´s boxes; unearth overcrowded coffins; enter closets filled by sharp knives; or dodge good luck. It is a weapon of mass “construction” unfitted for square brains which doesn´t match all tastes. Although some stories were tasteless to me, most of them opened my appetite. The less humorous ones fulfilled my expectations and even exceeded them. And every time, the branches left me see the red woods.
About the reviewer
Cristina Jurado Marcos writes the sci-fi blog Más ficción que ciencia on Libros.com. Having a degree in Advertising and Public Relations by Universidad de Seville and a Masters in Rhetoric by Northwestern University (USA), she currently studies Philosophy for fun. She considers herself a globetrotter after living in Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris or Dubai. Her short stories have appeared in several sci-fi online magazines and anthologies. Her first novel From Orange to Blue was published in 2012.