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Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo October 1, 2005
New Frontiers in Philippine Literature:
A study of Filipino Futuristic Fiction by women writers in English
One of the challenges involved in developing academic programs for a newly established college in the suburbs is to create courses that the majority of students can take, if not as major subjects then at least as electives. Last year, when I had to defend my proposal for a Science Fiction class, I had to simply reiterate the school’s slogan, “reinventing education, humanizing technology”—since the college that I teach in right now is meant to be a science and technology campus. After that, it had not been at all difficult to explain to them the importance of studying science fiction as a way of understanding the nature of science and technology itself, and of critiquing media texts that are produced in the West but are catered to audiences that include Filipinos. I can say that I have truly enjoyed studying and discussing with my students the narratives and films that are popularly considered science fiction. Even though I have been watching science fiction all my life (I confess that I am a shameless Star Trek fan totally smitten by the cyborg Commander Data), it was only through recent research that I learned of how science fiction has been around for more than a century and a half, but is still considered relatively young compared to other literary and artistic genres; such as realistic fiction, epics and myths, tales and parables. In its state of adolescence, controversies and ambiguities still abound
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in the definition of science fiction. At times science fiction is still derisorily confused and interchanged with fantasy, and this is plainly seen in the way books are put together under the same category in bookstores, and in the way Star Wars fill the same shelves as Contact and Philip K. Dick flicks in video shops. Debates abound among science fiction purists who often criticize mainstream science fiction, and mainstream enthusiasts who maintain that pure science is boring, and that science fiction should primarily be entertaining. Audiences and readers right now already have a general idea about what sets science fiction apart from other literary genres, but I would like to cite a couple of definitions from renowned science fiction writers and critics. Isaac Asimov distinguished this genre from the others when he proclaimed modern science fiction as “the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of changes that face [human beings], the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.” Whereas for Robert Heinlein, science fiction is the “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” (Jones, 2000) From this I understand that science fiction texts are stories coherently extrapolated from present scientific and technological facts so that they reflect a society’s dreams, fears of and aspirations for the future. But even as they talk about either dystopic or utopic futures, or have themes such as alien invasion, time travel, genetic mutation or cyberpunk, science fiction can only make sense if it reflects the present human condition and take on real world issues. Through an imaginative exploration of future possibilities, the writer confronts issues that are not at all fictional, such as the inevitability of environmental destruction, the cruelty of oppressive societies, gender inequalities, poverty, and so on.
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In short, the best science fiction texts are removed from our present day experience, only in so far as they try to predict plausible outcomes of present circumstances, but are still critiques of the current human condition.
Although not much has been written about it, in Britain and America futuristic fiction is considered a province under the larger territory of science fiction (Pickering & Chatto 2005). As I understand it, texts that are labeled futuristic fiction may not be as rigidly based on scientific laws and technological possibilities as science fiction texts are expected to be. Futuristic fiction includes stories of future events imagined through a keen understanding of the nature of human beings, the workings and tendencies of the natural environment, and the patterns throughout social and natural history. Some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s and Margaret Atwood’s fiction fall under this classification, as well as films like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow. A story that we recently took up in CL 298 class that could be considered future fiction is Jungle Planet by Lakambini A. Sitoy. I am quite delighted to know that a growing number of Filipino writers are delving into science fiction, maybe spurred by the creation of the newest category in the Palanca awards: Futuristic Fiction. Timothy Montes, in a lecture delivered during the Francisco Nemenzo Lecture Series in U.P. Mindanao, identified that “a fundamental lack, if not a fear of science” has plagued the local literary tradition and has kept it within the worn-out precincts of social realism. He charged the majority of Filipino writers as still obsessed with the rural archetypes of Baldo, Manong and Ading. He therefore considers the opening of the futuristic fiction category for writers in Filipino and English as a way of encouraging our local writers to cross the frontiers of a more or less
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cloistered reality, and engage their imagination in writing about “futuristic scenarios of the Philippines based on the realities [at hand].” Given this assertion, I chose to look at what the Palanca awards have so far achieved in establishing its futuristic fiction category. The texts I have chosen are winning futuristic fiction entries by women writing in English, between the years 2000 and 2004. I plan to investigate what makes these texts “futuristic,” and see whether they adhere to the ideals of science fiction as literature that logically extrapolates from fact and present conditions. Furthermore, I would also like to draw out convergences in the themes and motifs of the stories that would indicate common ideas, fears and dreams among Filipino writers.
