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Spanish Science Fiction – Professor Fernando Ángel Moreno interviewed by Ignacio Illarregui Gárate

Fernando Angel Moreno
Fernando Angel Moreno

“I think that in general, Spanish science fiction is quite traditional and not very bold when it comes to certain types of languages and topics such as sex or politics.” Prof. Fernando Ángel Moreno

Ignacio Illarregui Garate: As you have mentioned in the Introduction, your book, Teoría de la Literatura de Ciencia Ficción. Poética y retórica de lo prospectivo (A Theory of Science Fiction Literature. Poetics and the Rhetoric of the Prospective Genre, Portal Editions, Spain, 2010; Ignotus Award in 2011) is precisely what the title says: a theory of science-fiction literature. Can you elaborate on the idea?

Fernando Ángel Moreno: My book explains how the science fiction narrative functions – especially in novels – based on as many perspectives as possible, such as the social and the creative. It also analyses how SF texts are received by their readers. In other words, I explain what the SF narrative is, why it is like this and what happens when one chooses to write or read science fiction. I have tried to give a comprehensive explanation of the genre both for the academic environment and the amateur or expert readers.

The social aspect is covered in a small section about how science fiction has been perceived by critics, either academics or fans, and how their criticism has influenced a certain type of literary works and approach. There is also a brief history of the genre both in Spain and abroad, starting with the most significant texts, and a typology that may prove useful especially for those who are not so familiar with science fiction.

As a matter of fact, the book aims to deal with a lot of science fiction elements that in Spain have been shrouded in urban legends, irrelevant themes and ignorance of the genre.

Ignacio Illarregui Garate: Your analysis reveals a significant shift from the study of historical and social components, which are fundamental in the most popular essays published in Spain previously, to the narrative itself. Why has this shift taken so long to occur?

Fernando Ángel Moreno: An answer to this question means reaching a difficult balance between experience and intuition. Before the 1980’s, the Spanish theoretical and narrative tradition was almost non-existent and nothing of value was published before the end of the 1980’s and the beginning of the following decade. Even today our literary studies are obsolete. We can see this in the way the common reader understands specialised literature (imbued with false themes and contradicting urban legends) and the manner in which literature is taught in high schools, with an obsession for the social that differs very little from the theoretical approach of the 1970’s. (Fortunately, this approach has started to change in some student books.) One will still meet people obsessed with socio-history even in universities, especially in Hispanic Philology departments, although, luckily, their number has decreased. Consequently, whenever the science fiction genre was approached, either in an academic or nonacademic manner, it was almost always approached from a social perspective, because the authors – especially if they did not belong to the academic environment – thought that was the way they were supposed to deal with it; they did not possess the required theoretical tools, since they had not been taught anything about them and had no idea they existed.

To this we should add the left-oriented intellectuals, most of them communists, and a right-oriented tradition obsessed with patriotism and national history. Neither of these orientations understands that a humanistic study means more than socio-history and both have led, in most cases, to a socio-historical tendency that is at least disagreeable. I shan’t mention any works or authors, but I have read things that were quite offensive.

Obviously, there are exceptions, such as the brilliant essay on science fiction by Juan Ignacio Ferreras, written at the beginning of the seventies. Curiously, many exceptions can be found in prefaces to novels and anthologies. Some of these prefaces are true literary jewels and their authors, in their attempt to justify the existence of the science fiction genre, surprise us with their brilliant perspectives and reflections. Mariano Martín Rodríguez and I have often enjoyed such forgotten jewels that should not be studied only for the sixties or the seventies. Some of them are mentioned in my book.

This is not to say that I defend the narrative as the only way of studying a novel – it would mean going from one extreme to the other. Science fiction is not one-sided. On the contrary, it is very political, economic and social, even in the most commercial stories. It is enough to read several novels by Burroughs or other bestsellers to realise that many authors have suppressed their social obsessions in science fiction.

As you have seen, in my book I try to anchor myself into the social, but the interesting thing is why I have not tried it before: it is not because I am self-centred or because of my theoretical beliefs, but because I am not an expert in sociology and I think that everybody should do only what they are good at. I hope that in the future sociologists will also focus on science fiction.

