Ecuadorian Science Fiction in a Latin American Context | Iván Rodrigo Mendizábal

By Iván Rodrigo Mendizábal

(Originally published in the American magazine, Latin American Literature Today, no. May 6, 2018, Dossier Speculative Fiction, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; once again published in the author’s blog, Todo Iván Rodrigo Mendizábal, Quito, on June 30, 2018)


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Ecuador is a producer of science fiction in Latin America. I begin with this enthusiastic assertion, because despite the fact that Ecuador is a small country, its literary output exceeds two hundred titles per year. Science fiction seeks to occupy a small piece of this action, thanks to the writers that cultivate the genre; oftentimes, they do so hand in hand with fantasy. Still, how does one understand its development without placing it in perspective alongside the other nations of the continent?

A Brief Map of Latin American Science Fiction

Ecuador entered the ring of science fiction in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, before reviewing its entry into the genre, we must briefly point out that Mexico is the country of origin for Latin American science fiction. The curious text of Friar Manuel de Rivas, Sizigia y cuadraturas lunares ajustadas al meridiano de Mérida de Yucatán por un anctíona o habitador de la Luna y dirigidas al Bachiller Don Ambrosio de Echeverría, entonador que ha sido de kyries funerales en la parroquia del Jesús de dicha ciudad y al presente profesor de logarítmica en el pueblo de Mama de la península de Yucatán; para el año del Señor 1775 (1773) opened the way for Mexico to explore the genre up until the present day, counter to other conventional literary aesthetics. In this manner, science fiction has attracted a wide variety of authors. Among them are Amado Nervo, Eduardo Urzaisz, Félix Palavicini, Diego Cañedo, Juan José Arreola, Carlos Fuentes, René Rebetez, Homero Aridiis, Bernardo Fernández, and Alberto Chimal. Furthermore, it has opened a space for magazines and the establishment of writing contests and prizes. Alongside the profuse productivity of Mexico, the other nation in which science fiction has been well-cultivated and spurred great interest is Argentina, whose story begins with Eduardo Holmberg and Viaje maravilloso del Señor Nic Nac (1875) [The Marvelous Journey of Mr. Nic Nac]. From the time of said reference, Argentine science fiction has continued to blossom with authors such as Leopoldo Lugones, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Héctor Gérman Oesterheld, Angélica Gorodischer and many others. We mustn’t discount the valuable work of science fiction theoreticians such as Pablo Cappana. This disorganized list should also include the production of magazines, and important forums that continue to the present day in that southern country. Together with these two giants, another nation that similarly began to cultivate science fiction is Brazil, with Joaquim Felício dos Santos’ Páginas do história do Brasil, escritas no ano 2000 (1868) [Pages from Brazilian History, Written in the Year 2000]. After this, there were a number of literary breakthroughs, including those of Emilia Freitas, Rodolfo Teófilo, Adalzira Bittencourt, Albino Coutinho, Jeronymo Monteiro, etc., along with magazines and forums focused on animation and science fiction.

In Andean science fiction, the precursor is undoubtedly Peru, with Lima de aquí a cien años (1843) [Lima, One Hundred Years from Now], by Julián M. de Portillo leading the way. After this book, published as a pamphlet, we list the works of Clemente Palma, Héctor Velarde, Eugenio Alarco, José B. Adolph, Enrique Prochazka, José Donayre, Daniel Salvo, and others. In the same country during the last two years, an enormous amount of work has been done in congresses and forums, alongside that of studious individuals who seek to establish a place for science fiction in Latin American and Peruvian literature. Another contributing nation is Chile, with El espejo del futuro o la visión del futuro en el año 1975 (1876) [The Mirror of the Future, or the Vision of the Future in the Year 1975], by David Tillman. His work was followed by that of Francisco Miralles, Julio Assman, Manuel Rojas, Hugo Correa, Elena Aldunate, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Baradit, and others. The third nation that has set milestones in the development of science fiction is Ecuador, with the founding work of Francisco Campos Coello, La receta, novela fantástica (1893) [The Recipe, a Fantasy Novel]. Other authors that have played important roles since that early time include Manuel Gallegos Naranjo, Juan Viteri Durand, Carlos Béjar Portilla, Santiago Páez, Abdón Ubidia, Leonardo Wild, Fernando Naranjo Espinosa, etc. As for Bolivia, the beginning of its science fiction tradition is more recent, in the twentieth century, with the short stories of Adela Zamudio. Later authors include Armando Montenegro, Álvaro Pinedo Antezana, Harry Marcus, and Iván Prado Sejas, among others. Colombia also threw its hat into the science fiction ring late, with Soledad Acosta de Samper’s “Bogotá en el año 2000” [“Bogota in the Year 2000”). The first science fiction novel, however, is José Félix Fuenmayor’s Una triste aventura de catorce sabios (1928) [The Sad Journey of Fourteen Wisemen]. This work is followed by the works of José Antonio Osorio Lizarazo, Manuel Francisco Sliger Vergara, Antonio Mora Vélez, Luis Noriega, and Héctor Abad Faciolince, among others.