“Secret Notes on the Dead Star” by Lakambini A. Sitoy (2000, Second Prize)
“Secret Notes on the Dead Star” is about how a young woman’s obsession for a musician from the past has forced her to go beyond the confines of her cloistered life in her “safe” world, the Inner City, and into a place ruined by pollution and other calamities. Akira Cockram, 22 years old, has lived all her life in New Intramuros, otherwise known as the Inner City. The story is set between 50 to 100 years from now, when this part of the country has been radically changed by countless calamities, massive environmental destruction, economic dependence on multinational companies and the shift to an autocratic government. The society is literally divided by physical structures that delineated the Inner city, where the air is cleaner and the environment safer, from the Outer, older Manila, or the slums. This demarcation clearly identifies those who are privileged and those who have to live the harsher life. Nevertheless, the
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story implies that it doesn’t matter which side of the fence to stayed on, Kira and her friends, Marengo & Aurora, and probably many people of their age, feel trapped by their lack of history.
I wanted to know why we had to wait until 15 to leave the confines of New Intramuros. I wanted to know why we could go anywhere the mind could takes us, in our stimulator suits and with our helmets clamped firmly over our eyes, yet be banned from sectors of the Information Exchange—and all because of the letter PHL in the serpentine combinations of digits that constituted our cyber names… …and I think that most of all, I wanted to know why there was nothing whatsoever about that preceded my birth, why there was this gap, this terrible euphemistic silence. I knew that the collection of islands that New Intramuros must administer was once larger, and more intractable…I longed for faces, words, stories, music—real things to fill that void.
These “real” things are what she has found in the music and personality of Dakila Neri, a rock musician who has reached the peak of fame and success long before Kira was even born. In the present time, Neri has already been rendered obsolete and forgotten, until Kira rediscovers him. Incidentally, Kira receives occasional assignments from the Commission on Culture and Arts, which has been reduced to mere obligatory display of goodwill. The Commission is headed by a large, lumbering old man whose identity lay hidden by his youthful visage, a complexion “as smooth as laser surgery can make it,” and by the title “Chairman.” When the chairman finds out of Kira’s interest in Dakila Neri, he sends her on a quest to find him, bring him back so that he and his art may be preserved like a national treasure. In essence, Kira is a rebellious character who finds momentary amity in reliving a past that continues to mystify her. She and her friends would sometimes break the law and steal into the outer city, rummage the flea market for old mementos, records, furniture, gadgets, engage in
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“realfuck” rather than the much safer and customary “virtual sex” and eat disgusting slime that her eccentric friend, Marengo, calls real food, rather than the processed, artificially-produced frozen food regularly delivered to her doorstep. But in her quest for the real Dakila Neri, Akira is awakened from her juvenile rebelliousness into an acceptance of reality. Dakila Neri has lost what he once had that made him a great musician and an enigmatic person. He is now reduced to an old, helpless man who has given up on life a long time ago. Kira realizes cannot be a hero to someone who doesn’t not want to be saved. Furthermore, by witnessing what lay beyond her Inner City, Kira Cockram realizes that the lackluster life she has been living was actually a luxury compared to what people in the Outer city were experiencing. In the end she realizes an important thing.
It is painful to brood, and quite destructive to actually write things down. I suppose the reason people listened to music and watched so much TV in those days was so that they wouldn’t have to stop and try to figure out where they were going and what was happening to their world.
In the end, Kira herself resigns to this reality and retreats into her virtual world where she makes love with Dakila Neri—or at least, the one that belonged to the past.
