The Fantastic in Philippine Speculative Fiction

How and why is fantasy—as defined by American critic Eric Rabkin and Slovenian Slavoj Žižek—used in Philippine Speculative Fiction 3 (PSF3)?

For this inquiry, the stories selected are FH Batacan’s “Keeping Time,” Alfred Yuson’s “The Music Child,” and Yvette Tan’s “Sidhi”. Edited by Nikki Alfar and Dean Francis Alfar, the anthology is marketed as “short stories of the Filipino imagination—fantasy, horror, science fiction and things in between” which include “magic realism, interstitial fiction and stories that are clearly non-realist” (2007, ix). In the Introduction, Speculative Fiction is dealt with in taxonomical terms—definition, thus, is safely sidestepped; the editors could not go beyond saying “Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term for the literature of the fantastic [italics mine]” (ix).


“What exactly is the fantastic?” posted the first line of Rabkin’s seminal work, The Fantastic in Literature.

Talking creatures, to begin with, become fantastic only when viewed “from a certain perspective” (4), i.e. legitimized belief systems tolerate certain ways of looking at the world and at the same time repress those which are, not necessarily adversarial, but deviant.

The fantastic only becomes so when juxtaposed to the so-called reality.

In the chapter discussing the fantastic and the fantasy, Rabkin contends that “[u]nless one participates sympathetically in the ground rules of a narrative world, no occurrence in that world can make sense, or even nonsense” (4), that is to say, to be delighted by a fairy tale or an independent film, for instance, is to know its signs and conventional codes (in the Saussurian sense) and to recognize any antithesis of these.

In other words, he developed the idea of the fantastic by a referential reversal of the not-fantastic, viz. reality (without much problematizing the concept of reality the way postmodernists would) or the narrative world.

Armchair world is how he calls the continuum where there are normative ground rules, and a reversal of these rules ushers one to the realm of the fantastic. He was quick to point out, however, that this is different from the apparently irrelevant occurrences symptomatic of such flaws in the organic work of art.

“The fantastic,” Rabkin extrapolates from this violation, “does more than extend experience; [it] contradicts perspectives” (4).

In classifying and identifying the fantastic, Rabkin looks at how Lewis Carroll’s works exude “diametrical reconfiguration” of the ground rules resulting in a narrative which is neither realistic nor “non-normal” (8).


An unexpected twist of fate in a story may at first be read as a contradiction of perspectives or, simply, fantasy, so to this he replied with a distinction among unexpected, dis-expected, and anti-expected occurrences, which bring to mind Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of the uncanny and the marvelous.

Whereas the uncanny events are bizarre happenings in our everyday life which can still be rationalized at the end of the day, the marvelous deals with a supernatural world presented in a most natural way, not because it was rationalized as in the uncanny but because it has been represented as something realistic (Aichelle 5).

Unexpected occurrences, which is analogous to the uncanny, do mean “not expected”, as in the arrival of an uninvited guest, or the injection of a new character in a novel or something outside the linear narrative, yet this insertion does not in any way distort the logic and likelihood of a story.

Dis-expected occurrences, unlike the unexpected ones, are much closer to, but not quite distinctively, fantastic, since there is an attempt to segue from the normative ground rules of logic through the play of double entendre. Jokes are the epitome of the dis-expected: somewhere in the burrows of one’s mind, an expected element competes with a covert one.

And lastly, the anti-expected or the satire by exaggeration is the reconfiguration or the complete disturbance of one’s preconceptions of the armchair world. Alice’s “excessive show of surprise” to the talking dead in Through the Looking Glass sends off a hint that something anti-expected happened, and that she is in the presence of the fantastic (10).


But who is the source of this anti-expectation—the characters in the story or the reader?

Rabkin further solidifies the concept of the fantastic by discussing the ensuing reactions from inside and outside a supposed to be fantastic story.

