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For a Truly Multicultural Science Fiction: Do Translations Matter?

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Science fiction is arguably becoming truly cosmopolitan today. After this genre was baptised in the United States and its fandom developed there, it was soon forgotten that scientific romance (or its equivalent forms of fiction often called utopian in non-English literary areas) had existed for decades, and that this truly international form of mainstream fiction was cultivated by critically acclaimed writers from Argentina to Japan, from Sweden to Bengal. Many soon believed that science fiction was only, or mainly, a US invention, that science fiction did not exist as such elsewhere and, if it existed, it could not be but a slavish imitation of American models. It might have been so in some instances, as the Perry Rhodan serial pulps from Germany amply demonstrate. Focusing only on the products of cultural ‘coca-colonization’ failed however to do justice to science fiction written in different languages by many gifted writers. Non-Anglophone science fiction was ignored in most instances. Hardly a couple of international authors, namely Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, succeeded in getting wider recognition, perhaps thanks to their being considered representatives of an allegedly alternate way of writing science fiction coming from the Eastern Bloc, a way that was moreover quite similar to contemporary New Wave literary and ideological experimentalism. By contrast, similar science fiction writers from the Western Bloc were little known, unless their speculative stories were received as mainstream literature written by authors having acquired a high critical reputation for their previous non-science fiction books. This was the case, for instance, of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, whose novel Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995) about a pandemic outbreak and its societal consequences was, however, rarely received as science fiction, despite its clearly speculative approach and subject matter.

Fortunately, this situation appears to be changing in the 21st century. Following already existing trends, in recent decades science fiction has been the subject of extensive historical surveys, and by no means limited to the Anglosphere. Bibliographies, encyclopedias, literary research by both fans and scholars still tend to emphasize works in English but there has always been an awareness of the international dimension of science fiction history. It was widely known that one of the fathers of science fiction avant la lettre was Jules Verne, or that one of the greatest prospective dystopias is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924). Now these are not just token international names as they used to be in the first considerations of science fiction as a particular genre of fiction. Competent translations into English having appeared in series such as ‘Early Classics of Science Fiction’ from the Wesleyan University Press, among other academic initiatives, are showing the variety and originality of European and Asian scientific romances. Thanks to these and other translations Anglophone readers can find quality renditions of significant science fiction classics from China, Bengal, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and other literary regions. Furthermore, Brian Stableford has undertaken a colossal task of translating into English a cross-section of the huge French output in scientific romance and related genres. He has translated into English dozens of novels and stories, some of which are quite difficult to come by in France and other French-speaking countries. Many of them have appeared with his own prefaces, where his astonishing literary learning and critical acumen make of them examples of what science fiction scholarship should be about.

Contemporary international genre science fiction has not fared equally well, though. Liu Cixin’s success can be explained by Ken Liu’s adaptation of the original works to the American pop style of writing, as well as the chance of having occupied the same niche as the Strugatsky brothers as ‘the’ representative of science fiction coming from the main geopolitical, ideological and economical rival of the United States: earlier the Soviet Union, now China. There are signs, however, that science fiction with different origins will not be ignored this time. One of the main Anglophone publishing companies, Penguin, has a new collection called ‘Penguin Science Fiction.’ Among its titles so far announced, almost half of them are translations from languages as varied as Japanese (Kobo Abe), Russian (Yevgeny Zamyatin, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky), Spanish (Angélica Gorodischer) and German (Andreas Eschbach). It is hoped that this catalogue will continue to be internationally balanced as it seems now. There are still many fine science fiction works awaiting translation under the good editorial and marketing conditions that Penguin and similar corporations can afford. Only if they are translated into English, the lingua franca of science fiction, this genre could become truly global and multicultural in a meaningful way. A monolingual multiculturalism, with supporters unable to read anything but English, as it is unfortunately the case in all too many instances, is a contradiction in terms, a mockery of true diversity. Does it genuinely serve multiculturalism that scholars and critics eulogize science fiction works by ‘non-white’ writers produced in English following postmodern-leftist American biases while ignoring genuine world-views from other cultures, ‘white’ or not, expressed in their own languages and conceived having their own local readerships in mind? An example among those appearing in the above-mentioned Penguin science fiction collection comes especially to mind.

