A Working History of Philippine Science Fiction
By Gabriela Lee
Unlike the more popular genres of fantasy or horror, of which there are many examples throughout Philippine literary history, science fiction only arrived in the Philippines during the American colonial occupation from 1898 to 1935, through the educational initiatives of the colonial government. This coincided with the maturation of science fiction in Europe and Great Britain (thanks to, among many other things, the Industrial Revolution) and its movement across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where it settled in the forms of the comic book and the pulps. These forms were then brought from the US to the Philippines, and disseminated through popular culture.
The 1940s to the 1970s
However, many of the early science fiction stories told in the Philippines were imitations of well-known SF classics. Doktor Satan by Mateo Cruz Cornelio in 1945, was a horrific tale that borrowed story concepts from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while Nemesio E. Caravana’s Ang Puso ni Matilde (The Heart of Matilde) was published in 1959, and influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
Serialized storytelling was popular in the Philippines, thanks to the production and distribution of pulp magazines, similar to the early days of SF in the US. For instance, the film ExZor, which had aliens destroying Manila, was serialized by Caravana in 1956 in the magazine Liwayway. Clodualdo del Mundo’s Tuko sa Madre Kakaw (The Gecko on the Madre de Cacao Tree) was also serialized in Hiwaga magazine in 1958, and drew plot parallels with The Island of Dr. Moreau. The novel was later adapted into a film with the same name in 1959 by director Richard Abelardo.
Comics were also popular breeding grounds for science fiction stories during the 1950s and 1960s, with the popularity of local superhero narratives. The heroine Darna, who fought all sorts of fantastical monsters and alien invaders, was created by writer Mars Ravelo and artist Nestor Redondo, and first arrived in Komiks magazine in 1950, and was subsequently adapted for film and television. She was quickly followed by other Ravelo creations: Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Dyesebel, among others. It’s interesting to note that, following the trend of Philippine SF stories taking inspiration from Western SF stories, Philippine SF superheroes also echo some of American comics’ characters: Darna’s parallels to Wonder Woman, Captain Barbell’s parallels to Superman, and Lastikman’s parallels to Mister Fantastic. However, what set these characters apart are their particularly Filipino contexts: all of these characters come from humble beginnings, and their forays into superheroism were given to them as divine tasks, rewarding their purity of heart. These observations can be further seen in the work of Philippine comics scholars such as Soledad Reyes, Patricia May Jurilla, and Emil Flores.
There were also a number of Philippine-American joint productions of science fiction films from the 1950s to the 1970s that were also inspired by pre-existing intellectual property. In 1957, the Godzilla-esque Tokyo 1960, came out, directed by Teodorico C. Santos, starring Tessie Quintana and Zaldy Zshornack. Terror is a Man, which also had echoes of The Island of Dr. Moreau, was directed by Gerardo de Leon, starring Francis Lederer and Greta Thyssen, was released in 1959. This was later picked up by director Eddie Romero, and fleshed out into a five-movie series collectively titled Blood Island – the sequel Brides of Blood came out in 1968 and directed by Romero and de Leon, starring John Ashley and Kent Taylor; in 1969, the third film, The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, was still directed by Romero and de Leon, and kept John Ashley in the starring role, alongside Angelique Pettyjohn. The fourth installment, 1970’s Beast of Blood (or Blood Devils, in the UK) still kept Romero in the director’s chair and Ashley as leading man. The final film, Beast of the Yellow Night, was released in 1971. Romero continued directing and co-producing science fiction films and working with actor John Ashley, with 1972’s The Twilight People and 1973’s Beyond Atlantis. There were also cinematic spoofs of popular Western franchises, such as 1966’s James Batman, a spoof of Batman and James Bond, starring comedy actor Dolphy and directed by Artemio Marquez.
The 1980s to the 1990s
However, with the advent of Martial Law and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, many writers, artists, and filmmakers directed their efforts towards creating social realist narratives that directly confronted the daily difficulties of living under Martial Law. However, “The Apollo Centennial” by short story writer Gregorio Brilliantes emerged in 1981, and was a science fiction story that critiqued the Marcos regime through its bleak re-imagining of a future Philippines in which the dictatorship was never repealed. It has been subsequently considered as one of the best examples of the Philippine short story and anthologized in many “best of” collections of Philippine short fiction.
