Leaving Behind Reality's Ruins: Following the Digital Tracks of Latin American Cyberpunk


Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash.

Today, we can point to a rising practice in digital trade, something that we shall call “consensual confusion.” It searches corners of the web where the cultural market is shielded against mass consumption, there identifying unusual, sensitive nodes. It proceeds to divide them into isolated landmarks, thus returning them to the arena covered by the unbreakable gauze of “trendiness.” Thereafter, millions of users - allergic to traditional publicity - receive them without feeling confused, or worse, forced. Their satisfaction - or rejection - rejection still remains at hands' length, just a click away. One must not doubt, therefore, the aesthetic and programmatic impact of cyberpunk in Latin American culture, from the nineties into the millennium. Because if said community was once seen as a passive consumer of First World cultural products - comics, movies, music, video games or multimedia platforms - today we are an inevitable part of the high-tech melting pot. There, our liquid modernity is fried over the fire, with no care for where we are, or even less, where we are from.

Even though the literary cyberpunk movement in North America considered itself a “new genre” in the eighties, it only managed to maintain that status until 2000. What innovation did it represent to the core of science fiction in order to become so popular, and worthy of commercial plagiarism? Firstly, and clearly, it was its understanding of the malaise of the time (a global turn towards fascism carried out by Reagan, Thatcher, and the Latin American dictatorships, politically, but also, the imminent collision course between the unstable economies of the non-existent Third World microclimates). Likewise, all of the cyberpunk novels and short stories exhibited the peculiarity of being set in cities the size of small countries, or in directly dystopian worlds. Nevertheless, it was not just a matter of extrapolating upon totalitarianisms (a product of the Cold War), or describing fiercely centralized societies. Rather, they placed their neo-postwar protagonists (thieves, outsiders, losers) in the muddy alleyways and crammed ghettos of the mega-city, confronting formidable corporations with brand new, multi-platform guerrilla informational tactics. They went to the middle of the new urban tribes - in a perpetual state of decomposition - knowing that their destinies were governed by unknown strands of capital and pointed technology (the cybernetics, genetics, robotics and all of the arms race paraphernalia that exists behind the voters' backs in dark underground laboratories, like a wretched allegory of the superpowers' arrogant paranoia).

In “El cyber punk, una deconstrucción de la realidad: Apuntes sobre un posible ‘neo ciber-punk cubano’” [Cyberpunk, a deconstruction of reality: notes on a possible ‘neo-Cuban cyberpunk’], Erick J. Mota, the author of Habana underwater, a post-cyberpunk version of modern Cuba, explains: “Cyberpunk built upon the fears of North American society in the middle of cold war. The fear of a hot war, and worse still, of losing it and becoming poor and dependent upon a foreign capital. The fear of returning to a neo Great Depression. The fear that the political power of democracy would succumb to the money of foreign corporations. The fear of rising Japanese corporations. The fear of being governed by a foreign economic power that belongs to a strange, far-away culture left resentful by two atomic bombs. (Cyberpunk) recreates an environment of post-apocalyptic economics, that used to work in readers as a reflection of their fears for reality.”

The novels and short stories of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Pat Cardigan distanced themselves from orthodox science fiction in order to join a sharp school of prose bordering urban poetry. They were worthy of the detective genre classics but set in in an unrecognizable and not-so-distant future. All the while, they intentionally rejected the cult of science and well-meaning technology of their predecessors. Classic cyberpunk was not a merely a study on the dangers of computation (even though it would definitively give rise to that quasi-illegal subculture of users now known as hackers). It reflected a mutating zeitgeist in the broken mirror of reality as if it were made up of fractal holograms from a fierce, contiguous time. It even managed to foreshadow its predecessors with key figures such as George Orwell, Alfred Bester, William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick; the imagination of the latter was immortalized in the film Blade Runner (1982). Its obsessive zeal for the for the growing Japanese wave would help to model Japanese neo-cyberpunk. Artists such as Katsuhiro Otomo and Masumure Shirow, seduced by the visual reaches of the genre, put their army of illustrators and animators to work creating what has been known up until the present day as the “cyberpunk aesthetic” in up and coming mangas and animes.

And so, with the beginning of a new millennium, the audacious promise of a genuine literary movement trickled into hardly a subgenre; from there to the aestheticized mainstream, it was just a step away. Later, books that were copied to the point of becoming clichés, together with comics and low budget films sporting the poorest of writing froze their strange poetry and rough millenarianism into empty winks, alluding to a simplistic future. This brought them uncomfortably into the museum of literary experiments with expiration dates. In reality, from the earliest times until the present moment, they travel diluted in juvenile slang, transmuted in “borderline” art, still nourishing computer dialects reverberating as background noise to so many social genre theses and technological impacts on bodies and all of the other factors that we shall summarily name here, “cyber culture.” We must not forget, however, the contingency protocols regarding the ever-more-real autonomy of AIs.