According to him, three classes of signal for the fantastic come from 1) the characters, 2) the narrator), and 3) the implied author (24). From a simple sigh to an attack of catatonia, a fiction character may express disbelief of the bypassed reality. A narrator (who could also be the character) may be equally and simultaneously astonished as that of the reader. The implied author refers to the context and intertext of the story.

To explain this, science fiction was used as an example. By the time a story about talking plant sees print, the reader may effortlessly experience the fantastic element, but if after decades or centuries of technological innovation, perhaps when plants could talk, the reader may wonder with a raised eyebrow the anti-expected reaction of the characters or narrator.

The point of this is that the story’s context contributes to its fantasy; the conditions in which the extra-textual reader is embedded supply the normal practices and ground rules as well as reversal or escape.

Aichelle in an article on postmodern fantasy and ideology sheds light to Rabkin’s concept of reversal in literature:

The fantastic reversal is not the same as the [peripetea] of Aristotle, which remains within the fundamental ground rules established by the narrative and its genre and which is embodied in the implied dialogue that constitutes the story. Instead, the fantastic reverses the ground rules themselves, and therefore it upsets the ability of the narrative to refer to a consistent reality. The fantastic reversal is a reversal of reality – once again, fantasy subverts ideology. (9)

Therefore, this fantastic narrative mode or genre requires an understanding and rethinking of reality where signifier and signified unite and untie, thereby producing eccentricity and plurality of, shall we call, centers.

This decentering leads to the ambiguity of fantasy itself in its anti-mimetic yet anti-metaphysical quality.

Since the fantastic is ambivalent in its representation of ideological distinction between reality and fantasy, it does not solicit belief—not even disbelief. Readers would indeed hesitate to settle a final judgment whether a fantastic read is real or could possibly be real or would be real or not real at all. And this “inability to decide what is real” is normal for what is only permissible in fantasy is near-belief (Aichelle 5).


When Zizek talked about religious faith without belief in On Belief he drew from Lacan the absence or at least the impossibility of moving into the symbolic Order, hence, people believe on something, say god or spirits, without really believing.

In other words, he elucidated,

“One can believe in ghosts without having faith in them, i.e. without believing them (considering them tricky and evil, not feeling bound to them by any pact or [some symbolic] commitment)” (Zizek 109).

There are some entities in this world which we create or represent out of the need for a virtual order or a shared fiction requisite of a society, of language, and of law.

Belief, he further explains “is always displaced (it is never me who, in the first person singular, is ready to assume belief, there is always the need for the fiction of a ‘subject supposed to belief’” (110).

What is safe to believe here, though, is that there has been no comprehensive language yet to produce the Unconscious of a society, hence a Babel tower of fantasies—a conglomerate of wishes and desires which can never be fulfilled since the desire for the Other is lost.

So how is fantasy used in the stories in Philippine Speculative Fiction 3?


In “Keeping Time” by FH Batacan the claws of mortality sink into the planet as the world’s population rate decreases exponentially because of a certain enzyme junked in the water ways and supplies.

Mike, a 47-year old field investigator for World Health Organization, races with time as he holds studies and talks in ministerial conferences shedding no more hope than recommending the use of as much drug inhibitors as possible before the planet’s last seven years are up.

He sees an almost naked woman in a hotel while he contemplates. She catches him off-guard. When he is about to introduce himself so as not to look like a peeping-tom and an eavesdropper to her phone call about death, she retires to her next door hotel room, leaving him in his hotel room balcony.

He sees her around the hotel the other day, but she remains elusive. He attends the conference after he talks with his dying boss. Later that day the woman would tell him that she saw him in the conference as she covered the event.

They finally talk when he tries to introduce himself one more time in front of her hotel room and she gives way. They converse, fuck, and then part ways.

The premise of the story is this: what if the world has only a few minutes left to live and beside you is a sultry woman of younger years?

Now, why is there a feeling that the two are alone in the universe as they exchange stories of relatives’ deaths and of fatal obesity?

To begin with, Mike is always alone: in the dining hall, in the balcony, in the conference, and even in cyberspace. Shadows of the room almost hide things other than the bed in Mike’s room, and all the talk about death of loved ones leave the strangers familiar to each others’ woes as if they are each other’s only friend left.

