Paul Di Filippo reviews The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction

During the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, the USA’s official attitude toward Latin America was characterized as the “Good Neighbor Policy.” A high-minded and friendly manifesto, the policy of course did little to stop self-serving American interventions in the affairs of the region for the next several decades. It did, however, incidentally give us the Disney film Three Caballeros, with its sublimely stereotyped avian cartoon icons, José Carioca representing Brazil and Panchito Pistoles standing in for Mexico. (Donald Duck, naturally, spoke for the USA.)

Lately, Wesleyan University Press seems to be embarked on its own, much wiser and more productive “Good Neighbor” program for science fiction studies. Nearly nine years ago, they published the first-ever anthology devoted wholly to Latin American SF rendered into English. Cosmos Latinos, edited by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan, provided an invaluable introduction to that hitherto underpublicized portion of the global fantastika family.

Now from Wesleyan again comes this book-length study, something of a companion volume, that will open even more eyes in those English-speaking countries unfortunately separated from their SF cousins by language barriers. In crisp, clear prose, with immense scholarly depth, Ferreira establishes both the differences and consanguinities between Northern SF and its southern partners. She evokes a plethora of old seminal works with the vividness and relevance of someone reviewing the latest bestseller, while still establishing, explicating and honoring their historical contexts.

After delineating her terminology and game plan—overhyped magical realism is out the window as a subject—Ferriera denominates her remit: she will discuss SF created in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, during the years 1850 to 1920. Further, she will approach the works thematically, tackling such core tropes as utopias, Social Darwinism and the creation of artificial beings in separate chapters.

Ferreira’s method is to devote distinct subsections to individual authors and their works, under each topical umbrella, and then to offer some observations and insights across the board. Consider as an example the section on Godofredo Barnsley and his novel São Paulo in the Year 2000. First, we get an enticing portrait of the man himself, a hybrid figure (son of Confederate exiles to Brazil) whose life reads like a steampunk adventure. Then come twelve or so pages of close attention to the text and the cultural, political and technological environment from which it arose. By the end of this examination, the reader will feel almost a first-hand acquaintance with this forgotten novel.

When you extend this treatment across a score of authors and their works, you’ll get a sense of the heft of this study.

Ferreira tells us, “At last count there are over ninety works of Latin American science fiction, from eleven different countries, published before 1920.” Given this relatively extensive corpus, she makes a point of choosing those books and short stories which have the most power to illuminate her thesis: that Lat-Am SF was a home-grown phenomenon to deal with the religious, political, and post-colonial issues of concern to the natives, while at the same time exhibiting intellectual “bonds of kinship” with, and sophisticated awareness of, northern forms of the literature.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is her discussion of Horacio Quiroga’s The Artificial Man. “Quiroga is a key figure in the transition of Latin American science fiction from the elite, scientific form of the nineteenth century to the more popular, technology-driven genre of the twentieth… As for the nascent science fiction genre, at the same time the Gernsback years were on the horizon in the United States, we find Quiroga at the juncture where the science fictional was becoming science fiction.” Thus are intimate and revealing parallels between the two spheres continuously established. Her suspenseful synopsis of the novel (with some illos reproduced too!) bears out this book’s importance.

Most of these writers will be totally unknown to even the savviest SF aficionado. One exception might be Leopoldo Lugones, once championed by Borges and with a volume of his stories from Oxford University Press currently in print. Certainly one of the more fascinating figures is a lone woman, Juana Manuela Gorriti, a true rebel and individualist with “a propensity for all that was strange, exotic and supernatural.” As with Barnsley, the portrait of her life provided by Ferreira could fuel a steampunk novel.

Free of academic cant and jargon, sure to appeal to any reader with a cosmopolitan bent, this book restores a collateral branch of the global SF family to its North American and European relatives, engineering a reunion that can only benefit everyone, north and south, east and west.



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