This season’s highlight on the Portuguese SF must be the publication of what we hope is the first article by Nuno Fonseca for the World SF blog, thus kicking off the Portuguese-speaking contribution to the general debate on the legitimacy of an international SF.
The fundamental question that arises from Nuno’s take is that a (literary) criticism about the state of a World SF done on a full stomach is substantially different from a criticism that has to crawl into the other people’s bins and live on crumbs.
By criticism we refer to the set of international authors complaining that there are not enough women to write SF or enough people of colour or of alternative sexualities - arguments which, I confess, always leave a hint of defending a particular, very personal condition, more than reflecting a generalized condition of the genre as they purport to be. On the other hand, I do not belong to any of these alleged conditions of exclusion nor do I live in a country where conflicts of race are socially dominant, so my opinion may be unfair. But in essence, it’s not as if we were still living in the 1950s, as if we hadn’t already gotten rid of a set of damaging social and cultural prejudices (so much that someone holding prejudices becomes a target for prejudice) – and by ignoring this change, the exclusion argument risks becoming stale and repetitive.
Perhaps in the end the real issue is about wishing a shift on the themes addressed by SF - say, from a technological vision of the future into a mystical vision – that will make SF closer to the cultural heart of the complaining person. It is natural that, as an example, the perspective of the all-American-hero not only has little to say to an Eastern citizen but, to a large extent, will be seen as offensive in a region formerly colonized by the West.
And yet, as well Nuno points out, that complaint is still done on a full stomach, because one of the benefits of colonization has been the legacy of English – as was the Latin here in the Iberian Peninsula (yes, Western Europe was once a colonized place - by the Romans...). It’s a legacy that allows authors to express themselves more easily in the global lingua franca, that helps them read and be read and, of course, engage in a debate with a fair amount of easiness, without the hassle of translation.
Admittedly, those crumbs we receive are full of nutrients - after all, our country has equal access to all works published in the Anglophone world - and, thanks to technology, there is now a true democracy that allows anyone to engage in those global debates.
However, when it comes to fiction, it is impossible to reflect national concerns without the arduous process of writing, publishing and reviewing. Completing the circle, as I have had the opportunity to defend in other forums, is essential for the development of our genre – of any genre, really. If the situation of writing and publishing in Portugal is, as Nuno argues, a handicapped situation, I contend that the process of reviewing the published works is even more critical.
Most national works appear and disappear from the shelves without a minimal notice from readers. Apart from considerations that I might have as an author, I see dozens of historical novels by new authors (to take on a fast growing genre in Portugal) pass by the bookstores without learning anything about the quality or the themes these books discuss; I have no idea which centuries the authors tend to explore more and which is the level of their historical accuracy. Would I enjoy some of them? Do some of them present innovative literary approaches to the sanctity that we, as a nation, regard our History? Are some of them rebellious? There’s no hint on their covers – since a cover only intends to sell. Unfortunately the few existing literary magazines tend to be too anxious to please both reader and publishers and cautiously step away from any review that might be too “academic”.
On the other hand, addressing my concerns as a SF&F author and long-time fan, I know only too well the pattern of dropping a book on the market and see it quickly sink into the bottom of its murky waters. I can’t say I’ve only had bad experiences – the 2007 Portuguese and Brazilian anthology of original short-stories I've edited, Por Universos Nunca Dantes Navegados, for example, had an unusual, beneficial, series of online reviews. However, this is not a consistent and sustained situation, and it’s common that new publications will receive only a minimum set of reviews or even no comments at all. Just consider the number of online magazine editions that our country has had in the last few years against the number of short fiction blog entries about them…
Without this mirror that allows us to understand whether we are fat and ugly or whether we are in fact rising supermodels, it is difficult to prune the weeds and allow the genre to develop.
Comments may arise concerning the separation of paranormal romance and Tolkien-inspired heroic fantasy from the more generic definition of the genre. It's normal to make such comments, however I contend that this separation should exist and Nuno did well to evidence it. A bit like birds that move away from the nest - or rather like a spin-off from the original species - these literary movements have a big presence in the marketplace and enough followers and creators to make them autonomous and be appreciated outside the SF&F context.
If these sub-genres are intrinsically diversified in order to survive, only time will tell. The rule is the same for any species: only from continuous innovation and cross-pollination of issues and concerns will this sub-genres continue to hold the interest of their followers – since these followers will grow, will take on other, more adult, concerns, and will begin to depart from the original books, looking upon those as a fancy from their youth.
The sad truth is that a genre will not always grow at the same speed as its readers...
A Lifetime of Science Fiction
- This season’s highlight on the Portuguese SF