“Past Forward” by Maria L.M. Fres-Felix (2001, Second Prize)
Therese “Twinkle” Diaz is the vivacious heroine of this comical futuristic piece which takes pot shots at the Philippine society’s numerous defects, most especially its penchant for voting movie stars into government. The story starts out with Twinkle waking up from a hundred year old slumber, cryogenically preserved from certain death due to a botched liposuction
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procedure. The reason why she had undergone such ridiculously extensive liposuction was because she wanted to look her best when she covers the 2001 SONA and will be seen live on TV. She wakes up to find peculiar changes in her surroundings: everyone was obese and happy (quipping “it’s a sin to be thin” and “it’s a sin to be grim” every once in a while), public transportation was fully automated and run by robots, no traffic jams, and no uncollected garbage and street children littering the avenues. Coincidentally, she learns that the 2101 SONA is happening in a few hours and there’s just enough time to get to Luneta—people from the TV station she used to worked for still remember her and obliged when she asked is she could cover the 2101 SONA. Little by little she comes to learn that a lot of things have not changed about the Philippines. The current president is Ate Cee, the great-great-great granddaughter of Ate Di, who was then president back in 2001, also an actress. Furthermore, it was not just the president. The whole cabinet was comprised of former actors and actresses who found a second career in running the country. The whole SONA itself was likened to a variety/freak show.
A big hirsute androgyne led the Invocation in a language Twinkle couldn’t understand. She almost yearned for the televangelist with the checkered suits in neon colors. At least, she used to understand what he said, baloney and all… The president was borne on stage by a bunch of paunchy young men, in what looked like a spoof of a dance number of a noontime variety show of old. Twinkle wondered if this SONA was something like a commemorative event, a nostalgic trip to a century back.
Her joy over the fact that the Philippine economy was booming and that she was at last “slender” is cut short when she learns that all the appearance of opulence around her were just
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lies. The fascist government of “Boss Cee” was hiding behind its glitz and glamour the unsolved problems of poverty, pollution and graft and corruption. This fact was made all the more real by the Supremo, a character right out of the old Katipunero days. It was the Supremo who told Twinkle of the government’s continuing project to give the people a false-sense of prosperity and progress while they plundered it and made themselves rich. As a final-ditch effort to save the Philippines, Twinkle and Supremo agreed to jump back to the time of Aguinaldo and change history so that the Americans wouldn’t have possibly established the commonwealth and spurred our obsession for Hollywood. Unfortunately, the story ends tragically. Because of the unreliable service of telecommunication providers Smark and Glab, both of them get caught and fail in their mission.
“Virtual Center” by Raissa Claire U. Rivera (2002, First Prize)
The story is set approximately 60 to 70 years from now (2060s-2070s), sometime in the relatively near future. Delia, the central character, is young, educated, and part of the disenfranchised, working class; underprivileged and therefore has narrowed options because of lack of education, financial/economic constraints, social status/ class. Delia’s job, along with many other people like her at that time, is to act as caretakers and attendants of the bodies of those who have chosen to live a virtual life at the “Virtual Center.” Majority of the population, those who are not able to afford it from the start, aspire and work their ass off all their lives to be able to avail of this virtual life when they retire. This majority includes Delia. The Virtual Center here is the symbolic representation of ‘heaven’ or ‘nirvana,’ the release from the pain of real, material life. The story later on reveals how Delia falls in love with
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the body she attends to, and is therefore a slave to, everyday. His name is Art, a musician who has chosen to sign over his body to the Virtual Center at the decline of his career. Delia attends to his every need, willingly, as if a real relationship was at stake between them, until one day the virtual center was bombed and destroyed by rebelling forces headed by Delia’s brother Nick. Nick has been rebelling against the law ever since he was a boy. By sheer critical insight he becomes conscious that it is the desire for a virtual life and the Virtual Center itself that has been oppressing people like him and Delia, and it frustrates him that no one else could see it his way. In a rage, Nick starts disconnecting the bodies hooked to the machines at the Virtual Center, berating Delia with his nihilistic sentiments as he went along:
“If every one was living in a virtual world, who would keep people alive?” Nick yanked off the last of the electrodes on Art and started working on his straps. “They’ve set up the system in such a way that we can’t ever get out, so we’ll always be there to look after them. Why do you think higher education is so expensive? So the lower classes won’t learn how to operate supercomputers and complex machines. And we can’t sabotage them either. And of course, we are taught by our middle-class teachers who have been bribed by the promise of an eternal virtual life after the retirement that the system is perfect. Perfect for these people maybe, but not for us.” He removed Art’s mask and gave his shoulder a shake. “Come on, buddy, it’s time to see what’s happened to the real world since you’ve gone.” Art rolled over and fell on the floor. “Ow!” he yelled, and sat up and rubbed his eyes. Nick went on to free the politician while Delia knelt at Art’s side. “Don’t be scared,” she said.
