Pola Oloixarac: Las constelaciones oscuras (Dark Constellations)
In this novel, we are following three people or,more accurately, three groups of people. We start in the Canary Islands in 1882. A scientific expedition is taking place. The (fictitious) expedition travels through an island (we do not know which one, only that it is the (fictitious) archipelago of Juba). They carry on at night, inadvertently entering a giant cavern. They continue, utterly exhausted, thinking that they are still outside. What they thought was the light of stars was, in fact, insects.
Amongst other things, they discover Crissia pallida, a highly hallucinogenic plant, which has powers beyond the known hallucinogens. The fictitious Niklas Bruun, who discovers the plant, goes on to write the seminal De Flora Subterranea – a vivid, elliptical, and at times frankly incomprehensible book that foresaw the apocalyptic trajectory of the Anthropocene. However, before they leave the island, we get another of the themes of this book. They meet one of the island tribes and the women have what can best be described as rampant sex with the men.
Bruun will reappear late in the book, with another interesting (and interestingly named) researcher, Tartare d’Hunval. His Monographie des Termiten was one of the first works to be labeled “speculative botany.”
Sonia Liberman is an Argentinian researcher. We first meet her in 1981. She has signed up for a project researching modes of coexistence between Kaingáng villagers of the Jê linguistic family and the fazendeiros that descended from Indian hunters. It is there that she meets João Fernando Brandão da Silva, a Brazilian aeronautical engineer. They have sex and then marry. She accompanies him to São José dos Campos, where he has a well-paid job. However, she is essentially shut up in their luxurious flat, while he works. They have a child – Cassio. João often has to travel, so she does not even get her nightly sex. Within her immediate human perimeter, the women began reproducing so as to give their husbands what they desired: little engineers with whom to build Embraer Mini model airplanes and visit their respective soccer tribes. Feminism is another key theme of this book.
Eventually, she returns home, to her father, with. Sonia’s main role in this book is as the mother of Cassio who is, if anyone is, the hero of this book.
We follow Cassio, as he becomes an expert hacker, successfully hacking into the Bank of Boston at age twelve. He goes on to greater success and then on to college where he continues with his activities. He is, however, less successful in the sexual sphere.
While he seems to be able to hack at will into virtually any computer system – and does – he gets involved in wider activities. He audited a Cellular Automatons course, where he studied ways to create tiny armies, multiple hordes whose attacks he planned one day to direct. This will all link up with Stromatoliton, which is involved with the LatAm Genetic Data Unification Project.
We are now somewhat in the future. Some countries, Argentina and Brazil in particular, have started maintaining a genetic database of all of their citizens. Leading teams of the Genetic Data Unification Project and the Ministry of Genetics worked together on the two known forms of immortality: first, the war of keeping memory alive, transmitted genetically; second, the legacy transmitted through culture. However, they are also developing a genetic tracking system.
Cassio is now realising that to extend his reach he has to get involved with living tissue and when he joins up with Max and Piera, our third main character, a biologist by training, a new system is developed. This is the Bionose.
When you now wander around with your smart device – phone, tablet, computer, watch, etc – you are being tracked, unless you have either switched off the device or switched off location tracking, which you almost certainly have not done. Google/Apple, etc knows where you are and often what you are doing. Bionose takes this one step further. The Bionose cameras, which look like standard CCTV cameras (CCTV, of course, also tracks you) can track you by your genetic imprint which you give off as you breathe. As a result they know where you are at any given time. Unlike with a phone, you cannot switch off your breathing. This is what Stromatoliton is helping develop.
Oloixarac concludes The emergence of new castes of beings is a common thread throughout the transformations.. The process entails successive metamorphoses: primordial peoples traverse various modes of existence before reaching their current form.
There are a couple of main things going on in this novel. The first is that there are certain, clearly gifted people, who are in tune with science – in this book, information technology, biology, botany and genetics – and can tap into it to make major advances not merely of a technical nature but also, and more importantly, such that they have a completely new way of seeing the world and how it functions.
Secondly,and closely related, there are clearly things happening in this scientific world that are well beyond not only the comprehension of virtually all of us but whose impact has the potential to be enormous and yet of which we are completely unaware, not only as regards their existence but also their profound implications for human life on this planet.
Oloixarac does touch on other themes. Sexual freedom is certainly an issue, though when Cassio finally gets to have some oral sex, Oloixarac puts herself firmly in the running for the Bad Sex Award.
Sexual freedom is, of course, closely related to feminism, another theme in this book. We see it with Sonia when she comments that men like exert power during sex and also when she is let at home, waiting at night for her husband, to have sex with him. We see it with Piera, when she joins the group, consisting entirely of men: the presence of girls was a signal that the revolutionary period of a company had ended, or was beginning to end. It signified that the normal period was starting, full of unmarried females and middle management, i.e., mediocrity.
I suspect that if most other authors had attempted this theme, they would have focussed on our brave lonesome cowboy hacker, taking on the bad guys, i.e. the state and the mega-corporations, and bringing them down. William Gibson is the obvious but not by a long way the only example. While our hacker hero is not adverse to taking the bad guys on – he does after all hack in to numerous corporate and state systems and does, eventually, take on the monster he has helped create – Oloixarac seems more fascinated by the technology she is writing about than the horrific social, cultural and political implications of this technology.
This is certainly a thoroughly original and brilliantly thought-out and conceived novel. I have said elsewhere on this site that the most innovative novels of the twentieth century were being written in the United States but in the twenty-first century, the most innovative novels are coming from Latin America. This is just one of many examples but there is no question that it raises fundamental points about human existence that are not to be found in most novels.
First published by Literatura Random House in 2016
First English translation by Soho in 2019