Also, from the very beginning of the story doors have been used to signify opportunities and interpersonal relationships like when an open hotel room door greets the reader in the first line, but is briefly transposed to “The door closes behind him and he is alone” (Alfar 8).

When Mike attempted to converse with the woman, he preempts another rejection by the narrator’s note, “he’s used to closing doors,” just as how he has been used to witnessing and reporting ubiquitous waves of death hitting children first, then the elderly and pregnant women (16).

Curiously, “Keeping Time” could be a prologue to that Hollywood movie I Am Legend, where the entire global population, save for one man (Will Smith’s character) vanished from the face of the earth because of a certain disease.

To witness phenomenal death by the million—and counting—is appalling; to be left alone in the entire universe is fatuous, yet divine, especially if such solitude is to be shared by an object of everybody’s desire.

This renders the reader a kind of coquetry with the world of unknown despite the story’s setting being good old earth.

The anti-expected in this story lies on the exponential mortality, which strikes us as a reconfiguration of our preconception that mankind has and will always emerge as frontrunner in the survival of the fittest. The unexpected outbreak of incurable diseases has led to the dis-expected greed of pharmaceutical companies that profit from the dying (“The ultimate joke, perhaps. But no one is laughing” (13)), then to the anti-expected dwindling of supposed to be almighty humans.

Fantasy is used in “Keeping Time” because of the characters’ and readers’ fear of death. As a critique to the term “natural death” caused by illnesses and diseases due to environmental problems, this story made an unnatural and diabolic twist of fate to the sick people—signifying that such so-called natural deaths are not in any way natural, or normal, in any sense of the word or stretch of the imagination.

Mike’s innocuous way of talking and thinking serves as his defense mechanism towards the fear of death, and this fear answers the question why fantasy is used. Zizek gives us the ideological significance of fantastic narratives:

Reduced to its elementary skeleton, perversion can be seen as a defense against the Real of death and sexuality, against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference: what the perverse scenario enacts is a “disavowal of castration” — a universe in which, as in cartoons, a human being can survive any catastrophe; in which adult sexuality is reduced to a childish game; in which one is not forced to die or to choose one of the two sexes. (Zizek, “Cyberspace Real”)

Mikes’s perversion, then, is a manifestation of “the universe of pure symbolic order” or of the Desire inoculated into the world governed by societies, and such perversions are “unencumbered by the Real of human finitude” (Zizek, “Cyberspace Real”).

The literature of the fantastic, just like the unlimited cyberspace, has no closure, no cul-de-sac in spite of the self-imposed rules coming from the Real. Instead of staring death at the face, Mike and the woman release themselves from the serious business of dying, while they are keeping time.


Alfred Yuson’s “The Music Child” is about an impossible retaliation of dispossessed people in a poor town in Cebu led by a Don and his young son who sang supernaturally eerie hymns and lamentation of death. Luisito, the music child, is the anti-expected and the marvelous.

The tension build-up was in a realist mode (social-realist at that), but because of convoluted conflicts, a deus ex machina seems to be the only way to get out of this plot:

Ali, an American reporter from a foreign newspaper, came to Cebu City to write a human interest story. He hires an interestingly named Filipino, Fil, as a personal guide and translator who toured him around the city after covering a muro-ami story. He also hires Nonoy, the one who drove them to the far north side of Cebu by way of jeepney.

Since the American’s beat for the San Francisco Examiner is environmental issues, he was told to visit a tribe up north, where illegal logging is rampant. During their drinking spree women and children encircle them and play a musical piece using ‘ginse’—a string instrument but with hair strands for the strings. With the help of struggling Fil, who somehow manages to get their stories across with curt sentences, they tell him about the story of this wonderful instrument and the music child.

This is their story: the music child, they say, is a boy who sings his words since birth, the birth which killed his mother and who left his wealthy father alone with a special child. The child is said to have an out-of-this-world voice, one that could enchant listeners for its sweetness, though his type of music is songs of death.

