The Astonishing Man who Created Our Astonishing Universe Died Yesterday

Rafael Sylva, creator of the iconic and powerful science-fiction radio show, Nuestro Insólito Universo, has passed away. His absolutely unique style left a rich archive we should all be thankful for.

Photo: Centro de Investigación Informática Lazarus

Rafael Sylva has passed away, and with his demise Venezuela has lost another landmark. Sylva, aged 92, wasn’t a politician, a scientist, or an athlete. In fact, most Venezuelans probably don’t know the man by name, but virtually everyone knows his most enduring creation: Nuestro Insólito Universo.

Starting in 1969, the 5 to 7-minute-long segments on Radio Nacional de Venezuela and Unión Radio (and later Onda La Superestación), narrated by the unforgettable, baritone voice of Porfirio Torres, drew the imagination of many across decades with stories to shock and amaze.

Sylva had directed soap operas on radio and television and worked in advertising, but it was with this show that he would make himself a name. For the skeptical, it was just a well-crafted anthology of urban legends, dubious news reports, the occasional fact and pseudoscience. Essentially, it was the audio version of a circus sideshow.

But for many, including youngsters in a Venezuela that could be dull (!), it was the finest cabinet of wonders, an arcane collection of secrets and oddities. Here you could find, exhibited side by side, The Necronomicon and the Voynich Manuscript, the assassination attempt of Rómulo Betancourt, Napoleon’s stolen penis, and the strange relationship between Lincoln and JFK.

For years, there were campfire tales ghosts, goblins, the unexplained and unexplainable but not many people can pull that element of wonder and uncertainty that makes the gap between fact and fiction inconsequential. Rafael Sylva and Porfirio Torres could.

To be fair, the show quietly evolved through the years. As better and clearer information become readily available (thanks, Internet!) it focused more on debunking myths and telling tales, including some the show had promoted in the past.
The Necronomicon no longer was a mysterious book owned by John Dee but an invention by HP Lovecraft and the incorrupt corpse of General Páez to a really skilled undertaker.

I thought making about an individual program for people like me. That’s how Nuestro Insólito Universo started, and  I originally thought it would last 3 or 4 months!

However, this didn’t mean the show didn’t find astounding trivia to talk about, it was just that now it was grounded in fact and cited its sources.

The show left a profound legacy in Venezuelan pop culture. It began when the radio still had wildly popular soap operas and television was confined to major cities, and for almost 50 years it became a constant in a rapidly shifting society, making its writer and narrator cult-heroes.

In a special program celebrating the 40 years of the show, Sylva talked about its inception: “One day I thought about making an individual program for people like me, where I could tell stories that I like to listen. That’s how Nuestro Insólito Universo started, in August ’69, and  I originally thought it would last 3 or 4 months!”

Guaritoto González, now living in France and working on AV production (but very active on Caracas’ radio during the 80’s and 90’s), calls Rafael an inspiration. “I didn’t personally know him, but thanks to him I fell in love with radio. He was quite a character, always wearing a firefighter’s belt with the buckle on the side, to avoid electric shocks.”

Long before the internet gave us YouTube videos on Slenderman and creepypastas about The SCP Foundation, we had Rafael Sylva unlocking our imagination. And for that, he shall be missed.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.