On Latin American Speculative Fiction
“Speculative fiction” is an imprecise term. Attributed to the American writer Robert A. Heinlein, as well as to various others, before and after, it was first used during a period between the late sixties and early seventies of the past century. At that time, he proposed its use to talk about an existing genre of literature, film, and popular culture in the United States: It was believed that it might serve as a more appropriate name for what was then called science fiction.
Why was it considered necessary to rechristen a narrative form that was already decades old, and is now about to turn 100?
The science fiction concept was invented in 1926 by the publisher Hugo Gernsback—for whom the famous Hugo Awards are named—, and is still today the most common when it comes to naming a great many aspects of popular fiction. Science fiction —or scientific narrative: a narrative, interested in, driven and empowered by the discourse of science— was, according to Gernsback's definition, a specialization of literature interested in disseminating scientific advances through the representation of future possibilities of human societies; in said invented times, by updating a little the postulates of the prophetic text, the trace of material progress would be very visible and generally positive. Literature as a branch of dissemination that adheres to a didactic, positivist purpose: the aspiration of Gernsback and those around him was to encourage young people to study science or engineering, and many people report having done it, especially in developed countries. It must be remembered that, during the 20th century, the notion of envisioning the future—of declaring it desirable and inevitable at the same time—was in keeping with the promises of the capitalist notion of progress, inherited from the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and of the philosophy of the Enlightenment of the 18th, and its influence is still present in many human activities beyond the arts, including advertising and politics.
Nevertheless, works labeled as science fiction began to abandon the confines of Gernsback's definition almost immediately. Even during his time, most of the publications called science fiction seem to have been more adventures stories, full of action but with little or no scientific rigor. Later, other works located within the same genre (placed on the same bookstore shelves, published in the same magazines) warned against the misuses of technology, described worlds where reason was rejected or considered irrelevant, and were mixed with other genres without the least regard for their own original prescriptions…
This process occurs, in reality, with any genre: any more or less homogeneous set of artistic works that coincide in an essential way, certain precise characteristics of their content and the perception that they are produced strictly for commercial exploitation. If there is indeed a market that allows creators who specialize in the genre to support themselves, they receive contradictory stimuli: on the one hand, they feel the need to keep using “proven” forms and themes, to imitate “what sells” so as not to run risks, but on the other they are driven to “innovate,” to invent new variations or approaches of the same known elements, to avoid their own stagnation and their audience’s satiation.
Nevertheless, in the case of science fiction, a portion of its creators and readers wanted to preserve at least what seemed to them its greatest virtue: its ability to extrapolate from visible conditions in the present and to speculate about the future consequences of our thinking and our actions. From this desire comes the proposal to rechristen all science fiction as speculative fiction, or at least to separate, by way of the new designation, a portion of it, to highlight its contributions: to resignify it as a non-promotional tool rather an exploration of what is to come.
Another American writer, Harlan Ellison, admirably defended the concept of speculative fiction in a landmark anthology he compiled, Dangerous Visions (1967—69). The essential capacity of science fiction, according to him, was not to create dreams or myths about the future, but to anticipate concrete problems and possibilities of history and human life. The best that speculative fiction can offer would lie in the descriptions of the totalitarianism of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, the reflections on power and sexuality of J.G. Ballard, the reflection on the systems of government and thought of Stanislaw Lem, the crisis of human identity as seen in Philip K. Dick…
Unfortunately, the term speculative fiction did not prosper. After the 70s it fell into disuse for decades. This was due to the fact that the genre's conflicting impulses—at once against and in favor of originality—had, moreover, a paradoxical consequence: For a long time, within science fiction it became attractive to give the impression of novelty, renewal, or even a radical break exclusively through the creation of new names and nomenclature.
