Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Essay: The Term Speculative Fiction in Philippine Literature

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

These past few days, I’ve been deliberating about the term speculative fiction (or spec fic for short) and its role in Philippine literature. It's a term that's gained momentum in local publishing circles and that can probably be attributed to Dean Francis Alfar. Obviously, he didn't invent the term but borrowed it from its international context. However, it was he who started using spec fic to describe his writing and others followed suit. In the introduction of Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo's 2008 anthology Tales of Fantasy and Enchantment, she mentions that Dean and his wife Nikki are "the Oberon and Tatania [sic] of Philippine speculative fiction."

Personally, I'm more familiar with spec fic's component parts. I consider myself an unabashed fantasy fan for example. We also have writers like Emil Flores who align themselves more with science fiction than speculative fiction. A question by critics is why utilize the label speculative fiction when we already have genre classifications like fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

It's a legitimate complaint and one that spec fic writers should ponder. One reason is because spec fic encapsulates a wider scope, everything from fantasy to science fiction to horror and everything else in between, from the New Weird to Interstitial to Magic-Realism. Compared to its component labels, spec fic is more inclusive. We're not going to say "your story lacks credible science so it's not science fiction but fantasy." When in doubt, one can err on the side of spec fic.

The second reason is that words have connotations. When you mention fantasy for example, the image one conceives is polarized: either you imagine J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth mythos or one of the actors in the recent wave of Teleseryes on TV. Spec fic in my opinion doesn't have any strong associations with it so far, which has certain advantages and disadvantages.

For one thing, it's certainly gained credibility as it's being discussed and accepted in literary circles. Compare spec fic to existing genres such as romances and horror which are proving to be best-sellers but seldom discussed on a critical level unless it's part of someone's thesis or pet theory. Philippine romance in my opinion is patronized more than it is respected and is relegated to the realm of pop. Arguably the same can be said for horror and chick lit. Spec fic in my opinion has somehow managed to wrangle itself somewhere in between, gaining literary attention but not wholly accepted, acquired a cult following but not enough to elevate it to actual best-seller status. Would spec fic cease to be as popular as it is now if it were known by another term such as SF&F (science fiction and fantasy)? I don't know, the moment has already passed (although there have certainly been attempts to simply use "Fantasy" as a label, from Anvil Publishing's Anvil Fantasy imprint to Milflores's latest book, Tales of Fantasy and Enchantment). But certainly the choice of words has played an integral part with regards to its current acceptance.

Another problem is that because spec fic is such a foreign term, it usually needs to be explained. Just listen to any interviews or read any articles on local spec fic. One of the opening lines is to define and clarify what it means. Compare that to mentioning fantasy, science fiction, or horror, wherein listeners and readers stop asking for an explanation as they have inklings of those genre (even if those preconceptions might be erroneous).

Similarly, we have no real icon when it comes to Philippine spec fic. When we talk about komiks, we have Darna or Panday. When we talk about "the Filipino novel", we have Jose Rizal's Noli me Tangere. When we speak about Filipino literature in English, we have N. V. M. Gonzales's and his various short stories such as "Bread of Salt." How about speculative fiction? Admittedly, we have a writer in mind--Alfar--but which body of work best represents this label?

Of course this vagueness might not be so bad. Fantasy's poster child is J. R. R. Tolkien but the popularity of Lord of the Rings also ghettoed everything else that came after it. Instead of being classified as Fiction, novels and books that contained similar themes and tropes were shelved under fantasy.

Do we really need an icon for Philippine spec fic? And if so, what form should it take? Admittedly most people are drawn more to the idea of a novel. When one speaks of becoming a writer for example, they typically imagine writing the great novel rather than stories that are a few thousand words long. But that needn't be the case. H. P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson for example have made big impacts in horror via their short stories. Can local spec fic not rest on short stories, considering our output ratio of short stories compared to novels?

Alfar's novel, Salamanca, has certainly gained local prestige, winning both the Palancas and the Gintong Aklat awards. It's tempting to use it as our icon but personally, I find Salamanca to better embody Filipino magic-realism rather than speculative fiction in general. If it were left up to me, I'd pick his story L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) as our local icon because it crams a lot of strong elements rather than having one dominant agenda.

