Browse Tag



by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

—We created you! Without us, you never would have existed, the Hellenes yelled, scattering among the gleaming statues supporting the azure dome.

More fiercely than the others, Phidias raised his arms toward the heavens:

—With these hands of mine I chiseled you, with these calloused fingers I uncovered your eyes from Parian and Pentelic marble!

—That is true, the crowd agreed in unison.

They had gathered here, at the foot of Olympus[1], all the most illustrious men of Greek antiquity. Smiling and cold, the gods showed themselves completely indifferent to the insolence of the rebels. Unmoved, their countless white forms looked like gigantic pillars in the infinite temple of the Universe.

—I fear we are making a mistake, Plato thought to himself. These statues are, perhaps, our creation, that of Phidias and Praxiteles, of Scopas and others. But they are only the pale children of the true, eternal gods, their shadows, the only accessible image to us of the ideal of immortality.

However, fearing the raging mob, the wise man vociferated together with the others, playing along.

—I can destroy you whenever I want, because I gave you life and I will take it back when I wish, Phidias continued his taunt, to the acclamation of the demos.

The peak wrapped itself in a halo of fog. A slight breeze started from off the mountain. The people did not notice the first signs of the approaching storm.

—I fear we are making a mistake, Aristotle thought to himself. These pillars of the eternal city are, perhaps, the gods themselves, we are not the ones who created them. But our entire history is nothing more than a moment in their lives without beginning or end, and it is only natural that their persons seem motionless to us.

—We defeated even the Persians, exclaimed Pericles, heatedly. Must we now fear our gods, our very own gods?

Hundreds of warriors cheered him on.

—Let us smash them, Phidias roared, tearing a lance out of the hands of a soldier.

The sunlight grew pale. Black clouds rolled over the blue cupola of the city, darkening it. The foreheads of the gods disappeared in the gloom.

—They are challenging us, the people yelled, losing their minds.

Instead of terrifying them, the threat of the storm goaded them. Armed with lances and swords, with axes and iron bars, they descended onto the statues, to whose ankles they could not even reach. In that moment, the attackers froze in the aggressive positions of a crazed destructive fury. They remained like that for a while, stock still, as white as the gods.

Then, from Zeus’s uplifted fist, lightening flared, and the flood burst forth from the entire firmament. The paralyzed bodies of the people slowly dissipated under the torrents of water. The rain washed away the crown of their heads and their shoulders, it dissolved their fragile phalanges. Their weapons fell from their hands, with a clang. Soon the crowd had vanished as if in a dream. The whiteness of the frozen bodies had proven to be the deceptive and ephemeral whiteness of salt.

When the rain died down and the blue of the sky widened again until it reached the horizon, among the white marble torsos of the gods, all that remained was a barrel full of brine, in which floated the extinguished wick of a candle.

[1] Not to be confused with the ancient city of Olympia, in Elis, renowned for the athletic competitions held here every four years and for the statue of Zeus made from gold and ivory, the work of Phidias, considered at the time one of the seven wonders of the world.


They Are Among Us

by Bernardo Fernández

Translated from the Spanish by Adan Jimenez

Anyone who thinks extraterrestrials don’t exist is an idiot.

“Of course, there’s a possibility that life on other planets exists. No one would argue that, but to go from there to saying they’ve visited us is a huge quantum leap,” is what the nonbelievers say, with that obnoxious know-it-all tone that says you’re the ignorant one. What do those idiots know?

I’ve seen them.

And I don’t just mean UFOs shaped like cigars or metallic spheres floating over remote forests. I mean they’re among us, walking along Insurgentes, lining up to buy metro tickets, and eating hot dogs outside of the Sonora cinema.

It’s not easy to differentiate them from us. To the untrained eye, they’re identical to humans because of their sophisticated biomimicry technology. In fact, a cold sparkle in their eyes is the only thing that gives them away. It’s a cruel flash they can’t hide, even with sunglasses.

You have to be careful, though, because vampires have similar eyes and it’s easy to confuse them. That’s why it’s best to hunt extraterrestrials during the day. Less problems that way.

Plus, driving a stake through an extraterrestrial’s heart would only infuriate them. They wouldn’t even feel a tickle. Remember, their internal organs are different from ours.

I have proof that the non-believers are paid by the government to disseminate the idea that there are no aliens on Earth among the population. Thanks to a good source, I know that many of them, especially journalists, collect monthly checks from the Ministry of the Interior. Is there any stronger evidence than that? (A colleague who works as a janitor in a newspaper and whose identity I will not reveal gave me this information.)

