The Spanish Riveter: Spanish SFT – Speculative Fiction in Translation from Spain by Rachel Cordasco

Spain is one of the relatively few countries that makes its speculative fiction widely available to Anglophone readers on  a regular basis. Thanks to talented translators and enterprising editors and publishers, speculative fiction in translation (SFT) from Spain has entered readers’ imaginations in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada like never before. Indeed, only since 2001has this flood of SFT come from Spain,despite centuries of speculative fiction being written and published in that country. Thanks to a more globalised publishing industry, the above-mentioned work of translators, and the willingness of Anglophone publishers to accept and promote these stories, we’ve been able to read fantasy from award-winning writers like Mercè Rodoreda and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, science fiction from Rodolfo Martínez and Rodrigo Fresán, and horror from writers such as Manel Loureiro and Carlos Sisí, among many others. Spanish and Catalan writers dominate the adult long-form speculative fiction available in English.

Unlike many other countries and source languages, whose SFT leans heavily towards one subgenre or another, Spain offers a roughly equal amount of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Here the adventurous reader can find surrealism, Lovecraftian and zombie horror, steampunk, Fantastika, space opera, and more. SFT from Spain, then, is a rich source of ideas about the past, present and future that readers can use to better understand their world and what it will become. What follows is a condensed overview of what interested Anglophone readers can find.

Science fiction and fantasy are represented in Catalan SFT by authors Manuel de Pedrolo, Mercè Rodoreda, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Carme Torras and Irene Solà, featuring witches, cryogenics, weird reptiles and other fascinating creatures and technologies. And while the science fiction subgenre developed in the Catalan language as early as the end of the nineteenth century (influenced by Flammarion, Wells, Čapek and Stevenson), much of it has not yet been translated. Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War, which not surprisingly informs many titles from Spain, disrupted genre publishing in the country for decades. Nonetheless, the novels of de Pedrolo, Sánchez Piñol and Torras give us an important window on Catalan science fiction over the last several decades. Both de Pedrolo’s post-apocalyptic Typescript of the Second Origin (published in Catalan in 1974; in English in 2018) and Sánchez Piñol’s terrifying Cold Skin (2002; 2007) explore how individuals faced with extreme isolation (either due to alien invasion or a government assignment) form bonds with anyone they can find in order to keep human civilisation going. Torras’s Vestigial Heart (2007; 2018) extends this idea, exploring a journey into an unrecognisable future via cryogenically induced sleep. Individuals forced to adapt to extreme circumstances in order to retain their humanity and survive calls to mind the targeting of the Catalan region during Franco’s reign in the early twentieth century.

In terms of fantasy, Rodoreda and Solà’s surreal and at times hallucinatory texts offer another perspective on Catalan writing, with villages that practise bizarre rituals (Death in Spring) and landscapes imbued with spirits and ghosts (When I Sing, Mountains Dance). In Rodoreda’s War, So Much War (1980; 2015), a wandering young man travels across a Catalonia-like landscape, encountering strange yet endearing characters trying to survive and thrive in a poverty suffused with the threat of war and various evils.

Unlike Catalan speculative fiction in translation, which comprises only eight texts as of the end of 2022, Spanish-language SFT from Spain includes thirty-six novels, six collections and two anthologies. This necessarily reflects the modern institutional power of the Spanish government and its institutions, but also this particular SFT’s development over several centuries. Since 2001, Anglophone readers have been introduced to older science fiction by writers like Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose Vacation Stories was first published in Spanish in 1905 and only translated into English in 2001. Similarly, one of Spain’s first-ever works of science fiction in Spanish – Enrique Gaspar’s The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey (1887) – was only published in English in 2012. Gaspar’s investigation of time travel and its relationship to Spanish history continues into modern Spanish science fiction via writers such as Félix J. Palma (the Victorian Trilogy) and José Carlos Somoza (Zig Zag), while others focus on everything from memory-erasing chemicals to genetic engineering and alien languages.

