We Have the Technology; Where Are the Dreams? Futurists in Colombia

M.L. Clark’s novelette, “Seeding the Mountain,” hit stands with a bang in Analog’s September/October issue [on sale now]! Below, M.L. shares a thought-provoking interview conducted with two Colombian SF creators invested in broadening the scope of Colombian SF and—as part of that process—in “the decolonization of people’s minds.”


by M.L. Clark

For many North Americans, Medellín, Colombia is a city known only in relation to a narrow slice of criminal history: the part that begins and ends with the thrill (for outsiders) of drug cartels and terrorism. But this valley city crowned in verdant mountains is a place where people live very much in the present, and indeed focus on being present with one another to a distinct cultural degree. In Medellín, the pre-pandemic standard was for big families to gather every weekend (a tradition maintained during COVID-19 lockdown via Zoom, often in the dozens). Likewise, it was a mark of good values for a man to hold his mother’s or grandparent’s hand on the street, and a not-uncommon sight to watch the young keep their elders’ pace while helping with daily errands.

But for all that day-to-day culture might differ here from many pockets of North America, one of the most remarkable differences is how few Colombians have engaged with the project of imagining the sorts of dynamic futures that make up SF; and how many fewer have actually dreamed up technological wonderlands where Colombians play active roles. SF isn’t even a section in most local bookstores, so related titles are relegated to general categories, or displays of international best-sellers.

The lack of overt SF is not, however, for want of book culture (rather, book fairs are prominent events in the city, and booksellers abound in most malls and neighborhoods). Nor is it for want of inspiring advancements in science and technology. Medellín’s transportation system, in particular, is both a point of pride for local citizens, and a global example. The Metro project began in the middle of a decade of low morale, and its success is continuously built upon throughout the city, with cable cars, a mountain-scaling escalator, and an integrated public-bike system increasing citizens’ mobility, promoting health, and reducing air pollution. For these infrastructure projects, alongside others centering arts and science, in 2013 the Urban Land Institute named Medellín the “most innovative city” in the world.


“Because we are not constricted by a canon, it’s easier to disrupt ideas of what science fiction can and “should” do. So, maybe one day soon that freedom will allow us to create more innovative stories—not just in content but also in form. Our willingness to make mistakes and recover from them, because we’re not in the global spotlight, certainly leaves us free to experiment without worrying about the status quo.”


 

In 2019 the ambitiously titled Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a public-private joint venture, opened a new Nano Lab to further Medellín’s foothold in global digital industries. In the same year, the government established its first Ministry for Science, Technology, and Innovation—even though Colombia’s immense biodiversity, second in the world, has made it a critical site for scientific research for decades. Innovation also emerges here in medical research (as with a recent discovery, by a Colombian couple in Medellín, of precursor-molecules for Alzheimer’s in newborns’ umbilical cells), alternative energy, pharmaceutical testing, and surgical procedures.

To better understand, then, the seeming divergence between Colombia’s technological realities and its limited SF storytelling, I sat down with two local editors who have been advancing ambitiously interdisciplinary SF projects in Medellín since 2007. Hernán Ortiz and Vívi Trujillo are by no means the only people dreaming Colombia into such technical futures, but their on-the-ground experience offers significant insight into why the outcomes here are so different from the outcomes for North American futurists.

M.L. Clark: Hernán, Vivi, thank you for taking the time to chat. Could you talk about some of the projects you’ve already pursued to advance futuristic dreaming in Medellín?

Hernán Ortiz & Vívi Trujillo: Sure. Our biggest effort by far has been Encuentro Fractal. That project started in 2009 as a yearly TED-like conference on science-fiction and future-thinking, and ended up becoming something completely new and unexpected. We were two wannabe editors impressed by the science fiction coming out of the US; and after curating and translating a low-selling multimedia short-fiction anthology, Agua/Cero (2007), we’d realized a book alone was not going to do much difference to spark people’s curiosity. Because we had been working with living authors, such as James Patrick Kelly and Daryl Gregory, we thought the best way of introducing their fiction to Colombia would be to create a space for people to meet the authors–and their futuristic universes–in person. We also produced Myth Girls (2011), a bilingual collaborative-art book involving a cyberpunk story by Kij Johnson, developed in conjunction with a fashion designer to create a story that could best be appreciated as a tangible, not digital, object.

This was all happening at a time when Medellín was making great strides toward new narratives, moving out of the shadow of the drug-trafficking stories that dominated here in the ‘80s. Young people were excited by the possibilities of digital technologies, and the government was investing a considerable amount of money into arts and culture. We were young and ambitious, but also powerless and penniless. Our biggest motivation was the possibility of bringing authors to the so-called City of Eternal Spring to talk about their weird, futuristic themes to a wide-eyed audience.

Encuentro Fractal found its own voice as a collaborative futurist event, which has also been a breeding ground for exciting future-facing projects. For instance, we led an interdisciplinary team to create 3D-printed garments as part of Encuentro Fractal in 2013. The resulting runway became the first of its kind in Latin America. We also worked on the narrative design, concept, and production of Medellín Steampunk, a 2015 public project commissioned by the Mayor’s Office to activate the city’s sculptural heritage. Five statues of Victorian-era historical figures were “intervened” with futuristic gear, and citizens could interact with them via a Twitter-based alternate reality game. We then worked with Keiichi Matsuda as producers and co-writers of Hyper-Reality (2016), a short film on an augmented reality world set here in Medellín, which went viral with more than five million views.

MC: What do you think about Colombia’s STEM and environmental projects? Which elements of local scientific culture would you love to see in the country’s SF?

