The Spirit of Science Fiction

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

As is usual with Roberto Bolano, the line by line lyricism of the prose is beautiful, but the overall effect for me is a little lacklustre. This tells the story of Jan and Remo, who live in an attic room in Mexico City and are trying to make their way in the thriving literary and poetry scene within the country. What I found most compelling here were the letters written by Jan to various science fiction authors. There was an authenticity to the prose that touched my heart and I got a real sense of a young man frantically writing to his literary heroes as opposed to actually writing science fiction for himself. There were some great scenes here, particularly the impromptu party that the boys throw at one point and the descriptions of travelling through the city on a motorbike. Overall though, the narrative was too disjointed for me and I think this is one of those books that won't stick with me for any length of time.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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Originally written around 1984, this novel was first published 2016, 13 years after Bolaño's death - and now there's also an English translation. The book tells the story of two young writers trying to make it in Mexico City: Remo is an extrovert, mingling with the literary crowd and hunting for opportunities, while Jan is more introverted and spends his time in their small room on a roof top reading and writing letters to famous science fiction authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr. et al. (Jan is an alter ego of Bolaño himself). The story is told in numerous, uneven vignettes that read like explorations that play with the creation of different, settings, atmospheres and encounters, and while the whole thing does not quite come together (and maybe wasn't intended to), it becomes apparent where the author can go from here. 

What unsettles me a little is that my research tells me that it's unclear whether Bolaño ever wanted this text to be published in the first place. It think it is important to honor the wishes of an author when it comes to his legacy, so I hope the publication of this book didn't happen against his will. For Bolaño aficionados, especially fans of The Savage Detectives, "The Spirit of Science Fiction" seems to offer many interesting passages, and also for those new to the author (like me), it gives a glimpse into his unique style.
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Published in Spain in 2018; published in translation by Penguin Press on February 5, 2019

The Spirit of Science Fiction is an early novel that foreshadows Roberto Bolaño's later and stronger work. It was published posthumously.

While the novel begins with the interview of a writer who has won an award for his book of poetry, most of the novel is set in the past. Jan Schrella is a 17-year-old unpublished writer of science fiction, living in Mexico City with Remo. Jan is Chilean and, as he writes in a letter to Ursula K. LeGuin, Remo also “claims to be from Chile.” The story eventually suggests that Jan is Bolaño’s alter ego, although Remo is the novel’s narrator and main character. The Spirit of Science Fiction certainly has the feel of a fictionalized autobiography, although one wonders whether there might be more of Bolaño in Remo than in Jan.

Remo scrapes out a living writing book reviews and magazine articles about historic crimes. Their parents contribute the rest of their living expenses. Remo socializes while Jan writes letters to science fiction editors and writers. Some are fan letters, some recount his dreams, some contain ideas for stories, some ask the writers to pay attention to Latin America.

To alleviate his boredom (and because this is a Bolaño novel), Remo begins to attend a poetry workshop. There seems to have been an explosion of poetry workshops in Mexico, or maybe that’s just a rumor started by a mimeographed cultural weekly they get from a mysterious woman named Estrellita, who might be a poet and might be living with a son who is an artist, although the details of Estrellita’s life might also be based on rumor. In any event, Remo and José Arco decide to investigate the state of Mexican poetry. They find clues in graffiti. They listen to a professor discuss fate and the lack of meaning in poetry magazines, a discussion that provokes Remo, who believes that South Americans from poor countries are motivated by pride in their national poetry.

Remo meets and instantly feels romantic inclinations toward a woman named Laura, in the tradition of Latin men of romance (within hours of meeting her, she is “gradually turning into everyone and everything”). He pronounces his love for her before the evening is done, while she ponders how to break the news to her boyfriend. Yet Remo can’t get an erection because, paradoxically, their first kiss is too intimate a time for love-making.

Enigmatic characters populate Remo’s life, all of whom seem to have a hidden intellect and a desire to write poetry, including the toothless young mechanic who sells him a stolen motorcycle named Aztec Princess and the woman who complains that Jan has disrespected literature by constructing a table from science fiction paperbacks. The characters and their actions often have a surrealistic feel.

In the novel’s last section, Remo and Laura explore Mexican bathhouses and the erotic (or not) possibilities they inspire when strangers knock on the door. The ending comes across as Bolaño deciding he needed to end the story somewhere, but it abandons all the other characters, giving that section of the story a disconnected feel. Still, the lives of the characters and the atmosphere that Bolaño creates make it easy to recommend The Spirit of Science Fiction, perhaps as a prelude to his outstanding The Savage Detectives.

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‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’ Review: Art That Opens Doors
Roberto Bolaño’s works comprise an imaginary world that fans call the ‘Bolañoverse,’ united by recurring characters and references. The foundations of this cosmos are found in ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction.’

The Spirit of Science Fiction

By Roberto Bolaño 
Penguin Press, 196 pages, $24

Reviewed by Michael Saler

Imagine a library that ran out of room in its “Literary Fiction” section: Where might the otherwise unclassifiable writings of Roberto Bolaño be shelved? Many librarians would opt for “Mystery.” His masterpieces “The Savage Detectives” (1998) and “2666” (2004) are rife with investigators, and Bolaño himself jested, “I would like to have been a homicide detective much more than a writer . . . . I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night, and not be afraid of ghosts.”

