Borges y la ciencia ficcíon (review by Evelyn C. Leeper)

Borges y la ciencia ficcíon (review by Evelyn C. Leeper)

Copyright 2013 Evelyn C. Leeper.

Borges y la ciencia ficcíon by Carlos Abraham:

Borges y la ciencia ficcíon by Carlos Abraham (ISBN 978-84-96013-85-8) is a book I have been trying to get (at a reasonable price) for quite a while, and when Amazon finally added it to their catalog (meaning I would not have to pay shipping from Spain), I snapped it up. Reading it took a long time, as my Spanish is not quite up to the level of a semi-academic work, but here the Kindle turned out to be a big help, even though what I bought was a traditional book. I would open the free Spanish (not Spanish-English) dictionary available on the Kindle, and when I hit an unfamiliar word that I could not deduce which seemed critical, I would just type it in the search and get a definition in Spanish words that I could understand 99% of the time. It really solves the problem of having to try to hold two books at once--I could hold Abraham with my left hand and type with my right.

Anyway, on to the book. This is going to be a long summary/commentary, because I have been taking a lot of notes as I go (because trying to go back and find something in the Spanish is difficult).

Abraham starts out talking about literature and the concept of "canon", then of "high" and "low" literature, and then of fantastical literature. Here he distinguishes between "lo fantástico" and "lo maravilloso", with the former being where the difference between our notions of normal and the fictional situation as being a problem, and the latter being where it is not. This is, roughly speaking, similar to our distinction between "fantasy" and "science fiction".

When Abraham finally gets around to defining "science fiction", he says (in my loose translation), "Science fiction is the genre where the unusual elements or events are of a natural character (that is to say, not supernatural) within the field of science and technology (either implicitly or explicitly) that has not been realized in the real world at the time of the writing of the work. In particular, the science must be beyond our current science. So (in Abraham's example) "The Land Iron-clads" by H. G. Wells was science fiction when it was written in 1903; had it been written in 1920, it would not have been science fiction.

This definition rules out some novels that would be included under the definition given by Theodore Sturgeon: "A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which could not have happened at all without its scientific content." The counter-example usually given (as a novel tat meets the definition but is not science fiction) is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis; a more well-known one these days might be An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. Abraham does not make any reference to this, or to the classic definition by Damon Knight: "Science fiction is what we point to when we say it."

Abraham then covers the four main threads that formed modern science fiction: "extraordinary voyages", utopias, "naturalized Gothics", and novels based on theosophy or esotericism, After Gernsback invented the term "science fiction" in 1926, it split into two forms. There was a North American (primarily United States) version which was mostly space opera and hard science fiction, and a version in the rest of the world, closer to mainstream literature and more intellectual. (As an example of where Abraham is coming from, the European authors he mentions include Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J. H. Rosny, Kurd Lasswitz, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis.)

When Borges critics try to enumerate the major influences on Borges, they take two approaches. Many see Borges as influenced almost entirely by "the Canon." The most extreme example Abraham cites is Harold Bloom, who claimed in The Western Canon that Borges wrote in the style of Franz Kafka; Abraham says that only two stories in all of Borges fit this description ("The Library of Babel" and "The Babylonian Lottery").

But other critics (Abraham included) see Borges's influences as G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. It is hard to argue with this, since Borges himself listed Wells, Stevenson, and Kipling in response to the question.

Synchronistically, I then read about how Borges was influenced by Gustav Meyerink's novel The Golem and particularly the Paul Wegener film The Golem just as Mark was busy writing an article about the golem.

Another connection to my interests is that Borges reviewed the French alternate history novel Victorie á Waterloo by Robert Aron, which Abraham called in Spanish a "ucronía". And it says something about my completism in collecting Borges that I actually have a copy of this review, in a thousand-page volume titled Miscelánea that I bought in Costa Rica! (A look at the index of this book, by the way, indicates that the most references are to Chesterton and Wells, along with Miguel de Cervantes, James Joyce, Leopoldo Lugones, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.

In fact, Abraham lists a dozen "science fiction" works that Borges reviewed in the late 1930s in El Hogar. (I want to read El agonío del globo in which a "planetary rupture" causes the United States to literally break away and form a new planet--what a whiz-bang idea!)

Abraham goes on to list a dozen examples of stories or groups of stories by Borges that have been directly influenced, and discusses where the influences came from. For example, in the 12/05/11 issue of the MT VOID, I suggested that Borges got the idea for "The Gospel According to Mark" from "The Streets of Ashkelon" by Harry Harrison and speculated where Borges might have read it. Abraham claims specifically that Borges read the Harrison story in More Penguin Science Fiction and that is where he got the idea.