Fernando Angel Moreno_ProspectivasIgnacio Illarregui Garate: At some point you give a definition of science fiction to separate it from the prospective genre: it is a series of fiction works that so far have been categorised as science fiction. Is this separation really necessary?

Fernando Ángel Moreno: It is Julián Díez that has suggested this concept and made a clear separation between prospective fiction and science fiction. I doubt a little that this separation is real, although I admit there are good reasons for it and in my book I sometimes say why my doubts are not so strong any longer.

Here is a proved and easy-to-notice fact: before the appearance of pulp fiction, the speculative/scientific – name it as you wish – novel was a mainstream genre that critics, writers and readers understood quite well based on precise parameters. It even had its moment of glory in Spain before the Civil War, when most of the great authors of the time wrote novels: Miguel de Unamuno, Clarín (Leopoldo García-Alas y Ureña), Azorin (José Augusto Trinidad Martínez Ruiz), Ramiro de Maeztu, Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez… Many of them admitted openly that they admired Wells and the new literary genre. In their works, utopias and dystopias triumphed as a critical look upon society, as the literary historian Mariano Martín Rodríguez has demonstrated in a series of impressive articles. He and I, starting from Julián’s arguments, agree that the speculative-scientific novel was a type of literature that today we can call “prospective fiction” and has been continued in certain types of stories that are written even today. It is a literature of themes, abstractions and concerns that are very different from the rest of science fiction, if we want to consider this literature a subgenre of science fiction – and I see no reason why we should not.

Nevertheless, in the 1940’s, Gernsback and Campbell suddenly decided to create a new type of science fiction based on the same themes and motives. But this science fiction literature was very different, although in the end the two directions merged. It is precisely this dichotomy that causes the multiple issues of accepting the genre today.

Essentially, this is about two directions that, though different, have always wanted to merge. On one hand, we defend an entertaining literature with plenty of literary values, a non-prospective literature, a literary modality that is as valid as the novels by García Márquez or Camus. On the other, we must defend another type of science fiction, the prospective type, which is a different literary form and has different values, but it is also valid and includes philosophical insights and psychological or social criticism. Today there are two directions that are merging, but with varying intensity.

Why does everybody talk about steampunk, cyberpunk, hard SF, utopia, dystopia…? And later, why do many so people make such a fuss about a tendency that doesn’t even have a name? The prospective genre includes several narrative lines (several subgenres) of general SF and I think it is very, very convenient to say this text here sounds like hard SF, while that text there is more prospective SF. I think everybody has started to understand this and even the detractors of the term know what we mean by it when we use it. Is this unnecessary? Do we have a problem with that? I really cannot say.

Definitions and labels are tools that help us to make our preferences known. This does not mean that we sell ourselves to the enemy. Do we really actually have an enemy? Labels, if they are flexible, subject to criticism and adaptable, instead of being rigid, are fundamental for society, since society (all of us together) is based on concepts and definitions. Labels may be permissive and relative and sometimes it is difficult to place a text in a category, but this does not mean that we cannot start an argument based on correct definitions.

Ignacio Illarregui Garate: While bets were made on bringing academics and fans together and removing the stereotypes, in my opinion, the two worlds are very far from each other. Academics, except for hybrid experiences ( “Hélice” periodical, your essay…) keep moving on their own orbit, while fans follow their own path.

Fernando Ángel Moreno: Yes, indeed, you know this is one of the battlefields that obsess me most. The answer is very complicated. Despite everything I have said here, there are various matters that eventually depend on each individual and the issues under debate.

My concern started when I was first started to teach at the faculty and my bosses told me: “People come here to speak about such and such themes because they have to work” (later, however, I taught a variety of things). Many of my colleagues had been SF fans since their youth and they support it even today.

In other words, when I became an academic, as a SF fan, I expected hostility and even mocking. Instead, I found broad-mindedness and received great support from the Philology Department. Of course it is not always like this, I still have to fight against backward attitudes, but in most cases I feel that people have great respect for my courses.

Are there reactionaries who wish to study only the usual and are unable to open their minds to science fiction or other possibilities? Yes, there are plenty of them, but most of them are representatives of old schools. What is to be done then? It is even more difficult when you deal with comprehensive projects, with extensive research work, because it is enough to be judged by a court of three academics, one of whom is old school, and you will have to account for every penny you have spent. It is one of reasons for which costs keep increasing.

