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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Science fiction from Latin America, with zombie dissidents and aliens in the Amazon

Latin American science fiction writers are leaving behind imported landscapes and story lines and setting their tales against the Amazon, Andean mountainscapes or unmistakably Latin American urban sprawl.

By Emily Hart

A spaceship lands near a small town in the Amazon, leaving the local government to manage an alien invasion. Dissidents who disappeared during a military dictatorship return years later as zombies. Bodies suddenly begin to fuse upon physical contact, forcing Colombians to navigate newly dangerous salsa bars and FARC guerrillas who have merged with tropical birds.

Across Latin America, shelves labeled “ciencia ficción,” or science fiction, have long been filled with translations of H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson and H.G. Wells. Now they might have to compete with a new wave of Latin American writers who are making the genre their own, rerooting it in their homelands and histories. Shrugging off rolling cornfields and New York skylines, they set their stories against the dense Amazon, craggy Andean mountainscapes and unmistakably Latin American urban sprawl.

The avalanche of original science fiction is timely, arriving as many readers and writers in Latin America feel choked by the folksy tropes of magical realism and desensitized by realist depictions of the region’s struggles with violence.

“Latin America has been a region of ‘today,’” Rodrigo Bastidas said in a phone interview. He is a co-founder of the Bogotá-based Vestigio, one of a few small, independent publishers of Latin American science fiction novels. “People do not have time to think about the future because they were too busy surviving the present — civil wars, revolution, dictatorship — so a lot of our literature was realist. We had a testimonial necessity.”

The current starburst of storytelling shines a different light on the region, he said: It is emancipatory, proposing freedom from recycled stories and foreign heroes.

“We are realizing that the future isn’t something we need to borrow or take from other people,” Bastidas said. “We can appropriate it, empowered by science fiction. We can create it ourselves.”

The writing, in Spanish and Portuguese, is radical and idiosyncratic, teeming with technoshamans and futuristic Indigenous aesthetics while also influenced by the region’s European and African heritages. Troubled histories and the urgency of the present inspire it, too, with themes of colonization, the climate crisis and migration.

“We need to reappropriate our future and stop thinking that we are a small, forgotten place in history, somewhere even the aliens would never come,” Colombian author Luis Carlos Barragán, a polestar for this wave, said in a phone interview. His work is Douglas Adams meets Jonathan Swift, with feet firmly on Colombian soil but head high in the cosmos.

Latin American science fiction writing goes back well over a century but has often been isolated, with less circulation than the English-language titans of the genre and no integrated regional tradition or market. Because of labyrinthine export requirements that used to make it nearly impossible to sell books outside the country of printing, editors and writers would carry their work across borders themselves, lugging suitcases stuffed with books.

Political and economic crises in Latin America in the 20th and early 21st centuries repeatedly laid waste to compensated writing and production. Few publishers would take a risk on a new or local author when Philip K. Dick was a sure seller. High paper prices and devalued local currencies made publishing even harder.

But energetic fans sustained the work, with zines passed around on floppy disks, photocopied and then read online. Increased digital access widened the space for science fiction readers and writers, and then the pandemic accelerated the sharing and discovery of what had become a sprawling and impassioned community.

“We saw that we aren’t the weirdos at the party anymore,” Bastidas said. “Similar things were happening all over the place.” Bigger publishers such as Minotauro (an imprint of Planeta) are starting to publish more original work, though small ones are still the lifeblood of the genre. Bets on little-known authors and original writing are paying off: Sales are up.

As the galaxy of local science fiction communities came into closer contact, they shared ideas and developed tactics: Publishers began to seek investment in book production through platforms such as Kickstarter and started to publish online or simultaneously with other imprints, aided by the expansion of book sales by Amazon in the region.

After beating their own path for years, Latin American science fiction writers are winning awards outside their borders, including in Spain and the United States, and garnering academic interest, including in North America: Yale held its first conference on Latin American science fiction in March.

Writers are also pulling in a breadth of tropes and influences that are often made anarchic, feminist, queer or underworldly, including noir, fantasy, Lovecraftian New Weird and punk styles made Latin American — grimy steampunk, urban cyberpunk, virtual reality set in slums or pirates flying over the Andes in zeppelins.

There is even rural “gauchopunk” complete with gaucho androids dreaming of electric emus, conjured by Argentine writer Michel Nieva in a tongue-in-cheek reference to Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

“We don’t leave anything ‘pure,’” Cuban author Erick Mota said. “We have contaminated things par excellence, and only by accepting mixture do we become ourselves and our own. There’s not a single sci-fi concept we haven’t taken and adapted to our context, turned mestizo.”

