This year is the first time in history a city in Spain—Barcelona, to be exact—will be hosting Eurocon, and Spanish science fiction is putting out the good china. This November, attendees to the convention—which will also take place alongside HispaCon, the nation's largest congregation in the genre—will each receive copies of Spanish Women of Wonder and Castles in Spain, the result of a monumental exercise of joint effort and crowdfunding that seeks to showcase the variety and quality of approximately thirty years of science fiction, fantasy, and horror produced in Spanish.
As a Spaniard who left for the UK almost immediately after the 2008 crash, attracted by the gravitational pull of English as the medium preferred by feminist and queer speculative fiction, I must admit that it has been both humbling and unspeakably exciting to discover many of the authors featured in these anthologies over the past few years, as well as to recognise the titanic labour of love involved in publishing genre work in what are depressing times for the distribution of culture in countries such as Spain or Argentina. As a result, the idea of reviewing these projects to help bring them wider attention has often drenched me in cold sweats, but here we are.
Spanish Women of Wonder is the successfully crowdfunded translation of Alucinadas, an anthology thought up by literary translator Cristina Macía in 2014 as a one-off wake-up call to tackle the imbalance of gender representation in Spanish language SFF. The book, which was conceived as an international anthology and in the end features works by both Spanish and Argentinian authors, was received with such enthusiasm that a second, more international volume was published the following year, and the call for submissions for a third installment is currently open.
As well as a foreword by editor and anthologist powerhouse Ann VanderMeer, the editors of Spanish Women of Wonder, Cristina Jurado and Leticia Lara, seem to have commissioned and selected works remarkably distant from one another in tone and premise, as if challenging bigoted assumptions about the "stuff" women write about. "No more raised eyebrows," declares Jurado in her prologue.
The book opens with "Terpsichore" by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría (winner of the Alucinadas competition), a glowing tale of "hard" quantum fiction intertwined with expansive cosmic and emotional imagery. Through Captain Stephana Yurievna Levitánova, who embarks on a static quantum impulsion platform so as to enable the possibility of other versions of herself traveling to outer space, Mira de Echeverría explores her deep interest in portraying connections between sentient beings that defy what is or should be defined as human. "Terpsichore" could well be one of her most ambitious stories in that sense, and a brilliant exhibition of her lyrical prowess.
In "The Infestation," Felicidad Martínez gives us a multiple point-of-view space opera about a squad sent to a planetary colony in which human workers are being killed by the planet's monstrous life-forms. While mixing in healthy doses of bravado and snarky humour, what sets Martínez's story apart from other alien-monsters-out-to-kill-us narratives (and what really does it for me) is the main character Lieutenant Rosenbaum's stern yet open attitude, which is easy on the anthropocentrism and firethrower-spree tendencies of so many first-contact military SF stories.
The other two stories of contact, Laura Ponce's "The Storm" and Lola Robles's "Sea Changes," offer quieter visions of interplanetary interaction. In "The Storm," a military envoy has arrived at a rather unimportant planet named Arkaris to investigate why the latter has cut contact with the Confederation. This benevolent, pre-industrial human colony, radically different from Martínez's proposal, is described with care in a quiet piece, as befits a memory retold. This is a great sample of Ponce's fiction, exploring the effects that extraordinary situations have on the human spirit. "Sea Changes" is also very representative of Lola Robles's work, which has afforded her comparisons to Ursula K. Le Guin due to the anthropological and linguistic detail with which she renders the cultures in her interplanetary fictions. Through journal entries and letters, we learn about a handful of humans on their emotional and physical journey to Jalawdri, a planet that recognises five sets of genders. The planet has developed incredibly advanced methods of gender reassignment surgery, and its growing fame has opened the door to foreign technologies and political systems which have in turn confronted the local population. The story is loaded with a great deal of introspection as well as breathtaking imagery, and I feel Robles needed more room in order to develop the rather complex reality of the planet in a more satisfying way, but it remains a highlight of the anthology all the same.
Yolanda Espiñeira's "The Schiwoll Method" is a clinically laid out thriller that subtly sets up a series of tropes, such as the pitfalls of space colonialism, as a backdrop for another common motif: the ordeal of the scientist or inventor who is subjected to the effects of their own creation—in this case, a technique to make criminals confess. In a dual, crescendoing narrative structure, Espiñeira ably condenses years of scientific and interplanetary politics into a few pages without falling for blatant exposition. Also making use of a classic premise—in this case, Asimov's three rules of robotics—Nieves Delgado tackles in "Red Houses" the intricate moral questions surrounding self-awareness in AI. A government committee has been sent to investigate a sexbot factory following a series of attacks on humans by supposedly faulty units. While certain exchanges and plot twists seem conventional (especially in the wake of films such as Ex Machina (2014) or the Swedish droid drama Äkta människor (2012-)), Delgado does posit interesting questions which stem from the droids being overwhelmingly female-gendered.
