Finding Filipinos in Science Fiction and Fantasy

21 Feb

A decade ago, whenever I mentioned Filipinos in science fiction and fantasy, genre fans here and abroad would mention two novels to me: Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Now I haven’t read Cryptonomicon, but I have read Starship Troopers. My initial impression with the book was that here was a book that featured a Filipino (well, Filipino-American) protagonist! As I grew older, I realized Starship Troopers was a squandered opportunity (aside from Heinelin’s pro-military propaganda). I had questions like:

  1. Why did we not know that the hero of the book was Filipino until later in the novel?
  2. If we removed the character’s name and omitted the line that stated he was Filipino, would we know he was Filipino?
  3. Juan Rico was a Filipino-American, but why was his experience as an expatriate or second-generation immediate never tackled?
Starship Troopers

The novel people tell me to read if I wanted to find Filipinos.

If we want to talk about tokenism in fiction, the best example is Starship Troopers, where the protagonist claims to be Filipino, but the author doesn’t reveal any facets for that to be true, aside from being able to recognize that a starship was named after a Filipino president. The character could have been American and nothing would change in the story. And ironically, had Heinlein answered the questions I had and fleshed it out, he would have had a richer backstory for it and given the piece more depth.

The Kite of Stars

The book fans hopefully read, because it contains great stories.

Now compare this to a short story published in Strange Horizons eleven years ago: “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)” by Dean Francis Alfar. It’s one of my favorite short stories and the first (as far as I know) Filipino-authored short story that was included in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series.  Nowhere in the story is it mentioned that the characters are Filipinos; nor is it mentioned that the setting is a re-imagined fantastical Philippines set during the centuries when it was under Spanish colonization. Yet to any Filipino reader, this is evident. If you’re not familiar with Philippine history, it still works as a story.

And that’s why we need more Filipinos in science fiction and fantasy. Not just because it’s politically correct (honestly, who wants to be politically incorrect?) to do so, but because, when properly executed, the story is better for it.

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Charles Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 9.

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4 Responses to “Finding Filipinos in Science Fiction and Fantasy”

  1. surfer July 26, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    It’s not clear to me that Juan is Filipino-American. He talks about being from the tropics. Also they have a house with “houseboys” and a morning cook. Kind of leans to PI for me. Also, there is the female that is cute and ornamental and has a Spanish name and is approved of by the mother (not said, but an allusion that she is Filipina…I think RAH was being subtle there.)

    On the other side there are some things like other names of characters, Mr DuBois and Carl which seem to indicate a non PI area. Donno.

    Perhaps RAH even envisioned a “globalized” world, what with the jetting around by the Mom to South America, etc. But that could argue for various areas to be from which would have some mixing of peoples.

  2. JocelynWrite August 5, 2017 at 5:43 pm #

    Growing up American Filipino I never saw protagonists like me, especially not in fantasy or sci-fi. Some people don’t believe in representation, that’s because they already see themselves every where. This is why so many POC should step up and represent themselves in the arts. I’ve always loved writing and in the beginning my characters were cookie cutter white characters – because that’s all I read about. But in high school I sought more diverse books and started being proactive in my writing. There’s something empowering about writing a story that has a character that reflects you. I even went on to publish a sci-fi novel with a Filipino American protagonist, it’s called The Ezekiel Experience and I hope in the future there will be more mainstream books with POC as the hero because just like you said, it’s not to be PC but to enhance the story itself.

    The Ezekiel Experience

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