Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Shifter, What You Think It Means

 Review: Emma Pérez. Testimony of a Shifter. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2023.
ISBN: 978-1-55885-979-1


Michael Sedano


Speculative fiction writers expect a lot of imaginative cooperation from readers in exchange for a good story. Readers pick up a book like Emma Pérez' Testimony of a Shifter (link), expecting  at minimum, to be entertained and, in the best cases, provoked into discomfort by satirical elements inherent in "what-if" scenarios.

The story starts in 2058. Set in a place much like the United States, in a world where people are born male, female, or gender-shifters, into a racist classist society run amok in the hands of "the Impresario", a small-handed caricature of immense power and pedophilia.


Pérez does a good job restraining a satirist's impulse to pile on the parallels between the  dystopic leader of 2058, and a television impresario running for president of the u.s. in 2024. The parallels are telling and won't be missed even in a fast page scan.


The author's exaggerations don't stray far from actual events, like rounding up shifters, caging captives, separating children from adults. Read "immigrants" for "shifters" and there's nothing dystopic about the world of Testimony of a Shifter.


Viruses and an ongoing "woke war" have brown and black people, most of them shifters, on the losing end of health care and repressive law. One of the book's most horrid scenes depicts wholesale slaughter of ordinary people in the wrong place. This is a world where armed rebellion offers feeble opposition.


Pérez keeps the story compact. Coming in at under 200 pages, the novel threads plots about sexuality, power, armed intrigue, and magic. When one or another thread gets unruly, the author relies upon the testimony of the title to transition into new developments and twists.


Testimony of a Shifter comes from a prisoner, a captive of the assassination plot that unfolds with the Shifter, who begins the book as Ben but spends most of the plot as Alejandra, or Alex.


Poor Alex. She's not attractive--that's still a value in this dystopia--but Ben is handsome. Ni modo (he she is bilingual which is a crime), Alex has friends in the highest places of the revolution. Those friends don't explain much as they lead Alex into some deep caca, and she has no idea what's going to happen.


Readers find themselves as surprised as Alex as the rebellion unfolds before their eyes. It's part of the fun of letting the events take over, and, with this topic, allowing the author's license to envision what physical gender transmutation looks like:

The guards had a kid shifting on a slab of metal in the middle of the room, where they got on top of her and started doing things to her. Ugly sex things that she didn't want but, soon enough, she'd shift and become a boy with boy genitals. Then, they'd turn him over and someone else would get on the slab and do ugly sex things, and the boy genitals would shift back to girl genitals. The White Guards would repeat it again and again. The guards prodded and poked to see how many times they could get a shifter to transmute in an hour.


Readers coming to the novel for lurid sex things will find passages to titillate their imaginations, but not many. Testimony of a Shifter isn't for that reader. Readers looking for contemporary speculative fiction that entertains while engaging all manner of political and social responses find it in Testimony of a Shifter.


I'm not entirely satisfied with the book's revolution. Pérez' depiction of rebel leaders as cold manipulators has a feel of genuineness. I'm satisfied the Impresario gets a pocketful of justice. I'm not satisfied the repressive status quo simply replaces itself and the rebels achieve no substantive change. I'm dissatisfied the author opens a magical portal to a different dimension and that's the only way Shifters find peace, by disappearing.


Gente, we can't let it get this bad. You don't have to read Testimony of a Shifter to understand the necessity for decisive voting, but reading the novel doesn't hurt, either.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Emma Perez on her new book. Seems like an interesting companion book to Daniel Olivas' recent speculative book, CHICANO FRANKENSTEIN, in that both depict the underclass as physically malleable: thus, unstable. Perhaps the tech-age way of denoting the "inferiority" that racists intractably impute o POC.