But I have much more proof of this journalists’ conspiracy to cover up this silent invasion:

1957: A UFO wave washes over Mexico City. The authorities ignore citizens reporting ships over the capital. Incidentally, the great tremor that brings down the statue of the Ángel de la Independencia coincides with an ovoid ship appearing over the neighborhood of Peralvillo. The newspapers are silent.

1963: The day before Gustavo Díaz Ordaz is announced as a presidential candidate, a dark-colored cylindrical figure is seen floating over the premises of the Excelsior newspaper. Coincidence?

1970: During the World Cup final between Brazil and Italy, a trio of silver discs pass leisurely over the northern part of the city. Only a housewife thinks to look to the sky. Her report falls on deaf ears. Was it an experiment by the media to see how far alien operations could go with the help of mass ignorance?

Did you think that was all? There’s a lot more.

1978: An alien ship crashes in the mountains of Puebla. Hundreds report the existence of surviving aliens. They even learn to play football to hide their evil plans from the inhabitants (they are terrible foulers). Two journalists – oh, a coincidence – go to the remote crash site only to come back down with a piece of molten metal they pass off as the remains of a Russian satellite. Case closed.

1982: An unidentified flying object passes over the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The peso is devalued the next day. The newspapers only cover the second story.

We’ve only discussed sightings so far, and none of their actual actions. Prepare to be surprised.

1984: Manuel Buendía is assassinated. The reason? He had proof of the alien conspiracy that he was willing to publish. Someone sees a small, wide-eyed alien with a smoking gun in his hands a few blocks from the dead body. Nobody takes the report seriously because the witness is an eccentric beggar from the Zona Rosa.

1985: Dozens of buildings collapse due to the Mexico City earthquake. In the rubble of the Hotel Regis (specifically in what was left of La Taberna del Greco), extraterrestrial corpses are found alongside human ones (you know, short stature, big eyes). The army recovers the bodies and makes them disappear. To this day, it is rumored the bodies are kept in the facilities beneath Campo Marte (more coincidence).

1986: During the World Cup, a group of presumed English hooligans are detained for causing a disturbance during their team’s first game. The press is silent about the matter as they’re released a few hours after being apprehended. The hooligans were actually aliens testing their biomimetic suit prototypes. The experiment is considered a success.

From that moment, they took to the streets disguised as us. They infiltrated every sector of society: band kids, masons, professionals, leftist militants, bishops, cheerleaders, hostesses, trapeze artists, artisans… There was nowhere they didn’t invade.

They eat, sleep, read, copulate, serve coffee, play poker, cut their hair, buy lottery tickets, and sell stuffed animals for three biweekly payments right in front of us. Many times, with us.

They’ve been observing us from within since the eighties, waiting for the right moment to take complete power. They already control our means of communication. All that’s left is a final push. This threat is not to the high echelons of military power, which are already allied with the extraterrestrials. The government is just a screen. But there is still more to go.

1988: President-elect Salinas discovers the plot. He attempts to fight them, but they plant an alien disguised as a French adviser to watch and control him. It’s because of this that he falls from grace when he finishes his term. A whole media campaign is orchestrated against Salinas by, you guessed it, journalists.

1994: Presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio discovers the plot in time. He sends a clone to Lomas Taurinas, who dies at the hands of an alien gunman. The candidate crosses the border into San Diego and flees to northern Canada, where he continues to hide.

There is enough evidence to prove the hidden invasion. The press and military, aliens and humans, are all part of it. This conspiracy can still be stopped by the free brave men of conscience left on the planet. The conspirators cannot take our will. There is still time to fight.

The next part is a guide to distinguish aliens from humans (as long as it’s daytime), as well as how to eliminate them.


“I’ve read enough,” the general said, furiously crumpling the mimeographed pamphlet in his hands. “Where did you say you got this?”

“I was on Calle Uruguay, on the way to the Eje Central. The guy distributing these was a ragged old man,” the reporter replied when he noticed everyone looking at him. The Campo Marte sublevels always made him nervous.

“Was he tall or short?” a colonel asked.

“Quite tall, dark skinned, with a long beard.”

“Bloody hell.” The general slammed the table. “It has to be Cano. I thought we’d already killed him.”

