John Phipps

Secrets of the Potato Academy

The Spirit of Science Fiction


Picador 196pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

In his early poem ‘Three Years’, Roberto Bolaño wrote: ‘I can’t be a science fiction writer any more because my innocence is mostly gone’. The Spirit of Science Fiction in part takes up that theme. The most recent manuscript to have been discovered since Bolaño’s death in 2003, it’s the story of two uncertain, ambitious young men who arrive in Mexico City and try to write science fiction while coming to terms with adult life. And like ‘Three Years’, it reads like the work of some uncanny proto-Bolaño, at once recognisably the creator of 2666 and a slightly duff writer.

The novel begins with two Chilean men, both under twenty, arriving in the Mexican capital: ‘It was the ideal scene on which to pin images or desires, I thought – a young man, five foot eight, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, standing in the sun on the curb of the longest street in the Americas.’ Our narrator, Remo, gets a job writing for the arts supplement of the newspaper La Nación and dreams of becoming its top poetry correspondent. Remo’s first-person account of his literary activities is intercut with a series of letters written by his friend Jan Schrella. These concern the creation of a committee of American science fiction writers in support of Third World countries, although it’s never entirely clear if this committee is real, or what its purpose might be: ‘Will your committee, God bless it, award grants – Hugo grants, Nebula grants – to the Third World natives who do the best job describing robots? Or maybe the group that you head proposes to testify on our behalf – in solidarity, of course – on the political stage? I await your immediate response.’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Tarantino's latest film is 'a fairy tale about Hollywood, where fantasy is an industrial product and the boulevards… ,
    • 'I don’t think we’re here on Earth to be Happy. I think we’re here on Earth to help God. I am a messianic writer'.… ,
    • 'Darley’s book is not a mad dash through this most compelling and complex of English counties. Nor is it another ti… ,
    • 'Moser’s book offers such a gripping account of a profoundly damaged human being, trapped in a cycle of repetition,… ,
    • 'Ideas that I’d thought were set down in full continue to smoulder ... this book is only a snapshot of some larger… ,
    • 'Full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imagi… ,
    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,