An interspecies conversation is at the core of La mirada de las plantas (2022), the most recent novel by Edmundo Paz Soldán. Humans and plants, connected through different languages, intertwine in the virtual world of an experiment that seeks, deep in the Amazon, to recreate the hallucinogenic experience using virtual reality. Paz Soldán creates a scenario in which the actions of Rai and Dr. Dunn, the protagonists, play out within the spheres of reality and simulation to ask contemporary questions like: where does an experience with a plant begin and end? Where does an experience with VR begin and end?
Víctor Vimos: In the novel, one key theme is that of reality and virtuality as they relate to human rituals using certain plants. Is there tension between the virtual and the ritual?
Edmundo Paz Soldán: In the story, a Brazilian company tries, using virtual reality, to recreate the experience of a hallucinogenic plant without actually needing to take it. However, that experience with a plant is about much more than just ingesting it; it involves a whole series of rituals that, in VR, are simply eliminated: you put on the headset and step into the experience without needing to go through all of the processes that are a fundamental part of the practice. Virtual reality recreates only one part of a complex process. But that is happening in real life too. When I went to Iquitos, I was struck by the fact that some shamans said: “Of course, with all the new age tourism, tourists demand certain things. If they take it and don’t hallucinate, for example, for them it’s a bad experience.” Shamans know there isn’t only one kind of trip with these plants: huge inner shifts can take place without hallucinations or visions, and that isn’t bad. Every organism responds differently to the plant. Still, one shaman also told me he adds certain flowers to the brew he offers clients to make sure they hallucinate and don’t ask for their money back. Here, as in virtual reality, practices are modified because it’s good business.
V.V.: Alita del cielo, or heaven’s wing, the name of the hallucinogenic plant in the novel, serves to illustrate the modern-day connection between the symbolic and its effectiveness. How do you see the link between ancestral knowledge and the virtualization of experiences associated with it?
E.P.S.: So-called wellness clinics—in Brooklyn, Toronto, Paris—offer ritual journeys using ayahuasca. Obviously, those rituals don’t work the same way outside their places of origin, they are adapted to both a new scenario and customer. But whether in the Amazon or in Los Angeles, if you perform the ceremony, the notion of a mediator should prevail, which is to say, a form of access to and connection with the plant. The problem, for me, is that these mediators are eliminated, and it is offered solely as the catalyst for a hallucinogenic experience. In Santa Cruz, another city in Bolivia, ayahuasca trips were being offered for twenty dollars, so you had young kids going on these trips every week… Any kind of mediation was lost right there.
V.V.: Dr. Dunn’s perspective on what he calls “virtual embodiment” leads to a reevaluation of identity. How does the relationship between self and other play out in this context of virtual reality?
E.P.S.: Technology is changing our relationship with death. During these pandemic years, I have attended masses on Facebook. It would never have occurred to me to say goodbye to school friends, who died of Covid, via a screen where I was able to watch their funeral, in real time, alongside people’s comments and emoticon reactions. In a way, it’s connected to other visual aids for our relationship with death. For example, a Korean reality show allows you to meet up with dead relatives who have been recreated in VR. In one episode, a woman was reunited with her daughter, who had died at just six years of age, and she could not believe it. The child seemed so real that she was desperate to hug her. As technology advances, we are changing our relationship to death, but also to ourselves. A ritualistic experience like this leads to all kinds of inner shifts, reconfigures pieces of the self.
V.V.: The novel tells how fake videos appear and circulate that seek to affect the reality of those who watch them. Reality built on fabrication. What does science fiction offer as a narrative device for a topic like this?
E.P.S.: Science fiction has a long tradition of representing or articulating the relationship between humans and machines, something that has now become an everyday experience. Artificial intelligence is a part of our daily actions. I am interested in how different writers in Latin America and elsewhere have portrayed this relationship and thought about it from different perspectives. It helps me to try and understand the present, not only as a genre but as a way of approaching the world, of perceiving it. It holds clues that can help us relate to the times we are living in.
V.V.: Rai can also be read as a nod to a reflection on the role of memory and imagination. Avatars built using thousands of data points that come from human emotional memory then replicate an experience. So, what about imagination? What place does it occupy in that context?
