From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Cosmos Latinos is an historical overview of Latin American and Spanish spec-fic, starting in the 19th century and ending in 2004. The book begins with an excellent literary essay that puts the stories into historical and thematic perspective. The rest is divided into periods with representative groups of writers.

Most of the early stories seem there mainly for historical value. The editors admit outright that much Spanish-language spec-fic is derivative of English spec-fic, though with a more playful and philosophical bent. But some of these early stories presage later spec-fic, as well. “The Distant Future” (1862) by Juan Nepomuceno Adorno and “On the Planet Mars” (1890) by Nilo María Fabra seem like a cross between H.G. Wells and Soviet-era SF of the “boy meets girl meets tractor” utopian variety.

Another distinctive aspect of Latin American spec-fic is the merry disregard for scientific accuracy in favor of imagery and ideas. This is both disconcerting and a nice break from the straitjacket of today’s hard SF tropes (heresy, I know). “The Death Star” (1929) by Ernesto Silva Román calls the titular celestial object a “star”, “planet”, “comet” and “meteor” respectively in a perfunctory discussion of its nature. Román mainly cares about the collapse of society in the face of the disaster, with the now-classic plot turn of the elite hiding themselves away in hopes of surviving and creating a utopian society later on. He could care less about the science of the disaster itself.

Things don’t get really interesting until the 1960s with dystopian tales like “The Crystal Goblet” (1964) by Jerônimo Monteiro and “The Last Refuge” (1967) by Eduardo Goligorsky. This isn’t to say that the previous stories are bad. “Baby H.P.” (1952) by Juan José Arreola is a very funny satire on how to use a toddler’s restlessness as a household energy source. But the stories don’t deepen in exploring their ideas until the period of the 1960s. Before that, they either skim the surface or take a fussy, didactic tone.

The anthology shows how Spanish-language spec-fic references Anglophone spec-fic of the same period. But this isn’t a derivative exercise in simple imitation. The anthology’s acknowledgment of this imitation makes it that much easier to see how these ideas are used differently in the Spanish-language part of the genre than Anglophone spec-fic.

“The Crystal Goblet” and “The Last Refuge” are both set in dystopian futures that look an awful lot like the totalitarian present of the Latin American 1960s. If any overenthusiastic fan of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers needed a dose of what the reality of Heinlein’s militaristic utopia would be like, these two stories provide the necessary bucket of cold water. Maybe it’s not such a coincidence that Heinlein’s protagonist, Juan “Johnnie” Rico, is from Buenos Aires.

In “The Crystal Goblet”, Miguel, a Brazilian intellectual survivor of government torture, rediscovers a blue glass goblet that he had found as an abused child. As a broken adult, he realizes that it shows the future, and the future is rather grim. But when he shows it to his friends, they disagree over what they see and what it all means, whether the future will get better or worse.

In “The Last Refuge”, Guillermo Maidana tries to flee an Argentina closed in a bell jar of a generation of isolation from the rest of the world. Cornered, he finds a World Council spaceship that has landed in the “forbidden zone” of his country. But when he tries to seek refuge in it, to board it, the ship instead leaves him behind, incinerating him with its engines.

Dystopic tradition continues in the Chilean cyberpunk tale, “Exerion” (2000) by Pablo A. Castro. A man, nameless for most of the story and crippled in mind and body by government viruses, sends his recovered memories onto the “hypernet” through a beloved old video game, “Exerion”, just before the jackboots come for him. He thus dies, but also survives as a new AI personality, a ghost in the machine.

Other tales in Cosmos Latinos have urban settings and several are cyberpunk, an interesting thing considering the rural “Third World” image of Latin America. “Like the Roses Had to Die” (2001) by Michel Encinosa presents an anarchic society where people change their identities using non-human DNA and implants. The heroine, Wolf, is on a quest to save her lover and stop a virus that threatens to wipe out “exotics” like her. Her worst enemy is the person she least suspects.

Some stories are unique. “Gu Ta Gutarrak (We And Our Own)” (1968) by Magdalena Mouján Otaño is an extended satire on Basque obsessions with Basque identity. For the Basques, this ethnic identity is formed by their unique language. The author gently pokes fun at this self-assurance of uniqueness with a time-travel plot. The protagonist and his family become so obsessed with the idea of proving the superiority and timelessness of Basque culture (he calls them a separate “species” from other humans) that they found a science institute and build a time machine. They go back, further and further, finding other Basques living exactly as in the present. Finally, they reach a point where there are no Basques, settle down, and realize that they have created a time loop where they have founded the Basque race. Rather than upsetting them, this gives them great pride.

The editors make no bones about the male-dominated nature of Spanish-language spec-fic. Some of the stories even turn on the strong patriarchal reality of Latin American culture, with all its attendant misogyny and homophobia. In “The Violet’s Embryos” (1973) by Angélica Gorodischer, the author takes a similar but opposite tack to Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed”. A spaceship comes to rescue a group of seven stranded cosmonauts on a barren planet. Instead, the crew find a paradise. The previous crew have discovered violet patches that give them whatever they can imagine being, though none of it can leave the planet (why they never rescued themselves). Unfortunately, absolute power has driven most of them more than a bit batty. One, for example, engages in violent and elaborately masochistic fantasies straight out of a hurt/comfort fanfic; another lives in a literal womb.

A central irony of the story is that of all the things and creatures and humans that the stranded cosmonauts have created, they can’t create any women because they could never imagine being women. The rescuers are repulsed by the fact that the stranded cosmonauts, who have harems and servants and the like, therefore engage in de facto homosexual relations and transvestism. This bothers the rescuers a lot more than the various extreme manifestations of the stranded cosmonauts’ madness. The rescuers don’t even notice that the problem behind all of this “homosexuality” is the cosmonauts’ total inability to put themselves in the shoes of a woman, no matter how hard they try. The all-male space explorers in the story are so macho that the other gender is a complete mystery to them, to the point where heterosexuality becomes impossible to maintain in the absence of women.

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