Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Essay: The Philippines as Science Fiction

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

During Neil Gaiman's visit last year, he quipped that the Philippines was the future, home to flying cars and personal jetpacks. It was certainly a different way of looking at my country and one that I've embraced. The Philippines has a big science fiction following, at least as far as Western TV shows are concerned: Star Trek, Star Wars , X-Files, Battlestar Galactica... if there's a TV show or movie, there's most likely a cult following here. Unfortunately, the same can't be said when things are set in the local setting. Filipinos can talk shop about fortune tellers, duwendes, feng shui, and magical talismans called anting-anting but breach the topic of science fiction and many people become skeptical, especially if you consider the Philippines as a setting. Numerous reasons have been bandies around, from general third-world poverty to a rich history of mysticism, as if the fantastical was in opposition to what is speculatively scientific (which isn't to say there's no science fiction literature or movies being produced). A quick glance though, after distancing myself from what I consider "mundane", I've come to realize that Filipinos are living in what some people would consider a science fiction setting.

If there's any sub-genre that's apt to our plight, it would have to be cyberpunk. Filipinos may be one of the happiest people in the world, yet that doesn't erase the fact that we have many dystopian qualities: we're plagued by both pollution and overpopulation, prominent monopolizing corporations (aside from the telcos, Meralco and PLDT have been around for virtually forever), corruption in the government and the military (the latest fiasco involves officers carrying 105,000 euros in Russia), various influential factions such as the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Catholic Church (whose most recent activity is its attempt to block the reproductive health bill), a history of subjugation by imperialism (that's Spain, America, and arguably Japan), an ignorance of one's own natural resources (did you know the country is home to over 200 endemic birds?), a prominent divide between the rich and the poor, and home to a lot of immigrants (Chinese, Spanish, Americans, Japanese, and Koreans to name a few).

Take a stroll down Metro Manila and you'll find street vendors selling cigarettes by the stick (a pack roughly retails for $0.80 thanks to a lack of anti-smoking levies), fake branded apparel in the malls, the latest pirated DVDs from the US and Asia in semi-hidden stalls (each one retailing under $2.00), call center agents catering to foreign clients (perhaps one of the most absurd instances was when PayPal denied its services to the Philippines: "there's too much credit card fraud in your country but we'll happily employ you to provide customer service for everyone else"), students coding the most potent of viruses (the most famous of which was ILOVEYOU) and programs using pirated software (if not cracking them), manga fans downloading the latest Japanese comics off P2P networks and then translating and distributing them in the same day, and single men and women engaging in cybersex chats or updating their Friendster/Multiply/MySpace/Facebook profiles.

In many ways, the Philippines is a "true" democracy. One vote equals one vote as there's no such thing as vying for seats in this and that state. Philippine elections is a nasty business, whether it's campaigners bribing the masses with money (sneakily inserted into the pockets of the shirts and other items they give away), the deceased suddenly voting, stolen ballot boxes (which is precluded by a brownout in the polling station), and even Miami Vice-style chases (including speed-boat chases and gunfire) for the said ballot boxes. And if Filipinos are unhappy with their elected officials, there's always revolution and People Power (which reads like a magic-realism novel with civilians throwing flowers and rosaries at armed soldiers and actually winning).

For a country that's poverty-stricken, we're this weird paradox of being technologically handicapped (personal computers are considered quite expensive for most people) yet software is prominent (thanks to piracy) and the populace is quite proficient (we have a lot of talented programmers). What's most peculiar is our slow evolution into cyborg culture as mobile phones are becoming ubiquitous to the point that families who have trouble paying their bills nonetheless own one (and there's a growing number of thieves who aren't interested in your wallet but are simply out hunting for cellphones). The second Edsa Revolution was virtually organized via text messaging, and to this day numerous propaganda and bomb threats have spread through the medium.

The nation has also had an interesting set of personalities. One of our more politically active cardinals--now deceased--was named Cardinal Sin. The daughter of a former president became an actress and then a game show host, and somewhere in between had sexual affairs with prominent basketball players and/or celebrities. Former president Joseph Estrada certainly had an interesting career as he got his start with cinema and progressed through the ranks of politics from humble mayor to elected president before he was criticized by the media, held trial for corruption, an attempted impeachment by the public, imprisonment, pardoned, and then heralded as a messianic figure of sorts by the masses.

And then there's the weird event that occasionally crops up, such as inmates dancing in synch to the tune of Thriller.

So the next time a Filipino tells me that the country doesn't have a background of science fiction, all I have to say to them is that I'm not making this shit up.


Pipe said...

Good points Charles, and, with the exception of the rich-poor divide, not stuff I'd ever really thought of.

Dystopian elements (such as powerful monopolies, corruption in government, etc.) are, sadly, heavily present in a great many societies, so I don't think they will register with most (like me) as being science fictional (since they are so very real.)

While certainly the country, like many, could be easily re-envisioned in a cyber-punk setting, I think that the hurdle towards, say, space-faring type of science fiction based in (or perhaps springing from would be more accurate?) the RP would be that, from the little I've seen, we as a nation haven't really evinced the fascination for space and space-travel that countries such as the U.S., Japan and Russia have.

Maybe its because, here in the Metro - the most technologically advanced part of the country - we barely see more than a handful of stars at night.

Charles said...

since they are so very real

Sorry you feel that way but guess what, a lot of science fiction is about what's real, whether it's the ultra-commercialist America in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition to a reflection of their times such as in Alan Moore's V is for Vendetta.

And the same applies for "space". I mean don't get me wrong, a lot of my favorite sci-fi occurs in space but there's also a lot of science fiction that never leaves the planet such as the fiction of George Orwell and Ted Chiang. If you want space, just call it "space fiction" and be done with it; why bother calling it science fiction if you're just going to limit it to one narrow field?

we barely see more than a handful of stars at night.

Pffft. That's already a science fiction story in the making: a starless night. (Did all the stars die? Are we living in a fabricated world? Are the stars shining in a spectrum we can't see?)