In 1981 as well, Jose Ma. Espino released a collection of science fiction short stories titled Orbit 21, which had a limited print run and re-released in 1991 by Giraffe Books. Espino also wrote what could be considered the first Philippine YA science fiction novella, Into the White Hole, in 1986. In 1995, Project Pawai by Jose E.C. Añozo
was published by New Day Publishers and billed as the first Philippine cyberpunk novel; in the same year, Kidnapped by the Gods by Arnel Ma. Salgado was published by Royal Press and was called metaphysical science fiction. These books are difficult to find, as they have only been printed in limited quantities, and have never been considered as part of the canonical development of fiction in the Philippines – perhaps because science fiction, and genre fiction in general, has always been seen as mainstream and populist by Philippine literary academics; perhaps because there was never really a tradition of science fiction literature in the Philippines beyond the pulp magazines.
Similarly, komiks also ventured into science fiction territory. Examples can be seen in Berlin Manalaysay’s Combatron, a space battle epic that was serialized in the magazine Funny Komics from 1990 to 1997. The storyline was left hanging, though there were various reasons for this abrupt end. There was also Trigger 2000, which had mutants and cyborgs as warring factions with each other in a post-apocalyptic urbanscape. Written by Mike Tan and drawn by Joseph Caesar D. Sto. Domingo, the series appeared from 1993 to 1994 in the magazine Terminator Komiks, which itself prized sci-fi stories. Once again, because of the material conditions of cheaply printed komiks as well as poor archival efforts, many of these stories are no longer accessible to the present generation.
Many science fiction films were also produced in the Philippines in the late 1980s and 1990s, including 1987’s Equalizer 2000, directed by Cirio H. Santiago and starring Richard Norton, Corinne Wahl, and Robert Patrick; 1995’s Batang X, directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, and starring Aiko Melendez, Michael de Mesa, and John Prats; and 1997’s Kokey, directed by Romy V. Suzara, with Carlo Aquino in the starring role. It is also interesting to note that these films are also directly parallel to popular American franchises at the time – Equalizer 2000 can be easily compared to the Terminator and Robocop series; Batang X is a blend of The Uncanny X-Men and Power Rangers, as well as similar sentai shows; Kokey is reminiscent of E.T. These films can also be seen as part of a larger cinematic trend of reverse cultural appropriation in the Philippines, in which many Western franchises are adapted for a Filipino audience.
The 2000s and beyond
This adaptation of Western science fiction tropes continued with sf films in the 21st century. Films such as 2007’s Resiklo, a post-apocalyptic film about an alien invasion in the Philippines, were accused of copying American sf films. However, bright gems that pushed the boundaries of sf could also be seen in films such as 2010’s RPG Metanoia, the first full-length 3D animated film created in the Philippines. But interest in science fiction films gradually faded, and the production of science fiction stories was continued by writers and komiks artists.
In 2000, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, considered to be the oldest and most distinguished literary award-giving body in the Philippines, instituted the “Future Fiction” category to encourage science fiction writers to submit their works for the awards. However, the category was discontinued in 2006, after the judges re-considered the term “future fiction” and how it may have been misunderstood to encompass all forms of non-realist fiction. Scholar Carlos Piocos wrote his master’s thesis on the winners of the Future Fiction category, and their significance in the general trajectory of Philippine literature.
In the early 2000s, many publications were moving from print to digital, or finding digital homes in the wilds of the World Wide Web. Early pioneers that welcomed science fiction stories were the now-defunct Story Philippines and Philippine Free Press, the webzine Usok, and Philippine Genre Stories. In 2005, the doors were opened wide to science fiction – and speculative fiction, in general – with the publication of the first volume of Philippine Speculative Fiction, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar. The term “speculative fiction” entered the literary vernacular, encompassing not only science fiction, but also fantasy, supernatural horror, slipstream, weird fiction, magical realism, and other genre brackets that did not fall under the dominant Philippine literary tradition of social realism.
While grappling with the term “speculative fiction” (Charles Tan, in his blog The Bibliophile Stalker, explains how the term has morphed locally to encompass particular writing pursuits), science fiction has blossomed and expanded in both literature and other forms of storytelling. In 2012, the science fiction anthology Diaspora ad Astra, edited by Emil Flores and Joseph Nacino, was published by University of the Philippines Press, alongside two other anthologies that were explicitly speculative in nature (the horror-themed Demons of the New Year and fantasy-themed The Farthest Shore). Starting in 2013, another series of sf anthologies were helmed by editors Dean Francis Alfar and Kenneth Yu began production, this time targeted towards a YA audience: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults: Horror was published in 2013, Science Fiction in 2016, and Fantasy in 2018. The series is currently published by University of the Philippines Press as well. Many other short story anthologies continuously welcomed speculative fiction stories into their table of contents.
