Author: Sesshu Foster
Publisher: City Lights Publishing
Publication Date: 2005

Sesshu Foster’s oracular Atomik Aztex is a novel of alternate history that posits the existence of an America where the Spanish conquistadors didn’t conquer Mexico, thus turning the Aztecs into a major world power. The what-if postulation allows the author to puncture a comfortable view of mainstream history, in which it’s all too easy to sever the past from the present.

The protagonist of the book is Zenzontli, Keeper of the House of Darkness of the Aztex, who has disturbing visions of endless work in a slaughterhouse in a world—our world—where European culture became ascendant. As he shuttles between two realities, and as they draw closer and closer together, the journeys themselves transcend moral judgment—or at least, any easy reckoning of it. Aztecs are called in to help with the Battle of Stalingrad, and Zenzontli’s Jaguar Unit has a series of harrowing experiences on one of the most horrific battlefields in human history.

But the “mundane” part of the book isn’t exactly devoid of struggle either. The pork processing plant where Zenzontli works becomes a nightmarish zone of routine slaughter, depicted in a tone that is simultaneously clinical and breezy. And yet, attuned to the rhythms of hard work, there is no wallowing in pity. When our protagonist leads the unionization of the slaughterhouse, the two realities are separate at first, but as conflict with management comes to a head, the Aztek and slaughterhouse worlds begin to become superimposed on each other.

The language of Atomik Aztex is incantatory and molten, with long italicized sections providing the connective tissue between the two worlds. Foster also smartly pulls in contemporary politics—even though much of the book is set in the 1940s, it stands as a critique of linear time—and throughout, there is ironic and sly commentary about how Aztek subjugation of the Americas has prevented the horrific visions of a European-dominated continent. Foster doesn’t pull punches regarding the Aztek keeping of slaves, and doesn’t sugarcoat the human sacrifices on a macro scale; indeed, in Stalingrad, the raiding parties attempt to capture, not kill, the Nazis for later sacrifice, part of the “scientifik” order that promotes a globalized strategy of subjugation.

As this suggests, Zenzontli’s experiences are hardly utopian or idyllic, and he is forced to confront the petty corruption, barbarism, and venality of his peers. But before we can linger too long on that world, we’re back in the American slaughterhouse, forced to confront the “teknospiritual innovations” of mass industrialism and bacon making. In the end, Atomik Aztex is an unfailing, visceral, even courageous reminder that the Other is impossibly close. It’s embedded into the cultures we know, the cultures we think we know, and the cultures that we choose to forget.

This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi in 2006, and represented here with Alan DeNiro’s permission.

Alan DeNiro is the author of a story collection, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead (Small Beer Press) and Total Oblivion, More or Less (Bantam). He is the co-editor of Rabid Transit Press, which released its first volume in the Electrum Novella Series, The Sun Inside by David Schwartz.