Nonetheless, we have organised a congress which was part of the series coordinated by UCM (Complutense University of Madrid). It was a great success, one of the best congresses in the past ten years. For the next academic year we have full support for another one, whose guest will be Alan Moore¹ (International Congress on the 21st Century Story Tellers). The Congress at Charles III University in 2008 was organised so as to address the whole fandom and it was received as such: academics talked to fans, learned lecturers socialised with readers and both participated in scientific conferences and various round tables. And a guest like José Maria Merino is a symbol of the Royal Spanish Academy! Is it really impossible to bridge the gap between the fandom and the academic environment? In February, together with Julián Díez, I will moderate two round table debates at the Cervantes Institute; the goal is to help Spanish SF writers to be published and translated. If everything goes well, this will probably mean the greatest support of the SF genre in Spain! José María Merino, José Carlos Somoza, Luis Albero de Cuenca, José María Merino, Andrés Ibáñez, Julián Díez and Eduardo Vaquerizo will be among the participants at the Cervantes Institute, at the initiative of the institute. Is the academic environment really a closed circle? Do all fans really disregard the academics? If you pay attention, you will see that most SF fan groups turn down initiatives like this that help to promote the genre.

Another thing is that many journalists and writers and a certain part of Spanish intellectuals prefer certain literary and art subjects and their tastes have prevailed. But they are not the academic environment.

I assure you that this is the perfect time to bring such genres to universities. Will there be resistance? Absolutely. I’m not saying they will build walls against us, but not every office will keep its door wide open for us either.

Things become more complicated in the case of fans. Today the hot debates have moved on the internet where people launch in virulent diatribes, most of them anonymous – this is how individuals who feel the frustration of half-illiteracy choose to express themselves. Moreover, many people remember only the pathetic image of the literature they were taught in high school by old and incompetent teachers (in some cases). The great danger always comes from the pseudointellectuals who think they know everything and comment upon everything. But they do not represent the academic environment.

You have mentioned “Hélice” and my essay. I’m not sure they deal only with the SF genre. I move a lot in the Spanish fandom and I hear a lot, but there are many more people who deal with these themes not only in Spain, but also in Mexico, Argentina, Romania, the USA… Fortunately, we have created a small network with these people, even though they do not publish in academic periodicals. Not because SF would not be welcome there, but because there aren’t so many specialised academic periodicals that one should be dedicated to SF only. Have you ever heard of a periodical that deals only with the existentialist novel, the literature of the absurd or the picaresque novel?

I have NEVER had any problems with publishing my articles, essays or studies about SF in any periodical from Spain or abroad. On the contrary, even more doors have opened for me. It is wrong, absolutely wrong to say that SF studies are marginalised by the Spanish academic environment. People who say the contrary lie. Out of ignorance or meanness, but they still lie.

I think there are many broad-minded people both in the fandom and universities, but there are also those who know how to make a noise, to simulate dialogue and tolerance, when all they want is to destroy what others do, to prevent them from doing something constructive. As far as lack of knowledge is concerned, sometimes, after I have had an argument with someone at the university and then we met on the same internet forum after an hour, I always think: “If we were talking calmly, over a beer, we would certainly laugh and start thinking of new projects together.”

Fernando Angel Moreno_Theory of science fictionIgnacio Illarregui Garate: Readers and fans can’t agree on whether currently SF has a moment of glory or is undergoing an alarming crisis. What do you think about this dilemma?

Fernando Ángel Moreno: It seems we are witnessing the decline of the great science fiction works that speak about faster-than-light drives and space ports. Personally, I admit I miss them, because I have always loved them. Despite the very bad translations we sometimes have, I believe we need writers like Iain Banks and others like him. What happened to Excession was a great shame and many people avoided the editions published by La Factoria de Ideas. However, if you read their catalogue, you will find many interesting titles there. The problem is the translation, which must be at least readable.

However, many many interesting things are published. It is a pity that paperback books are not successful in science fiction and I think this creates much confusion.

On one hand, it seems that mainstream is obsessed with approaching the narrative resources of SF and this leads to masterpieces appearing at a speed that only in the British SF New Wave or during the Golden Age. On the other, the literature of the genre still surprises us from time to time.