Modern science fiction from Spain was given an exciting infusion by writer and publisher Rodolfo Martínez, who wrote the first work of Spanish-language cyberpunk, Cat’s Whirld (1995; 2015), a story about malicious AIs, political conspiracies and space-station shenanigans. Ever the flexible and innovative writer, Martínez has also published Lovecraftian/detective horror (The Wisdom of the Dead) and alternative-universe fantasy (the Queen’s Adept trilogy). His most recent work in English is a collection of stories about humanity’s relationship to aliens, technology, and more (The Road to Nowhere). Hovering between multiple subgenres, we find Rodrigo Fresán’s trilogy – The Invented Part (2014; 2017), The Dreamed Part (2017; 2019), and The Remembered Part (2019; 2022) – an ambitious and extensive metafictional investigation of how a writer remembers, and how the use of different genres can help him understand a troubled and complicated life. The nature of reality, narrative and dreams is explored in the trilogy through other genres, such as film (2001: A Space Odyssey) and music (Pink Floyd). Fresán’s science fictional The Bottom of the Sky (2009; 2018) also uses the device of metafiction to imagine that humans are pawns in the hands of a stronger alien power, with a group of friends helping launch early American science-fiction fandom against the backdrop of 9/11.

Science fiction by Spanish women, in particular, has blossomed in the last few decades. While Lola Robles imagines an interstellar linguist learning to communicate with an extraterrestrial species (Monteverde) and Cristina Jurado explores both alien intelligences and the dark corners of the human psyche (Alphaland), Sofía Rhei focuses on language itself and how its materiality and evolution influence how humanity evolves and adapts to changing times (Everything Is Made of Letters).

Spanish fantasy in translation is similarly diverse and exciting, featuring metafictional texts about special libraries, near-future religious thrillers, reincarnation and witches. In a thousand-plus-page tetralogy, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books (2001–16; 2004–18), Carlos Ruiz Zafón celebrates literature’s resilience in the face of state and religious oppression. Elia Barceló’s Heart of Tango (2007; 2010) and The Goldsmith’s Secret (2003; 2011) are fantastical love stories involving relationships and transcend time and space; while the alternate-world of Sergio Llanes’s epic fantasy The Twilight of the Normidons (2016; 2016) focuses on a Rome-like empire as it deteriorates and is plagued by rebellion. More recent fantasy includes stories of an underwater world and werewolves (Moon Scars), shape-shifting cities and unethical experiments (Rabbit Island), and a world in which identity, art and coincidence melt together in bizarre and unexpected ways (Let No One Sleep).

Classic horror in Spanish SFT comes to us, so far, from just two authors – Carlos Sisi and Manel Loureiro, both of whom are interested in zombies. While the former’s postapocalyptic thriller tells the story of pandemic survivors trying to survive the zombie horde the pandemic itself created (The Wanderers), Loureiro’s Apocalypse Z trilogy, which began life as a blog, explores the social and political disruption that comes with the transformation of certain parts of the population into zombies. Other Loureiro novels use historical and psychological situations to build stories that elicit horror. Merging the bizarre with the horrific, Tamara Romero in Her Fingers crafts stories about threatening witches, body parts replaced by metal replicas, and more.

Anthologies of SFT from Spain allow Anglophone readers to learn even more about the various subgenres as written by Spanish-, Castilian-, Basque-, Catalan-, and Gallego-language authors over the centuries. In The Dedalus Book of Spanish Fantasy (1999), editors/translators Margaret Jull Costa and Annella McDermott feature symbolist, surrealist, and expressionist stories about doppelgangers, transformations, and transmigration. Meanwhile Mariano Villareal’s Castles in Spain: 25 Years of Spanish Fantasy and Science Fiction (2016) brings award-winning classics to a wider reading public, with stories about cloning, AI satellites and alternate realities.

Given its breadth and depth, speculative fiction in translation from Spain reflects SFT as the global phenomenon it is, written by a diverse array of people about a seemingly infinite amount of topics that imagine what is, or could be, possible. For this reason, SFT from Spain should be much better known in the Anglophone world and beyond.

Rachel Cordasco

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