Reluctantly, Art wakes up to the real world with very little clue as to what was happening to the world around him. Without much of a choice, Art and Delia run away to a remote island where the government eyes and ears cannot follow, hoping that they could “live off the land”
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peacefully. Unfortunately, the story ends on note of regret and uncertainty on Delia’s part. What started out as an ideal and romantic relationship with Art has become boring and pathetic for Delia. She starts to wonder whether they really had a better lot; she longs for her brother and father. She worries that she might be cheating the child she carries of a life that is better than what she and Art chose to live. Surely, Art loved her, but Delia realizes that it takes more than love to lead a good life.
“SIDHI” by Yvette Natali Uy Tan (2003, Third Prize)
Everything starts in a dark room sealed with heavy curtains, a laconic conversation ensuing between the two central characters: Noah, also called “the Dreamer” and Jan, who tells the story from the first person point of view. Jan’s description of the room tells us that Noah suffers from a disease and his health is declining. He is sensitive towards harsh light, and we learn later on that he only goes out of the room at night. A relationship between Jan and Noah is hinted at, but it is more of power than sex or romance. She feels no little affection for Noah, but she is awed and drawn to him by some mysterious force. He orders her about in a commanding tone and she seems to have no choice but to follow him. The story is set sometime in the future, specifically during the feast of Sta.Teresa the Child Abandoned, the saint whose drowning in the Pasig River has cleansed it of filth and garbage. Apparently, along with this miraculous cleansing came the opening up of portals or gateways between the temporal human world and the realm of faeries, tikbalangs, kapres, and the mysterious. People also refer to this remarkable historical even as “The Change” which they venerate every year in Quiapo through celebrations that resemble the Mardi Gras. A drug called
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“sidhi” (which literally translates into “intense”) is also widely used during this occasion, which can be compared to substances we know now as “shabu” or “ecstasy.” Jan narrates how Noah, or the Dreamer, possesses a special kind of power that he expends only during the feast of Sta. Teresa. He can give people “dreams” or bring them to a state of intoxication rivaled only by the use of sidhi. This ability was what gives him a charismatic, enigmatic personality that people find hard to resist, including Jan. He is treated like a celebrity, a demi-god, even if Jan describes him as vain, egoistic and superfluous. As they walk down the street brimming with people who came to witness the feast and by revelers themselves, the reader is assailed by seemingly random, incoherent scenes, a tikbalang making out with human females, creatures of all types and sizes cavorting with each other, Siamese twins joined at the hip, a girl in a pink tutu following Jan around, calling out her name, and Sta. Teresa herself, represented as a child in a torn, dirty white dress offering people a drink of sacred water from a well in her hands. All of these marvelous, convoluted images and scenes coalesce and build up to the scene where the Dreamer finally expends his “dreams” to an eager waiting crowd. He holds everyone, including Jan, in a thrall,
The sensation was immediate. An explosion at the back of my brain, followed by the soft lulling of sticky-sweetness washing over me. I felt my eyes glaze, my limbs go slack, and it was all I could do to reach out and touch the person beside me— Hand grasped hand grasped hand, bodies pressed together until everyone inside, as well as those waiting outside the bar, was in Noah’s thrall. For everyone gathered in Wanag’s tonight, this was the height of the fiesta, the highlight of the saint’s many blessings. After the sweetness came light, a series of soft starbursts accompanied by an angelic choir, the sound of gates being opened.
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But this heady, pleasurable feeling turns into unbearable pain for Jan, as Noah’s “love” for her turns violent and possessive. She struggles to break free from the cruel trance, flees and finds herself back in the streets. She collapses in the arms of the girl in a pink tutu, who turns out to be someone from her past, a lover she has forgotten when she hooked up with Noah. And in one final surrealistic scene, the mysterious girl morphs into the Sta. Teresa herself, who washes Jan with water from the Pasig River. Jan is cleansed, purified, given a new lease on life, this time without Noah the Dreamer.