Gorodischer’s Trafalgar (1979) deconstructs in one of her stories the Whig stereotype of Anglo-American good imperialism versus Spanish evil imperialism (beware the Spanish inquisition!). Its eponymous hero intervenes on an alternate Earth to ensure that the Spanish Empire does not neglect the Northern subcontinent during its colonization of the Americas. He thus prevents future US interventions in Latin America like those supporting the dictatorship oppressing Argentina at the time when the book was published. Such an approach is nowhere to be found in alternate histories in English, which tends to portray any victorious Catholic Spain as intrinsically evil (c.f. Keith Roberts, Harry Turtledove, etc.). Exposure to translations of speculative and science fiction written in languages other than English (for example, Italian alternate histories re-assessing Benito Mussolini’s rule) by authors averse to the current politically correct consensus would be helpful to achieve a truer form of multiculturalism. We might want to embrace that consensus for its being perhaps fairer and more (post)humane; but democracy as well as literature thrive in a varied cultural ecosystem. It is this wealth of dissenting voices that science fiction can tap into through the power of the translated word.

We might well rejoice, while still regretting that the number of translations remains lower than desirable. There is the huge obstacle of the diminishing linguistic skills of all too many Anglophones, who seem less and less willing to make the necessary effort to learn foreign languages. What is the need for memorizing thousands of exotic words and difficult grammar when English is, at least in theory, understood everywhere? Is there anything interesting to read or talk about that it not produced in English? Laziness being a fundamental feature of human nature, there is now little use of trying to convince anybody of the pleasure, if not the convenience, of learning how to encounter foreign ‘others’ as they really are, even if only to enjoy holidays abroad, in a more humane way than just getting drunk and suntanned (or burned, rather) in, let’s say, Benidorm. When classic languages are no longer treasured by educated Anglophones, when French is no longer the language of diplomacy, when cultural studies and various postmodern ideologies have displaced philological research at most universities, it is perhaps understandable that quite a few native speakers of English dismiss foreign languages as an utter waste of time, unless they are encouraged to learn them by enlightened entities such as the Irish Republic or the Mormon churches… Nevertheless, there still remains a sizeable demographic able to translate all kind of texts into English including, dare we say, literature. Globalization is increasing the number of bilingual people due to international marriages. Growing proficiency of English allows native speakers of other languages to skillfully translate texts from theirs to the current global tongue.

For many of them, the issue might be either to be paid for their endeavors or, if they translate for the sheer love of languages and culture, to find a publishing venue. Sci Phi Journal is one of them, at least for short fiction. Translators have, however, rarely answered this journal’s call, perhaps for obstacles that no publication can overcome on its own. Students and scholars able and willing to translate foreign science fiction into English are not encouraged to do it in a competitive academic environment where the principle of ‘publish or perish’ prevails and translations are not acknowledged as highly as, say, original scholarship. Writers able to translate seem to have forgotten that their earlier peers found translation to be an excellent school for good writing. The formidable rhetorical and stylistic resources of English seem to remain all too often untapped simply because writers forget that literary fiction requires a deep understanding of its raw material, language. The act of translation makes writers transcend the comfort zone of their mother tongue. When trying to reproduce the effects that arise from foreign authors successfully exploiting the rhetorical potential of their native language, translators are forced to reflect on the resources of their own language, and use them, both in their translation and eventually in their original writing. Is monolingualism an explanation for the limited rhetorical skills and the flat (“easy listening”) language now sadly prevalent in Anglophone (science) fiction? Is that the reason preventing us from having more stories written using sophisticated syntax, rich vocabulary and effective rhetoric? Such a statement would be a risky contention. It is not, however, that translation helps to improve one’s linguistic proficiency and therefore literary abilities, what more, it opens one’s mind to the world through the deep identification with the Other that literary translation always entails. The increasing numbers of translated science fiction works suggest that these advantages are being understood. Let us hope that many more will follow this path. Because the science fiction universe is too vast to reduce it to the literature produced in one single language.


Rubik’s Cube

by Pablo Martín Sánchez
Introduction and translation by Jeff Diteman

Translator’s note

In Spain, Pablo Martín Sánchez is best known for his novel El anarquista que se llamaba como yo, published in 2012 by Acantilado. The newspaper El Mundo named that book the best debut novel of the year, and it has earned the author widespread acclaim in the Spanish literary press. Outside of Spain, Pablo is best known for being a member of the Oulipo, the exclusive club of literary experimentalists founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. The group is interested in renewing literature by turning away from the idea of spontaneous inspiration and instead embracing formal constraint. Queneau had been a member of the Surrealists, but after breaking with them, he became a critic of automatic writing. “The ancient poet,” he opined, “writing his tragedy while observing a certain number of rules that he is aware of, is freer than the poet who writes everything that comes to his mind, who is the slave to other rules of which he is unaware.”

It is in his embrace of Queneau’s spirit of intentional, orderly, cerebral innovation that Pablo is to be considered a thoroughly Oulipian author, although some of his writing may not appear on the surface to be formally experimental. Indeed, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name, my translation of which was published by Deep Vellum in 2018, can be read as a fairly straightforward novel, because in that work Pablo has chosen to “hide the bones,” so that the constraints, intertextuality, and metafictional conceits do not distract from the story. In his more recent novel, Tuyo es el mañana (2016), the author repeats the feat of integrating a spirit of formal innovation into a story that remains accessible to readers who might be unfamiliar with the Oulipian canon. His forthcoming dystopian novel Diario de un viejo cabezota (Reus, 2066) will surely continue the trend.

