A spaceship lands near a small Amazon town, leaving the local government to handle an alien invasion. Dissidents who disappeared during a military dictatorship return years later as zombies. Bodies suddenly begin to melt on physical contact, forcing Colombians to navigate the barely dangerous salsa bars and FARC guerrillas who have fused with tropical birds.
Throughout Latin America, shelves labeled « ciencia ficción, » or science fiction, have long been filled with translations by HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, and HG Wells. Now they may have to compete with a new wave of Latin American writers who are making the genre their own, rooting it in their lands and histories. Shrugging off the rolling cornfields and skylines of New York, they set their stories against the dense Amazon, craggy Andean mountainscapes, and unmistakably Latin American urban sprawl.
The original sci-fi avalanche is timely, coming as many readers and writers in Latin America feel stifled by the popular tropes of magical realism and desensitized by realist depictions of the region’s struggles with violence.
« Latin America was a region of ‘today’, » Rodrigo Bastidas said in a telephone interview. He is co-founder of Bogota-based Vestigio, one of the few small independent publishers of Latin American science fiction novels. “People don’t have time to think about the future because they were too busy surviving the present – civil wars, revolutions, dictatorships – so much of our literature was realist. We had a testimonial necessity.
The narrative’s current starburst shines a different light on the region, she said: It is empowering, proposing freedom from recycled stories and foreign heroes.
« We’re realizing that the future is not something we have to borrow or take from other people, » Bastidas said. “We can appropriate them, powered by science fiction. We can create it ourselves.
The writing, in Spanish and Portuguese, is radical and idiosyncratic, teeming with technoshamans and futuristic indigenous aesthetics, but also influenced by the region’s European and African heritages. Troubled stories and the urgency of the present also inspire him with the themes of colonization, the climate crisis and migrations.
« We have to reclaim our future and stop thinking that we are a small place forgotten in history, somewhere not even aliens would go, » Colombian author Luis Carlos Barragán, the guiding star of this wave, said in a telephone interview. His work is Douglas Adams meets Jonathan Swift, feet firmly on Colombian soil but head high in the cosmos.
Latin American science fiction writing dates back more than a century, but has often been isolated, with a smaller circulation than the English-speaking titans of the genre, and no integrated regional tradition or market. With labyrinthine export requirements making it nearly impossible to sell books outside the country of print, publishers and writers carried their work across the border themselves, lugging suitcases full of books.
Political and economic crises in Latin America in the 20th and early 21st centuries have repeatedly devastated writing and compensated production. Few publishers would take a chance on a new or local author when Philip K. Dick was a solid seller. High paper prices and devalued local currencies made publishing even more difficult.
But energetic fans supported the work, with zines distributed on floppy disks, photocopied and then read online. Rising digital access expanded the space for science fiction readers and writers, and then the pandemic accelerated the sharing and discovery of what had become a sprawling and passionate community.
« We’ve seen that we’re not the weirdos at the party anymore, » Bastidas said. « Similar things were happening everywhere. » Bigger publishers like Minotauro (an imprint of Planeta) are starting to release more original work, though small ones are still the lifeblood of the genre. Bets on little-known authors and original writing are paying off: sales are on the rise.
As the galaxy of local science fiction communities came into closer contact, shared ideas and developed tactics: Publishers began seeking investment in book production through platforms such as Kickstarter and began publishing online or simultaneously with other labels, aided by the expansion of book sales from Amazon in the region.
After forging their own path for years, Latin American science fiction writers are winning awards beyond their borders, including in Spain and the United States, and gaining academic interest, including in North America: Yale held its first Latin American science fiction conference in March.
Writers are also drawing on a wide range of tropes and influences that are often rendered anarchic, feminist, queer, or underworld, including noir, fantasy, Lovecraftian New Weird, and Latino rendered punk styles: grimy steampunk, urban cyberpunk, slum virtual reality or pirates flying over the Andes in zeppelins.
There’s even a rural « gauchopunk » complete with gaucho androids dreaming of electric emus, evoked by Argentine writer Michel Nieva in an ironic reference to « by Philip K. Dick »Do androids dream of electric sheep? »
“We leave nothing ‘pure’,” said Cuban author Erick Mota. “We have contaminated things par excellence, and only by accepting the mixture do we become ourselves and ours. There is not a single sci-fi concept that we have not taken and adapted to our context, turned into mestizo.
