It’s difficult to express how excited I am to review this first work of Basque speculative fiction in English translation (SFT). At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll note again that speculative fiction is written around the world and in many, many languages. Just because speculative fiction from only a few source languages makes its way into English each year, it doesn’t mean that what we don’t get to read doesn’t exist. Rather, speculative literature from, say, Bulgarian, Korean, Icelandic, and now Basque is slowly but surely appearing in English thanks to the work of dedicated translators, editors, publishers, and agents who care about highlighting these diverse and talented voices.
Excellent speculative fiction forces us out of our comfort zone and invites us to imagine other worlds, other people, and other ideas that would have never occurred to us had we stayed in our own literary bubble. And yet, one can’t simply drop a text into a reader’s lap without context and expect that reader to engage with it meaningfully. Thus, one of the first things that translators/editors/publishers often do when introducing such a text is bookend it with prefaces, afterwords, and even glossaries, maps, or timelines. Mayi Pelot’s Memories of Tomorrow (first published in Basque in 1985) comes with that much-needed context in the form of an excellent “Translator’s Foreword” by the talented Arrate Hidalgo and a richly descriptive afterword, “The Life and Work of Mayi Pelot, A Trailblazer of Basque Science Fiction,” by Oihana Andion Martinez.
From these texts we learn about the beauty and complexity of the Basque language and its usage and evolution across the years and regions where it’s been spoken for centuries (southern France and northern Spain). We also learn about efforts to drive it underground (most notably by Spain’s Franco in the early twentieth century) and the mid-1960s efforts by Basque intellectuals to unify and standardize the language for use in contexts beyond the home and community. Pelot was key to bringing Basque into the literary world, and her writings from 1982 to 1992 offer readers a vivid snapshot of Basque life and letters. As Andion Martinez explains, Pelot was drawn to write speculative fiction because, in part, she wanted to “warn us of the dangers of nuclear conflict, gentrification, and the oppression of the Basque Country by new, more powerful countries and multinational companies.” Like those Anglophone speculative fiction writers whom she admired—including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip José Farmer, and Philip K. Dick—Pelot used her writing to explore questions about language itself, time, the soul, and more. Her stories in Memories of Tomorrow explore a future Basque region and beyond, along with destructive multinational corporations, mysterious alien entities, busy spaceports, and brave individuals.
Credited as the first to focus on writing science fiction in Basque, Pelot brings to her stories deep knowledge of multiple languages and Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, at once focusing narrowly on one culture while also connecting it to those that have influenced the development of Western civilization over the centuries. The first four stories (“Miren,” “Row, row,” “Feedback,” and “The Digital Maze”) offer glimpses into a future Basque region, part of a world in which Spain belongs to Iran and western Europe falls under the United States of the World. The last two move even farther into the future, though territorial wars and the desire for meaningful intimacy remain.
In the first four texts, environmental contamination has forced people to alter their traditional ways of life, while efforts to build a wall to keep out the now-toxic sea are proceeding. The corporation building this wall (Sigma) is headquartered in New York, and a Basque native named Anaiz Etxeberry is one of their bright young employees, hoping to help her family and friends back home live a better life through the supposedly benevolent projects planned by Sigma. When she is transferred back to her hometown to help oversee the wall project, Anaiz quickly learns that only a select few will have a chance to live within the security of the wall (and dome), while everyone else will be left outside to fend for themselves in the destroyed ecosystem. Heritage and family are stronger than a fat salary for Anaiz, and her efforts to stop Sigma are noble, if (at first) naive.
“Choppy Water” follows a boy on the run from the authorities for a crime he committed back home. The planet here is Turion, which was divided between the Basik and Kobol planets eight hundred years earlier. As the afterword points out, this split stands in for the Basque Country, pulled between Spain and France. As the fugitive explains to a friend who helps him hide from government spies, the leaders of Basik and Kobol “want us to feel afraid so that we’ll put up with anything, so that we leave Neobaskia and they can waste the energy of our volcanoes on their micromissiles. They want our land. Koboldians want to build a giant micromissile plant on it; Baskians want to squander our volcanic energy on micromissile factories.” In this otherworldly setting, Pelot can describe the concerns of the Basque people in an oblique way that offers a new perspective to those who aren’t familiar with Basque history.
Pelot’s final story in the collection, “The Exchange,” is, indeed, a “space opera,” as Andion Martinez explains, for it is based on Richard Wagner’s opera Siegfried (1876) but set on another planet. Mixing together Hinduism, Norse mythology, space travel, telepathic aliens, and the basic human desire for companionship and understanding, “The Exchange” is unlike most other works of speculative fiction. The story of the gods Wotan and Erda and their daughter Brunnhilde is given an ethereal, fantastical dimension apart from its existence as myth. Pelot, here and in the previous stories, shows what kind of storytelling range and breadth she was capable of, and we are better readers for having engaged with these texts.
Of course, Memories of Tomorrow wouldn’t exist in its English form without its translator, Arrate Hidalgo. A talented editor, translator, writer, and personal friend, Hidalgo and I have sat on many SFT panels together, discussing translation as an art and as an occupation. In her Translator’s Foreword, Hidalgo points out the various neologisms that Pelot developed in her writing, like the “arroltzmatiko” (a hovering vehicle) that Hidalgo translated as “ovamobile”: “arroltz meaning ‘egg’.” Pelot, Hidalgo explains, “apparently decided to come up with Basque terms and concepts to replace the global English term” and, indeed, the author puts Basque at the center of her literary creations.
So go read Memories of Tomorrow and savor the fact that you can hold the first work of Basque SFT in your hands.