In assessing Pablo’s position in the tradition of experimental writing, it is important to look beyond the Oulipo, to those writers that Oulipians might call “plagiarists by anticipation,” i.e. those who did Oulipian things before the Oulipo, sensu stricto, existed. Central and paramount among these is Jorge Luis Borges. It is in homage to Borges that Martín Sánchez’s 2011 collection of short stories is titled Fricciones, a riff on the Argentine author’s seminal collection Ficciones, which includes such mind-bending works as “The Library of Babel,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It is impossible to overemphasize the impact that these pieces have had on the genre of writing that takes writing itself as a proper subject of contemplation, allowing concepts such as meaning and knowledge to function as protagonists in tales where conventional features such as plot and character, while not absent, become secondary considerations. Echoes of Borges can be detected in the works of writers as disparate as Derrida and Cortázar, Anne Carson and Italo Calvino. Pablo Martín Sánchez’s collection Fricciones is full of quirky little pieces that draw on the same spirit that nourished the imaginations of Borges, Calvino, Perec, and their ilk. Cyclical time, inverted causality, and paradox are prevailing themes in these tales. Topics include the pharmaceutical specifications of the kiss, an ars poetica for metric poetry (i.e. poetry written while riding the metro), and a silent love affair based on a misunderstanding of Oedipal proportions. These pieces were my first introduction to Pablo’s work, so it has been a great pleasure to translate a few of them for publication, particularly the present piece, “Rubik’s Cube.” This is one of the most bizarre texts in the collection, presenting an alternate reality in which three great philosophers miss the mark, pointing to the utter contingency of intellectual history. It is a playful little piece, but if we pause to consider it deeply, we can perceive the very serious implications of this contingency. I think of the sheer bad luck that caused Walter Benjamin to die at the Franco-Spanish border rather than escaping to the United States as his peers Adorno and Arendt did. Imagine what insights he might have produced had he lived on into the 1950s! Alas, he did not. Perhaps this is why we keep returning to authors of the past, to try to realign the Rubik’s Cube so that their unrealized potential might emerge. What I love about Pablo’s writing is the way it renews the literature of ideas with fresh, contemporary language and imagery, establishing unexpected continuities between the great allegorical innovations of past genius and the discursive heterogeneity of our chaotic present. Ludic, Borgesian, postmodern, and yet subtle, humanistic, and sometimes sentimental, Pablo Martín Sánchez is an author who will not soon be forgotten.


Rubik’s Cube

1.  Socrates

They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. They also say that a line is a series of points. Here we will claim that life is a line of moments, and among these there is always one that opens the door to posterity: one must simply know how to find it, by lining up the right place and the right time. If we also manage to adorn the moment with an inspired turn of phrase, we will probably pave the path to glory (and the clever utterance will then become the shortest distance between fame and oblivion). But if we miss the mark, we will most certainly be condemned to be forgotten forever. This inflexion point between fame and oblivion is what Axel Browling aptly calls “the biographer’s tidbit.”[1]

But Socrates has not read Browling when, one hung-over morning in the year 435 BC, he wakes up with a dry mouth. If he had read him, he might be more cautious today. However, they say that Socrates, in addition to being ugly, is also reckless. There is a short epigraph carved into his headboard, quoting one of the adages inscribed atop the Oracle of Delphi: ˝γνῶθι σεαυτόν.”[2] He has spent several weeks reflecting on this curious maxim, and last night, surrounded by jugs of wine and drunken acolytes, he had a sort of revelation. And they say that Socrates can drink more than anybody without losing an atom of his wits. So he was not surprised when, just as a slug of wine was leaving the safety of the palate to plunge into the arcane abyss of the esophagus, a clever phrase appeared in his mind.  A clever phrase that was surely destined to cause a sensation among his circle of interlocutors, and no shortage of conundrums for contemporary exegetes and future biographers. Before the wine reached his stomach, Socrates opened his mouth; however, observing the alcohol-soaked circumstances, he closed it again. “No sense squandering clever phrases,” he must have thought. “I’ll save it for the right time and place.”

