Science fiction is undeniably a Western genre. Its roots can traced back to authors like Wells and Verne and linked to the Industrial Revolution and the development of a rational and scientific society. (Roberts, 47-67) Koichi Yamano, in his essay “Japanese SF, Its Originality and Orientation,” affirms this with his critique of Japanese science fiction up until 1969. Although Yamano believes that science fiction is universal, he also detests the continued reliance of Japanese science fiction writers on Western criteria of science fiction. Yamano advocates a science fiction that is not just escapist fantasies but a soul- and self-searching fiction that delves into Japanese civilization and psyche.
Although coming from different histories and having different cultures, Japan, being economically First World and the Philippines, being Third World, both have a close relationship with the United States, politically, economically and culturally. Just as Yamano questions this close relationship with the US, Gregorio Brillantes does the same in his Palanca winning short story “The Apollo Centennial.” This essay aims to dissect how Brillantes uses the science fiction genre to subvert and express the Filipino experience of the relationship.
A family, Arcadio Nagbuya and his sons Dolfo and Doming, travels from Camanggaan to Tarlac City to celebrate and watch the exhibit commemorating the centennial of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 2069. Plot-wise, nothing really happens in the story. Nothing big anyway. But “The Apollo Centennial” is not a story about what will happen in the future but a story about what the Philippines will be like. The story is full of descriptions. From the crossing of the river, to riding the bus, to reaching the city, to seeing the exhibit, until riding back to the river, the story describes a place, a Philippines, that is both familiar and unfamiliar. A Philippines that is still agricultural but, especially in the cities, riddled with advanced technology. Admittedly, without the references to the futuristic technology, like laser guns, wallscreens, spaceships and even a created language combined from Tagalog and Iloko, the Philippines of the story is probably no different form the Philippines of today.
This mixing of the familiar and the unfamiliar is not really different from what American science fiction does. Adam Roberts, in his book “Science Fiction,” finds, in the differing definitions of science fiction, a common “central sense about the encounter with difference.” Roberts calls this a “novum.” (Roberts, 28) The story’s novum is the futuristic setting and references to the futuristic technology. But one may ask, why make the Philippines in the story still very familiar instead of what we usually see in science fiction texts of outlandish and futuristic world? According to Roberts,
“...that, although many people think that SF as something that looks to the future, the truth is most SF texts are more interested in the way things have been. SF uses the trappings of fantasy to explore age-old issues; or, to put it in another way, the chief mode of science fiction is not prophecy, but nostalgia.” (33 emphasis by Roberts)
Although the setting is futuristic, Brillantes doesn’t just imagines a future Philippines. He looks at the contemporary Philippines and displaces it to the future. And by doing so, an aspect of the Filipino experience and history is highlighted, American colonialism. The story does not tell how, but the Philippines of 2069 has been reconquered and occupied by the United States. Even today, the United States is seen as an empire, the last standing superpower after the end of the Cold War.
Interpreting it nationalistically, the future Philippines seems bleak. But the story offers hope in the form of mountain rebels fighting the occupation, which is again a reference to the Philippines’ historical experience of rebels, bandits and tulisan. They are mentioned twice in the text. First in passing, when Arcadio Nagbuya, riding the bus to Tarlac, sees military aircrafts flying over the mountains and felt apprehension on the safety of his cousin, Andres, fighting in the same mountains. Second in a scene at the end of the story, where Andres and Arcadio meet at the river bank where the story began. We will go back to this last scene later on in the essay.
But lets go back to the story, to the journey. It is interesting why Brillantes chooses a very passive activity like going to an exhibit as the central movement of the story. This can be linked to the story’s particular description of space. As Brooks Landon, in his “Science Fiction After 1900” puts it,
“While much of science fiction is not set in outer space, most science fiction rests on carefully articulated and demarcated spaces, or zones of possibilities and impossibilities.” (Landon, 17)
With the movement of the story from the river to the exhibit, the periphery to the center, the story shows the privileged place of the city where the roads are paved and luxuries are easily accessible. It is also in the city where the ruling power holds sway. The scenery of the journey and the exhibit can also be contrasted by the difference in characteristics in terms of space. The scenery by the river and the view from the bus describes wide open spaces and the experience of vastness. On the other hand, the exhibit is depicted in a claustrophobic manner where one exhibit piece comes one after another.
The exhibit is interesting on its own. The nostalgia of the Apollo landing projected into the future. Even though the exhibits portrays the moon landing as an event that joined humanity together, the context of the story exudes something very different. Behind all the technological advancement, the interstellar expeditions, the colonization of the satellites, parts of the Earth remains underdeveloped. It is the technologically advanced nations that are reaching for the stars while countries like the Philippines remain poor. Thus the spaceship in story can be read symbolically, a symbol for technological advancement but also a symbol of colonization. The US uses the newer spaceships to reach the distant stars but also uses the Apollo centennial to convince the people that everything is all well.
Now we go back to the last scene of the story where Arcadio and his rebel-cousin Andres meet by the river and Andres asks Arcadio for help. The scene can be interpreted as a show of defiance against the empire, the rebels that are persistently fighting the superpower. But I interpret it as an affirmation of the familial bond and the bond with the land. Colonization, the movement of a group of people to settle in another place, entails a dissociation with the homeland. As families in the spacetravelling countries are broken up by colonization, the family in the Philippines remains strong in the face of a different kind of colonization. And that the spacetrallers and colonizers would not experience the beauty of Earth but instead the artificial confines of the spaceships and the barren environments of the satellites.
Empire and Science Fiction
According to Roberts, not only did science fiction develop in the time of technological progress but also coincided during the time of Empire especially in Britain. Roberts argues that the experience of Empire highlighted the experience of otherness in relation of the conquerer to the conquered and colonized peoples. But being an Empire, feelings and ideas of otherness was diverted towards assimilation. (Roberts, 65) But works like “The War of the Worlds” reflect the anxieties of the British Empire and later on, with works like “Starship Troopers,” by the United States.
But “The Apollo Centennial” reflects not the otherness felt by an Empire but the otherness felt by a Colony. As centuries of colonial experience can attest, the Colony and the Colonizer always acknowledge the relationship that they have but their is always an underlying dissociation and distance. The fact that Brillantes appropriated the science fiction genre acknowledges the Philippines’ relation with the US. But the content and story that he created also reflects the realities of that relationship. That the disparity in technology has created a heirarchy between nations and the single-minded pursuit of progress is completely dissociated with the realities of poor and marginalized communities.
Brillantes, Gregorio, “The Apollo Centennial,” On a Perfect Day in November Shortly Before the Millenium: Stories for a Quarter Century. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2000. p. 283-293.
Landon, Brooks, Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. London: Routledge, 1997.
Roberts, Adam, Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000.
Yamano, Koichi, March 1994. Japanese SF, Its Originality and Orientation (1969). August 1. http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/62/yamano62art.htm