In 2013, Eliza Victoria released her science fiction novel Project 17, under Visprint, Inc., which was considered the first science fiction novel in the Philippines in 18 years. This opened the doors to more long-form science fiction narratives, such as David Hontiveros’ three-volume Seroks series beginning in 2013, and Paolo Chikiamco’s Mythspace, a 2014 comics anthology, both published by Visprint, Inc. Other komiks creators have also filled the science fiction void: the post-apocalyptic Terrorium by Adam David and Mervin Malonzo (Haliya Publishing, 2016); unlikely superhero stories such as Filipino Heroes’ League by Paolo Fabregas (Visprint, Inc., 2011) and Sixty-Six by Russell Molina and Ian Sta. Maria (Adarna House, 2015); and worlds-spanning The Doorkeeper by Ethan Chua and Scott Lee Chua (Summit Books, 2017) – all of which are just the tip of the iceberg for local Philippine sci-fi komiks.
Beyond the local borders, Philippine science fiction is alive and well in the writings of Clarion Writers Workshop alumnae such as Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Isabel Yap, Macky Cruz, and Vida Cruz. Other diasporic writers such as Victor Ocampo in Singapore, and Apol Lejano-Massebieau in France, keep the Philippine speculative fiction banner waving as well. Many Filipino writers have been featured in international publications such as Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, Bewildering Stories, and LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. The 2016 anthology People of Color Destroy Science Fiction! was co-edited by Kristine Ong Muslim, an internationally-cited speculative poet and fictionist. In 2015, writer Alyssa Wong, who is of Filipino descent, won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story; in 2016, Wong and Michi Trota, the editor of Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy and who identifies as Filipinx, were awarded Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine (for Trota) and Best Short Story (for Wong).
As scholar Dominic Cimafranca observes, Philippine science fiction may not be as popular as fantasy and horror because of the predilection of Philippine writers to highlight internal characteristics, such as those found in stories of the magical and the fantastic, as opposed to external forces, such as those found in stories about technological and scientific advances. However, Philippine science fiction is an important genre to cultivate because it imagines and shapes a future – a future that, hopefully, improves on our present conditions.
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Hidalgo, Cristina Pantoja. “New Tales for Old,” Panitikan: Philippine Literature Portal. Published 23 June 2014. https://panitikan.ph/2014/06/23/new-tales-for-old/. Accessed 20 July 2018.
Nacino, Joseph F. “An Overview of Philippine Speculative Fiction,” Panitikan: Philippine Literature Portal. Published 20 August 2015. http://panitikan.ph/2015/08/20/an-overview-of-philippine-speculative-fiction/. Accessed 20 July 2018.
Ocampo, Victor Fernando R. “A Short and Incomplete History of Philippine Science Fiction,” The Infinite Library and Other Stories. Published 4 May 2014. https://vrocampo.com/2014/05/05/a-short-and-incomplete-history-of-philippine-science-fiction/ Accessed 20 July 2018.
Piocos, Carlos, “The Promise of the Future: Nation and Utopia in Philippine Future Fiction.” Unpublished master’s disseration, Cardiff University, September 2011. http://www.carlospiocos.com/portfolio/the-promise-of-the-future-nation-and-utopia-in-philippine-future-fiction/ Accessed 20 July 2018.
Sanchez, Anna Felicia. “Waiting for Victory: Towards a Philippine Speculative Fiction,” Journal of English Studies and Comparative Literature. Vol. 10, No. 1 (2010), pp. 37-48.
Tan, Charles. “Essay: The Term Speculative Fiction in Philippine Literature,” Bibliophile Stalker. Published 24 September 2008. http://charles-tan.blogspot.com/2008/09/essay-term-speculative-fiction-in.html Accessed 20 July 2018.
— . “A Pre-Summation of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009,” Borne Central: Jeff Vandermeer. Published 4 November 2009. http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/11/04/a-pre-summation-of-philippine-speculative-fiction-2009/ Accessed 20 July 2018.
— . “Award-winning writers explore Filipino representation in fantasy and science fiction,” CNN Philippines. Published 9 September 2016. http://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/literature/2016/09/09/trota-and-wong-interview.html Accessed 20 July 2018.