Lost in Fil’s translation, Ali asks for the contact information of the musicologist who is known for his studies of that area’s music. After the night of music and drinking, they visit the music child who, after an interview with his father Don Julio Cortez, performed like a “secret treasure divulged.” In his talk with Dr Cesar Abellana from a Catholic University, Ali unearths the professor’s fear of local musicians being exploited by local tourism itself.

Yet exploitation looms over the place, and this Ali understood clearly during his first meeting with the Don who recounts his life and exposes the fatal tension between the Maligta people and big logging companies backed up by the military.

As the time for clash arrives, the music child stands in the middle of the battle arena, sings soulfully, without his father intruding, even if Ali tried to stop the kid. Ali himself is told to stay away from the battleground, and so with the wounded Nonoy and Fil, they drive away from the scene weeping.

The deux ex machina came in the form of a boy, but it was not clear whether his music salvaged anything.

Somewhere in the story Ali mumbles: “I wondered whether I had just heard a tall talk… We were nearing the end of the twentieth century, after all” because for him all these sound unreal, “Did these things still happen?” (Alfar 181) he thought when he was let in into the Don’s scheme of things: the Maligta uprising against the soldiers; limbs and bolo and the Don’s shot gun against the armallite and M16s. And between the firings, the music child sings, for dirges are the child’s ouvre.

What astonishes the reader and the characters this time is not any futuristic element but a primitive, outdated one. The anachronism of social and environmental problems results from the white man’s viewpoint that such mystical events are already beyond today’s ground rules of the narrative world. But why is fantasy used in this seemingly realist story?

In an interview with Zizek in London (December 11, 2003), virtual reality was discussed as a “miserable” and problematic idea since this Lacanian theorist believes that ‘reality’ in virtual reality is not merely a near representation of the real but the real thing itself.

Zizek then proposed that we can reproduce our reality in an artificial or digital medium. A better notion that should be tackled, he explained, is the reality of the virtual. This is crucial to the understanding of man’s present conditions.

Drawing from the lacanian triad of Imaginary-Symbolic-Real, Zizek furthered that so called real ethics [or moral codes] produced does not yet fully exist, just as how the Real has not been fully materialized yet. While the “imaginary virtual”—films and speculative fiction included—serves as our phenomenological look at the everyday experience.

The use of the fantastic, then, in “The Music Child” is an aide to the reality, and should be perceived as reality in itself.


Unlike the first two stories, “Sidhi” by Yvette Natalie Tan, is clearly fantastic.

There is a mardi gras in Quiapo, celebrating the feast of Sta. Teresa, the child abandoned, whose visions are as known as her rejuvenation of Ilog Pasig. In the middle of this brouhaha of humans and folks of Other Country in shindig, are the Dreamer and the consort.

Noah, the Dreamer, is described by his consort as someone who thinks highly of himself. And this is not without bearing. News has it that his trances could send a wave of visions with the effect of a drug’s since he himself was a product of drugs (his mother’s womb, intoxicated by shabu, still managed to conceive and deliver him).

In the middle of the merry pandemonium, the couple becomes separated because of the crowd closing in on them and catching their attention in a most erotic way.

The narrator (the consort) gets swept by the tide of performers and others who loiter around like a young girl in pink tutu, a fire-eater, a sword-swallower, diwata, kapre, and a tikbalang who kisses her full in the mouth while holding her ass.

The last she has stumbled upon is a Siamese twin joined at the hip, Angelo and Yna—the latter having had an intimate relationship with her. They leave the “stoned and drunk” crowd to be high on drugs in the privacy of the twin’s apartment which was full of mementos of their artistic stints. She leaves them intoxicated by S, to reunite with Noah.

Somehow disconcerted, Noah is located by his consort at their “second home,” Wanag’s, a beer hub of some sort. Inside everybody has been waiting for the Dreamer’s trance. Just before the consort gets suffocated by the jam-packed restaurant and the air heavy with smoke and sweat, Noah begins.

