This is the first installment in writer Jessica Sequeira’s OTHER PARADISES, a monthly column on imaginative responses to science and technology.
It’s always disappointed me a little that I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’d love to compile one of those books with glossy plastic sleeves filled with photographs and newspaper clippings, which I’d take down from the shelf — not every day, because that would ruin the novelty of it — but every Tuesday, say, to flip through sightings, case by case. The works of conspiracy theorists, it occurs to me, are not so different from family photo albums. Sometimes we pile up evidence not to prove any scientific theory or pseudo theory, but just to say, look, these are my people, we were here and have something to say.
For the sake of it, let the book fall open to a random page. On 19 May 2016, in the El Dorado neighborhood of Santa Crúz de la Sierra, Bolivia, a bright unidentified flying object descended in the night. From it emerged the body of a supposed alien being, seen by several witnesses. According to newspaper reports, a strong light in the sky moved downward with increasing rapidity until it crashed near a tree. Three students returning from class at that moment said they saw a strange creature with long arms and short legs, and that it dashed toward the trees the moment it saw them, disappearing into the branches.
Flip, flip, flip. Here’s another good one. On 6 May 1978, at 4.30 in the afternoon after a slight drizzle, the sky was gray until a sudden light moving east to west illuminated the hills. It exploded on the southern side of El Zaire hill, in the middle of the jungle between Tarija in the south of Bolivia and the Salta and Jujuy provinces of Argentina. One picture shows newspaper reporters talking to witnesses, three peasant women in bowler hats and dresses sitting on the ground. Another shows a group of scientists linked to NASA, hiding the evidence, according to a caption.
Some of the evidence is bunk, of course; some of the witnesses were confused or swayed by pre-existing beliefs. But they can’t all be wrong, can they? The stack of documents points to something, or so it seems. I’ll have to think about it; for now, away goes the book until next week.
Is a build-up of accounts like this science or pseudoscience? In some sense, it doesn’t matter. The stories go far beyond the tales of credulous or drunk citizens who believe shadows passing in the sky are more than birds or airplanes, who take blurry photos Photoshopped with giant red circles in tabloids the next day. Scientific proof operates according to the formulation of a hypothesis and an accumulation of supporting evidence. Pseudoscientific proof works the same way, with pseudo-evidence building to support a figment of the imagination.
I don’t know if alien sightings are more common in Bolivia than other places, but quite a bit has been written about them, and the sightings are well-publicized. In an Internet forum, I came across this:
Q: Are there UFOs in Bolivia?
A: Well, we should clarify that Bolivia is a UFO hotspot, with a considerable number of UFO sightings in its eastern and western sections. The presence of physical alien bases in the Bolivian Amazon, in the Andean Range, in Lake Titicaca and the Uyuni salt desert is more than evident. But if you mean ufonauts, such as the one seen in Santa Crúz’s “El Dorado” district, we should say that these are the typical bedroom visitors, also known as “greys”. They aren’t aliens, but rather bio-robotic entities that serve aliens. They generally conduct examinations on men and women, regardless of their race or age, while they are asleep. Therefore, detecting them is very difficult, but they can be found in towns, cities and neighborhoods in the countryside. They are constantly monitoring humankind for dark purposes, such as human cloning.
Not a trustworthy source, clearly, but interesting, and probably closer to the spirit of the thing than overserious anthropological analysis would be. To complicate matters, historically false testimonies have been a conscious strategy used by the indigenous community to confuse reporters or researchers from the city with different aims, and the line between silly and intelligent is not so clear as may first appear. Aliens also crop up in the city, in the context of political messages, representing an alternative lifestyle. In La Paz, in opposition to the idea of the natural family, (joking?) posters for an “extraterrestrial family” movement have appeared with the logo of a red ET-style finger.
Aliens aren’t just creatures from another world; they also represent a stance embracing an offbeat or unconventional lifestyle outside the norm of urban life, whether this be indigenous or bohemian. Extraterrestrials may be defined by their foreign provenance, but they very much belong to the current moment.
Let’s say you’re looking to spot an alien. To begin with, you need to know what one looks like. This isn’t necessarily easy. From watching certain television programs, I know aliens aren’t always little green men, that in fact they hardly ever are. So how can we know what they do look like? Perhaps fiction can help create possibilities for forms they might take. A mix of local indigenous myths and urban influences alchemized into fictional material can predict what may or may not exist.
