Science Fiction Studies

#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993

Ilan Stavans

Carlos Fuentes and the Future

Some time ago, I was traveling in the state of Morelos in central Mexico, looking for the birthplace of Emiliano Zapata, the village of Anenecuilco. I stopped and asked a campesino, a laborer of the fields, how far it was to the village. He answered "If you had left at daybreak, you would be there now." This man had an internal clock which marked his own time and that of his culture. For the clocks of all men and women, of all civilizations, are not set at the same hour. One of the wonders of our menaced globe is the variety of its experiences, its memories, and its desires. ( Myself with Others, 199)

A devotee of encyclopedic narrative enterprises and a fan of intellectual labyrinths á la Jorge Luis Borges,1 Carlos Fuentes has his own internal clock. Completely bilingual and bicultural, he was born in Panamá City in 1928, but educated in Washington, D.C., Buenos Aires, and Mexico. Switched into the timing of two different civilizations, the Hispanic of Latin America and the Anglo-Saxon of the United States, such a clock, disguised or manifest, often appears in his fiction.

The opposition between historical and mythological time, one could say, is his primary artistic obsession. A master of the pastiche, among the popular genres he cherishes are detective and spy fiction. Every time he deals with them in his fiction he makes use of anachronisms, prolepsis, and plot anticipations. Narrating a plot in a straight-forward manner, it seems, is impossible for him. Characters see themselves in future events, dream forthcoming happenings, and travel through time to understand their role in society. Fuentes enjoys turning the natural sequence of things upside down. In Aura (1962; tr. 1965), a short novel that incorporates the art of Henry James and an open tribute to the 17th-century satirist Francisco de Quevedo, a historian uncovers the diaries of a revolutionary lieutenant only to find that he himself is a reincarnation of the war hero. The narrative voice uses the future tense ("You shall open the door....") to create an appealing mosaic of present, past, and future. La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1964) is a recollection of things past from a future standpoint. And in the long novel Terra Nostra (1975, tr. 1976), an anonymous narrator travels from 1492 America to 1992 Paris investigating the impact of Iberian civilization on the so-called New World. Like the campesino he spoke to in Morelos, Fuentes seems to see Mexico as a nation in love with mythological time, with its clock set outside history.

Yet despite his ambitious and long-standing concern with time, nowhere in his oeuvre can one find an explicit tribute to, or even an insightful comment on, the SF literary tradition, which is to him altogether an alien territory.2 Names like Jules Verne, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, or Frank Herbert are not in his vocabulary; in his eyes they are totally foreign, incompatible with serious art. In his critical writing he has often praised Borges, whom he sees as a beloved mentor; the Argentine’s Neoplatonic tale, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940), an SF classic, remains a favorite of his. And he is a loyal re-reader of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s astonishing SF novel La invención de Morel (1941), an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau. But that’s as far as he goes. His obsession is Mexico’s past and idiosyncracy, from the defeat of the Aztecs by the conquistadores in 1525 to the dangerously volatile political and economic climate of the present. He is and was a loyal friend of Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino, two unconventional SF practitioners, but his lack of interest in science and technology and his adherence to a type of naturalism very much like Balzac’s, make him an unredeemed realist, one with an eye on social and political change.

In this he is typically Mexican. Compared to Argentina, where a considerable number of futuristic novels and stories have appeared since the 1940s, Mexico has little to be proud of when it comes to SF creativity. Concerned more with Mexico’s tragic history than with its possible future, Mexican authors have written at the most a dozen commendable SF narratives, including Cerca del fuego (1986; Close to Fire) by José Agustín, Al norte del milenio (1988; North of the Millennium) by Gerardo Cornejo, Gran teatro del fin del mundo (1989; Great Theatre of the End of the World) by Homero Ardjis, and the short-story collection La sangre de Medusa (1958; Medusa’s Blood) by José Emilio Pacheco.3 One might say that it isn’t that the genre is less developed in Mexico and the southern hemisphere but rather that it is promoted through an altogether different lens. That is, a new definition has to be coined in order to understand how luminaries like Amado Nervo approach time and knowledge. The legendary Juan Rulfo, author of Pedro Páramo (1955, tr. 1959) and El llano en llamas (1953; The Burning Plain, 1967) explored myths in his short and long tales. And the same was done by Agustín Yáñez, Elena Garro, Inés Arredondo, and other 20th-century writers. Myth instead of science: they achieve time travel without technology; they penetrate distant territory by means of a magic trick or the drinking of a miraculous elixir; they explore past and future events from a present-day standpoint. Which means that, while they don’t belong to the SF tradition, they have certainly borrowed elements from it. Fuentes also belongs on this list.