Thus, not having read Browling, Socrates calmly stands up, his mouth slightly dry. He prepares an infusion of chamomile, gargles to clear his voice, and strides off toward the agora with an air of self-satisfaction. Last night he spread the word that today he would reveal something important, and the marketplace is bustling with anticipation. Socrates arrives at the square. Socrates steps up to the dais. Socrates clears his throat. And, expecting thunderous applause, Socrates says: “Je pense, donc je suis.”[3]

2.  Descartes

They say that, when an obstacle arises, the shortest distance between two points is a curved line. They also say that there are two kinds of artists: those who ask questions and those who provide answers. Faced with an obstacle, those who ask questions stop and open investigations; those who provide answers prefer the risk of an unknown curve. The problem is that the artists who give answers tend to die misunderstood, because sometimes they answer questions that have not yet been asked. The answer is then obligated to wait in the bottom of a box until humanity manages to pose the right question. This is what Axel Browling scientifically defines as “chronological discrepancy by anticipation.”[4]

But Descartes had not read Browling when, one chilly night in 1637, he heard a knock at his door. He had just finished drafting the clean copy of the final page of his new philosophical treatise. They say that he had actually written it four years beforehand, but that shortly after signing a contract with his bookseller, he received the horrible news of one of the greatest aberrations in history: Galileo Galilei was to be burned at the stake if he would not renounce his attempt to turn the Earth into a spinning top. “E pur si muove,”[5] the Italian is rumored to have hissed sotto voce, finding himself transformed into one of the greatest heretics of all time. But at the moment Descartes was in no mood for metaphysical temper tantrums, so he waited a while, aware of the scorching consequences his work was likely to incur upon publication. And so, Descartes spent those four years growing tulips and translating his magnum opus, initially written in Latin, into French (taking advantage of the opportunity to leave a few orthodoxically inappropriate phrases foundering in the inkwell). He most certainly did not neglect to save the best for last: the last sentence of the treatise not only would “revolutionize the history of Western philosophy” (in Descartes’ own words), but was also a synthesis of and key to the whole work. Finally, after four years, at the urging of his friends, his ego, and above all an ultimatum from his publisher, he decided to publish the treatise—unsigned and in French.[6]

So it was that, one chilly night in 1637, as Descartes, not having read Browling, was fastidiously transcribing the final paragraphs of his ambitious work, he heard a knock at his door. It was his bookseller. “Have a seat, I’m almost finished,” Descartes invited him, eager once and for all to turn his grey matter into printer’s ink. Descartes sat down. Descartes finished the treatise. Descartes stood up. And, with a smile on his lips, Descartes handed over the manuscript, not realizing that the last thing he had written was something along the lines of “e = mc2”.

3. Einstein

They say that if we could fold a rolling paper in half forty-nine times, the thickness would be equal to the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Nine more folds and we could reach the Sun. And with twenty more folds we’d be at Alpha Centauri. Surely, with a few more folds, we would reach God, and barge in on him playing with the universe like a person fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube. Indeed, Alex Browling used the metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube to explain his so-called “Browling’s conjecture,” according to which time and space are two concentric spheres which, in extraordinary situations, can fall out of alignment. This is what he defined, somewhat apocalyptically, as a “Rubik’s crack.”[7]

But Browling’s theories will be of no use to Einstein when, one peaceful morning in 1905, he picks up a piece of chalk before the attentive gaze of one hundred eyes. At this time, we shall spare the details of the event and skip without further ado to the end of the story, which any attentive reader familiar with modern prose will already have guessed.[8] We will only say that Einstein was getting ready at that very moment to write on the chalkboard the mathematical formula that would forever refute the majority of physical theories theretofore considered valid. Einstein will pick up the chalk. Einstein lifted his hand. And, ineluctably, Einstein writes: “I only know that I know nothing.”[9]


Someone once said that to be a genius is to designate oneself as a genius and to be correct. Socrates, Descartes, and Einstein had a chance to achieve posterity, but they designated themselves as geniuses and failed in the attempt. Whether Browling’s conjecture and Rubik’s crack are related to this failure is something we shall leave up to the reader’s interpretation. In any case, here we have sought to shed light on the frustrated existence of three figures who could have been famous and were not; perhaps rescuing them now from oblivion is a fair homage to their hard work and dedication. Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock, accused of corrupting the youth (certainly, the strange and sensual sonority of the French language did not help in his defense). Descartes was burned at the stake because his inexplicable formula e = mc2 was interpreted by some as “enfer = moi et le double de Christ” (and the double of Christ is none other than the Antichrist); or as “enfer = magie carrément cartesienne.” Finally, Einstein was deemed mad and committed to an insane asylum. To all of them, in memoriam, we offer our deepest respect and admiration.

[1] Browling, Axel. The Sky: An Epistemology of Fame. New York: Starworks, 1995, pp. 44-45.

[2] “Know thyself”

[3] “I think, therefore I am,” in impeccable seventeenth-century French

[4] Browling, op. cit., pp. 174-179.

[5] “And yet it moves.”

[6] It should be noted that, at that time, publishing a philosophical or scientific text in French was at best unconventional.

