The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction by Rachel Haywood Ferreira
Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan University Press. 2011. ISBN 9780819570826
In 2003 Wesleyan published one of the most exciting anthologies of Latin American fiction in years. Edited by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina Gavilán, Cosmos Latinos presented previously untranslated stories by writers from Spain, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador, Venezuela, Peru, and Cuba. These twenty-seven stories, dating from 1862 to 2001, shed new light on both Latin American fiction and on world sf. Aware of the book's space limitations, the editors concluded their introduction with a mouth-watering list of authors whose works they would include in a subsequent volume. That book, alas, never appeared.
Now Wesleyan has brought us The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction. Neither anthology nor literary criticism, it's an engrossing, readable history of the genesis of modern Latin American sf. Its compass is fiction from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico written between 1850 and 1920—nationally formative years during which Latin America contributed distinctive "local appropriations and local adaptations" to the "global genre" of sf. After steering us through a first chapter on utopian proto-sf, Rachel Haywood Ferreira guides us into darker territory: stories that vivify the raging conflict between Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution; that prophesy the end of the world; that pit canonical science against spiritualism, theosophy, occultism, and the like; that consider (seriously!) eugenics as a tool to counter threats to national identity; and much more. In lucid, jargon-free prose, she layers this complex story onto a meticulously constructed skeleton that is simultaneously thematic and chronological.
We discover how authors used the distancing in time and space allowed by sf to address the burning issues of national identity and its attendant political baggage of "nationality, race, and social class or profession." Complicating this issue were postcolonial relations with first-world countries of the Northern Hemisphere. This uneasy dynamic was further muddled by the investiture by Latin America in science as "the supreme guarantor of truth" and in technological advancement as the means to progress—science and technology then being localized in the United States and northern Europe. Furthermore, individual works typically addressed geographically and temporally specific political agendas of the authors, many of whom actively participated in nation-building.
Haywood Ferreira recounts this intellectually exciting literary adventure with skill and verve. Crucially, she does not assume we know anything about these authors or their political and cultural contexts. Rather, she regularly injects into accounts of their fiction doses of background that keep us on track. She thereby builds a persuasive case that viewing these works "through a lens of science fiction" illuminates "Latin American attitudes toward science, literature, national identity, and other [social and cultural] issues of their times."
Anyone with even a passing interest in Latin American literature will want Emergence and Cosmos Latinos. Both belong on your shelf next to Thomas Colchie's A Hammock beneath the Mangoes (1991), an anthology of late-twentieth-century stories, mostly in the fantastic mode, and the endlessly delightfulAntología de la literatura fantástica, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo (2nd ed., 1965; Eng. The Book of Fantasy, 1988). Optimists will leave room for future anthologies by Bell and Molina Gavilán and literary histories by Haywood Ferreira. Both of their books cry out for successors. Wesleyan, are you listening?
Michael A. Morrison
University of Oklahoma