Even though the art of Stanislaw Lem and Isaac Asimov does not interest him, the Fuentes oeuvre is useful in distinguishing between SF and mythic writing (also called "magical realism" when speaking of Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, or Salman Rushdie). The one, as defined by Darko Suvin, is marked by the interaction of estrangement and cognition and has as its main formal device an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment;4 the other is an exploration of elements taken as expressing, and therefore as implicitly symbolizing, certain deep-lying aspects of human and transhuman existence. Sometimes the two intertwine, but it is obvious nonetheless that we are dealing here with different modes of literature: one concerned with some sort of scientific knowledge, the other involved with absolute truths. It is therefore not casual that the Americas below the Rio Grande prefer the latter while the industrialized nations prefer the former.

An interesting crossroads between the two literary modes may be found in Fuentes’s solid passion for utopian literature. His futuristic views of the Hispanic world as a geography constantly on the brink of chaos are evident in his essays, in novels like Terra Nostra, and in plays and stories.5 A revisionist par excellence, his works also include a Rabelaisian anti-utopian novel, Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn, both 1987),6 concerned with an armageddon in a not-so-distant future, a vision of a horrible novum as the evolutionary sociobiological prospect of mankind. Set six years after its publication date—i.e., in 1992—it is a parody of Mexico’s somber days to come. According to Fuentes, by then the nation would be living under the totalitarian regime of a right-wing party that controlled just about everything, from the bureaucratic machinery to every citizen’s reproductive system. Juxtaposing comments on such diverse topics as psychology, metaphysics, philosophy, sex, politics, and gastronomy in a carnivalesque style meant to please the followers of Mikhail Bahktin, the Russian formalist, Fuentes makes the myths and historical figures of contemporary Mexico, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, the anthropologist Fernando Benítez, and the actress María Félix, parade through the pages; and like George Orwell’s Big Brother, a mythical female figure, part Mae West, part Eva Perón, and part Holy Mary, has ubiquitous power.

At the beginning of Christopher Unborn, Mexico as we know it has undergone several drastic transformations. After the 1985 earthquake and an unspecified "major disaster" of 1990, a clerical president rules and politics is still as immobile as in the past. Overpopulation is approved, not discouraged. By overemphasizing the symbolism of a handful of myths and the anarchic reality of the depicted future, Fuentes ridicules Mexico’s present. The government, for instance, is now sponsoring a national contest in order to find a new leader:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. The male child born precisely at the stroke of midnight on October 12, and whose family name, not including his first name (it goes without saying the boy will be named Christopher) most resembles that of the illustrious Navigator, shall be proclaimed PRODIGAL SON OF THE NATION. His education shall be provided by the Republic and on his eighteenth birthday he will receive the KEYS TO THE REPUBLIC, prelude to his assuming the position, at age twenty-one, of REGENT OF THE NATION, with practically unlimited powers of election, succession, and selection. Therefore, CITIZENS, if your family name happens to be Colonia, Colimbia, Columbario, Columba, or Paloma, Palomares, Palomar, or Santospirito, even—why not?— Genovese (who knows? perhaps none of the aforementioned will win, and in that case THE PRIZE IS YOURS), pay close attention: MEXICAN MACHOS, IMPREGNATE YOUR WIVES—RIGHT AWAY! (67)

Always akin to eccentric narrators, Fuentes develops the plot from an embryo’s point of view—Christopher, an obvious descendent of the Genoese mariner,7 to be born during the Quincentennial of Columbus’s first landing in the Bahamas. On this impossible premise, the story tells of Christopher’s life and opinions during the nine months of his gestation. After a brief prelude ("I Am Created"), each of the nine chapters ("The Sweet Fatherland," "The Holy Family," "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Festive Intermezzo," "Christopher in Limbo," "Columbus’s Egg," "Accidents of the Tribe," "No Man’s Fatherland," and "The Discovery of America") depicts his precocious anatomical development. The unborn child judges and condemns, investigates and reflects, discusses his personal interests (pre-Columbian mythology, the 1910 Socialist Revolution, and show business today), without ever compromising his privileged position as all-knowing narrator.

About to be born, Christopher ponders his grim future as a citizen of Mexico, an "ugly" nation, half-Aztec, half-Spanish, with an unresolved collective identity. He wonders if birth should be avoided. Fuentes, a master of the art of mythic writing, takes advantage of the anti-utopian literary tradition to warn against a troublesome future, but not one troublesome because of the effects of technological change. By his internal clock, Mexico is to become a terribly muddled society because of corrupt politicians: they are the clowns to be pinpointed for misconduct, not the scientists. Disorder will prevail. Knowledge will be unimportant because what will matter are bureaucratic power and a set of absolute truths. Mexico’s 1992, as seen in 1987, will not be an experiment in social science but a governmental nightmare.

