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It's a Great Year for Speculative Fiction [BTBA 2017]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. 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.

Admittedly, I only started keeping track of speculative fiction (sf) in English translation last year, but this year is already better. In 2015, as far as I can tell, 20 works of sf (this includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, the weird), written in languages other than English, were translated into English. And yes, 20 is a very small number in the context of U.S. and UK publishing. However, this year is on track to bring us nearly 30 works of sf in translation (this includes short-story collections), and, being the optimist that I occasionally am, I can only see this number growing in the coming years. With works of sf in translation winning Hugo awards both last year and this year (The Three-Body Problem, The Day the World Turned Upside Down, Folding Beijing), I think it’s safe to assume that American readers are increasingly interested in speculative stories from around the world, stories from a variety of cultures and traditions that make us interrogate our own assumptions about the planet, the universe, reality, and more.

And while I’d love to talk here about all of the sf in translation coming out in 2016, I’ll limit myself to my favorite five (so far):

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

This chilling book about a faceless, crushing bureaucratic/totalitarian entity might not be marketed as “speculative fiction,” but Basma Abdel Aziz transforms Egypt’s oppressive security apparatus into the stuff of horror stories. In a world that Kafka and Murakami would easily recognize, a Gate guards the entranceway to an unmarked building, outside of which people must wait to obtain papers for anything they want to do: apply for a job, get an operation, file a complaint. The problem is, this Gate never opens, and the line of people waiting outside grows and morphs until it becomes a new organism—it’s no longer just a line of people but a new social order, with it’s own hierarchy and etiquette. And as this line expands, the Gate makes announcements akin to those in Orwell’s 1984, which attempt to rewrite history in the service of an ever-oppressive future.

Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye

This is Yoss’s second novel to be translated into English (his first was A Planet for Rent in 2015) and if you have even a shred of a sense of humor, you’ll find Super Extra Grande pretty hilarious. After all, if a story about a love-lorn veterinarian who specializes in treating the largest organisms in the universe doesn’t make you cackle, well . . . But it’s not just Yoss’s descriptions of Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo’s work digging around, for instance, in the innards of massive amoebae for lost bracelets that gives the book its vivacity; it’s also Yoss’s singular sardonic style in which nothing is sacred and we’re reminded that humanity can be pretty ridiculous in it’s own special way.

Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu

I’m going to assume that you’ve already read The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, because how could you not read this brilliant hard-sf trilogy?? So now you’re ready for Death’s End, and I hope you’re prepared to set aside an entire day or two (depending on your reading speed) to ingest this novel in one sitting. Trust me, you won’t want to be handling dishes or children or animals while your brain churns through the complex philosophical, mathematical, and cosmological issues and conundrums posed in this book. Your mind will be reeling from a trip into four-dimensional space and across centuries, and from the mind of an alien to the thoughts of a woman whose choices will determine the fate of humankind. All the while, you’ll be drawn in by Ken Liu’s beautiful translation of Cixin Liu’s lyrical imagination.

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon

Bleak and hushed it certainly is, but a strain of hope and optimism manage to permeate this story of two friends eeking out lives working in a dilapidated electronics market in a Seoul slum. What gives this novel its speculative angle is the fact that people’s shadows seem to be detaching themselves from their owners, sometimes piece by piece, sometimes all at once. Hwang Jungeun uses these detaching shadows, the electronics repair shops, and a broken matryoshka doll to explore the fragility of human life and the shifting sands upon which we build our cities.

Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell

What gives humans that “spark” that we call life/consciousness/self-awareness? Cabiya explores this question through the figure of the “zombie”—not the lurching, muttering zombies we know from recent films but a gentlemanly, quiet zombie who works at an Eli Lilly research lab in the Dominican Republic. There, he tries to formulate a compound that will bring him back to “life,” even though he looks and acts like a “normal” person. The brilliance of this book, though, lies in its heady mixture of genres and juxtaposition of science, magic, folklore, neurology, botany, and Caribbean history.

This list is just the beginning of what you’ll find this year in international speculative fiction. Go check it out; your brain will thank you.



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