This strange world of ideas first sent its beam of light my way while translating the Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi. Her partner, Edmundo Paz Soldán, is interested in combining pop culture with speculative worlds that transcend the regional boundaries of Latin American literature. In his stories, people are constantly dealing with technology, incorporating it into their life or dealing with its possibilities and perils in some way. Edmundo has created an alternate world called Iris, in which the human genetic structure is modified with ambiguous consequences.
Liliana, for her part, writes more realistic short stories, although her worlds are always slightly disturbed or destabilized by glimpses of horror and the fantastic. Her collection of stories, Our Dead World, was influenced by her doctoral work on Argentine and Brazilian science fiction, Roberto Bolaño’s reflection on the fate of the avant-garde in Latin America, the bandit in João Guimarães Rosa and the animal in Philip K. Dick, but is based in the non-academic source of her personal experience.
A simultaneous fear and interest in the way the mind can be manipulated by technology permeates both their work. In the ’70s, comics and novels focused on how the body was in danger from external evil forces, how people could be kidnapped or otherwise manipulated, Liliana told me. Now a great deal of fiction focuses on how technology can be used to influence people’s ideas:
Until the 2000s, Latin American literature represented the body as the subject of operation, in which prostheses, chips and cables were inserted as a result of violence. Cyborgs were often children of the dictatorship period, a time when technology had links to torture and espionage. In this decade, the paradigm has radically shifted. Today people submit themselves voluntarily to all kinds of surgeries to transform their bodies. As Juan Terranova writes in his novel The Flesh, ‘Our narcissism is what will turn us into cyborgs, not climate change or fewer forests.’ Something similar happened with the figure of the hacker, so popular in the ’90s: the hacker was once a rebel opposed to the neoliberal system, who used the virtual world to destabilize it from the outside. With the expansion of the cybernetic government, the neoliberal system is now so profoundly rooted in the psyche that it’s no longer possible to conceive of any reality outside the system.
If technology can alter ideas, so can fiction. Contemporary writing is exploring the disturbing ways technology can be used as a source of psychological cruelty, an exquisitely fine tuned method for inflicting emotional damage. But this negativity is balanced by the wonderfully constructive potential use of the same tools as an imaginative source, whether as an aid to the procedure of writing or as subject matter. A playful dérive through the archive can draw on elements of colonial and 19th century history, give them a fantastical spin, and suggest compelling new visions of identity and community far more complex than whatever is stamped in one’s passport.
“Alien” can mean foreigner too, of course. What is the difference between an alien and a non-alien? Is it ever possible for an alien to be treated like a native, without confronting an atmosphere of suspicion? And is it possible to craft an existence for oneself that, while involving community, is lateral to how others live, so that one can simply be what one is without erroneous conclusions based on place of origin?
Alison Spedding, a British economist, anthropologist and writer living and working in Bolivia, is one of the authors whom Liliana recommended I read. Spedding was born in 1962 and studied archaeology and anthropology, and later philosophy, at King’s College, Cambridge. She then received a PhD from the London School of Economics. In the photos I find online, Spedding wears a typical Bolivian hat, black shirt, black trousers, black leather jacket and tinted glasses. She smiles broadly, hands folded, eyes lively. In another photo, she looks identical but frowns theatrically. An interview notes that she thinks in a mixture of Spanish, English and indigenous Aymara, that she is intelligent and speaks incredibly quickly. Her prose reflects this, jumping imaginatively from one idea and voice to another at breakneck pace.
Let me be perfectly honest—Spedding’s work is far too frenetic for me, and I’m usually drawn to narratives that are either more lyrically tender or more comic than the kind she writes. But I’m intrigued to know how Spedding came to be what she is, how she left the beaten track of her English upbringing so completely to make a new home and reality here.
I studied at King’s College myself, and still feel a deep attachment to it. Looking at the photo of Spedding and reading her work, though, I can see how she felt out of place there. King’s is one of those rare locations that is exactly as you imagine it from pictures, exactly the same when you visit years later, exactly the stereotype others make it out to be. Towering, gorgeous chapel. Impeccable lawn. Kindly porters. Rowing competitions on the backs. Champagne punting. Vague slight leftism. Absurd formal hall dinner menus, preceded by Latin grace. Searching through old menus at random, I came upon “Fenland white gate farm organic squash veloute, Lincolnshire parsnip foam, organic black turtle beans” and “Tudor Rose Fennel & candied orange cream cheese, orange blossom jelly, strawberry ice, rosewater Shrewsbury cakes.” Much of the time we were not entirely sure what we were eating.
