In the nick of time Charles A. Tan sent me his contribution for this ongoing series. It’s titled:
Finding Hope in Philippine Science Fiction
When I was invited to contribute an essay on optimistic science fiction, I was struck with panic. While the Philippines is known as one of the “happiest” countries in the world, we’re actually a third-world country that’s fallen from grace. In Asia, we were once second only to Japan. Currently, we’re behind many developing countries such as Singapore. As for the state of the country, we’re plagued by crime, corruption, and pollution. If anything, the Philippine condition feels like a cyberpunk setting gone awry: pirated software and movies are being sold at readily-available kiosks, a good chunk of the population can’t afford computers yet we have an abundance of programmers whose skills are capable of creating programs like the ILOVEYOU virus, and there’s the ever-prevalent diaspora, whether it’s nurses and maids working abroad to fresh graduates being hired as call center agents for foreign companies. Our literature isn’t any help either as many modern works haven’t really strayed from the formula of one of our first novels, Noli Me Tangere, penned by our national hero Jose Rizal. Social relevance is the thrust of many of the established writers and the academe, and genres like science fiction is viewed as escapist at best.
Lately there’s been a movement to promote Philippine speculative fiction but unfortunately, science fiction gets the short-end of the stick. Pulp horror was quite the money-maker a few years ago while fantasy is probably the most popular genre as far as writing is concerned (especially since under its umbrella is magic-realism and even surrealism). For the past three volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction, an annual anthology edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, science fiction tends to be the exception rather than the norm. That’s not to say science fiction doesn’t have any presence. Filipino writer/poet/editor/critic Roberto Anonuevo has an essay (my translation here) on one of the earlier Philippine science fiction texts which appeared as early as the 1940s. But for the most part, there hasn’t really been much foray into the said genre, especially if we’re talking about hard science fiction.
In the current decade though, there was motivation to write a form of science fiction as one of the most popular literary awards in the country, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, created a “Futuristic Fiction” category. (Unfortunately, the said category was recently abolished.) The Futuristic Fiction label however has some complications (in addition to the fact that just because one wins an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the winning work will be published). For example, a limitation is that the text must take place in the future, and honestly this restriction doesn’t limit the story to science fiction. For example, “Espiritu Santos” by Pearlsha Abubakar skirts the borders of fantasy. The premise is that Filipinos are able to see ghosts thanks to overexposure to the frequencies emitted by cellphones. Then there’s the recently-established Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards which partially exists due to the sponsorship of Neil Gaiman. At least during the first year of the competition, there were some science fiction stories that won including “The God Equation” by Michael A. R. Co (again, same dilemma as “Espiritu Santos”) or the fun and very pulpish “The Great Philippine Space Mission” by Philbert Ortiz Dy (in which a rocket is powered by gossip).
Still, this is the Shine blog after all and instead of feeling sorry for the state of science fiction in the country, I want to talk about optimism–or in the case of the Philippines, hope. Perhaps what isn’t surprising is that we don’t have much utopian science fiction, at least well-written ones or the type that’s believable. Instead, we have apocalyptic or dystopian texts but there’s a caveat. While there are certainly stories in the mold of 1984 (“Kaming Mga Seroks” by David Hontiveros comes to mind), what might appeal to Shine readers are narratives that look towards the future such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver.
“Subterrania” (First Prize for Futuristic Fiction in the 2000 Palanca Awards) by Luis Joaquin Katigbak and “Keeping Time” (First Prize in the Short Story category of the Free Press Literary Awards 2008) by FH Batacan are good examples. In the former, it’s a bleak society that’s slowly mutating. In the latter, the end of the world is happening as a biological agent is slowly decimating the population. In both stories however, the focus are the characters and by the end of each piece, there comes the realization that the humanity of the protagonists can’t be torn away from them. There’s an attitude of perseverance and love, enduring despite all the burdens.
Another story I’d like to focus on is “A Monumental Race” (Third Prize for Futuristic Fiction in the 2006 Palanca Awards) by Arturo Ilano which easily fits the mundane science fiction movement of Geoff Ryman. The characters are seeking a monument that best represents the country and while they don’t quite succeed in finding one to their particular tastes, there’s still an aftertase of victory at the end.
Returning to the topic of science fiction in the Philippines, again, there’s been a recent resurgence of Philippine speculative fiction, especially with more and more works getting published internationally and online (here and here) and hopefully this means more science fiction in the future. We have yet to reach the peak but we’re not at rock bottom either. Whereas once the Philippines’s only claim to fame was having a Filipino protagonist in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Manila being featured in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, we now have Filipino writers actually writing science fiction.
Charles A. Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and his fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has conducted interviews for The Nebula Awards and The Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio and Comics Village. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker, where he posts book reviews, interviews, and essays.