Don Quixote vs. science fiction


Engraving from an 1863 edition of Don Quixote by Gustave Doré.

Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes, changed the way Spain thought about itself. It also made Spain reject any sort of non-realism in fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy, for centuries to come.

Published in 1605, the novel Don Quixote tells the story of a poor, elderly nobleman driven mad by the fantasy novels of his day, which depicted brave knights and their dazzling deeds. The nobleman adopts the name Don Quixote and sets off on quests. In chapter VIII he famously mistakes windmills for terrible giants and attacks them. In chapter XLI, he is tricked into believing that an enchanted wooden horse has the power to carry him and his squire Sancho Panza through the sky.

Cervantes’s novel appeared when Spain was in a period of desengaño or “disillusionment” after imperial losses, government bankruptcy, a deadly plague, failed harvests, economic disaster, and the defeat of the Invincible Armada. The nation had attempted to fulfill grand ambitions only to discover that it had been tilting at windmills. The novels that Cervantes’s fictional character read were real books that had, a generation earlier, inspired the conquistadors in their exploits: the state of California is named after an imaginary caliphate in one of those books, The Exploits of Espandian, which was the sequel to Amadis of Gaul. Ambition was not enough, though, and eventually fantasy gave way to sad reality.

Don Quixote changed the way Spain thought about itself — and about literature.

“The problem with Spanish science fiction starts with Quixote,” the editor of a Spanish science fiction ‘zine told me. “Of course, it was a satire of the fantasy adventure novels of its day, and ever since then, perhaps because the satire was so biting, Spain has been the home of realism in fiction.”

School children were taught to scorn those novels of chivalric quests, speculation, and mysterious unknown lands, if they were taught about them at all. Still, a few writers always experimented with science fiction and fantasy, and in the 20th century, books from outside Spain began to inspire a generation.

“Fantastic” literature — science fiction, fantasy, and horror — was slow to gain acceptance as worthy literature, but in the 1980s and 1990s a growing number of authors encouraged each other and carved out a niche. In the 21st century, books like the Harry Potter and Twilight series appealed to massive numbers of young readers, to the surprise of established publishers and to the delight of the small publishers who had taken a chance on those novels and cashed in.

Just as in the English-speaking world, Spanish “mainstream” literature still remains leery of too much imagination. But it can no longer bar the door to respectability. Readers have had their say.

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