Excellent, all of it, if you’re the sort who enjoys watching Downton Abbey with glass of wine in hand and tongue firmly in cheek. Spedding doesn’t seem that type. In an interview, she confirms that she despised Cambridge. When she was in her early twenties, she wrote a trilogy of fantasy novels set approximately at the time of Alexander the Great, which imagine an alternative history in which Alexander dies and the female protagonist, Aleizon Ailix Ayndra, goes on to fulfill Alexander’s destiny. In 1989, Spedding moved overseas, and after a bit of wandering settled in Bolivia, where she began to lecture at San Andrés University in La Paz. After five years of research in the coca fields, living in the same conditions as the workers, she published her works Wachu Wachu. Cultivation of coca and identity in the Yungas of La Paz and Kausachun-Coca.
Within the country, Spedding has become known as an outspoken critic of the government’s policy of cracking down on peasant coca farmers. When she was given an inordinately heavy sentence in 1998 during a police raid for possession of drugs and sent to jail, many academics considered the arrest politically motivated and campaigned for her release. Two years later, she was released on payment of a surety. Now she’s a leader in the indigenous Aymara community and grows her own coca. She has also written several books in Spanish, including the Andean picaresque novel Manuel and Fortunato, the thriller The wind in the mountain range and the sci-fi novel Saturnina from time to time. Together these form a trilogy about the indigenous community from the 17th century to the year 2086, centered on Saturnina Mamani, an alter ego of Spedding herself.
Within Bolivia, Saturnina from time to time has become a cult classic. Instead of an alternate past, as in the Alexander books, it creates an alternate future. The cover of the first edition shows a spaceship moving over a moon and past Saturn, against a brilliant blue sky filled with stars. Earth is nowhere to be seen. On the cover of the second edition, the spaceship flies up and over an Inca paradise in a white landscape. Living in La Paz, Spedding has likely visited the Valley of the Moon [Valle de la Luna] just outside the city, which is like no other place in the world with its barren rocky surface, dryness and lack of life. Perhaps it was even there that she dreamed up her alternate world of Saturnina from time to time.
Composed of thirty-four oral testimonies with women in Qullasuyu Marka, what used to be Bolivia, the book describes how Saturnina Mamani Guarache, a legendary Andean warrior, destroyed the Martian moon of Fobos and later the Inca temple of Coricancha in Cusco. Accused of leading an anarchofeminist organization called the Flora Tristan Command, she is arrested in Peru and accused of promoting Indian subversion in the region by the regimen of Qullasuyu. The story takes place in a bar in Ceres Orbital after the War of Liberation of 2022, where the women discuss the truth of what happened during the revolution and the cosmovision that brought them to the stars. The vision uses historical materials but is forward looking, and despite the inclusion of archival material is representative of a myth of origin.
It is significant that this imagined future world is largely one without modern technologies. In the appendix, a “History” of the Liberated Zone, we read:
When after the denationalization and subsequent opening of the international financial economy from 2030, and the formalization of the Syndicate in 2038, there were once again the economic and technological resources to go back to setting up broadcasts with international reach and even 3D channels, Andean nationalism had already taken over the country to the extent that most of the population refused out of principle to have television receivers in their houses, and in not a few cases refused radios. Even in the present day, modern means of communication are considered unnecessary for the country itself and only serve to pass information to those on the outside.
Eventually these communicative technologies are restored, but they are used for alternate purposes, and don’t seem too necessary. People find a way to communicate with one another in different and more direct ways.
Again, I don’t particularly enjoy Spedding’s style, and there is a violence to her social vision I find deeply unattractive. Yet I think her work deserves attention. Despite her particular views, what she has to say is not really political; this is an imaginative, not bureaucratic, restructuring of the world, playing with history but ahistorical in its threading of perspectives. Someone with a different and slower way of being, psychologically subtle and interested in close noticing (and I think Liliana among others is heading in an interesting direction) could pick up these ideas to write fascinating “false histories”, ones that outstrip in interest the dull political polemic of the daily papers by a hundredfold.
Beyond genre or style, Spedding’s work is evidence of a powerful vision that blurs the line between fiction and true observation in the same way that someone telling a story about seeing a bright light in the sky might. Saturnina from time to time works as an imaginative founding myth for the place where Spedding finds herself, a sophisticated allegory of the world around her that uses nationalistic materials for non-nationalistic ends. Through her work and her choice to make a life in Bolivia rather than England, Spedding has carved out her own world and her own place within the community, an act of bravery I admire.
