The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño (Translated by Natasha Wimmer) - review by John Phipps

John Phipps

Secrets of the Potato Academy

The Spirit of Science Fiction


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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.’

The letters become increasingly bizarre:

Dear Forrest J Ackerman:
I’d been asleep for only half an hour when Thea von Harbou appeared. I opened my eyes and said I’m freezing, I never thought I’d be cold in this part of the world. (Somewhere there was a blanket, but it wasn’t within arm’s

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