“What I want to know is where he got all his information from,” the TV station owner said.

The metallic voice of the insectoid creature interjected, “Initiate his elimination immediately.”

The six humans sharing the meeting room with the alien turned to glance at it, perhaps looking for something that would reveal any semblance of emotion on their blue chitinous face, but the four compound eyes and the vibrating antennae betrayed no emotion. It was a mask incompatible with human body language.

“Immediately,” the alien repeated, this time without the synthesizer that converted their pheromonal language into sounds, giving their words zero intonation. They were different from the smaller big-eyed beings. Their rank was far higher.

The meeting was abruptly finished. They were ordered to execute Cano and his resistance group, investigate whoever printed the brochures, and find the leak. Everything in the pamphlet, every word, was true. But almost everyone felt calm. Who would believe a crazy beggar handing out flyers on the street?

Only the general was worried.

Not about Cano. Yes, he was intelligent and tenacious. He was an ex-university professor who had accidentally discovered the conspiracy. He’d slipped away a couple of times, but he was no hero. He was old. He would eventually fall.

No, what worried the general was: how had Cano discovered that piece of above top-secret information?

The existence of vampires was known only to a select few.



Adan Jimenez is a writer, editor, and translator. He co-writes the children’s mystery series Sherlock Sam with his partner Felicia Low, which has been translated into Korean, Simplified Chinese, Arabic, and more. He is the proud son of Mexican immigrant parents and became an immigrant himself when he moved to Singapore. He loves comics, LEGO, books, games (analogue and video), science fiction, and food.

Philosophy Note:

This piece is mostly fictional non-fiction, weaving a sci-fi conspiracy theory with relatively recent Mexican history, in an effort to explain why Mexican politics are so terrible, with tongue firmly in cheek. An original translation of a short story by Mexican author Bernardo Fernández aka BEF, which has never been translated before and is collected in Escenarios para el fin del mundo: Relatos reunidos.


by Roberto González-Quevedo

Introductory Note

Roberto González-Quevedo (1953-) is one of the leading writers in Asturian, in particular thanks to his creation of the world of Pesicia, one of the most significant examples of fantasy world-building based on a free recreation of a pre-Roman culture from the Iberian Peninsula. Since so little is actually known of Pesician people, as well as of other ethnic nations living in that peninsula thousands of years ago, their cultures, including their history and myths, have been largely invented by writers, thus giving birth to a particular kind of high fantasy fiction of archaeological and legendary nature based on educated speculation. This sort of high fantasy has had a great development in the literatures of Spain, and González-Quevedo’s Pesician stories are to be counted among the best ones in Spanish contemporary literatures. The following very short story titled “Alog” (first published in 1990), which has been translated by Álvaro Piñero González from the author’s own version in Castilian Spanish, is a rare example of flash fiction in the high fantasy genre. It shows that a whole suggestive fantasy world can be built in just a few lines. Although it is not directly philosophical in its scope, it still can serve as illustration for one of the literary tenets of Sci Phi Journal: world-building can be kept (very) short, even in high fantasy, and poetic style should also be welcome in speculative literature in the broader sense of the word.


Alog was loneliness. He was born in a far away county, a county covered with huge millet fields and traversed by rivers in which the water flowed ever so slowly. His eyes stared, from the very beginning, at the everlasting sorrow of an infinite horizon infinitely distant from all things.


When the Glubbs invaded the land and smeared with blood the little mills, the stone houses and the winter produce, things changed for Alog. He saw his mother die, his father’s eyes become empty and his siblings leave with their backs bearing the marks of slavery.               


Only Alog escaped, but, alas, he saw, by coincidence, from within a small crate used to measure millet, the death of his own self.

Alog bearing witness to his own death.           



by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

The sixth sense—stereognosis, as the special sense of spatial orientation had been named—stood no chance of hereditary integration. The categorical verdict of the geneticists had provoked intense agitation among the Stereopolitan population and stirred up heated discussions throughout the entire world. Visionary geniuses had dreamed up the audacious project of a fully dimensional city, in which the tyranny of the horizontal and the vertical, of the right angle, of the plane, would be abolished; many generations of constructors had toiled to pave the way for the realization of the materials and technologies that would make such a feat possible. No one had foreseen the terrible outcome.

