Spanish speculative fiction author Sofía Rhei’s collection, Everything is Made of Letters—translated by Sue Burke, James Womack, and the author, with assistance from Ian Whates, Arrate Hidalgo, and Sue Burke—brings together her explorations of language, communication, and the materiality of words. Like Lola Robles (also from Spain), Vandana Singh, China Miéville, and Ma Boyong, Rhei is interested in everything from human speech to xenolinguistics and everything in between. While reading these stories, we are called in fact to think about the very book we’re holding in our hands—the work that goes in to writing it, publishing it, translating it, publishing the translation, and getting the finished collection to us. Rhei asks us to pay attention to this process instead of taking it for granted, in much the same way that we’re asked by, say, farmers to think about where our food comes from and how it’s grown before we simply ingest and digest it. In Rhei’s collection, language is subversive, playful, and beautiful, and we’re invited to cherish it with new eyes and ears.
I was especially happy to see “Techt” at the front of the collection, since I’d read and loved it in Spanish Women of Wonder (2016). Set in the near future in which everyone uses a hyper-simplified language, the narrator (Ludwig Casares—a reference perhaps to Adolfo Bioy Casares?) clings to “Long Language” as a way to keep his mind active and versatile; he scorns Techt because it not only reduces the number of words and syllables, but diminishes the quality of peoples’ conversations and thought processes. Ironically, it was the narrator’s own great-grandmother who had first created a simpler version of the language in order to aid in automatic translation efforts. When Ludwig is fired from his job at a text-to-film translation company and encounters young people who want to learn Long Language, his pessimistic view of the future is radically altered.
Like “Techt,” Rhei’s “Secret Stories of Doors” explores how language refuses to be trapped or tied down and put to use by authorities to pacify the populace. Here, Joan Perucho, an employee of the World Encyclopaedia based in an alternative Barcelona, is one of the writers tasked with entering historical and literary documents and notes about those documents into a world-wide database. After the city had been nearly destroyed decades before, it became part of a world government bent on reorganizing and cataloging human knowledge. In another metatextual layer, that event that changed the world was Orson Welles reading H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come on the radio, which provoked a panic, and which was itself used by elites to overthrow then existing forms of government. (Of course, in our timeline, Welles actually read The War of the Worlds on the radio and the panic that it unleashed didn’t last very long—but you already knew that). The thing is, Joan doesn’t so much enter information into a database as enter false information. He takes exquisite pleasure in conjuring up entries on authors that never existed, books that were never written, and events that never took place. You can imagine his shock, though, when he’s inducted into a secret society of people who … have been doing what he does all along.
Rhei then turns her attention to words as material objects in “The BubbleLon Cyclotech,” in which words are engraved on special durable plates that are then read by a machine. This machine uses the plates and instructions for such things as plot type, audio vocabulary, genre, and length that are put in by the operator—and prints out a story within those parameters. In other words, it is “print on demand” taken to the extreme. The damage to just a single word would affect the language as a whole, just as the loss of a limb or organ affects an entire human body. “BubbleLon” is at once comic (because of the highly prim-and-proper lady who runs the cyclotech) and tragic (because one child on a field trip manages to destroy a precious word like “zephyr”). And yet, like many of Rhei’s stories, this dystopian world brightens up a bit at the end, leaving the reader with a spark of hope for the future of this strange place.
“Learning Report” and “You Cannot Kill Frownyflute!” also take facets of language to their respective, bizarre extremes. In “Learning Report,” aliens turn an enemy species into an education toy by which their children and visiting species (like humans) can learn their language. What at first seems like a simple method of cultural exchange quickly turns into a thrilling and dangerous escape attempt as one of those toys convinces its human owner that it's being held against its will and wants to return to its family. Further twists and turns in the story then make the reader question what, if anything, is true about the nature of the dominant alien species.
From this story about lies and betrayal we turn to the last, and most humorous, story of the collection—the hilariously titled “You Cannot Kill Frownyflute!” Here writers work under intense pressure to sustain a complicated series that sounds a lot like a fun-house-mirror version of Harry Potter—basically, fandom taken to its extreme. A meta-story about how writers weave plots and how they balance staying true to their art and satisfying their readers, “Frownyflute” asks just how far writers should go in attempting to give in to their fans’ demands about characters and plot development. Indeed, this Harry-Potteresque series has grown so large and complicated that it takes a specialized device just to make sure that new plot points or character arcs don't contradict old ones. Ultimately, the woman at the center of the series opts for sabotage rather than demotion, the series be damned.
Unlike many other writers of dystopian science fiction who offer us dark scenarios that allow only a few rays of light to shine through, then, Rhei injects not just hope but also humor into the darkness. And she’s right—everything is made of letters, in one way or another.