Sci-fi has a long tradition of talking about power, dystopian politics and authoritarianism — and it’s never been more necessary.
A little blue-gray house in San Antonio’s King William neighborhood is home to one of the book world’s best-kept secrets: Wings Press, an indie publisher known for amplifying the voices of Latino and Chicano authors. With an impressive catalog that includes such luminaries as Rosemary Catacalos, Rick Bass, Wang Ping and the Observer’s own Naomi Shihab Nye, the press has been spreading its multicultural message for more than 40 years.
Now Wings has made history by publishing the first-ever anthology of science fiction and fantasy by Latinos in America, Latin@ Rising. The 24 stories and poems in this nuanced and timely collection all seek to foreground brown voices. From 1984 to Dune, sci-fi has a long tradition of talking about power, dystopian politics and authoritarianism with a freedom that literary fiction can’t touch — and as we enter the age of Trump, it’s never been more necessary.
Outside of the inclusiveness of the original Star Trek or X-Men’s fantasies of mutant acceptance, science fiction hasn’t always been the most inviting for authors of color — a legacy that Frederick Luis Aldama criticizes in his introduction. Aldama, an expert on Latino literature and pop culture, charges the genre with too often employing the mythos of manifest destiny and relying upon a “white savior,” a tendency obvious in a film like Avatar. From space opera to cyberpunk, the genre has never had a problem espousing Ubermensch ideals or pushing eugenics as go-to plot points. Fantasy fiction, with its white wizard drama that runs from Tolkien to Tanith Lee, fares no better.
At turns mirthful and morose, the stories in Latin@ Rising are tinged with an otherworldly frisson of familiarity. In “Monstro,” Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz extends the metaphor of subjugation and unification with a savvy and scary story in which a skin-darkening disease causes terror in Haiti. In “Caridad,” Alex Hernandez takes the hive-mind trope to new levels while illuminating the sacrifices young Latinas make to support their families.
Ernest Hogan’s “Flying under the Texas Radar with Paco and Los Freetails” is a comic gem. The story envisions a Lone Star state of mind wherein a dissident rocker in a band named after the Mexican bats is exiled from the planet for not being Texan enough. The narrator, a “Jewish Tejano” living on Mars, details a future in which Texas has become a corporation run by a billionaire politician/entrepreneur named Billy-Bob Paolozzi. Cultural criticism and sarcasm are verboten and words are not so much banned as made palatable. Some Spanish, for instance, is acceptable, but not without the proper Texas twang.
Before bemoaning that his administration has yet to come up with a gene to define Texas purity, Billy-Bob offers his apologies for not going far enough. “It isn’t enough for Texas to be corporate and install me as the constitutional CEO — I think we need an official religion to go along with Texan as our official language,” he says. “The great nation of Texas Unlimited does not believe in racism. To be Texan is more about attitude than blood or skin color.”
The piece, which jokes its way through to isolationism’s terrible, logical end, would be frightening even if we didn’t have a president who was also his own brand. But we do, so it’s terrifying.
In “Entanglements,” Carlos Hernandez draw attention to the frustration experienced by Latino writers wrestling with cultural clichés that may make it easier to land a book deal.
“I know I look brown,” bemoans his protagonist. “But I’ve forgotten all my Spanish. I have a PhD in physics from an American university. I have money, a white ex-wife, a white ex-lover, a split-level I bought 17 years ago. I don’t live the life of someone who has to struggle against racism every day. It’s not fair for me to call myself Latino.”
Whatever the answer to that, it is certainly fair to call Latin@ Rising, a book that explores identity while delighting in dreams, a speculative success.