Whether or not life exists on another planets, the “alien” is a playful response to and incorporation of technology in this world, whether it takes the form of extraterrestrial sightings or fiction that combines traditional influences with visions of futuristic communities. There’s an element of language at work as well — for while it might be impossible to believe in a UFO (unidentified flying object), it might just be possible to believe in an ovni (objeto volador no identificado). This seductive power of words can persuade one to become interested in themes that otherwise would never have received a second thought, and in so doing they create new linguistic associations, new imaginative homes.
Alleged UFO sighting at King’s College, Cambridge
At midnight, I laid aside my papers and looked dreaming toward the Front Court, visible from my window in the Wilkins building. I was still an undergraduate, romantic, given over to ideas and theories rather than application. In those days, I hadn’t yet lost my conviction that if an idea is beautiful enough, it must also be true.
Often I would stay up to gaze into the soft night, and it was on one such occasion that the extraordinary event happened, the one to change my life. Slowly it descended, a circle of jewel-like violet gleams surrounding a dark absence. The lights flickered slightly, on and off, a message that I should feel no fear. I wondered only if the craft had come northward over London and seen itself reflected in the city. Perhaps when looking down at our planet, other beings had viewed the lights below as a mirror of their own lights. Here now, in this college, we were far from any capital, and all was silent, at peace.
I had never given much thought to extraterrestrial visitors before, though I suppose nothing in my personal or spiritual philosophy precluded the possibility of their existence. If this specimen was representative of the rest, it seemed harmless enough. The sound it made was soft, a whir, a hum. A decorous and soothing frequency, shifting steadily between two notes. To my knowledge, such vessels have traditionally been described as round and disc-shaped, and this one fit that description too, except it also had five diamonds placed at irregular intervals around the rim. I couldn’t give you its measurements in fathoms and cubits, but certainly it was smaller than our majestic chapel.
My sighting was a lucky chance. Under normal circumstances, my eye would never have turned that way at all, but I’d been puzzling over the reproduction in stone of our college coat of arms, which appears over the archway of the main entrance by the Porter’s Lodge. At this hour, it was just barely visible in the lamplight. Three roses were there, argent, barbed and seeded proper, capped by a fleur-de-lis and lion. The shape of those flowers had always fascinated me, and I was contemplating them, on the verge of drifting off, when I saw the vessel approach.
Its violet glow preceded it, as it glided along King’s Parade and turning in the direction of the College, before reaching Senate House Passage. It took the 90-degree turn without slowing, flying into the college grounds low enough that I could recognize the rose shape on its underbelly. The way it moved was stately yet efficient, as if it had a task to complete.
Passing my window, the vessel came to a pause in front of the Gibbs building, where it remained hovering a moment. From the sole lighted window on the upper floor, a wizened face peered out, and appeared to make some kind of signal. It was too far to see, but I believe it involved a gesture of the hand. Then the face disappeared, and the light in the window was extinguished. The vessel continued, flying over the building and accelerating gracefully in the direction of the river Cam. Passing over the back lawn, it proceeded in the direction of the Fellows’ Garden.
All this had lasted only about two minutes, but the beauty of it is seared in my imagination forever. At the time I attempted to take one photograph of the magnificent sight, but when I developed it later, all that remained was an undefinable blur. In my memory, however, the vessel exists clearly and sharply. Its form and trajectory have never left my mind. At the start what remained with me most was its underbelly, not bright itself but illuminated by the five violet-colored diamond lights. Later, sketching the path taken by the vessel, I realized it had traced a perfect Bézier curve.
Even later it struck me that the stone fan vaulting on the ceiling of King’s College, which John Wastell completed in 1508, was also shaped to this curve. Could the vessel have appeared to that master mason as well? The ceiling has always been referred to as fan vaulting, but now I wondered if that gothic style, with its equidistantly-spaced ribbing, might also represent the path taken by the spacecraft. Could this be the vision that affected Sir Wastell so much he extended this pattern even to the Canterbury and Petersborough cathedrals? That conoid form, that rotated curved surface, were perhaps simply a twisting of the vessel’s Bézier curve.
Such thoughts did not fill my head immediately, but over the past few years they’ve increasingly engaged me. At the time I had no inkling of the strange byways my research would eventually take. Now I am celebrated as one of the great architects of our island, with an innovative aesthetic and utilitarian contributions to modern buildings. I wonder what ideas I would have had, however, without the chance sighting of that violet-lit, rose-shaped vessel. I wonder about the gesture made by that man in the window; I wonder where else the vessel went that night. And most of all, I wonder how many others in our history have seen just what I have, but kept their silence.