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The future of the present in the past

Brazilian science fiction and the country's relationship with science and technology

ANA PAULA CAMPOS“The Office of the President of the United States of Brazil was entrusted to a woman. The country was stronger, wealthier, and more beautiful. People came from all corners of the world. The Amazon Region was urbanized, illiteracy had been eliminated and in the rural regions farm workers would sing parts of the latest opera performance they had been to, or recite the most beautiful poems they had memorized.” Word of warning: this is not an insane text written by the current government. Adalzira Bittencourt (1904-1976), the author of this text, described this “prediction” in 1929 in her book Sua Excia. a presidente da República [Her Excellency, the President of the Republic]. However, this scientific fiction “paradise” has a hitch: all of these accomplishments were achieved thanks to the rise of women in politics; the women had implemented a strict eugenics and social hygiene program. Ironically, the said president, Dr. Mariangela de Albuquerque, falls in love with Jorge, a painter, whom she had only become acquainted with through letters. Tired of waiting for her beloved, the president commands that he be handcuffed and brought to her. “He had a very handsome face, but was no more than 90 centimeters tall and had a huge hump on his back.” The president, a fan of eugenics, ordered that her lover be subjected to euthanasia, as a prophylactic measure. “It was a woman,” are the triumphant last words in the novel.

The “ideological” undertone of the novel was – and still is – a characteristic of Brazilian science fiction. Unfortunately, this literary genre has not been extensively studied and is generally viewed as a “second rate product,” that does not deserve to be included in the list of great works of literature. “Since the 19th century, science fiction has proven to be the perfect vehicle to record tensions in the definition of the national identity and of the process of modernization. These tensions are exacerbated in Latin America and this is why science fiction in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico – the major representatives of this literary genre in South America – is much more politicized than  science fiction in countries in the Northern Hemisphere. In Brazil, the genre reflects a more concrete political agenda and past and contemporary writers have been more intimately involved with the future of their country. Therefore, they use the new genre not only to voice their ideas publicly, but also to show their fellow countrymen their opinions on the present reality and their views of a better and more modern future,” explains historian Rachel Haywood Ferreira from Iowa State University. She is the author of The emergence of Latin American science fiction, which has just been launched in the USA by Wesleyan University Press. “Brazilian science fiction portrays the identity crisis that came hand-in-hand with modernization, together with the feeling of loss that persecutes it and which is part of Brazil’s entry into the post-modern world condition. National science fiction partially exemplifies the erosion of the Latin American narrative of national identity, because it has become increasingly influenced by the cultural exchange inherent with the globalization which began in the 1990,” agrees literature professor Mary Ginway, from the University of Florida, who wrote Ficção científica brasileira: mitos culturais and nacionalidade no país do futuro (published by Devir Livraria). Nonetheless, this genre is still considered a “secondary one.” “This is a pity, because this displacement of the tradition of science fiction to the context of a developing country allows us to reveal certain assumptions about how this development takes place and to determine the function of this literary genre in this kind of society. Science fiction provides a barometer to measure attitudes towards technology, while also reflecting the social implications of the modernization of Brazilian society,” says Mary. “There is even a gradual variation from a feeling of optimism to a feeling of pessimism: science no longer seems to ensure the truth, as had been  commonly believed, and the impact of technology is not always a positive one, which makes it difficult to achieve the national potential. All of these characteristics are portrayed in Latin American science fiction: the definition of the national identity; the tensions between science and religion and between the city and the country;  pseudoscience,” Rachel points out.

