We were surrounded by woods. Leafy trees, shrubs, grass. There were lots of butterflies. The blue sky was filtered by the high branches, letting interspersed rays of light in. And squirrels, lots of them. Climbing and coming down from trees, running around, twining in our legs. We were smiling. It was a lovely sight. The air smelled flowers. We saw wildlife, like deer and many birds, songbirds, watching us as we were watching them. No frights or unnecessary foolish fears.
I must stress I wasn’t expecting such a marvelous scene when I pushed the button on my quantic watch, ready for another interview. I knew of the worship Larry Nolen had for squirrels and even believed we would find them. I was only worried about how those rodents would present themselves. I was worried there would be zombie-like squirrels with long sharp teeth, hungry for brains.
I abandoned any expectations for peaceful, not risky interviews, quite some time ago.
We looked at each other in rapture. My interviewee was in a state of grace, almost living an epiphany. Squirrels are extremely lively little animals. He could never imagine lots of them climbing our legs, happily, as if we were equals.
And it was equal stupor that we saw one of them, as big as a grown cat risk himself a lot more. He went up Larry’s pants, held on to his shirt and roosted on his shoulders. The animal was smiling, with wide eyes and looked at us alternately. Then he opened his mouth and, to our surprise, he said:
“Don’t you think it’s time to wake up from this silly illusion and go back to reality?”
As in magic, we saw everything crumble and fall around us, in smaller and smaller parts, pixels falling apart until there was nothing but a room full of holographic projectors.
The squirrel on Larry’s shoulders was still there. He had an ironic expression. He waited until we were recovered from the shock and then came down, in a precise jump. He looked at us once again and signaled for us to follow him.
“Talking squirrels” I whispered, perplexed.
“Talking and technological squirrels,” Larry added with a scowl.
The squirrel ran towards a wall and disappeared through it right before our eyes. We moved forward and touched it. It was rigid, solid, metallic.
“What the hell…,” Larry started complaining.
Before he could finish, the squirrel came back with an angry face.
“I forgot you are as big as the tiny brains you have. It’s formless metal and we are small. If you used your mind a little more, you’d know you have to stoop down.”
I tried the wall with the tip of my toe wich, to my surprise, went through. Larry groped it, and found the exact height of the passage and in a fake smile, kneeled, crawling out of the room. I followed him.
We found ourselves in a corridor. Although the squirrels were small – but not as small as we could imagine – the places there were reasonably large.
“We were expecting you. We adapted some things,” said the rodent as if he could anticipate our concerns. “My name is Bel’n’tirk and this is the spaceship Derk’n’bork, category eight. Built to rescue and guide some chosen ones to a safe stoppage.”
Larry and I looked at each other in bewilderment.
“But where did this crazy watch bring us?”
“I haven’t got the slightest idea,” I answered while I saw the squirrel run down the corridor, leaving us behind.
“It’s an interview. Ask the first question.”
‘When you say – and rightfully so – that non-English audiences expect and possibly demand of their local authors that they follow more closely the unspoken standards of science fiction, would you then say that English science fiction – more able to subvert or challenge those same unspoken standards – has been evolving or has it just run its course to the end? In other terms, is it possible to be “evolving away” from itself?’ I put the paper I checked in search for the answers in my pocket back to where I had taken him from and increased my pace. We would soon lose track of Bel’n’tirk if we stayed there.
Other squirrels ran around the corridors. Many of them carrying notepads, communicators, pens and lots of stuff we couldn’t identify. They passed by us as if we weren’t even there.
“The problem, as I see it, with defining rigidly any term is that as soon as one does so, the usage changes. Science fiction today, whether it be that written in the United States, Great Britain, or Brazil, for example, differs as a whole in certain trends, technological advancements, both real and imagined, and in how people and their societies are portrayed. If I were pressed to define it at all, I would say that science fiction is a fluid narrative form that is very responsive to the conditions of its authors’ times and locales, mutating as necessary to reflect better the changing social, cultural, and technological landscapes.”
As soon as he finished answering, the spaceship was shaken. We heard a high crack as if the metal of the structures was breaking apart. The floor trembled and we had to lean on the walls. The squirrels around us startled and started to run even faster.