[7] Browling, op. cit., pp. 201-218.

[8] For more information on Einstein’s conference and what occurred there, see Pablo Martín Sánchez, Estudios cronotópicos, Ediciones del Bombín, Barcelona, 1998, vol. 2, ch. VIII.

[9] In ancient Greek, to confuse matters more: ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα.


Winged Spirit

by Luís Filipe Silva
Translation and introductory note by Rex Nielson

Luís Filipe Silva (1969-), is a Portuguese writer, editor, and translator known primarily for his contributions to Portuguese SF. He has authored novels, including A GalxMente, initially published in two volumes: “Cidade da Carne” and “Vinganças” (LeYa-Caminho, 1993), along with numerous articles and short stories. Most recently, he co-authored with João Barreiros the award-winning novel Terrarium (Saída de Emergência, 2016). He has organized and edited several collections of Portuguese science fiction, including Vaporpunk—Relatos Steampunk Publicados sob as Ordens de Suas Majestades (with Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) and Os Anos de Ouro da Pulp Fiction Portuguesa (with Luís Corte Real). His collection of stories and poems O Futuro à Janela was published in 1991 and was awarded the Prémio Caminho de Ficção Científica. The poem “Winged Spirit” occupies the final entry in Silva’s volume O Futuro à Janela.


for ever and the earth

… of wandering for ever and the earth … Who owns the earth? Did we want the earth that we should wander on it? Did we need the earth that we were never still upon it? Whoever needs the earth shall have the earth: he shall be still upon it, he shall rest within a little place, he shall dwell in one small room for ever.

(Thomas Wolfe) 


two-thousand years fall on me
unstable instant
final test for the development of all societies
such a brief moment, such an important moment

the motors roar on my back
spitting tempests of H2-O2 liquids
I mount the thunder of the skies
I tear
I penetrate
the infinite
with steps that are not mine
I cross over the barrier
I bear a child in my womb
it’s called Humanity
and I am its dream

“…the confirmation reaches us in this precise moment: the transporter has entered unscathed into the circumterrestrial orbit. The astronavigators inform us that in half an hour we will be in contact with the Kuan-yin to disembark the final shipment of colonists and matrices, and may leave in…”

the travellers

            They reduced me to the size of a chip
            my soul between confined walls;
           I left my daughter, abandoned,
            on the earth. Daughter
            of a poor mother and an unknown father,
            at birth, they left me to fate: two children, kitchen and husband.
            But my dreams were different, and they took me
            to a distant horizon, so beloved.

           New life, another beginning, said the ad
           I believed: I allowed myself to be cryogenically frozen
           Don’t criticize me, I just wanted happiness
           I hope to find it on this side

            We keep the ship in order
            during the eternal flight in this sea;
            we are thousands, but courage is required
            during the years of travel,
            since we will die on arrival.

Cyberhumanoid pilot:
           I am the pilot of this Hyperjumper
            I abandoned humanity in exchange
            for contemplating the life of the stars
            with eyes of a worshipper
            I have no body, but I am more than a matrix;
            I have no soul, but I am more than human.
            Why did I choose? I don’t know
            but I cannot go back.
            I fly cryogenically frozen matrices and robots
            to their assigned destiny
            but I am also condemned.


            two thousand years
            is a heartbeat
            in the heart of eternity

            I laugh at days, at moments;
            the journey ended.
            in his berth, the great watchman can sleep.
            tell him
            that the little swallow has found its nest.


            There is no goal    We run and we run
            and we run and we have no place
            to stop    On the planet we disembark
            and soon find ourselves displaced    A
            Sun that died with the haste of dying
            A grandchild-planet angry at living
            alone    We flee    A thousand-year break is
            a short time to rest
            And so we progress


            and now that we have power 
            our enemy
                                                            is different
            our anger
                                                            is certain
            our spear
                                                            is direct
            our desire to live
                                                            is ours
            our power to win is ours

            our enemy has a name
            that fills the empty space
            that paints black the white of the stars
            that erases the movements of the comets
            and reduces the will of atoms;
            that dulls the celestial fire
            that destabilizes the electrical current
            that gives hunger to those who thirst
                        and cold to those who hunger.
            our enemy has a name
            and the name is


            we are One now
            united under suns that have gone out
            human robots, peran and sembidian llamas
            and all the other Intelligences.
            we all made the journey
            and during the journey we became
            the unity.
            the cry of glory courses through us
            the stream of communication
            the delicacy of comprehension
            lift us
            behold our history
            behold our victory


To the dying Universe
we cry

AND the atoms
AND the photons
AND the laws
AND the void
Bang once more!
We vanquish entropy.

