- The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction by Rachel Haywood-Ferreira
The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction is a scholarly tour-de-force about Latin American proto-science fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a study that exhibits depth and breath, encompassing works from both Spanish America and Brazil, Haywood-Ferreira convincingly shows how ideas of science and technology circulated between the cultural center and periphery, allowing Latin American writers to contribute to scientific discourse through their fictional works in order to reflect local concerns, conditions and interests. As Haywood-Ferreira states, her aim is to show how these works “described the present with the authority of scientific discourse and reached for the brighter future that seemed destined to come” (5). In this sense, she provides a new cultural vision of science and technology and its role in the intellectual history of Latin America.
In my view, Emergence succeeds in its proposal to “retrolabel” or claim texts for the science fiction genre in Latin America. It offers a framework for narratives that otherwise appear marginal or aberrant from the mainstream, providing a key first step in advancing the study of science fiction in Latin America, where its genealogy has been generally overlooked. Emergence is also important because it debunks the idea that Latin American authors are capable of producing only texts of magical realism and the literary fantastic but not science fiction per se.
My own sense is that Emergence furnishes the raw material for an alternate discourse to Doris Sommer’s Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991). While Sommer focuses on allegorical marriages that overcome obstacles of race and class in order to consolidate the nation in Latin America, Emergence deals with the disturbing discontinuities of science, technology and urbanization that also shape nineteenth-century society. Haywood-Ferreira carefully analyzes these works within Latin American literary criticism, the history of science and pseudo-scientific theories, demonstrating a profound familiarity with science fiction criticism in general. In this sense, the work will be of interest to scholars working in any of these areas.
Emergence is generally organized by literary subgenre and by theme. For example, chapter one, “Displacement in Space and Time,” examines six imaginary utopian societies in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, spanning the years 1844 to 1920. While it is clear that the first three futuristic satires considered here were written to express criticism of or fears about the consolidation of power by federal or centralized governments during the tumultuous mid-nineteenth century, the final three are not so much novels as health policy platforms derived from the eugenic issues circulating at the time. Chapter two, “The Impact of Darwinism,” [End Page 190] demonstrates how Latin American authors participate in the question of evolution in their respective societies. For example, Argentine Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg’s novel Two Factions Struggle for Life (1874) portrays the return of Darwin to Argentina to establish it as the center of a new scientific world empire, thus inverting the typical flow of ideas from the cultural center to the periphery. Borrowing from Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion, several of these Latin American writers envision how science could be used to advance their societies technologically, socially or spiritually. Emergence also shows how these early works portray the region’s urban centers as utopian futures and its interior regions as its primitive past, either to apply Darwin’s theories to society or to illustrate ideas of progress. Throughout many of these narratives we find a concept of evolutionary “perfectability” tied to the idea of Lamarckian eugenics and the inheritability of acquired traits, popular in countries that suffered the prejudices of scientific racism. Other stories in this chapter are concerned with degeneration, devolution and the end-of-the-world scenarios, demonstrating a more wary attitude toward science. Most of these narratives end with either a fear of a descent into barbarism or a hope for the beginning of a new spiritual age.
Chapter three, “Strange Forces,” is an engaging study of alternate religions, theosophy and “Magnetism” (spiritual...