“They Don’t Bite” by Irene Carolina A. Sarmiento (2004, First Prize)
The story is set some time in the future when human life was valued less than animals. But not all human life, only those considered “vermin.” Vermin, as implied in the story, refers to the impoverished sector of the society who had relocated from the mountains and provinces to the urban regions. They are described as the generations of families who roamed the city streets scavenging for good, turning up garbage, living in their pushcarts, squatting on vacant urban lands, in sewage culverts and under bridges. The unstoppable proliferation of vermin had become the government’s perennial problem were the main cause of the weakening of the country’s economy. The vermin were considered useless and detrimental until a certain “Datu,” who became the country’s autocratic leader around the time the G7 war broke out, put them to profitable use. The war caused the widespread migration of the upper and middle class citizens abroad. After this exodus, the Datu thought of luring those who were left behind, the vermin, into the vacated city dwellings, gather them all together in one place and fence them in with advanced technology, infrastructure and air-tight security. He managed to turn the place into a modern-day
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safari where tourists and balikbayan alike could hunt vermin like game, and in doing so, managed to earn enough revenue to turn the Philippine economy around, pay the national debt, create a diversion to prevent war, and put the Philippines at par with the First World countries. The real story, however, happens to the Carlo, a twelve-year old boy who, together with his nine-year old brother, was brought on a vermin-hunting trip for the first time by his parents. Like typical boys, Carlo and Arch are excited at first, raring to go and shoot down their first vermin. But as the hunting expedition went on, Carlo slowly becomes conscious of his weakheartedness and inability for such extreme and violent activities.
Despite the aches and pains in very joint, Carlo felt an ocean of exhilaration flood his body. His pulse continued to race, although it seemed that the earth stood still. The boy laughed unwittingly, rolling onto his back and breathing hard. It just occurred to him then that is was all just a game. No, more than that: hunting was a skill, an art form, a sport. And what a sport! He had read graphic, blood chilling accounts about hunting in articles, novels and comic books. He had watched budget productions with sensational special effects depicting lives taken in the most brutal of ways. He had expertly mutilated, amputated, and annihilated hordes of computer generated Vermin in well-designed simulations. But no experience compared to being on the actual hunting grounds. Carlo looked at his wrist to check his score: 8 maimed, 0 killed. He frowned, extremely disappointed. With only fifteen minutes to go, it was unlikely that he would make a kill.
Not wanting to disappoint his father, he carries on but keeps on missing shot after easy shot as they traverse the decrepit, decaying dwellings of the Vermin. During one chaotic incident, Carlo loses sight of his father and finds himself alone in a run-down school building which he explores, amused with the announcements of PTA meetings, the fixtures, the humorous scribbles
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and graffiti on the wooden tables, probably not so different from the ones he and his friends would make. Suddenly he comes upon a helpless vermin child in a corner. Just as he was about to shoot the creature, a woman runs to the creature’s rescue, screaming Carlo’s name as she approaches her baby. Carlo realizes that the little vermin had the same name as his, and somehow this deeply affects him so that no feeling of triumph rewards him as he pulls the trigger and kills the baby vermin. After the hunt, Carlo finds himself in the company of his family once again but he no is no longer the same boy who had entered the hunting grounds eager for his first shot. He now regards his family differently, he feels alienated and wonders how his parent, whom he loves so much and who loves him all the more, can be capable of such violence and inhumanity.
