Side Effects

A Lifetime of Science Fiction

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What sets Portuguese SF apart
(This is a rough translation of an article about Portuguese SF that I published online 5 years ago. It was sparked by an email interview with a French journalist.)

Question: what do you think sets Portuguese Sf apart from other SF?

The theme that Portuguese science fiction most dwells upon must be History. If there is a thing that a Portuguese person knows about is its country's history. We perspire it so much as a culture that it's hard not to look upon it as a telling sign of the nation's current uneasiness with its international low-key status. It's just an opinion, of course, and as such, it should be supported by other evidence; but its existence does cause some attrition in the development of the culture: still in our modern days, it doesn't sound right in calling the ship's captain Felgueiras, and not John MacDonald.

Such uneasiness is heightened by this simple fact: Portuguese writers are not scientists by training, and much less by profession. The closest example must be that of a writer who used to be a MD (João Aniceto). Hard sf - being the speculative fiction that uses the tools of the hard sciences, mathematics, physics and such - is practically non-existent (I can't think of any book or story that uses a new and bold scientific idea as a plot device - you won't find a Greg Egan or any of the Killing B's so far).

Even Portuguese History as a plot device for speculative fiction - which usually means alternate history - is fairly recent. Some years ago, on the 20th-something anniversary of the 1974 revolution that overthrew the fascist regime, there were a couple of novels about what would have happened if the revolutionary forces hadn't come through. They were badly written and poor in their historical analysis, or heavy-handed in the presentation of the alternate facts. Nevertheless, someone had finally done it.

José Saramago would "almost" make its own (unwilling?) contribution to the AH canon, with his book, The History of the Siege of Lisbon. One of the stories in this novel is about the conquest of Lisbon by King Henriques from the Muslim hold, and what might have happened if the crusaders in his army, who in actual History were essential to the victory, had said no to him. The story is actually very interesting and the depiction of that kind of life very graphic... but Saramago doesn't carry his assumption to the end, he backs away from it, and instead we see that most of the crusaders (but not all) end up turning their minds and engaging into battle. So that all ends up happening as it did... not the best food-for-thought for the average sf reader...

The myth of King Sebastian (more on it here) is finally addressed by Maria Moura-Botto in O Regresso de D. Sebastião (The Return of King Sebastian). An interesting novel.

Alternate History written in Portuguese is usually best done by the Brazilian author Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro. "Ética da Traição" ("Ethics of Treason") - also published in France - is a novella from the Portuguese-Brazilian anthology of the 90's: O Atlântico Tem Duas Margens (The Atlantic Ocean Has Two Shores) that tells the story of a Brazil which has lost the War with Paraguay and has been split into two independent states, one of which, the Guarani Republic, became the largest country in South-America. Meanwhile, a Brazilian scientist has discovered a means to travel back in time and help in the defeat of Paraguay. That would place Brazil in the history path that ends up in our own present world, but the scientist doesn't go through with it - he understands that Brazilians would have a harsher, poorer way of life in this timeline. A very interesting, political, well-written story. And it's not the only one he has on alternate Brazils. (see also)

Going back to the statement about the absence of hard science in national sf, the lack of strong scientific plots doesn't mean that, even as laymen or researchers, the writers completely ignore science elements and ideas from their stories - most of them are borrowed from English-written sf, since its ideas have been sufficiently digested for an audience of non-scientists. Such is the case of nanotechnology, that João Barreiros uses in the short stories of his Toy Hunter collection, of Daniel Tércio (the novel Stone of Lucifer ), and even some of my own stories (just for reference).


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