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At the beginning of the 1980s, Mexican science fiction was facing a death spiral. Then, suddenly, something odd happened: a whole new generation of writers started producing original, unique tales that were not knockoffs of American or British writers. Mexican science fiction was about to hit a stride.

What was the big push behind this science fiction boom? A contest organized by the CONACYT and the State Council of Science and Technology of Puebla, with the winning short stories earning publication in the non-fiction scientific publication Ciencia y Desarrollo. It was not the first time Ciencia y Desarrollo had featured science fiction in its pages. It had included stories by foreign authors, and in 1983 printed its first Mexican science fiction story titled "La tia panchita."

Nevertheless, the National Contest of Short Science Fiction Puebla and its partnership with Ciencia y Desarrollo ensured that much more national fiction made it into each number. The winner of the first contest was Mauricio-José Schwarz in 1984. Schwarz, along with other writers such as Federico Schaffler—who also headed the speculative magazine Umbrales: literatura fantástica de México (1992-2000) epitomized the new Mexican science fiction movement: young, eager, and bold in its languages and structure.[1]

These awards and new wave of writers seemed to indicate Mexican science fiction was coming into its own. However, after riding high for twenty years, this wave of confidence crashed again in the 2000s. But where did Mexican science fiction originate? Who were the precursors that helped launch the '80s boom? And how exactly did we go from bust to boom to another bust in the 2000s?

Muerte

Su nombre era muerte by Rafael Bernal.

In the Beginning

While Mexican fantasy has grown lush and verdant in the shape of magic realism, science fiction has had a more difficult time taking root. It began in the 18th century, thanks to a little known Franciscan priest called Manuel Antonio Rivas, who got in trouble with the Spanish Inquisition for, among other things, writing a science fiction story with an extremely long title.[2] Antonio Rivas was accused of unbecoming behavior for a priest. He read banned books, wrote "defamatory" pieces about other priests (which he distributed after mass), and created an astronomical calendar that included a short science fiction story imagining what it would be like to travel to the moon.

Afterwards, José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi dedicated two chapters about a utopic island in his novel El periquillo sarniento (1816), which criticized and parodied Spanish rule and its entire colonial structure, and is hailed as an example of nation building and developing a Mexican identity severed from the Spanish.[3] Just like his predecessor, Lizardi ended up in jail and Spanish officials seized his book (effectively stopping the printing of the first Latin American novel in its tracks). A decade after Mexico's independence, the book hit the streets, but by then Lizardi was dead of tuberculosis and in an anonymous grave.

Things looked brighter afterwards. In 1840, the literary magazine El ateneo mexicano published a short story titled "Mexico in the Year 1970." Pedro Castera published "Un viaje celeste" in 1872, and a novel titled Querens (1890), which could be considered the first Mexican science fiction novel.[4]

In the midst of this came Amado Nervo, Mexico's most famous poet. Born in 1870, he is one of the founding figures of contemporary Latin American science fiction, along with Horacio Quiroga from Uruguay and Leopoldo Lugones of Argentina. The Kalpa award was named after one of Nervo's poems and was given to distinguished works of Mexican science fiction from 1992 to 1999. Francisco L. Urquizo, a General best known for his revolutionary accounts such as Tropa viega, also dabbled in science fiction. He penned some short stories (one about an invisible man) and a science fiction novel, Mi tio Juan (genius invents way to feed the world's poor).

There was also Eduardo Urzáiz Rodríguez's Eugenia (1919), a pre-Huxley sort of story about the dystopian Subconfederacy of Central America in the year 2218. Described as "an apology of eugenics and free love . . . foreseeing in vitro fertilization and possibly cloning through the State Institute of Eugenics . . . . "[5] his novel is timely and oddly futuristic and imagines a world where changes in fertility will have profound social implications.

Diego Cañedo's El réferi cuenta nueve (1942) dealt with a parallel universe in which Mexico has been invaded by Nazis.[6] Of note is the political climate of the time,[7] with Ross Larson indicating that "Cañedo was dismayed by the general acceptance in Mexico of Nazi propaganda. In order to influence public opinion against Hitler and in support of the United States, he wrote an impressive futuristic novel."[8] Cañedo returned to science fiction two more times, with a time-travel novel and a third book about a machine that reads people's thoughts.[9]

Also of note is Rafael Bernal's Su nombre era muerte (1947). Bernal's novel can be summarized as the story of a man who escapes civilization and learns to talk to mosquitoes. It's depressing, bleak, and frankly quite bizarre. Bernal wrote a couple of other novels set in the Mexican jungle based on his personal experiences there, but this was his only work of science fiction. Despite these imaginative writers and their work, Mexican science fiction floundered.