The Ecuadorian Dialogue with Science Fiction

I mentioned that Ecuador began its exploration into early science fiction with a work called La receta, novela fantástica by Francisco Campos Coello. In 1893, it was published in installments on the pages of a magazine from Guayaquil, El Globo Literario; shortly thereafter, it was published as a book in 1899. It is about a utopia, or, as I call it, a “prospective fictional utopia.” Its author was a notable politician, the man who planned and carried out the immense work of bringing potable water to Guayaquil. He redesigned the city, bringing about divers works and social and political institutions when he was its mayor. The novel centers on the “future” effects of his labors, imaginarily set at the end of the last century, when all roads lead to Guayaquil. It is the center of  the market and capital investment and it doubles as an example of good governance, thanks to educational, scientific and artistic policies. Campos Coello carries out, in effect, the much-anticipated evaluation of the results of the achievements and wise decisions of “his” policies as a member of the Partido Progresista [Progressive Party]. What’s more, he does so by showing a utopian design of an island-city where there is justice, absolute welfare takes precedence, and there is true happiness in progress; it is a place where one can rediscover dreamlike-notions of the country, with principles that allow the constitution of a complete nation.

Aside from being a politician, Campos Coello was also a prolific writer and chronicler in his time. He continued writing short stories where both science fiction and fantasy were present. His other novel, Guayaquil artístico, viaje a Saturno (1900) [Artistic Guayaquil and the Journey to Saturn] – though unfinished – was published as a series in another magazine. It calls for the exploration of space.

Campos Coello (along with others who followed him, such as Manuel Gallegos Naranjo, Alberto Arias, José Antonio Campos, and others) emulates Jules Verne. His admiration for this author likely resulted from his journey to France around 1860. We can affirm, therefore, that early Ecuadorian science fiction’s first dialogue is with Verne and his extraordinary journeyings and taste for mixing scientific explanations along plot lines (owing to his desire to divulge the innovation and new scientific and technological hypotheses of his age). This is how Campos Coello writes, with simple language and entertaining arguments through which shines his erudition and scientific knowledge, demonstrating that he was well-versed in the topics he chose to write about.

We must jump as many as fifty years in order to recognize the second dialogue entertained by the representatives of Ecuadorian science fiction, with H.G. Wells. This is the case in the novel Zarkistán, by Juan Viteri Durand, as well as in Demetrio Aguilera Malta’s play, No bastan los átomos (1954) [There Aren’t Enough Atoms]. Context had shifted to the devastation of World War Two and the detonation of the atomic bomb. Wells, contrary to the positivism of the nineteenth century and sometimes to Verne’s enthusiasm, builds up a more critical sort of science fiction, a sort of alarm that underscores his skepticism. Taking his perspective into account, I have named science fiction from the Ecuadorian fifties “ciencia ficción escéptico-metafísica” [skeptic-metaphysical science fiction]. This is owing to the fact that this literature holds scientific and technological gains suspect, even more so when the rationality of such gains crashes up against the rationality of their users. From this sense emerges the notion that humans can turn every utopian project into something undesirable and therefore detestable. The consequence, for the very reason that human beings can be rendered impotent when detestability meets policy, is a sense of existential oppression. In effect, this is what one reads in Zarkistán, a novel declaration against wanting to be more than human, preferring instead to immediately embrace the utopian outlook that certain extraterrestrial communities probably offer. In Demetrio Aguilera Malta’s work, there is an imaginary island of experimentation (in its case, an island nation), held captive by a tyrant that converts human beings into war machines. In the shadow of such an image, the idea is to rid the species of that authoritarian father-figure and attempt to reestablish humanity.

