Andean Dystopias: When the Future Clashes with Desire
The popularization of the word “dystopia” is attributed to John Stuart Mill, in a speech he gave before the English Parliament. His intent was to reveal “something too evil to be practicable,” just like Henry Lewis Younge and V.M. Budakiv in Dystopia: A Natural History (Oxford University Press, 2017). The idea was incarnated to designate some evil, unjust place (in opposition to the concept of utopia – that is to say, a “good” place), where life becomes terrible, in an unbreathable atmosphere.
From the Twentieth Century onward, dystopia has also alluded to the establishment of an authoritarian and totalitarian government that restricts liberties and basic rights. However, dystopia today does not reside exclusively in the political realm; it penetrates science fiction literature (and/or film). In this context, it paints a portrait of some “ideal” reality being lived or that has been lived and places it in terms of the future in order to evaluate and form hypotheses about the state of such a reality. I shall refer here to Andean dystopia, tracing a map that probes its limits.
Putting Andean Dystopias in Context
A question arises when one speaks of the dystopias emerging from the countries that share a common backbone in the Andes: How does such literature, using the conventions of science fiction, help us to think about what is presented as a sort of “better society” propped up by utopian-policies that, at their core, are anything but? The difficulty with which the afore-mentioned nations reached Modernity provides context to the rise of such writing. This struggle provoked tensions between conservatives and liberals, between the students of political imaginers of collective prosperity and the adherents to tradition. Now, that same tension exists between varying sociopolitical groups that sense future continuity in their political options while others help along privatization for social development.
Likewise, we must differentiate between literature about dictators and science fiction dystopias. The former, highly Latin American work is anchored in history, portraying strongmen who sit atop cruel dominions, helped along by the state apparatus that they construct through their many artifices. In the latter, the difference is found in the deployment of cognitive estrangement in order to produce a novum of social and political reality. As Darko Suvin puts it in his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (Yale University Press, 1979):
Even though science fiction writers begin with the basis of current reality, they project it towards a different time and place in order to show reality’s contradictions from a new perspective. Given that an essential ingredient in science fiction is techno-scientific determination (or in our case, techno-political), the focus is not so much upon how the dictator, but rather how the state has constructed a supposed welfare society despite its abridgment of liberty and rights, (a unique system). In short, this type of literature would not be anchored in history; rather, it would write the history of a Latin American political reality in some future time.
A Map of Andean Dystopias
Let us state unequivocally that the first Andean dystopias gave themselves over to Darwinism, stemming from the crises that came from building the nation in a world that remained wild and barbarous. In this manner, both Sandra Gasparini (in her article, “On Speakers, Controversies and Dystopias: the Emergence of Scientific Fantasy”) and Rachel Haywood Ferreira (writing in The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction, Wesleyan University Press, 2011), affirm that the novel by Argentine writer Ladislao Holmberg, Viaje maravilloso del Señor Nic Nac en el que se refieren las prodijiosas [sic] aventuras de este señor y se dan a conocer las instituciones, costumbres y preocupaciones de un mundo desconocido (fantasía espiritista)[The Marvelous Journey of Mr. Nic Nac , Referring to this Gentlemen’s Prodigious Adventures, in which the Institutions, Customs, and Concerns of an Unknown World Come to Light (Spiritual Fantasy] (1876) is the first, foundational work of Andean dystopia. Homberg hoped to compare Argentina – a place that had not yet achieved a just political system – with another, more competent one on Mars.
The second wave of Andean dystopias begins with Colombian author José Antonio Osorio Lizarazo’s novel, Barranquilla 2132 (1932), written amidst the failure of radical liberalism (which came about from a civil conflict that continues up until the present moment in the region) and the consolidation of liberal forces with a more conservative tint. In the novel, a character travels into the future to witness the advances achieved in his society. As he moves about the city, he perceives banishment of social relationships; a surveillance state prevails, blasting dissidents into dust with the help of aerial contraptions. The reason for liberalism’s failure in Bolivia also allows Armando Montenegro to evaluate his country in his novel, Víctima de los siglos [Victim of Centuries] (1955). He does so through a character that suffers under the weight of racism and believes to have found his dream in a future world; nevertheless, despite its utopian façade, we realize that in that future Bolivia there is also a hidden surveillance state. There, singular identity no longer exists – certain members of the community are even convinced to commit suicide for the common good.