Born in Chile in 1953, Bolaño originally thought of himself as a poet. He continued to do so until his untimely death in 2003, though he defined the term broadly, to mean a writer with an adventurous attitude, a generous openness to the world. He believed that this quality found its purest expression in the energy, idealism and naïveté of youth. (“As far as the important things go,” he told an interviewer, “I’m still an immature person. And that’s not easy . . . it’s something you have to work on really hard.”) “The Savage Detectives,” a picaresque account of how he and other young poets confronted multiple mysteries—personal, sexual, political and existential—is his most exuberant expression of this creed. He deemed it a “love letter” to his generation.

Yet a newly published novel, fluently translated by Natasha Wimmer, reveals that science fiction influenced Bolaño as much as poetry and more than mysteries; indeed, it contains “love letters” addressed to various sci-fi writers. This is surprising, for Bolaño is rarely associated with the genre, and at first glance there is no obvious reason why he should be: Only a few of his mature works refer to the future, and these do so in minor, enigmatic ways. “Nazi Literatures in the Americas” (1996), a darkly humorous encyclopedia of (mostly) fictional right-wing authors and works, situates a few of them in decades to come. The talismanic year 2666 is invoked fleetingly in other fictions, but we never learn much about its significance. In what ways, then, might the essence of the genre be evident in Bolaño’s work, if its typical trappings are not?

“The Spirit of Science Fiction,” which Bolaño drafted during the early 1980s but never published, doesn’t address this question directly. The answer is implicit, as the work encompasses the seeds of plots, characters and themes that blossom more luxuriantly in his later creations. Like “The Savage Detectives,” this novel focuses on the formative adventures of young poets. Two friends from Chile, Jan Schrella and Remo Morán, arrive in Mexico City to pursue literary careers, expand their horizons and lose their virginity. As Remo reflects: “It was the ideal scene on which to pin images or desires, I thought—a young man, five foot eight, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, standing in the sun on the curb of the longest street in the Americas.”

This expansive vision is countered by intimations of disaster in a forsaken world, a theme that would become prominent in Bolaño’s later writing. Jan is afflicted by nightmares and rarely leaves the apartment, preferring to read and write science fiction. To alleviate his loneliness, he writes chatty letters about “dreams and the Revolution” to the sci-fi authors he venerates. (He’s deeply conversant with the field, as was Bolaño at his age.) Some of these notes appeal for better political relations between the U.S. and Latin America, although at times Jan suspects this is about as likely as time travel. He informs Ursula K. Le Guin, “I don’t think many of my missives will reach their destination, but it’s my duty to hope with all my might and keep sending them.”

Remo is more outgoing; he joins a local poetry workshop—it was “like a tiny dance club for shy, boring people”—but is likewise beset by fears, ranging from the prosaic to the existential. He is haunted by images of storms, Nazis and war: all symbols of ineradicable evil that Bolaño’s protagonists are challenged to face without flinching. Jan and Remo have experienced such evil at first hand: They refer obliquely to an event in their recent past, where something horrific happened to their 15-year-old friend Boris.

“The Spirit of Science Fiction” is structured unconventionally, enticing the reader to solve its mysteries. Bolaño adroitly braids three related narratives. In the first, Remo seeks to discover reasons for the growing popularity of poetry within Mexico City. It’s an inexpensive, democratic hobby (nearly everyone he meets is a poet) and also one that generates an atmosphere of revolutionary possibility. The second thread comprises Jan’s letters to sci-fi writers, which also celebrate the genre’s progressive potential; his letters are hopeful messages cast against the darkness. Finally, a successful, unnamed author (clues point to a slightly older Jan) recounts the plot of a sci-fi novel he is writing. It features “Boris Lejeune,” an affiliate of the “Unknown University,” who appears in multiple guises and is sacrificed while combatting evil—reprising the apparent fate of Jan and Remo’s friend Boris.

For Jan, “the spirit of science-fiction” consists in its negation of the status quo and radical receptivity to alternatives. When a teacher chides him for writing fantastic fiction, Jan replies that if we don’t create our own dreams, we are left “at the mercy of the dreams—and amusements—of others.” He later insists that “extrapolation leads us to open doors that were once bricked up.” These opinions about sci-fi are not limited to Jan: He signs his final letter, “Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño.”

Once you start noticing connections between Bolaño and sci-fi, they multiply like tribbles. A fledgling work of 1976, which he called an “Infrarealist manifesto,” begins: “It’s four light hours to the confines of the solar system; to the closest star, four light years,” and goes on to praise Soviet sci-fi writers. A poet hero of “2666” is yet another Boris—“Boris Ansky”—who happens to be a Soviet sci-fi writer and dies bravely fighting the Nazis. Bolaño derived the title for his complete poems, “The Unknown University” (2007) from a short story by sci-fi writer Alfred Bester; he also praised Philip K. Dick as “one of the ten best American writers of the twentieth century.”

