Reflexividad en la obra de Eduardo Holmberg: el rol de la ciencia ficción y la fantasía en la modernización y el control de las masas

04 Dec 2017

With his eccentric Viaje maravilloso del señor Nic-Nac al planeta Marte (1875), Eduardo Holmberg has been widely credited with writing the first work of science fiction in Argentina (and perhaps Latin America). Although Holmberg was, as a man of science, a prominent adherent of the positivism so enthusiastically embraced by his generation, his fiction carves out an extraordinary role for literature and utopian fantasy. He himself explained this surprising departure by affirming that fantasy, much as in a Verne novel, could be used to educate the masses through awakening the imagination. For the most part, Holmberg’s critics have simply echoed his stated views on the role of fantastic literature in the divulgation of scientific ideas. However, a closer examination of Viaje maravilloso, together with Holmberg’s most thoroughly utopian novel, Olimpio Pitango de Monalia (1915), reveals that the role of science fiction and fantasy presented in these texts is shot through with ambivalence. Their reflexive interrogation of their own modes of textuality sheds much light on the rise of the science fiction genre within the context of a rapidly modernizing society, the circulation of both science and literature within the cultural imaginary, and how both came together to create a new popular readership. In both novels discussed, Holmberg questions his own use of fantasy, and more broadly the role of fiction and literary uses of language in Argentina’s educating and modernizing project. Viaje maravilloso reflects critically on its own use of popular genres and the popular press to disseminate scientific ideas, while Olimpio Pitango de Monalia reveals with even greater clarity Holmberg’s concerns in relation to the use of fiction and mystery as a potential force for the manipulation of the masses as well as their education. In many ways, Holmberg’s fiction can be read as part of a broader mission to disseminate knowledge beyond the restricted spheres of the educated elites and to create an informed reading public. However, these novels also point to ways in which fantasy lends itself to the creation of dazzling and obfuscating spectacles and gives rise to political demagoguery, shoring up the status of the political and scientific elite at the same time as it purports to democratize science and expand knowledge among the masses. Rather than the education of the masses, it is perhaps the question of their governance that emerges as the most perturbing in Holmberg’s fiction. His reflexive exploration of fantastic science reveals a darker side to his generation’s utopian drive towards modernization and progress, suggesting that these projects were sometimes less about egalitarianism and more about maintaining the status quo of the elite in the face of the increasing threat of Argentina’s burgeoning masses. I maintain that the relationship between fiction and science in Holmberg’s novels marks a crucial point at which his work differs from that of both Verne and H. G. Wells, his most significant European contemporaries, registering instead the very different social and cultural contexts of Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.