The Portal Archive: Bolivia: A sci-fi country
Bolivia is not a country of science. Obviously there are universities and patents, research and technological advances, but this happens largely through foreign aid, or in minimum percentages compared with other countries. The reason for that is due to lack of investment in R&D departments of major industries and university departments. This does not prevent the country from becoming exceptional in applied sciences and in the adaptation and use of foreign technologies in a different context of the intended one. That said, it is easy to understand why a country where there isn’t a lot of science, has not produced a lot of science fiction.
But saying that there is not much science fiction doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent books and authors in the genre, and more importantly, this statement does not mean that the country is not a good place for its development. Quite the contrary. This may not be a country where the genre is well represented, but you can find plenty of material to feed the kind of stories we love. Some of those stories already been written, many others are still to be.
I’m using very broad definitions of the different genres here, in an attempt to cover a broad spectrum
Cyberpunk stories talk about places where the high-tech aspects of decadent societies have been hit with a “Rapid Technological Change, an ubiquitous Datasphere of Computerized Information, and invasive modification of the human body.” (Person, Lawrence, 1998, “Notes Toward a Manifesto Postcyberpunk”). This definition can not only define the subgenre where we find William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” or the movie “Blade Runner”, but it can also largely describe the reality of many countries, especially in the Third World, where the speed of technological change has outpaced social and political change.
In a country where a small percentage of people have a computer at home, Internet use has become commoditized thanks to Internet cafes that can be found anywhere, even in neighborhoods with high levels of illiteracy. The same happens with cellphone networks that were able to reach small towns where land lines could never arrive because of economic issues. Using these technologies together with ancient techniques such as hand-woven fabrics and other ancient rituals, people have created a place where this technology is not considered futuristic anymore, turning the cities into rich spaces where cyberpunk metaphors are alive and constantly being renovated.
“El Cementerio de Elefantes” is a story set in the central market in an unnamed city where humans with synthetic implants work transporting heavy packages. They are the people that the society left behind. A writer enters this world of poverty and alcohol to write about it, and starts to lose himself in this reality. Here technology intersects with the reality of “aparapitas” on the markets of Bolivia. (Memorias de Futuro, Miguel Esquirol Ríos, 2008, Editorial La Hoguera)
First contact stories
First contact stories with extraterrestrial civilizations are an important part of science fiction history. The differences that separate both cultures, the completely different ways of dealing with life, and the gradual integration or difficulties with the new culture are perhaps among the most enriching elements of these texts.
Although the writer has to work to create the most amazing alien races, in Bolivia there’s not need to go too far to find true stories of first encounters; these encounters are actually happening. Here are several tribes that have not yet made contact with civilization, some of them nomadic, and even carry fire because they don’t know how to make it. There are also various associations that are fighting to prevent those encounters from happening, while other tribes who have recently made first contact are facing a hard integration, suffering from deforestation, diseases and the abandonment of the young, who leave their villages to go the cities. These people have become alien populations living under the shadows of ancient trees or begging in the streets of towns and cities like sadly languishing characters in Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”.
“Madidi Expeditions: This is a series of articles and publications by the journalist and adventurer Paul Cingolani following the adventures of the explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. In his trips, he discovered tracks of the Toromonas tribe, a mythical tribe that still exists in the jungles of Madidi. This meeting is not just a story more real than those in sf novels but it has the same excitement as these.
Visit to the stars stories
But if first contact stories with virtually unknown tribes are part of reality, so are the opposite: Travel to distant planets, advanced cultures, the difficulty of adaptation, alienation, frustration, but also the wonder and surprise of new worlds. Bolivia is a country with a very high rate of migration; cities in the United States and Spain have more Bolivians that most of the cities in this country. The immigrant experience is not different from many stories of travels to the stars; developed countries are like the futuristic planets in these stories, having different rules and technological advances never before seen on the travelers’ planet of origin
“El Huesped” tells the story of a man coming to a new city where he finds a series of apartment blocks, computer-connected and highly controlled. Later he realizes that it is practically impossible to leave the place; instead he has to move forward to new apartment buildings. This character first has to fight to return to his own world, and then to be able to stay with the woman whit whom he has fallen in love, and finally tries to understand the insanity that he has discovered. (El Huesped, Gary Daher, 2004, Editorial La Hoguera).
