I really wanted to like Redshift and Portalmetal by micha cárdenas. The ominous opening line—”Your planet is dying”—had me hooked. I was eager to finally read a piece about the existential threat of climate change, which is already impacting marginalized communities around the globe. I also loved the background image of an oddly prescient red sky; it reminded me of photographs from this year’s wildfires, during which California was bathed in extra-terrestrial orange light. The scenery changed to more breathtaking photographs as I moved from the barren, freezing landscapes of the Ice Planet back to the rocky, open deserts of the protagonist’s home planet.
As I read, I learned about intriguing sci-fi concepts, like the titular “Portalmetal,” or jewelry that connects wearers to their ancestors. I got caught in a few loops, and after running through the piece twice, I realized that my choices didn’t change the story’s outcome. Each time, I ended up at the “Spell for Decolonial Time Travel,” which reads like a prayer that humanity will not repeat its imperialist mistakes when leaving Earth to explore new worlds and create new societies.
I wanted to like how all of these witchy, futuristic concepts point to the way our flawed society recklessly destroys the environment and abuses marginalized peoples, but cárdenas’s writing style just wasn’t compelling to me. Previously, I’ve expressed my doubts about the literary value of some of the pieces we’ve read (e.g., Icarus Needs, Bots, Trope). My skepticism of those pieces was driven by their lack of deeper meaning and their focus on experimental style over thematic substance.
After reading Redshift and Portalmetal, I have the opposite complaint. This piece clearly touches on powerful themes—climate change, colonialism, marginalized peoples, etc.—but in my opinion, the prose and poetry lack artistry. It’s not enough for good literature to have a deeper meaning; the writer must also have a strong command of the language and be able to engage readers emotionally. Personally, I think Redshift is missing that ineffable (and admittedly subjective) quality of good writing that sets timeless literature apart.
There are a few passages that are on the cusp between flat text and powerful prose, such as a paragraph about the narrator choosing to see the transformative power of Western medicine—despite its historic whiteness—as magic. Cárdenas writes, “This doctor was going to stop the parts of her brain that were conscious, just long enough to put two pieces of earth into her chest, near her heart, and give her the body she envisioned.” I would’ve loved to see more touching, personal passages like this one, which powerfully connects the protagonist to her home planet while attempting to reconcile her trans identity with a patriarchal society. In general, though, Redshift is lacking the artistic, compelling, subtle wordplay and figurative language that make me love literature.
RedRidingHood by Donna Leishman is also missing a few literary qualities. In this modern day retelling of the classic fairy tale, funky music blares over bright Flash animations that blur the line between cute and creepy. The protagonist’s poppy induced dreams and delirium left me feeling confused and a little disturbed, but the scariest scene occurred after Red Riding Hood awoke in a dark bedroom with a wriggling fetus in her stomach. I have a lot of questions about how and why she ended up there, and I’m not sure if I want any of them answered.
The unsettling vibes this piece gives off made me oddly nostalgic for my middle school days, when creepy Flash animations like Salad Fingers went viral. (Fair warning: Salad Fingers is way creepier than RedRidingHood, so click at your own risk.) Ultimately, though, I’m not sure how this piece—which lacks actual text—counts as literature. If anything, I’d classify it as visual art instead.
It’s likely that both of this week’s pieces just went way over my head, or maybe I need to be more open minded about what constitutes literature. Either way, both readings left me feeling a little disappointed and incredibly confused.