Fantastic History #30: When Fantasy Fiction is Run Over by Reality by Samir Machado de Machado

It is my belief that when the reality in which we live is becoming exponentially surreal, realistic literature reaches its limits. When that occurs, it is up to the literature of imagination to give us the metaphors and parallels that will enable us to interpret and understand what the f— is happening in the world today. I cannot fail to notice that since the last presidential election in my country, books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale have reappeared on the bestseller list.

And when I say my country, I’m not talking about the US.

In 2013, I published my first novel, Quatro Soldados (“Four Soldiers”), a historical adventure that bordered the fantasy frontier, inspired by Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. The story was set in the 18th century, a period that fascinates me for its parallels with today’s world. The news reaching Europe about the Guaranitic War tell about the clash between two superpowers against native peoples, led by religious leaders seen as fanatical — in this case, the Jesuit missionaries — whom the Illuminist world accused of wanting to create a Jesuit State in South America. But the real battle, of course, was for America’s valuable natural resources — in this case gold and silver. Any resemblance to the current world is mere historical looping.

So my idea was this: the Portuguese colonial mentality was so behind its time that while Europe lived the Enlightenment, Colonial Brazil was still in the Middle Ages. During the 18th century, book production was banned in Brazil, and its importation was highly regulated. Fantasy had already disappeared from Europe, but here persisted tales of fantastic creatures, such as the headless-mule, the anhangüera (a phantasmagorical white deer who stalks forest hunters), or de boitatá (a gigantic, phosphorescent snake which is attracted by the brightness of the eyes). During the Enlightenment, they would be seen from the viewpoint of cryptozoology.

Quatro Soldado’s reception was positive, and a month after its launch, I began to work on a reverse idea: a more realistic swashbuckler adventure, where a Brazilian soldier was sent to Europe to investigate, precisely, a scheme to smuggle books to Colonial Brazil. Going from semi-medieval Brazilian reality straight to British liberalism, he dazzles with modernity: in England, he discovers that the streets have sidewalks, and that shops have their names written on the plates (not just the drawing of a fish for the fishmonger, or bread for the bakery) – he was thus in a land of readers.

I decided that my concept would be a cross between James Bond and Barry Lyndon, but with one small difference: Érico Borges, my protagonist, would be gay. As I say, if adventure stories are about ordinary characters drawn from their everyday lives and placed in extraordinary situations, nothing seems more common than a gay character as the protagonist – I am one myself, every day of my life. Eric would be the hero who would unravel a conspiracy, defeat the villain and save the day, but romance the buff baker instead of the lady, who in turn would have to take care of herself. It would also be an opportunity to explore a setting that fascinated me, the vibrant London gay community of 1761, with its “molly houses” and elegant macaronnis – the predecessors of dandies.
But a good plot of adventure and spies needs a good villain, preferably, one that has an absurd and megalomaniac plan, which will only be revealed to the hero when he is captured in a deadly trap. As my hero is gay, it seemed natural to me that the villain would be homophobic, with a name that, at the moment the Brazilian reader read it, would identify the character as the antagonist. Thus was born the Count of Bolsonaro.

To put this into context, the book was written between 2013 and 2015. At that time, the real-world politician who shares his name with my antagonist was only a mediocre ex-military figure, notorious for his bigoted statements, and for having chosen gays, black activists and feminists as targets for his hate speech. In an interview with comedian Stephen Fry, and another with actress Ellen Page, he made it very clear that he was proud to be a bigot. So it seemed like a natural choice for the villain in my story: an evil count who seeks to destroy Brazil by sending it the pornography that will “corrupt its morals and attract divine wrath”.
Little did I know what was to come…

The philosophers of the Enlightenment wanted to move society away from religious obscurantism and into the Age of Reason. For this the Encyclopaedia promised to gather all the knowledge of the world into a single series of books. But the French Revolution turned to The Terror, literature sought Romanticism, and politics found nationalism. Likewise, the Internet has promised to democratize knowledge, but it has become prey to false news propagated by demagogues who, faced with their own lies, offer their Alternative Truths and accuse reality of being fake news. Despite historical comparisons with other former military men brought to leadership based on hate speech, Bolsonaro never had the gift of oratory, which is why he has fled all public debates, and has been a cause for ridicule for his apparent inability to read a teleprompter. Of course, he made the dubious decision to release a pornographic video on the presidency’s official twitter account, but hey, I wrote something like that three years earlier.