But more than economic or technological differences with other countries or within this feed science fiction stories, also the country’s own history is full of examples that can inspire these stories. In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, a dictator is using technology to change the history, the way people talk and even the way people think. In Bolivia, in 1971 a dictator takes over the government by force in a coup d’état where he will remain for 9 years. During his de facto government, there are more than 3000 political prisoners, some of them simply vanish whereas a large number of them are found after being tortured and killed. That was a reality shared by many South American countries at the time. But the second part of the story is the one that belongs to science fiction.
Nearly 20 years after those events, the same president who had indebted the country, wasted money, and killed dissidents, appeared again in the government, but this time as elected president after a democratic election. He wasn’t prosecuted; he was elected president and died in his own bed, after making the country suffer a new state of siege to stop waves of protests. To do this, he used the legal path. The history books will remember him as a President, not as a Dictator. Here there wasn’t a Big Brother or ubiquitous technologies to erase the past, but finely spun strategies helping him rise to power, bypassing the memory of the people, while having criminal charges against human rights.
In the novel “Sueños Digitales”, the protagonist, a graphic designer who works in a Bolivian newspaper, was hired by the government because of his talent in handling computers. He was hired to Photoshop the photographs that reveal the dark past of the president, a corrupt dictator. When he tries to leave his work he begins to be persecuted and followed, his girlfriend leaves him and his friends become tangled in a series of problems. (Sueños Digitales by Edmundo Paz Soldán, Alfaguara, 2000).
Alternate history stories
Bolivia is a country where “whites” are a minority, but have dominated the country since the beginning. A place where military rulers have given the right to vote to the indigenous population only to be able to overcome the other party, where one of the last presidents of the country spoke Spanish with a strong English accent and Spanish is the only language heard in the government. This is the political and social profile of this country.
Now imagine an alternate history which presents an Indian politician who starts as a syndicalist leader and ends leading the country, an indigenous president who inaugurated his mandate after an ancient ceremony of the sun. In this alternate reality the elegant palace of the government and the courts are now full of women in traditional dresses formerly reserved only for domestic workers, and men who are not fluent in Spanish. In this Third World country, the economy stabilizes, the national currency is better than it’s been in years and the government proposes the creation of the Bolivian Space Station and launches a communications satellite.
This alternate reality is not a fictional story, but the reality that is transforming the country. Racism and poverty continue to be present but there are many changes that would have been impossible to imagine only a few years ago.
“De cuando en cuando Saturnina”, is a novel by a British anthropologist living in Bolivia. The book tells the story of Saturnian Guarache Mamani, better known as la Satuka, space navigator and political activist. In this novel, Bolivia does not exist as such and is a region called “Qullasuyu Marka”. The new country was created after an indigenous revolt took place around 2022, organized by indigenous leaders and coca growers, who drove all q’aras (white people) out of the country and closed the borders with the neighboring countries. This “liberated zone” becomes an autocracy without a democratic leader, organized into unions and totally focused on the rural world. Despite that, the area has not run away from global changes, these communities are connected online, and space engineers from this country are among the best in their profession. This novel is written in a mixture of languages including English, Spanish and Quechua and shows in a visionary way what happened in Bolivia. (De cuando en cuando Saturnina by Alison Spedding, Ed. Mama Huaco, 2004)
Steampunk is science fiction set in the Victorian age with the use of technologies of the time. Bolivia also crossed a time similar to the Victorian and if not globally, at least with elements characteristic of the era and characters worthy of legend.
Simon I. Patiño was a Creole miner who became a tin magnate. After discovering a rich mineral vein in his mine, which increased his fortune, he managed to install railroads in the region near his mines bringing trains from England connecting his mines with the world. He owned companies and land in every corner of the world and became one of the wealthiest men of his time. Race and skin color excluded him from participating in elite groups of this country, and finally he looked for seclusion abroad. Despite being look down in his country in his later years he built in Bolivia a palace imitating those from Europe with French and Italian craftsmen, but never managed to live in this home because he died before seeing it finished. His children, married into noble European houses, returned to Bolivia and tried to use their influence and money to control the country, causing social unrest. Their machines still work in some almost abandoned mines. There is one, which gave him his fortune: La Salvadora that today is almost mythical because of its history. All this material is rich in the steam-punk elements, including trains climbing the highest peaks and zooming through the plateau of Los Andes connecting the country and, and even years later, transforming one of his houses into a center of genetic research.
