Science Fiction in Latin America and Spain

Reviewed by Aaron

Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán, eds. Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).*

Cosmos Latinos is a groundbreaking anthology of short stories that introduces the English-reading public to the science fiction produced in Latin America and Spain. As the title suggests, the co-editors have compiled a wide range of stories that attempt to demonstrate the original ways in which Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking SF authors have responded to the challenges of scientific and technological progress. Some of the authors that appear in this anthology have established themselves in other literary forms before crossing over into SF, while others have made names for themselves as SF writers, and a few have even had their work appear in North American publications. While the influence of the classic works of North American and European SF might be noticeably present in some of these stories, Bell and Molina-Gavilán note that “the greatest influence on Spanish and Latin American SF comes from within” (2). The inspiration for the twenty-seven stories of Cosmos Latinos is derived not only from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America and Spain, but also Portuguese-speaking Brazil, as well as the Basque- and Catalan-speaking regions of Spain. It is an awesome task indeed to represent such a diverse geographic and linguistic area in just one anthology of short stories. To chronicle the rise and fall and rebirth of Latin American and Spanish SF is an equally daunting task. With a brief yet thorough introduction that analyzes the close relationship of SF to the historical moment out of which it was born, Bell and Molina-Gavilán have provided us with the tools necessary for appreciating the Latin American and Spanish world-view by way of their science fiction.

Cosmos Latinos is groundbreaking for two reasons. First, the co-editors showcase a genre that “has been cultivated in Spanish and Portuguese for well over a hundred years, with precursors dating back to the eighteenth century” (1), allowing a wider audience to appreciate the originality with which Latin American and Spanish SF authors have blended their own histories, societies, and cultures with many of the universal themes addressed by SF in the wider world. That Spain and Latin America have produced their own SF of high literary quality and merit while going virtually unnoticed for so long should not come as a surprise, however, given Bell and Molina-Gavilán’s observation that translations of European and North American classics dominate the shelves in most Latin American and Spanish bookshops that carry SF. While the relatively strong economies of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, and Spain have allowed for the development of lively domestic publishing industries (3), the co-editors imply that if Latin American and Spanish SF is to find support domestically, publishers and bookstores need first to see a demand for it in the international market. Thus, the second reason for Cosmos Latinos being groundbreaking is that it challenges the erroneous assumption of those Latin American and Spanish publishers and bookstores that “for any SF to be ‘good’ it must be imported” (2). This anthology, then, establishes Latin American and Spanish SF not just as a passing literary phenomenon, but rather as a legitimate cultural artifact worthy of a prominent place in domestic and international academic circles.

In their discussion of the themes and theory of Spanish- and Portuguese-language SF, Bell and Molina-Gavilán identify three broad characteristics that differentiate it from Anglophone SF. These are Latin American and Spanish SF’s tendency to be “soft” in nature with an orientation towards the social sciences, its examination of Christian symbols and motifs, and its use of humor (14). While examples of each of these can be found in Cosmos Latinos, the stories that Bell and Molina-Gavilán have selected are too rich and complex to be so easily pigeonholed into any of the above categories. There are also stories, for example, of utopian optimism and cyberpunk pessimism that seek to subvert the cultural and political hegemony of both internal and external forces in Latin America and Spain.

The anthology is divided into four sections that follow a chronological order so that the reader might appreciate how Latin American and Spanish SF has evolved in the last 150 years. The first section, “In the Beginning: The Visionaries,” is the shortest, containing only two stories from the second half of the nineteenth century. The futuristic vision of this first section is represented by “The Distant Future” (1862), by Mexico’s Juan Nepomuceno Adorno, and “On the Planet Mars” (1890), by Spain’s Nilo María Fabra. The mass-media- tone of these two stories is the basis for their social critique as they juxtapose late-nineteenth-century social mores with futuristic civilizations and technological progress.