Bolaño’s works themselves comprise an imaginary world that fans call the “Bolañoverse,” united by recurring characters and references extending at least to the year 2666. The foundations of this cosmos are found in “The Spirit of Science Fiction.” Heralding things to come when originally written, it remains an entertaining, lyrical and accomplished novel.
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Meandering but often magical, lit by many small sparks of brilliance. It took me almost half the novel to find my bearings, to really get a feel for the flow. Right around that halfway point, things began to click. I’ve seen it said around here this is not the best place to start with Bolano; The Savage Detectives is a perfected version of this story, 2666 is his true masterpiece...That might all be true, but I’m glad I started here, getting a taste of his early writing before exploring his later works. Even if none of this really sticks with me, It's worth the read. Now, the final sequence through the bathhouses, that will stick with me for awhile...For me, the absolute strong point of the novel; by far the most evocative experience through these pages, in my opinion.
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This is a new translation of a novella from the trove of unpublished works Bolano left behind when he died in 2003.  Another GR reviewer pegs it from when he was about 30 around 1984 (I wish there was more provenance in this advanced reviewer’s copy).  I have read his masterful and massive “2666”, but have not yet read his “The Savage Detectives”.  Like the latter, much of the action here takes place among literary wannabes in Mexico City, but unlike his two major novels completed during his later years in Spain, there is little focus on political realities and diagnosis of pervasive human evil.  Instead, we get her a nostalgic and fanciful look at the ambitions and pleasures of youth and yearning to make a mark in poetry or other literary accomplishment.

The 21-year old narrator, Remo, alternates his account between his friendship with his reclusive 17-year old roommate Jan, who spends a lot of time writing letters to iconic science fiction authors, and his own bohemian adventures and partying with the literary crowd and burgeoning love relationship with Lola, a 19-year old poet.  The strange plot of Jan’s novel in progress, featuring a potato research institute and “Unknown University” hidden away in the woods somewhere in Chile, as well as the letters to sci fi authors, are interleaved in a way to cast the mundane, but exuberant life, in Mexico City in an otherworldly light.  Another magical realism twist to an otherwise straightforward tale of youthful excess is the very abundance and prevalence of writing talent.  Remo learns that there are over 600 poetry and literary journals in Mexico City, tons of writers’ workshops, and almost everyone he meets, no matter how uneducated, has substantial literary knowledge or ambitions.  

Don’t expect much in the way of a coherent arc to this tale, which sort of drifts along and flows into various diversions.  I often liked this flow.  For example, both Jan and Remo become enthralled with a young poet Jose Arco, and Remo gets captivated with his style and mobility through his motorcycle.  The freedom of their rides was intoxicating for me.  Toward the end, there are a number a strange interludes of Remo and Lola’s strange experiences at public steam baths.  Some of the innocence of their love relationship is challenged by events with others that take place there, yet much is retained.  This odd way to close the tale feels like an analogy to the whole story being like a memory standing up despite the surprises life presents in the fog and mists that encompass us.
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This is one of the best South American writer and this is an amazing book.
It's poetic, magic and there's any moment when you think the writer is not anything but great.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to Penguin Press and Netgalley for this ARC
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This was a beautiful, lyrical read; like music you take in with your eyes instead of ears. However, story-wise, 80% into the book, I still didn't really understand if there was a plot to follow, aside from "becoming a writer". (I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
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It is the mid-1980s and two young men, Jan and Remo, have recently emigrated from Chile to Mexico City to pursue their dreams of becoming famous writers.  Broke and living in a sparsely furnished attic apartment, they become inflamed with their twin obsessions of poetry and science fiction, consuming as much of both as they can.  For all their similarities, though, the two friends follow very different paths toward that common goal: Jan is often introverted and aloof while spending much of his time composing odd fan letters to notable science fiction authors; Remo hungrily engages the bohemian world around him in search of experience and adventure.

The Spirit of Science Fiction is Roberto Bolaño’s latest posthumous novel—it is amazing how prolific he has been since his untimely death in 2003!—which tells Jan and Remo’s story.  Or, more accurately, the novel gives the reader fragmentary glimpses of their story over a brief period when the two were just beginning to dive into everything that the city and its literary scene could offer.  The book is divided into three parts, each involving rotating (and not always linear) plotlines: a young writer has just won a prestigious award and is being interviewed by a journalist, the text of Jan’s letters to sci-fi writers, and Remo’s first-person adventures around the city as he seeks sex, companionship, and the source of the poetry underground movement.

Needless to say, this is not straightforward storytelling, nor does the book offer anything close to a tidy resolution.  What is does provide, however, is several compelling vignettes and character sketches, all composed with the Bolaño’s incendiary and cerebral prose that is full of literary and cultural references.  Apparently written early in his career, it is also meta-autobiographical in part; at one point in the story, Jan signs one of his letters using the alias “Roberto Bolaño”.  So, although The Spirit of Science Fiction does not rank with 2666, The Savage Detectives, and By Night in Chile as the best of the author’s fiction, it is a reading experience that both Bolaño completists and those new to his work should find satisfying.
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