Across Latin America, writers who once turned to magical realism to capture the realities of the region are increasingly turning to science fiction and fantasy.

By Pilar Marrero



For countries in the Global North, the “polycrisis” has become a kind of dark cloud obscuring the horizon. The concept is increasingly the stuff of dystopian fantasies about a future set aflame by the convergence of multiple, global and existential challenges.

In Latin America, the polycrisis has defined much of its history, and where once writers turned to magical realism, many now look to science fiction to depict that reality.

“Confusing what we are doing in Latin America… with magical realism is a common mistake,” says Mexican writer and editor Libia Brenda, a slight irritation in her voice. “Many in the North think that if it’s not the science fiction they know, then it must be magical realism.”

Indeed, what writers like Alberto Quimal and Gabriela Damián Miravete (Mexico), Fernanda Trias and Mariana Enriquez (Argentina), Ignacio de Loyola Brandao (Brazil) or Liliana Colanzi and Edmundo Paz Soldan (Bolivia) are doing with literature today has little relation to the works of writers like Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, the greatest exponent of Latin American magical realism.

Marquez, whose best-known work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” centers on the fictional town of Macondo, often drew for inspiration from the lives of everyday people and from history. By contrast, today’s boom in Latin American literature delves into themes as varied as horror and environmentalism, technology, dystopia, and fantasy.

According to some observers, these new works focus less on reconciling the past than on making sense of a fraught present and uncertain future.

Libia Brenda, Writer, Editor, and Translator, based in Mexico City; Climate Imagination Fellow, Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University discusses the future envisioned by Mexican science fiction authors.

“The region is finding in its literature the futures that politicians are incapable of imagining,” writer Jorge Carrion points out in a recent New York Times essay. These new mythologies, he continues, “are constructed by writers through the hybridization of an indigenous cosmovision with… feminism, of technology with humor, of essay with science fiction.”

In other words, says Brenda, “Here, we do our own thing.”

A “fantastic literature of another order”

A distinctive feature of Latin American science fiction is the “combination of elements that we experience in real life and therefore can describe very naturally,” she explains.

“Something we do a lot is to mix fantasy with science fiction, and fantasy not understood as in the framework of unicorns or dragons, but a fantastic literature of another order,” she adds.

An example is Mexican writer Gabriela Damián Miravete’s “They Will Dream in the Garden,” where traces of the minds of murdered and disappeared women and girls are preserved in a “holographic memorial” as survivors attempt to preserve their memory in a future Mexico that has long since moved on.

In a country where a minimum of ten women and girls die or disappear every day due to gender violence and domestic violence (rather conservative official figures), Damián Miravete’s story imagines a future in which women organize themselves and stop the murders.

Ursula K. Heise, a professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), points out that in Latin America, “what has been striking has been the attention paid to social settings rather than science and technology” in so-called science or “speculative” fiction.

An AI rendering of the holographic garden depicted in Mexican writer Gabriela Damián Miravete’s “They Will Dream in the Garden.”

“If you think of people like Ignacio de Loyola Brandao in Brazil, science fiction becomes a way of articulating political criticism, doesn’t it?” explains Heise. “His great 1981 novel, Nao Verais Pais Nenhum (You Shall See No Country), is about a somewhat futuristic Sao Paulo, where the whole Amazon has been deforested. It’s incredibly hot, and the whole thing is a metaphor for the military dictatorship of the time.”

Heise also references Bolivia’s Edmundo Paz Soldán, whose work in speculative fiction “arises in the context of having to write about oppressive forms of government under conditions of censorship.”

Paz Soldán’s themes of a future society or of extra-terrestrial societies are widely interpreted as a veiled critique of conditions in his own country.

Or take Argentine Pedro Mairal’s 2005 novel, “The Year of the Desert,” which has taken on a cult-like status. In it, a force called “intemperate” attacks the city of Buenos Aires, “where chaos reigns, food rots, epidemics break out and women see their rights curtailed.”

“The most plausible interpretation is that it refers to the 2001 collapse of the Argentine economy,” Heise explains, “and perhaps a roundabout way of dealing with the dictatorial past and European colonialism.”

Searching for answers

Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez, known as “the queen of gothic realism” and recipient of multiple awards in Spanish and English, explained it this way during an interview with Mexico’s El Economista:

“We are living in a horror that is quite difficult to explain through realism. It seems to me that fiction, and especially horror fiction, helps to get answers. And why am I so interested in this answer? Maybe because I despair when there is no answer.”

For Heise, anxieties fueling the dystopian futures present in so much of Anglo science fiction have long been a reality in Latin America.

“The people of the Third World, the developing world, the Global South, so to speak, are already experiencing the problems of widespread waste, climate change, poverty, hunger, desertification, in a way that the Global North is beginning to experience, but not yet,” she said. 

And it is there – in that literature born of a tortured past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future – where from the magical realism of years past a new literary language emerges, even as Garcia Marquez’ fabled Macondo recedes into memory.

This story was produced as part of a special reporting series exploring how global societies and diaspora communities in the US are navigating the “polycrisis,” a term increasingly used to describe the confluence of extant and emerging global crises. It was supported by a grant from theOmega Resilience Awards.

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