Bel’n’tirk went through another passage. We kneeled and went into what seemed to be an elevator. And it was. The controls were near the ground. The squirrel pressed two buttons and we were thrown against the ceiling due to the speed the vehicle went down. Bel’n’tirk laughed at our situation and pointed to his feet where magnetic little boots, which were recently activated, kept him firm on the ground.
“What’s going on?” Larry asked in dismay.
“We are a rescuing ship. Some blame us of kidnapping, but that’s not the case. We save people who are being followed. But we only do that when the cause interests us. And your cause is very interesting.”
“And what cause is that?” I asked, somewhere between curious and frightened.
Bel’n’tirk was about to answer when the elevator suddenly stopped. We were thrown against the ground and hit our bottoms groaning in constraint. The doors didn’t open because they just wouldn’t. We had to walk through them. We crawled out, already annoyed by this silly need (Doors which open and close are extremely comfortable). We stood up, but not entirely. Low ceiling. We were forced to bend. We found ourselves in the flagship. At least twelve squirrels were working in multi-colored panels from which indistinguishable holographic images were being projected. In the middle of the walkway, a squirrel which was quite bigger than the others, almost the size of a dog, looked at us in undisguiseable curiosity.
“My name’s Jorj’h’korg. You can’t imagine the great satisfaction I have in meeting you. And this magnificent quantic watch, which technology fascinates us deeply.”
“Fascinates us?” I asked, already protecting my watch.
The captain squirrel moved lazily on his rear legs, dragging his enormous belly towards us. He stopped in front of us, analyzing us entirely, as if he was analyzing products he was about to buy.
“Literary critics… Ah, it amazes me…” He suddenly said, lifting his hands theatrically. Then, he pointed his finger towards me and said: “…and also a writer…. Hmmmm… a critic with a glass roof… fascinating. They want to kill you,” he added, finally, while turning around and moving away.
“Kill us?” Larry Nolen asked, perplexed.
“They hate critics, all of them,” groaned the captain. “They hate anyone who lists their failures. They want compliments, just that, even if they’re not worthy of them.”
Larry Nolen looked at me. I looked back.
“I really kick asses, with no pity or mercy,” I joked.
“But I don’t criticize anyone… I mean… I don’t do that… I just comment or summarize the works I approve… I never…”
“And how do you think the others take your silence?” asked Jorj’h’korg, turning quickly and making his belly shake dangerously and frighteningly from one side to the other.
Larry Nolen gulped.
“But relax,” the captain continued. “You’re in a level eight rescue ship. The famous Derk’n’bork. Safe, you can trust that. Our followers can hit us as many times as they want and they won’t cause us much damage.”
As if trying to deny his words, the ship was shaken once again. We heard a nearby crack. Sparks and smoke flew from one of the panels. An electrical discharge made one of the squirrels in the bridge let a sharp scream and squeak while he floundered. He fell, apparently dead, with smoke coming out from his mouth. The captain came closer to him, kicked him casually and smiled, as if nothing had happened.
“You are in the middle of an interview, aren’t you? The questions and answers interest me greatly. Please, continue.”
Fearing our time in that ship would be short, I decided to do what the captain was asking. I gagged while I asked the second question. Larry Nolen gagged to answer.
“Would there be any real benefit from translating foreign works into English on a regular basis? I mean, apart from the odd, interesting author, and assuming for the sake of the argument that editors and the market would not be barriers to the translation and publishing of these stories, would SF really benefit from a constant flow of non-English SF that is, in its core, inspired in US/UK SF models?”
“Most certainly it would benefit. Anytime there is a free and open exchange of ideas, particularly ideas that reflect different cultural and social values, the chances of innovations in the writing between say a US writer and an Argentine one, or a UK author and a Japanese one – these are going to increase exponentially. Look at the current explosion in manga. It is no longer a Japanese literary form nor something that Americans just casually adopted. It is fast becoming a global literary form, one that seems to be spawning more and more hybrid literary stories.”
Larry Nolen took a deep breath, held on Jorj’h’korg’s seat and continued.