In the researcher’s opinion, speculative literature is important in countries such as Brazil, where “science and technology play a key role in intellectual life, given that technology is viewed as a possible solution for the country to overcome its historical economic underdevelopment in the hope that a better and more utopian society will be created.” Unfortunately, it was this link to national elements that represented the glory and the disdain of science fiction in Brazil, even though to a certain extent we were able to keep up with the expansion of this genre in Europe. The first science fiction work was written in 1868 (and published in O Jequitinhonha newspaper until 1872). Páginas da história do Brasil, written by Joaquim Felício dos Santos, is a satire on the monarchy that takes Emperor Dom Pedro II on a journey to the future, where he discovers how pernicious his regime was for the country. “Works such as these, that go into the 20th century, until the 1920s, attest to the interest of Brazilians in developing utopian narratives, moralizing fantasies and science novels, a body of speculative fiction that could have supported more production in the 1970s. However, the national production was unable to resist pressure from abroad, pressure from critics, and therefore no niche was created for science fiction in Brazil, and readers lost their interest in this literary genre,” says Roberto de Sousa Causo, author of Ficção científica, fantasia and horror no Brasil: 1875-1950 (Editora da UFMG). “The rigid separation between sanctioned and non-sanctioned literature resulted in a nearly total absence of a pulp fiction era in Brazil. Speculative fiction lost the space of disorganized inventiveness, of the opening up of new possibilities, of the creation of a more entrepreneurial tradition,” he says.

ANA PAULA CAMPOSAs pointed out by Antonio Candido in his book Formação da literatura brasileira [The formation of Brazilian literature], there is general consensus in Brazil in regard to considering literature as a practice that creates a nationality; this is pragmatism that implies the lesser importance of imagination, substituted by interest in using literature politically as a way of representing social and human experience. Causo believes that, in this movement, the use of literature as an instrument for the creation of nationality has preferred naturalistic and realistic documentation guided by progress and determinism. “The Brazilian version undergoes two-fold suffering: because of these associations with ‘secondary literature,’ the result of a national, authoritarian tradition that abhors mass culture and popular art, and because it is an imaginative genre in a country that prefers literary realism,” agrees Brazilianist Mary Gingway. In the short story Brasil, país do futuro, by Jorge Calife, one of the best-known contemporary science fiction writers, a young man’s homework, in 1969, is to write an essay on Brazil in the year 2000. The main character is actually able to travel in time to see Rio de Janeiro in the future, and is sorely disappointed when he finds out that nothing had changed in the life of the Brazilian people, which was just as miserable as ever. Back in his bedroom, the protagonist writes the essay, describing an imaginary city under a dome, afraid to be flunked by his teacher if he were to write the truth. “This short story is a reminder that, in spite of global modernization, Brazil might have to wait for a long time before it enjoys the benefits of technology,” says the American researcher.

The early years of science fiction – at those times referred to as a scientific novel – occurred from 1875 and 1939, when the genre was modeled on the books by European authors Jules Verne and Wells. “Although scientific contributions from Latin America in this period were insignificant relative to those of the rest of the world, Latin American scientists were attuned to what was going on in Europe and the adoption of eugenics was a sign of the general approval of this science as a proof of cultural modernity. Texts written in this spirit do not reveal themselves as being imitations of imperialist literary models that described imaginary societies based on unfeasible technologies, but rather as works that described a present time with the authority of a scientific discourse and dreamt of a brilliant future that would certainly materialize. These are utopian stories that take place in a remote place or a distant past, and describe, in great detail, non-existent societies,” says Rachel. The eugenics of these works, however, are packaged in a softer version, an alternative branch to Lamarck’s theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics, where there was leeway for the correction of human deformations, a notion that Brazilians were enthusiastic about, due to the possibility of feasible scientific solutions for national “problems.” “This was a neo-Lamarckism, painted in optimistic colors, in which social reforms could result in permanent improvements, in which progress – even in the tropics – was possible. Later on, social Darwinism would join the mix that would produce fiction,” says the researcher. A good example is Dr. Benignus (1875), a pioneering novel of this genre, written by Augusto Zaluar. The plot consists of a scientific expedition in the backwoods of Brazil, which includes beings that come directly from the Sun, a lot of conversation, and hardly any adventure. Benignus believed that science could enhance prominent citizens or rescue the abandoned and “barbarian” nation.