Of course those aren't our only choices. While the term spec fic is something that's only used recently, there are many works and authors preceding Alfar which can retroactively be classified as speculative fiction. Greg Brillantes, Alfred Yuson, and Joy Dayrit comes to mind. Many of their stories contain elements of the fantastical, from Yuson's super masculine rebel in Great Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe to the duwendes and surreal moments of Dayrit's stories in her collection The Walk.

Let's also not ignore the movements in Tagalog, whether it's Francisco Baltazar's Florante at Laura (albeit in verse) to Alvin Yapan's Palanca-winning "Apokalipsis". Roberto Anonuevo has an essay on Science Fiction and Philippine Literature (my translation can be found here) which documents attempts at science fiction as early as the 1930s and one might peruse the numerous winners of the Palanca category "Futuristic Fiction". And it's prolificness we're talking about, David Hontiveros certainly meets that criteria, as he seems to have dabbled in everything from Palanca awards to novels to comics.

Personally, what I find lacking in Philippine culture when it comes to spec fic are readers. Rather than take the "not many Filipinos are readers" argument, I'll dare say it's the opposite. According to UNESCO, our country has a literacy rate in the 90s. I'd like to think that our literacy is channeled into other mediums. And as far as spec fic readers in general are concerned, our bookstores are lined with best-selling fantasy/sci-fi authors such as J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Frank Herbert, etc. Many Filipinos do purchase such books but again, there's a disproportionate amount of fans of Western spec fic compared to fans of local spec fic. Whether this is a lack of awareness, lack of supply (the print-run of most books are a few thousand at most and there's a lot of good fiction that have won awards and the like but still haven't been published or distributed competently), or simply lack of interest, I can't really say.

What energizes me however is the fact that there's this new movement in Philippine fiction, especially considering the strong emphasis on realist agendas (i.e. social relevance). Some might dispute with me on that particular matter as they feel that Philippine fiction is riddled with fiction written in the realist mode but I beg to disagree. If you've read this essay, I've more than shown that there are a lot of works, both canon and pop, that are speculative in nature. No, the biggest difference between speculative fiction and realist fiction in the Philippines isn't so much the method in which we tell our stories but rather in our agendas and how we interpret texts.

When we talk about realist fiction in the Philippines, we're really talking about fiction whose agendas tend to be political commentaries or can be interpreted as being socially relevant. Our model, it seems, is Jose Rizal's Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo which were reflective of the political and social climate of its era. More than a hundred years has passed and we haven't really strayed much from that particular formula. Past Filipino authors have either incorporated said agendas into their writing or risk being classified as mere pop (with a few exceptions).

For example, in the 2003 Palanca Awards, Yvette Uy Tan's story "Sidhi" won third prize in the Futuristic Fiction category. While it has speculative fiction elements (a girl who miraculously cures a polluted river), one of the elements that stand out is its inclusion of the Pasig River and the author's attempt to address this social injustice (the plight of the poor, the pollution of one of the country's icons, the role of religion, etc.). The same story was reprinted in Alfar's Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 2 but one need not appreciate it solely for its social context. When I first read it, what resonated is Tan's craft of writing as well as the trials of a girl who didn't fit in. Political relevance is not a priority as far as my checklist goes and I appreciated the other virtues of the text. Could "Sidhi" not be interpreted as simply a unique coming-of-age story rather than one that reflects the many political causes of the nation?

Similarly, when it comes to Kristin Mandigma's story "Excerpt from a Social-Realist Aswang" which was published by Clarkesworld Magazine, someone asked me on my blog "Can you tell me which elements of Kristin's story aside from the "aswangs" and "tikbalangs" can qualify as having Filipino qualities? Divorce the mythology from it, what still makes it Filipino?" Her answer was this: "The brilliant thing about Kristin's story is that it is well-informed about the current intricacies of the Philippine political situation, particularly the infighting that's happening the factions of the Socialist/Communist movement like the CPP/NPA. In fact, she's satirizing all those political exiles! Also, if you've noticed how militant groups constantly use overblown rhetoric during their television interviews, you'll also get the Kristin's language satirizes that kind of jargon-mongering as well. It offers different facets to different people."