“The same holds true for SF. I just recently finished reading a short anthology of Singaporean SF, called Happiness at the End of the World. Although English, along with Mandarin Chinese, are the dominant languages in Singapore, the cultural values are very different and that has been an eye-opener, to say the least. Staying in this part of the world, look at the explosion in popularity of SF in China, Taiwan, and Japan. Although these markets have not yet produced many works that have been translated into English – although I should note that Haikasuru started up in 2009 and has produced several great translations of Japanese SF -, from what I have seen, these non-English markets are reimagining some of the core concepts of SF, including first contact – the Japanese seem to be at times even more xenophobic than Americans about this issue -, time travel – not much of a focus on paradoxes and altering the past in a negative fashion for the Japanese -, and technology – Americans seem to have more mixed feelings about technological advances, especially when it comes to modifying the human body, than do the Japanese or Chinese. SF readers exposed to this might in turn develop their own responses that are neither those of their prior generations’ SF nor that of the foreign nation whose SF they are reading. It is, in many respects, similar to the plethora of cooking styles and “fusion dishes” that have developed over the past few decades in response to the growing globalization in all facets of our lives.”
Jorj’h’korg, who seemed to be absorbed by my watch, wagged his hands smiling.
“Intelligent question, intelligent answer,” he turned to one of his comandeers then and told him to pass to warp eight.
“Warp eight?” Larry and I asked almost in unison.
‘Duh! While you were having fun at the holodeck, we were already doing warp seven. Evasive maneuvers and accelerated evasion. The Derk’n’bork can’t go beyond the eighth warp. The enemies are close, very close.
With a slight of hand, a pannel came down from the ceiling, unfolding in several faces, all of them forming a single monitor. Eight luminous spots that seem to dance fluttered.
“They are five million kilometers behind us. Their weapons can hit us with half the power. But they’re getting closer. And each meter closer, the power of their discharges increase considerably.”
“They told us this spaceship was the best in its category. (You’ve just said that,” I complained.
“Ah, hurtless little lies, although it’s good. But it’s not the fastest. We have comfort, the holodeck, an enviable provision warehouse and some naughty little squirrel girls, if you know what I mean,” he said with a blink.
“And how do you intend to save us this way?” I asked nervously.
The captain looked at my watch with a frank smile. He put his hands together and fiddled his fingers.
“We can leave this reality and head to another. A spectacular escape through the multiverses. Of course this would force this watch to leave this wrist, yours, and come to this one here, mine. But life is always the most precious thing, isn’t it?”
I thought about his words and soon came to the conclusion that it couldn’t be done. The property transfer would prevent us from coming back to our own reality. And there was no guarantee that the fat squirrel would give it back to me.
”How is fiction, not necessarily science fiction, made in latin countries as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico noticed in the big centers of fiction literature? Are there really language barriers? ” I suddenly asked Larry Nolen.
The captain of the ship soon transfered his attention to Larry, leaving my watch away for a moment. I was trying, obviously, to make time and accelerate the interview so that we could hit the road safely.
“There are barriers, of course, but celebrity seems to abolish most of them. Take for example Jorge Luis Borges. I have spent all of July writing daily posts about his books – reading most of them in Spanish rather than English translation – or comments he has made about other writers. It took fourteen years, from the appearance of his first story in English translation, in a mystery pulp magazine, in 1947 to a seemingly-sudden explosion of popularity in the US and elsewhere in 1961, on the heels of him sharing a major international fiction award with Samuel Beckett. Within seven years, Borges is crossing the United States on lecture tours that draw thousands, he is a visiting Professor at Harvard and several other prestigious universities, and his stories appear in premier publications like The New Yorker within months of being published in Argentina. Considering this was over forty years ago, it is a major accomplishment for a foreign writer.”
I glanced at Jorj’h’korg. He was hypnotized by the answer.
“But although the United States has had a long history of importing (and then “borrowing” ideas) fictions from Europe, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Latin American literature became popular in the US as it was throughout Mexico and South America in particular. There seemed to be this magical period, lasting through the mid-1980s before dipping until the rise of writers like Roberto Bolaño in the last half of the previous decade, where a flood of talented writers from all across Latin America were finding receptive audiences in the US: Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Amado, Mario Vargas Llosa – each of these authors were translated into English between 1960 and 1975 and Latin America became viewed as a hotbed of literature.”
