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Carlos Gagini Anticipates Philip K. Dick

by Iván Molina

In 1920, the Costa Rican writer Carlos Gagini (1865-1925) published one of the most original Latin American science fiction novels of the first half of the twentieth century: The Fall of the Eagle. The plot of the novel unfolds in the near future when all the countries of Central America are colonies of the United States. In the cases of Guatemala and Nicaragua this process is the outcome of diplomatic and commercial efforts (as happened with the US intervention that ended in the independence of Panama in 1903), while the populations of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras were subjected by force. It was at the cost of thousands of deaths of those who resisted the military invasion of US troops.
To confront US imperialism, an international secret society is established In the novel. It is called the Knights of Liberty, which adopts Esperanto as their official language. This organization is made up of Manuel Delgado from El Salvador, Francisco Valle from Honduras, Count von Stein from Germany, Amaru, a Japanese captain with anarchist ideas, the Colombian pilot Antonio, the Mexican colonel Salvador Morelos and the Costa Rican engineer Roberto Mora. Mora is a descendant of the president and wealthy capitalist businessperson Juan Rafael Mora (1814-1860) who forged a Central American military alliance and led the war of 1856-1857 against the forces commanded by the US mercenary William Walker. After seizing Nicaragua, these forces threatened the territorial integrity of Costa Rica.
Unlike Juan Rafael Mora, whom foreigners of his time described as dark, plump and short, Gagini, whose father was Italian, describes the character in his novel, Rafael Mora, as “a young man with curly blond hair, blue eyes, slim and tall body”. As the researcher Verónica Ríos has pointed out, this ethnic modification can be explained as part of a mimetic narrative strategy in which the colonial rebel is racially confused with the imperialist oppressors. However, Gagini also recovers a fundamental racial dimension of Costa Rican nationalism: Costa Rica as a white society, different from the rest of Central America, where mestizo or indigenous populations prevailed.

Original book cover of “La Cáida del Águila” (“The Fall of the Eagle”)