HO & VT: We would love to see more biology. What we have found here, across disciplines, is enthusiastic people who work on personal projects from, say, their university labs, and who love to play around with their research. For example, one friend wanted to encode a whole story into . . . beer, so that people could “drink” stories and read them as well. Because we are not constricted by a canon, it’s easier to disrupt ideas of what science-fiction can and “should” do. So, maybe one day soon that freedom will allow us to create more innovative stories—not just in content but also in form. Our willingness to make mistakes and recover from them, because we’re not in the global spotlight, certainly leaves us free to experiment without worrying about the status quo.

MC: What would you say are some important moments in the history of Colombian SF? Who are the “classic” authors, and what are the essential texts?

HO & VT: Back in 2008, when we were organizing the first Encuentro Fractal, we wanted to meet everyone interested in SF—reading it, writing it, watching it, discussing it, illustrating it, making music about it, you name it. And of course, we wanted to know what had been written here, but the history is lean. There are a couple of names that always come up, such as René Rebetez, who in conjunction with Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chilean), created two issues of Crononauta, the first science-fiction magazine in Latin America, and whose writing was included The World Treasury of Science Fiction (1989), edited by David G. Hartwell. Then there’s Antonio Mora Vélez, who wrote SF stories and academic articles, and later curated a number of Latin-American and Colombian SF anthologies. However, these authors might not be relevant to folks outside academia and hobbyists; as in a lot of formative U.S. SF magazines, many of their stories were pulpy and dated.

MC: As for Colombian SF in the present, who are some of the other major players—editors, presses, formal communities—defining its scope? How would you explain the “shape” of local SF to outsiders?

HO & VT: A recent anthology curated by Rodrigo Bastidas, Timekeepers for the End of Time (Cronómetros para el fin de los tiempos, 2017), offers a range of Colombian science-fantasies involving spaceships, robots, and replicants, drawing heavily from ‘70s and ‘80s Western SF. In Medellín, there’s an SF club that meets at the planetarium; they get together weekly around a different theme. In Bogotá, almost all SF-related activities come from an SF bookstore, Libraría Mirabilia, which also publishes contest-specific SF anthologies. There are also some short story contests for young audiences, both local and national. Laguna Libros published classic SF in elegant editions, while the Colombian imprint of Editorial Planeta produces anthologies of 21st-century Colombian SF, and Ediciones Vestigio produces “bizarro” collections of fiction and art.

MC: Could you speak a little more to what publishing models look like? Which pathways to funding are more realistic for aspiring creators, and which are less feasible in Colombia?

HO & VT: We don’t really have a magazine market, so authors can only expect to be published in books. And the payment for published authors is symbolic or not nearly enough to make a living, so they have day jobs as well, mostly at universities or cultural organizations. If you want to be a fiction bestseller in Colombia it doesn’t hurt to pair that career with a political columnist gig or becoming an influencer. Oh, and you need to be friends with the editors at publishing houses so they give your manuscript a chance. We know it’s a grim scenario, but the best a writer can aspire to in present-day Colombia is to get invited to book fairs, sign a few copies of their books, get interviewed in an arts-&-culture magazine, and that’s about it.

MC: Moving into more “speculative” territory, what trends have you seen in the SF stories Colombians write? Is there a distinctly “Colombian” feel to the futures depicted here, or do you find that Western stylistic reference-points show up more often in local work?

HO & VT: Almost all the SF books available here are translations made in Spain. Writers learn their craft inspired by these books, so, at worst, their prose is flowery and convoluted. They don’t question the language because they love the older stories, and as a result put together bad Isaac Asimov knock-offs, derivative Philip K. Dick dystopias, or pastiches of William Gibson’s cyberpunk. We know there’s huge potential to create amazing fiction from our diverse, tropical country, but our collective imaginations have both the Spanish and the U.S. flags on them. Our life-long effort with Fractal has been the decolonization of people’s minds. We’re sure that if we learn to recognize the ideas that we’ve been fed about futures, and get better attuned to the promise of our present moment, our science-fiction will be a powerful force for change.

MC: What would a thriving SF community in Medellín look like to you? And more generally, in Colombia? Would these communities emulate Western literary infrastructure, or are there other ways of holding space for the future that you’d like to see Colombian SF become known for?

HO & VT: We envision an intercultural/interdisciplinary group that gets together to explore “what ifs.” Future-thinking rooted in collaborative storytelling. Curious people getting excited about advances in science and technology and their impact on society. A safe space where everyone can imagine futures from their own point of view (no experts or authority figures needed). The goal wouldn’t be to publish stories in magazines or books for individual recognition, but to think in terms of collective possibilities. The process would trigger ideas that come to life through actual products: films, apps, illustrations, narrative prototypes, and music. And only two absolutes: the what-if question and the collaborative process.


M. L. Clark is an editor, educator, and writer of speculative fictions. Canadian by birth, Clark is now based in Medellín, Colombia, and wakes to the sight of mountains every day.

Hernán Ortiz’s short story collection, Indistinguible de la magia (Penguin Random House, 2016), won the Medellín Short Fiction Award. Other stories appear in Columbia Journal, Lazy Fascist Review, The Barcelona Review, Black Dandy, and The Cafe Irreal. As co-founder of Fractal (https://universofractal.com) with Vivi Trujillo, he develops future-facing design & storytelling consultancy when he’s not writing science-fiction. Website: hernanortiz.com

Vívi Trujillo is the director of Fractal, a non-profit based in Medellín, Colombia that provides innovative UX possibilities and storytelling consultancy to digital clients. As an editor, translator, designer, and producer of collaborative SF projects, Vívi guided the creation of Myth Girls, Hyper-Reality, and an AI-based storytelling experiment, “La sonrisa del monstruo.”

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