For the Fan Who's Read Everything: Cosmos Latinos
Reviewed by Joe Sutliff Sanders
22 September 2003
Let's say you're not one of those people who is myopic enough to think that only writers of English-language stories can do science fiction. But let's say you're also like most native English speakers and can only read one language. And even if you could read another language -- let's say Spanish -- how would you be able to get your hands on the really good Spanish-language science fiction that's been written not only as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, but as recently as a couple years ago?
Simple: you'd buy Cosmos Latinos.
This new collection is a godsend for people who want to see what a large part of the rest of the world is doing with science fiction. It's full of stories that are very much science fiction, not magical realism -- whatever that means this week -- or fantasy or ghost stories. The collection is put together by two outstanding women, both of them with the chops to do the subject justice. Andrea L. Bell has great credibility from her tireless efforts not only in print scholarship but more dramatically in her work as International Division Head for the yearly International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. And it's hard not to respect Yolanda Molina-Gavilán, whose published scholarship on many of these authors is actually cited throughout the collection.
The book is obviously intended for academic use -- after all, the publisher is a university press -- but the editors have been careful to keep the packaging and layout friendly to the casual reader. There are no discussion questions in the book, but the introduction gives an amazingly detailed (and brief!) history of science fiction in the Spanish-speaking world. The introduction even identifies some major themes in the field and sketches them quickly so readers know how to read the following stories better. Each story is preceded by a short bio of the author, placing the story in the context not only of that author's career, but also in the context of Spanish-language science fiction. The critical apparatus is, as I said, obviously intended for use by a student in a science fiction or literature classroom, but it's also a great idea for helping people who want to know more about non-English-language science fiction understand and enjoy the stories themselves.
The drawbacks to this arrangement are minimal. First of all, there are the endnotes in which the editors provide (only a few) comments on translation issues and proper nouns the readers might not recognize. The comments are not only welcome but helpful, but Wesleyan prints these at the end of the book, which means the reader has to stop reading, find the notes buried at the end, read the note, then go back to the story. Footnotes would have been a much better choice, though I should point out that few academic presses agree. The other problem with this scholarly layout is that the first few stories, the earliest in the collection, are the least enjoyable stories in the collection. Fans of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells may disagree here, but stories high on didactic social commentary and far-fetched speculation about the future -- the kinds of stories at the beginning of this collection -- make for a forboding entrance into the world of Spanish-language science fiction. These stories aren't bad, they're just very short on plot, character, and dialogue. Most contemporary readers require these in their fiction.
But the stories quickly become more enjoyable, and though I moaned only a few lines ago about preachy social commentary, later stories in the collection demonstrate that science fiction with a social consciousness can be not only good, it can be the best. Consider Jerônimo Monteiro's "The Crystal Goblet." At the very end, the story turns didactic, but up until then, it's a riveting tale of what a completely average man recovers from his nearly-average childhood: a window into what might be the future. As he chooses carefully whom to share his secret with, the future unfolding in the glass becomes both more frightening and more sure. Eduardo Goligorsky's "The Last Refuge" is one of the many examples of u- and dystopias in the collection, and the palpable fear of the protagonist as he runs from an oppressive police state rings all too true in the context of the author's own experiences as an Argentinian. As the story chronicles his flight away from the city and toward what looks an awful lot like a UFO, we get a glimpse of the extraordinary hope science fiction and its icons have for people living under the thumb of oppressive regimes. In fact, the thread of political commentary running through these stories and others makes real the vitality of science fiction for these authors, who are not borrowing icons but inventing a science fiction whose heart pumps hard.
The stories in this collection are wonderful -- as they should be, considering how many nations the editors had to choose their stories from -- and enjoyable as fiction in their own right. But for English-only readers, they also provide something we cannot get from native science fiction: a look at the things we consider part of our world as seen through someone else's eyes.
First of all, there is the handling these authors give tropes that have become stale in English-language science fiction, especially Christian mythology. One subtle example is Magdalena Mouján's "Gu Ta Gutarrak (We and Our Own)," a reinvention of the Adam-and-Eve story, one of the most familiar of science fiction's cliches. The story is one of those gems that not only has to be science fiction in order to work -- if you tried to tell this story in the mimetic mode, it would fall apart -- but has to be told by someone like Mouján, who is Basque. The story pokes fun at Basque prejudices even as it explains them. The work isn't straight satire, though; the characters are likeable, and the ending brings a smile. Another nice reinvention of religious canon is the smooth and erotic story "The Annunciation," by Daína Chaviano. The subject matter is probably obvious from the title, but the take is unique, and frankly, I'm wondering why no one worked this angle of the story before. It, too, is moving, in a far more erotic sense. Anglophonic science fiction has worked over Christian imagery to the point where I groan when I read yet another instance of the sub-genre, but these stories are fresh and interesting.
Another way these stories help us see our world anew is through the attention given, for lack of a better term, to the return of the repressed. Hugo Correa's "When Pilate Said No" obviously fits in with the religious stories I spoke of above, but it's more pointedly a story about how smug technologically-advanced cultures can be about the cultures they're stomping all over. When the inhabitants of an evidently backwards planet realize they're militarily outgunned in this story, they fight back with legend and superior fictions. Just the kind of thing science fiction fans love. Guillermo Lavín's "Reaching the Shore" is a much less direct story, but for all that it's just as powerful. A young boy has to deal on the day before Christmas with the realities of technology and addiction as imported to Mexico by American industry, not just in the abstract but as they impact his own family. The exploitative practices of American foreign policy come under unblinking scrutiny, written in impassioned tones in a very convincing science fiction setting.
And then there's the time travel story, wearily familiar by now to English-speaking fans. My favorite story in the collection, Richard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero's "The Day We Went through the Transition," reinvigorates that sub-genre. The logic of the story is tight, with real science woven in where most of us would just wave our hands to distract the reader from how goofy our explanations are. Its real power, though, comes from the heart-wrenching love story at its center. The story is powerful because the convincing science in the foundation allows a fragile romance to be constructed on top.
All of these stories were originally published in Spanish, and the editors themselves did a great deal of the translating. Fortunately for us, their ear for language in English is just as good as their taste in fiction. The stories are smooth and easy to read, filled not with the jarring prose that often results from translation, but with language so natural it's almost invisible. The translators exhibit confidence and grace as they turn Spanish phrases into familiar English ones such as "What's with this" and "I don't even ask 'em their names" that not only communicate literal meaning but also connote class and tone. The stories in this anthology are interesting, enjoyable, and accessible, and the editors have made sure we have no excuse to plead ignorance about science fiction written outside our native tongue. It's high time we had a collection like this one.
Copyright © 2003 Joe Sutliff Sanders
Joe Sutliff Sanders is completing, at the University of Kentucky, his dissertation on girls' novels from the turn of the century. He frequently publishes reviews in NYRSF, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, and elsewhere, focusing on the fantastic as well as graphic novels. He sometimes writes fiction, and one recent piece appeared in The Journal of Pulse-Pounding Narratives. See more of his work at his website.