The fully dimensional city—Stereopolis—was now a reality. A reality in which a humanity of tens of billions had put its hopes, as the ultimate chance for survival. It had become evident that only complete control of all three dimensions in urban planning could halt the covering of the entire surface of the planet in an endless carpeting of city that would slowly suffocate it in its own malignant tissue. The slanted curve, tridimensional surfaces, and spatiality, made possible not only the free and organic composition of functions, but also the full inhabitation of the environment, the rational resolution of constructional problems, optimal sun exposure and ventilation, convenient distribution of consumer goods, and efficient waste collection. A score of locations, where the Stereopolitan prototype in variants of increasing perfection would be repeated, had been prepared. A dozen construction sites had already been set in motion; the complicated process of assembling the spatial elements was directed by the most powerful computers in existence.

After the new Stereopolitans had settled into their freshly-made residences, the first worrying signs began to appear: the people weren’t able to adapt to the completely unprecedented demands on their sense of orientation. It was as if an ant, accustomed to moving across a piece of straw or among the stalks of a wheat field, had been buried in a pile of sand, from which it was expected to immediately emerge. Numerous disappearances were registered—especially from among the elderly and teenagers, who were unable to rely on the help of electronic guides—and the time lost during daily commutes was incomparably greater to what it had been before (though the distances to be crossed now were much shorter), which caused complaints. Under the pressure of public opinion, of lengthy media campaigns, special measures were adopted to supplement the means of public transport and perfect the automatic guidance system. The number of those who got lost sharply declined; however, a strange illness, later dubbed stereopolitis, appeared, which caused quite a stir throughout the entire world. At first, those affected by this malady suffered from spells of dizziness, accompanied by the persistent feeling of nausea. Then, their balance was thrown off and they experienced piercing occipital pain. By the time the doctors found an explanation, and decided on a treatment, the patients had succumbed to the illness, because it evolved extremely rapidly. In the end, an agreement was reached that the only solution was for people who had just been affected by stereopolitis to be evacuated from the city; in this way, though they would never completely recovery, it was possible (after a long period of convalescence) for the formerly ill to be reintegrated into a life of useful activity—under the interdiction, of course, of ever returning to Stereopolis.

Given that the number of illnesses were skyrocketing, they began taking preventive measures: the city’s entire population was subjected to special tests, which resembled those employed for the selection of candidates for long term missions in outer space. Those who passed the preliminary stages then went through an intensive training period, which ensured relative immunity. Those who “flunked” were not admitted; for their own good, everyone who lacked the aptitudes was evacuated. In time, the illness died down and very rarely did a case or two flare up. Visitors were advised not to stay in the city more than a week, and those who wanted to move there definitively—if they were not rejected after the first tests—did their prescribed training period. It seemed as if the situation had been definitively resolved. Meanwhile, several new fully dimensional cities were about to be brought into use. The selection committees were busily winnowing out the candidates, the training of the first sets had started, some had already moved in. The official inauguration was expected to take place any day now. That is when the truly dramatic turn of events happened: it was determined, as I was saying, that stereognosis—which the locals had struggled so hard to obtain—was not transmitted to one’s descendants except completely at random.

Those hit worst by the geneticists’ conclusion were the inhabitants of Stereopolis itself. For their children’s sakes, many left the city, only to find out afterward that they could no longer readapt to the predominantly bi-dimensional, traditional orthogonal urban space; in the end, a few of them returned. Others made the decision never to procreate; but it was against their nature and it did not last long.

—I fear for the future of this city… thought the Architect.

He saw people abandoning their children in order to avoid endangering their lives, he saw them committing them to special institutions until the age when they would undergo the tests—and woe to those who failed to pass them! He saw how, void of meaning, the family itself disintegrated, preparing society for a new kind of individual freedom, but plunging the individual into the darkness of isolation, loneliness, and bitterness.

Is there really no other way?


The Cleft

by Javier Fernández

Introduction by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Javier Fernández, born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1971 is one of the leading writers of the Afterpop group of writers. Among other things, they endeavour to introduce experimental writing into genre fiction, as a way to emphasise its literary nature against the growing commercialism and the conventionally flat style prevalent in those kinds of fiction in most instances nowadays. As an example of this group’s approach, as well as of Fernández’s writing, “The Cleft”, from the book with the same title (La grieta in its original Spanish, 2007) and here translated by Álvaro Piñero González, combines two prehistoric scenes, one set in palaeolithic times and the other one likely in the Neolithic period, linking them through a cry from the earth through the abyss of time, nature and belief. The plausible archaeological recreation of human behaviour confers the text its speculative force within the framework of prehistoric fiction, a genre highly successful in contemporary Spain, as the novels by Antonio Pérez Henares show. Unlike Pérez Henares’ best-selling prehistoric saga of Nublares, which competently follows a traditional concept of writing, Fernández uses a rather experimental style, especially in its syntax, which enhances its poetic tone, as well as the suggestive mystery of the narrated events. This serves a poetically symbolical reflection on the hallucinatory origins of ritual and religion.


