Molina-Gavilán and Bell’s decision to translate a Spanish sci-fi story from nearly thirty years ago might seem odd when you consider that the genre often relies on imaginative, sometimes prescient, speculations about the world(s) of the future. Yet, as the translators emphasise in their informative introduction, Barceló’s novel has not only ‘stood the test of time’ but the feminist themes that she ‘tackles so straightforwardly […] are still relevant today’. While feminist sci-fi from nineties Spain might not have everyone immediately rushing for their shopping carts, this entertainingly provocative story is a long-overdue addition to the select number of Barceló’s works that are now available in English. Taking place in the twenty-third century, when gender equality laws have created a less patriarchal social model, Natural Consequences begins with the human crew of the Victoria space station receiving a plea for emergency assistance from a malfunctioning alien cargo ship. The ensuing meeting between the astronauts from Earth and their Xhroll counterparts will be a truly unprecedented occasion, a historic ‘face-to-face encounter with beings from another world’.
In any regular alien first-contact story, such a momentous event would probably occupy the greater part of the narrative. But not so for Barceló. In fact, as soon as their vessel is repaired, the Xhroll are keen to be on their way without the need or wish for future communication with Earth. But not before Spanish lothario Lieutenant Nico Andrade, a ‘macho’ throwback to the more toxic culture of the human past, has had time to seduce one of the Xhroll delegation:
‘Even if there was just one woman among them, one single woman, she would be his. He no longer cared how ugly she might be. What mattered was that he’d be the first human to …’
While Andrade is confident that his conquest will seal his reputation as a sexual pioneer, the outcome is unprecedented in a way he could never have imagined. Initially unnerved by his Xhroll partner’s aggressive dominance during their intercourse, Andrade is further horrified to discover he has been impregnated with a foetus that ‘in the absence of a uterus to grow in builds a net for itself that implicates almost every one of the host’s vital organs and literally sets up a parasitic existence’.
In a magnificent translation that maintains Barceló’s keen satirical humour, Natural Consequences goes on to explore both the consequences and the significance of Andrade’s miscegenation with an alien being for whom human binary categorisations such as ‘male/female’ are inadequate. In fact, in Xhroll culture, anyone who is impregnated – including Andrade – becomes a ‘mother’, irrespective of their biological identity as a man or woman.
Barceló’s gender-bending novel is a masterfully constructed exploration of important contemporary feminist issues, such as the nature of agency, inclusivity, toxic masculinity, and the tensions that exist between identities and their representations in language. Molina-Gavilán and Bell provide an extremely dextrous translation of the story, particularly given the problems of using gender-specific subject pronouns in English that are often suppressed in the original Spanish text. Their careful rendering of Barceló’s meticulously crafted prose admirably conveys the novel’s powerful and often challenging ideas, while keeping the author’s mordant humour to the fore.
Reviewed by Paul Mitchell
By Elia Barceló
Translated by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell
Published by Vanderbilt University Press (2021)
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Paul Mitchell is Associate Professor of English at the Universidad Cátolica de Valencia in Spain. His research interests include science fiction and gothic literature, cinema, and television. He is currently working on a monograph about the Strugatsky brothers, and an analysis of Elia Barceló’s texts that exist
in English translation.