As a native English speaker, I am immensely privileged when it comes to finding speculative fiction to read in my own language. I have read some translated works—Cornelia Funke and Michael Ende, for instance (both writing in German)—but it's fair to say that I haven't gone out of my way to find more. My excuses include the plaintive "but there’s so much stuff in English!" and the pathetic "but I wouldn't know where to start!" Terra Nova: An Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Science Fiction challenges both of those. Yes, there are many works in English: but not all of them are worth reading, and I intend to discriminate amongst them anyway, so why not include translated works? And Mariano Villarreal, in an essay titled "Science Fiction from Spain," conveniently outlines the works of ten major Spanish authors (although not whether they have been translated), and delves more deeply into two classics—thus providing, as I am sure was the intention, a convenient entry point.
This anthology contains six stories (translated by Sue Burke and Lawrence Schimel) and the aforementioned essay. Along with the introduction to Spanish speculative literature, Villarreal introduces the reader to the past and the future of the Spanish scene. The past: Spain does not have as long a history of speculative fiction as many English-speaking countries, nor the same popularity, attributed to the "overwhelming importance of realism . . . and the repressive effect of the Franco dictatorship" (p. 436). The future: the publishing houses of the twenty-first century are doing more restricted press runs, but a huge variety of sub-genres are being published—and fandom is alive and well. Thus the stories presented here are not a rare species, but part of a vibrant scene that English speakers as yet have little access to.
The six stories chosen for translation are an intriguing mix. There's one that fits into the battle of the sexes tradition; one about androids; a zombie story set in Cuba; a technology horror story; one about body-swapping; and another about colonizing Mars. Four are clearly science fiction and two I would classify as horror; within that, there's a thriller, a romance, a road trip, and a planetary romance. They cover a wide range of ideas and are not particularly held together by overarching themes. As an introduction to Spanish writing, it therefore appeals to a broad audience, which is undoubtedly the intention.
The two horror stories are "Greetings from a Zombie Nation," by Erick J. Mota, and "Light a Lone Candle," by Víctor Conde. These two stories are driven by the idea of community, but from very different perspectives. Mota explores the consequences of a zombie plague for Castro's Cuba. Although the zombies are a vital part of the story—the protagonist works at a facility dedicated to understanding the virus—the crux of the narrative is in how the community works, or doesn't; how it polices itself, how individuals survive within a repressive regime—and ultimately suggests that there may be few differences between humans living in such a regime and zombies. Conde’s protagonist, on the other hand, is seeking to keep himself absolutely separate from most of humanity for fear of technological contamination. Relaying his experiences in a stream of consciousness ("Sleepers. In the darkness. Sharing everything, EVERYTHING, even their souls, the untouchable, the nonexistent" [p. 262]), the anonymous narrator speeds through a post-apocalyptic America to try and help the girl he loves—one of the other, few, humans still separate from an all-consuming artificial social network. The horror is in what has become of society, as well as what ultimately happens to him.
Two of the stories are deeply concerned about bodies, again in very different ways. Felicidad Martínez's "The Texture of Words" is one that suffers from its lack of context, originally coming from an anthology created in honour of "the greatest and most far-reaching space opera universe ever created in Spanish science fiction: the Akasa-Puspa saga written by Juan Miguel Aguilera and Javier Redal" (p. 6). From a woman's perspective, it also seems like horror: in this world, only men have sight, which is associated—by the women who are the focus of the story—with their having penises. The women live their whole lives inside, and are focused on helping men to see (apparently) by having sex. Narratively, I found this story unsatisfying because it doesn't go anywhere; I feel that it may be filling in blanks from the original saga. It's also a troubling and disturbing story in terms of gender roles and expectations. I am still tussling with whether it is cleverly subversive—looking at the ways women can subvert the patriarchal paradigm—or deeply conservative, with women internalizing and normalizing their enforced indoor domesticity. At the other end of the spectrum is "Bodies," by Juanfran Jiménez; a world where someone can offer up their body for use by a tourist. Jiménez uses this concept to tell a story about criminals, unethical corporations, and law enforcement. That aspect of the story worked quite nicely. Unfortunately this is undercut by his unwillingness to interact with the identity repercussions of finding yourself in a different body. He suggests that some would use the opportunity to explore being a different sex, which makes sense; but his suggestion that people would very quickly find themselves comfortable with new bodies is so unlikely that the story was spoiled for me.
Finally, there are two stories whose narratives revolve around love. Lola Robles's "Deirdre" plays on the Celtic heroine of the same name, with heroine Emma, after several failed relationships, deciding to have a gynoid created to be her partner. The ethics around such a choice are a constant question, which makes this story a thoughtful and considered romance. The relationship in "Memory," by Terera P. Mira de Echeverría, likewise begins unequally, but spans several decades and develops greatly over that time. It too has an element of horror: it's set on a Mars terraformed by specially altered humans who, once "normal" humans arrive, are treated abysmally. To suggest that oppression of natives is a niche of human psychological ecology that must be filled is deeply disturbing.
This is an eclectic anthology. It suggests that place can have a major influence on fiction—"Greetings from a Zombie Nation" has aspects that sounds distinctly dystopian but actually reflect lived Cuban experience—but also that some science fictional ideas transcend place, as with the impact of technology on everyday lives. It's marvelous to see Spanish work being translated and made accessible to English speakers, and I hope that translators can be kept in work bringing more to our attention.
Alexandra Pierce reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, blogs about it at Randomly Yours, Alex, and talks about it as one third of the Galactic Suburbia podcast team. In between, she tries to instill a love of English and history in high school students.