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Notes on Science Fiction and Fantasy in Latin America

by Roberto de Sousa Causo

The first thing to bear in mind is that examples of science fiction and fantasy (or speculative fiction as a collective term) do exist in Latin American literature since the mid-19th century, and that they are not strictly dependent on the poor scientific and industrial status of Latin America. After all, literature relates to literature, and writers of the fantastic in Europe and the U.S. — such as Hoffmann, Maupassant, Poe, Verne, and Wells — had a deep impact on readers all over the world.

A fascination with European literature is still a strong trend, especially in Argentina. For example, Federico Andahazi’s 1998 novellaLas Piadosas“, was also a success in Brazil and in the U.S., where it was published as „The Merciful Women“ in 2000. That novella reaches back to the most famous literary workshop in history: the night of ghost storytelling in Villa Diodati with Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John William Polidori. Told from Polidori’s viewpoint, this is a literary homage and a reflection upon creativity, mingled with wicked sex (perversity and sadism are a constant theme in Argentinean sf), and supernatural elements resembling Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910).

Another excellent work reflecting this fascination with European literature is Rubens Teixeira Scavone’s novelette „O 31.º Peregrino“ („The 31st Pilgrim“, 1993), in which another text (this one with science fictional elements) is added to Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century The Canterbury Tales, which features a woman seemingly impregnated by demons, but who might instead have been abducted and impregnated by aliens. Virtuously emulating an antique language and with a rare dramatic force, this is a modern classic in Brazil. Scavone wrote his first sf novel, O Homem que Viu o Disco-Voador (The Man Who Saw the Flying-Saucer), in 1958.

A much earlier example of science fiction in Brazil is O Doutor Benignus by Augusto Emílio Zaluar, one of three 1875 scientific romances published in that year, all of them candidates for the first example of the genre in Latin America. The other two are El Maravilloso viaje del Sr. Nic-Nac (The Marvellous Voyage of Mr. Nic-Nac) by the Argentinean Eduardo Holmberg, and Historia de un muerto (Story of a Dead Man) by the Cuban author Francisco Calcagno. Zaluar’s novel was influenced by Verne and his countryman Camille Flammarion, and incorporated Brazilian myths. This title was published in 1994 by Editora UFRJ, a university press.

Early Argentinean sf stories are collected in Horacio Moreno’s 1993 anthology Lo Fantastico (The Fantastic) with stories by Eduardo Holmberg, Leopoldo Lugones, Horacio Quiroga, along with modern authors of the twentieth century. A similar Brazilian anthology is Braulio Tavare’s 2003 Páginas de Sombra (Pages of Shadow), which included stories by Coelho Netto, Berilo Neves, Machado de Assis, and other writers who wrote speculative fiction before the 30s. It also features a few contemporaries like André Carneiro, Lygia Fagundes Telles, etc.

Despite the critical attention these authors might have garnered, and the proliferation of stories in their genres, early Latin American sf remains widely unavailable to modern readers.

More recently, Moreno edited Más Allá (Far Beyond) in 1992, which included award-winning Argentinean works by Bioy Casares, Marisa Balhario, Tarik Carson, Fernando Cots, José M. Lopez, Santiago Oviedo, and Ruben Tomasi. This slim but important anthology reveals another trend in Latin American sf: commentary on the impact of media as a reality-constructing device. This is a theme also explored by the Brazilians Tavares and Ivanir Calado, among others. We can perceive the influence U.S. pop culture has had on these authors’ views of sf as well. Reality-inquiring approaches are common among the famous Borges, Casares, and Cortazar, but also in the works of other sf authors, such as the Brazilians André Carneiro and Tavares, and the Argentinean Angélica Gorodischer.

