115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“A Higher Quality of Life”: Indigenous Routes to Transportation Justice in Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex

Nicholas Machuca, University of Oregon

This paper analyzes Sesshu Foster’s alternative history novel Atomik Aztex from an ecocritical perspective, arguing that the novel promotes transportation-related environmental justice by envisioning an alternate reality of equal access to mobility, transit-oriented development, and a universal right to the city. This argument engages the works of Robert Bullard, Ramón Saldívar, and Henri Lefebvre, among others.


Robert Bullard’s Highway Robbery reports American cities have experienced an average increase in traffic congestion eleven times the rate of their population growth since 1990. American cities continually face increasing demands on their transportation infrastructures, and unfortunately, many of them respond by widening their polluting, sprawling freeways rather than developing efficient public transportation systems. Most American cities disproportionately invest in car-oriented projects that maintain and enhance car-dependent connections between predominantly white, affluent communities and their work opportunities. These policies leave behind large numbers of people of color, lower-income people, people with disabilities, and more, effectively cementing these people in their current socioeconomic positions. Moreover, they contribute to rising carbon emissions and decreasing greenspace. This is undoubtedly a matter of environmental justice.

Most freeway-widening projects look to other major cities for inspiration. One of these cities is frequently Los Angeles, an infamous city for traffic congestion, car-dependency, and transportation racism. Descriptions and representations of L.A. rarely overlook its issues with effectively and affordably moving people of all colors and backgrounds. One particularly pointed depiction of Los Angeles’ mobility problems appears in Sesshu Foster’s 2005 novel Atomik Aztex, a speculative fiction novel featuring present-day L.A. as one of its two major settings. Throughout the novel, Foster criticizes the myriad problems of Los Angeles’ transportation options, highlighting the dangers of its freeway system and the limits to access placed on its people of color and poor by car-dependent city planning. Foster contrasts his criticism of L.A. with an alternate reality, an Aztec-dominated world that favors transit-oriented development and condescendingly looks upon automobile-dependent civilizations as inferior. By dramatically contrasting the availability of transportation options—or lack thereof—between American urban society and his idea of a highly advanced indigenous civilization, Foster details the problems caused by lack of access to transit options and envisions an equitable right to mobility for people of all colors and backgrounds.

In Atomik Aztex, Foster devises a fantastic alternate history as a juxtaposition to our reality. In this world, the Spanish conquistadors have failed to colonize the Americas, and the Aztec civilization has conquered Europe instead. The “Aztex,” as Foster writes, have colonized most of the planet and assert their dominance through ideological and economic hegemony. In his novel, Foster reverses the colonizer-colonized tradition of our reality, substituting historically oppressed people into the roles of the oppressors. The center of Foster’s Aztek Empire lies in Teknotitlán, the capital of the Aztek state where much of the plot takes place, and an allusion to the historic Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the center of pre-colonial Aztec life. Foster’s choice to imagine the unimpeded development of Tenochtitlán into a highly-advanced metropolis with unmatched “efficient and affordable public transportation” is not without reason (18). Historians frequently declare Tenochtitlán one of the most advanced city-states in Mesoamerica for its meticulous urban design. Due to the city’s isolated location and geography, the Aztecs focused heavily on designing the city for the effective movement of people and goods. Therefore, Foster imagines the fully-developed Aztec capital as the perfect counterpart to the poorly-planned urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Literary critic Ramón Saldívar classifies Atomik Aztex as a “muckraking novel” for its criticism of real places and events, most notably the plight of factory workers in Los Angeles. However, I argue that part of the muck Foster rakes in his novel is that of a dangerous, inefficient, and unjust transportation system.