Travelers of Space-Time, Set Course for Planet South!

Chilean writer Marcelo Novoa.

To speak of Latin American Science Fiction (or CFLA, for its initials in Spanish) is to take a spacial-temporal blind jump, as if falling into Alice’s rabbit hole of your own volition. We know so little and ignore so much about the topic, in equal parts, that our vain certainties will be crushed and we’ll swiftly sink into new paradoxes. Given my familiarity with the study of the genre, I can confirm that, if a few stigmas still persist regarding CFLA, we should discredit them once and for all, right here and right now. And these stigmas are: antiquity, literary quality, and zero global impact.

There is a generalized idea that CFLA has only existed since World War II, thanks to the enormous influence of U.S. comic books, comic strips, TV series, and movies that began to bombard the feverish adolescents of the Third World at that time. But, truth be told, traces of the genre already existed throughout the nineteenth century. Was this proto-science-fiction or avant-garde retro-futurism? These short stories and serialized novels, clearly fin-de-siècle, uniquely combined the literary currents in vogue - naturalism and romanticism - framing them in futuristic (if not extraterrestrial) environments, with mad scientists and protagonists marked by weighty existential doubts about the ominous destinies of their newborn republics.

And so, each country has its hero and its antihero. In Chile, José Victorino Lastarria, founder of Chile’s first Atheneum, government minister, and liberal, flirted with the genre in his fundamental work Don Guillermo (1875), which is now only read as political satire, expurgating any connotation of fantasy. On the other hand, Desde Júpiter [From Jupiter] (1877) by Francisco Miralles, inventor and polemicist, with its “journey of a magnetized man from Santiago,” did not create great waves in intellectual circles until we certified him as a veteran of space in the anthology Años Luz [Light years] (2006). In Brazil, the same thing happened with  A rainha do ignoto [The queen of the unknown] (1889) by Emilia Freitas, ignored by critics at the time but now revived by European feminist studies. On the other hand, Páginas da história do Brasil, escrita no ano 2000 [Pages of the history of Brazil, written in the year 2000] by Joaquim Felicio dos Santos, a serial saga that began publication in 1868, stands out as “misguided fantasy,” unconscious of its clear speculative slant. Even Argentina,  the exemplary homeland of CFLA, had its fits and starts: Leopoldo Lugones, the poet, politician, and public figure, divided his stories between mystery, fantasy, and science fiction, receiving the support of readers and the literary critics of Buenos Aires. On the other hand, Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg, a naturalist and science professor who published Horacio Kalibang o los autómatas [Horacio Kalibang or the automata] (1897) and a handful of other science fiction works, would be re-evaluated a posteriori by those who canonized him as a true national demiurge. 

I don’t mean to call into question the  literary quality of “realist” Latin American literature here - quite the contrary. Pantheons, canons, mythologies and varied urban legends nourish this extraordinary tree, whose roots sink down to ancient Mesoamerican cultures as it flowers among First-World collusions and the pre-modern youths of our nations, attempts at novelty that assail us every spring. But many names that belong in the canon in their own right will always end up cut off, pruned back by a fundamentalist hand, only for having followed that damned current of fantasy. The Argentine authors Borges and Bioy Casares set forth their own golden means. I mean, who could doubt that The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and The Invention of Morel (1940) are masterpieces of our language? And both should be categorized as CFLA, a petty detail often forgotten by academics and publishers. The same thing happened in Uruguay, where a text that is canonical today - La ciudad [The city] (1970) by Mario Levrero - enjoyed underground success, and once again in Argentina with Plop (2002) by Rafael Pinedo, winner of the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize; both authors would receive all the honors in the world, but only post mortem.

But popularization came, finally, from the 1950s on. Large-scale translations of major U.S. authors were published in now-classic collections like Nebulae, Edhasa, and Minotauro. And so the genre “caught on” in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, countries with undeniable industrial and scientific development. And magazines like Más Allá and El Péndulo would be followed and imitated throughout the continent. What’s more, the iconic Spanish magazine Nueva Dimensión (1968–1983) published abundant material from Latin American  authors, highlighting material from Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela in its eighth issue and dedicating its twenty-second to the work of Chilean author Hugo Correa. Clubs and associations sprang up in every country, often including academics who joined in the unveiling of this still-minor genre. A key example in the area of comics, El eternauta (1957–1959) by Héctor G. Oesterheld, attained a notable narrative density as an adult graphic novel, redefining alien invasion in new terms.

Up to this point, the genre’s narrative and contextual keys to the interior of the twentieth-century literary canon were still not well defined. The typical technological underdevelopment of our societies, in comparison to those of the English-speaking world, transformed this apparent deficiency into a characteristic trait of CFLA, particularly with regard to its tendency toward the soft, dealing with themes of social science, religion, philosophy, and mythology, in contrast to English-language science fiction, which tends toward the hard, dominated by hard sciences and technology. A.E. van Vogt, one of the classics of the Golden Age of U.S. sci-fi, concluded in his prologue to Lo mejor de la ciencia ficción latinoamericana [The best of Latin American science fiction] (1986) that the most marked difference between these two currents was that “Latin American sci-fi displays a greater literary quality.” For, if U.S. authors self-identified as “genre writers, by the genre and for the genre,” their Latin American peers did not work with the intent to create “science fiction,” but simply to make “literature,” with all the risks this implies. Was this the result of some notion of the aesthetic vanguard or experimentalism, or rather of concerns about rupture and transgression? Both: the differentiating agent of CFLA is its inextricable mixing with literature in general, free of oppressive cultural pasts or marketing battles, in an attempt to temper regionalisms and local codes with visionary vitality and originality, as can be read today in the mature works of José B. Adolph (Peru), Ángel Arango (Cuba), Hugo Correa (Chile), Angélica Gorodischer (Argentina), Antonio Mora Vélez (Colombia), Diná Silveira Queirós (Brazil), and René Rebetez (Mexico), among others.