“Niche” by Catherine Rose Galang Torres (2004, Second Prize
The story happens sometime after the year 2040. The Philippines is described as being in a state of dystopia besieged massive environmental destruction, overpopulation, poverty and poor sanitation, governmental neglect, and rampant exploitation of natural resources. Hints of illegal activities on the part of the government, such as the use of corruption to supply multinational companies with raw materials, suggests that far into the future have remained very much dependent on and subservient not only to what are generally know today as First World countries (there is mention of the Philippines losing the Spratly Islands to China). Laya, Akira and Ramil are part of an environmental movement whose main project was to establish nature reserves, shelters for indigenous people and conservatories for the dwindling arts. It is only unfortunate that, because of the conflicting interests between their
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environmentalist concerns and the needs of the growing commercial industry, these environmentalists had to contend with government forces who favored the latter. Laya, a young female musician, is the central character who engages in a battle with herself as she tries to come to terms with her mixed heritage, being half Korean and half Filipino. She feels ambivalence towards her roots, this in turn makes her uncertain as to whether she should care about a country that she feels she never belonged in. Laya is also troubled by her feelings for Ramil, her childhood friend back in the days when she and her family were still living in Palawan. There are parts in the narrative that hints of a romantic relationship between Laya and Ramil, but Laya becomes certain, especially upon visiting Ramil in jail, that those days were gone. As the story progresses, she comes to terms with the fact that Ramil is no longer the “hero” who would save her from the gruesome side of life (there is an account of an incident back in their childhood when Ramil saved her from drowning when she panicked upon seeing a mutilated body of a pawikan left behind by some poachers). Now that they are grown-up, Ramil has moved on to greater challenges and is out to save the whole country from the greediness of the government and foreign businessmen. On the other hand Akira, Ramil’s close friend—but eventually his bitter rival when it came to Laya’s affection—does not share the same intensity of hatred for the government. He disagrees with Ramil’s brash insubordination and believes more in cooperating with the government to achieve their goals. At first, Laya is suspicious with Akira’s attitude, since she had known him to have the same viewpoint Ramil had about the ecological state of the country. But later on she understands that Akira’s less adversarial stance against the government didn’t mean that he has been co-opted—Akira’s mother was being treated for cancer by the state’s state-of-the art medical facilities—but simply because Akira knows there is nothing to be gained from
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violence. In the end, Laya lets go of her dreams for Ramil and herself when she accepts their irreconcilable callings, comes to terms with the fact that she is Filipino after all and at last feels welcome in the company of the indigenous people of Mt. Halcon. She plays her music for them, with Akira by her side, and acknowledges that it “feels like coming home.”
All of the six short stories chosen for this study involve dystopic settings and elements. If utopian literature is committed to visions of an ideal world wherein all current social problems find their sustainable (?) solution, dystopian literature, on the other hand, exaggerates to a preposterous level the problems existing in society. It highlights the worst of this world, or sometimes becomes a self-reflexive, often satirical critique of utopian ideas and thought. The concepts of utopia and dystopia have often been used in literature to imply the author’s own social agendas and to reflect the nature of gender relations inscribed in particular moments in history, and therefore becomes the imaginative articulation of social criticism. In fact, Chris Fern’s study of utopian literature produced in the west reveals two major themes: “dreams of disorder” and “dreams of liberation,” and not surprisingly, since the 13th century, men often wrote utopian literature that aspired for total order, while women wrote of societies that eschewed restrictions and represented freedom (Lake & Nestvold, 2005). Early utopian writings by women, while consistently portraying peaceful, pristine societies, posits as their subtexts real world conditions of male-violence, patriarchal abuse, misogyny and frivolous machismo that all result into the destruction of nature, disease and degeneracy.
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The sense of dystopia in Secret Notes on a Dead Star, Niche, and Virtual Center is created by the descriptions of an environment destroyed by wars and calamities and which, because of the scarcity of resources, can barely sustain its population. In Secret Notes the lack of historical information leads to the futile search for one’s identity, as experienced by Kira and other youth like her. A segregation of the upper and lower classes is enforced by the government through physical infrastructure and repressive forces, a separation that is also seen in They Don’t Bite, although it was justified in the latter as a necessary measure to save the country’s economy. Nevertheless, dystopia in They Don’t Bite is presented in the possibility that we can become capable of such inhumanity and won’t think twice about gunning down a fellow human being just for entertainment. The portrayal of dysfunctional governments in most of the stories stirs up their dystopic qualities. None of them depicted the national government as democratic; rather, the government was often fascist, autocratic, self-serving and didn’t not bother look after the welfare of the lower classes. I noticed a common sentiment, or should I say critique of the kinds of leaders that Filipinos are known to hail into office, the stories Past Forward and They Don’t Bite. Both stories involve governments run by movie stars, people who first made it big in show business. Apparently, this similarity points to the pervasiveness of the entertainment industry, even in the “serious” aspects of our lives. Almost all of the stories depict oppressive societies, or oppressive agents in the society, which the central characters’ come into conflict with, and this is most clearly represented in Virtual Center. The people working at the Virtual Center, as articulated by Delia’s rebellious brother, Nick, were all slaves to the system (which rings of the Althusserian concepts of ideological and repressive state apparatuses), blinded from the truth despite their destitution. The
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oppressive society is indicated by the existence of tracking devices, the government’s prerogative to seize and hold one’s bank accounts if they commit even the simplest of crimes; telling of the severed dependence on money, the impetus to buy or consumerism, high regard for luxury items (materialism), all in keeping with the ultimate design of capitalism, the real oppressive agent. The world, or at least the Philippines, has turned into such a dreadful, unlivable place, not only because of the destruction of the environment, but also because of the implied decline in the quality of human relationships, the devaluation of human life which has grown so harsh that those who can afford it trade reality for the virtual kind, trapped to a seat hooked up to high tech devices that keep them in a dreamlike state where everything is perfect and ideal (think The Matrix). Furthermore, only the privileged can afford this kind of escape—like enslavement with consent. This escape to the virtual world is also explored in Secret Notes, when Kira chooses to lose herself in virtual fantasies because the only other choice is the prospect of a bleak future.