Lunar Colony Stories
Bolivia is a huge country with little more than 8 million people; this results in a very low population density and whole regions entirely uninhabited, this happens not by the hardness of the weather or land but because the distance between urban centers. That’s why there have been many cases of people sent to colonies as far from cities as the moon or another planet might be from earth. Colonization in the middle of the Andes plateau with the cold and arid land where almost nothing can grow, or in the middle of the jungle where you have to knock down giant trees and fight against unknown species to make your home. There are many such stories, such as miners relocated from the cold and aridity sent to the Amazon rain forest to create their own land in a place completely unnatural for them. Or a big Japanese group that made their home in remote regions of Beni, north of Bolivia in the middle of Amazones, where they had to use all their ingenuity and technology to find a new home.
One of the grate wars of the future will surely be about genetics. Patent of live organisms and the struggle for the creation of new species will be a reality that many sci-fi thrillers are already being written about. But these kinds of stories are a reality in a country that has a a lot of genetic diversity (there are over 400 varieties of potatoes and 200 of corn), where there are patent wars against international organizations for various products; patents for corn, potato, quinoa, and where one of the most interesting gene banks is located (in addition to being located in a research centre in the middle of the Andean plateau, perfect space for a zombie movie).
Space opera, and frontier stories
This type of story is perhaps the least scientific but most endearing of the types of science fiction. Adorable adventurers with their own morality and their own rules; adventures in desolate and dangerous regions; fleeing from the government in order to earn some money. If everything goes well there is also a cowboy setting.
In Bolivia we can find countless stories of frontier with the taste of space opera. The Bolivian border with Chile and Argentina is a place where these stories take place all the time. The smuggling of everyday objects, mainly technological that won’t pay taxes and go directly to retailers in the city, is a profitable activity. Encounters with the police, chases in the middle of the plateau, fights, betrayals, all looking a little bit in between Far West and one of the distant colonies of the Milky Way.
Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories
There are many stories that could belong to the fantasy or to the science fiction genres. Some times that division is hard to make it clear, other times the line is so thin that they are indistinguishable from each other; the only conclusion is that those stories are interesting and entertaining.
Stories closer to the fantasy realm are abundant in a land where legends of Inca gods mingle with historical accounts and theories of alien visits. The famous “Puerta del Sol” could be a galactic portal, the Nazca lines in neighboring Peru could be spaceports, the mystery of Lake Titicaca where beings familiar to Lovecraft could live, the human inhabitants of the lake who live on floating islands and have said about themselves that they are not human; the impossible construction of a city made of stone; the twin brothers, husband and wife, that emerged from the lake and fly to found the Inca empire; the advanced science of the Incas where astronomy, agriculture and medicine are developed by a culture without writing but with a notational language for numbers called “quipus”.
Those and many other stories are already written, most of them are part of the country and are waiting to be told.
In a first article I wrote several years ago trying to bring together all the works of science fiction published in Bolivia, I said that there wasn’t a lot of science fiction because of the lack of science. There may be some reality in that statement. That article led me to the organization of a science fiction website in Bolivia and the discovery that a large majority of Bolivian authors, at one time or another have had some science fiction stories published. In this country, where sci-fi isn’t an established literary genre, magazines that would help to spread the genre don’t exist, and the authors that write science fiction doesn’t consider themselves science fiction authors. But in spite of that , genre works are there, hard to spot, hidden in the broad area of mainstream literature.
So I conclude this text saying that although science in this country isn’t at the same level as other countries, and literature in general is not break down neatly into different genres, this country is a place where science fiction is not something strange, but instead an everyday phenomenon. Here, technology can be so alien and so well used at the same time that becomes indistinguishable from traditional knowledge. Bolivia is a country that is in the middle of social changes worthy of the most creative writers, and the very people are transforming and rewriting this country. Perhaps those novels, and the ones that will be written, don’t have spacecrafts and artificial intelligence, but we know that that is not science fiction. Instead to imagine the future, to understand the present, and to be able to see the transformations that are happening; that is what science fiction is about.
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