Who Was Borges?
Was He Not Also the Fantasy Writer Who Inspired The Borg?
By Ryder W. Miller
“Dick is entertaining us about reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation…. We have our own homegrown Borges.”
-Ursula K. Leguin, The New Republic
“… Philip K. Dick has come to be seen in a literary light that defies classification in much the same way as Borges and Calvino.” (Back cover: The Simulacra).
The above may be from Ursula K. Leguin, especially with the ongoing cinematic rebirth of Phillip K. Dick and continued critical success of Ursula K. Leguin, presently the most famous science fiction book cover blurb of my generation. But who was Borges? Leguin and Dick had a friendship, and did Jorge Luis Borges have anything to do with it?
For some, Borges was stopped at his first story, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (from Ficciones (Fictions)) or this one book, which likely inspired one of the most fearful villains in all of science fiction: “The Borg” from Star Trek Next Generation and Voyager.
As well as his success in world literature, Borges has made a lasting, albeit not widely known, contribution to fantasy, and science fiction. Not all to be detailed on Wikkipedia are his contributions to genre literature.
The recent attention to Borges (1899-1986) at the turn of the millenium, is now ten years old, having had a centennial celebration of his birth at the turn of the century with book publications of his non fiction, collected fiction, and poetry. Borges was also a translator, public lecturer, librarian, and descendent of military and political figures.
Borges ventured into the genre borderlands. In his Non Fiction, he regularly referred to H.G. Wells, and championed him as well as Bradbury, Lord Dunsany and to an extent H.P. Lovecraft. Borges reviewed King Kong, The Thousand and One Nights, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His selected non fiction provides a different perspective on the history of western literature, covering many of the highlights (Dante, Shakespeare, elder Eddas….), but also including genre writers.
Borges who spent some of his childhood in Europe, returned to his birthplace to settle in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he wrote successfully for magazines, and was chosen to head the a library. Late in life he suffered from blindness and would dictate his work. Tigers, labyrinths, knife fighters, and references to Heraclitus abound in his work.
H.G. Wells book’s were the first books he read. A knowledgeable Borges wrote: “Wells said that the inventions of Jules Verne were merely prophetic and that his own were impossible to realize. Both believed that man would never reach the moon; our century, duly astonished, has witnessed that feat.” (1985) (P. 516)
The first English translation of his work occurred in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. A book length collection of his fiction did not appear in English until 1962.
Editor Andrew Hurley, who does use the word “futile”, writes “…readers didn’t have to make the long, hard (though deliciously exotic) journey into Spanish-Borges had been brought to them, and indeed he soon was being paraded through England and the United States like one of those New World indigenes taken back, captives, by Columbus or Sir Walter Raleigh, to captivate the Old World’s imagination.” (P. 517)
Though not vast, his contributions to genre literature are significant.
Borges wrote crime and detective fiction. He wrote about knife fighters, gauchos on the frontier, and those who were infamous. Though he did not write adventures, his Gardens of the Forking Paths with its mystery elements were widely championed in South America.
The Book of Imaginary Beings (with Margarita Guerrero) is a possible addendum to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuel. Borges wrote that one should dip into this work rather than reading it strait through. All sorts international imaginary creatures abound: Banshee, Carbuncle, Dragon, Gnomes, Harpies, Jinn, Kraken, Lemurs, Mandrake, Manticore, Nagas, Nasnas, Nymphs, Odradek, Remoras, Trolls, Unicorns, etc…. The work is a testament to the fantastic imagination, and maybe to what is no longer in existence because they have gone extinct. Borges celebrates these imaginary beings, while Dungeons and Dragons is usually geared to destroy them.
Though he did not write science fiction poetry there is much reference to the astronomical in Borges’s poetry.
One may also enjoy his creativity with works that remind one of Kafka and his experiments in imaginary societies. He not only wrote about people that did not exist, but also books and organizations that did not exist. But he did not develop these imaginary subjects into full length fantasy books.
He is most likely to be remembered as the likely inspiration to the Star Trek villains which bear almost the same name. He and the Borg were potentially worrisome. Rather than sword fights (it is hard to find a sword), his characters had knife fights. There were also his cowboys and criminals.
Hurley notes: “More often than one would imagine, Borges’ characters are murderers, knife fighters, throat slitters, liars, evil or casually violent men and women-and of course many of them “live” in a time different from our own.” (P. 521)
Was it this that Jean Luc Picard and Katherine Janeway in Star Trek were trying to stop for their young and young at heart audience, just as we wished to keep suicide bombers off our shores now?