At the same time propositions, arguments, and iconic characters of science fiction made their way into the mainstream of Western culture, beyond the specialized circles of readers, creators, and editors, within those circles the subdivisions, variants and categories multiplied from the same discourses, as to give fans a stronger sense of ownership over their favorite stories, alien to the understanding of the uninitiated. Thus, each attempt (real or feigned) to propose something new in the genre received its own name: hard science fiction, space opera, new wave, cyberpunk, steampunk, and dozens of other names became the topic of daily discussion among fans, and speculative fiction became just another one of those labels, of uncertain reach and limits difficult to envision. Currently, both science fiction and speculative fiction are seen as umbrella terms: general classifications that encompass almost any narrative work that one wants to place in them as long as they incorporate the fantastic imagination in some way…, not to mention, the understanding of the value of reasoned speculation has deteriorated, and everything “fanciful” or “unrealistic” becomes lumped together; what would Hugo Gernsback think of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight or George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, for example, being considered today as varieties of science fiction?
How speculative fiction has become blurred as a genre, and how it has eroded as a means of reading and analysis, has an unexpected utility: It allows us to use the label to inquire about texts—such as those in this dossier—that come from of Latin America, that is, from countries and cultures where there are no markets that can actually support specialized authors, and in which a fantastic imagination is used, necessarily, for other reasons.
My first encounter with these concepts may be, it seems to me, analogous to the experiences of many other Latin American authors, as it took place in my own country: Mexico, a perpetually backward nation subject to the development and dictates of other nations, and in which a traditionalist, vertical, classist culture offers few impulses to speculate about modifications of the status quo or to appreciate the virtues of any form of popular art.
Surprisingly, Mexico—like other Latin American countries—has its own tradition of speculative narratives, which goes back, like that of the most famous precursors of the genre in Europe, to the nineteenth century, before Heinlein, Ellison, and Gernsback himself. At this time, the ideas of progress, albeit with less force and less optimism, encouraged diverse authors to ask about the future.
No local author was as influential, celebrated, or prolific as Mary Shelley or Jules Verne, all of whom frequently shared in mocking the very idea that someone could or would want to imagine a different future for a country like mine. From the story “México en el año 1970” [Mexico in the year 1970] by Sebastián Camacho and Zulueta (1844) to the novels Mejicanos en el espacio [Mexicans in Space] by Carlos Olvera (1968), Memorias de un delfín [Memoirs of a Dolphin] by Manú Dornbierer (1996) or El dedo de oro [The Golden Finger] by Guillermo Sheridan (1996), many of the most effective narratives from that tradition are parodies or satires: portraits of national customs caricatured and hypertrophied, or bitter stories of everyday reality written from unusual perspectives, which allow the discovery of unusual and surprising aspects of seemingly banal events. The targets of these books are usually institutional corruption, economic difficulties, and the lack of political freedom, which is either deplored or celebrated with a kind of cynical resignation.
It is worth mentioning these works here not only for their own value, but because we are witnessing a break in that tradition and in others in our region of the world: a point of inflection due to the needs of our concrete present, of our writing and imagination here. Participating in this project are very young writers as well as others who have been active for decades, stimulated by current events, and especially with the rise of the extremist ideologies we have seen in recent years.
As we know—and as both Europe and the United States must witness daily—, discourses that seemed to have been eradicated following the Second World War have moved from the margins of Western societies (from areas of the incorrect, the shameful, the morally reprehensible) towards their centers, after having gained political power or a level of support greater than that they had had in decades. As we also know, several of these discourses are directed not only against disadvantaged and well-defined populations in certain regions, but literally against the inhabitants of entire countries.
Here it is necessary to mention Mexico again, because it is, of course, an obvious example: in an ironic turn for classist racism in my own country, in which the color of one’s skin is associated on a massive scale with social status and has served as an excuse to prolong centuries of inequality and exclusion, Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, began his electoral campaign by describing Mexicans in uniformly aggressive terms, without separating (as is still obsessively done here) whites from those of us who are not, or the “good families” from the others. Trump does not care about our own prejudices and divisions when it comes to inflaming his supporters with his racist and xenophobic discourse: All Mexicans, without exception, are villains, a threat that seeks to invade and overtake his territory.