A new, third wave was inaugurated in relation with the atomic bomb; it imagines up narratives of destruction and of a single, dark, restricting world superpower. Demetrio Aguilera Malta’s play, No bastan los átomos [There aren’t Enough Atoms] (1954), presents us with an excellent case. It is set on an island ruled by a dictator who leads the entire world into war in order to conduct his experiments. Another is found in a novel written in Chile, but published by its author in Ecuador: Zarkistán (1952), by Juan Viteri Durand. It explores the case of a learned man that telepathically meets an alien civilization. It feels ideal but lives on in its advanced age upon a dark world, completely disregarding human relationships. Disgusted by a humanity defined by war and the bomb, he is willing to give his life to go to that byzantine, extraterrestrial system. Chilean author Hugo Correa’s novel Los Altísimos [The Highest Ones] (1959) takes place within a similar context. It is about a world with a seemingly utopian government and order; we quickly learn that everything is dominated by a system that subjugates everyone in a sort of human anthill. Peruvian author Eugenio Alarco’s novel (published in Argentina) La magia de los mundos [The Magic of the Worlds] (1952) is equally relevant. It describes a totalitarian world where regulated immortality was established, though it hides the techno-scientific gears of surveillance, bio-politics, and slavery.
A fourth wave alludes to the military dictatorships which, during the second half of the Twentieth Century, attempted to force modernization policies and confront communism in Andean countries. The emphasis of this science fiction is the apocalypse, springing from neoliberalism and globalization, and in turn anticipating their social and moral consequences. Thus, the Ecuadorian novel Militaria (1982) by Renán Flores Jaramillo reflects upon the militarism that touches people’s lives. Likewise from Ecuador (though initially published in Germany), comes Unemotion (1998; its Spanish version is titled Yo artificial o el futuro de las emociones [Artificial Me, o the Future of Emotions] (2012)), by Leonardo Wild. In it, a military corporation subjugates the world and reeducates the youth while a police state takes hold with computers and cameras installed in people’s houses. For Peru, José B. Adolph’s novel Mañana, las ratas [Tomorrow, the Rats] (1984), is key; despite dominating a transnational government, a country is plunged into chaos, on the brink of being governed by a fundamentalist guerrilla. Another is La fabulosa maquina del sueño [The Fabulous Sleep Machine] (1999), by José Donayre, which references state and political violence in Peru, alongside the entry by Elton Honores and Andrea Bell about Peru in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. For Chile, we cite 2010: Chile en llamas [2010: Chile in Flames], by Darío Osses. It opens with a devastated landscape where humans live as though in prison, according to María Fernández-Lamarque (in Espacios posmodernos en la literatura latinoamericana contemporánea: distopías y heterotopías, [Postmodern Spaces in Contemporary Latin American Literature: Dystopias and Heterotopias] Argus, 2016). Still, the richest source for our purposes is Argentine. In his book, Postales del porvenir: la literatura de anticipación en la Argentina neoliberal (1985-1999) [Postcards from the Future: Anticipatory Literature of a Neoliberal Argentina (1985-1999)] (Biblos, 2006) Fernando Reati rigorously studies dystopian science fiction, beginning with Su majestad, Dulicea [Her Majesty, Dulcinea] (1956) by Leonardo Castellani. He focuses upon works by Abel Posse, Marcelo Cohen, Orlando Esposito, Angélica Gorodischer, Ricardo Piglia, Osvaldo Soriano, Sergio Chejfec, César Aira, Ana María Shua, Eduardo Blaustein, Sergio Bizzio and Pablo Urbanyi. In their novels, these authors debate the effects of globalization, addressing its effects upon urban life, the destruction of the environment, political problems, etc. We must also mention some later Bolivian novels: El huésped [The Guest] (2004), by Gary Daher, about surveillance society, along with Sueños digitales [Digital Dreams] (2000) and the El delirio de Turing [Turing’s Delirium] (2003), both by Edmundo Paz Soldán, which revolve around the axes of a state surveillance corps employing the technology of control. Furthermore, we should consider the Chilean novel Impuesto a la carne [Imposed upon the Flesh] (2010) by Diamel Eltit, which takes place in a hospital-prison that is home to bio-political experimentation, evoking the regime of Augusto Pinochet. The Ecuadorian novel Los improductivos [The Unproductive Ones] (2014) by Cristián Londoño Proaño, considers a business-like government that treats its citizens like numbers.