Most critics believe that the first wave of science fiction in Latin America happened in the 1960s, as Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán have pointed out in their anthology Cosmos Latinos. As more science and technology penetrated agrarian Latin America during the Space Race between the U.S. and the USSR, and nuclear war threatened everyone, a wave of nuclear holocaust stories was triggered, which swept all the way into the mid-eighties. These included Daniel Fresnot’s novel A Terceira Expedição (The Third Expedition, 1987), set in Brazil, and Emilio Eduardo Cócaro’s El Laserista (The Lasergunner, 1987), set in England. The latter was a novella that succeeds in emulating some characteristics of the British New Wave.

Countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Mexico have developed intense forms of science fiction, but one could argue that Argentina has thus far produced the most literary and sophisticated sf. Brazilian sf has headed in several directions, including alternate history (through the editorial guidance of author Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro), hard sf, and a local cyberpunk variant I call “tupinipunk”. Mexico’s proximity to the U.S. market gives it, in many instances, the same level of sophistication and elegance of style found in American sf, as some examples suggest.

Sometimes what is more typical of the southern continent appears in Latin American sf. The mystique of the Amazon is present in the Chilean Isabel Allende’s La Ciudad de las Bestias (2002), a young-adult novel available in English as The City of the Beasts, in which an American teenager is taken by his grandmother on an expedition to the Amazon where he meets Indians, shamans, and sees a lost city inhabited by monsters. Ivanir Calado explores similar material to good effect in his engrossing dark fantasy novel A Mãe do Sonho (The Mother of Dream, 1990). More contemporary issues related to the region are present in my prize-winning novella „Terra Verde“ („Green Land“, 2000).

Amazon-based lost world stories are common throughout the history of Brazilian sf, for understandable reasons. A very good example is A Amazônia Misteriosa (The Mysterious Amazon, 1925) by Gastão Cruls, a short novel set in the village of the Amazonians, clearly inspired by Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), but one that manages to denounce neo-colonialism. In 1927 Menotti Del Picchia published A Filha do Inca ou A República 3.000 (The Inca’s Daughter or The Republic 3000), featuring people from ancient Crete who have created a civilization of super-science in the heart of Brazil. Also published in France, it might have been influenced by lost world novels by H. Rider Haggard. A Cidade Perdida (The Lost City, 1948) by Jerônymo Monteiro, has Vikings living as Indians in the jungle, and people from Atlantis hidden in an underground city. Monteiro freely employed fanciful hypotheses, creating a sort of Brazilian pseudo-history – so much so that local esoteric groups mistook him for an incognito Atlantean. I explored similar notions in my 2004 heroic fantasy A Sombra dos Homens (The Shadow of Men).

Even in fairly recent times the lost world theme is still around. Amor e Morte na Atlântida (Love and Death in Atlantis, 1994) by Sylvio Pereira is a straight hollow earth novel, while Cristovam Buarque’s Os Deuses Subterrâneos (Underground Gods, 1994) has a lost race which created humankind while trying to prevent a nuclear war. The latter is set in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, a place infused with mystical ideas. Buarque is a former university dean, governor and minister.

Soccer, the eternal passion of Latin Americans, is the subject of the Brazilian anthology Outras Copas, Outros Mundos (Other Cups, Other Worlds, 1997), edited by Marcello S. Branco, with stories by some of the most active local writers: Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, Fábio Fernandes, Ivan Carlos Regina, Braulio Tavares, Octávio Aragão, and Carlos Orsi Martinho, among others. It, however, took a U.S. writer, S. N. Lewitt, with his Songs of Chaos (1993), to launch that other Brazilian preoccupation, the Carnaval, into space. Let me point out here that many Brazilian writers take subjects like soccer or the Carnaval as cultural stereotypes, and shy away from them to their own detriment, as their works lose a great deal of local colour, and dangerously start to look like translations of U.S. sf.

Cultural differences and stereotypes are stressed in an anthology by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull called Tales from the Planet Earth (1984). Fifteen stories based on the same premise — the possession of human minds by aliens — showcase the talents of authors from all over the world. Writers with a Latino background, such as André Carneiro or the Italian Lino Aldani, saw the possession theme as a way to get in touch with an altogether different kind of experience (even sexual experience, as with Carneiro’s “Life as an Ant” and Aldani’s “S Is for Snake”), while Anglo writers such as Pohl himself or Spider Robinson saw it as a kind of rape.