In the high Andes of Peru and Ecuador, work inspired by neo-Indigenism proliferates, casting cosmologies and aesthetics forward in time to flourish as space travel, robotics or virtual reality.

Writers in Argentina and Colombia have created a wave of body-horror-influenced science fiction known as splatterpunk, few more gag-inducing than Hank T. Cohen of Colombia or Agustina Bazterrica of Argentina, whose “Cadaver Exquisito” (“Tender Is the Flesh”) was a phenomenon on TikTok. It has been translated into multiple languages, and a television adaptation is in production.

In Brazil, Afrofuturism has taken flight, with an explosion of science fiction inspired by African heritage and culture. The works are linked closely to a rising movement against structural racism in the country, including by writers such as Ale Santos, published by HarperCollins Brasil.

In Mexico, writers such as Gabriela Damián Miravete use sci-fi to confront the epidemic of violence against women in their country. In “They Will Dream in the Garden,” which was translated into English and won the Otherwise Award, Damián gives victims a second life, building a world in which the minds of murdered women are digitally captured in holograms that “live” together in a garden.

Latin American experiences of otherness and progress pervade the new writing, particularly the label of “developing country,” rendered meaningless in distant futures or by alien invasions. Bastidas’ wryly titled anti-colonial anthology “El Tercer Mundo Después del Sol,” or “The Third World From the Sun,” was published across the Spanish-speaking world, including in Spain, where science fiction from Latin America has rarely gained traction.

In Barragán’s telescopic satire “Tierra Contrafuturo,” or “Earth Against Future,” the United States threatens to invade Colombia to manage an alien arrival, claiming that Colombia is not up to the job. Intergalactic councils demand that Earth apply for membership. The planet fails to meet the criteria to be considered civilized, and its application is rejected.

Mota finds uncharted ground in not merely rethinking the future but rewriting the past. “Habana Undergüater” imagines that the Soviet Union won the Cold War and that Americans sought refuge in Cuba, arriving on boats to try to start new lives in rundown or flooded neighborhoods. Pushing further back, Mota’s most recent novel, “El Foso de Mabuya,” or “Mabuya’s Tomb,” envisions leviathans destroying Christopher Columbus’ expedition before it arrives in the Americas and paints the continents as united under Indigenous peoples.

“We live in a time when the United States and Europe are reconsidering their histories of slavery and of colonization,” he said. “With this writing, we can overcome some old traumas.”

Immediate crises have fed subgenres such as Latin American climate fiction, or cli-fi — speculative works concerned with the environment — including the work of Ramiro Sanchiz of Uruguay, Edmundo Paz Soldán of Bolivia and Rita Indiana of the Dominican Republic, whose books are available in English. They weave climate apocalypses, time travel and virtual reality with Yoruba mythology, Amazonian deforestation and ayahuasca-inspired psychedelic plants.

Also on the rise is virus fiction born during the coronavirus pandemic; call it vi-fi. A new novel by Nieva, a winner of the O. Henry Prize, is “La Infancia del Mundo” (“The Infancy of the World”), a Kafkaesque dengue fable. And Uruguayan writer Fernanda Trías won international acclaim with “Mugre Rosa” (“Pink Slime”), a prescient combination of climate and pandemic fiction that has been translated into seven languages, in which a plague arrives on a red poisonous wind and a food crisis leaves humanity with nothing to eat but pink goo.

Short stories that play with science fiction are attracting attention in the hands of writers including Liliana Colanzi of Bolivia and Samanta Schweblin of Argentina, who is now widely translated and whose “Seven Empty Houses” won the National Book Award for translated literature last year.

Even Mars is being rewritten: Colanzi’s publishing house has, as she puts it, “one foot in the jungle, the other on Mars,” and she trod the planet in her newest collection, “Ustedes Brillan en lo Oscuro,” or “You Glow in the Dark.”

“Mars was already very colonized by Anglophone science fiction” Colanzi said. What she wanted, she said, was “to have the liberty to really create my own Martian colony.”

Whether it’s rewriting ancient worlds or conceiving new ones, the region is seeing “an explosion of imagination,” Barragán said.

“The shadow of Anglophone science fiction has been over us for a long while,” he said. “But we are rethinking what it is to be Latin American.”

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