The Spirit of Science Fiction, by Roberto Bolaño

essay by Fred Fischer

The US edition (2019)
  August 30, 2019

Philip José Farmer was featured in the 2019 translated work of Latin American literary giant Roberto Bolaño’s The Spirit of Science Fiction. In part the fictional Spirit contains Bolaño’s letters of admiration to American science fiction writers, and the last letter, to Farmer, underlines the Grand Master of Peoria’s breakthrough role in introducing transgressive sexual themes to classic American science fiction.

Spirit was probably originally written in the early eighties when Bolaño, perhaps channeling his life as a teenager in the Mexico of the 1968 student movement, relates the coming-of-age of his persona, Jan Schrella.  What is “the spirit of science fiction” if not the license and stimulation to imagine and create worlds that transgress boundaries?  And what better author to represent that spirit than Philip José Farmer, who introduced xenophilic relations with an evolved insectoid race in The Lovers, winner of a Hugo award.  At the end of the 1960’s Farmer also wrote erotic novels for Essex House, such as A Feast Unknown, The Image of the Beast and its sequel, Blown.

In his letter to Farmer, Bolaño proposes that PJF form a committee to anthologize stories that treat how sex can be used to stop interstellar wars and to solve problems on long space flights.  He mentions other authors to whom Farmer needs to send invitations and suggests the names of couples that should be paired for the long flights. Then he closes with an expression of his admiration for the sci-fi author.

Dear Philip José Farmer:

Wars can be ended with sex or religion. Everything seems to indicate that there are no other citizen alternatives; these are dark days. We can set aside religion for now. That leaves sex. Let’s try to put it to good use. First question:  what can you in particular and American science fiction writers in general do about it? I propose the immediate creation of a committee to centralize and coordinate all efforts. As a first step—call it preparing the terrain—the committee must select ten or twenty authors for inclusion in an anthology, choosing those who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future. (The committee should be free to select who they like, but I would presume to suggest the indispensable inclusion of entries by Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey; maybe later I’ll explain why, in another letter. This anthology, to be titled something like American Orgasms in Space or A Radiant Future, should focus the reader’s attention on pleasure and make frequent use of flashbacks—to our times, I mean—to chart the path of hard work and peace that it has been necessary to travel to reach this no-man’s land of love. In each story, there should be at least one sexual act (or, lacking that, one episode of ardent and devoted camaraderie) between Latin Americans and North Americans. For example, legendary space pilot Jack Higgins, commander of the Fidel Castro, participates in interesting physical and spiritual encounters with Gloria Diaz, a navigation engineer from Colombia. Or: shipwrecked on Asteroid BM101, Demetrio Aguilar and Jennifer Brown spend ten years practicing the Kama Sutra. Stories with a happy ending. Desperate socialist realism in the service of alluring, mind-blowing happiness. Every ship with a mixed crew and every ship with its requisite overdose of amatory activity! At the same time, the committee should establish contact with the rest of American science fiction writers, those who’re left cold by sex or who won’t touch it for reasons of style, ethics, market appeal, personal preference, plot, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. They must be taught to see the importance of writing about the orgies that future citizens of Latin America and the U.S. can take part in if we take action now. If they flatly refuse, they must be convinced, at the very least, to write to the White House to ask for a cease in hostilities. Or to pray along with the bishops of Washington. To pray for peace. But that’s our back-up plan, and we’ll keep it under wraps for now. In closing, let me tell you how much I admire your work. I don’t read your novels; I devour them. I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity.
Jan Schrella
alias Roberto Bolaño

Excerpt(s) from THE SPIRIT OF SCIENCE FICTION: A NOVEL by Roberto Bolaño, copyright © 2016 by the heirs of Roberto Bolaño. Translation copyright © 2018 by Natasha Wimmer. Used by permission of Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Implicit in the letter is the notion that Bolaño admires Farmer for his short stories and novels, many of which “deal explicitly with sex,” as Leslie Fielder mentioned in his praising review of Farmer’s novel Tarzan Alive in 1972.

Farmer’s breakthrough story, “The Lovers” (1952), and its widespread recognition, inspired authors like Robert Heinlein at a time when John W. Campbell, a major influence on classic science fiction and the editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding, reportedly refused publication of stories that included sexual themes. In The Book of Philip José Farmer, the titular author relates that Campbell thought that Farmer’s short story, “My Sister’s Brother” was “nauseating” due to its depiction of alien reproduction. Heinlein, whose novels published after “The Lovers” feature nudity and free love, dedicated Strangers in a Strange Land, considered by some to be the masterwork of a sci fi master, to an engineer and two sci fi authors, one of whom was Farmer.

At the time the short version of Farmer’s “The Lovers” was first published, the notion of the “separation of the other” in the United States predominated among races, genders, and economic classes, to the degree that miscegenation (loosely defined as “mixing races”, and now considered a racist word by many) legally prevented marriages between blacks and whites in many states. The U.S. Supreme Court did not eliminate race as a barrier to matrimony until 1997. The intimate relationship in “The Lovers” between the human protagonist and the alien shattered a science fiction barrier and opened a door for many writers that followed.

As was the case of Philip José Farmer, a number of Roberto Bolaño’s works were published posthumously, including his novel 2666, for which he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award.  At the time The New York Times called him “the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation.” Also like Farmer,  Bolaño’s works are tied by the resurfacing of characters in different short stories and novels, what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (online) calls, “Bolaño's career-long strategy of cross-referring passages and characters from one tale to another.”  There is speculation that Bolaño kept in mind an overview of his literary metaverse, as if he, in the words of the Encyclopedia, “intended to comprise facets of some mosaical over-text that he did not live long enough to bring to full maturity.”

The Chilean won the Romulo Gallegos prize for “novel of the year” in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, lifting him into the same category as Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.  In this novel Bolaño distanced himself from many of his fellow Latin American writers, rejecting staid notions of Mexican poetry. “We were all in agreement that Mexican poetry must be transformed.” (SD)

The big bang of Philip José Farmer’s metaverse was caused by a 56-pound meteorite that fell in Yorkshire, England in 1795, a few miles from the village of Wold Newton.  Contemplating the effects on the people nearby, Farmer posited that the rock’s crashing to earth altered the genes of the passengers and coachmen of a carriage in the near vicinity, and thus the Wold Newton Family was born.  The descendants of those affected became geniuses and super heroes like:  Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan (Lord Greystoke), Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, Arsene Lupin, and others.
Like Bolaño, Farmer the trickster was an outlier, and his impact on science fiction continues today.
Wold Cottage meteorite.
A chondrite which fell near Wold Cottage Farm, near Wold Newton in 1795. On display in the Natural History Museum, London, March 2013.

By Chemical Engineer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?


© Zacharias L.A. Nuninga -- Page last updated: 29 Sep 2019