A useful English introduction to Latin American sf is Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2003). It is not, as we have seen, the first anthology in English featuring Latin American science fiction, but it is certainly the first critical anthology, and includes stories from Spain because the editors wish to recognize “the cross-pollination and the support the various sf communities in these regions provide one another”. I won’t comment on that here, though1.

The first section in the book, “In the Beginning”, provides early evidence of science fiction in Latin America. It has two texts, first an excerpt from a larger work by Mexican Juan Nepomuceno Adorno, “The Distant Future” (1862), then Nilo María Fabra’s “On the Planet Mars” (Spain, 1890).

The second section showcases two stories that are more sophisticated or more influenced by the scientific romance or the post-Gernsback U.S. sf (especially the Chilean Ernesto Román’s “The Death Star”, 1929). An interesting story by Juan José Arreola’s, called “Baby H.P.” (Mexico, 1952), is an attack on technophilia. It is written like an advertising text for a harness that generates electric energy from the movements of a baby. A brief and casual disclaimer on the possibility of the child getting electrocuted underlines the satirical intention.

This long flirtatious period with sf, stretching from the 1800s to the mid-twentieth century, is a measure of the shyness with which Latin America embraced the genre. If it is clear from the brief first sections that an earlier sf existed, then the next one, “The First Wave”, is where the editors reveal their pledge to show quality stories.

Jerônymo Monteiro’s “The Crystal Goblet” is the longest story up to this point. Written by one of the most important twentieth century personalities in Brazilian sf, it is a rare example of an sf author addressing Brazil’s military dictatorship, which started in 1964 (the very year the story was written)2. Influenced by Wells’ “The Crystal Egg”, Monteiro has his alter ego discovering the title goblet’s time-viewing capacity. Right after being falsely arrested by the new regime (something that happened with the author, who barely escaped death), what he sees in the mysterious time-visor are images of war in the past, and of atomic war in the future. Monteiro’s pacifism appears (sometimes naively) in other works, such as his (failed) attempt at hard sf, “Estação Espacial Alfa” („Space Station Alpha“), and “Missão de Paz” („Mission of Peace“) — both included in his 1969 collection Tangentes da Realidade (Tangents of Reality).

The fear of nukes is also present in Álvaro Menén Desleal’s “A Cord Made of Nylon and Gold” (El Salvador, 1965). It is a sharply written tale of a U.S. astronaut who commits suicide during a Gemini Program space walk. While his still-active consciousness orbits the Earth, he witnesses the total war. The story is, of course, as much fantasy as sf. Another example is the humorous “Post-Boomboom” (Argentina, 1967), by Alberto Vanasco: survivors get together to write down the knowledge they have of the civilization they have just lost, in order to preserve it for their children. The story shows how little the average man knows of science and history.

On the same hand, if the fear of the holocaust was common in Latin America, reflection upon dictatorship was common as well. Eduardo Goligorsky’s sombre “The Last Refuge” (1967) was written a couple of years after the empowerment of a right-wing regime in Argentina. It deals with repression and isolation, as a dissident begs for asylum before a foreign rocket that has made an emergency landing in the North Korea-like isolationist country he lives in. The spaceship icon here stands for freedom and contact with other cultures, and for a technological and political state of affairs that has been forbidden to repressed citizens. The story obliquely criticises the U.S. and other nations that, because of the “Communist Threat”, supported tyrannical right wing regimes.

The aspiration for a non-aligned ideological position appears in “Gu Ta Gutarrak (We and Our Own)” by the Argentinean of Basque origin Magdalena Mouján Otaño. A couple in the Basque Country is affected by radiation after a U.S. bomber crashes nearby (an actual event). Their children are born with supermen-like mental powers and are sent to the USSR and the U.S., where their plan to build a time machine (in order to learn more about the mysterious origins of the Basque people) is rejected — for contradicting Marx and Engel’s dialectics, on one hand, and for endangering the American way of life, on the other. Written with great wit and precision, it pokes fun at the Basque traditionalist culture. It was first published in 1968.

