Saturday, October 06, 2007

Filipino Science Fiction, Part 3

Because of sheer volume of output, science fiction is generally considered to be an American genre. But good science fiction transcends national boundaries. It's universal.

Look at Stanislaw Lem, author of the excellent Solaris. Lem is Polish and wrote the story in Polish, but in no way do we consider Solaris to be a simply Polish science fiction novel. We are so drawn into the suspense of the story that nationality becomes an insignificant distinction. Solaris is a haunting psychological thriller that explores universal human condition, as well as a fantastic addition to scifi canon.

So what then? Should we stop writing Filipino science fiction in favor of scifi of the more universal sort? Certainly Filipinos should aspire to write good science fiction, but I don't know if it's possible for Filipinos to altogether stop writing Filipino science fiction. In a sense, any science fiction that a Filipino writes still is Filipino science fiction.

There's an old admonishment: "write what you know." That's just as true in science fiction as it is in any other genres. Never mind that we're writing about the human race in the year 40,000 or about an alien virus. Being Filipinos, any work we produce will be infected with our Filipino sensibilities. The closer to our true sensibilities, the better the work. The best way to express a universal human truth is to express the truth that is closest to us.

Returning to Solaris, astute readers will notice a subtly different flavor to the narrative and the characterization as compared with American scifi stories. There's a brooding quality to the entire novel. The primary focus, you see, is not in the exploration of the planet but in the protagonist's relationship with his back-from-the-dead wife. This is something that we might attribute to the Polish-ness of the author.

If a universal truth by way of a Filipino truth is the aim, then some science fiction stories must necessarily be written in Filipino, that is, in Tagalog, Bisaya, Iloko, etc. We may write perfectly grammatical and impeccably idiomatic English, but some emotions and sensibilities can only be authentically expressed in our own language.

Solaris, again: the novel was written in Polish and Lem has gone on record to say that he was never truly happy with any English translation of this work. This hasn't stopped Solaris from being a moving tale for English readers, but one wonders how much more insight and depth we might gain if one reads it in the original.

In the end, we go back full circle. At the heart of the argument: a Filipino science fiction story is a science fiction story that expresses some fundamental truth about Filipinos. By varying degrees, the other accidents follow in due course.

How can you express the truth about Filipinos if you are not Filipino yourself?

How can you express a deep truth about Filipinos authentically if you do not do it in the language of thought of the Filipino?

How can you draw out the truth about Filipinos in fiction if not with the use of Filipino characters?


  1. If the second paragraph implies that *Solaris* is more than a Polish novel, what do we make of the seventh paragraph, which argues that in order to appreciate it we must read it in the original version, which is in Polish?

    If the "truth that is closest to us" expresses a "universal truth," then why is it important to differentiate "Filipino science fiction" from "Polish science fiction," given the fact that both will end up expressing the same universal truth?

    If “good science fiction transcends national boundaries,” then what is the importance of thinking about a “Filipino science fiction” given the possibility that "Filipino" implies nationality, a national boundary, and so on? Also, would that mean that Filipino science fiction is not “good science fiction”? Or does this imply that being Filipino has nothing to do with national boundaries?

    With regards to the differences between Lem's work and American sci-fi, is it true that there are no American sci-fi works that contain a “brooding quality”? Is it also implied that a “brooding quality” is exclusive to Polish science fiction? If not, then what is the purpose of using regions to describe differences between works? Why not, say, just refer to science fiction that contains a “brooding quality” and science fiction that does not?

    Let us apply the arguments given in the fifth paragraph of Part 3 of the discussion on Filipino science fiction: is the theme described about *Solaris* a Polish truth? Does "Polish truth" imply that it is seen only in Polish culture and not in others? If that is the case, then how is it universal?

    If something is lost in translation, then doesn’t this phenomenon challenge the argument of using a Philippine language for Filipino science fiction? That is, if a work will have to be translated to another language anyway for a wider audience to appreciate it, then what is the point of arguing that a work has to be written in a Philippine language? Unless there is a difference between the Filipino author thinking about his story in a Philippine language and writing it in English and writing his story in a Philippine language and then translating it to English?

    Next, if we connect this to the main point that Filipino science fiction “expresses some fundamental truth about Filipinos,” then does this imply that only readers who know a Philippine language (in this case, the particular language used by the author) will understand that fundamental truth? Also, does "Filipino" in Filipino science fiction refer to the Filipino language or Filipinos who live in a country where there are dozens of Philippine languages?

  2. Anton: you're seeing contradictions where there are none and you're setting up arguments from claims I did not make.

    Solaris by itself is already a good scifi story, but being a non-Polish reader, I am sure there are images and metaphors and idioms that I am missing. As I said:

    This hasn't stopped Solaris from being a moving tale for English readers, but one wonders how much more insight and depth we might gain if one reads it in the original.

    To really understand my point: try reading comparing a non-English literary piece in its original language and compare it with its English translation.

  3. Good points. I'm always afraid it's the nuances that get missed in the translated works. For example, I love Argentinean Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial but am afraid that it could be Ursula K. Le Guin's translation that did the trick for me. Is Gorodischer's work that good? Or is it Le Guin's view of that work? Hard to judge until one reads the original work.

    Funny enough, there are some works in English that you really can't get all the nuances unless you're part of that culture. For example, all British humor writers, ranging from Douglas Adams to Terry Pratchett. We know they're funny; but are we laughing at the same jokes that the British are laughing at?