winged spirit

            Eternally lost
           In the final song of stars


The Arms of the Gods

by Ovidiu Bufnilă
Introductory note and translation by Cătălin Badea-Gheracostea

Ovidiu Bufnilă (b. 1957, mechanical engineer by education, journalist and writer by trade), though having published only three books in print over the three decades of his speculative fiction career, has nonetheless managed to capture the attention of Romanian fandom and specialized reviewers of SF as one of the most divisive, problematic and original authors writing in Romanian. Tending to a discourse reminiscent of the absurd, but also of a peculiar magical realism, Bufnilă’s texts, no matter their length, start with a heavy atmosphere and finish with a bang of ideas – precisely as his iconoclastic columns, blog entries and the literary as well as political comments he has produced over the years. Bufnilă established himself as a master of a renewed species of science fiction concetti and forged his reputation thanks to short stories published in Moartea purpurie (The Purple Death, 1995). Through his work, Bufnilă distils the world we know, including its literature and culture, down to a point where it can be explained by his so-called “waved philosophy”. There is an uncanny coherence in this author’s delirium, proven by the extraordinary impact some of his writings has had over the years. His story entitled “Armele zeilor” (2005), here translated as “The Arms of the Gods,” is the only narrative having received maximum marks (10 out of 10) at the first online SF workshop in Romania (, rated by dozens of readers. It was published in fanzines and magazines as well. A list of Bufnilă’s publications can be accessed here (in Romanian):


Over a millenium ago, in Katai Islands, thousands of women had for a long time been lusting for the Prince, and he was still begrudged by the Glass Barons who were casually conspiring against all empires, and he was still religiously taken heed of by Mount Assahor’s scholars there, where the Saviour’s face had been revealed for the first time.

Yet now, resting on a boulder, having fallen from the sky not far from the sea shore, the Prince is dying.


The air is heavy. The heavens loom like cast iron. Ever so slowly, a random light is passing, looking for a fit body, craving to be, at least for a moment, an antelope, or the smile of a woman, or the toll of the Balkoon’s Franciscan Bells.

Here comes a monk walking towards Katai Islands. He cares for nothing, he does not even give a glimpse to the Prince. The monk has the cheeks fully blushed, as he just stepped out of the depraved lovers’ boudoir; those should have been waiting untouched for the knights lost in the sunset. The monk has a belly full of Madella wine, a fine, dizzying, perfumed red.

“Be good to me, a sip of water!”, the Prince begs, crawling after the monk. The path’s dust is stirred by the ordained sandals and whitens the Prince’s beard, choking him.

The monk fades away in the glitter of a sick, mad sunbeam.

Here comes and goes a hurried armourer, taking an order to a valiant lancer; then some merry girls; then some astrologists; then some very, very noisy whores with awful makeup.  

The Prince is firmly holding his cane, getting a whiff, lusting for their impudent thighs, envisioning himself to be asleep on their lap, barely touched by the big, juicy areolas. 

Here comes a chronicler and hatefully kicks the Prince. Then comes a star digger from Copa, the City of Liars, and he also strikes him, full of spite. A trumpeter passes next and punches the Prince, laughing disdainfully.

The Prince is finding out ever so slowly that, beyond the programmes which he had input in the Network which was built by his subjects, some other instructions were coming forward, and these instructions, hey!, he never ever had them in his navigation registry. The Prince has been thinking all along that the worlds were built for ambitious navigators only, those able anytime to stand against the fury of the virtual whirls.

A tear rolls down his chin.

Where from were coming all those creatures, all so careless, all so evil, where from were coming these hideous constructions?

Walking around the rocks, here come five drunkards; they gloat while throwing organic structures at the seabirds. Those clip the shiny wings and drill deep into the birds’ bodies. The air fills with blood and time itself wavers, melting together past, present and future.

The Prince gets to reset his programmes.

The drunkards come closer. They are ready to trample him.  


Their bodies burst in multicoloured garlands, the sand is dampened with salty, mauve fluids. Somewhere, in the vortex of events hit by the Prince’s viruses, the monk falls on his knees. His tongue turns swollen. His skin is bristled.

The crowds of Katai scramble to the beach to acclaim their Prince. He embraces them all in his majestic glance.

The halberdiers clean the remnants of the programmes, they pour the gathered blood in some silver cups humming with electricity.

The Prince makes an august sign. Everybody, absolutely everybody is kneeling. The women are crying, wounding their breasts with their own nails. The scholars chafe themselves in corners, under the platinum and glass arcades of Caraba, the City of Desolation. The Prince rearranges the events in the Network and, full of wisdom, he kills all those led astray who wantonly worshipped the reign of the mob and the lack of principles, while hoping to find the Arms of the Gods in their own wandering.


