Saturday, October 06, 2007

Filipino Science Fiction, Part 1

What makes Filipino science fiction Filipino? Does such a classification even exist? These are questions that form part of an ongoing online discussion about the nature of Philippine speculative fiction. While the topic sounds frivolous, delving into the answers may reveal insights not only in the genre but about the nature of our Filipino-ness.

Three obvious criteria immediately spring to mind:

1) science fiction stories written by Filipinos;
2) science fiction stories written in Filipino; and
3) science fiction stories with Filipino protagonists

We could quickly and vigorously assent to these concretely qualifiable distinctions and be done with it. But such simplistic definitions are feel shallow and unsatisfactory: they stem from mere accidents rather than from the core essence.

Suppose a Filipino writes a compelling and scientifically feasible story about the society of our evolved human descendants, say, in the year 40,000. The setting is so far into the future that, if the story is well-written, there would be no traces of existing cultural idiosyncracies. There would be nothing uniquely Filipino about the story other than its authorship. If this is the only criteria to call this science fiction story Filipino, then we're done.

Authorship alone isn't as neutral as we think, however. The problem with the year 40,000 is that its too far off as to be safe and sterile. If we bring the time frame closer to the present, we'll find that nationalist sentiments, no matter if they're misplaced, eventually come to play. A Filipino who writes a well-researched and well-executed story about American scientists fighting an alien virus in New York City will likely be derided by his peers as derivative.

Suppose, then, that that Filipino writer rewrites his story in Filipino, Filipinizes all his protagonists, and relocates the alien virus outbreak to Makati. The translation does not add anything new to the story. His characters and setting will simply be tacked on. Worse, the story loses its authenticity to Filipino readers who, in general, think so little of their country's own scientific and technical capabilities.

This lack of confidence in Filipino scientific capability is perhaps the reason why what few Filipino science fiction stories there are often encroach into the territory of fantasy for their plot devices. Some Filipino writers justify this shortcut on account of our supposedly dismal science education, but this is a lame excuse for poor storytelling. Scifi stories that were part physics and chemistry lessons had their heyday in the juvenile literature by Asimov and Heinlein. These days, its sufficient for the science to be plausible only as far as to support the readers' suspension of disbelief.

Science fiction, after all, is not about the science but about the fiction. Good fiction comes from good plot, good narrative, and ultimately, good characterization. Good fiction has something to say about the human condition. It may use an alien virus as an allegory for our primal fear of death and disease; it may use our descendants in the year 40,000 from now as stand-ins for us to reexamine our notions of justice and mercy.

Good science fiction uses some jarring strangeness, explainable by science, to put the human condition into stark relief.

Applying that notion to the more particular Filipino science fiction, we arrive at the hopefully more satisfactory criteria:

4) science fiction stories that express some fundamental truth about Filipinos

But what fundamental truth, exactly? And more importantly, how do you marry its expression with some strange but plausible conjecture? This is what makes good Filipino science fiction particularly difficult to write -- it requires both an intimate understanding of one's culture, as well as wild and playful leap of the imagination. Then again, that's the case with all good science fiction.

Update: I've changed criteria 2 from
science fiction stories set in the Philippines;

science fiction stories written in Filipino;

because setting is far too close to character (criteria 3). I've also removed some lines to correct an inadvertent tautology pertaining to the central argument.


  1. Is ``Cryptonomicon'' Filipino SF?

  2. I haven't read it, yet, I must confess.

    Here's a counterquestion, though: Is "Starship Troopers" a Filipino SF?

  3. @roy - Hello. If I may pitch in, I don't think Cryptonomicon qualifies as Filipino SF. I gave my explanation in my blog post about "Filipino" science fiction.

    @dominique - Thank you for these very eloquent posts, sir. And personally, I don't think Starship Troopers qualifies as Filipino SF, either. It wasn't essential to the story that the ethnicity of the main character was Filipino, and I don't think he embodied anything uniquely Filipino besides.

  4. With regards to the first example, if the work is written by a Filipino, then it can still be seen as part of Philippine science fiction.

