A Filipino writer imagined the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing was celebrated last week. There will, of course, be future anniversary celebrations of the momentous event.
About 40 years ago, one of the Philippines’ greatest writers actually imagined the Apollo mission’s 100th anniversary.
My friend Gregorio Brillantes, who was my editor in the 1980s, published “The Apollo Centennial” in 1980. It is one of the best Filipino short stories in English ever written. Academic Timothy Montes called the story “the first successful science fiction story written by a Filipino.”
It’s not a typical science fiction story. There are no astronauts or Space Age travelers, no sophisticated gadgets or intergalactic creatures, no futuristic storylines.
“The Apollo Centennial” is actually about the Philippines. More precisely, it’s about the Philippines and how, in Greg’s imagination, it would be transformed by the regime of the dictator who was in power when he wrote the story: Ferdinand Marcos.
The story is set in the year 2069. The world is marking the 100th anniversary of Apollo mission, and the celebration extends to a troubled rural community in the Philippines. There, Arcadio Nagbuya, a poor farmer, is taking his children to see an exhibit of the Apollo centennial.
It’s not an easy journey, for they have to wait for a makeshift raft to cross a river, and then take a bus that must pass through military checkpoints where soldiers are on the lookout for rebel guerrillas. The security forces even have fighter bomber “helidiscs” patrolling the skies in the hunt for rebels.
At the exhibit, Cadio and his sons marvel at the photos of the historic event and the taped voice of Neil Amstrong repeating his famous quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Cadio and his sons are enthralled by one of the most important technological leaps in the history of the world at a time when they’re trapped in a society under the iron grip of a tyrant.
“The Apollo Centennial” paints a future that many Filipinos feared in the 1970s and 1980s: That Marcos would be in power for a very long time, and his legacy will survive forever. In Brillantes’s Philippines of 2069, people speak Tagilocan. Society is so repressive that the other regional languages are on their way to being made extinct.
On the trip back from the exhibit, Cadio and his sons briefly run into his cousin, Andres, who is part of the rebellion. Greg writes: “His cousin clicks off the flashlight and speaks to him, not in Tagilocan, but in the old language…and the tender fluid accents of their fathers’ tongue, unheard for so long yet never quite lost nor forgotten, bring a swift rush of pride and love that pushes back the enclosing dread.”
It’s a simple, yet moving, scene, one that I have enjoyed rereading through the years.
What is truly striking is the prescience of Greg’s story.
Filipinos kicked out the dictator six years after “The Apollo Centennial” was published. Marcos died in exile in 1989.
There is no such language called Tagilocan. There are no fighter bomber “helidiscs” patrolling the skies.
Instead, there’s tokhang .. there are mass killings inspired by yet another tyrant, a thug with brazen disregard for the rights of women, poor Filipinos and anyone who disagrees with his regime, who is leading the nation in a giant leap back to the past, with a vision for the Philippines as cold and barren as the moon.
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