Letter From a Slave-Making Ant

from Charlas de café [Coffee-Shop Chats]
by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Translation and Introductory Note
by Emily Tobey

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) was a pioneering neuroscientist from Spain who is best known for receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906. Cajal was the first Spanish laureate in medicine, and cities around the country responded to the honor by re-naming streets for the scientist. As a child and a young man, he demonstrated an affinity for art, sketching in particular, that would prove to be unexpectedly advantageous to his medical career. After serving as a medical officer in the Spanish Army in Cuba, he returned to Spain and received his doctorate in medicine in 1877. In connection with his research, he applied a particular staining technique to the densely-packed and therefore previously unstudied neurons of the brain and spinal cord, enabling him to see their structure with more detail than theretofore had been possible. This in turn facilitated his conclusion that the relationship between nerve cells was not continuous, but rather contiguous, a discovery now considered a foundational principle of modern neuroscience. His meticulous handmade illustrations of his findings combine two fields in a relationship that proves to be characteristic of Cajal: he synthesizes the sciences and the humanities in his interpretation and depictions of neuroscience and social systems alike. In addition to his not only notable but also prolific scientific work in which he published over one hundred articles and books, Cajal produced a collection of science-fiction stories, Cuentos de vacaciones (Vacation Stories) in 1905, and essays, Charlas de café (Coffee-Shop Chats), in 1920. While the stories in the collections diverge from what might be considered a “typical” (whether through unusual organizational divisions or their intent to teach a bit of science to a layperson), they reflect Cajal’s ability to weave together science and art. The same can be said of his story “Carta de una hormiga esclavista” (“Letter from a Slave-Making Ant”), published in Charlas de café in 1920.

In the translation of the latter story I have taken into account two main principles: Cajal’s combination of the scientific and the literary; and the parallels between this letter and the early conquest narratives of Hernán Cortés and Christopher Columbus. The style of Cajal’s imagined correspondence between a worker ant and his queen imitates the reverential form of address, attitude of an expert by experience, and superiority in the face of colonized people that those conquering authors employed in corresponding with the monarchs they served. In translating the piece, I have endeavored to maintain those elements through word choice and sentence construction. I have attempted to be as faithful as possible to the original text, though clarity for an English-speaking readership required some changes throughout the piece. Where possible I have maintained original punctuation, but again, some differences in sentence construction necessitated small departures. Where Cajal includes Latin names of existing species, I leave them in Latin; where he invents names in Spanish that allow the narrating ant to name orders of humans, I render them in English. It is my hope, in so doing, to allow the description of each caste to speak for itself. Cajal’s decision to place these observations in the unlikely voice of an ant that is set on colonizing humanity encourages us to recognize their destructiveness. In this piece, Cajal masterfully brings up one of the darker parts of humankind’s behavior and uses it to admonish a post-World War I audience, encouraging them (and by extension, us) to consider our motivation for actions, our treatment of each other, and the ways in which we allow our worst impulses to govern not only ourselves but our societies.


Letter from a slave-making ant (Polyergus rufescens), written during his travels through Europe, to the queen of his colony

My dearest mother: Fulfilling the charge that you gave me to secretly explore the colonies where dwell Man (formica ferox as classified by our underground naturalists) I now briefly convey my impressions.

These exceptional ants, not so in their education or wisdom, but rather because of their size, live almost as we do, but with several essential differences that speak little to favor their instincts and customs. Verily, they occupy colossal colonies that they call cities, formed by a labyrinth of family chambers and of avenues and of connected streets; but these seem to be filled with all kinds of litter; and the dwellings, lacking the underground apartments where we keep out of the heat, become unbearably torrid in summer and glacial in winter. In a select few more refined locales, the humans have begun to care for and pave the streets with cobblestones, though not with the perfection of our American relative.1

We must recognize various types of Formica ferox: the farmer ant, who resembles our farmer sister Aphenogaster barbara (I employ here the ridiculous and pedantic nomenclature of Man), and above all the ingenious Attini of South America,2 who make their living through the sowing and harvest of seeds; the milkmaid ant, who, imitating the conduct of many of our sisters, dedicate themselves to raising a type of monstrous giant flea called a cow, which they milk daily; the gardener ant, more docile imitator of our lasius niger and of other hymenoptera, and who feeds on fruit and leafy vegetables; the sugar-making ant, dedicated to the production and sale of sugar, like our cousins the bees and the Myrmecocysfus melliger, from Texas; the mason ant, builders of solidly closed houses, shamelessly plagiarizing our cousins the calicodomas bees; with all this said, they do not lack a special warrior caste who, following in our footsteps, has war as their exclusive occupation, etc.

