Monday, July 16, 2007

thinking: towards philippine speculative fiction

This will be more than a bit scatter-brained as I'm trying to set down my thoughts on these questions: What do we mean by 'Philippine Speculative Fiction'?; Where is it heading?" This is meandering and unedited (I'm writing directly in my blog so pardon the misspellings and sudden thought jumps for now).

I'm still in the process of thinking about things and processing my thoughts, which means that at this point I'm not even 100% certain of my own position on certain matters, which necessitates more elaboration and fine-tuning. In time, I will gather and edit this (and my other notes) and come up with some sort of paper.

The first thorny question can be broken into parts. "Speculative Fiction" can be defined as an umbrella term that encompasses fantasy, science fiction, horror, and other non-realist genres. Some people feel that it would be better to break down the umbrella term and let each genre stand alone. I have no true argument against that notion, except that at this time in the Philippines, I believe we can put together a stronger argument for spec fic by aggregating genres. In the future, with a combination of a more mature market, wider readership, academic analyses, and, of course, a gigantic number of published texts across all the genres, then I think we can live with fantasy as fantasy and not as a part of spec fic (although perhaps even then I'd argue for the merits of staying together). It is very early still, and all our efforts can be characterized as baby steps at this point in time. There is still a lot to do - primary, writing and publishing.

As for the "Philippine" in "Philippine Speculative Fiction" - One of the many ways to approach the questions is through an analysis of the elements of discourse, which gives us a handle for discussion. I've selected two elements - setting and character - for now, and am aware of the risk of sounding prescriptive instead of descriptive, but what the hey. What we need to get at is this: what makes a text Filipino (I feel like going off tangent and discussing things like authorship and citizenship, but I'll leave that off for another post)?

So let's use the combinations of the two discourse elements and see what's what.

A. Philippine Setting + Philippine Characters = Philippine Spec Fic?

This seems necessary and at the same time limiting. My initial reaction is that, if we follow this route, we are acting more on guilt and a misplaced sense of nationalism than anything else. Do not get me wrong. There is something wonderful and true about using Philippine settings and Filipino characters in a spec fic story. The argument would be about identity, about pride. But on reflection, isn't this more because of the influence of realism? About those who have taught us to "write what you know"? About somehow being socially relevant? Ultimately, I think each author who uses this formulation should consider his motives - is it because the story in his imagination demands use of the formula or because of the need to be somehow recognized as "valid"? Being validated (by authority) is a strong need, and at this point, the implication is that spec fic somehow needs to be validated.

The validating authority is X (where X = (academics who privilege realism, and are in the position to pass on their bias as teachers) + (publishers who privilege realism to the detriment of non-realist texts; this includes book publishers and magazine editors who select stories to purchase and publish) + (the general readership, the so-called 'common reader', who, through their real life existence [prioritizing living life in the here and now and thus being unable or unwilling to project into the future or elsewhere] + their indoctrination in school [where, for example, the study of science is not given priority or funding - so how can we expect to develop writers of science fiction?] + (writers who come from the realist school and therefore write realist stories) + (writers who come from the realist school who are also writing spec fic).

We need to consider why there is a strong need for validation (but keep in kind that it is exactly the same case on the other side of the fence).

Naturally, there are those who feel strongly that spec fic need not be validated at all or that it should be validated by its own validating authority (which, I suppose, would be most of the above with "spec fic" substituted for "realist/realism"). Along these lines, should we not consider creating or developing our own awards-giving bodies, the equivalent of the local Palancas, for example, or, if we cast our imagination further, the equivalent of the Nebulas and Hugos (stories of merit voted on by peers or readers)? Or is pinoy spec fic 'too young'? Until then, we compete against all other types of stories for accolades and recognition (Palancas, Free Press, etc.).

If we accept the realist-derived validating authority, then spec fic will need to deal with the burden of nationalism, relevance, struggle with cultural identity and uniqueness, and deal with all the other issues that the writers of Filipino realism are dealing with themselves. Is this wrong? Should spec fic distance itself from all of this? Can it not be argued that Philippine spec fic is itself under the greater umbrella of Philippine Literature and thus subject to all the issues and concerns that the literature of a country faces (especially when we consider post-colonial issues, etc.)? Should spec fic be freed of...the real?