The parallels Abraham sees include:

For each of these he lists several specific instances (e.g., for "Deutsches Requiem" and "The Temple", both are told in the first person by someone who gives his name and a brief description of his status). What is peculiar (but probably just indicates poor copy-editing) is that in some of these the points are numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on; in some they are A, B, C, and so on; and in still others, they are a, b, c, and so on!

A scene in "A Weary Man's Utopia" ends with "'La nieve seguirá' anunció la mujer"--literally, "'The snow will follow,' said the woman," but more colloquially, "'The snow is coming,' said the woman." This naturally reminds me a lot of the "Game of Thrones" catch-phrase, "Winter is coming."

Abraham notes that Borges has a general habit of citing other works within his own stories, but notes that these are not necessarily the closest parallels. For example, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" cites Brave New World, and "A Weary Man's Utopia" cites Utopia by Thomas More and Gulliver's Travels.

I am not sure one can draw meaningful parallels between "A Weary Man's Utopia" on the one hand, and 1984, Brave New World, and "As Easy as A.B.C." on the other. Yes, the latter set are all about future utopias (or dystopias), but that is a fairly well-established sub-genre, and are the parallels specific enough that they are not common to most of the works in that sub-genre?

In his discussion of the works Borges co-authored with Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Abraham refers to Sherlock Holmes and William Watson--arggh! (Not a copy-editor in sight, apparently.) Then he compares one of the works to "The Jameson Satellite" by Neil R. Jones, indicating that his knowledge of science fiction is not limited to merely the best-known works.

Finally Abraham looks at Borges's essays, reviews, and other writings. Not surprisingly, The Book of Imaginary Beings contains several references to science fiction, but Borges also wrote introductions for such science fiction works as The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, and an essay in which he sets forth the idea of "change one thing" rather than multiple suppositions. (His example is that Wells wrote about invading Martians, and about an invisible man, but not about invading invisible Martians.)

Abraham makes the argument (I think) that Borges does not consider science fiction as a separate genre, but as a genre subsumed in the "literature of the fantastic" (to which Borges refers on several different ways). Abraham specifically says that Borges's science fiction does not derive from "hard science fiction" or cyberpunk, but rather from English (British) science fiction. (Well, it would be hard for Borges to derive from cyberpunk, since he pre-dates it.)

Abraham then notes that when discussing science fiction (under whatever name), Borges usually makes references back to H. G. Wells, or even better, to authors such as Voltaire, Ariosto, Johannes Kepler, and other well-respected "classic" authors, in an attempt to give science fiction respectable antecedents.

In a review, Borges distinguished between the two different approaches used by Verne and Wells. Verne insisted on scientific accuracy, but Wells relied on "scientific imagination," without requiring verisimilitude. Abraham claims that Borges takes a third approach: ignoring science entirely. While this might lead the reader to question whether Borges is writing science fiction when he ignores science entirely, I would argue that (for example) "The Library of Babel" is science fiction, with the science more implicit than explicit. At any rate, William Goldbloom Bloch was able to get an entire book, Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel, about the mathematics and topology of the Library.

Abraham then goes on to say that between the Verne and Wells approaches, Borges has said he prefers that of Wells, or rather, that he prefers the magical to the scientific as requiring fewer "acts of faith" (or suspensions of disbelief if you prefer). With Wells's invisible man, for example, one must believe that an invisibility serum exists, and that it has been discovered by a scientist, and that submerging oneself in it makes one invisible, and that one must remove one's clothes first, because they will not be made invisible, and so on. With the Ring of Gyges, on the other hand, we merely need to believe that there is a ring that has magical powers of invisibility.

(I find this disturbing. On the level of literature, of course, this is fine--one can read a fantasy story for its themes and parallels. But when one starts to prefer it because it is easier, one is treading on dangerous ground.)

By the way, I am not sure that Borges is saying that the submersion method is used in Wells. The sentence is structured:
"{clause 1, re submersion}, {clause 2}; {clause 3}, {as in Wells's "Invisible Man"}"
so it is possible that the reference to Wells applies only to clause 3 and not to the other two.

Abraham then cities Borges as also criticizing technical explanations for not being technical enough, by which he apparently means that the reader could not actually build the time machine or create an invisibility substance. And lastly, Borges accuses science fiction authors of relying too much on "excessive giganticism" (e.g., vast cities, huge machines) which start by impressing the reader but ultimately fatigue him.