There are five Argentinean stories at the core of Cosmos Latinos, a testimony to the centrality of that country in the Latin American first wave. Sometimes the editors group stories with similar themes or approaches, in order to emphasize a particular trend. Some shorts epitomise a particular point, such as the Christianity so present in Latin America. One such case is Hugo Correa’s ironic “When Pilate Said No” (Chile, 1971) and Jose B. Adolph’s shorter but effective “The Falsifier” (Peru, 1972). Both deal with a messiah dislocated in place (alien planet and culture, in the former) and time (the Latin American past, in the latter). A third example, Cuban Daína Chaviano’s “The Annunciation” (1983), shows the impulse toward religious transgression (more likely to occur in the Marxist Cuba?), here centred on the Christian myth of Mary’s pregnancy: it is a slow-paced account of Mary’s seduction by Gabriel, with the extraterrestrial context almost dropped in as an afterthought. These stories reminded me of Gumercindo Rocha Dorea’s 1989 anthology of Brazilian Christmas stories, Enquanto Houver Natal… (As Long as There Is Christmas…), with pieces by Dinah Silveira de Queiroz, Ivan Carlos Regina, Marien Calixte, Henrique Flory, and others. Dorea, a Catholic, had tried to assemble a similar anthology in the 60s but failed (Queiroz’s story is a survival of that first attempt).

Sexually subversive stories are grouped too. Oblique and enigmatic at first, Gorodischer’s “The Violet’s Embryos” (Argentina, 1973) sometimes feels like a mix of Gene Wolfe and Richard McKenna: a rescue team finds a group of five castaways on a planet that makes, through mysterious violet spots on the ground, their (sexual) fantasies come true. The fact that they cannot create a woman leads to disquieting situations for some of the rescuers. The team parts with a question: what is real when you are so detached from consensual reality? Gorodischer’s story ended up in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 9, and her novel Kalpa Imperial made a big splash in the English-speaking world in 2003, thanks to a translation by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Next to Gorodischer’s work is “Brain Transplant” (Brazil, 1978), by Carneiro, who creates a puzzle hidden in the commonplace dynamics of a class in which a teacher presents the history of brain transplants, while his (or her) students perform different kinds of sexual and mildly scatological rituals. Here, too, one is confronted by the borders between real and imaginary situations, and between genders. This kind of exploration is particularly typical of Carneiro in works such as Piscina Livre (Free Pool, 1980) and Amorquia (Love Anarchy, 1991). His 1963 novelette “Darkness”, another example of such explorations, is available in English and was featured in a 1973 best-of-the-year anthology.

The editors of Cosmos Latinos observe that the First Wave suffered a heavy blow in Latin America when authoritarian regimes came into power in several countries. In Brazil, the most self-conscious sf was replaced either by imported Anglo-American sf, or by local stories of dystopian attacks on the regime. The most celebrated example of that crop is Ignácio de loyola Brandão’s Não Verás País Nenhum (1982), available in English as And Still the Earth.

The last section in Cosmos Latinos is “Riding the Crest”, which groups stories from the late eighties to the new millennium — a time when the genre passed through a “Renaissance” in Latin America.

Many of these stories incorporate cyberpunk strategies and try (sometimes too hard) to appear modern and hip. Tavare’s 1989 “Stuntmind” is the tale of humans being hired to work as vessels by visiting aliens who want to experience all sorts of sensations through their bodies and minds. It is a marginal example of what I have called “tupinipunk”, and it has appeared in the Canadian magazines On Spec and Solaris, and in Tavare’s prize-winning collection A Espinha Dorsal da Memória (The Backbone of Memory), first published in Portugal in 1989.