So, does something called Latin American cyberpunk exist, or not?

It must be noted that we shall find with a handful of pioneering works insertions into the codes and keys of the genre. These, however, have unusual stylistic and linguistic variants from every country and geographical region (jerga, slang, or newly-stamped lunfardo), elements that we will not encounter in the rest of local science fiction, which seeks to be neutral and balanced while at the same time trying to dazzle us with unforeseen societies or artefacts. Thus, they will rewrite their textual modality, constantly intercepting the great fantastic tradition and satisfying it with the industrial byproducts of an unresolved modernity. This would result in hyperventilation over the precarious notions as to how beneficent globalization ought to be; only cyberpunk written from Latin America was interested in its thorough disinflation. Therefore, in the middle of the nineties, this fledgling movement was made manifest by rebellious, young, interdisciplinary creators that collaborated on the proliferation of fanzines, e-zines, magazines and websites from Mexico to Argentina. Passing by Cuba, they concentrated the greatest contributions to the genre, after gathering other furtive vectors from the Latin American science fiction map, like Chile and Bolivia.

Latin America did indeed read an unexpected singularity within the purview of Anglo letters upon immediately recognizing the lights and shadows of this post-any-war-misery that was so well described in germinal gringa novels. I am thinking about Neuromante [Neuromancer] (1984), Mirrorshades (1988) or Snowcrash (1989). These reached our readers by way of fanzines that copied them without permission, with improvising translators uploading their free versions to the web. They also utilized that noble “witches' mail” that is and has been the generous Latin fandom community, interpreting all of it as hyper-realism or magical naturalism 2.0. And so, they copied, deforming and folding the originals into implausible shapes, with the conviction that they were beginning to recognize the strange, terrifying spirit of neo millenarianism. It is as Erick J. Mota says: “In any case, Latin America separates itself from the mainstream of science fiction, determined - until now - by their Anglo creators. They offer a cyberpunk with shamans, controlled exorcisms, military mediums and Ouija boards. A new mystical-computing-hard proposal. Something different, conceived of conceived of by Hispanic authors. An approach from a different lens, including a contribution to science fiction.” This parallels what is occurring with novels that are as yet invisible from our own stomping grounds: Elei (1988), by Leonardo Gaggero, a Chilean, in which he presents his own take on Nova Express (1964), by William Burroughs. The difference? He revisits the tale in the setting of a banana republic, as if it were “an underground comic.”

The other novels and brief narratives that are better known by both students and readers alike include: Santa Clara Poltergeist (1991), by the Brazilian polyglot Fausto Fawcet, set in a feverish, decadent and futuristic Copacabana; La Primera Calle de la Soledad [Solitude’s first road] (1993), by the Mexican author Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, which warns of the emergence of dangerous new religious sects; Latinoamérica 2025 [Latin America 2025] (1994), by the Bolivian author Fernando Aracena Cejas (under the pseudonym Carlos Nova), in which he installs his young, cybernetic guerrilla against totalitarian puppet governments under the command of mega-corporations; or the unprecedented essay, Realidad virtual y cultura cyberpunk [Virtual reality and cyberpunk culture] (1995), by a Cuban author ever-ahead of his time, Raúl Aguiar. We also mustn't fail to mention the rest of the Mexican cyber team, with its collections of short stories: Pepe Rojo's Yonke (1998), Bernardo Fernández Bef's ¡Bzzzzzzzt! Ciudad Interfase [Bzzzzzzz! Interface City] (1998) and Gerardo Sifuentes' Perro de Luz [Light dog] (1998), in which the veil is drawn back from the misery of the turn of the century in order to break the binary codes of the well-intentioned safes that have always belonged to the powerful.