Lawrence Sutin writes in The Divine Invasion “Why? Categories. Borges’s frequently anthologized story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (about an imaginary planet that gradually becomes our world) would be SF if Phil had written it.” (P. 5)
William Gibson in an introduction to book of Borges writes of this story: “This sublime and cosmically comic fable of utterly pure information (i.e. the utterly fictive) gradually and relentlessly infiltrating and ultimately consuming the quotidian, opened something within me which has never yet closed.”
If there is doubt, some of the scary quotes from “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius ” from Ficciones, anthologized in Collected Fictions, will remind one of the Borg hive collective.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the classical culture of Tlon is composed of a single discipline-psychology-to which all others are subordinate.” (P. 73)
“Of all the doctrines of Tlon, none has caused more uproar than materialism.” (P. 75)
“They explained that “equality” is on thing and “identity” another, and they formulated a sort of reductio ad absurdum-the hypothetical case of night men who on nine successive nights experience a sharp pain.” (P. 75)
“They argued: If equality entailed identity, one would have to admit that the nine coins were a single coin.” (P. 76)
“His happy conjecture was that there is but a single subject; that indivisible subject is every being in the universe, and the beings of the universe are the organs and masks of the deity.” (P. 76)
“…. and it claims that as one’s body moves through space, it modifies that shapes that surround it.” (P. 76)
“It has been decided that all books are the work of a single author who is timeless and anonymous.” (P. 77)
Borges writing is also like an alien encounter reminiscent of the Borg. With his immense knowledge of other writers and his urbane style it is hard to challenge his writing. His writing is full of references to Myth and History. He also liked to write about math and physics. He has his literary curlicues. Many can be bowled over by his immense knowledge and erudition.
For his example in the poem “Baltasar Gracia’n” Borges writes:
“He was not touched by the ancient voice of Homer
nor by the moon-and-silver tones of Virgil;
he did not see doomed Oedipus in exile,
nor Christ, dying on a wooden cross. ” (P. 185)
Is resistance to this not futile?
Borges was a voice and conqueror from a distant shores.
Ursula K. Leguin was and still is a Borges fan (as noted in a recent New York Time profile of her in response to her latest Nebula award for Powers (congratulations again!)), but she was also a friend and fan of Philip K. Dick. For a time they went to school together in The San Francisco Bay Area (Wikkipedia). They had a correspondence, and a falling out where Leguin was angered by Dick’s portrayal women. Leguin had been a “staunch” defender of Dick who battled madness. Dick later wrote that Leguin helped inspire his portrayal of Angel Archer in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. The Lathe of Heaven by Leguin was an attempt to write a “Philip K. Dick” book. Once when in trouble and needing a place to stay Philip K. Dick asked Leguin if he could stay with her, but she declined . In the now famous book cover quote from Leguin advertised Dick over Borges. But Leguin would not always remain the “strait man” for a humorous Philip K. Dick, who resented her success. Dick complained that unlike her, he did not always take the “trashy” elements out of his work. Ursula K. Leguin was a serious writer, and for a time, having out lived him, could have had the last laugh if she wanted to.
Upon examination one would ascertain that Dick was different than Borges in that he was a novelist with a sense of humor. For Borges genre writing was about imagination. He was also a surrealist who wrote about metaphysics and crime. There is much reference to the cosmos in Borges’s writing. Dick wrote about the madness and insanity of the world. He also clearly sought to entertain, rather than explore and explain. We are lucky to have all three to read and Star Trek who warned us about what could be out there.
Gibson called Borges a “most welcome of uncles” and wrote “If you haven’t yet made the gentleman’s acquaintance, I can only urge you to do so.” You may have to just sit and listen.
Borges, Jorge Luis. (with Margarita Guerrero). The Book of Imaginary Beings. 1974. Penguin Group (London).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Poems. Edited by Alexander Coleman. 2000. Penguin Group (New York).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Edited by Andrew Hurley. 1998. Penguin Group (New York).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fiction. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. 1999. Penguin Group (New York).
Strathern, Paul. Borges in 90 Minutes. 2006. Ivan R. Dee (Chicago).
Sutin, Lawrence. Divine Invasions, A Life of Philip K. Dick. 1989. Citadel Twilight (New York).
Wikkipedia: Jorge Luis Borges.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.