An Introduction to Science Fiction in Peru

by Daniel Salvo

(This article was first published on Inter Nova)

The image of science fiction that readers usually have in mind does not correspond to the definitions created by the genre’s authors or literary critics. In fact, the prevailing concept of science fiction is the one made popular in the USA during the twenties and thirties when pulp literature — which was oriented towards action and adventure, with stereotyped characters and a simple writing-style — boomed. This popularisation period can’t be dismissed, since it contributed to the spread of science fiction, although only in its space opera version. The negative side of its popularity at that time is that it stigmatised the entire genre to the point that it is now very difficult for most people, especially English-speaking people, to consider science fiction a serious literary genre.

Possessing a massive bulk of imaginary concepts and a kind of pedantry on the verge of ignorance, science fiction has been looked at with distrust or even ignored completely by writers, critics and scholars.
As an example, we can mention the lectures given in literature classes at schools and universities. With some luck, science fiction may be mentioned by some other name or treated as sub-literature; otherwise, it is absurdly included in completely different categories, and so The Lord of the Rings has in one instance turned out to be a “marvellous reality” novel.

With such a background, the apparent absence of the science fiction genre in our country becomes logical. Either we take for granted that the texts must be pulp, space opera, sub-literature, or a lack of understanding of the genre and its potential has made the texts written so far go unnoticed. When researchers — even with a college degree — are asked about Peruvian science fiction authors, they prefer, instead of accepting their ignorance, to evade the subject or energetically claim that no Peruvian author has ever written science fiction.
So, what is science fiction? Where does it come from? Even though the term “science fiction”, created by Hugo Gernsback, has been used since the early 20th century, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley´s Frankenstein is considered to be the antecedent of the genre. The novel’s plot is well-known: a scientist from Geneva, Victor von Frankenstein, in his wish to liberate humanity from the anguish caused by death, gives life to a creature made from human corpses, using the science at hand in his time (late 18th century). Since this is a reaction to the scientific breakthroughs of the period, it is not a supernatural horror novel. It examines the social changes gripping the lives of Mary Shelley and her contemporaries within the context of science, and is thus akin to what we call science fiction today, because one of the genre’s characteristics is, besides a sense of wonder, a critical literary examination of the impact scientific and technical discoveries have on the human race.

Considering the events that took place in the 19th century, both in the technical and the political fields, what every writer, no matter where from, needed to ask herself was what will the future be? People in the nineteenth century (or at least Westerners) saw daily the miracles (and the disgraces) of the industrial revolution: electricity, telephones, automatic weapons. And as they witnessed this rapid progress they were also made aware of the great changes in their lives because it.

The same was true for Peru in the nineteenth century. We started this historic period with the gestation of independence movements that ended with the establishment of a republic. At the same time, a modernization process was started to match the times. The Peruvians of that period, many of them educated the European way, had the same perspective as their peers in Europe or the USA.

Therefore we have, for example, the early case of what is considered to be the second novel ever published in republican Peru, called Lima de aquí a cien años (Lima One Hundred Years From Now), by Juan Manuel del Portillo, Juan Manuel Portillo or Julián Portillo (there are no precise records about the author’s name), published by El Comercio newspaper in 1843. The commentary on this novel is not very favourable; it has even been said that it deserves oblivion. But can we speculate that this novel intended to anticipate the future? Its title seems to give a clue.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the science fiction short story was born in our country. The author who started the tradition was Clemente Palma (1872-1946), an author who has been the object of different literary studies, both in Peru and abroad. However, his role as the precursor or initiator of the science fiction movement in Peru has seldom been emphasized enough.

In fact, Clemente Palma wrote two stories and a novel with all the genre’s characteristics. For example, they speculate about the future, and the reaction of humankind to a seismic catastrophe and experiments duplicating human beings.

Cuentos malévolos (Evil Stories, 1904 [published in English as Malignant Tales in 1988]) includes “La última rubia” (“The Last Blonde Woman”), set in the year 3025, when gold has disappeared from the planet, esperanto is the universal language, and all the other races have been absorbed by the Mongols and Tartars. However, there are some remnants of the white race, which the last blonde woman of the title belongs to.