While Larry answered, I started moving backwards, trying not to raise suspicions. The captain wanted my watch and I was seriously distrusting his intention of escaping from persecutors. I could bet it was all a hoax. Larry, who was alert, followed my every move.
“There are still several critics who point to Latin America even today as being a place to find great books. Time magazine selected Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet as one of its “50 Most Influential Latinos” back in 1999, for example. The Mexican Crack Manifesto group, the Southern Cone McOndoist group, and the infrarealismo of Bolaño have each led to major translation projects in the US. Although Fuguet, Edmuno Paz Soldán, Jorge Volpi, and Ignacio Padilla – just to name a few of the more prominent members of these groups – have yet to achieve the superstar levels of “El Boom,” they are visible and their works are generally well-received in American literary circles today.”
We moved closer to the entrance of the elevator. All the squirrels in the flagship were looking at us. Some had already stood up. The captain was approaching as well, half distrustful.
“So to return to the original question of whether or not the same types of barriers exist for Latin American writers: for most genres, once a writer is perceived to have enough talent, his or her works generally do well here in the US. But genre fiction, such as SF or fantasy, that is a tricky issue, since outside of Borges, whose fictions frequently touched, as he said explicitly in the introduction to El Aleph on the “fantastic,” there really hasn’t been a very visible Latin American writer whose works are explicitly genre in nature. Note that I’m leaving aside the question of how to define “magic realism” for now, as the semantics behind that term has created some heated debates,” Larry finished with a hem.
There was a kind of tacit understanding. As if Larry and I could understand each other telepathically. Of course the fat captain and his crew weren’t there trying to save our poor, mortal lives. The interest in the watch was so intense, it was impossible not to see it.
In an instant we threw ourselves into the elevator. We dived into it and couldn’t avoid hitting our heads against the metal wall on the other side, as the internal space was not that big. Larry pressed the buttons not really knowing what he was doing. The elevator flew up and then to the side, making us shake inside it as if we were in a mixer.
“Where are we going?” he asked confusedly.
“Like I know,” I answered foolishly. “This box will have to drop us somewhere, sometime.”
“They want the watch, right?”
“It got too obvious.”
“Damn squirrels. There is another question, isn’t there?”
“Ask away. I know that only once they are all answered can we leave the alternate reality we ended up in.”
I was about to ask the last question when the elevator suddenly stopped. Stay or leave? Cruel doubt. But we preferred to leave and that’s what we did. We were in a corridor. Some confused squirrels saw us while bells rang very loudly announcing our escape. We pushed some rodents aside and ran down the corridors, destination anywhere. We could hear the yelling behind us. Orders asking for our arrest. Ordering our execution. “But the watch cannot be damaged”, they said.
“Who are these squirrels?” I asked after a curve, trying to catch my breath.
“These are not regular squirrels,” Larry answered, stopping by my side, with his hands over his spleen. “These are not our squirrels. They can’t be.”
I stretched my neck on the corner near us to see where the God dammed rodents were. They came in a bunch, advancing resolutely and seemed to carry weapons in their hands.
“There is a room ahead,” Larry Nolen said.
“How do you know?” I asked, not seeing anything but a solid wall.
“There is a small, almost unperceivable luminosity that lines off the limit of the entrance. Can’t you see it? Pay attention.”
Then I saw it. He was right.
“It won’t work. They’re too close. We can’t run this distance without being hit by their shots.”
“Aha!” Larry said then taking a handful of nuts from his pockets. “Squirrels are squirrels anywhere in the world, be they scientifically and technologically advanced or not!”
“Where did those nuts come from?”
“Didn’t you tell me, some days before the interview, to prepare some? Here they are!”
He then threw them towards the squirrels which immediately went berserk, abandoning the hunt and fighting against each other for the food bouncing among them. We ran with what we had left of our breaths to the door ahead. Larry Nolen quickly bent and slid to the other side. I wasn’t that fast. I hit my head on the wall over the door and fell on my back, dazzled. Larry Nolen grabbed me by the feet and pulled me inside the holodeck. We were back to the beginning of it all.