I also think that the individual readers’ range of readings has become wider and only rarely will you find readers who are interested strictly in SF. It is hard to talk about the same works when you meet the latter. Today the offer is so large that many times you don’t realise you have missed an important piece because nobody has mentioned it or made comments about it on any blog or website. Such pieces are very important and they must be supported with any possible means.

What I see is not a decline, but an opening towards themes, publishers, readers, readings, authors… This causes a false impression. I think there is little media impact within the fandom and little variety on the specialised shelves, but what was lost in the smaller SF circle is gained in the larger world of literature.

As a fan, I am very pleased with the science fiction of the present moment, but I do miss the space pirates!

Ignacio Illarregui Garate: You have written a doctoral dissertation about Spanish science fiction. Can you mention three authors whose works led to a small revolution against what had been written before and explain (briefly) why you have chosen them?

Fernando Ángel Moreno: Three authors? It’s hard to choose among them, because in my opinion the revolution lasted very little and it was the result of collective works. But if I had to choose, the first I should mention is Gabriel Bermúdez Castillo, for various reasons, but mostly because he has given literary identity to the SF genre and has outlined a certain irreverent attitude that the genre still lacks as a whole. Unfortunately, in my opinion, his literature has aged in a not so pleasant manner.

I think that in general, Spanish science fiction is quite traditional and not very bold when it comes to certain types of languages and topics such as sex or politics. Bermúdez Castillo has opened a possibility that has not been explored enough, but has promoted a different type of science fiction than the paperbacks. Only few troublemakers like the great Daniel Mares have decided to go deeper into it. I admit I am a great admirer of his story entitled 6, unfairly forgotten, in my opinion. The novel Si Sabino viviría (Were Sabino Alive, 2005) by Iban Zaldua, despite its simplicity, would be another good example of irreverent and malicious science fiction.

I must not forget Rafael Marín with his Lágrimas de luz (Tears of Light, 2002), although its complete structure that does not fill me with enthusiasm. Gabriel Bermúdez Castillo started a real revolution in this respect, but Rafael Marín is the one who became successful and this cannot be accidental. Besides, what really matters for the history of literature is not who initiates, but who influences. As I have said in “Hélice”, Lágrimas de luz was an attempt to give up the simplistic escapist plot, to switch to a more literary register, to use learned references, introspection and the characters’ relationship with the sublime “sense of wonder” which is typical of the genre. I don’t think all this led to a great success, but the author’s successors were able to understand that science fiction can be written in a different manner as well. Unfortunately, this different writing manner has been abandoned and I think  the few authors who create more introspective and refined s science fiction are influenced more by foreign writers than Spanish authors.

Last but not least, Juan Miguel Aguilera reveals what I consider to be a truly interesting facet of his times: Mundos en el abismo (Worlds in the Abyss, 1988). It is an ambitious novel in several ways. The way it meditates upon religion, space opera, hard SF, the sublime, individual identity, the scientific world… Aguilera has had much more influence than the authors preceding him. I can easily find influences of Worlds in the Abyss in many SF works that were published after it and barely adopted the learned and allegedly more literary direction of Tears of Light.

In any case, more names should be mentioned, as “the generation of the nineties” or the “HispaCon generation” (named like this because its members were centred on the first HispaCon convention organised in 1991) is more a group rather than separate individuals, more a union of literary personalities rather than individual writers.

Ignacio Illarregui Garate: In the end, please name three Spanish science fiction works that you would recommend without hesitation.

Fernando Ángel Moreno: To the reader who likes the miraculous, I would always recommend Worlds in the Abyss. When I first read it, at the very young age, I was delighted, but when I read it again for my doctoral dissertation, many aspects in it surprised me. Had it been published in the USA first, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been awarded the Hugo, as some of my colleagues have already said. This is an excellent example of the most “classic” attributes of the genre without leaving the more bold elements aside.

