An anthology of Argentine science fiction
Selection, prologue and notes by Adriana Fernández and Edgardo Pígoli
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon, 2004)
A century of Argentine science fiction:
A survey of the genre in our country.
In one episode of The X-Files, detective Fox Mulder delivers a speech in which he disavows the existence of extraterrestrials, and then tells his doctor that he no longer believes that beings from another planet had kidnapped his sister. He has grown to doubt even his own memories. Now he maintains that it has all been a government plot. Mulder cannot cease to suspect. However, despite everything, the extraterrestrials continue to be an enigma and many bodies continue to disappear.
Times are different; the future is at hand. It dwells in the present.
Why begin the prologue to an anthology of Argentine science fiction stories with this brief story?
First of all, because the X-files series is a contemporary expression of the very genre which we are discussing. But also because agent Mulder cites a change -- leading from extraterrestrials on one hand to suspicion of government plots on the other -- which represents an historic metamorphosis in this genre. Argentine literature has processed these modifications in its own particular way. That transformation -- to which we will return at the end of this prologue -- is what these selected stories seek to illustrate.
One could claim that science fiction is defined by its very name: it is a scientific fiction. However, this obvious solution does not resolve the theoretical difficulties inherent in trying to give a one-size-fits-all definition.
What remains indisputable is that technology and its consequences are central to science fiction. This genre constructs its plausibility in terms of what science and technology depict as novel, extrapolating the technical possibilities of the real world into fiction.
With the proliferation of scientific discoveries, realism has had to open itself up to new regions where it has established strange connections with the genre of fantasy.
The beginning of the 20th Century provided repeated instances of the merger of the figures of the writer and the scientist. This image, peculiar to positivism, was consistent with the notion that the present is no longer mysterious, and it dominated a good part of the literary production that came together between the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th.
The first examples of the genre appeared in Argentina with Eduardo L. Holmberg, Leopoldo Lugones, and Horacio Quiroga. In their works, science was the discourse which explained those things which defied realist representation. In their works then is the inaugural gesture in this attempt to couple science and fiction.
In the three stories which we present from these authors, science begins with the body, exploring the scientific materializations of the doppelganger. The disturbing possibility of the existence of this double had already appeared in distinct works of world fantasy literature as, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, E. T. A. Hoffman’s The sand-man and R. L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
The “automata” in Holmberg and the “shadow” in Lugones explore the sinister aspect of the doppelganger. In Quiroga the appearance of that other is already mediated by a timely scientific discovery which links science fiction and film for the first time.
During the first half of the 20th century, even in our country, science fiction has suffered from the impact of the technological possibilities of modern industrialized society. Of the new forms which emerged, cinema and television most captured the interest of the public. It is in this context that Adolfo Bioy Casares’ La invención de Morel, (Morel’s invention) appeared in 1940, that seminal text of what we can now call Argentine science fiction. Picking up where Quiroga had left off, Bioy places the logic of the machine -- this one invented by Morel -- at the service of fantasy. Borges, in his prologue to the novel, leaves the traditional definitions behind and predicts a new genre which could well be the origin of what we would later recognize as the paranoid tale. Borges says precisely, “In Spanish, the works of reasoned imagination are infrequent and even exceedingly rare. The classics exercised allegory, the exaggerations of satire and, occasionally, mere verbal incoherence(...) La invención de Morel (the title of which alludes filially to that other island inventor, Moreau) translates a new genre to our lands and to our language.” [NOTE: English translation by Ruth L. Simms, 1964, University of Texas Press]
The stories in this collection by Borges and Bioy [or Bustos Domecq, a frequent pseudonym for either Borges or the pair] fall in a similar vein. While “Esse est percipi” takes on the idea of the world as an illusion with a certain irony, “Otra esperanza” (A different hope) distances itself from those texts of this author which are most closely associated with a certain stereotype of the genre -- as is the case of “El calamar opta por su tinta” (The squid chooses through its ink). Thus, Bioy draws closer to a strange form of the fantastic and uses science to lead us into the realm of paranoia. In his stories a delirium of interpretation is unleashed when the possibilities of an invention replace the invention itself.
For its part, in “Utopía del hombre que está cansado” (A tired man’s Utopia) Borges achieves a kind of condensation of the genre’s forms and themes, giving them at once a national imprint: the story is situated in our own pampas, the story “Esse est percipi” is quoted, and the words of Emilio Oribe, a character from Bioy’s El perjurio de la nieve (The perjury of the snow) are invoked. As for its relation to the most classical elements of science fiction, the story treats the idea of intergalactic travel as a given but, on the other hand, gives it a new twist.
While Borges and Bioy Casares established their own relation with the genre, texts like those from [Héctor German] Oesterheld and [Eduardo] Goligorsky place themselves in a different zone of science fiction. “Sondas” (Probes) and “Una muerte” (A death) still theorize happy encounters with beings from other worlds as possible; in this sense, the stories fit within that category of the genre identifiable with the works of Ray Bradbury. On the other hand, “En el último reducto” (In the last refuge) toys with a certain sense of deception; that is, that the expectations placed in the utopia of the beyond, of outer space, run out, and one is forced to live with the hostility of one’s own homeland.
We might say that the consolidation of Argentine science fiction begins in the 1950s and that the affirmation of the genre in this country can be ascribed to the success of a group of magazines and collections of stories in the genre which appeared and reappeared over the succeeding decades.