At the end of the eighties, with the fall of the dictatorships, the rise of the global market, and the emergence of a technological ally born of other feverishly futuristic minds - the Internet - CFLA stretched toward maturity, but without understanding its internal processes in order to produce better solutions to its frequent disasters. Always isolated in the publishing market, protected almost to the point of asphyxiation by its fans, the genre spread mostly through the digital ghettos known as fanzines, blogs and dot-com websites, which were born and died with the systolic/diastolic rhythm of a growing body. Each country produced notable authors and titles, all of which were lost among trip-ups (delivered by all the other, realist authors) and doors in the face (delivered by the academy and the press in equal parts). Fables from An Extraterrestrial Grandmother (1989) by Daina Chaviano (Cuba) elevated the Arthurian myth to previously unconceived-of familiar and sexual variants. El oído absoluto [The absolute ear] (1989) by Marcelo Cohen (Argentina) unfolds multiple levels of reality into a fractured, elegant, and final text. Santa Clara Poltergeist (1991) by Fausto Fawcett (Brazil) anchors its seminal cyberpunk nature to pagan urban legends. La primera calle de la soledad [The first street of solitude] (1993) by Gerardo H. Porcayo (Mexico) filters the cyberpunk novel through a crazed, counter-cultural Chicano sieve. La era del asombro [The age of amazement] (1994) by Fernando Naranjo (Ecuador) boasts remarkable short stories about the distant future of our race. Flores para un cyborg [Flowers for a cyborg] (1997) by Diego Muñoz (Chile) sees the teleportation of a robotic hitman with an unexpectedly weighty conscience. ¡¡Bzzzzzzt!! Ciudad interfase [Bzzzzzzt! Interface City] (1998) by Bernardo Fernández, also known as Bef (Mexico), recuperates the best stories of an ignored (oc)cult classic. And so on and so forth with no end in sight.

The twenty-first century, the projected future par excellence  in so many novels and films, found the continent embarked on various identity-based, multicultural, transterritorial, and polylinguistic voyages that tear apart and reassemble bodies, ideas, and transactions. And with each new CFLA author who pursues this amazing journey, we discover instantaneous monsters of the genre who will leave no reader indifferent. The list speaks for itself: Roberto Bayeto Carballo (Uruguay) assembled his demential stories in a cannibalistic tome, Mordedor [Biter] (2003), and nothing has tasted the same since. Iván Molina Jiménez (Costa Rica) has given us successive selections of his Cuentos Ticos de Ciencia Ficción [Tico science fiction stories] (2003 to 2007). Sergio Meier (Chile) inaugurated the steampunk genre in Latin America with La segunda enciclopedia de Tlön [The secondo encyclopedia of Tlön] (2007), simultaneously lending it a hint of accelerated post-cyberpunk. Fábio Fernandes (Brazil) published Os Dias da Peste [The days of the plague] (2009), which drops us into a Third-World city jammed with nanoviruses, implants, and post-singularity AI. Campo Ricardo Burgos López (Colombia) wrote El clon de Borges [The clone of Borges] (2010), mocking notions of authorship, identity, and originality in the helix of a new textual DNA. José Miguel Sánchez, or Yoss, set the bar high with Super Extra Grande (2012), his outstanding display of cultural parody and spatial, side-splitting hermeneutics. Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivia) published his ninth novel, Iris, an almost-perfect example of sci-fi, in 2014. A much-anticipated book by Jorge Valentín Miño (Ecuador), Ayer será otro día [Yesterday will be another day] (2014), offers us brilliant, devastating stories that are funny to boot! Daniel Salvo (Peru), an online veteran, finally published his classic, previously undiscoverable stories in print edition in El primer peruano en el espacio [The first Peruvian in space] (2015). Laura Ponce (Argentina), director of Revista Próxima, a reference point for current CFLA, gives us an intimate, disturbing, and unusual collection with her Cosmografía General [General cosmography] (2016). All those present, along with many, many others left out due to my involuntary forgetfulness, sustain the vitality and strength of a genre on the rise, predictably... to infinity and beyond!

On a final note, those initial erroneous conceptions - a lack of tradition, low levels of quality, and an absence of specialized criticism - cannot conceal the genre’s evident virtues, even if the detractors’ gaze reduces the countless authors and themes of two centuries’ worth of writing to a stereotypical, caricatured vision. It’s true that a veiled conspiranoia still falls over CFLA, obscuring its greatest contributions, since the deluded few who work in the genre reveal what other genres don’t: the emergence of the mystery of otherness. No other narrative fictionalizes the impossible, the implausible, and the improbable as a strategy to reflect on socio-cultural realities as effectively as science fiction. This overflowing of otherness is the transverse topic that runs through the most recent works of global sci-fi, including our own. Whether addressing contact with extraterrestrials or mutant beings, mind control, time travel, space exploration, absolute domination of science and technology, totalitarian global societies, or any number of other dystopias, these literary works contemplate claims and thought experiments, many of them lucid, honest, and brave, about the complexity of modern existence and our fragmented, recursive future.

Concón, Winter 2017

 

Translated by Arthur Dixon

Languages

LALT No. 3
Number 3

The third issue of LALT features the debut of our permanent section devoted to Indigenous Literature with writing in languages from Mapudungun to Tzotzil, as well as remarkable short stories from Cristina Rivera Garza and Yoss, the rising star of Cuban science fiction.

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