Let's move along and apply our first formula (Philippine Setting + Philippine Characters = Philippine Spec Fic) to particular genres.

Philippine Setting + Philippine Characters = Philippine Fantasy?

This is strong and can grow stronger, due to our folklore. We have a strong tradition of stories that have fantastic motifs and can easily develop texts along those lines. In fact, this is what people most expect to see when we talk about pinoy fantasy - the rendered imaginings most recently given form in teleseryes and earlier, in komiks. But we're talking about prose specifically. I think we can - Philippine settings are rich and textured, from the old Spanish-era to the wonderful southern Muslim cultures and every place in between. In terms of stories set in modern times and settings, definitely yes. The power behind the adage "write what you know" is that we can imbue the text with honesty (yes, we must be honest). If we use pinoy characters in pinoy settings, chances are, with excellent writing, we will be able to create stories that are remarkably (and identifiably) Filipino. But what this is, I do not know. We run into multiple issues like language, for example. And the question "What is the Great Philippine Fantasy Novel" runs into the same difficulties as "What is the Great Filipino Novel and how do we write it and where is it going and where should it go and what should it tackle and how should it be written and and and and and, etc." that the non-spec fic novelists here are facing.

Philippine Setting + Philippine Characters = Philippine Science Fiction?

Can Filipinos write scifi? My answer is a resounding 'yes'. But. There have been those who have thought or continue to think otherwise. The argument is that our country did not/does not have a strong scientific tradition (apart from the old chestnuts of the Filipino who helped design some lunar gear for NASA and our advances in rice research in IRRI, among the usually cited examples, true or not). I see the logic in this argument, and as far as the educational system (particularly the elementary level) goes, this is true. Lack of funding and lack of priority plus lack of teachers contribute to the sorry state. How can we expect the young to be turned on to science? I suspect it is mostly the same with private schools. In the high school level, I assume that Philippine Science High is different. But. We also need to take a look at new social realities that technology has produced. Take the mushrooming of internet cafes, for example. Add the fact that for games publishers like Level Up! students of various stripes are a major market for their properties like Ragnarok. Access to the internet changes things. Granted that it is nowhere near truly influential to majority of Filipinos, it does exist - and does influence the privileged youngsters who have regular access to it.

Ultimately, the lack of scientific tradition should not imperil that creation of new ideas in the scifi realm by Filipino writers. We can certainly create or imagine, we can do research, and we can write stories that show the consequences/effects of technology on people. The Palancas took down their futuristic fiction category, where examples of what could arguably be called Filipino science fiction once competed (arguably because some feel that most if not all of those stories are not scifi in the first place).

Philippine Setting + Philippine Characters = Philippine Horror?

It is in this genre that we have, I think, the greatest quantity of stories, spec fic-wise. Because we need to count the anthos of ghost stories, which are more anecdotal than anything. But still, they are set in the Philippines and have Filipinos. So there you go. The question now goes towards the quality of these stories.

We have a strong sense of the supernatural, and the Filipino consciousness is filled with creatures of the night and the underworld. Almost everyone can name at least a handful of the denizens of darkness: duende, mananggal, kapre, tianak, multo, white lady, tikbalang, bruja. There is much to mine and a lot of space to create.

So, all these genres obviously benefit from having Philippine settings and characters in the context of describing what the "Philippine" in "Philippine Speculative Fiction" is. Therefore, regardless of how we feel about guilt or the burden of nationalism or the question of relevance, this formulation is here to stay. The "Philippine" part is answered by having Filipino elements present as integral parts of discourse (we'll deal with cosmetic "Filipinizing" some other time).

But is that all that "Philippine Speculative Fiction" is and can be? Must all our stories be set in some area in the archipelago, past, present, future or alternate AND have Filipino characters? What will people think about stories that do not conform to this formulation?


B. Non-Philippine Setting + Philippine Characters = Philippine Spec Fic?

C. Philippine Setting + Non-Philippine Characters = Philippine Spec Fic?

D. Non-Philippine Setting + Non-Philippine Characters = Philippine Spec Fic?

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