Science fiction in the last third of the twentieth century is distinct in its dialogues and references. Earlier dialogue considered technologies that aided in good government, (as is the case with the works of Campos Coello and others), or of science and technology that, contrarily, operate as bio-political mechanisms. Now, with a gaze turned toward a new millennium, the worries that confront new authors concern robots, the exploration of space, computers, genetic modifications, cloning, etc. I shall focus upon three contemporary authors of science fiction, including some who have crossed the border into the twenty-first century.

An unusual case is that of Carlos Béjar Portilla; he is an author that has – perhaps – opened the way for a new Ecuadorian science fiction, drinking from the open veins of Ray Bradbury and Jorge Luis Borges. He looks to transcendent and even metaphysical questions that have tension with new technologies. This quality is what distinguishes his work, particularly his anthologies of short stories: Simón el mago (1970) [Simon the Magician], Osa Mayor (1970) [She-Bear], and Samballah (1971). These are not books that openly criticize technology or how it is viewed in the social environment, as Wells would have done. Rather, they advance questions about the overlap between the physical body and technology, the human soul and the capacity to make machines “come to life”, and the camouflaged omnipresence of machines in social and family life, a matter that has become “natural” in the daily experience. In this manner, Béjar Portilla goes beyond his time by focusing upon the questions about hyperreality that would become more common at the end of the twentieth century.

Considering Bradbury and the impression left by Aldous Huxley, it is important to cite the example of Leonardo Wild. He focuses his literary work upon the mixing of adventure and scientific explanation, a mix that has served as a pretext to present novels of a reflexive character, aimed at adolescent audiences. It is for this reason that, for example, Orquídea negra o el factor vida (1999) [Black Orchid or the Life Factor] is a work that considers a planetary catastrophe caused by its own inhabitants who, ambitious for power, have deteriorated it. There is also Cotopaxi, alerta roja (2006) [Cotopaxi, Red Alert], which focuses upon the possible eruption of the Cotopaxi volcano and the resulting problems that involve political decisions weighed down by special interests. In 2013, Wild brought about the Spanish edition of a book that was originally published in German, Unemotion (1996), with the title Yo artificial o el futuro de las emociones (2013) [Artificial Me and The Future of Emotions]. In it, he also considers the environmental deterioration of Earth and the sociopolitical problems that the process brings with it. It can be said that Wild places his books upon the axes of anxiety over human decisions, feelings, human character regarding environmental determinations and nature. That is to say, his worries are are oriented to show how many of humanity’s decisions impact life itself on Earth.

Another example is found in Santiago Páez, an author that establishes a dialogue of principles with the work of Úrsula K. Le Guin. His anthology is seminal. Profundo en la galaxia (1994) [Deep in the Galaxy] relates life in space and space exploration with the indigenous world; per the author, sociocultural interrelations and knowledge that can be established between two distinct worlds. Corollary to said work is Shamanes y Reyes (1999) [Shamen and Kings]. In one sense, his reflection becomes political in Crónicas del breve reino (2006, reprinted in 2017 in a definitive edition) [Chronicles of the Brief Kingdom], a work in four parts about the history of an imaginary Ecuador whose end is seen in a post-apocalyptic future. This novel about the failure of society as a result of intertwined political and capitalist interests stands in contrast to his graphic novel Angelus Hostis (2012, coauthored with Rafael Carrasco) [Enemy Angel] about a futuristic city stalked from within by malign beings. Nevertheless, his critical speech about social and political failure reaches its maximum in Ecuatox® (2013), a dystopia, and Antiguas ceremonias (2015) [Ancient Ceremonies], an atopia. In both, even though they further distinct arguments, the readers will note disbelief in imposed projects that do not consider reality by people with their own dreams and projections. This long-term vision and imaginary historical tension that determines the course of societies is, it may be said, how Isaac Asimov influenced Páez. His dialogue with science fiction is about the political determinism of science and technology in people’s lives, a matter that his work clearly defines and that is of great importance to Ecuadorian literature.

Ecuadorian Science Fiction in Dialogue with the Thesis of Latin American Literature

It must be affirmed that Ecuadorian literature, in consonance with Latin American literature, is probably different from what is produced in the Anglo-Saxon world, from whence modern science fiction originally emerged.