The twenty-first century brought us new bytes in archaic chips (or vice versa) in the accelerated kaleidoscope of augmented reality. Let us begin with Sueños Digitales [Digital dreams] (2000), by Bolivian author Edmundo Paz Soldán. He speaks to us about a techno-fetish, the visual manipulation and historical truths touched up by photo shop. Ejecútese el Mañana [Let tomorrow take care of itself] (2000) by the Ecuadorian author J.D. Santibáñez, is a hard, politically incorrect neo thriller. Donde yo no estaba [Where I wasn't] (2001) by the Argentine Marcelo Cohen shows us a post-apocalyptic world that has degenerated into non-lineal time; Niños de Neón [Neon children] (2001) and Dioses de Neón [Neon gods] (2006} by Cuban author Michel Encinosa Fú makes us lose our footing just as it extols us amongst enormous shanty towns of Ofidia, his hallucinated new Antilles. Ygdrasil (2005), by the Chilean author Jorge Baradit, opportunely expands its intertextual contagions of pop culture and cyber- shamanism. Postales del Porvenir: La literatura de anticipación en la Argentina neoliberal (1988-1995) [Postcards from the future: anticipatory literature in neoliberal argentina (1988-1995)] by academic Fernando Reati belatedly identifies in certain post-apocalyptic novels from his country a well-aimed criticism of the present neoliberal system. Gel Azul [Blue gel] (2007), by Mexican writer Bernardo Fernández Bef, takes issue with the new artificial paradises of virtual reality; La Segunda Enciclopedia de Tlön [The second encyclopedia of Tlön] (2007) by the great Chilean author Sergio Meier annotates penetrating field notes about the esoteric implications of building virtual cathedrals in parallel universes. Nova de cuarzo [Quartz nova] (2001) and Hipernova [Hypernova] (2012), both by the Cuban writer Vladimir Hernández, dismantle the dark militaristic delight of cyberspace games, which he writes about with great lucidity. Ideva: Liberación [Ideva: liberation] (2016) by Chilean author Matías Garretón inserts biopunk into the equation of poor masses + totalitarian regime = experimentation with AIs to the boiling point. Returning to one of the pioneers, Plasma Exprés [Plasma express] (2016) by Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, envisions a Mexico City that is sinking and flooding, where unknown urban tribes, even more harmful than their neo millenarian sects from twenty years prior, are flourishing.

We must not forget to mention here the magnificent stories in Primera línea [First line] (1983), by Carlos Gardini, who is considered to be the harbinger of cyberpunk aesthetic in Argentina. At the time, he began the fictionalization of the war for the Malvinas, transfiguring in the shadows behind the throne of porteño anticipation. Today, the new litter of rioplatense authors will retake the genre, making it their own upon similarly putting together their digital imaginations, just as they do in ¿Sueñan los gauchoides con ñandúes eléctricos? [Do the gaucho-oids dream about electric ostriches?] (2013). These stories, by Argentine author Michel Nieva, turn a deaf ear to tradition in order to distort it into an outlandish advance forward; Los Cuerpos del Verano [The bodies of summer] (2013) by Martín Felipe Castagnet, considers souls, as they are reincorporated into anonymous bodies only to end up in the middle of new vendettas, following decades of “flotation” on the internet; Cría Terminal [Terminal offspring] (2014), by Germán Maggiori, is a colorful look into the prohibited world, near the place where we leave happy; El Recurso Humano [The human resource] (2014), by Nikolás Mavrakis, explores the paranoid contingencies of the language that builds interwoven realities out of spams and firewalls; Las Constelaciones Oscuras [The dark constellations] (2015), by Pola Oloixarac, is riddled with biologists and hackers, all with their changing codices in the old return to total control of one over the other; finally, the short stories in Pyongyang (2017), by Hernán Vanol, sketch a sort of selfie falsified by stress on an industrial scale; rather, a simple sense of drowning as a result of the decrease in the daily dosage of techno-dependence.

Today we know bluntly that we were fooled and that we accepted it without so much as a fight: cable television, stereo sound, CDs, plastic surgery, silicone implants, carcinogenic foods. We exchanged a promising future for a widescreen monitor connected to the web. While the body became softer and softer (the great leaderless masses enjoying the comprehensiveness of their economies on an infinitely increasing scale), we were confined to more and more insignificant portions of real soma. This Orwellian truth/lie covered everything as far as the eye can see, establishing a difficult, nude aesthetic concept, settling in every Latin American author of the eighties and nineties - whatever didn't go the subliminal route of Dirty Realism or the explosive but barren political complaint. It has cost us, the community of readers, decades to discretely examine the literary map of the period in its totality. For this very reason, I feel that the consideration herein of some of the names and works ascribed to the cyberpunk subgenre has special relevance, given that it allows us to think about other critical foci. For example, ending the practice of accusing the reiterated loss of ideology from cultural referents poorly called massive (terror, fantasy and science fiction), given that it is such myopic reading that causes the restricted circulation of the works consigned to these pages, not their real aesthetic-ideological value, which we hope the troubled reader will put to the test.

Before closing this skylight off with reflective aerosol, let us leave the sharp words of the young Argentine author, Michel Nieva, inscribed upon the peeling walls of the motel. Delivering “A cyberpunk reading of Argentine literature,” at a conference in 2016, without allowing his arm to be twisted by the un-virtual pleasures of techno-philia, he defends the contentious character of this literary movement; that is, cyberpunk written in and for Latin America. He writes, “This blind celebration of mechanization that we live in daily is nothing other than the aestheticism of technology that mobilizes millions, supported by concentrated capital—but we can only respond to this technological aestheticism with a politicization of art, with a literature that engenders dystopias about the current means of economic production....”

Cancun, Summer 2018

Translated by Michael Redzich


LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Translation Previews and New Releases

Featured Author: Sergio Pitol

Dossier: Victoria de Stefano

Latin American Science Fiction

Indigenous Literature

Latin American Chronicle




Nota Bene