My book was called Homens Elegantes (“Elegant Men”) and was released in 2016, the year I felt that something was changing for the worse. Trump’s election strengthened the so-called “alternative right,” the neologism with which neo-Nazism uses to normalize itself, and which gave the signal for hate speech to become state policy. This can be felt in Brazil, where the far-right, which has the unsustainable American consumer culture as its ideal, embraces the national flag with the same fury with which it attacks the popular culture of the same country that this flag should represent. I asked myself: What kind of society do these people want to create? Then came the idea of what would be my next book, a mixture of 80’s adventure, techno-thriller and what I call a self-contained dystopia. Thus was born Tupinilândia (“Tupiniland”).

However, the problem of writing dystopias nowadays is that if you take too long to write them, when you finish your book they have already come true.

The American writer Benjamin Moser once said that in its anxieties for the future, the essential difference between the US and Brazil is that in the US, there is a fear of the arrival of an inevitable fall, the fear of the decay of an empire. In Brazil, which had already been called “the country of the future”, the anxiety is precisely due to the arrival of this future, always so close but never to come. The idea of Tupinilândia was to deal with this anxiety, with our eternal emulation of a US-based consumer society, but bound to the limitations imposed by our inability to deal with our own history.

If in the US the 1980’s were marked by economic boom, in Brazil it was the opposite. The ironically literary year of 1984 in Brazil was the last year of a US-sponsored military dictatorship, marked by torture and disappearances, which lasted for twenty years, ruined the economy and imposed a socially conservative agenda that, to this day, seems to hold back our social discussions with a delay of twenty years. Thus, Tupinilândia is a gigantic amusement park, built secretly during the 80’s inside the Amazon rain forest. Inspired by the way Disneyland synthesizes American culture, Tupinilândia would valorize the Brazilian national culture. With the political opening, its inauguration would be the symbol of a new era, marked by democratic elections.
However, on the day of its inauguration, one of the far-right military groups, historically opposed to political openness to such an extent that they accused their own generals of being “communist infiltrators,” attempts to hold the park’s guests and staff hostage.

I’m not being subtle here: as the epigraph taken from Crichton’s Jurassic Park indicates, military hard-liners take the place of dinosaurs here. At least, this allowed me to use my best references to the movies by Spielberg and Lucas, and the action films of the 80’s, like Die Hard. However, the first part of the story ends unfinished, and with a jump in time of 30 years, arrives at the fateful year of 2016, when the ruins of the park are explored by a group of academics. There they discover an isolated community that, living in the ruins of the park’s shopping mall, is still trapped by the binary mentality of the 1980’s. They do not know that the Cold War – and the dictatorship in Brazil – is over, and they think the invaders are Communists in disguise. From there, I allow myself to play with what I have always wanted: a lost city story, with all its clichés, from execution rituals to popular revolts. And of course, monsters of the past who were supposed to have been extinct.

Little did I know that… two years later, we would all live in Tupinilândia after an election won by anti-communist paranoia and delusional fake news – one of them, for example, claimed that “the left wants to distribute penis-shaped bottles to babies” – being considered as true. Now we have a Trump of the Tropics. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

So, I am relieved that my next book will have no political parallel, nor will it attempt to make any predictions of the future. Pirates à Vista! (“Pirates Ahoy!”) will be a young adult historical adventure, about the French pirate Jean DuClerc’s invasion of Brazil in 1710. But even so, a certain change of perspective ends up being necessary. For if stories of pirates are, in essence, stories of men searching for treasure, when it is seen from a Brazilian perspective, it is from us that the treasure will always be stolen. It is recorded in the history books that when 800 pirates marched to assault Rio de Janeiro, an incompetent governor sent the army to the wrong side. The city ended up defended, and in turn the pirates were defeated, by the adolescents who studied in the Jesuit college. Incompetent politicians, rampant thugs and hope falling into the hands of the younger generation.
Any resemblance to reality will be mere coincidence.


Samir Machado de Machado was born in Brazil, in 1981. He is a writer, translator and graphic designer, author of the historical novels Quatro Soldados (2013) and Homens Elegantes (2016), whose film rights were bought by RT Features, and the action-adventure Tupinilândia (2018). He is currently a Master’s Degree student in Creative Writing at PUCRS.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.