The second section, “Speculating on a New Genre: SF from 1900 through the 1950s,” is made up of three stories from the early- and mid-twentieth century. This section is introduced with “Mechanopolis” (1913), a cautionary tale about the loss of faith in science written by Miguel de Unamuno, who was one of Spain’s foremost philosophers and writers. Chile’s Ernesto Silva Román, whose work helped to pave the way for the development of Chilean SF, combines high drama with mankind’s self-sacrifice, obedience, and devotion to science in “The Death Star” (1929). “Baby H.P.” (1952), by the celebrated Mexican writer Juan José Arreola, follows in the tradition of satirical writers such as Lucian of Samosata, Francisco de Quevedo, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Jonathan Swift, with his sarcastic indictment of modern technology (58).

The third and largest section of Cosmos Latinos, “The First Wave: The 1960s to the Mid-1980s,” contains fourteen stories written between 1964 and 1983. Bell and Molina-Gavilán have described this period as the first golden age of Spanish- and Portuguese-language SF, a time that “witnessed a veritable explosion in Spanish and Latin American SF, in terms of the number and quality of works being produced by authors who dedicated all of their creative efforts to SF and to the increased opportunities they had for disseminating the genre” (6). It was also a period of rampant political, social, and economic upheaval throughout much of Latin America and Spain, and SF authors were often forced to be creative in writing about their anxieties and in criticizing their historical moment. In this section we find modern responses to the initial encounter between the Old World and the New World (which might also be read as stories of conquest and Christianity versus Paganism) in “The Cosmonaut” (1964) by Ángel Arango (Cuba), “The Falsifier” (1972) by José B. Adolph (Peru), “The Annunciation” (1983) by Daína Chaviano (Cuba), and “When Pilate Said No” (1971) by Hugo Correa (Chile). There are also “soft” SF stories written in the vein of the Latin American Modernists, such as “The Crystal Goblet” (1964) by the Brazilian writer Jerônimo Monteiro, and “The Violet’s Embryos” (1974) by the Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer; stories that reflect a strong influence of Borges’s metaphysics and imagination, like “A Cord Made of Nylon and Gold” (1965) by El Salvador’s Álvaro Menén Desleal; and stories that use humor and satire to criticize a post-holocaust civilization, such as “Post-Boomboom” (1967) by the Argentine writer Alberto Vanasco. There are also stories that border on the absurd, such as “Brain Transplant” (1978), by Brazil’s André Carneiro. In this section we also see the emergence of personal introspection as an important theme in Latin American and Spanish SF with stories like “Acronia” (1966) by the Argentine writer Pablo Capanna, and “A Miscalculation” (1983) by Mexico’s Feberico Schaffler, as well as stories of creation and myth, such as the Argentine writer Magdalena Mouján Otaño’s “Gu Ta Gutarrak (We and Our Own)” (1968).

The fourth and final section of Cosmos Latinos, “Riding the Crest: The Late 1980s into the New Millennium,” contains eight stories published between 1989 and 2001. Here the theme of introspection is continued in such stories as “Stuntmind” (1989) by Braulio Tavares (Brazil), and “Reaching the Shore” (1994) by Mexican writer Guillermo Lavín. “First Time” (1994) by the Spain’s Elia Barceló is a cyberpunk bildungsroman. The Mexican writers Pepe Rojo and Mauricio-José Schwarz deal with the themes of consumerism and self-destructing societies in very different ways in their stories “Grey Noise” (1996) and “Glimmerings on Blue Grass” (1996), respectively. The Spanish writers Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero offer a look at hard SF in “The Day We Went through the Transition” (1998), a speculative tale about time travel and the simultaneous existence of multiple realities. “Exerion” (2000), by Chile’s Pablo A. Castro, creates a symbiotic relationship between a man and a video game to criticize authoritarianism in Latin America. Finally, the Cuban writer Michel Encinosa combines fantasy, elements of magical realism, and rich literary language in his very experimental story “Like the Roses Had to Die” (2001).