Abraham then goes on to discuss how Borges (among others) distinguished between the creator of a genre, or style, or idea, and the executor of one. For example, Virgil did not create the heroic form in "The Aeneid", but copied that of Homer. And Omar Khayyam created "The Rubiyat"; Edward Fitzgerald "merely" executed it in English.

So far as I can tell, Abraham then lists eleven methods used by Borges to remove "generic marks" (stereotypes?) of science fiction from by Borges from his works, though many of these seem to me to occur fairly frequently in science fiction:

  1. "Totemic" quotations (e.g., "There are more things ...")
  2. The use of philosophic and mathematical paradoxes (though the cited use of base 12 and base 60 numeric systems in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is scarcely paradoxical)
  3. A present or past setting (with only one story set in the future)
  4. The use of canonical environments (e.g., the Cretan labyrinth)
  5. The elimination of scientific descriptions (i.e., in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" Borges describes the philosophical and linguistic aspects of Tlön, but not the geographical, biological, or astronomical
  6. The elimination of bizarre biological elements
  7. The elimination of explicit descriptions (Abraham notes that this also intensifies the horror, if horror is the goal)
  8. Extrapolation ad infinitum (Abraham says that this "tendency to the infinite" in such works as "El aleph" and "The Library of Babel" helps base the text in the metaphysical rather than the physical)
  9. Actants with little characterization ("Actant" is a semiotic term, and means something more specific than just "character", but thinking of it as a major character is probably close enough. In Borges they are not so much motivated as controlled by fate. The question so often parodied in works about cinema--"What's my motivation?"--does not occur to them.)
  10. Citations of "orientors of interpretation" (apparently, explicit references to earlier authors and works, e.g., references to Brave New World in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius")
  11. Reduction of the number of characters (e.g., Borges uses only one character in "The Gospel According to Mark" to serve the function of two in Harrison's "The Streets of Ashkelon")

(For many of these, Abraham gives additional examples; I have followed the last method and used only one each.)

Ironically, one suspects, Borges's influence on science fiction writers has resulted in many of these techniques now appearing with more regularity in science fiction. For example, The City and the City by China Miéville has eliminated a lot of the explicit description one might have expected in a similar story of fifty years ago.

And indeed, the first example Abraham gives of how Borges took an idea from science fiction and removed the "marks" of science fiction from it is an example of this. In Star Maker, Stapledon has an alien language based on the sense taste rather than sight, so instead of an idea being "brilliant" it is tasty. Borges uses this in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" but in one languages replaces spatial notions with temporal ones, and hence nouns with verbs, and in another replaces nouns with adjectives. Then in 1991, the "Darmok" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation aired on September 30; the main premise is a race whose language is nothing but metaphors (e.g., "Temba, his arms wide" indicates sharing). More recently, Embassytown by China Miéville postulates a language based on similes.

Abraham then gives examples of this "erasing of genre markings" by revisiting pairs of science fiction stories with similar Borges stories, but this time specifying all the genre aspects in the former that have been altered in Borges's stories to remove the story (so Abraham thinks) from the realm of science fiction:

For example, starting with "The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham", Borges converts the fictional character (Elvesham) into a real, and literary, one (Shakespeare; he makes the transfer voluntary instead of forced; the transfer is not based on a scientific artifice, but on a mere act of will; and it is not the entire personality that is transferred, but just the memory. (One might also add that it is entirely a one-way process, rather than an exchange.)

Starting with "The Streets of Ashkelon", Borges cuts the number of protagonists from two to one, changes the alien setting to a terrestrial one, changes the time from the future to the recent past, and eliminates all the scientific/technical descriptions and all alien biology.

Abraham closes with a discussion of Borges's "The Flower of Coleridge", which ends with the paragraph: "One last observation. Those who carefully copy a writer do it impersonally, do it because they confuse that writer with literature, do it because they suspect that to leave him at any one point is to deviate from reason and orthodoxy. For many years I thought that the almost infinite world of literature was in one man. That man was Carlyle, he was Johannes Becher, he was Whitman, he was Rafael Cansinos-Assens, he was De Quincey." Abraham sees this essay as encapsulating Borges's idea that the ideas running throughout literature were the common heritage of all writers, and the individual author entered in the execution or performance of them. This idea, certainly, goes a long way to explaining how Borges could write so many works that we would see as not just derivative, but downright plagiarizing, of earlier works by others.

There was also an appendix on the science fiction of Adólfo Bioy Casares.

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