Through the knowledge and capital available to its members, the aforementioned secret society, under the leadership of Mora, establishes an operations base on Cocos Island, the main Costa Rican island, legendary for the supposed treasures that the pirates hid in there. Here the rebels, with the help of hundreds of workers, build three extraordinary submarines called nautiluses, which begin to sink the US battleships sailing through the Pacific Ocean. They also invent a terrible explosive called Japonita and, through an agreement with Japan, finance the manufacture of a thousand airplanes, whose capacity and maneuverability exceed that of all existing airplanes at this time. In addition, these aircraft are equipped with remote-controlled rockets. As Ríos indicates, the description of this advanced technology shows the influence that the First World War (1914-1918) may have had on Gagini.
Unaware of these developments, Albert Adams, the US Secretary of the Navy, his daughter Fanny and her fiancé, Jack Cornfield, visit Cocos Island. After the battleship that led them there is destroyed, the three are taken prisoner by the Knights of Liberty. From then on, between the captives and Mora, there is an extensive debate about the right of strong races to prevail over the weak ones and about the possibility of the latter to compensate for their disadvantages through capital, science, technology and determination. In addition, a love story unfolds, since it is revealed that Mora, during a stay in Washington, had been about to start a close relationship with Fanny. The relationship failed when the young woman discovered that her suitor, although  he could racially be confused with an Anglo-Saxon American (according to the prevailing stereotypes at that time), he was originally from Costa Rica.
On May 1, 1925, the anniversary of the surrender of the filibuster William Walker in 1857, the “fall of the eagle” occurs. After sinking several battleships passing through the Panama Canal, to prevent the US Atlantic fleet from moving to the Pacific, the rebel air force destroys the defenses of California. Immediately thousands of Japanese soldiers invade the US which capitulates and splits: henceforth, each state will be an independent republic. Subsequently, the remaining world powers (Great Britain, in particular) are forced to disarm and accept the independence of the colonies, as a preliminary step for a new world order based on justice, peace, equality and education. During these events Adams and Cornfield commit suicide and Fanny agrees to marry Mora.
In this way, The Fall of the Eagle is revealed as an openly anti-imperialist novel, but with a character that is distant from any radicalism or revolutionary claim. Gagini, according to the study of María Eugenia Acuña, was a collaborator of the dictatorship of Federico Tinoco (January 1917-August 1919), the only regime that originated in a coup during the twentieth century in Costa Rica. The rapid failure of this regime was influenced by various popular mobilizations that took place in the Costa Rican capital, some armed uprisings that began in various parts of the country and, as the historian Hugo Murillo emphasized, the US policy of non-recognition of the Tinoco government, because it originated in a breach of the constitutional order.
Opposed to this US policy of non-recognition, Gagini literally fought against it in The Fall of the Eagle. If his intention was to capitalize of the anti-imperialism developed in the country from 1912 due to the intervention of the US in Nicaragua in favor of the Tinoco dictatorship, his calculation completely failed, given the growing popular discontent against the Tinoco regime. Even after Tinoco went into exile in France in August 1919, the US maintained its pressure on Costa Rican politicians to ensure the return of democracy.
In The Fall of the Eagle Gagini also tried to capitalize on the nationalist memory built from the figure of Juan Rafael Mora to vindicate an anti-imperialism detached from the popular sectors, champion of military culture and identified with the leading role of white capitalist businessmen, who, thanks to the extraordinary power they have accumulated, are accountable only to themselves. In accordance with this political model, in which there is no effective space for democracy, Roberto Mora, the main character of the novel, does not show any interest, as Ríos indicated, in articulating his struggle with the working classes that resist the US occupation in Costa Rica. Likewise, Mora’s leadership shows authoritarian traits: as the leader he does not allow to being questioned, not even by the other members of the Knights of Liberty. His behavior evokes both the historical authoritarianism of Juan Rafael Mora, who repressed his political opponents in Costa Rica in the 1850’s, and the behavior of the two Jules Verne characters who served Gagini as a model for the Mora in his novel: Captain Nemo and Robur.
Although some of the aerial combat scenes described in The Fall of the Eagle during the attack on the Panama Canal and the invasion of California recall several texts by HG Wells, especially “A Dream of Armageddon” (1901) and The War in the Air (1908), Gagini’s novel is deeply influenced by Verne’s science fiction, in particular by the novels Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1869-1870), L’Île mystérieuse (1874), Robur-le-Conquérant (1886) and Maître du monde (1904). From this perspective the originality of The Fall of the Eagle does not lie so much in the scientific and technological innovations incorporated into the narrative, but in proposing that Central America, one of the most marginal areas in the world, could lead an international political-military alliance, capable not only of defeating the US by war, but also of dismembering that country.
With this decolonial proposal, which dared to go beyond criticizing imperialism to consummate the material destruction of the metropolis, Gagini decisively distanced himself from the literary nationalism that prevailed in Costa Rican literature at the time. The Fall of the Eagle made him the first Central American writer to produce a novel that, precisely because it had global politics as its background, widely exceeded national limits. Although Gagini may have been influenced by similar perspectives advanced by cosmopolitan Latin American intellectuals such as José Martí (1853-1895), his immediate references were probably the debates around the constitution of the League of Nations (1920-1946). This was the first organization to seek to institutionalize an international order, as noted in the book on this subject edited by Simon Jackson and Alanna O’Malley.
Due to its characteristics, The Fall of the Eagle was inscribed, according to the study of Thomas Richards, in a stream of futuristic novels that began to be constituted from the nineteenth century onward (in Europe) and whose central theme was military invasion. When considered in a comparative way, the novel by the Costa Rican writer (showing the US as a defeated and divided country), had the additional merit of being forty years ahead of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962). In this novel, Germany and Japan, after winning the Second World War, divide up the US territory and the Japanese occupy the west coast, just as they do in Gagini’s novel. Dick probably never knew about The Fall of the Eagle, but long before he envisioned the future of US as a dystopia (from the US point of view), Gagini had already imagined something similar, but as a utopia from a Latin American perspective.

Copyright (c) 2022 by Iván Molina


Acuña Montoya, María Eugenia (1984): Carlos Gagini: su vida y su obra en el contexto nacional e hispanoamericano, Tesis de Maestría en Literatura, Universidad de Costa Rica.
Dick, Philip K. (1962): The Man in the High Castle. New York: Putnam.
Gagini Chavarría, Carlos (1920): La caída del águila. San José: Imprenta Trejos Hermanos.
Jackson, Simon y O’Malley, Alanna, eds. (2018): The Institution of International Order: From the League of Nations to the United Nations. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.
Murillo, Hugo (1981): Tinoco y los Estados Unidos. Génesis y caída de un régimen. San José, Editorial Universidad Estatal a Distancia.
Richards, Thomas (1993): The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire. London: Verso.
Ríos Quesada, Verónica (2011): “Releyendo La caída del águila de Carlos Gagini: la mediación científica y la nostalgia de una novela antiimperialista de ciencia-ficción”, en: Istmo. Revista Virtual de Estudios Literarios y Culturales Centroamericanos, nº 23, pp. 1-28.