The organizing principle of Cosmos Latinos reflects the long history that Latin American, and by extension Spanish, SF has enjoyed in spite of the early absence of any “Gernsback or Campbell to nurture writers and give the emerging genre a distinct shape and feel” (4). Bell and Molina-Gavilán observe that prior to the 1960s the SF of these regions was generally characterized by the sporadic efforts of isolated writers who were “influenced by Christian morality and -- as the century progressed, with its world wars and dizzying technological advances -- were inspired by the desire to warn against the dangers of unrestrained scientific experimentation” (4). The development of SF in Spain was also shaped by writers who were not necessarily committed to the genre, but rather saw it as a useful mechanism for social commentary. While Bell and Molina-Gavilán suggest that throughout its history the greatest influence on Latin American and Spanish SF writers has been their peers, their discussion of the Latin American Modernists’ love affair with Poe and Verne supports Ilan Stavans’s argument that such modernista writers as Rubén Darío, Leopoldo Lugones, and Amado Nervo are some of the first SF writers in Latin America (5). This argument is intriguing, given that there has been resistance among SF scholars to include Modernism, or even magical realism, in the same category as SF. On the other hand, their discussion leaves the development of Spanish SF somewhat blurred, since Latin American Modernism and magical realism are cultural phenomena unique to the region. The reader must then wonder to what extent this interrelationship can be used to understand Spanish SF. Nonetheless, many of the stories presented in Cosmos Latinos reflect a strong influence of Modernism and magical realism, as well as borrowed elements from Uruguay’s Horacio Quiroga and Argentina’s Macedonio Fernández, two other early masters renowned for their gothic tales of the bizarre and the supernatural, lending further support to the statement that Latin American Modernism is the cornerstone of the region’s SF (5).

In addition, Bell and Molina-Gavilán credit the now classic anthology of fantastic short fiction, Antología de la literatura fantástica (Anthology of Fantastic Literature, 1940), edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvana Ocampo, as an important link between fantastic fiction and SF; it provided needed recognition for the genre and and served as an impetus for “the first true flourishing of science fiction in Latin America, which took place in the 1960s” (6). I would further argue that this link also opens the door to serious theoretical and critical approaches to Latin American and Spanish SF criticism by arguing that traditional models of criticism cannot be applied to a body of literature that was not born completely within that tradition. One need only glance over the stories included in Cosmos Latinos to see that hidden behind the allegory and satire are anxieties and fears over the political realities of Latin America and the culture of grassroots activism in Europe. While Bell and Molina-Gavilán admit that these literary conventions are universal among SF writers, it is worth considering the unique ways in which they have been blended with Modernism, magical realism, and the fantastic in the production of Latin American and Spanish SF.

If Latin American Modernism can be considered the cornerstone of that region’s SF, then the long period of realism that followed might be considered as a period during which Latin American authors nurtured their craft in a social and political environment that favored literary realism over speculative fiction. For example, Bell and Molina-Gavilán note that in Mexico the literature was characterized by “a predilection for stark realism that followed upon the protracted violence and social upheaval of the Mexican Revolution,” (5) and as such, SF as a genre would not take hold in Mexico for several decades. From the 1950s to the 1970s Spain was faced with a similar situation as SF writers were constrained by the conservative and nationalistic Francoist ideology. Two notable exceptions that Bell and Molina-Gavilán don’t mention, but that point to an early SF consciousness in Latin America (even though their influence on later writers is questionable), are the Mexican writers Eduardo Urzaiz’s futuristic novel Eugenia (1919), and José Vasconcelos’ essay La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race, 1925). Both works deal in very different ways with the theme of eugenics in Latin American society. In Argentina before the 1930s, Bell and Molina-Gavilán cite mainstream author Leopoldo Lugones, whose Las fuerzas extrañas (Strange Forces, 1906) would later influence other writers. Not until the 1930s, however, would writers of the caliber of Borges, Bioy Casares, and Robert Alt produce some of the best-known fiction associated with SF in Latin America. Again, one must ask to what degree narratives of stark social and historical realism, Borges’s infusion of irony and metaphysics into Argentinean SF, and the literary fantastic can be considered as SF, or at the very least proto-sf. After all, following the initiation of Latin America’s first golden age in 1959 with the Chilean writer Hugo Correa’s Los altísimos (The Superior Ones) and Alguien mora en el viento (Someone Dwells within the Wind), it was the efforts of these writers that helped galvanize the literary cross-pollination that would culminate in an explosion in the 1960s and 1970s. While the editors are less comprehensive in their discussion of the influences of Spanish SF, the reader can only presume that a similar spirit of creativity that announced Latin America’s golden age would also inspire Spanish SF authors.

