The Spirit of Science Fiction, which Chilean writer Roberto Bolano wrote in 1984 in his early 30s, is an engaging melange of riffs on elements that have repeatedly appeared in his nearly 20 novels, short story collections, and poetry volumes: bohemian poets, writers, and artistic hangers-on in Mexico City; an enthusiasm for life on the edge of conventional morality; a thirst for literature, love, and sex; political activism; daily struggles for food and cheap wine.
The Spirit of Science Fiction is a loosely-plotted novel that focuses on two poets, Jan Schrella and Remo, living on top of a building in relative squalor in Mexico City. 21-year-old Remo narrates much of the novel. Jan Schrella, clearly an authorial stand-in for Bolano himself, rarely leaves their apartment and spends his days writing letters to famous science fiction writers when he isn’t devouring such novels. “I’ve squandered my adolescence in seedy movie theaters and pestilent libraries,” he brags.
At the beginning of the novel, a female reporter is interviewing Jan who’s just become the youngest writer to ever win an important literary prize. There’s a surreal, unmoored quality to their interchanges that are dispersed through like a spice that suggests that this is merely a fantasy. Jan’s award-winning novel is about Nazis who are exploring space for another planet to colonise. Lieutenant Boris Lejeune watches enemy movements from a potato field and works at the Potato Academy, one of the “many secret faculties of the Unknown University.” The reporter describes his work as “monumental” and foresees a brilliant future for him. Jan dismisses her praise:
“You poor, naïve reporter. First you mistake this room in the middle of some random forest for a crystal palace on a hill. Then you actually predict a bright future for art. You don’t realize yet that this is a trap. Who the hell do you think I am, Sid Vicious?”
Remo and a friend begin amassing a library of stolen, borrowed, and cheap sci-fi paperback novels for Jan. Haphazard, menacing towers of novels are stacked everywhere:
“These books, underlined, scribbled on, and underlined again, piled up so chaotically in every corner of their room . . . The near complete works of Philip K. Dick posing as a boulder could trip you when you least expected it.”
Joe and Remo arrange these hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks into a bench, which they transform into dinner table by throwing a tablecloth over it; books now provide a form of nourishment. But a friend disagrees:
“Books should be on bookshelves, neatly organized, reading to be read or consulted. You can’t treat them this way.”
In one of the novel’s more surreal and entertaining narrative strands, after Remo and Joe learn that Mexico City has over 600 poetry journals, they embark on a parody of road trip to discover why such an improbably number of journals exists because they “interest us as a symptom.” These amateur sleuths seek evidence of little green men in a forest. Identifying symptoms and isolating causes is a trope of science fiction. Their investigation leads them to a director/editor of a famous poetry journal, Dr. Carvajal, who scoffs at the validity so 600 periodicals:
“It depends on what you call a magazine and how you define literature. More than a quarter of these magazines are really a few sheets of paper, photocopied and stapled in runs of twenty at best. . . . the faint echo of a nameless failure. . . . they’re not even anything subversive. . . . [They’re] essentially texts outside the realm of literary history.”
In other words, this representative of the literary establishment dismisses these journals in the same way that the keepers of the literary canon have relegated science fiction and fantasy to the dungeon of the ivory tower.
Throughout the novel, Jan writes a number of letters to a panoply of famous science fiction writers, ranging from Alice Sheldon and Robert Silverberg to Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree. In the first letter, Jan seems tentative and deferential, focusing on his enjoyment of the writer’s work and his love of science fiction novels. By the second, he’s shed his timidity and proclaims himself to be a 17-year-old unpublished writer. Jan’s respect for the work of the author to whom he is writing is now secondary to his own questions or aspirations. His tone becomes more intimate, demanding, and argumentative. He wants to be seen by these writers as a peer; he addresses them by their first names: Alice and Ursula, Robert and Philip. In one letter, he interrogates the writer about a committee of American science fiction writers: “Will your committee. . . testify on our behalf–in solidarity, of course–on the political stage?” An unsent letter is filled with drunken, incoherent questions; another is a beautiful lyrical description of rain from his rooftop. In another Jan expounds on a plot for a novel about an alien version of love-at-first-sight.
Jan embraces the futility of his letter-writing task: “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.” In this passage, Bolano and his alias Jan embrace the spirit of science fiction. In a world of letters dominated by more intellectually accepted and embraced types of writing, Jan wants to breathe from a different source of oxygen.
The last letter, signed “Jan Schrella and alias Roberto Bolano,” suggests that Philip Jose Farmer compile an anthology of authors “who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future.” Then in the novel’s last chapter, “Mexican Manifesto,” Bolano himself writes a story that functions as his submission for this hypothetical anthology.
This novel seems accessible for readers who are new to Bolano and interested in plunging one of his works. It’s not a huge, toe-crunching, 898-page tome like 2666 (my personal fave). Nor is it a wildly fragmented romp with dozens and dozens of characters like The Savage Detectives. It’s not an overtly political tale like Amulet where a character gets trapped in a bathroom during student protests. It’s not dominated by the dying rants of priest as in By Night in Chile.
Any Cop?: Sorry, no time for a cop because I’m going to start rereading 2666.