His invocation of Sta. Teresa signals the reaching out of everyone to everyone: Noah holds the consort, the consort is held by the people around him, people around grasp hands and press bodies until the connection extends to the outside. A numbing effect accompanies this grasp.

It was an inexplicable feeling, she describes. All her senses seem to be active as she tastes sweetness, sees dazzling starbursts, and hears singing of an angelic choir. Then she feels an unbearable pain, which, she believes, only she can experience. She screams after the feel of “heat and passion and hunger rolled into one” and retracted from Noah’s grip. Noah, weak by then, is not able to make her stay. She flees.

She comes across the young girl in pink tutu who has been summoning and calling her in the fiesta. They enter an abandoned building where the girl, who acts like a nurse to her, pops into her mouth the tablet she refused to take in with Yna and Angelo. While numb and in ecstasy, the girl kisses her until her mouth almost burst with the girl’s suddenly enlarged tongue. She pushes the strange person, who disappeared as she opens her eyes. She claims she was cleansed.

In short, the fantastic is used by capitalizing on the effects of a drug.

What if the visions one had when one is in the influence of illegal drugs suddenly spring to life?
What if somebody addicted to drugs and sex dream of a party; how would this appear in reality?
What if one’s hallucinations induced by shabu becomes the waking life of another?
Would not the ground rules for the narrative world be disturbed?
Would not these quite shock us all—in a delightful manner, though, because of our ambivalent belief: suspended disbelief and total belief?


The literature of the fantastic is the literature of 21st century reality. With the changing systems of beliefs and sedimented modes of production in this age of globalized ideas and thoughts, humanity has been sensitive to the verisimilitude of our darkest, deepest fantasies and desires.

One’s abeyance in religious faith, as purported by Zizek, may be equated to that of PSF3 readers’ near-believing:

Although the dictionary may define the fantastic as “not real or based in reality” the fantastic is important precisely because it is wholly dependent on reality for its existence… [t]he fantastic is reality turned… 180° around, but this is reality nonetheless, a fantastic narrative reality that speaks the truth of the human heart. (Rabkin 28)

Speculative Fiction
, as a relatively new genre in Philippine literature explores humanity’s response to the everyday mayhem of our life. And the best trade of all is its “Filipinoness”—but that is another story.

These three stories transgress the presence or the privileged value of so-called reality and stages humanity’s entire spectrum of fantasies.

Here Zizek reminds us of Lacan’s traverse du fantasme as the literature of the fantastic “‘traverses’ our late-capitalist fantasmatic universe not by way of direct social criticism (depicting the grim social reality which serves as its actual foundation), but by staging these fantasies openly” (“Cyberspace Real”).

Whereas, PSF3 has crossed country after country, nay universes, it has also enabled us in a lacanian sense, as explained by the Slovanian psychoanalyst in his paper for the European Graduate School Media and Communication Program:

We are thus invited to risk the most radical experience imaginable: the encounter with the Other Scene that stages the foreclosed hard core of the subject’s Being. Far from enslaving us to these fantasies and thus turning us into desubjectivized blind puppets, it enables us to treat them in a playful way and thus to adopt towards them a minimum of distance — in short, to achieve what Lacan calls la traversee du fantasme, “going-through, traversing the fantasy.”

Works Cited

Aichelle, George. “Postmodern fantasy, ideology, and the uncanny.” 9 March 2008. <>
Alfar, Dean Francis and Nikki Alfar. Eds. Philippine Speculative Fiction III. Pasig: Kestrel,2007.
Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. NJ: Princeton U P: 1976.
Zizek, Slavoj. On Belief. London: Routledge, 2001.
Zizek, Slavoj —The Reality of the Virtual (Part 1/8). [2003 interview in London broadcast via]. 9 March 2008.
Zizek, Slavoj. “The Cyberspace Real.” The European Graduate School Media and
Communication Program. 9 March 2008.
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