Students of the history of the genre, like Pablo Capanna, have compiled a minute and exhaustive inventory of these publications of which we shall limit ourselves to only the most resonant: the magazine Más Allá (Beyond: 1953-7), the magazine Minotauro (Minotaur: 1964-8 and 1983-6), and the magazine Péndulo (Pendulum: 1979, 1981-2). These magazines, along with others, and together with the books of the well-known Minotauro collection popularized the foreign classics for the Argentine public. They did the same for our national authors: Gardini, Gaut Vel Hartman, Vanasco, Siscar,...
During these years, Angélica Gorodischer stands out, along with Adolfo Bioy Casares, as the other pillar of Argentine SF literature. The author entered SF with her book Opus dos (Work two: 1967) and from there transformed herself into one of its principal advocates. “A la luz de la casta luna electrónica” (By the light of the chaste electronic Moon) adopts a colloquial style, at the same time that it installs the feminine voice in a genre notable up to this point by its exclusively male perspective.
For her part, Ana María Shúa distinguishes herself with a surprised exploration of bodies in the most diverse relationships, thereby profiling distinct modes of eroticism. “Octavio, the invader” (Octavio, el invasor) was published in 1984, during the magazine Minotauro’s second epoch, and is representative of the latest expansive wave of the genre.
Also with a markedly local tone -- as with Gorodischer’s case --, Roberto Fontanarrosa retakes control, in “Plebster...”, of a tradition which, with its classical components, reminds one of Bradbury as much as Oesterheld. In this case, as in many others of his stories, Fontanarrosa places the tools of humor at the disposal of the SF genre, allowing us to explore its most intimate inner workings. The story we have chosen uses those most predictable tools of science fiction and is, at the same time, a perfect loving homage to the genre.
Having displayed and enjoyed the classic forms, a type of story emerges in which the genre changes. Effectively, and as in detective Mulder’s story at the start of this prologue, the future has caught up with this postindustrial society, and lives alongside it. The tone of the stories turns shadowy and fatalistic. From this period come the two final stories of this selection.
In “Llano del sol” (Plains of the sun), Elvio Gandolfo conceives of the future as a negative utopia -- a hostile place where the notion of progress breaks down -- and presents new technologies living side by side with old customs and ancient modes of interpersonal relations.
It would seem that at the end of the century, science fiction once again confronts reality and offers an answer which realistic representation cannot yet provide. How to construct a narrative capable of perceiving a real world which seems defined by science fiction, a world in which ancient predictions of the future have already come to pass?
A response might be the texts of Marcelo Cohen, who transcends the very genre without abandoning it. His characteristic consists of composing a view which excites the real, which perceives its own and contemporaneous spaces as strange. With the devotion with which the utopianists constructed their cities, Cohen arms a space which is the result of the synthesis of diverse modes of representation: the superposition of the new with the old, and also with that which is yet to come.
The future of the future
From the threat of rule by extraterrestrials to the paranoid suspicion of the power of cutting edge technology, we have laid out the metamorphosis of the genre which Mulder synthesized at the beginning of this prologue.
Having arrived at this stage of the journey, it remains to ask about the future of our science fiction. How will we conceive of the future in the future?
Even if esthetics like cyberpunk may signal dead ends for the genre in other countries, the present scene in Argentina seems to be different. Perhaps one might consider that the register in the change of the genre is different and proper: that in Argentina the monster is not dying, merely changing.
Adriana Fernández was born in Buenos Aires in 1970. She is Professor of Letters and a researcher. She has worked in diverse journalistic media. She is coeditor of Sexshop. Cuentos eróticos argentinos (Sexshop: Argentine erotic tales: 1998) and author of El valle (The valley: poems, 2000).
Edgardo Pígoli, poet and critic, was born in 1966. He is a graduate in Letters of the University of Buenos Aires. He has given courses in cinema and literature at the Ricardo Rojas Cultural Center and has published articles in specialized journals. He is author of Último habitante (The last inhabitant: 1993) and La chinesa (The Chinawoman: 1998). He directs the poetry collection Pez náufrago (Shipwrecked fish) in Ediciones del Dock.
Horacio Kalibang o los autómatas
(Horacio Kalibang, or the automata) -- Eduardo L. Holmberg, 1879 15
Un fenómeno inexplicable
(An unexplainable phenomenon) -- Leopoldo Lugones, 1906 39
(The vampire) -- Horacio Quiroga, 1935 51
Utopía de un hombre que está cansado
(A tired man’s Utopia) -- Jorge Luis Borges, 1975 77
(A different hope) -- Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1978 87
Esse est percipi
(To be is to be perceived [Latin]) -- Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1967 101
Sondas. Una muerte
(Probes. [2 “poems in prose”], A death) -- Héctor Germán Oesterheld, 1968 & 1965 107
En el último reducto
(The last refuge) -- Eduardo Goligorsky, 1967 117
A la luz de la casta luna electrónica
(By the light of the chaste electric moon) -- Angélica Gorodischer, 1977 127
Octavio, el invasor
(Octavio, the invader) -- Ana María Shúa, Minotauro: 1984 147
Plebster y Orsi, del planeta Procyon
(Plebster and Orsi, from the planet Procyon) -- Roberto Fontanarrosa, 1993 159
Llano del sol
(Plains of the sun) -- Elvio Gandolfo, 1994 173
El fin de lo mismo
(The end of the same) -- Marcelo Cohen, 1992 205