The Cleft

Translation by Álvaro Piñero González


So far away. Never before. Nobody. Alone.

In the right moment – Now! – the hunter takes his massive spear: a matt branch thick as an arm, twice as tall as the tribe’s tallest man, smeared with blood up to the handle. He leaves his seat by the river and goes down the ravine separating the two large prairies at the break of dawn.

He marches without ever releasing his weapon and leaps in ample strides from one rock to another, anointed with dried excrement and pounded grasses and making laboriously his way through the ravine on the eastern flank. This vantage point. No, this one. Another. Further down. There. The hunter stops near the end of the hollow, at the narrowest point of the canyon, and hides himself beneath the leaves of a small bush, right above the passage. Crouched, arms around the shins, he readies himself for the waiting. His dirty thick hair swings with wind and becomes undistinguishable from the branches and the hawthorns.

Unmoving like a rock and bent like a root’s knot, the hunter closes his eyes and lies in wait for his prey. His brow is knitted, his mouth half-open. He is alert to the sounds coming from the bottom of the valley: first, silence; then, eventually, a faint murmur, growing to a roar, down the gorge. He opens his eyes and looks at a thick cloud, like a smoke signal over the horizon fast approaching through the plain. The din of the furious ride. Ever nearer with every clop. Here they come. His muscles become tight, and his senses are sharpened. He clenches his fists around the wood.



Hidden and tense, the hunter peeks over the rock. Some metres below, the enraged beasts run in a swarm. The roar has turned into turmoil. The smoke signal is now a dense and coarse fog, made of soil particles and insects fleeing to find shelter from the horde. Sometimes, the cast-off pebbles and the sharp locusts bounce against the hide of the hunter, who, impassive and crouched, continues to stare. Waiting, waiting.

Suddenly, the roar comes to an end, and the hunter finally stands up straight.

Below him there are now only the last animals, the weakest, the slow and meek ones, and the sick or hurt. Amongst them, there is a magnificent specimen limping ostensibly. Its horns are splintered. One of its legs is bleeding. Perhaps it stumbled while at full gallop and was trampled by the pack. It moves around in circles, stunned, with lessened senses, striving to follow, unsuccessfully, the ever-dimmer trail of its company. Around there are other beasts in similar conditions: a clumsy, aching group made of the oldest, least capable exemplars, those who often become the hunter’s trophy.

Never before has he had at his mercy a piece of game like this, young, robust, one time and half the ordinary size of a skilful spearhunter’s prey. The beast is panting arduously. It shakes in an attempt to banish the pain from its broken leg, or perhaps as if to intimidate the others – the worse ones – making clear they ought to carry on, without halting to watch him in his humiliation.

Without losing a moment’s time, the hunter throws vigorously the weapon and impales the beast. The stabbing pain coming from the spear runs through the animal’s flank, which folds its legs and bends its head, its eyes full of tears. Then it shudders and violently tries to shake off the piece of wood, without success. It crawls and seeks refuge, a wet place in which to dampen its dried tongue for a last time. It barely has the energy to lift its snout and stare at the apish figure of its slayer. At last, it groans and falls flat at the feet of the hunter.



The hunter trembles like a frightened child. His heart is beating wildly.

In rigor mortis, the beast keeps staring at him, the dark spheres of its eyes fixing his, as if wanting to challenge him from the afterlife. Then, the hunter starts jumping and dancing. He sits down to admire his prey and starts again. He treads in circles, rounding up his prey, observing it from every angle.

From this close it is even more majestic. Almost twice as large as any piece he has impaled before. It will take a superhuman to carry all the meat. A few men would be needed. As for the bones, even if splintered, they are as thick as his arm. The hunter growls and hits his chest. Smarter than you. I killed you. I will rip your skin. I will eat you. Your strength. It will become my strength. Together. We will have no rival.

