Books

The Aliens Landed in Latin America a Long Time Ago

Past Futures makes clear; futuristic and fantastical art has long been a feature of Latin American sci-fi.


Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas

Publisher: MIT Press
Length: 136 pages
Author: Sarah J. Montross, Editor
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-03
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In a thought-provoking 2014 article in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky ponders the question of "Why science fiction keeps imagining the subjugation of white people”. Considering a variety of sci-fi classics and drawing on the work of critics who argue that sci-fi came to the fore in imperialist countries during the heyday of 19th century colonialism, Berlatsky’s essay suggests that sci-fi served as a sort of creative slate on which debates – and guilt – over colonialism and imperialism could be carried out. “In some instances, it's clear that sci-fi reverse colonialism is anti-colonial. In others, it's a justification for imperialism,” he writes.

Berlatsky’s essay raises important points and is well worth a read. Indeed, the history and contributions of non-western science fiction are drawing renewed interest from a variety of quarters. In 2012, sci-fi e-zine Locus Online published an intriguing roundtable discussion that featured predominantly western contributors (including Guy Gavriel Kay) debating the topic: “SF is the literature of the imaginary. How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature?”

In 2014, The Guardian newspaper predicted the end of western hegemony over sci-fi. “Science fiction is changing radically, as the voices of women and non-western perspectives come to the fore,” declared the article, which proceeded to list several books written from non-western perspectives (albeit by predominantly western writers). ("Future worlds: the sci-fi you will be reading in 2014", by Damien Walter)

And then there’s the fetishization of Soviet Russia’s space race with the West. Easily predating the Cold War period, the nation that started it all with the Sputnik launch has produced an impressive array of sci-fi literature and art. Webpages full of stirring and evocative Soviet-era sci-fi art and imagery have gone viral in recent years. (See "Soviet Futuristic Illustration: Oodles of Optimism" on Dark Roasted Blend, and

"How Soviet Artists Imagined Communist Life in Space" on io9.)

So the global roots of sci-fi are more complicated than is often admitted. Sci-fi undertones characterize a great deal of early non-western literature, from the Gilgamesh epic in the Middle East to the Ramayana in India. In the second century AD, the Assyrian writer Lucian of Samosata’s popular ‘True Stories’ featured a group of heroes adventuring on the moon, where they encountered intergalactic space battles, mushroom men and space centaurs. As Chinese revolutionaries struggled to transform their nation at the opening of the 20th century, other writers dreamt of leaving the corrupt planet behind to establish idyllic colonies of ninja assassins on the moon (as in the serial ‘Lunar Colony’, 1904). In response to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Lao She wrote his famous satire Cat Country, set on a planet Mars inhabited by alien cat-people.

And then there’s Latin America. Rachel Haywood Ferreira’s 2011 book The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction laid down the gauntlet to those who considered the genre a western one. Arguing “that science fiction has always been a global genre”; the book showcased and analyzed Latin American sci-fi works produced from 1775 - 1920.

She’s not the only one. Roberto de Sousa Causo published a fascinating history of Latin American sci-fi and fantasy in the sci-fi e-zine Inter Nova, while the Latin America entry in the Sci-Fi Encyclopedia is nothing to sneeze at, either.

The argument presented by all these works is that modern Latin American sci-fi is not ‘emerging’, as some have put it, but rather being ‘re-invented’, to use the language of an upcoming international conference on the topic being held this fall in Puerto Rico.

Against this backdrop, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine hosted an exhibit earlier this year titled Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas. The exhibit examined Latin American sci-fi-themed and –inspired art produced primarily between 1940 – 1970. The exhibit catalogue, published by MIT Press as a stand-alone book of the same name, offers a beautifully illustrated companion to the exhibit and a thought-provoking introduction to Latin American sci-fi art of the period. The volume, which in addition to dozens of full-colour plates of art also features four short essays, conveys two key points.

First, there is a definitively Latin American science fiction. In his contribution to the volume, Miguel Angel Fernandez Delgado explores what he considers to be three key features of early Latin American sci-fi-themed art: “representations of longing for unity in the cosmos, the continuous quest for utopia, and the ambivalent relationships between man and machine.” With these themes, he suggests, artists managed to blend the fantastical and erstwhile forward-looking themes of sci-fi with a typically Latin American baroque sensibility. Such art also emerged in a very political context: Delgado explores the intersecting influences of stellar phenomena such as the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet and the Mexican Revolution, which erupted shortly after, on artists who emerged during the period.

In a similar vein. Rodrigo Alonso in his contribution ‘Argentines on the Moon’ explores the impact of Argentina’s turbulent political history on its sci-fi themed art, from the utopian aspirations of the Peronistas to the dystopian dictatorships which followed. In addition to these two essays, Sarah J. Montross offers a broad overview of the entire exhibit, and Rory O’Dea offers an interesting analysis of Robert Smithson’s experimental photographic art exhibit ‘Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan’, produced in Mexico in 1969.

The second important point the collection conveys, however, is how varied and creative science fiction-themed art can actually be. The art featured in this volume doesn’t offer the sort of in-depth, CGI-inspired mock-ups of space stations and starships one might expect. This is sci-fi-themed art painted on a deeply symbolic canvas: impressionistic, post-modern, surreal, experimental. As such, artists like Rufino Tamayo (Mexico), Roberto Matta (Chile), Raquel Forner (Argentina) and dozens more demonstrate the sort of really inspired variation that sci-fi art can offer.

Highly stylized imagery representing human-machine hybridization; dislocated urban environments floating above the earth; the disorientation of amorphous intelligences representing cosmic rhythm in brightly colourful oil on canvas. Sci-fi art doesn’t have to represent reality in intricate, pixelated detail; it can represent deeper ideas in abstract and experimental sketches; in mirrors half-buried in Mexican soil which “disrupt rather than reflect the landscape, fracturing our perception and forcing us to toggle between nature and its representation… [where] each mirror becomes a hole in the landscape and a world until itself, its shimmering surface evoking a visionary world beyond the reach of the camera.” (This last refers to Smithson’s work.)

The goal of such pieces is to remind us that with proper perception, our own Earthly jungle landscapes and urban structures alike can be reconceived and represented as alien worlds defying rational comprehension.

Past Futures offers a fascinating glimpse into a broader universe; one in which the potent power of sci-fi emerges in creative and idealistic forms uniquely different from those with which the contemporary mainstream is familiar. It demonstrates the vast and complex role art can play in reflecting and refracting sci-fi’s innately creative potential to both represent, and imagine alternatives to, our present reality. The work will appeal especially to those with an academic background in art – the essays are tightly written pieces of artistic appreciation and analysis – but the lavishly illustrated pages will appeal to everyone: past, present and future.

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