Book Review: “Signal to Noise” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia


Today, I bring your attention to an inventive fantasy by Silvia Morena-Garcia titled Signal to Noise. As a music lover, this book entranced me from the start (not to mention that the prose skirted the line between minimalistic and emotionally resonant). It’s a deceptively short novel and I could tell Morena-Garcia definitely took her time putting this piece together. For me, there wasn’t one note, scene, or music selection out of key.

Similar to Kindred, this novel alternates between two time periods: 1988 and 2009. While this novel doesn’t contain time travel and the time periods depicted aren’t worlds apart like those written into Butler’s novel, Morena-Garcia’s work shifts between moments in the same way our memory can transition between and recall periods twenty years apart (part invention and fantasy in itself).

The novel follows Mercedes (Meche), a music enthusiast who struggles with popularity and growing pains in high school and eventually becomes a renowned programmer in Oslo. The catalyst of the novel resides in the recent death of Meche’s estranged father, an alcoholic whose obsession with music is one of the only legacies he leaves her. Though Meche wants nothing to do with him or her own past, she finds herself in Mexico City attending his funeral.

What’s fresh about Morena-Garcia’s approach is that Signal to Noise isn’t a straight fantasy or even, really, what many reviewers would call a contemporary fantasy. The story isn’t so much about magic as it is about growing up and the hardship and emotional intensity associated with those pivotal years. Like the magical metaphors that Lev Grossman provides in his novel, The Magicians, the magic that Meche and her two friends experiment with becomes an allegory for the choices that define our lives and personas at a young age. Perhaps, something that comes easily to us isn’t always the correct path to choose.

At a recent writer’s conference I attended, the buzz word thrown around most (other than diversity) was “strong female protagonist.” While I am one of the staunchest advocates of feminist ideology and believe a good percentage of science fiction and fantasy lacks strong female role models, I don’t believe, as a literary community, we’ve truly defined that moniker just yet or, even worse, we’ve confused the definition. In fact, the “strong female protagonist” in a lot of novels these days, especially in young adult literature, gets involved with a male foil or hero. I’m not knocking romance, but I do believe it’s hard to believe in a strong female protagonist when some male hero comes in and saves the day. Most female characters I’ve seen depicted are marked as overly emotional, boy-obsessed, and selfless. These aren’t terrible qualities, but I have to say that they seem a little stereotypically prescribed. And the fact of the matter is that I’m getting tired of seeing love triangles sprinkled into every female empowerment story. It’s not enough for a fictionalized woman to be able to fight or make snarky comments or be overly intelligent if, at the end, she just falls for a guy or gets rescued.

For me, a strong female protagonist is one who understands herself for all her strengths and flaws. Who doesn’t take any bullshit and can’t been shaken by flattery. She’s someone who is on a mission of self-discovery and she makes mistakes along the way.

Ultimately, she needs to be the hero of her own story.

In a way, Morena-Garcia provides us with one such characterization. Both the adult and teenage versions of Meche are quick-witted, number-obsessed, stubborn, and emotionally discerning (note that I didn’t use the word “cold”). She’s even got a little bit of evil in her as she begins to use the magic that she and her friends acquire to beat up bullies. She struggles with self-image and, believing herself to be unattractive and unpopular, becomes guarded and develops some serious anger issues. She’s everything my teenage self can relate to (and even, sometimes, my adult one). While there is a thread of romance between herself and her best friend Sebastien, the romance doesn’t revolve around their physical attraction but rather, their history and friendship. This is a story more about Meche’s journey back to a place she abandoned, to a family she no longer wanted anything to do with, and to the possibility of reconciling old wounds.

Look at that! 600 words and almost no mention of the fantasy components. Essentially, Meche learns to cast spells through vinyl records in her teenage years. Sebastian and their friend Daniela provide her with support for casting trickier spells. As the novel weaves on, Meche becomes power-drunk and, fueled by her anger at her father, Sebastian, and the world in general, she begins to take her magic too far. She’s a vigilante, dealing out punishment to those whose infractions are overlooked. And even if she scared me a few times throughout the novel, there’s no doubt that she’s a complete badass.

While the setting itself deserves an additional post, I’ll say what I can here. Both the past and present sections of the novel are set in Mexico City. Morena-Garcia doesn’t necessarily need to describe every bit of Meche’s surroundings. Instead, she creates atmosphere through the Spanish songs with which her protagonist is obsessed, the depictions of familial gatherings, and Meche’s jaunts through the city. This place is simultaneously ethereal and grounded, a place where magic could truly be possible.

I think, as we move forward, we as readers need to be more critical of the female protagonists we celebrate in our novels. Meche is worthy of such celebration for me mainly because she is uncomfortably realistic in both her guarded emotions and her simmering rage at the world around her. We need to ask: What are their motives? Do they inspire change themselves and allow themselves to evolve or do other characters take the lead for them? Because I want to live in a literary world where female characters don’t need romance to make them interesting or relatable. Here, Morena-Garcia forces us to see life isn’t about romance or finding “the one” but more about the choices and mistakes we make throughout our lives that affect others around us and define our existence.