The sky has gone dark in the east. There are shadows of birds flying around the hunter and his catch. He must make haste, or he will have to fight them. The hunter takes the silex, faces the wounded side of the carcass and, inebriated by his deed, makes the worse mistake: instead of stabbing the animal with the spear to kill it once and for all, he pulls it out and throws it around carelessly. He then pierces with the stone knife near the wound, ready to start with the work.

All of a sudden, unannounced, the beast turns its head and delivers an unexpected blow. Its horn pierces the inner side of the hunter’s thigh, right over the knee and it breaks in two. Pushed by the impact and screaming with pain and fear, the hunter flees hastily carrying the half horn in his body. Meanwhile, the animal turns again, weaklier, and out of its open wound flows more thick blood, almost black. It dies soon after.

Writhing in pain, without seeing or understanding what happens, the hunter reaches for his leg, fumbles in the wound and touches the horn. It grabs it and pulls it out with all his strength. He collapses beside the spear and then he faints.

The shadows grow larger. There is the threat of storm in the sky.



When the hunter wakes up, the sky is black as stone and the wind blows furiously on the grass of the valley.

He attempts to stand up, but a jab of pain from the groin forces him to turn around and bite the ground to soothe himself. He then realises he still has the pulled-out horn in his hand. The hunter releases it terrified, fearful. He turns his face to the clouds and touches the wound with his fingers: it is deep, but not the bone. He feels weak, his head spins. How much blood has he lost? He crawls up to the spear and uses it as a staff to stand up. He sways. One time and then another he is about to lose balance.

The hunter leans against the dead beast to regain strength. And the birds? Surely they must have fled because of the threat of storm. That’s why he has not been devoured. A lighting crosses the dark sky. The thunder shakes the ground under his feet. Quick. Quick. The hunter walks down the valley. He needs help and shelter and is thirsty. He walks hindered by fatigue, supported by the spear, his other hand on the wound of the leg. He has no energy to begin the climb, so he heads for the natural spring behind the hill, praying to the god of storm not to unleash his rage on him.

The ground shakes once more. The hunter moans and cries, terrified by the nightmares galloping in his thoughts, begging for mercy. The image of the prey’s eyes, dark like the sky above his head, is stuck in his mind. He curses again his bad luck and tries to walk faster. Then the deluge begins. Lightning and thunder drown his stifled screams. Impaired by pain and disoriented by the slimy curtain of water, the hunter falls over and rolls down the soft but pebbly hillside, stumbling until, at last, he stops – eyes wide shut and arms protecting his head.

As suddenly as it began, the raining stops and the sky clears – the two dark chunks collapsing on either side of the horizon. The hunter tries to stand up, but he cannot. He loses his balance and sways from one side to the other. Then, for an instant his feet hover over the emptiness and next he falls in the depths of the earth through a narrow cleft on the ground.

His hands scratch the ground but will not stop the fall. With each movement, the body sinks further and further into the wet soil. With each desperate attempt at climbing up, he is driven further down. The mud slims his eyes and enters his mouth and nose. Blood does not cease to flow from his wound.

Inside the cleft, the walls close in and, in the end, the hunter stops falling. From where he is, the sky is nowhere to be seen.

His screams are barely heard outside.



Once the storm is over, a man comes out of the cave. He carries a lost sheep. He left after it last night and found it shortly before sunrise, trapped between brambles near the gorge, bruised but alive. It is a good piece, one of the best of the flock. He will not let it die.

The storm catches up with them near the natural spring, but the man has had time to take the animal to the ravine and take shelter in the gap on the walls of rock where he has sometimes hidden away from the predators. There they have remained quiet, both scared, while the sky discharged rain and fire.

The man thinks now it is more dangerous to climb the wet blocks and decides to go around the hill and try to cross the ravine, even if it takes him an extra half day. The animal is tired after the long time being lost and so the man takes it on his shoulder effortlessly. The sun now shines between the changing clouds, which disappear filling the air with moist. Careful. This way. Don’t move. The hill is less steep on this side, the ground is softer. With each step, the man sinks his ankles deep in mud.

With great effort they reach the hilltop and then they climb down the steeper side. They try not to slide down. There. Very good. They stop to drink by a stream, and they keep on marching down the hillside until they find a cleft on the ground, stark and narrow.

The man approaches the edge of the cleft. Suddenly – What is that? – he seems to hear a noise, like a groan, coming from down below.



Here is the man. Petrified. Standing beside the cleft. Staring at the earth’s lament. Not daring to move forward, not daring to step back.

