Saturday, October 06, 2007

Filipino Science Fiction, Part 2

Let's tackle the technological angle, a class of plot device that, as said earlier, is deemed difficult to write for. Is it really? Consider this thought experiment: imagine yourself to be an uncannily prescient Filipino scifi writer in 1977.

You might write about a future where everyone who wanted to could start their own interactive TV channel. Let's say that everyone is happily minding their own business. And then an insensitive journalist says something bad about Filipinos. How do the Filipinos react? They flood their personal TV channels with insults and death threats to the point where the journalist has to kill herself. The story wouldn't be so much about the personal TV channels as it would be about our own hypersensitivity to criticism, and how we react to it.

Or you might write about a future of self-contained megacities, floating up in the air, where one could get anything one heart desired: food, clothes, education, entertainment, etc. And yet, at the end of the day, the Filipinos who kept it running still had to go back down below to their dirty, crowded, and crime-widden warrens. The story wouldn't be so much about the floating megacities as it would be about the social imbalance and cultural heritage that forces this status quo.

Fast forward to 2007 and the parallels should be clear. Now: Do you really need to know the inner workings of the Internet and blogosphere to write the first story? Do you need to know about the economics of malls in order to write the second?

Hindsight is 20/20, one might say, and prognostication is easier in the reverse. So how about something more fanciful? How about that other staple of scifi, an alien invasion?

If you were writing with a Western bent, your protagonists will repel the aliens with guts and technological knowhow. But what if you were writing with a Filipino slant? The story might train the spotlight on the Filipino leaders scrambling to curry favor with the new alien overlords. It might examine the fawning hero worship of the aliens by the general population. It might end with the Filipinos coopting the invaders by mating with them. It's not very flattering, but the depiction rings far truer than if we have the Philippine Air Force sending their Broncos to bomb the mother ship.

If my take on Filipino science fiction seems a bit too much a reflection of Filipino society, it's because in any genre it is impossible to write decently about the Filipino-ness of a protagonist who is in all aspects divorced from Filipino society.

Take Johnny Rico, for example, the hero of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and arguably the first protagonist of Filipino heritage in any science fiction story. What made him particularly Filipino, aside from Heinlein's last-chapter revelation? That he was a Filipino was simply a tacked-on by-the-way. The way he was written, he could just as easily be replaced by a blond blue-eyed Aryan. In the movie version, he was.

That leads us to the corollary to criteria 4:

4a) Filipino science fiction is essentially social science fiction

This, I suspect, is true of any science fiction story -- or for that matter, any story -- in which one insists on imposing some national or cultural boundary.

To this, there are two other corollaries that follow from this:

4b) There cannot be only one Filipino character in a Filipino science fiction story.
4c) Satire forms an important component of Filipino science fiction.

The proof of these is left as an exercise to the reader.


  1. There cannot be only one Filipino character in a Filipino science fiction story.

    while i see your point about filipino SF being essentially social SF, i am wondering if it is possible with a single protagonist. what if we can just make the protagonist filipino, place this protagonist in a completely foreign environment, and make him/her stand out by embodying Pinoy values and tendencies?

    say - if a "probinsiyano" is the last man on earth, and he builds himself a shelter that captures trademark pinoy living, such as pinoy cooking and putting up safeguards against aswang, crossing himself when passing a church (if he's catholic) and saying "excuse me" when sweeping anything out the door or throwing anything out the window. in effect, the protagonist becomes the last bastion of filipino traditions. would that count as filipino sf?

  2. Does this mean that Filipino characters in Filipino science fiction should be characterized with “hypersensitivity to criticism?” What happens when one has a science fiction story that describes Filipinos acting in a civil manner?

    The second point, that a fundamental Filipino truth consists of a large underclass serving the wealthy in mega-cities might, unfortunately, characterize many cities outside the Philippines. What then is “Filipino” about this claim?

    With regards to the third point, does this mean that Filipino leaders portrayed in Filipino science fiction must be seen as “scrambling to curry favor with the new alien overlords,” and that the rest of the Filipinos should worship the aliens? Is it also implied that such phenomena do not appear in other cultures? If not, then what is “Filipino” about this? Finally, what happens when one portrays Filipino leaders and their followers as brave and rebellious?

    In relation to Johnny Rico, if we connect this example to the three given in the same part, are you implying that Rico is not Filipino because he is not sensitive to criticism and is brave? And if he can be replaced by a “blond blue-eyed Aryan,” does this mean that only blonde, Indo-Europeans are not hurt by words and are brave?

  3. Bhex: thanks for pointing out what looks to be a controversial statement. My take (for now) is that a single Filipino in an SF story tends to become either a token character or a caricature or both.

    Taking off from your last man on earth story, you would have to delve into why he does the things he does. Is it something that he's born with? Or is it something about the environment that he grew up in? Who taught him how to cook? How to cross himself?

    And then, you see that you at least have to introduce another Filipino into story, even if only in flashback.

  4. Anton: see? this is why some things need to be said by way of fiction. Because if you say them outright, people will get mad.

    The point of my example was about the complaint that our knowledge of technology is not advanced enough for us to do science fiction.

    I am simply lifting from recent events and history to illustrate my points.

    But ultimately, these are my stories and my plot points (one of which I am in the process of writing out.) If you have a speculative fiction in which the Filipinos act civilly or the leaders act nobly, I'd be happy to read it.

    Again: our culture is the lens through which we see the world.