During his career, Fuentes has shown a predilection for on-the-edge narrators—maniacs and physically transformed freaks. In Cambio de piel (1967; A Change of Skin, 1968), for example, Freddy Lambert, a marginal character, describes the whole action while inside the trunk of a Lincoln. He is the creator and judge, opponent and executor, of the major characters, two of whom end up placing him in an asylum. The narrator of Terra Nostra is enchanted with religion, millenarianism, and resurrection. And in La cabeza de la hidra (The Hydra Head, both 1978), the phantom-like Timón de Athens controls the protagonists through sadomasochistic tricks. Christopher Unborn may be seen as the culmination of this trend: the embryo’s mental flux is intense, disorganized, difficult to follow . . . , yet no one would dare ask for logic from such an entity. Artificiality, thus, is the novel’s tone: everything is literary, everything improbable and unreal—an object of satire. Jokes come mainly through tongue-twisters and idiomatic games. Verbal fireworks, misguided quotations, and an accumulation of cultural references allow Fuentes to depict the obvious inadequacies of the embryo to write, to tell, to be. Consequently, words become a Joycean labyrinth, a mirror reproducing the chaos of the outside world.8

Fuentes’ obsession with time finds in Christopher Unborn a different mode. An indirect tribute to Orwell’s 1984, Wells’s The Time Machine, and Huxley’s Brave New World, this revisionist novel is a history of the future as seen from the Third World—lawless, nonsensical, a crossroad between SF and myth in which an exploration of absolute truths symbolizing deep-lying aspects of the Mexican psyche is set in a chaotic reality outside the reader’s immediate milieu.


1. See Juan Manuel Marcos, "La fuente de Borges, el Borges de Fuentes, las fuentes de Fuentes," La obra de Carlos Fuentes: Una visión múltiple, ed. Ana María Hernández de López (Madrid: Pliegos, 1988), 349-54; Britt-Marie Schiller, "Memory and Time in The Death of Artemio Cruz," Latin American Literary Review 29:83-103, Jan 1987); and David L. Middleton, "An Interview with Carlos Fuentes," The Southern Review 22:342-55, Spring 1986.

2. See Fuentes’ "Borges in Action," Myself and Others (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), 140-59. I dealt with the Argentine’s interest in SF and the future in my essay "Borges and the Future," SFS 17:77-83, #50, March 1990.

3. Also, a number of high-quality stories have been written by Adriana Rojas, Mauricio José-Schwartz, Federico Schaffler, and Héctor Chavarría. A two-volume anthology edited by Schaffler is available: Más allá de lo imaginado (Mexico: Tierra Adentro, 1991). See my review, SFS 19:263-65, #57, July 1992.

4. See Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 7-8.

5. For a study of time in other titles, see Malva E. Filer, "A Change of Skin and the Shaping of Mexican Time," Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View, ed. Robert Brody and Charles Rossman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 121-31; Debra A. Castillo’s interview with Fuentes, "Travails with Time," The Review of Contemporary Fiction 8:153-67, Summer 1988.

6. In my review-essay—"The Life of an Embryo," The American Book Review 12:8-9, Sept-Oct 1990—I argue that Fuentes’ novel is a conscious homage to Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. (1759-1766). Also see Julio Ortega, "Christopher Unborn: Rage and Laughter," The Review of Contemporary Fiction 8:285-91, Summer 1988.

7. I analyze the Columbian imagery of Fuentes’ novel in my book Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage (NY: Twayne, 1993), 111-14.

8. Although a good rendering of the Spanish text (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987), the English translation by Alfred MacAdam and the author reshaped the original Cristóbal Nonato. Both versions end up being extravaganzas written for academic readers. While a patient examination contrasting them is yet to be written, a glance at the tables of contents indicates their differences: the English version is shorter, more versatile and dynamic; it eliminates some chapters and reads without too many extraneous diversions.


Fuentes, Carlos. Christopher Unborn. Trans. Alfred MacAdam in collaboration with the author. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987.

—————. Myself with Others: Selected Essays. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988.

Abstract.—In discussing why Mexico, a nation obsessed with its collective past, does not have a solid tradition in SF, this brief essay examines Carlos Fuentes’s interest in chronological and "cultural" time and analyzes his very limited interest in SF. It distinguishes between SF and mythic writing (i.e., "magical realism") and, after placing in context some of Fuentes’s most celebrated works, focuses on his anti-utopian novel Christopher Unborn, a tribute to H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. (IS)

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