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A Map With No Edges: Science Fiction Across Cultures

By Nicholas Otte

Image: 1970s artistic rendering of “The Cylindrical Colony,” an imagined space colony, by Rick Guidice and Don Davis. From the NASA Ames Research Center.

Have you ever wondered: is there an interconnected web that spreads out across all human consciousness, some vast unseen mechanism which dredges up the same stories in different cultures throughout time? Perhaps residing deep within our collective psyche dwells the need to tell particular types of stories, ones that manifest themselves in countries that have no means of communication with one another and whose histories are vastly different. And yet a similar tale emerges again and again . . .

Maybe. But until we prove it, that sounds more like the premise for a science fiction story.

The May issue of Words without Borders featured new works of speculative fiction and science fiction by Cuban authors. Though a longtime fan and avid reader of science fiction, I had never read a piece from the so close and yet so far island to the south of my home. As with many forms of literature, science fiction has never been bound to only one culture, and while my knowledge of the genre may have been constrained to my own corner of the planet earth, this wild, boundless form of fiction can be found everywhere.

Dreams of aliens and other worlds are as universal as the drive for exploration, or questions of time or purpose.

Dreams of aliens and other worlds are as universal as the drive for exploration, or questions of time or purpose, which have never been confined to any one geographically specific school of thought. The origin of the science fiction genre is hard to date, as it is in so many ways intertwined with fantasy—a genre which itself reaches back beyond the tales of Beowulf and Gilgamesh. From the moment that humankind looked up to the stars and wondered, or built something and considered the repercussions, or imagined an invention or ability or eventuality that would change reality as they knew it, the creation of stories based on these ideas was inevitable. In a moment in time when most people walk around with palm-sized computers that connect them with the world’s shared knowledge and with each other, and when other worlds don’t seem so far out of reach, you might think that the genre, as some of its key ideas become real, would be losing steam. But creating worthwhile science fiction only takes a small spark of speculation, the need to question, and the ability to imagine some wild, wonderful answer. And as long as human beings everywhere continue to ask what if? the genre will endure.

As a reader branching out into the science fiction of other nations, the question becomes: how do these impulses and dreams manifest themselves differently in different cultures—and likewise, where do they overlap?

There is often a preconceived notion that stories about cold metal machines and barren worlds mirror their subject matter when it comes to matters of the heart—that they are cold, calculating, and heartless relative to other forms of literature. But there are many examples, both popular and lesser known, across cultures that challenge this assumption. While robots and savage creatures and black holes don’t offer much in the way of an emotional spark on their own, the way in which characters utilize and confront these obstacles provide the potential for great, poignant storytelling.

. . . far off worlds and cold metal spacecraft were merely vehicles for telling deeply emotional, relatable, and grounded stories of universal human emotion.

The Bleeding Hands of Castaways by Cuban writer Erick J. Mota is a perfect example. Mota makes clear use of science fiction tropes—asteroids and Federation kopeks show up in the very first sentence. And yet this story leads not with its depiction of alien landscapes and propulsions systems but with a pervading sense of longing. The driving force of the story is the sound of another person’s voice—“your voice,” as the narrator calls it. The intimacy of directly addressing the object of the narrator’s affection brings the reader closer to the palpable sense of heartbreak, which acts as the sole catalyst for this otherworldly architecture and allows for the story to stand at odds with the colder picture that is often painted of the genre. This story, in particular, harkens back to towering SF writers like Ursula K. Le Guin (ansibles anyone?) and Stanislaw Lem, whose far off worlds and cold metal spacecraft were merely vehicles for telling deeply emotional, relatable, and grounded stories of universal human emotion.

Le Guin’s heartbreaking, staggeringly poetic novel The Left Hand of Darkness is itself the tale of a human emissary submerged in a completely foreign world. Everything from politics to customs to sexuality—and, not least of which, climate—are completely foreign to the traveler’s own world and experience. Yet within this world she has built, Le Guin tells a deceptively simple story of love and heartbreak, one that defies any conceptions of gender or romantic structures. In this richly imagined planet of ice defined by the extraordinary, the story we are left with is one of the heart; its fragility and its often-extraordinary resilience. These exceptional capacities of human beings are amplified by the settings SF provides and are also, perhaps, more at home in strange surroundings. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, translated from the original Polish into over a dozen other languages since its release, begs the question of how a person might react when confronted, quite literally, with a tragedy of the past. While our own memories and regrets and heartbreak plague us, they rarely offer a literal hand. Science fiction allows for this to happen, often with harrowing, illuminating repercussions.

Le Guin’s and Lem’s classics, born out of different cultures, are clear touchstones for some of the work found in WWB’s May issue. And while the Cuban speculative pieces owe a debt to their predecessors (as do all works of literature, to one degree or another) there is much that is new, fresh, and exciting to witness emerging from these contemporary Cuban minds.

While our own memories and regrets and heartbreak plague us, they rarely offer a literal hand. Science fiction allows for this to happen.

Eduardo del Llano’s Swimming Upstream relies on no vehicle, extraterrestrial influence, or concrete mechanism to relate the struggle of a character whose soul migrates into the body of a baseball player (a subject which holds no interest to the character in his daily life). Eduardo del Llano injects a healthy dose of humor into the story (which calls to mind earlier SF writers who employ comedy—just ask the dolphins of Douglas Adams). Where the wandering of one’s consciousness in other cases might be a horrifying prospect, it is here presented as a jaunt into the impossible, bordering on the ridiculous, as it suggests that a Cuban who has no interest in baseball is an even stranger phenomenon than astral projection.

There is another side to wondering, a darker side that is riddled with shadows rather than shining with promise. After all, where there are dreams, nightmares are never far off. Harlan Ellison’s frightening short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a tale of deeply unsettling horror, born out of the speculation of artificial intelligence—the same thought that sparked beloved children’s tales like the Iron Giant and Wall-E, proving that such a premise can delight just as easily as it can scar. Space itself—the common backdrop to science fiction—can seem endlessly expansive in its potential for exploration, but has an equal power in claustrophobia. As we know from staples of the genre like Alien, and from points in our own history like the Apollo Thirteen mission, space has a way of restricting, its vastness allowing for no means of escape. Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro’s Nothing To Declare is a story about a long voyage in space, from one far off world to another, yet the setting is the cramped, windowless crate in which we find the characters, huddled and wondering at their place in the worlds outside. This acts as a cautionary tale of the terrible likelihood that what awaits you at the end of your journey might be something other than what you had dared to hope for when faced with a void. The scope of science fiction is as large as the human mind’s ability to imagine, and with such endless possibilities come endless paths to choose. Whether ahead lies light or dark is in the eye of the beholder, and it is within the author’s power to steer a course for either.

SF stories may vary from culture to culture, but their capacity for fresh ideas remains similarly boundless. While writers may be restricted culturally or geographically, or may, like Cuba, be isolated from the world around them by power structures in which they hold no sway, the capacity for distilling imagination and ingenuity into story remains the same. When it comes to science fiction, borders seem to be little more than lines on a map with no edges—lines that can be redrawn to stretch into the vast unknown.

Published Jul 27, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nicholas Otte

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