Another characteristic theme is seen in O presidente negro ou O choque das raças (1926), written by Monteiro Lobato, which describes how the split of the white voters in 2228 allows a black candidate to be elected as president of the United States. This event brings whites together again, to put the blacks “under control.” In the writer’s view, mixed ethnic backgrounds were the main reason for economic and cultural underdevelopment. The solution was to seduce the blacks with a hair straightener, the “Omega rays,” which would sterilize the user. The eugenistic tone appears in a less aggressive manner in the writings of journalist Berilo Neves, author of the collection of short stories A costela de Adão (1930) and O século XXI (1934), satires that take place in the future, and whose preferred targets are feminism and female frivolities. In general, his misogynistic narratives involve the creation of human reproduction machines that make women obsolete or describe a future world where genders are mixed up. In A liga dos planetas (1923), by Albino José Coutinho, the first Brazilian science fiction novel to describe a trip to outer space, the narrator builds his “aircraft” and plants the Brazilian flag on the moon. However, the underlying theme is still the same: the space mission was justified by a presidential request that the protagonist find quality beings in other worlds, because in Brazil there was a lack of quality people.

However, there were some honorable exceptions to social Darwinism. Among these is A Amazônia misteriosa (1925), by Gustavo Cruls, inspired by H.G.Wells` The Island of Doctor Moreau. The Brazilian novel’s protagonist is lost in the Amazon Region when he comes across a German scientist, professor Hartmann, who conducts experiments on boys discarded by the mythological Amazons. As if this were not enough, the German scientist takes a hallucinogenic drug and meets Atahualpa, who describes the abuse inflicted by the Europeans on his people. The protagonist realizes that this situation had been maintained by the German and thus rejects colonial exploitation and the abuse by science. In A república 3.000 ou A filha do inca (1930), modernist author Menotti Del Picchia describes an expedition that stumbles upon a highly technological civilization in the central region of Brazil. The civilization is isolated by an invisible dome. The protagonists reject positivist postulates, run away with the Inca princess and the story ends with an ode to the simple life. Jerônymo Monteiro, who would later develop the character Dick Peter, described in his novel Três meses no século 81 (1947) how Campos, the protagonist, confronts H.G. Wells himself about his voyage in time, using the “transmigration of the soul” provoked by the mediums. “Monteiro’s main character travels through time and leads a rebellion of humanists against the massed elite living on the Planet Earth of the future. The hero joins the Martians, with whom our planet is at war,” says Causo. “On the one hand, our science fiction is permeated by the tragic reality of underdevelopment and illuminates the reader’s understanding of the specific situation he lives in, which is different from the science fiction produced by the Developed World. At the same time, acknowledging this makes us reject imported concepts such as social Darwinism. There was no longer any reason for this discourse to be combined with a situation of neo-colonialism, as portrayed in Brazilian science fiction produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, except within the elitist attitude in our country,” says the researcher.

ANA PAULA CAMPOSIn the meantime, technophile science fiction flourished in the pulp magazines published in the United States, This genre was not at all concerned about style or the characteristics of the characters; it was more interested in engaging the reader in the action, the adventure, and the extravagance of the ideas, the pulp fiction. In spite of the pulp efforts of Berilo Neves and especially of Jerônymo Monteiro (considered the “father of Brazilian science fiction”), this popular literary genre did not gain popularity in Brazil. “Brazil lost out because it did not have access to this material and because it failed to create its own version of an era of popular magazines, which were inventive and to which readers reacted, thus leading to the creation of strong ties between producers and consumers of science fiction,” points out Causo. During this Anglo-American golden age, Brazilian fiction – also because of the post-war effects – basically began to mistrust science and technology at the hands of human beings because of the power of reason over the excesses of emotion. “Because of the rigid class system in Brazilian society, where income is concentrated mostly in the hands of the elite, technology is viewed as a dividing element and not a unifying one. For Brazilians, technology is more of a political and economic problem than a solution,” analyzes Mary Ginway. Nonetheless, the 1960s witnessed an explosion of the genre, thanks to the efforts of a publisher from the state of Bahia – Gumercindo Rocha Dorea – who established Edições GRD publishing company. This publishing company began to foster and support a new generation of writers, including mainstream writers such as Dinah Silveira de Queiroz, Rachel de Queiroz, and Fausto Cunha, among others, who were invited to write science fiction.

