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:
- Why did we not know that the hero of the book was Filipino until later in the novel?
- If we removed the character’s name and omitted the line that stated he was Filipino, would we know he was Filipino?
- Juan Rico was a Filipino-American, but why was his experience as an expatriate or second-generation immediate never tackled?
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.
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.
Charles Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 9.