From Bell and Molina-Gavilán we also learn that, since the 1960s, SF in Latin America and Spain has been proliferated mostly through the efforts of a strong following of loyal writers and readers who have organized an extensive SF community through workshops, journals and fanzines, web publications, conferences, and literary awards. In addition, a small but growing group of scholars in Latin America and Spain is committed to rescuing their SF from obscurity. It was perhaps the strength of its fan-based organization at the grassroots level that allowed SF to survive a downturn in production during the 1970s and 1980s when political, social, and economic turmoil ravaged much of Latin America. Thanks to the Internet, the dialogue among SF fans and writers has been revitalized in the last decade, and international publishing houses have begun to express interest in manuscripts from Spanish and Latin American SF writers (13). As for its prospects, Bell and Molina-Gavilán predict that “the future of science fiction in Latin America and Spain looks promising” (12). The stories selected for inclusion in Cosmos Latinos certainly affirm this statement, showing that Spanish- and Portuguese-language SF can stand on its own in terms of originality and literary merit.

By making previously untranslated Spanish- and Portuguese-language SF accessible to the English-reading public, Cosmos Latinos adds significantly to the field of SF studies. Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán are top-notch scholars with several important articles on Latin American SF to their credit and who have also taken a leadership role in the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. Their introduction to Cosmos Latinos describing the long and rich tradition of Latin American and Spanish SF, supported by an extensive bibliography, constitutes some of their best work. Bell and Molina-Gavilán should also be applauded for their painstaking work in assuring that the quality of the translations is uniformly excellent and that these English-language stories reflect the spirit of their originals. Anyone who has translated literary texts will know that it is not an easy task -- and even less so in the case of a genre like SF which, apart from being experimental and innovative, presents linguistic, cultural, and contextual challenges. For all these reasons, Cosmos Latinos will no doubt stand for years to come as the premier reference anthology for Latin American and Spanish science fiction.


*Reprinted, with the kind permission of the editors, from Science Fiction Studies, vol. 31, no. 3 (November 2004).

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo, eds. Antología de la literatura fantástica. 1940. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1965. Published in English as The Book of Fantasy. New York: Viking, 1988.

Correa, Hugo. Alguien mora en el viento. Santiago: Alerce, 1959.

Los altísimos. Santiago: Editorial del Pacífico, 1959.

Lugones, Leopoldo. Las fuerzas extrañas. Buenos Aires: A. Moen, 1906. Published in English as Strange Forces. Trans. Gilbert Alter-Gilbert. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 2001.

Urzaiz, Eduardo, Eugenia. Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico: Talleres Gráficos A. Manzanilla, 1919.

Stavans, Ilan. “Introduction: Private Eyes and Time Travelers.” Literary Review 1 (1994): 5-20.

Vasconcelos, José. La Raza cósmica. Barcelona: Agencia Mundial de Librería, 1925. Published in English as La Raza Cosmica/The Cosmic Race. Trans. Didier T. Jaen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Reviewed by Aaron Dziubinskyj DePauw University Greencastle, Indiana