Going by the definition of romanticism given by Dr. Hidalgo in CL298 class, I would say that the stories generally have strong strains of romanticism. Secret Notes, Niche and Virtual Center, for instance, involve a reminiscing and idealization of the past—that is, the textual past (technically our present) because the stories are after all set in the future. I am referring to the way these three stories present “art” as something that is lost or dying because of future circumstances. Or art—music in particular—as somehow being sacrificed in the face of progress, especially if it is something we have to let go in order to survive. Good music, artistic sensibilities and the artist all belonged to the past. They were luxuries that ordinary people of the future are better off without. Of course, our protagonists are special because they are dreamers and they are dreamers. The romance in this is that they choose what society decrees them not to.
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And so, Kira pursues her Dakila Neri, Delia runs off with Art the musician (although in the end she regrets doing so), and Laya decides to do her best to preserve herself, her people, and art itself. This problematization of art as the “other” of science, technology and progress is a motif that I think is unique to Filipino texts. Foreign science fiction do deal with romanticism and other representations of individualism, but never have I encountered them using art as one of those representations. It is quite a surprise to have 3 stories from this sampling of Filipino future fiction that deal with the subject. I hope to have an opportunity later on to explore other Filipino futuristic fiction texts, and not just those by the women, to see whether other writers have used this motif. Furthermore, male and female characters in Niche, Secret Notes on the Dead Star, Virtual Center and Past Forward still functioned within the traditional binary gender structures that exist today. Either by showing men who initiated action and possessed the necessary strength to resist oppression, while women were passive, confused and unsure or themselves, somehow waiting to be saved or enlightened, and felt more restrained to act and speak than the males. In Virtual Center though, Delia’s character does, in a subtle way, negate the romantic idea that “love conquers all,” as she silently contemplates the ambivalent feelings she has for Art. She wonders whether she and Art were really “better off” with the wonderful they purport to live in the secluded island. She worries about the future of their child, she gets bored with the self-absorbed man she has ended up with, and she misses the security of having a father and a brother. In Secret Notes on a Dead Star the female protagonist is possessed with great strength and capability, but she still seems trapped by forces and male power (authority, sexual prerogative and desire for the opposite sex) and she only exhibits power over males that inferior
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to her in terms of economic/political status. Except the guy whom she is obsessed with, who happens to be a musician. Therefore, the character subscribes to the romanticism (romantic paradigms of love and desire). On the other hand, the female protagonist in Niche finds herself trapped between feuding males who are trying to either directly or indirectly protect her from the harshness of the industrialized world. Men are trying to decide for her, deciding for her own good, safety, and she stays helpless, naïve, drawn to things beautiful and waning, vulnerable, like a “flower blooming as dirge to a dying world.” Aside from peculiar strains of romanticism, another thing I would like to contrast between traditional scifi motifs and those found in the texts I have chosen for study is the absence of the “running man.” Popularized by writers like Asimov and Philip K. Dick, the staple scifi protagonist would be involved in a game of hide-and-seek or in a high-tensioned chase. Usually our hero would be running from the government, a powerful group of people like the secret police, or from society itself. The local futuristic fiction in focus does not have characters running away from authorities with ulterior, malevolent motives against them. From my readings I get a feeling that the protagonists in the stories are still exploring an unfamiliar landscape that is the future. They all seem to be feeling their way through, slowly treading the new environment, anticipating danger at every step, even if they have lived there all their life. Kira, Delia, Jan and Laya, Twinkle and Carlo all act like strangers in their own settings, in situations that they are supposed to be familiar with, and seem like they are trying to come to terms with the conditions of their environment. I take this psychological state among the characters as a reflector of the unfamiliarity of the Filipino writer with the terrain of the future. For me, the characters’ disposition, the way they act in the story mirrors the way the writers might still be hesitant or at least careful as they test
