Wednesday, June 21, 2006

[Essay] Science Fiction in the Philippines

For aspiring Filipino writers, it seems that for every reason he (or she as the case may be) has to write, there's another ten discouraging him from doing so. One genre that keeps on bleeping up in my radar is science-fiction. Granted, it has a following in Western society, a question that is often posed, be it in fiction or in gaming, is why isn't it more popular here?

The question has been asked several times and there have been many answers. One answer that keeps on popping up is our lack of science education for the general populace. My initial response is to agree, but after hearing that reason so many times, it has caused me to re-evaluate and reflect. Does that explanation, a lack of science education in the country, really valid for explaining the gap between fantastical fiction (be it fantasy, magic-realism, slipstream, etc.) and science-fiction?

Assuming that fact is really true, I doubt if that is enough of an excuse to explain the SF drought. As much science-fiction is composed of two words, namely "science" and "fiction", the latter has much more weight than the former. Science-fiction, in the end, pays more attention to the fiction part rather than the science part. Look at your classic science-fiction writers, be it Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. There's really little scientific jargon in their stories, and the main focus of their works is either the story or the character. In Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Star, we have a simple science concept, namely that of a space ship traveling in space and a lone astronaut. But that is not the focus of the story; instead, we have a very human character questioning his faith based on his experience. Or look at Asimov's Foundation short stories: it's not a story about the latest scientific discoveries but rather more of a philosophical and historical exploration of human nature. Pop SF even has a different slant: Star Wars and Dune, for example, while set in a future/space context, contains lots of elements of epic fantasy, yet is arguably still considered science-fiction. And even someone like Philip K. Dick, the man behind the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, always focuses on the characters rather than the concept. Granted, while there will be "hard" science-fiction stories which will place emphasis on the science part, the genre doesn't necessarily have to start from there, nor need to be the dominating majority of science-fiction.

Of course personally, I feel the premise to begin with is exaggerated. Yes, it's true that the country needs work when it comes to our education system, but I don't think that's what causes the void of science-fiction literature. If anything, our country is technological savvy; we're just not that conscious about it, or perhaps it holds the least fascination for us. I mean look at us: we're the people who converted surplus jeepneys into public transportation vehicles. We're the people who've cloned everything from CDs to refillable ink. We churn out nurses and tech support agents at a regular rate. Foreign nations harvest our country for the brightest computer engineers and programmers. The Philippines is a gold mine for Telecomms and mobile-related industries, and the Internet gaming boom is starting to pick up speed. What more could you ask for? Are we really as deficient in the science, or in technology, as we think?

That being the case, then why don't we see more of stories like AI's haunting their programmers, or lovers meeting over a chatroom, or call center agents being stalked by customers through the use of technology? I do think there is a reason for the scarcity in science-fiction, but it is not due to lack of education more than a lack of interest. Aside from the social-realism slant of our would-be literati, I think Filipinos have never shaken off the fantastical influence of our culture. Take religion for example. For me, and some might scream "heretic" at me for saying this, but religion, in the end, is nothing but the myths and beliefs of a culture. The only differences between, say, Greek mythology and Christianity is that few believe in the former, and merely treat it as a part of their history rather than as a way of life. Conceivably, the fate of the Greek gods could follow Christianity in the future, if faith in that religion wanes. But here in the Philippines, devotion to religion, be it Islam or Christianity, is quite strong, and part of daily life. When you see the Catholic cross in most public school classroom, or hear a prayer broadcasted over the radio and on TV every 3 pm, you know that religion has an impact on that culture. And as much as we might want to shake that off, religion influences us, and captures the imagination of Filipinos in the form of fantasy more than science-fiction. A Filipino could conceivably imagine talking to a saint who mysteriously appears in his dream more than imagining a saint talking to him from the grave over a chat room. Spanish attempts to reconcile ethnic beliefs with Christianity doesn't help either. Folk Catholicism has a strong following, whether it's in the belief of the powers of minor saints, to the power of talismans such as "anting-antings" or "agimats".

That's not to say religion alone is to blame. Pop culture has also played a role in shaping Filipino consciousness. Filipino comic characters remain part of the Filipino psyche, whether it's the mystical/anthropomorphic Zuma, the magic stone-eating Darna, or the transforming Captain Barbel. And who could forget our sword-wielding protagonist, Panday, who has appeared in comics, movies (several times), and recentlly on TV in the fantaserye (fantasy + soap opera) format. Even the games we play right now are slanted more towards fantasy: Ragnarok Online, Tantra, even PangYa. At best, it will be a hybrid of fantasy and technology, which was popularized in Japan. Just look at Final Fantasy, for example, or card games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!

That's not to say that science-fiction is totally absent in our culture. There will be the occassional story that will contain those elements, as well as the niche we have in the Palancas under the Future Fiction category (which some might contest isn't really fitting to be classified as SF, but for me falls under the realm of speculative fiction, and the call for science-fiction elements leaves the writer to exercise his creativity). It's also made its presence known in the past via the medium of animation. In the late 70's until the mid-80's, Filipinos were enthralled the super robots Voltes V and Daimos. The former's gimmick was electro-magnetism, but I believe the real appeal to Filipinos was the familial bond its characters shared, as well as the juxataposition between cheesy campiness and tragedy the series had. Daimos, on the other hand, contained various soap opera elements, which apparently is popular in our culture.

More recently though, science-fiction in the Philippines is making a comeback through the hearts and imagination of children. If you want a strong science-fiction pop culture identity, you need to look at what was being marketed by toy companies: Gundams, Beyblades, Tamiya 4WDs, Zoids, etc. Fiction-wise, it remains to be seen how this will affect the writings of the present generation, but in terms of comics, I've occassionally seen indie comics featuring robots and/or power armor into their stories.

In this era of Philippine history, it's probably more reasonable to expect speculative fiction more than science-fiction from the country's would-be writers. Seeing how the fantastical plays a big role in our culture combined with how we seem to take present technology for granted, a hybrid between fantasy and science-fiction seems more likely to occur rather than a pure science-fiction story. Still, in the end, it's up to the writers to decide the fate of our literature, and this is all for naught if writers do not write their stories. Or if readers do not choose to read them.