While the Golden Age of Science Fiction was in full swing in the United States from 1930s through the 1950s, no such thing was taking place in Mexico. Three factors contributed to this bizarre drought. Although literacy rates in Mexico since have increased, back then it was a different story. Even nowadays reading is not a Mexican common pastime. In a country of 111 million people (some 20 million of these living in Mexico City and its suburbs), each person reads about half a book a year (though a more recent survey of reading habits pegged it at 2.9 books a year, still a rather low figure).[10]

In addition to low literacy, Mexico underwent a decade long revolution, spanning from 1910 to 1920. In the introduction to the anthology Cosmos Latinos, Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan state that "In general . . . Mexican literature was characterized by predilection for stark realism that followed upon the protracted violence and social upheaval of the Mexican Revolution."[11] An emphasis on Mexican culture after the Revolution—what it means to be Mexican and a redefinition of a country wrecked by constant battles—was a natural outcome. However, it meant that flights of fancy took second place to nation-building. Especially when such flights of fantasy had strong associations with the work of foreigners. The adoption of magic realism as a form of expression—which after all, often emphasized nationalistic concerns—meant the exclusion of any other speculative literature from bookshelves.

Finally, there was the economy. People simply could not (and many still cannot) afford books.[12] They could, however, afford comic books. Cheap comic books could be acquired for a few pesos. Superheroes like Kaliman[13] got big because they were affordable. Comic books also had another advantage: distribution. Available at news-stands, a blue collar worker would be more prone to and less prone to walk into a bookstore.

It wasn't easy for science fiction to find a foothold upon this climate. Some writers, best known for their literary works, nevertheless continued to dabble in science fiction. Juan José Areola, an anti-realist with a taste for the fantastic and humorous, included "Baby HP" (harvesting energy using a child's movements through an artificial suit) and "Anuncio" (an advertisement for a life-sized sex doll) in his collection of fantastic tales titled Confabulario and Other Invention (1952). Carlos Fuentes, the well-known author of La región más transparente and La muerte de Artemio Cruz wrote "En defensa de la trigolibia" (a satire of the Cold War) and "El que inventó la pólvora" (a criticism of consumerist culture) in his collection Los días enmascarados (1954), which also included fantasy stories.

Cosmos Latinos

Cosmos Latinos by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan.

Ask your average reader about Nervo, Fuentes, and Urquizo's contributions to early Mexican science fiction and you'll get a blank stare. These authors are not known for their genre fiction. Generally, such incursions are ignored. One reason is simply because science fiction—at least in its traditional shape of rockets and robots—has been perceived as eminently foreign. There is truth in this. The constant importing of movies, TV shows, and books from English-language writers has created an idea of what science fiction should and should not be, leaving little space for a Mexican point of view; it's low-brow entertainment, Hollywood bang-bang.[14]

Mexican science fiction tends to focus on human aspects: the interaction of politics, economics, religion, and people. You'll find many dystopias because Mexico endured seven decades of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The raw memories of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 remain.[15] Poverty and crime walk along you in the subway. But there's also a certain bold optimism, the realization that Mexico will carry on—it always has—despite its hardships.

Cosmos Latinos finds three broad qualities in Spanish-language science fiction: its social sciences orientation over hard technological questions, its interest in religion, and its humor. In his introduction to Más allá de lo imaginado, Federico Schaffler states that Mexican science fiction is distinguished by its literary quality. Gerardo H. Porcayo once said it is grim in tone and subject matter.

Mexican science fiction scholar Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, for his part, maintains that Mexican science fiction "has a desire to give voice and a national flavor to our characters and situations they live. There is a nervous tic that imposes our black humor onto the future . . . a desire to destroy the country and send the political classes to hell . . . there are too many apocalypses in our science fiction and few utopias."

Unclassifiable as literature, unable to sell as commercial fiction, science fiction sat (and still sits) in an odd spot. As the fifties came to an end, it was obvious this precarious perch, along with the other factors already mentioned, was wreaking havoc on the young genre.