The anthology gradually sinks into darker territory, with authors such as Sofía Rhei and Layla Martínez treading the murky areas between science fiction, horror, and weird. Both of their dystopian short stories explore loss and the extent to which we are willing to obliterate ourselves for the sake of reliving the past—and the high cost at which that often comes. Rhei's skilful playfulness with language is often central to her fiction and poetry, as is the case in "Techt," a dark and disorienting story about a man who refuses to let "Long Language" die in a post-crisis world in which communication is cut down to essential symbols and abbreviations. In "Welcome to Croatoan," meanwhile, Layla Martínez's unsettling prologue sets the uncanny mood for a quantum fantasy-thriller. It's worth mentioning that this is the only story explicitly set in Spain—in an alternative Madrid whose impoverished inhabitants live inside dug-out underground tunnels to protect themselves from the endless rain, killing and dying for a drug that lets the user see what their life might have been like if they had chosen differently.
This ominous atmosphere continues with "Black Isle," Marian Womack's quietly dark personal drama wrapped in climate change fiction. Set in a remote, isolated Scottish peninsula where scientists are using bioengineered specimens to repopulate the area, this story echoes the most beautiful traditions of British language writing, which Womack recreates herself in English as well. Carme Torras also looks at the manipulation and limits of the mind in "Team Memory," where she presents the collected accounts of a former team of basketball legends in their plight to crowdfund the technology necessary to get their teammate out of death row.
The anthology closes with a classic of Argentinean fiction, "By the Light of the Electronic Moon," by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Amalia Gladhart. Even though—as is the case with English-language SF authors such as Samuel R. Delany—she has long given up producing speculative work, Gorodischer has remained—again, not unlike Delany himself—a tremendous influence among the next generations of genre writers. Her contribution to the anthology, which acts as a blessing or seal of approval of sorts, is taken from her classic series of stories about space businessman Trafalgar Medrano, the genius of which relies as much on Gorodischer's rich imagining of unbelievable worlds (in a manner reminiscent of Lem's Star Diaries (1957)) as it does on the tongue-in-cheek, everyday middle-class Argentinean vignettes, such as an old-fashioned café or a game of cards, in which Trafalgar retells his exploits.
One thing that I later realised about Spanish Women of Wonder was that, except perhaps for "Red Houses" and Lola Robles's look at trans identity (and, tangentially, in Mira de Echeverría's multiple realities), gender—whether challenged, taken apart, or given a different shape—does not play any part in these stories. Most of the main characters are in fact men, while female characters often, though not always, serve the purposes of their stories by dying, disappearing, or playing instrumental roles. It's been helpful to remind myself that this perspective risks stepping into a game that cannot be won—it is often the case that women will be criticised for preoccupying themselves with gender ("of course!"), just as they will be criticised for not doing so ("how odd!"). The point, however, is that this anthology's job was to collect consistently good science fiction by women, and as such, I find it to be an utter success. Hats off to Lawrence Schimel, translator of Robles and Mira de Echeverría, and Sue Burke, who was in charge of translating almost everybody else, for taking on the terrifying task of transmitting so many different voices in a single volume.
Unlike the original Alucinadas project that later became Spanish Women of Wonder, Castles in Spain was always conceived as a bilingual anthology with the specific purpose of making some of the most iconic and representative pieces of short science fiction, fantasy, and horror from Spain available in English. As anthologist Mariano Villarreal points out in his foreword, the vast majority of Spanish genre writing remains unknown to English-speaking audiences. Castles in Spain attempts to offer a glimpse of the diversity in genres and styles that exploded during what is known as the golden age of Spanish science fiction, somewhere in the nineties, not long after everyone stopped using English-sounding pen names to get people to read their stories.
It is an unsurprising fact that the canon from which Castles in Spain has been composed is inhabited by men (most of whom were born in the sixties). Elia Barceló, one of the most prolific science fiction authors in Spanish science fiction, features as the only woman, as in confirmation of Joanna Russ's law of the one-out-of-ten set out in her foundational How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983). In her famous short story "The Star," Barceló presents a future in which humanity has long abandoned a desiccated and toxic Earth. A group of humans travel back to their semi-legendary home planet, only to discover that it is in fact inhabited by beings resolved to communicate with them—despite the immense chasm that evolution has dug between them. Also on the topic of the complex differences between human and alien perceptions of reality, "The Forest of Ice" by Juan Miguel Aguilera is a touching example of "hard" science fiction that plays skilfully with how differing perceptions of time can crucially affect the most basic assumptions about the world around us.