It is a constant whimpering. At times there is a cry of pain, at others, a sobbing. Silence. Then back again.

The man lets the sheep go and crouches beside the cleft. He rubs his palms against his face and looks left and right. He leans out and walks back. A scream. Another. His legs are shaking. The cleft has no bottom. It is dark and no wider than the distance from the hand to the elbow. Wet tossed red earth. Now the shriek is strident. The man dries his tears and kneels. He looks at the sky and begs for mercy. Yet the voice does not stop.



What? I do not know. I am cursed. The end of the world. Kneeled by the gorge. Arrested time. Doom has reached him. He remains still while the sun moves above. There is nothing else. No sound. Just the shriek. Earth’s and man’s cry blended. They are one. Hush. Tell me. What? The man takes a handful of sand and let it fall through the cleft. Silence. Then another scream. Once again. Ceaselessly. Horrific. The scream of agony. Of madness. Of damnation. For how long? The sun is at its highest. And the horror will not stop. It starts again. The man hits his head, shakes his arms. He screams as loud as he can. Hush. Hush. He covers his ears. He bites his lips. He is crying now. But it is to no avail. Hush. He stands up and takes the sheep. He is shaking. Then he slits its throat. He pours the animal’s blood into the chasm. Warm blood. Gushing from the neck into the deepest ground. It smears his face and arms. He squeezes it down to the last drop. He drops the lifeless body inside the black mouth. And then he stands there waiting. Waiting. Waiting.



Suddenly, the earth lets out a last death rattle. It is, finally, satisfied. Silence. Silence. There is time still to get back. Silence. Climb the mountain. Silence. Go back home. Silence. Before the dark.



by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

The inhabitants of Sinurbia suffered from an indeterminate nostalgia…

At first, the calm waters of the gulf rolled here, contrasting picturesquely with the precipitous cliffs of the shore. Later, after the idea was born of building a floating city near the overpopulated island, the waters of the gulf came to be streaked with bizarrely shaped ships. Not even a month passed before the inauguration of the first neighborhood—that of the builders. Soon, the other neighborhoods were added to it, the downtown, places of work and leisure; then the builders gathered up their tools and left, aboard their strange ships, just as unexpectedly as they had arrive. Their purpose destined them to an irremediable restlessness.

The city, suspended over the infinite greenish depths of the sea, had its traffic routes arranged in such a way as to avoid any intersections. The highways, subway lines, those of the monorails, and the pedestrian walkways, together made up an immense spider web, organized on several levels, which opened onto monumental esplanades and squares, flanked by the public buildings representative of that metropolis. Though they maintained an intense and agitated civic life, at home, the Sinurbians became quiet, meditative, as if only then did their true nature rise to the surface. As a result, out of all the edifices, homes enjoyed the greatest consideration. The houses—over which European fashion had failed to exert even the weakest influence for over a century—preserved an unaltered simplicity that had become tradition. The storage furniture was skillfully concealed behind the sliding walls; similar walls allowed the separation or combination of different rooms. The floor itself, whose elasticity and hardness could be adjusted according to one’s wishes, served as chairs and beds. Among the bright colors of the interiors, white dominated. In the living rooms, in a niche in one of the walls, a painting, a sculpture, or a simple flower vase could be seen.

And still, the inhabitants of Sinurbia felt themselves affected by an indeterminate nostalgia…

One day, one of them started turning their yard into a garden, in which they worked hard to reconstitute, in miniature, the landscape of their island of origin: rocks, sand, moss, bushes, a pool of water and an arched bridge, a pathway made from a few stone slabs, a gazebo with an upturned eave. The idea proved to be contagious: in short time, each inhabitant was one garden richer, a garden that was arranged according to the ability of its owner, but resembling, without fail, the native landscape. At once, the Sinurbians were free of the nostalgia.

Inexplicably, the waters of the gulf—proverbial for their calm—lost their tranquility. The face of the sea furrowed in ever more threatening billows. The sun vanished behind a dark curtain of clouds. A formidable typhoon shook the city from its very foundations. The foundations held firm. Built with foresightedness, the buildings, streets, and houses held firm as well. Only the gardens were completely devastated by the fury of the waters; at dawn, when the storm abated, the gardens had been replaced by deep sinkholes, caving in, at the bottom of which a tiny pool of sea darkly glistened like an eye.

