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the complete review - fiction
The Spirit of Science Fiction
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- Spanish title: El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción
- Translated by Natasha Wimmer
- Written around 1984 but first published posthumously 2016
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B+ : appealing slice of early/young Bolaño
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|Wall St. Journal
|The Washington Post
||Paul Di Filippo
|World Lit. Today
||Will H. Corral
From the Reviews:
- "Die drei Erzählstränge des Romans werden zusammengehalten von der Bestrebung, die prosaische Gegenwart, mit Novalis gesprochen, zu „romantisieren“. Dies artikuliert sich zunächst in einem steten Schwanken des Romans zwischen Alltagsrealität und Phantastik. (...) Der Roman gerät durch Passagen wie diese in einen merkwürdigen Zustand des Schwebens zwischen rauschafter Begeisterung und nüchternem Realitätssinn." - Kai Sina, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "The novel’s symbolic register, if there is one, is that of science fiction. Unlike the distillatory act of poetry, SF implies an act of expansion: how far can the imagination colonise and how far can a country’s technology keep up in service of this imagination? Jan’s letters to SF authors express uncertainty and indeterminacy; they question the reality on which everything is premised. (...) The book is a hymn to Mexico City, and it’s fascinating to see which topographical features of the vast metropolis are pulled into focus." - Chloe Aridjis, The Guardian
- "Der Geist der Science-Fiction ist eine krude Mischung aus Künstler- und Entwicklungsroman, Satire und Stadtporträt. Viele von Roberto Bolaños Qualitäten blitzen in diesem Frühwerk auf: sein erzählerischer Drive, sein szenischer Einfallsreichtum, sein Sprachwitz und seine intellektuelle Verve. (...) Und doch ist das Buch zu zersplittert, um sich zu einem Ganzen zu fügen. Die Lektüre gestaltet sich mitunter zäh." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Bolaño’s admirers will find in these themes and players a satisfying proleptic glimpse of his picaresque masterpiece, 1998’s The Savage Detectives -- a circuitous hunt for vestiges of an underground “visceral realist” literary movement and its muse (.....) The Spirit of Science Fiction serves as a key to Bolaño’s later work, unlocking clues to his abiding obsessions. (...) The mayhem and energy of their embrace of the poetic life -- intellectual (and hormonal) passion wedded to judgmental idealism, clinched by a sense of the absurd -- vibrates on the page." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "It’s easy to see why this novel was never published in Bolaño’s lifetime. It’s a rambling, dispiriting mess, symptomatic of the way publishers have dredged up substandard work from this great writer’s past in the hope that it might catch some of the reflected glory of his two great novels. Let us hope The Spirit of Science Fiction is the last of these tawdry outtakes that can only serve to diminish the legacy of one of the most remarkable literary voices of the past 50 years." - Alex Preston, The Observer
- "Sintetizando, es una novela primeriza (fechada en Blanes en 1984 y, a juzgar por las notas que acompañan esta edición, abandonada) que anticipa temas, personajes y modos de dos de sus obras más logradas: Estrella distante y Los detectives salvajes. Porque El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción es una novela con buena escritura y momentos brillantes, pero que aún no ha dado con la clave (una iluminación formal ligada a las tramas detectivescas) que hará sostenerse su mundo en las dos novelas citadas." - Carlos Pardo, El País
- "The Spirit of Science Fiction is structured unconventionally, enticing the reader to solve its mysteries. Bolaño adroitly braids three related narratives. (...) Heralding things to come when originally written, it remains an entertaining, lyrical and accomplished novel." - Michael Saler, Wall Street Journal
- "(I)t’s a minor gem. (...) Plotwise, there’s not a lot of linear velocity. It’s a picaresque by a poet more concerned with notating startling moments than crafting a multibraided saga. (...) (W)hile Bolaño’s book is by no means a cyberpunk novel, it bears a spiritual affinity to that genre." - Paul Di Filippo, The Washington Post
- "(T)his prodigious novel casts a pall over others by his contemporaries, just as all of Bolaño’s published prose has. Bitingly brilliant and superior to twists that David Foster Wallace could have envisioned, without academese El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción -- which includes an appendix with images of the manuscript and the author’s early notes -- shows a superb yet faintly imperfect Bolaño of old, or rather new for first-time readers." - Will H. Corral, World Literature Today
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Spirit of Science Fiction centers on two literarily ambitious young men, twenty-one-year-old Remo and seventeen-year-old Jan, arriving and settling in Mexico City and, in their different ways, beginning to try to find their way, in writing and life.
There are echoes of Bolaño's own experiences -- Jan even signs one of the many letters he writes: "Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño" --, as well as of his later The Savage Detectives, and the novel also has the same early/mid-1970s feel of these, though, to the extent one can date it, Bolaño situates the action at the time of the writing, ca. 1984.
(Jan writes letters to various American science fiction authors "who might reasonably be supposed to be alive", but notes that he can't write to the deceased Philp K. Dick, which dates the action after 1982.)
The novel is presented in three parts -- or two sections and a sort of concluding chapter, presented as a 'Mexican Manifesto'.
Chapters alternate between the epistolary -- Jan's letters to science fiction authors (including Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr., Fritz Leiber, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Philip José Farmer) --; ones entirely in dialogue -- a young literary prize-winner being interviewed by a journalist; Jan and Remo in conversation --; and Remo's account of life in Mexico City.