The anthology has managed to include a great number of classic science fiction devices in its attempt to offer a taste of each author. "My Wife, My Daughter" by Domingo Santos looks at human cloning and the profoundly questionable uses to which it may be put, refracted through a man's twisted Lolita-like downward spiral of obsession with his wife. AI also has its share of the spotlight, with in my opinion one of the most original pieces in the anthology—César Mallorquí's post-apocalyptic novelette "The Flock." Here, the events are told from the points of view of a dog and of a strangely hopeful satellite AI, in the wake of a worldwide disaster that has wiped out humanity. In Rodolfo Martínez's fast-paced cyberpunk, "God's Messenger," meanwhile, the protagonist AI has, in preparation for a perilous cybernetic mission, deliberately been designed to include certain emotional traits as an advantage against other AIs; but sadly the conclusion feels flat in comparison. (It is only fair to point out that "God's Messenger" was chosen over more celebrated works by Martínez on the grounds that it offers a more self-contained look into his Drímar cyberpunk series.)
The devices of classic science fiction continue to recur. León Arsenal is obviously indebted to Ray Bradbury with his "In the Martian Forges," yet succeeds at recreating a truly original, crepuscular retelling of a Mars-dwelling Terran's mission to protect an archaeologist in his search of sacred Martian sites. The story treads softly and casually on ideas of colonialism and foreignness; at a certain point, the archaeologist reflects on the idea of excavating sacred ground: "It would be like pulling the heart out of a man's chest. If he's dead, then it's an autopsy, science. If he's alive, it's murder. And the Martian culture is alive."
On the other hand, it's hard to tell whether the premise of Eduardo Vaquerizo's "Victim and Executioner," a steampunk novelette set in the Amazonian forest—in an alternative universe in which the Spanish Empire, having avoided the internal religious schisms which might otherwise have led to its collapse, is very much alive and kicking well after the nineteenth century—can be considered a specific homage to Heart of Darkness (1899), in the manner that Ballard's "A Question of Re-entry," also set in the Amazon, has been described to be. It could well be that the sense of déjà-vu I felt in following a colonial soldier who is commanded to venture into the depths of a physical and psychological hell of smothering greenery, killer fungi, runaway priests—and, most importantly, expressionless "Indians" whose actions defy the very foundations of humanity—might be due to this disturbing Conradian narrative having become a subgenre in its own right. Readers hoping to find in it any actual critique of Empire might have better luck with "In the Martian Forges," but as a sample of Vaquerizo's narrative skill and rich prose, "Victim and Executioner" truly delivers.
On a similarly earthy and naturalistic vein, Javier Negrete's "The Secret Hunting" focuses on the tribulations between right and wrong of a boy with heroic potential in an ancient magical world setting, making effective use of classic types such as the effeminate boy who is more drawn to magic than to physical prowess, the highborn thug with his big dumb sidekick, and so on. Negrete's care for setting and detail somewhat makes up for the transparency of the plotline, which is nevertheless neither a good nor a bad thing in itself. Likewise, I was surprised to welcome the anthologist's decision to include not one but two ghost stories: Rafael Marín's "A Marble in the Palm," a touching piece of fantasy lapping into horror territory, which is softened by the chirpy, clever tone of the eight-year old girl that serves as a lens, in a perceptively deployed stream of consciousness. Jam-packed with references to nineties pop culture, it spoke to my inner child and won me over. In the "The Albatross Ship," the internationally acclaimed Félix J. Palma creates an interesting atmosphere of period melodrama while telling what is, in fact, a contemporary-world version of the curse that fulfils itself.
I would like to once again congratulate the translators—Gwyneth Box, Sue Burke, L. Finch, Nur-Huda el Masri, Charlie Sangster, Lawrence Schimel, Linda Smolik, and Marian and James Womack—on their brilliant work. As a reader with privileged access to both versions of Castles in Spain, it is only fair to bring attention to the great sensibility and flair for style they have brought to the anthology, which is often a tricky format for both logistical and translation-y reasons. From Nur-Huda el Masri's rendering of Barceló's most surrealist, polysemic fragments ("Your name is Nea, we say in a mauve scent. You are the brooch that binds the star now and I am the illumination, I say. You are going to learn with us. We shall transform. You shall transform") to Charlie Sangster's perceptive recreation of Marín's childlike narrative (" . . . you went down some pretty steps and there were always men selling Fanta and Coke and lots, but lots and lots, of crisps and even beer without alcohol and Pepsi-Lite, down by the beach and all, there were some very choosy people"), the translators' work (including that of revising each other's writing) achieves to bring out the diversity—and maturity—that Mariano Villarreal was referring to.
The question of whether a country's SFF has reached a stage of maturity necessarily invokes the canon we're measuring it up against. However, what transpires from these two anthologies is that they are the result of a conscious effort to reject comparison and to focus instead on what there is, distilling not only the quality but also the cultural relevance of Spanish SFF in an international context—registering, for instance, the interest of some of the most established authors among them (César Mallorquí, Rafael Marín, Eduardo Vaquerizo) in normalizing the use of autochthonous references. Or featuring, as does Spanish Women of Wonder, visions of contemporary sources of collective angst, including mass extinction by climate change and the erosion of our attention spans. Ultimately, these twenty-one short stories work very well together as a tip of the iceberg of Spanish speculative fiction, which incidentally appears to be a pretty sizeable one—and I for one sure hope it makes the splash it deserves.