Guillermo Lavín’s “Reaching the Shore” (Mexico, 1994) feels more humanist than cyberpunk sf, with a Bradburian touch. José Paul (most characters have hybrid names) is a Mexican kid whose father has became addicted to fantasy chips, after being used as a guinea pig for a new chip designed by the U.S. firm he works for. Since the addiction prevents the father from buying the boy a bicycle for Christmas, he decides to act on his own and gets too close to the trap the American capitalist presence seems to represent. Even though Lavín doesn’t feel the need to narrate as fast-paced as U.S. writers tend to do, he is a master of pace and atmosphere. The same can’t be said of Pepe Rojo’s “Gray Noise” (Mexico, 1996), a story about a cyberpunkish cameraman involved with a despairing reality show. Rojo’s neglect of local flavour left the story hanging, and weakened its over-stressed drama. More social criticism is present in Mauricio-José Schwarz’s “Glimmering on Blue Glass” (Mexico, 1996), but with an unlikely future workplace context in an ironic pulp fiction parody that denounces work exploitation. “Exerion” (Chile, 2000), by Pablo A. Castro, shows a near future in which a young man works for the same state that, when he was a child, rendered his father a “disappeared” (as happened in Chile during the Pinochet rule). Probing state computers, he rescues data on disappeared people, and suffers a “nanoraser” attack that leaves him mentally and physically crippled. Densely moody, the story also reflects upon the virtuality of games and reality: the title is taken from a fictitious video game the protagonist used to play as a child.

What to do with these national realities that suffered so much from dictatorships and economical crisis is the centrepiece of other works, such as the awarded-winning Error de Cálculo (1998), by Daniel Sorín. Feelings of desperation and social anguish trigger a death wish that is manipulated by religious figures and a populist media, and leads to a wave of suicides in Argentina. In Brazil, the constant economic crises, and the apparent failure of the returned democracy in raising the quality of life, is expressed in the not-so-successful satire Admirável Brasil Novo (Brave New Brazil, 2001) by Ruy Tapioca. The escalating urban violence that arose from the modernization process imposed during the dictatorship appears in Max Mallmann’s 2003 novel Zigurate, in stories such as Calado’s “O Altar dos nossos Corações” („The Altar of Our Hearts“, 1993), and in Henrique Flory’s “Feliz Natal, 20 Bilhões!” („Merry Christmas, 20 Billion!“, 1989).

Some of the last pieces in the anthology offer more straightforward narrative and sf tropes. Michel Encinosa’s “Like the Roses Had to Die” (Mexico, 2001) is a fast-paced adventure novelette about reshaped humans called Exotics, a bit reminiscent of Jim Young’s 1993 “Microde City”. As a woman turned into a she-wolf invades a criminal facility to rescue her mate, she stumbles upon a conspiracy to rid the solar system of all Exotics. The story grows more interesting as it advances, but a clear viewpoint is missing, which jeopardizes the story to some extent.

All in all, the literary heritage of Latin American science fiction has something unique to offer the genre. In particular, it offers unique points of view that contribute to the general dialogue the genre has established in a reality that is increasingly becoming global.


1 I must point out that in Brazil the language is Portuguese and little Spanish science fiction is translated, though some readers are used to reading Spanish translations of sf originally written in English.

2 For more on the attitudes of science fiction writers in relation to the military dictatorship, see my essay “Science Fiction During the Brazilian Dictatorship” (in: Extrapolation Winter 1998, Vol 39, No. 4. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press).

Copyright © 2005 by Roberto de Sousa Causo

Roberto de Sousa Causo is one of the leading sf writers in Brazil. He is professionally published since 1989 and his works have appeared in ten countries. He has published four books, the two short story collections A Danca das Sombras (1999) and A Sombra dos Homes (2004), the novella Terra Verde (2000)  and Ficcao Cientifica. Fantasia e Horror no Brasil: 1875 a 1950 (2003), a study of science fiction.

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