Not that there's anything wrong with that interpretation, and it's certainly a deep reading of the text, but it's that kind of paradigm that marks many of the fiction that have won awards or considered Literary. Can we not appreciate a story on the surface level, for its ability to evoke one emotion (laughter, fear, sadness, or simply entertainment)? And woe to Filipino writers that every story they write must reflect the Philippine political situation in order to be considered truly Filipino. As if including Philippine myths, or that the author brought their own unique Filipino experiences into the story, isn't enough to mark the text they write as genuinely Filipino. One might as well claim that in order to appreciate Gulliver's Travels, one must be well-versed in English history and politics.

Philippine speculative fiction, on the other hand, recognizes that fiction doesn't always have to be socially relevant. Can't we write stories simply to entertain? That's not to say local spec fic isn't socially relevant or doesn't possess gravity. More than a few modern spec fic stories tackle that (spec fic is inclusive, remember?). But the biggest differences is that writers are now able to write and pursue their own agendas without feeling guilt about the lack of Filipino characters or Filipino settings or importance on how their work will change the face of Philippine literature while still being able to gain a certain amount of literary acceptance.

For example, a story I enjoyed from the 1st Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards was Philbert Ortiz Dy's "The Great Philippine Space Mission". It's a parody and a very funny story with its premise of a gossip-powered spaceship saving the world. Is it political? Only in the loosest sense that one of the main characters is the daughter of a political martyr. Is the story reflective of the plight of the poor? No, but it is an interesting commentary on how Filipinos love showbiz.

Another example are the stories that are being published in The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories. Dominique Cimafranca's "Twilight of the Magi" and Vin Simbulan's "The Last Stand of Aurundar" are high fantasy, unabashed sword & sorcery stories that feature far-flung worlds and not a Filipino in sight. Yet these are, arguably, examples of Philippine speculative fiction. It might not be the type of stories that the literati or the critics might want to be published yet a) it's written by Filipinos, b) published by Filipinos, c) read by Filipinos, and d) appreciated by Filipinos. I'm sure there is still pressure among local writers to write something that is socially conscious but spec fic is breaking ground in the sense that its writers are starting to write what they want instead of writing what their professors, teachers, and mentors want.

Now I'm not advocating responsibility-free writing but rather a widening of our borders. As I said before, Philippine spec fic can be socially relevant, in the same way that George Orwell wrote one of the most powerful political books via science fiction (1984) and fantasy (Animal Farm). But dominance of a certain style or agenda can lead to stagnation and spec fic simply enables us to explore other areas.


banzai cat said...

Well, I was thinking about this, i.e. the angst a Filipino writer over dealing with the Filipino-ness of their work. What I thought of was that the justification and value of a story that does not conform to the Filipino agenda lies in the writer who does not limit himself/herself to writing a particular kind of story. This is whether it's secondary worlds with no political agenda (i.e. entertainment) OR spec fic with a political agenda (i.e. Filipino-ness). My thinking is: if you can do both, then I think this excuses you from having that particular angst.

Anonymous said...

Bread of Salt is written by NVM Gonzalez not Nick Joaquin. Nick wrote Summer Solstice

Charles said...

My mistake.

rcloenen-ruiz said...

Kudos on a well-written and articulate post. Had to laugh reading that line about fantasy and teleseries. Made me think of a funny conversation I had with my mom soon after she became addicted to those things.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, Charles, for a very well written essay and making me understand my own craft a little bit better. Honestly, I'm not one for discourse or semantics, but I still should understand what I'm writing first. Idiocy can come at different shapes and sizes in my life, lol.

Anonymous said...

Speculative fiction can refer to any fictional work because one can speculate on various characters and plots. In which case, the term is irrelevant unless you are referring to what-if stories involving historical events.

Realist fiction is not necessarily driven by political commentaries. You can have a funny story that's realist. And if all fiction is speculative (see above), then realist fiction is also speculative.

1984 may be seen as speculative fiction but probably not Animal Farm, given the argument raised in my first paragraph.

Finally, the literacy rate refers to basic literacy, i.e., the ability to write down one letter or to say any word in a local language. What you should look at is reading comprehension. In NCEE, NMAT, and recent diagnostic exams, Filipinos score around 70 percent for Filipinos and 30 percent for English. The average score for Math is around 10 percent.

You also have to keep in mind that 50 percent of Filipinos do not reach high school, and out of those that do, 50 percent do not graduate from high school.

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