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the limits of their imaginations. Imaginations that have just been opened to the infinite possibilities and perils of the future. Maybe later on as Filipino writers get more used to the genre, more used to thinking, problematizing and imagining the future, the characters they produced would be more bold in their actions, plots more beefed with action. Anyway, majority of the authors were able to use the principles of future fiction to critique our present society, explore crucial social issues by filtering them through the experience, thoughts and emotions of the central characters. But I think Secret Notes and They Don’t Bite are the better stories, while Sidhi and Past Forward are less remarkable (even if the last one sounded like a parody of science fiction). I consider Sidhi more fantastic than futuristic, with all the magic and surrealism involved, and that references to a microchip implanted in the characters’ bodies and a future event fall short in justifying it as futuristic fiction. This accounts for the difficulty I had in reading it, since I had my mind set in delineating the logical extrapolation of future events from what is happening right now in actual life. Past Forward, on the other hand, has just too many inconsistencies and leaps in logic. The premise was that Twinkle was revived after a hundred years, but it wasn’t clear how she and the Supremo, a hazy and unnecessary character, were able to travel back to the past. What I liked most in Secret Notes is the control and restraint in the handling of the subject, the way the Kira’s complex character is developed through internal monologue and her terse interactions with her friends. There’s also the author’s skillful use of language. While it was the plot and concept in They Don’t Bite that had me rooted to my seat. This story is the most wildly imaginative of the lot, very bold in its exploration of “possibilities” for the country and for the world. I like it because what the story proposes is brutal, inhuman and most of all because it is not at all impossible, given what we are capable of doing today, of what we have done in the
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past. Come to think of it, what the Datu has done for the Philippines is not much different from what Hitler has done in Europe. I think that Filipino writers are ready to take on new frontiers in literature and they are capable of breaking the confines of what Montes’ defines as cloistered social realism. The opening of futuristic fiction has paved the way for writers who feel alienated by traditional plots and characters and settings. I’m just not sure if this will bring significant change in the way we collectively view science and technology, or in the way we teach and learn in school. I am also curious whether, given a few more years when the body of Filipino futuristic fiction has grown substantially, we would discover certain unique characteristics that would separate our writings from the ones produced in the West. But I jump ahead, and this is just a study of futuristic fiction, not futuristic fiction itself. I think that in general, Filipino writers they have yet to gain a kind of mastery of this literary subgenre in order to use it more potently and deliberately to critique things in the present society, to overturn the status quo, or simply to re-imagine what its like to be human, to be Filipino when our present seems as uncertain as our future.
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1. Wolmark, Jenny. (1994). Aliens and others: Science fiction, feminism and postmodernism.
Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf
2. Guerin, Wilfred, et. al (eds). (1992). A handbook of critical approaches to literature. New York: Oxford
3. Ward, Cynthia. (2004) “Feminist SF: Futures for humankind”. In The Internet Review of Science
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4. Lake, Jay & Nestvold, Ruth. (2005). “Engendering Utopia”. In The Internet Review of Science Fiction.
(Vol. 2, No.46). http://www.irosf.com/zine/printable.qsml?artid=10147
5. Overview of “British Future Fiction 1700-1914.” In Pickering & Chatto Publishers, Mundus
Intellectualis. 6/21/2005. http://www.pickeringchatto.com/futurefiction.htm 6. Jones, Christopher B. (2000). Science Fiction and Society—down to earth: An introduction to Science Fiction and society.
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