I was still trying to regain conscience while he dragged a heavy fitment towards the door, placing it in such a way the squirrels couldn’t come in. He sighed relieved at the end of the operation and sat down, his back against the cupboard, cleaning the sweat away from his forehead.
“The last question,” he insisted while nudging my leg.
I groaned something, put my hand in the pocket and took the paper with the questions. I had forgotten the last. I was going to read, but noticing my effort and my clumsy look, Larry Nolen took the paper and read it himself aloud.
”The life of a summarizer is not always very easy, specially when the authors of the summarized books are more and more alive and connected. What is your criteria – including of evaluation – in order to keep faithful to the readers that chose to follow your critics and summaries ? Have you ever had problems with any summary or any specific writer ? How do you manage to read over 500 books a year ?’
He was about to answer when the fitment was shaken. We could hear yells from the other side. I sat against the furnishing as well, putting my weight and strength against it. I pulled my legs and crossed my arms around my knees. The quantic watch was right in front of my nose. Amisdt the screaming, we heard the captain speak.
”Friends, friends. That’s silly! Move away, take this obstacle from the way and let’s drink! Look, we’ve got Nictinian beer here!”
“Well, I try not to read more than three or four books that are similar in focus or genre classification. That way, I do not burn out on the reading. When selecting a book to review – which may be only ¼ or so of the books I read, I first decide if the book has anything interesting to say. If it does, then I proceed to consider its context – when was it written? For whom was it written? Are there things that I might not know about that time/culture?. Then I look at the mechanics of the story.”
A stronger shake frightened us. We heard a kind of sharp, insistent buzz. We looked at each other not understanding what they were doing. Suddenly, right before our eyes, between our faces which were facing each other, an intense blue ray emerged from inside the fitment and started to cut it upside down. We choked in shock. Larry, flustered, continued with the answer.
“What point-of-view is the narrative? How strong is the prose? Are there any discernable themes? What type of characterization is displayed and does that characterization fit the story? Is there a plot and if so, how easy did I comprehend it? Do things move at a steady pace, or does it seem that the author has lost control of his or her story? After that, I consider how everything fit together and if the author appeared to accomplish what he or she set out to do. Only then would I consider an essay on a book a review.”
The fitment was cracking in two.
“Have I had problems with authors or others over my reviews? Not really. In part because I tend to review only those stories that made a strong impression on me, I don’t tend to have as many negative reviews (at least in comparison to those works that were so “meh” that I just couldn’t find the energy to say anything about them). I have had some email conversations with authors about stories, but oddly enough, it usually is not about their own works. So no, I’ve never really had any conflicts to speak of with authors. As for fans, only occasionally, but since I can be a bit acerbic with those who don’t provide intelligent counterpoints, I rarely have a problem with those as well.”
We put ourselves together, seeing the laser or whatever it was complete its precise cut. Soon the fitment would be cut in two.
“As for how I am able to read as many as 500 books in a year? Well, I did say on my blog a couple of months ago that I employ a team of specially-trained Serbian squirrels to do most of my reading, reviewing, as well as the cooking and any needed massages. But the more boring answer is that I’ve always been able to read multiple lines at once with full comprehension. I just process words like images and it seems I am able to process them about five to ten times faster than average. That’s about as close as I can come to explaining the reading speed. I should note that I rarely read more than three hours a day and that the majority of the books I read are under 350 pages. So no, no reading 2-3 Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, or Steven Erikson books a day for weeks on end from me!”
The fitment finally broke apart, even if it still had its parts together. The strength of dozens or hundreds of super strong squirrels against two tired humans… Well, the result couldn’t be different. We moved away from the rodents that were dragging the parts deftly and quickly.
Moments before I pressed the button on my watch, taking us back to our reality, I could still see the entrance of the rodents. Fierce squirrels, including that one we judged to be dead with the electrical discharge and the paunchy captain. No Nictinian beer in his hands.
It wouldn’t be this time the quantic watch would fall into enemies’ hands.
Delfim, Romeu Martins and Luis Filipe Silva collaborated with this interview