To readers who appreciate a language rich in connotations I strongly recommend the novel El mundo de Yarek (Yarek’s World, 2005), by Elia Barceló. It has plenty of new wave, á la Le Guin, classic, Kafkian and postmodernist features; albeit, it is a well-balanced novel. It seems that it is no longer cited so often because it is considered a light reading, not being based on very original ideas. But, as Eduardo Vaquerizo has so often told me, literature does not consist of ideas, it consists of words. It looks simple, because many elements that have a role to play (the first contact, the exile, the importance of science, the pressure of social ethics upon the individual, the incoherent virtual reality, the interdictions, love, self-censorship, the union with the natural environment after leaving an urban area etc.) do not lead to ultimate consequences – this is not the aim of the story. Nevertheless, the success of the novel lies in balancing all the elements of the story we are told. We are told something very concrete and the poetical and intellectual development rises again as a possibility in every reader’s mind. Readers can choose to simply enjoy a well-written story or come to deeper conclusions. In my opinion, Yarek’s World is probably the most balanced and expressive Spanish SF novel.

I find it hard to choose a third novel because the extreme self-reference and the typical asymmetry of Spanish science fiction works make it difficult to choose among them and offer guidance to someone who wants to become familiar with this genre.

I express my respect and admiration for the Antología de la ciencia ficción española 1982-2002 (An Anthology of Spanish Science Fiction from 1982 to 2002), published by Julián Díez at Minotauro Publishing House in 2003. This book offers the best of the best in Spanish science fiction. I also recommend the volumes of short stories written by every author included in the anthology. They are a source of great satisfaction. Meanwhile, the anthology is a must-read and includes incredible stories like those by Aguilera or Mallorquí. It is a great legacy that Spanish science fiction leaves to the world science fiction. We must protect it, promote it and make it known so that many other present and future readers may enjoy it.

© Ignacio Illarregui Gárate & Fernando Ángel Moreno

¹Alan Moore: „The most brilliant comics writer of all time, author of  Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell

Translated from Romanian into English by Antuza Genescu

The interview was translated and published with the approval of Mr. Ignacio Illarregui Gárate and Professor Fernando Ángel Moreno. We thank them for their generosity.

The original interview, Entrevista a Fernando Ángel Moreno” –  Ignacio Illarregui Gárate was published on the “Literatura prospectiva” blog:  http://www.literaturaprospectiva.com/?p=6695

Biography and bibliography

Fernando Ángel Moreno (b. in Madrid, in 1971) is a professor of literary theory at Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, and co-editor of “Hélice. Critical Reflections  on Speculative Fiction”. He became a PhD in Spanish literature in 2005, with his dissertation entitled Spanish Science Fiction (1950-2000). He is also the author of the study A Theory of Science Fiction Literature. Poetics and the Rhetoric of the Prospective. He has done research work on semiotics at the University of Tartu, Estonia and has organised several literary congresses. He has published many papers on SF cinematography and SF in general in Spanish and international publications. He has dedicated his career to the study of literary language in science fiction, always supporting the close connection between the academic environment and society. He is among the founders of the Hélice Award dedicated to literary criticism in SF and the promoter of many literary projects. He manages PhD programmes in literary theory at UCM. He has taught at Alfonso X University Madrid and has been a researcher at the Tartu University, Estonia.

„No other literary genre… has had greater influence on design, architecture, fashion, engineering, art, music, cinematography, literature… than science fiction. Its fame as an entertaining vehicle contrasts with the possibilities it offers… Although supported by many prestigious experts, the science fiction genre still confuses the general public and academic criticism disregards it. Although highly appreciated in other countries, decades have passed and no academic, rigorous study dedicated to this genre as a whole has been published in Spain.

What is and what is not science fiction? What are its subgenres and which of them can be more interesting for the readers? … What are the major science fiction authors and what works are considered major? ” –  Portal Editions

Fernando Ángel Moreno : Teoría de la Literatura de Ciencia Ficción: Poética y Retórica de lo Prospectivo (A Theory of SF Literature: Poetics and the Rhetoric of the Prospective Genre), Exploraciones Prospectiva Collection, Portal Editions, Madrid, 2010 (504 pg.), ISBN: 978-84-937075-4-2

The book, which was awarded the Ignotus Award in 2011 for Best Study on Literary Criticism, has four parts: About Science Fiction, Poetics and the Rhetoric of Prospective Literature, Types of Prospective Literature, The History of the Genre as a Reading Guide and the appendices Analysis and Evaluation and Awards.

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