In the high Andes of Peru and Ecuador, work inspired by neo-indigenism proliferates, projecting cosmologies and aesthetics forward in time to flourish as space travel, robotics or virtual reality.
Writers in Argentina and Colombia created a wave of body-horror-influenced science fiction known as splatterpunk, scarcely more gag-inducing than Colombia’s Hank T. Cohen or Argentina’s Agustina Bazterrica, whose « Cadaver Exquisito » (« Tender Is the Flesh ») has been a phenomenon on TikTok. It has been translated into multiple languages and a television adaptation is in production.
In Brazil, Afrofuturism has taken flight, with an explosion of science fiction inspired by African heritage and culture. The works are closely related to a rising movement against structural racism in the country, including by writers such as Ale Santos, published by HarperCollins Brazil.
In Mexico, writers like Gabriela Damián Miravete use science fiction to address their country’s epidemic of violence against women. In “They Will Dream in the Garden,” translated into English and winner of the Others Award, Damián offers victims a second life, building a world where the minds of murdered women are digitally captured in holograms that “live” together in a garden .
Latin American experiences of otherness and progress pervade the new writing, especially the « developing country » label, rendered meaningless in distant futures or by alien invasions. Bastidas’ anti-colonial anthology, ironically titled « El Tercer Mundo Después del Sol », or « The Third World from the Sun », has been published throughout the Spanish-speaking world, including Spain, where science fiction from Latin America has rarely caught on.
In Barragán’s telescoping satire « Tierra Contrafuturo, » or « Earth Against the Future, » the United States threatens to invade Colombia to handle an alien arrival, claiming Colombia isn’t up to the job. Intergalactic councils require Earth to request membership. The planet does not meet the criteria to be considered civilian and their application is rejected.
Mota finds uncharted ground by not only rethinking the future, but rewriting the past. “Habana Undergüater” imagines that the Soviet Union won the Cold War and Americans sought refuge in Cuba, arriving on boats to try and start a new life in run-down or flooded neighborhoods. Going back even further, Mota’s most recent novel, “El Foso de Mabuya,” or “Mabuya’s Tomb,” imagines leviathans destroying Christopher Columbus’ expedition before he arrives in the Americas and paints the continents as united under populations indigenous.
« We live in an age where the United States and Europe are reconsidering their histories of slavery and colonization, » he said. « With this writing, we can move past some old traumas. »
Immediate crises fueled subgenres such as Latin American climate fiction, or cli-fi – speculative works concerning the environment – including the work of Ramiro Sanchiz of Uruguay, Edmundo Paz Soldán of Bolivia, and Rita Indiana of the Dominican Republic, whose books are available in English. They intertwine climatic apocalypses, time travel and virtual reality with Yoruba mythology, Amazonian deforestation and ayahuasca-inspired psychedelic plants.
The virus narrative born during the coronavirus pandemic is also on the rise; call it vi-fi. A new novel by Nieva, an O. Henry Prize winner, is « La Infancia del Mundo » (« The Childhood of the World »), a Kafkaesque dengue fable. And Uruguayan writer Fernanda Trías has won international acclaim with “Mugre Rosa” (“Pink Lime”), a prescient combination of climate and pandemic narrative translated into seven languages, in which a plague arrives on a poisonous red wind and a food the crisis leaves humanity with nothing to eat but pink mush.
Stories that toy with science fiction are gaining attention in the hands of writers like Bolivia’s Liliana Colanzi and Argentina’s Samanta Schweblin, who is now widely translated and whose « Seven Empty Houses » won last year’s National Book Award for translated literature.
Even Mars is being rewritten: Colanzi’s publishing house has, as she puts it, « one foot in the jungle, the other on Mars », and has trod the planet in its new collection, « Ustedes Brillan en lo Oscuro », or « You They glow in the dark. »
“Mars was already heavily colonized by English-speaking science fiction,” Colanzi said. What he wanted, he said, was « to have the freedom to actually create my own Martian colony. »
Whether it’s rewriting ancient worlds or conceiving new ones, the region is seeing « an explosion of imagination, » said Barragán.
« The shadow of English-speaking science fiction has been upon us for a long time, » he said. « But we’re rethinking what it means to be Latino. »