Signal to Noise
Locus Award nominee
Aurora Award finalist
I think I’m beginning to understand how my parents must have felt when kids my age were into “Happy Days.” They grew up in the 50s and here was a weird celebration of their youth, but yet… not at all. Some writer picked out things that they felt represented the 50s and suddenly that was the 50s to a whole generation of kids who weren’t even born during that decade.
That’s not a prelude to saying that I thought that Silvia Moreno-Garcia got anything wrong with her portrayal of 1988, a year I was a college junior. It’s more that I’m noticing what feels like a trend–stories appearing during the decade I consider “mine.”
Ready Player One made the 80s into a whole gimmick. Signal to Noise treats the late-80s very differently. It’s just a stand-in for “when we were in high school,” and is treated both with more seriousness and less intense scrutiny. It’s not like 1988 Mexico City is being mined for its 80s culture, it’s just there.
It’s still weird.
To suddenly find stories taking place in a past that I was part of…. And, it makes me realize that I really should have been paying better attention to the music. Apparently, music was a big thing? I wouldn’t know. I mean, I was listening to music, but I had really crappy taste and my town was small and Wisconsin Public Radio still celebrated a lot of folk musicians. Ask me about Stan Rogers, not Depeche Mode, you know what I mean?
So, I felt a little out of one of the other key elements of Signal to Noise: music. Our heroes Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela are your classic outcasts at their Mexico City high school who stumble across a way to channel magical energy through music. How it all works is really hand-wavey–we get a sense that witches are just a thing, and they use different objects of power to make magic. Meche’s grandmother, for instance, sewed her magic. We also get the idea that maybe Daniela cooks hers in an Easy Bake Oven.
I imagine there are science fiction/fantasy readers who wanted more magical details from this book, but I liked that we never learned HOW it worked. The story was really about the responsibilities we have to other people and how what we think we want probably isn’t always what we really need.
Despite being put off by the odd feeling of reliving someone else’s sense of an era I feel I belonged to, I ended up enjoying this book. It’s told in a kind of circular fashion because it actually starts in 2009, and the 80s stuff is all further flashbacks. There’s a romance that I rooted for, and a kind of classic ‘getting to know a problematic parent after their death’ thing that resolved fairly satisfactorily or, at least, realistically in a vaguely hopeful way that reality sometimes has.
It’s an interesting book and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Memory Garden, which was on last year’s Locus ballot. It’s very similar, in a way, because it’s really about the tangled webs we weave as teens, and where the magic is real and present, but… quiet and in the background in a way that might frustrate someone who is looking for wizards with firebolts.
Also if you were actually one of the cool kids, which I was not, probably the musical references will make you very, very happy.