The mere existence of such a discourse should be enough to cause us to reevaluate much of the culture that comes to us from the United States, and that millions among us, especially young people, have always considered (including in an uncritical and colonized way) part of our lives. Racism, the exclusion of the other, and the famous American exceptionalism are older even than Trump and his regime. To know whether the divisions between good and evil, rectitude and error are in fact drawn on racial divisions we would have to review the many works accumulated over decades in the loosely defined whole of speculative fiction.
An obvious example is the subgenre of zombie narratives, popular since the late sixties, which at present not only tend to revolve around the loss of well-being caused by the invasion of monstrous beings, but also depict the protagonists with traits that seem to have been taken up and magnified by extremist discourses. These disgusting beings, without the ability to reason, who can climb any barrier and literally spill over their victims in films like Marc Forster's World War Z (2013), could well be us, who supposedly can only be contained by a tall, very long wall and a campaign of mass expulsion.
What’s more, it turns out that this extremist discourse has not only inspiration but also prototypes, and even ideologues, in the speculative narrative. In recent years, to more well-known examples, like that of Ayn Rand, a writer of Russian origin whose novels serve as articulate defenses of individual and entrepreneurial avarice for hardline rightwing politicians, we may add the work of a previously unknown French author: Jean Raspail, whose novel The Camp of the Saints, translated into Spanish as El desembarco (1973), is bedside reading for Steve Bannon, the media entrepreneur who, until a few months ago, was a White House strategist and currently supports extreme rightwing movements in Europe. Following books that seemed anomalous in their time, such as Robert Hugh Benson’s Catholic dystopia Lord of the World (1907), Raspail's novel describes an alleged invasion of European countries by Asian migrants, who are described as less-than human, savage hordes whose only purpose is vice and destruction, and who aim to end Christian civilization by exploiting the weakness of Western countries to make them open their borders. The mythology of the different racist groups that have become famous online contains, if not precise references to these texts, a discourse that is enabled by them. Dystopian futures not only portray conditions of oppression based on real tendencies but also give shape to fantasies of hatred, to the minority complex of large masses.
(The recent maneuver by the US government to “militarize” the border with Mexico, although more a symbolic gesture, seems to be a version or replica of a Raspail passage, including its apparent inspiration: the news that a group of several hundred Central American migrants, mostly women and children, travel through Mexico to the northern border in search of asylum in the United States. Called a “caravan,” the group of migrants was magnified by rightwing media outlets such as Fox News and represented as a huge Raspailian horde.)
This must be said: the void of the future that remains in the Western imagination following the crisis of the idea of progress—and which has been frequently discussed since the end of the last century—should not be occupied by stories of extremism, which deep down do not envision any future beyond an apocalyptic conflict, impossible to resolve except with absolute destruction, against a partially or totally imagined enemy but that situate them in the bodies of wholly real people.
Among other possible reasons, beyond the economic benefit or stability that in any case become increasingly more unattainable in developing countries, it seems to me that current practitioners of Latin American speculative fiction find an impulse to write in the fact that it is possible and necessary to resist the seizure, the reduction, and the simplification of the future that the different extremes would like. In that not all of us will continue to deprive ourselves of the right to reclaim for ourselves the possibilities of the imagination and, in particular, those that could be useful for us to ask about our future, our concrete futures.
There can be seen in the texts presented here several possible ways of recomposing the speculative narratives and appropriating them to other contexts, and other needs, which are not recognized or represented by the production that comes to us from outside. That do not replace it, rather complement it.
Translated by George Henson
Alberto Chimal is one of Mexico’s most celebrated writers of speculative and experimental fiction. The recipient of numerous literary prizes, Chimal is author of more than twenty books, which have been translated into several languages. His most recent book, Manos de lumbre [Hands of fire], was published in October 2018 by Páginas de Espuma. A frequent contributor to Latin American Literature Today, Chimal curated a dossier on speculative fiction for our May 2018 issue.
George Henson is a literary translator and lecturer of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. He is the translator of Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna, as well as fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke. His translations have appeared in a variety of literary venues, including The Literary Review, Bomb, The Buenos Aires Review, The Kenyon Review, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. He is also the Translation Editor for Latin American Literature Today.
LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series.