With regard to this singular profession, I have noticed one curious thing. Instead of fighting for the sake of taking useful slaves, as we do, mercifully limiting our slave-making to the larva of other races of ants (these, even having reached adulthood, remain ignorant of their condition and serve us most selflessly and solicitously), Man fights fiercely with those of his own race with no other object than the pleasure of exterminating one another, taking and returning hungry and mutilated prisoners, and exhausting the provisions of the community. Just recently I watched with astonishment a general conflagration of nearly all of the great colonies of Europe, whose result has been the death of ten million workers and the terrifying ruin and desolation of all of the human communities. (The date of this writing being 1919.)

Further regarding the war, permit me to note a particularly strange contradiction. Homo sapiens – as he is content to call himself – is possessed of a peaceful body and warlike mind. Can we conceive of an earthworm endowed with warlike instincts? But as his body has lost the ability to model within itself the arms of aggression and defense, the brain has taken it upon itself to supplement this lack, constructing deadly and varied, enormously costly annihilating machines that he puts away when he goes to work. How different from us, who never allow ourselves to be separated from our formidable mandible claws! Such inability to manufacture organic defensive instruments has brought about the gravest of inconveniences: the creation of a social class, highly onerous at that, of armed slackers with the objective of protecting the defenseless workers. In spite of this, there is not a day that passes without raids and instances of violence. It is no surprise, then, that beings endowed with irresistible predatory impulses would find it more convenient and expeditious, in order to satiate their hunger, to exchange the heavy tool of work for the light and efficient revolver of the robber! . . .

Representatives of the Formica ferox puff themselves up with vanity at having invented flight (such a novelty!) several million years after insects, reptiles, bats, and birds had done so. But this so-called flight does not move beyond being an unobstructed method of suicide; they dishonor it, besides, using it not in order to love within the azure sky as we do, but rather to assassinate without fear of reprisal. They do not understand, therefore, the sublime nuptial flight of the hymenopterans. It would be better for the aviators, imitating our queens, to amputate their wings and live hidden in their homes.

Each nation lives fighting fiercely within itself, once they no longer have foreigners to despoil. All social classes, as we would refer to our soldiers, workers, and queens, are at each other’s throats. And not few of them have taken up imitating the communism of bees and ants! Could they be more foolish? They even plan to install a new regime, maintaining a plurality of females, the separation of families and the full freedom of love!…We resolved this struggle millions of years ago, but with logic and foresight, which is to say, rejecting outright corruptive individualism ad delegating to a singular female, our revered queen, and to a few select males, the work of the perpetuation of the species. And we, the neuter, do not feel nostalgia toward love, because we know from experience that love, slavery, and death are all the same.3

Another incomprehensible custom has shocked me enormously. The Formica ferox is educated in schools where they teach to speak and to understand the Universe somewhat. Studying for learning’s sake! Such idiocy has never been seen. Even without demanding teachers or blighted professors, we know how to communicate our preferences and emotions, educate our children and slaves, get our bearings in unknown lands, distinguish between noxious plants and animals and those that are useful, begin long hunting expeditions without faltering, and work in a coordinated and peaceful manner in favor of the community. As being embarrassing, vile and fallacious, we disdain rational logic, which we have instead replaced with the celebrated method of direct vision or intuition, a supremely intellectual perfection which all animals, including Man, envy in us. Fabre, one of our oldest counsellors amongst the humans, has compared instinct to genius.

In sum, and here I conclude my lengthy epistle. Nothing transcendental has grown out of the human vermin: they still discuss the enigma of understanding versus instinct; they only begin to decipher the mechanism of the Cosmos; they do not know the essence of life, and with regard to practical and legal order, they have not even resolved the pressing problems of social stability and an ideal political system. Not to mention the riddle that is death. It must not worry them, whatever the preaching of their apostles, given that the most densely populated colonies of the Formica ferox, having just shaken the dust from the ruins and dried the blood, hurry on to new wars, infinitely bloodier and more destructive. The future contest – or so they say – will be resolved purely by air, hurling at harmless peoples balloons full of germs and suffocating gasses.

Let us not rush to deplore this incredible dementia. In the form of human cadavers, many insects of the muscidos family will find inexhaustible rations, which are also the favorite delicacy of the nomadic tribes of hunting ants (Myrmecocystus viatitus, Aphenogaster tertaceopilosa, Tapinoma erraticum, etc).

And since I have nothing to learn here, but rather much to endeavor to forget, I will return as soon as possible to the anthill, our beloved homeland.

Embracing you effusively with my antennae, R. y C.



1. P. barbatus, who pave their nests with very small stones.

2. Admirable ants, who within their nests pile pulp of mashed leaves where they sow a fungus (Rhocites gongyophora, Müller), from which they sustain themselves.

3. Lest the reader forget, the queen is cloistered and absorbed entirely in the work of motherhood, and the scarce males perish once the queen is impregnated, whereas the workers can live for many years, as Lubbock has shown.