What marks this literature as unique from the Anglo-Saxon or Russian varieties is that within its plots, voices of “others” bubble up, the mythical voices of ancestral peoples and of the fantastical airs that they carry. Ángel Rama, in his Transculturación narrativa en América Latina (1982) [Narrative Trans-culturalization in Latin America] states that every society develops its thought and its self-awareness through stories or interpretive systems, founded in the reality in which they live; it is with them that a society seeks to explain the unknown and the uncontrollable. Such narratives explain a given society in the moment that it considered its relationship with reality. Societies are constituted in myths, and these myths do not do not only refer to the past, but also to social and cultural anxieties as they relate to the “ultra-terrestrial space.” This is the foundation of modern science fiction, by its own judgement – anxieties that reflect a new society in the moment that it goes beyond the known path of the last. In the explanation given by Rama there is a tension in the actual nature of contemporary Latin American science fiction: this is a product of the dialogue with the marks of post-modernity or of advanced technologies, or of the new anxieties that are born of scientific experimentation, the erasure of identity (even physical identity ) upon the digital place, etc., with many signs of a new, rising society. Nevertheless, the voice of the past also remains. This results in a mixing of myths, foundational and post-foundational. We must reaffirm that societies are ever-changing and their respective literatures – especially science fiction – are the myths that speak of their metamorphoses, knowing full well that they cannot rid themselves of the voices of the past.

The perspective of the origin myth – the tension that rules in the hearts of Latin American nations between their still-vibrant past and the much-sought-after future – supplies another difference to science fiction: it concerns the embrace of the modern and the ultra-modern with the ever-desired horizon of hope. As was seen in the earliest Ecuadorian science fiction, this idea of embracing the future quickly crashes up against the idea of the evils such an embrace could cause (think of the existential image produced by human crisis) that transcends the very core of humanity and leaves a feeling of instability and anxiety for the future. It can be said that, in the beginning, it appeared that this tension is what would identify science fiction with fantasy, just as Carlos Fuentes suggests in a chapter of his book En esto creo (2002) [This I believe]. Later, however, that situation has come to mark in literature the idea of a demarkation, an emplaced “other” where the future is out of time. From this we can indicate that the future, without a political project, opens up a possibility for science fiction. This is what is present in much Ecuadorian science fiction, in the same sense that many works dialogue about unresolved conflict, the arrival of an “otherness” distinct from power, the end of the idea of nationhood, etc. This is just how certain pieces of Andean science fiction would seem to demonstrate (I think of the Colombian, Angosta [Narrow] by Héctor Abad Faciolince, the Bolivian De cuando en cuando Saturnina [Every Once in a While Saturnine], by Allison Spedding, the Peruvian, Mañana, las ratas [Tomorrow, the Rats], by José B. Adolph, along with the Ecuadorian Crónicas del breve Reino [Chronicles of the Brief Kingdom], by Santiago Páez).

In 1957, the Ecuadorian Benjamin Carrión tried to move the conversation forward by thinking of science fiction in times of change in an article by the same name published in Caracas, now contained in the book La suave patria y otros textos (1998) [The Smooth Country and Other Texts]. He said that it was a type of literature based on “hipótesis audaces, con libre vuelo de la fantasía. [Es] la obligada respuesta a la avidez del mundo actual por seguir, caballero en el potro con bridas de la imaginación, el desproporcionado avance de la técnica, sin correspondencia posible, cuantitiva o cualitiva, con el avance ético” [audacious hypotheses, with free flight from fantasy. It is the obliged answer to the continuous greed of the current world, a rider upon a wild horse with the bridles of imagination, the disproportionate advance of technique without the possibility of correspondence, be it quantitative or qualitative, with ethical advance]. From this perspective, a realist image of society is stuck in debate with the effects of technique and science in a hypothetical form that can even scratch at fantasy. The great problem, however, is ethics (as Carrión states). As I see it, a latent question in modern Latin American and Ecuadorian science fiction is how much can be recovered or, if the reader should so wish, if an ethical community can be reestablished – a community that respects its founding principles and, at the same time, invents from them, even if it is imaginarily, imaginatively, their possibility at a future.

Translated by Michael Redzich

About the translator:

Michael Redzich is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He earned degrees in Spanish and Letters, and intends to pursue a legal education upon graduation. Michael came to OU in 2013 from Jackson, Wyoming, where he grew up with his parents and one brother. He spent the past two years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and looks forward to seeing more of Latin America: the places, the people, the literature, and more. 

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