“The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes is story #9 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The New Prehistory” was evidently first published as a short story in a periodical in 1964 according to the only record I can find. It was collected in La Nueva Prehistoria Y Otros Cuentos in 1967, translated as The New Prehistory and Other Tales by René Rebetez. The site linked above lists 19 short stories, all labeled science fiction.
According to David Hartwell in his introduction to the story, “The New Prehistory” was translated by Damon Knight and was first published in 1972. So the publishing history varies. Hartwell says Rebetez-Cortes was Columbian but the cover of the author collection above suggests something different. Google says he was born in Subachoque, Columbia in 1933 and died on December 30, 1999, in Isla de Providencia, Columbia.
“The New Prehistory” is a very short literary allegory that could be called introverted horror. It’s about a man going to a movie but hates waiting in line. He steps away from the line while watching his friend wait in the queue. Then the line becomes possessed by some unseen force and all the people in the line start acting like they’re part of one giant snake-like organism. People who stood in groups became giant amoeba-like organisms. Individuals stayed individuals. Eventually, the new giant organisms take over the world and hunt the individuals.
Even though a lot of people are calling “The New Prehistory” science fiction I’m not. It’s the kind of fantastic story I heard read in creative writing classes from high school to graduate school. In every writing class there always seemed to be one student who everyone thought was brilliant who would write these kinds of fantastic allegories. They were popular with both the teachers and students because they always seemed so damn clever.
I believe writers, and even oral storytellers, have always used the fantastic in their tales. But that doesn’t mean they are science fiction. Some scholars in science fiction have been trying to claim more territory for the genre for decades. They want to both up the reputation of the genre and claim more types of stories as ours. When I was young, I agreed with this. I wanted the genre to have prestige. But after a lifetime of reading, I realize I’m a consumer of science fiction and I want real science fiction, not ersatz sci-fi.
Science fiction is impossible to define so editors can call anything they want science fiction, but as a consumer, I know what I want, and this kind of story is not it. I remember when I was young back in the 1960s and wondering what science fiction must be like written in other countries in other languages. Then in the early 1970s, we got some Soviet science fiction anthologies and I got my wish. Slowly, the idea of world science fiction has grown, but all too often I believe editors have grabbed anything they could to fill their anthologies. I think that’s a disservice to the genre, and dishonesty to the literary world.
I know that other SF readers will accept these stories as science fiction because their definitions of the genre are different. And that’s cool. The reality is we don’t all think alike. But I would like to think that science fiction was a term with validity and to me, the intent of the genre is more specific, even quite narrow.
Just because a story has elements of the fantastic doesn’t make it science fiction or fantasy. I also believe fantasy as a genre covers definite territory too. As an emerging bookworm back when I was in grade school, I’d go up and down the library shelves looking for certain kinds of stories. Stories about space travel, robots, new technology, and time travel. They were always about the future, or they were set in current times when things changed. “The New History” is set in current times and things changed, but I still don’t consider it science fiction. Why? Because of the tone of the story.
I never believed while reading the story that people could become group organisms. If the author had made some kind of case for that it would have been science fiction. But that wasn’t his intent. He was obviously making a case about the horrors of being in a group. As an introvert, I completely understand that angle. It’s a good story for that purpose. But that’s a completely mundane purpose. Science fiction is not about the mundane. Science fiction is about the far out, but as a real possibility, even in humor. I never thought the people in “The New Prehistory” were becoming group monsters, nor did I think the author wanted us to believe that. I felt the author was giving us an allegory about how he felt about the real world.
For me, science fiction has to be about what the real world could become. The fantasy genre is about make-believe worlds, but believable worlds within their own concepts. I know most science fiction is unbelievable, or has become so. For me to think of it as science fiction, I have to believe it’s possible, or at least think people once thought it possible.
James Wallace Harris, 5/25/23
7 thoughts on ““The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes”
I may want to borrow/steal that image (with credit and linking, of course), because I want to riff off of this. Part of my life has been spent about culture & technology use in the Caribbean and Latin America, and right there you gave a north star on science fiction!
It’s also in line with other stuff I’m writing about. To me, this is platinum.
On the internet, it’s just called sharing. I’ll have to keep an eye on your blog because I'd like to read more about culture & technology in the Caribbean and Latin America. I tried to find La Nueva Prehistoria Y Otros Cuentos on ABEbooks but they had no copies listed.
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It is called sharing. Even so, I like to get consent since there’s also implicit copyright running rampant… and also because it’s just a nice way of doing things.
A precis of culture and technology in the Caribbean and Latin America is fragmented, largely divided by languages as well as bureaucracies that the Europeans left with their former colonies.
Spanish, Portugese, French, English, Dutch…
I was reminded (only slightly, but still) of Ray Bradbury’s story “The Crowd”, the common factor being that people in crowds are a completely different thing to people on their own.
Was Bradbury an introvert? Looking back at some of his stories I might think that. But he was so successful that I figured he was probably an extrovert.
I have never thought of Bradbury as either an introvert or an extrovert. But I have a funny feeling he was probably on the introverted side. He had very little life experience when he started out, and when he worked with John Huston, Huston made fun of him for not being enough of a “man’s man”. And of course he was too scared to fly.
“The Crowd” isn’t about social anxiety/ It’s about a creepy bunch of people who turn up to gawk at accident scenes.