The Hottest New Trend in Brazilian Speculative Fiction

One thing I love about science fiction and fantasy is that we’re always adding new subgenres to the mix, as writers and readers try to carve out spaces to experiment or to group their favorite stories together. Subgenres make everything feel bigger, more complex, and more inclusive. And each subgenre announces its birth as if it were a new social or political movement, rather than just a specific cluster of tropes and story elements. You can feel the energy thrumming through the walls of the genre, as another group announces that they’ve found a whole new way of storying.

Some of my most interesting conversations about genre in the past several years have grown out of things like solarpunk or silkpunk or hopepunk. So I’ve been thrilled to learn all about another new subgenre of SF: sertãopunk, from Brazil.

I found out about sertãopunk from my Brazilian friend Hailey Kaas, who’s been helping me a ton with my young adult trilogy. One of the main characters in Victories Greater Than Death, Elza, is from São Paulo, and I wanted to get her as right as I possibly could. So I’ve been learning Portuguese for the past couple years, and Hailey has been teaching me over Zoom. She’s also sensitivity-read the first two books of the trilogy, and helped me to figure out the details of Elza’s life on Earth. And as part of our language classes, we’ve been reading all about sertãopunk, an exciting new trend in Brazilian speculative fiction.

Sertãopunk, often translated as “desert-punk” or “dry-punk,” is a new literary genre that imagines a future for the northeastern region of Brazil.

Brazil’s northeast has been stereotyped as a poor, rural region that is resistant to change, in supposed contrast to the booming and highly developed southeast. Northeastern Brazil is the center of a lot of vibrant Afro-Brazilian traditions, like Candomblé, and the northeastern state of Bahia has the highest concentration of people of African descent in Brazil. The northeast is a leader in wind power and contains a lot of diverse ecosystems full of unique species of flora and fauna. But a lot of pulpy stories portray the northeast as a wasteland full of cangaçeiros (or bandits), like the iconic Lampião.

Recently, a southern artist named Vitor Wiedergrün created a new genre he called cyberagreste, which mixes cyberpunk imagery with those old cangaçeiro stories—and many people in the northeast view this genre as perpetuating old stereotypes. (You can see some examples of the artwork at the link—it’s very reminiscent of the Cursed Earth in Judge Dredd, kinda.) So the new genre of sertãopunk is an attempt to provide an alternative futuristic vision of the northeast that owes less of a debt to these old shoot-em-up stories.

And like I said, when a new subgenre comes along, it’s almost always a political and social movement as well as a way to tell cool new stories. What’s especially exciting about sertãopunk is that it’s a way for heavily stereotyped people to push back and creating their own images of themselves. But also, it’s a heady blend of environmentalism, spirituality, scientific speculation and political liberation. It’s made me think differently about how we tell futuristic stories.

We read this article about sertãopunk for Portuguese class—it’s pretty short and easy to read, and Google Translate seems to do an okay job turning it into English if you can’t read Portuguese.

Then we moved on to a pretty new (and short) book called Sertãopunk: Histórias de um Nordeste de Amanhã, which is available from major e-book retailers. Authors G.G. Diniz, Alec Silva and Alan de Sá talk about some major inspirations for the subgenre, including magical realism, Afrofuturism, solarpunk, and local religious practices, among other things.

The article and book make for fascinating reading, because of the way they blend futuristic speculation about technology and ecology with discussions of politics and culture. There are long sections about sustainable development and the potential to create rain via cloud-seeding, plus the ways in which the unappreciated biodiversity of the supposedly “barren” northeast could lead to biotech innovations. But there are also sections about political corruption and “coronelismo,” which is the old system in which a local boss controls a rural or semi-rural area with an iron fist.

During one essay on sustainability, Diniz points out an important factor that separates sertãopunk from being simply a Brazilian version of solarpunk: just because the Brazilian northeast becomes more advanced and sustainable, doesn’t mean these gains will be distributed evenly. She writes:

At the present moment, the management of water resources prioritizes industrial activity, and not small farmers or the needs of the population; steps are being taken in legislative chambers to privatize aquifers. Drought is not necessarily just a lack of water, but can be a lack of access to it. The same problematic situation extends to other questions of quality of life.

So you can’t imagine a green revolution without also thinking about political and social reform.

And the sections about Afro-Brazilian religion and Afrofuturism are also eye-opening, as they delve into the complexity of Afro-Brazilian life—especially in the northeast. Despite being a Black-dominated region, the northeast is mostly represented by White creators in the arts. And people (including academics) frequently talk about African culture in Brazil as a monolithic entity—despite the fact that enslaved people came from multiple regions in Africa, with very different cultures. These different cultures were mixed on purpose by slavers, and their different traditions became part of Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion. As Alan de Sá points out, different Candomblé terreiros (or houses of worship) may include different orixás and different numbers of orixás, depending on their roots.

Sertãopunk isn’t just a matter of taking the same old stories and slapping some futuristic touches on them—it’s imagining a radically new future, one which is distinct both culturally and technologically. You can also read more articles about sertãopunk here and here—but if you can read Portuguese, the actual book is well worth checking out. I’m still finishing it and haven’t gotten to the short fiction at the back yet, but it’s already given me a new perspective on not just Brazilian culture but the ways that all of us construct our visions of the future.

Something I love this week:

The new season of Batwoman, with Javicia Leslie replacing Ruby Rose as the bat-themed superhero, is a total blast. The show was fun in the first season, but now it’s gotten a new lease on life, with the cast clicking in a whole new way. And I can’t be the only person who’s shipping Ryan Wilder with Sophie Moore, the tough-but-repressed cop who belongs to the Crows, the private security firm that terrorizes Gotham. (Seriously, the Crows seem like a terrible idea and I’m not sure why they’re allowed to operate.) Having a Batwoman who has been caught up in the criminal justice system opens up the potential for all kinds of interesting #BlackLivesMatter storylines. And I can’t wait for Bruce Wayne to come home and find out what’s happened to the Batsuit he left behind.

My music of the week is “hold yourself” by Tune-Yards, a beautiful song for anyone who has complicated feelings about their parents:

And finally, tomorrow is the release date for my partner Annalee Newitz’s new non-fiction book, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. I was lucky enough to go with Annalee as they visited archeological sites all over the world, to learn about how cities rise up, and why they sometimes decline (but are never really lost).

Check out Annalee’s virtual tour dates, starting tomorrow!

As for me, I still have three books coming out this year, which are all available for pre-order: my young adult space opera, Victories Greater Than Death, comes out April 13. And then in August, there’s my book of essays about how to make it through rough times by being creative, Never Say You Can’t Survive. And in November, I have my first full-length short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes. I would be eternally and unshakably grateful if you pre-ordered any of these!