Boom and Bust

Through the next few years, authors like Marcela del Rio, Rene Aviles Fabila, and Alfredo Cardona Peña produced numerous science fiction stories. Crononauta, a high-quality science fiction magazine helmed by René Rebetez and Alejandro Jodorowsky became legendary after it appeared and quickly folded within two issues in 1964. There were novels like La pildora maravillosa, about a world that becomes sterile (1970) or Mejicanos en el espacio (1968), a space opera in which Martians drink tequila and fly a spaceship named Tenochtitlan. There was also the winner of the Premio Novela México Trasterra (1973), which combines an apocalyptic scenario with religion.

But things were not going swimmingly. Yes, it had been difficult for Mexican science fiction to find a place before, but now it was even harder. Spanish-language editions of English-language publications had been appearing steadily and popularizing American and British authors: Los cuentos fantásticos (Mexican edition of Famous Fantastic Mysteries), Enigmas (Mexican edition of Startling Stories) and Ciencia y fantasía (Mexican edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). Translations of anthologies flooded the market.

Competition from English-language markets quickly dampened Mexican science fiction, which brings us to the topic of malinchismo, one of the legacies of colonialism. Malinchismo refers to the preference of everything foreign over the native. This leads to the bizarre practice of having ads for makeup and creams that feature blonde, Nordic women, and never a dark-haired female. This preferential treatment of the foreign led to bookshelves that included translations of well-known American authors, but seldom featured Mexican writers (the demands of Spanish language editions of magazines such as Ciencia y Fantasía that the publication contain a high-percentage of translated tales also contributed to this phenomenon), which meant an uphill battle for anyone trying to publish science fiction in Mexico.

Fuentes

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes.

Mexican science fiction was, at that point, an endangered species. It got a life line in 1984 with that famous science fiction contest organized by the State Council of Science and Technology of Puebla. It was an injection of adrenaline which gave us the three-volume anthology Más allá de lo imaginado (containing the first Mexican cyberpunk story), along with several novels and scholarly studies on the subject, like Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz's look at the history of Mexican science fiction in Biografias del Futuro: La ciencia ficcion mexicana y sus autores (2000). This served to create a climate that both allowed authors to connect with other science fiction fans, and to showcase their work in widely distributed literary publications like Tierra Adentro. There was even an effort by comic book publisher Editorial Vid to launch an annual science fiction novel contest, which lasted for several years.

The 2004 edition of the Diccionario de literatura mexicana: Siglo XX has an entry on Mexican science fiction, where it talks about the '80s and post 1980s generation as one composed of "Authors who enjoy a certain freedom . . . because they do not insert themselves in market demands, and seek more profound personal aspirations."

Freedom. Experimentation. Creativity. For a while, it looked like things were going well. There was even an explosion of cheap fanzines circulating around the comic book stores, testaments of a happy, little science fiction movement. But, as Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz put it during an e-mail exchange: "Beginning in 1990 . . . during a dozen years, there was a conscientious intent to create a science fiction community . . . it didn't take root because commercial editorials didn't bet on Mexican science fiction."

Quickly, the science fiction contests that had emerged closed their doors, the editorials turned their eyes away from this subgenre, and it was back to square one. Nowadays Muñoz sees stories about the impact of technology, cyberspace, justice, and political equality dominating contemporary science fiction. However, he also sees a boom that is over and a situation where "even though all the great Mexican writers have practiced it [science fiction] . . . . [they] are ashamed to say it in public." In short, he sees a movement that has disbanded and a genre that continues to struggle to be noticed in the national literature scene.

And with that, Muñoz looks mournfully at a future that never was, now that the grand science fiction awards of the '90s have disappeared, and that magazines and editorials have stopped the presses. Nowadays, there are no major Mexican science fiction magazines in the news-stands (though one can rummage for an English-language copy of Asimov's) and no major science fiction publishers.

However, the cinema has seemed to embrace Mexican science fiction: five Mexican science fiction movies debut in 2010.[16] These include 2033, first of a proposed trilogy about a dystopian Mexico City, as well as Noche sin Cielo, which was been described as a disaster flick, Mexican style, and La última muerte, with soap-opera star Kuno Becker as an amnesiac on the run. An older release also worth mentioning is Sleep Dealer (2009), about a young Mexican worker who is implanted with sensors so he can control a robot in an another location, the ultimate in cheap labor.

But the future of Mexican science fiction is not wholly within the Silver Screen. With projects like the Minibúks published by the Autonomous University of Baja California (very short books containing science fiction stories), and the accessibility and affordability of e-zines, a ripe future for Mexican science fiction is coming to fruition.

