Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Antonio de Rivas

Chris N. Brown is the co-editor, with Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, of Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, published in January 2012 by Small Beer Press.  He writes fiction and criticism from his home in Austin, Texas.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges is the story of an invented encyclopedia entry that takes over the real world. The title requires no translation, being composed of invented place names resonant with the power of memetic conjuring. The story is source code that reprograms the brain’s capacity to perceive and manipulate the ways in which our human “reality” is constructed. Borges’s narrative detour through the curious metaphysical landscape of an obscure region of Iraq (or is it Asia Minor?) is a masterpiece of semiotic steganography—5,000 words that densely encode a cosmic epic to open chasms of unexplored space in the mind. Mandatory.

“Syzygies and Lunar Quadratures” is the short version of the title* of the first science fiction text written in the Americas—the story of a trip to the moon written by a Franciscan Friar living in Yucatan, Manuel Antonio de Rivas, around 1775.  It is probably the only science fiction ever written that caused its author to be prosecuted by the Spanish Inquisition.  The story is written in an epistolary style from the point of view of the lunar inhabitants (“Anctitones”), telling the story of a French astronomer’s visit to the moon in a winged flying machine of his own design.  The text was discovered in the Mexican National Archives among the papers collected by the Inquisition for their trial of Rivas, and was not published in Spanish until the mid-1990s. It is possible, I suppose, that it was an invented text, perhaps even one imagined by Borges.  But that does not make it any less real.

*The full title translates as “Syzygies and Lunar Quadratures Aligned to the Meridian of Mérida in the Yucatán by an Anctitone or Moon Dweller, and Addressed to the Bachelor Don Ambrosio de Echevarria, Cantor of Funeral Kyries in the Parish of Jesus of Said City, and Presently Teacher of Logarithmics in the Town of Mama in the Yucatán Peninsula, in the Year of the Lord 1775.”

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