At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, a new wave addressed unstructured worlds with chaotic countries and marginalized regions. We cite the novel of Santiago Páez, Crónicas del breve reino [Chronicles of the Brief Kingdom] (2006) about an “invented” country—Ecuador—and its debacle, to the point in the near future where it devolves into guerrilla violence and experimental laboratories. Another is Bolivian author Allison Spedding’s novel, De cuando en cuando Saturnina: una historia oral del futuro [Occasionally Saturnine: a History of the Future] (2004), about a fundamentalist Indianist government that re-baptizes Bolivia; likewise, in Maximiliano Barrientos’ En el cuerpo una voz [In the Body One Voice] (2017), one reads reflections from after a civil war that does away with Bolivia. In the same context but in Colombia, Héctor Abad Faciolince writes in Angosta [Narrow] (2003) about a State that executes those who live in poor areas, considering them terrorists. Similar works include: Chilean author Mario Bustos’ Los vástagos de la mente [The Offspring of the Mind”] (2014), a postapocolyptic dystopia, and Peruvian Enrique Congrains Martin’s El narrador de historias: Protectorado de Mendoza, segunda quincena de mayo de 2075 [The Narrator of History: The Protectorate of Mendoza, the Second Fortnight of May, 2075] (2007), a futuristic novel with an emphasis on geopolitics.
Finally, a new stage is set within the context of the self-cast regimes of “Twenty-First Century Socialism”, which, despite the utopias that they promise, merely present a new take on the old strongman model. The tone of the dystopian literature focused on this time period is somewhere between ironic and grotesque. Such is the case in Venezuelan author Fedosy Santaella’s, Las Peripecias Inéditas de Teófilus Jones [The Unpublished, Unforeseen Events of Teófilus Jones] (2009), which illustrates a repressive, theocratic regime ruled by an absurd bureaucracy. It is also found in the Ecuadorian novels Ecuatox® (2013) by Santiago Páez and Anaconda Park: la más larga noche [Anaconda Park: The Longest Night] (2017) by Jaime Marchán. The former describes a government eternalized as a clone, whose country lives in an apparently eternal happiness; the latter is about a businessman that takes over the nation and turns it into an eternal-fun zone.
With what we have examined here in mind, let us conclude that Andean dystopias are divers in their content; they do not necessarily follow the patterns of the consolidated works of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell (to cite two emblematic examples), but their structure does reflect a political character. Likewise, not all countries are equally developed in terms of dystopian literary production. This is due to the distinct processes lived in each nation where concerns (and censorship and fears) may vary.
I end by declaring that the map presented here is but an outline of future research: it is quite possible that several representative works and authors have not been cited. For that very reason, this essay is offered as naught but an opening salvo.
Iván Rodrigo Mendizábal
Translated by Michael Redzich
Iván Fernando Rodrigo Mendizábal earned his doctorate in Latin American Literature from the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Ecuador. He is currently director of the Master's Program in Digital Communication at the Universidad de Los Hemisferios as well as a visiting professor at the graduate program in Communication at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. His published books include, among others, Análisis del discurso social y político (co-authored with Teun van Dijk), Cartografías de la comunicación (2002), and Máquinas de pensar: videojuegos, representaciones y simulaciones del poder (2004). He is a specialist in science fiction, and a collaborator in the American journal Amazing Stories. He has curated the website Ciencia ficción en Ecuador since 2013.
Michael Redzich is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He earned degrees in Spanish and Letters, and intends to pursue a legal education upon graduation. Michael came to OU in 2013 from Jackson, Wyoming, where he grew up with his parents and one brother. He spent the past two years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and looks forward to seeing more of Latin America: the places, the people, the literature, and more.
The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.