    With regards to the second example, it does not matter if the writer is “derided by his peers.” His work can still be considered part of Philippine science fiction.

    For the third example, there are many works that are considered part of national literatures but that involve various literary elements tacked on to older or other stories.

    For fourth point, that “Science fiction, after all, is not about the science but about the fiction,” a work can be both “good fiction” and derivative because it may contain all of the elements of "good fiction".

    The fifth point, that “good science fiction” involves “an intimate understanding of one's culture, as well as wild and playful leap of the imagination” is partly contradicted by the first example.

  5. Anton: as I said, if you're happy enough with the "any scifi written by a Filipino is Filipino science fiction", then you can let the matter rest. That's my take on your points 1 and 2.

    Point 3: not everything translates well (and I'm not just talking about language.) Science fiction makes the discrepancies even more glaring.

    Point 4: I don't quite understand what you mean, but I want my fiction to at least have something new to say.

    Point 5: our culture is the lens through which we see the world. Which is, to some extent, th point I make in part 3.

  6. What makes a fiction filipino?

    authorship? no
    character's ethnicity? no
    philippine issues? no
    local plot? no
    filipino theme? no

    An american author who has lived in the philippines for awhile can employ all of the above. His work could be either american or filipino. It all depends on the truthfulness and sensibilities depicted in his writing.

    There are truthfulness and sensibilities unique to us Filipinos. We can sense it through settings/scenes, characters' interaction, dialogue, and the way the characters think. We see the filipino-ness of a literature along its margins such as the kind of soap a character uses or a bowl of soup another character sips. The way she takes a bath or the loud noise he makes when he sips his soup also scream filipino-ness.

    What makes arundathi roy's work indian are the scent of marigold, the stench of the gutter, the vedic chants, the amber of safron, and other little things we don't consider important in her novel.

    Filipino-ness can be read along the margins.


  7. so What if your not Filipino but your story centers around Filipinos, I.E. my main characters are Filipino's does this count??? as Filipino Sci Fi ???

  8. I'll wait for the final published product before passing judgment.

  9. hmmm well i've spent over 30 years on it i doubt i'll ever be done lol. but if your interested in seeing what i have other then what's posted on my blog let me know. the book is 95k word count over 430 pages and the graphic art is being done by rio villegas from the cebu sun times.
    the genre is military Sci Fi i kyself am married to a filipina who is buntis and figured i'd

  10. sorry some how that last post didnt all show up.
    ANYWAYS i was writting about my asawa being buntis and that i wanted my children to have a filipino hero. When i first thought of this book in 1979 they we're all american such as me, but after discovering the amazing people in the philipinees i switched my characters to a multi national cast. there are 9 books in the series, and i did imbue onto my characters characteristics and personality types i came across in each culture.

  11. Good Morning

    I am a hopeful science fiction writer with three self published books that I am trying to promote with a blog:

    I was looking at your website that questions the concept of Filipino science fiction. When I visited bookstores in the Philippines I looked for a range of Filipino English penned fiction --- science fiction, murder mysteries, crime stories, adventure, war stories, and historical elaboration. The bookstores had American fiction by famous authors, but nothing from the Filipino point of view. I am a white American, with German and British ancestry. I do not speak Filipino, but I’ve been married to my wife for 41 years, and over that time span, I’ve been deeply involved with the Filipino-American. Friday night I was with my wife at the J.W. Marriott for the annual Washington D.C. Filipino Independence Ball, while last Monday I was one of the artists being honored at the Philippine Embassy. I spend a lot of time with Filipinos

    The adventures in three books I authored begin ‘Marsquakes” with a farmer’s daughter going to war. I don’t mention anything Filipino. However, in “Cryogen, Mar,” I create a Filipino Private Detective to solve a murder mystery in Manila. For the third book, the detective’s brother-in-law and nephew are hired to assist in finding a gold mine that is claim jumped. I feel my stories ad to the Filipino Science Fiction offering, because it blends in Filipino protagonists and the Philippines. I figure if Jules Verne (French) and H.G.Wells (English) can write American classic science fiction, I can write Filipino stories that will be accepted as such

    -Kevin Owens


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