E.P.S.: At times in the story, Rai narrates his hallucinogenic experiences. He shares, on the one hand, his relationship with his mother and beauty contests, and, on the other, his relationship with his half-sister, who appears to be a complex character, less clear in the motivations behind her disappearance, or the cause of her estrangement. The idea behind these narrative passages is to show different experiences and explorations not in a realistic way but rather mediated through the plant heaven’s wing. Dr. Dunn is motivated by one thing, Rai another. Heaven’s wing activates things in the brain like past traumas and childhood memories, but all that information is then manipulated by the VR machine in the lab, so what the doctor or Rai see is not reality as it was but an altered reality. They are seeing through the plant’s gaze [the title of the novel]. One might ask themself: where do I end and where does the plant begin? Or vice versa. And the same with the VR machine. I think that is where imagination comes into play. Because it is your imagination, your memories, when activated by the psychedelic substance or the machine, that trigger a kind of story, which Rai, for example, believes is his but may be the plant’s, or for the plant, may be the algorithms programmed into it. I wanted to suggest that, just like the machine, the plant might also be telling its own story in the visions, and there is a certain risk to accepting it all at face value. It might also be constructing a dishonest, fictional past for you based on the inputs it finds in your body.
V.V.: Another aspect to explore is the novel’s setting in the Amazon. How do you see the link between technology and that region?
E.P.S.: I am interested in how social networks, in recent years, have served as data mines. Suddenly, one fine day, an ad for a novel shows up on Facebook. That means your data has been tracked, you have been labeled, the product being offered is there to convince you. Your privacy has been invaded. All social networks function in the same way when it comes to your private life. In this context, I wondered what the next step might be. Given what this company does, it would carry out another, more radical form of mining, because it works not only with the private data you generate consciously but also with information from your unconscious mind. That’s what happens when you put on the VR headset: you see through the eyes of heaven’s wing, and the company is extracting information from your dreams, visions, delusions, to then offer things you don’t even know interest you but are encoded in your desire. I wanted to dig into the notion of extraction that has happened in the Amazonian rainforest. The literary tradition from this part of the continent is present in this dialogue. There are, in fact, quotes from Colombian writer José Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine in my novel, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s La casa verde, Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos, even more recent writings like those by Peruvian cronista Joseph Zárate about the Peruvian Amazon and the struggles by many activists against extractivism. My focus was on how to offer a twist on a very solid tradition of writing about a region that has been seriously affected by commerce and violence. I wanted to approach this sub-genre of the “jungle novel” another way. When I told some friends about the idea that involved a laboratory in the rainforest, some said it sounded very urban, almost cyberpunk. But that was precisely the challenge, to talk about contemporary processes that continue to work at the level of extraction in this region. Even though Dr. Dunn and Rai have their own reasons for wanting these experiences, there is a company agenda behind them. A latent manipulation that shows the scope of the new forms of extractivism, which are very much present and active in the Amazon.
V.V.: How do you view the novel, as a genre, for telling a fictional story like this?
E.P.S.: Novels reflect and create different social contexts, they house critical perspectives and different capacities for thought, different ways of feeling, and even contradictory ways of understanding the world. In a novel, you can use a range of characters to play out various predicaments, arguments, or conflicts, to offer social criticism. The novel is a web of voices that shows the complex relationship between an individual and society. In La mirada de las plantas, there is a clear conflict between nature and technology, the natural and the post-natural. But the novel doesn’t show this as a fight in which there is a clear winner, but instead as a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory forces that coexist in the same stretch of reality. That’s what interests me most about the genre, its capacity to hold opposing ideas at the same time—of course, not in any equidistant or symmetrical way, because it isn’t about looking for false equivalences.
V.V.: There is a contrast between tangible visual images and the revelatory, vaporous, dreamlike images that plants like ayahuasca can release when taken. How do you view the place of virtual images and their relationship to contemporary power?
E.P.S.: In the novel, images serve to summon a traumatic past through hallucinations but also, when manipulated by technology, images are an alteration of reality. As a result, they can be used by a character like Rai to create things like pornographic deepfakes for the purpose of manipulation and blackmail. These days, images like that raise a number of questions: the invasion of privacy, the stealing of personal information, the abuse of trust (which is already regulated under certain pieces of legislation)… This is what I am interested in exploring: how image manipulation has consequences at the level of individuals.
V.V.: Where does La mirada de las plantas fit in your overall body of work?
E.P.S.: This book has opened a whole world for me that I hadn’t been as concerned with before: the way we are altering ecosystems. The novel I’m writing now is also set in the jungle in South America. It has to do with climate change: a city is flooded, and the inhabitants have to decide whether to stay or go. The environmental crisis poses a huge challenge for writing. We need to look for ways of storytelling that not only account for the present but also dive into geological time, into other scales of time. The speculative genres—horror, science fiction, fantasy—offer a ton of narrative devices to tell the story of this crisis.