Footnotes

[1] Some of these new wave titles include Xxyëröddn (1984), which is described in Latin American Science Fiction Writers: an A-to-Z Guide as "a type of space opera that combines the gothic, destructive environment lacking in the sexual taboos of the Marquis de Sade with the poetry, scenarios, names, and neologisms that are part of the great creation and attraction of Samuel R. Delany." Also: La primera calle de la soledad (1993) by Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, the first Mexican cyberpunk novel and El dedo de oro (1996) by Guillermo Sheridan, a social satire against the then ruling PRI party set in the year 2029, when Mexico City's sky is perpetually blocked by pollution and the president is a cyborg copy of a famous, real-life political figure.

[2] The full title is "Sizigias y cuadraturas lunares ajustadas al meridiano de Mérida de Yucatán por un anctítona o habitador de la luna, y dirigidas al bachiller don Ambrosio de Echeverría, entonador de kyries funerales en la parroquia del Jesús de dicha ciudad, y al presente profesor de logarítmica en el pueblo de María de la península de Yucatán." Some of the short fiction published during this time period (and before) can be found online here .

[3] Biografias del Futuro: La ciencia ficción mexicana y sus autores. Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz. Universidad Autonoma de Baja California. 2000. Page 35.

[4] Latin American Science Fiction Writers: an A-to-Z Guide. Darrell B. Lockhart.

[5] "Eugenia," article by Miguel Angel Morales. Reforma. México D.F., México. October 22, 2000.

[6] "Breve Historia de la Ciencia Ficción Mexicana. Miguel Angel Fernández. 2005.

[7] Los Nazis en México by Juan Alberto Cidello (2007) offers a non-fiction look at Nazi activity leading up and during World War II, including the revelation that Nazis collaborated with Stalin's men to assassinate Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán, Mexico City.

[8] Fantasy and Imagination in the Mexican Narrative. Ross Larson. Tempe: Arizona State University, 1977.

[9] For more information on this author, consult "Diego Cañedo: Ciencia ficción y crítica social en tres novelas mexicanas de los años cuarenta" by Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta.

[10] "México encabeza en América Latina la piratería de libros." Diariocritico de México. January 19, 2007. More recent study can be found at "Se leen 2.9 libros por persona al año, revelan cifras." February 17, 2010.

[11] Cosmos Latinos. Andrea Bell and Yoland Molina-Gavilan. Wesleyan. 2003. Page 5.

[12] Nowadays, about 18 percent of Mexico's population lives in poverty, using food-based definition of poverty; asset based poverty amounts to more than 47 percent, leaving little money for books. CIA World Fact Book: Mexico.

[13] The comic book industry in Mexico has been rich and bountiful, producing everything from romances like Rarotonga to what might be labeled fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Kaliman, introduced in the '60s, is a crime fighter who can use telepathy and telekinesis to foil the bad guys. But even "regular" comic books like La Familia Burron (imagine The Simpsons, before they were ever dreamt of) included, among its cast of characters, a vampire and a living skeleton. A look at the Mexican comic book and its fantastic elements could take a whole other article. Or a book. But it's worth mentioning how the fantastic has diverged and taken root far from the bookstore.

[14] It's ironic that books such as Su Nombre Era Muerte were ignored because they were believed to be un-Mexican and foreign due to their science fiction themes, even though they are quite different from contemporary American science fiction stories. Su Nombre Era Muerte was reissued five years ago after five decades, which might indicate an interest in some of these old works of science fiction. The prologue to the reissue, written by Francisco Prieto, says it is "one of the greatest novels of Mexican literature."

[15] The massacre, also known as The Night of Tlatelolco, took place at the Plaza of Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. Students protesting Mexico hosting the 1968 Olympics and the government's response to previous demonstrations were violently crushed, leading to injuries and death. The events were immortalized in a famous book by writer Elena Poniatowska titled The Night of Tlatelolco now reprinted as Massacre at Mexico. The event is still remembered today.

[16] "El futuro invade las pantallas." César Huerta. El Universal.com. November 30, 2009.


Silvia Moreno-Garcia


Silvia Moreno-Garcia was born and raised in Mexico. She now lives in British Columbia with her family and two cats. Her speculative fiction can be found in Fantasy Magazine, Tesseracts Thirteen: Chilling Tales of the Great White North, and Shine: An Antholgy of Optimistic Science-Fiction. She also publishes the zine Innsmouth Free Press. She is deadly afraid of mushrooms. You can follow her on Twitter @silviamg or visit her website.
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