Science Fiction in Translation [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Up until college, I didn’t put much, if any, thought into my reading methods. I read what I was assigned for school, and outside of that, read what I wanted, when I wanted to. During college I started choosing an order to read books in, planning a dozen at a time. After some years, I found a new reading method: reading an author’s entire oeuvre, in linear fashion, then moving on to another. I mention all this, leaving out minor phases, and variations of the methods, because as a BTBA judge, I have to come up with a new pattern, while preserving as much of my current habits as I can.
I read multiple books at a time, different types for different reasons, and a genre novel is always one. I deeply love genre, it dominated my childhood reading, particularly science fiction, but also detective, noir, fantasy. This foundation fell apart, during some of those insufferable years of young lit snob pretension, but for years now, has reestablished and strengthened itself. Not wanting to leave this, my eyes seek out genre-in-translation when I peruse and stack books as they arrive.
For years now, since well before Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, crime fiction has been translated in relatively high numbers, and even more so in the time since that series’ success. In recent years, we’ve had the modern, unrelenting Scandinavians, hard-boiled classics like Manchette, the contemporary grim Mediterranean noir of Jean-Claude Izzo and Massimo Carlotto, the resurgence of Simenon, so I had no worries about finding translated crime novels to read this year. Science fiction, however, generally hasn’t faired as well. After all, we’re still waiting for the Bill Johnston translation of Stanislov Lem’s utter classic, Solaris to make it into a print edition.
There does seem to be a tide of change coming though. When a conversation with a translation fan rambles on long enough, more often than not, affection for science fiction comes up. Foreign, seemingly highbrow, authors are more welcoming of genre, and less determined to blend it, or make it literary, justify it as many English-language writers do. With these things, and crime fiction’s success, it’s satisfying to see translated science fiction getting healthier. University of Nebraska Press’s Bison Frontier of the Imagination series has been publishing translations years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Melville House has published both modern authors like Jean-Christophe Valtat and classic ones like the Strugatsky brothers. Lui Cixin’s Three Body Problem had mainstream success in the SF world. Andri Snær Magnason’s “Vonnegutian LoveStar”: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6702 is brilliantly fun satire of contemporary life, tossed a few years in the future.
Those efforts help set up the BTBA SF books this year. Leading the way, if only for their flashy covers and early arrival in my mailbox, are the first two publications in Restless Books’ Cuban Science Fiction series. A Planet for Rent and A Legend of the Future have little in common besides being Cuban and good. This is a fine move by Restless, not making a cultural statement about what Cuban SF is, instead just letting the books do what translation does best: offer the literature from other languages that most deserves to be read, and lay out alternative stories, or alternative ways to tell familiar stories.
A Legend of the Future—translated by Nick Caistor, whose name seems to be popping up on excellent translations rather frequently—is by Agustin de Rojas, who the jacket copy calls the “patron saint of Cuban science fiction.” He died in 2011 and published this book in 1985. On the other hand, Planet for Rent was published in 2001, the author goes only by Yoss, and he looks like Criss Angel with a DFW bandana. The differences are not all biographical detail. Rojas’s is a straightforward novel, and in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke in that the book is about people doing their jobs. The characters of his book and Clarkes’ are scientists as professionals. In Legend of the Future, an extended, deep-space journey with a small crew turns disastrous, half the crew dies, the captain is left nearly paralyzed, only able to speak, another is distraught, and a third has a slowly-explained conditioning triggered in her. They work desperately, yet rationally, skillfully, to figure out what exactly went wrong, what they can do about it, and how to get home.
Throughout, cohesively worked into the narrative as part of the conditioning, as memories vividly relived as like hallucinations, reveal just how tightly-knit this crew was, still is, and the philosophy and indoctrination that created that. The characters are put in situations, through changes, only possible in SF, but the psychological exploration of death, desires, thoughts, and values among deeply emotional-connected people struggling to find a way to survive catastrophe is relatable and human. It’s a fantastic book, well-plotted and paced, that plays with some traditional SF rules and gambits, while ever-exciting in the new avenues it creates.
Plot and human relationships are the main forces in Legend of the Future, while Planet for Rent, translated by David Frye, is in the allegorical SF tradition and tells multiple stories instead of just one: it made up of short stories separated by narratives about the world Yoss built, allowing for info-dumps without awkward interruptions. In the future, advanced alien races have decided that humans will destroy themselves before being able to join the larger galactic civilization. With that, the aliens take over, instituting their own rules for fuel use and population growth. They wipe out cities, as punishment, as a way of showing their dominance, and to reestablish “ecological balance.”
Under this harsh rule, the police state with its swift and severe punishments, the purposeful structural poverty, the denial of emigration, Earth becomes a parable for a third world nation, as administrated by a country like the US. It survives on tourism, on selling its culture, and its bodies, all for the entertainment of the rich xenoids, and the humans who successfully collude. The stories are about the sex trade, art, illegal emigration, and inter-species offspring. Yoss’s writing is politically and socially motivated, but by committing to the genre, the imaginative aspects, the entertainment takes precedent over any agenda—at times, one to one connections with reality are clear, other times left in the dust of creative drive.
It is hard to imagine either book written by an English-language author. Rojas’s for its basis in a scientific culture that preaches ideology of the collective, and its conflicted take on that, portraying affection for it and damage done by it. Yoss’s for the remarkably clear expression of how whole cultures and economies are hobbled by more economically and industrially dominant cultures, preaching both their superiority and beneficence, but a clarity not self-righteous, not so committed to message that craft and art are lost, as an English-language author, determined to speak for others, could easily do.
It’s early in the year, dozens more books are going to come to my mailbox, including SF, and hopefully those will live up to these two. I’m in the beginning of Martin Vopenka’s Fifth Dimension, handpicked by translator Hana Sklenkova as one of the best untranslated Czech SF novels. A man, his business and career ruined, for a large sum of money agrees to live in isolation from everyone, including his family, for a year as part of an as-yet unexplained experiment. This beginning touches on one of the pleasures of SF set in the present: the tension of waiting for the SF kernel to expand. I’m looking forward to receiving Taiyo Fujii’s Gene Mapper, translated from the Japanese by Jim Hubbert, a highly praised and awarded contemporary novel. It pushes technological advances and predictions 30 years into the future and I like that type of SF while harboring an affection for Japanese literature.
As with the rest of translated works, as much as there is, I want more translated SF. I want to read the freshest, weirdest SF that other countries are putting out. I want to read the classics that are only just making it into English. I want to see how writers from other countries are affected by English-language writers, to see old ideas in new interpretations. There are books coming out this year I’ve yet to discover, so if you work for a press publishing SF in translation this year, or a fan of any, let me know. I don’t want to miss any of it, and I may find myself writing a second SF post. If you’re a SF fan, talk to fans of translation; if you’re a translation fan, talk to SF fans. Let’s get those worlds, with all their overlap, working to get more of these books into the world.