Later, and on the occasion of a Halley’s Comet sighting, Clemente Palma, under the pseudonym of “Klingsor”, published “El día trágico” (“The Tragic Day”) in the magazine Ilustración Peruana during the months of April and May 1910. This story reflects the collective hysteria and fear the human race felt due to the nearness of the comet, which was supposed to cause terrible catastrophes. Oliverio Stuart, the main character, together with his wife and mother-in-law, turn out to be the only survivors of a worldwide poisoning caused by the cyanogen gas that composed the comet’s tail. Locked in their bunker with enough oxygen and supplies, they witness the deadly silence that engulfs the planet they inherit.

XYZ deserves a special mention. A novel, it was first published in 1934 and described as “grotesque” by the author himself. The title does not say much about the plot or the characters, and maybe that is the reason why this novel has been unfairly forgotten. “XYZ” is the nickname for Rolland Poe, a Peruvian inventor who develops an early taste for algebra. Using radium and albumin from eggs, he invents a machine that can duplicate Hollywood actors (among others, there is a strange reproduction of Maurice Chevalier, forty centimetres tall). Once the existence of these duplicates is discovered on an island, the “originals” and other actors start a rescue operation that ends with the inventor’s suicide.

The Peruvian literary production after that, as is well-known, followed other paths, and little or no memories of Clemente Palma’s work remain. Nevertheless, it was hard for our authors to ignore science fiction. Nearly two decades after XYZ, we observe that speculations about the future and the effects of technology play a part in some writers’ themes, although not to the same extent as works by Anglo-Americans in the same period. In our country, a “professional science fiction writer” figurehead has yet to appear — it is even possible that a “professional writer” does not yet exist, either.

In 1950, Héctor Velarde (1898-1989), a humorist and architect, and author of different chronicles and essays about Lima´s idiosyncrasy, sarcastically dealt with the so-called modernity incarnated by the US’s growth into a first-world power (and the subsequent worldwide spread of the American way of life): the first supermarkets appear, but also an unmistakable fear of the atomic bomb. In his book La cortina de lata (The Tin Curtain, 1950), Velarde includes a play set in the year 2427, called “Un hombre con tongo” (“A Man With Tongo”). The author describes the city of Lima as follows: “Far away, an astronomical observatory showing an enormous stratospheric cannon. City expression like (H.G.) Wells´. Autogyros, air-taxis, elevated trains, bridges over buildings, landing terraces, towers.” Catholic priests wear antennae, elderly people can rejuvenate, ladies go shopping at the “Jirón de la Unión” impelled to do so by helixes fixed to their backs, and it’s possible to travel to the moon by being shot by a cannon. In another volume, titled La perra en el satellite (The Dog in the Satellite, 1958), Velarde includes the story “La Bomba” (“The Bomb”). In it the dreaded total destruction to be caused by a nuclear bomb deployment will miss one target: the residence of a lawyer and diplomat in Lima, who will turn out to be the last man on Earth, knowing he will not survive very long.

In the same decade of 1950, the works of Eugenio Alarco suddenly and surprisingly burst onto the scene. In 1952, Alarco — a humanist, historian and philosopher — published his novel La magia de los mundos (Magic of the Worlds), in which two twentieth century astronauts, survivors of a kind of stellar shipwreck on an asteroid, are brought back to life at a time when the human race has expanded throughout the solar system. A curiosity: in this distant future, human beings wear super-suits that allow them to fly. These suits are translucent, so their owners appear to be completely nude.

In the sixties, another novel by Eugenio Alarco, called Los mortales (The Mortals), published in 1966, stands alone. As a kind of sequel to La magia de los mundos, it takes place in the same universe but on other worlds, and shows the other side of progress. It reveals that just a few humans are able to access immortality and other benefits of the future, while the majority of mortals remain excluded.

The sixties decade probably saw the greatest boom of science fiction in our country. The outstanding authors of the time are José B. Adolph, Juan Rivera Saavedra and José Manuel Estremadoyro.

A review of José B. Adolph´s work deserves a separate article. From his first publication, he has covered a wide range of different genres, including science fiction. He has written about artificial intelligence in Artemio y MULTICAL (Artemio and MULTICAL), the evolution animals in La rata (The Rat), immortality in Nosotros no (Not Us), contact with extraterrestrial beings in Los bromistas (The Jokers). His most abundant work comprising science fiction stories may be his book Hasta que la muerte (“Till Death, 1971), which includes the story “El falsificador” (“The Forger”), which was also included in the Latin American Science Fiction Anthology Cosmos Latinos, published by the University of Texas in 2003. In 1977, Adolph published a novel, Mañana las ratas (Tomorrow the Rats), that shows a completely balkanised and anaemic Peru, ruled by trans-national companies, the directors of which live on satellites orbiting the Earth.
In 1976 Juan Rivera Saavedra published his Cuentos sociales de ciencia-ficción (Social Science Fiction Stories) – ironic stories about the human condition. Throughout them, Rivera Saavedra explores topics such as our relationships with robots, the exploration of other planets, racism and food shortage.