Jan is devoted to science fiction and holes up in the apartment they share, "scattered papers, newspaper clippings, science fiction books, maps, and dictionaries" piled up around his mattress ("like a kind of library dump").
He barely ventures out, his life almost entirely interior and writing-/reading-obsessed -- though he has no difficulty socializing with the various people Remo has over.
Jan translates some poetry (Daniel Biga and Marc Cholodenko), but he's obsessed with science fiction -- with Remo and a friend of his stealing many of the books, many not yet translated into Spanish, that Jan lives for -- and sends out letters to many of the great science fiction authors of the time, lamenting the peripheral position and role of Latin America, among other things.
(A sort of inferiority complex, about provincial Chile as well as Latin America as a whole, rears its head repeatedly here.)
Even Jan's dreams feature the science fiction greats -- so also when he has one in which he encounters Soviet author Alexander Belyaev -- leading to the exchange with Remo:
"Do you know who he is ?"
Remo is the far more adventurous one, eager to explore all the possibilities of the city from the first -- though admittedly also focused on the literary.
He quickly finds a position writing for a newspaper's arts supplement, and eagerly joins a poetry workshop.
It is there that he meets the motorcycle-riding José Arco, whom he quickly bonds with (even, eventually, letting himself get talked into getting his own motorcycle).
"No idea, Jan."
"A science fiction writer."
"I thought so. . . .
Have you ever read Tolstoy, Bulgakov ?"
"Not much ..."
"I'm not surprised. . . .
You should read other Russian writers, other writers in general.
You can't spend your life reading stories about spaceships and extraterrestrials.
"Don't bait me."
Literature is in the air in this metropolis they've come to -- or at least Remo finds it wherever he looks: "writing workshops were blossoming in Mexico City as never before", and among the quests he and José undertake is looking into the sudden torrent of poetry journals that have been unleashed, leading them eventually to seek out the publisher of the Poetry Bulletin of Mexico City, one Dr. Ireneo Carvajal, familiar with the entire local scene.
When they finally get an audience, Carvajal suggests the huge outpouring shouldn't be taken too seriously: "they're essentially texts outside the realm of literary history" -- though of course Remo (and, in his own way, Jan) revel in exactly that periphery.
More than anything, The Spirit of Science Fiction is a text of characters bursting with young (and somewhat naïve) enthusiasm, the characters eager, everything full of potential.
Yes, the prize-winning author gives off a slightly jaded air, and Jan writes to his idols about some of his frustrations, but even here there's a sense of everything and everyone being so hopeful.
There's some youthful flirtation, romance, and sex -- though typically, for Bolaño, much is hesitant and cautious
The final section (in which Remo and girlfriend Laura explore Mexico City's public bathhouses) is more of a deep-dive into a fleshier world -- but even here the beautiful opening suggests the literary-minded characters' limited-connect with the corporeal:
Laura and I didn't make love that afternoon.
We tried, but it didn't happen.
Or at least that's what I thought at the time.
Now I'm not so sure.
We probably did make love.
Bolaño spins out and riffs on both literature (including the prize-winning author offering a(n extended) summary of his novel) and the scene (which extends a bit beyond the merely literary, at least for Remo -- and for Jan, to the extent that Remo brings it to their pad) the characters find themselves in.
And literary-focused though Jan and Remo are, and even as Jan, in particular, lives in books (to the extent that he starts turning his great piles of them into actual furniture), Bolaño avoids making the novel all too navel-gazingly bookish.
An early work by Bolaño, written in the mid-1980s but only published posthumously, in 2016, The Spirit of Science Fiction is presumably unpolished and unfinished, but it holds up quite while just as is.
The general tone and feeling -- optimistic, the characters open to discovery, eager to explore and uncertain about what everything holds and means -- makes for a work that doesn't need to be, or possibly can't even, completely cohere.
A spirited, youthful passion -- whether in the form of Jan's attempts at reaching out to his science fiction-idols, or Remo's more adventurous seeking out of actual experience -- suffuses the work, while Bolaño thankfully never lets his characters take themselves too seriously; there's almost nothing ponderous in this airy fiction.
The Spirit of Science Fiction is a novel about the making of writers -- of Remo and Jan, still fumbling about, and of course also of Bolaño himself, with so much of himself in these characters.
He has a self-aware Remo nicely sum up how this path he found himself on worked out, as it did for Bolaño:
Up until then, I had been an onlooker in Mexico City, a fairly pretentious recent arrival and clumsy twenty-one-year-old poet.
The city, I mean, took no notice of me, and my dreams never escaped the confines of pedantry and deadly artifice.
(Oh, if nothing had happened or at least if Jan and José Arco had kept their mouths shut, instead of being where I am now, I'd be in the Paradise of Latin American Men of Letters -- in other words, teaching at an American university or at worst correcting galleys at a second rate publishing house, peaceful haven, infinite promise.)
Much of The Spirit of Science Fiction can feel like sketches for Bolaño's later work, as one can see characters from the later fiction begin to take form here already, but it's more than just a work of foreshadowing; indeed, familiarity with what came later can be distracting.
If not truly a full-fledged novel, it is nevertheless both substantial and solid enough to make for a satisfying read, Bolaño's talent clearly evident.
It's not a bad entree to his work, either -- and perhaps even better appreciated without the baggage of familiarity with what followed.
- M.A.Orthofer, 1 February 2019
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The Spirit of Science Fiction:
Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.
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© 2019 the complete review
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