Science fiction-related mismatches began to take place between the USA and Brazil. “American science fiction embraces technology and change, yet fears rebellions or invasions by robots and aliens. Brazilian science fiction, on the other hand, tends to reject technology but embraces the robots and views aliens as being indifferent or exotic, and non-threatening, and even as being the bearers of a message of peace for the world,” Mary states. The Americans´ visions of a megalopolis populated by futuristic mechanisms did not please Brazilians. “Brazilian society, because of its rural and patriarchal past, enhances personal relationships, placing value on human contact. Thus, this rejection can be interpreted as the denial of a new order based on standardization and on blind obedience to an organizational culture,” adds the researcher. Brazilian science fiction begins to put its flavor on future rapture. “Technology can only be a solution in these works when it is reduced and humanized. The aliens, compared to the foreigners, are described as being indifferent to humans and to the humans´ destiny, taking their resources and abandoning humans to their fate. The Amazon Region, for example, becomes the target of these invaders who land there. Robots, in turn, are viewed with great friendliness, perhaps because of the tradition of slavery in the past, in which promiscuity between slave and master was a common occurrence. Thus, the icons of fiction are transformed by traditional Brazilian social relations and their possibilities as agents of social change in the form of utopian possibilities are generally denied.” Brazilian writers draw on a genre from the Developed World that deals with science and technology and, by transforming the related paradigms, make Brazilian science fiction anti-technological and national. This, according to the researcher, is an understandable attitude of resistance in view of the fear of modernization that threatened to destroy Brazil’s humanistic culture and traditions, as seen in the coup d´état of 1964.

The dictatorial regime is the beginning of dystopian science fiction; that is, science fiction uses familiar elements and turns them into strange ones to discuss ideas and make accusations. “By resorting to an imaginary futuristic world, dystopias concentrate on political issues and use satire to refer to trends existing in society. That is why national dystopias are all allegories of a Brazil under the rule of a military regime, with mention of censorships, torture, controls, etc. The plots are always about rebellions against an evil and arbitrary technocracy,” Mary points out. This is the Brazilian way of representing the trends of the new age of international science fiction, under the auspices of Ray Bradbury, where technology is described as the villain that robs Brazilians of their identity (a recurrent issue since the 19th century), especially when this identity is in the hands of an authoritarian government. “The opposite is the myth of identity, viewed as being natural and unchangeable, taking on the form of nature, woman, earth,” points out Causo. When the dictatorship ends, science fiction goes back to its pattern in more sophisticated forms such as cyberpunk, hard fiction, and alternative stories, many of them written by women.

In 1988, Ivan Carlos Regina launched the cannibalistic manifesto of Brazilian science fiction that, like the manifesto of Oswald de Andrade, proposes the cannibalization of the genre by Brazilian writers. “We need to swallow, in the manner of Bishop Sardinha, the laser ray gun, the mad scientist, the friendly alien, the invincible hero, the warp drive, the brainless young lady with perfect legs, and the flying saucer, which are as distant from Brazilian reality as the farthest of all stars.” “By combining the high and low forms of literature, through the union of myth, media and modern technology and by addressing issues such as race and gender, post-dictatorship national fiction deconstructs the notion of Brazil as an exotic tropical nation, populated by happy people, offering a post-modern mosaic of Brazilian conflicts to battle its own history and growing globalization,” Mary points out. At this point, there are even those who advocate the genre as fertile ground for mainstream writers. “The heroes of Brazilian fictional prose are tired. Their routine has been the same for at least 20 years,” says writer Nelson de Oliveira, author of Os transgressores, in his “Convite ao mainstream.” “Fortunately, Brazilian literature has other genres. Science fiction is the most vulgar and barbarian. It resembles the barbarians that destroyed Rome. Barbarians are the solutions for a decadent civilization. Science fiction themes are the seeds of these warriors who, by fertilizing the tired and decadent prose of the mainstream, will help create short stories and novels that will be more consistent and less artificial.”