In a space opera mood, José Manuel Estremadoyro published Glasskán, el planeta maravilloso (Glasskán, the Wonder planet) and its sequel Los homos y la Tierra (Homos and Earth) in 1971. In the first novel he describes a journey to a planet where everything is perfect, in the way of the great renaissance utopias. In the second, the humans trained by the galacsins (dwellers of Glasskán) must return to our planet to offer peace and progress to humanity, Glasskán style. Since they can’t find anybody who deserves such gifts, they devote themselves to living out a series of terribly absurd adventures.

In the nineties, Giancarlo Stagnaro published Hiperespacios (Hyperspaces, 1990), a space adventure novel worthy of Isaac Asimov.

In the late nineties Un único desierto (Only One Desert, 1997) by Enrique Prochazca was published. It compiled an assorted selection of stories with innovative topics, including “2984”, a story where the distopian world created by Orwell in “1984” continues to exist in the future, and “Happy End”, where we witness the end of the human race due to an intentionally provoked catastrophe.

Also in 1997, in Chiclayo City, Carlos Bancayón Llontop published his book Las formas (The Forms), in an almost hand-made edition. Among others, this volume includes the stories “Nutrición” (“Nutrition”) and “Las formas”, a speculation about the place of man in the universe, and mental powers used to investigate the past, which reveals amazing facts about the life of an important religious figure.

The rise of the Internet in our country has allowed for the electronic production of stories and novels. With web pages devoted to Peruvian science fiction, we have been able to become better acquainted with new authors: Rubén Mesías Cornejo, José Donayre Hoefken, José de Piérola, Adriana Alarco and others.

The year 2003 was bountiful for science fiction: José B. Adolph published his novel Un ejército de locos (An Army of Madmen), about an Apocalypse unleashed via the Internet, and the story selection Los fines del mundo (The Ends of the World), which includes several science fiction stories. Meanwhile, Juan Rivera Saavedra published Oprimidos y exprimidos (Opressed and Exploited) with some genre stories. Finally, Manuel Antonio Cuba published his book 8+1, nine science fiction stories dealing with different topics, such as extraterrestrial exploration, the future of Earth, and communication with machines.

2004 was also lavish in electronic publications. New voices appeared, like Iván Paredes and Pedro Novoa, while Manuel Antonio Cuba published a new short story collection, Desde afuera (From Outside).
Some final information: the writer of this article has published the stories “El amante de Irene” (“Irene´s lover”) and “El nombre no es importante” (“The name is not important”). He has also collaborated on articles about the science fiction genre in the electronic literary magazine El hablador and in the magazine Ajos y Zafiros.

  • Mora, Gabriela: Clemente Palma: el modernismo en su verisón decadente y gótica, Institute of Peruvian Studies, Lima 2000.
  • Palma, Clemente: Cuentos malévolos. Ediciones PEISA, Lima 1974. Including: Introduction by Augusto Tamayo Vargas, prologue by Miguel de Unamuno (reprint of the first edition, published by Salvat, Barcelona 1904).
  • Palma, Clemente and Tellería Solari, María: Crónicas del Halley, edited by María Tellería Solari, Lima 1989, including the stories “El día trágico” by Clemente Palma and “El testamento de Chantecler” and “Una visita al paraíso” by María Tellería Solari (“El día trágico” was originally published in instalments of the magazine Ilustración Peruana in April and May, 1910.)

Copyright © 2005 by Daniel Salvo, republished with permission by the author.

Daniel Salvo was born in Peru in 1967. After a degree in law he worked in a legal news magazine. In 2002 he started to edit Ciencia Ficción Perú, a website with articles on Peruvian science fiction. In 2005 he founded, in collaboration with some fellow witers, Coyllur, the Peruvian Association of Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy. He is currently collecting notes and data about Peruvian science fiction writers and plans to publish an anthology with the temptative title En las ruinas de Utopia.