Grimly determined, the people filled in the sinister pits, replaced the slabs, and started over arranging their gardens, to which they now felt their existence organically linked. Another typhoon made their work all for naught, and another, and another… Several people, terrified, exhausted, abandoned the fight. The number of those who had given up skyrocketed. Soon, only the first gardener, the one who had taught the inhabitants of Sinurbia how to get rid of their nostalgia, still stubbornly insisted on reinstalling, in the patched up yard, the bushes, the rocks, and the gazebo. But as soon as he would finish, a typhoon would start up again.

They advised him to quit. To no avail. Then, boiling with hatred, they shoved him into the chasm which again gaped in the middle of his yard, which he had been just about to refill. The sea’s eye gleamed wildly and smacked, swallowing him. They returned to their homes grinning, and accompanied by the curses and wails of his widow, by the heartrending cries of the three now fatherless children. The waters of the gulf became calm again, the sky cleared up; since then, not at a single typhoon ever descended over the city again. In each yard, however, the sea’s eye kept watch.

The Sinurbians were suffering again now, but not because of the indeterminate nostalgia of before; they were tormented by an overwhelming sense of dread. Every time they looked at the dark mouth that had taken the place of each of their gardens, they had nightmares. In secret, they gathered up their families and possessions, and one by one, they abandoned the city, vanishing without a trace by moving to the swarming island. Here, in complete safety, they atoned for their crime by teaching the islanders the fine art of gardening.



by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

*** Editors’ note: With this tale, we continue our series of publishing the missing entries from Săsărman’s groundbreaking 1975 urban fantasies’ cycle. The original collection of imaginary cities was censored in Communist Romania, and appeared in various states of incompleteness in other languages, incl. translated into English by Ursula K. Le Guin. We are grateful to Monica Cure for her faithful translation of the remaining pieces of the puzzle, hitherto unavailable in English language. For more information, read the introductory note to Motopia, the first entry in the series. ***

—Who’s there! Antiope snapped, bolting upright.

She thought she had heard the padding of footsteps on the marble flagstones; the noise sounded again. She grabbed a torch from its stand and moved forward a few paces. Who dared to defy orders and enter, in the middle of the night, the palace? Just what were the girls from the gateway guarding? Right as she was about to call the guards, the intruder showed himself from between the pillars; instinctively, she put her hand to her hip, forgetting that, before going to bed, she had put away her sword, belt and all. Their eyes met in the flickering torchlight. Her heart suddenly struck by Eros’s arrow, the feared queen demurely lowered her eyelids.

—How dare you?… she struggled rather unconvincingly in the vigorous arms which had lifted her into the air, as if she were a child, making her feel the ground slip from under her feet.

Until that moment, she had never suspected that she could be carried in this way, rocked almost imperceptibly, but still dizzyingly, by a virile torso bursting with strength, and set down afterward, with such natural ease, in her fragrant bedding. The pointless question which had remained on her lips from the initial second left her, along with any thought of resistance. How this disturbing young man had managed to reach her chamber no longer interested her in the slightest, nor how he had successfully made it through a citadel as well guarded as that of the Amazons, on whose streets a man had never stepped until then.

Defeated without a fight, Antiope surrendered to the pleasure of discovering love, with whose complete arsenal her people had been so uselessly and unsuspectingly equipped until then. As only a perfect warrior could, she deployed—as if she had known then since always—all the snares of the art of loving and being loved: the fiery wide-eyed gaze; the mischievous glance, shot from beneath eyelashes; the fierce, suffocating embrace; the delicate caress of fingertips; the chaste kiss on the forehead; the tender kiss on the eyelids; the shy kiss on the cheek; the guilty kiss in the palm of the hand; the perverse kiss at the base of the ear; the long breathtaking kiss, with bloodied lips; the greedy kiss; the weightless kiss, like a shadow, like a memory…

The passion unleashed by the game stole her last ounce of lucidity. She whispered invented names for her unknown groom, she called him, she desired without knowing, without being able to put into words that state of excruciating expectation that had reached a paroxysm, which tortured her as not even the most terrible wound could have. The closer she felt him, the more intense that state became, driving her mad. The unexpected scream which started from the base of her throat, from the bottom of her chest, or maybe from deeper, was not so much a cry of pain—an unknown, unrepeatable pain—as it was a sign of the flesh’s victory over the barren tradition that had subjugated the city of virgins until then.

Alarmed by the piercing scream, the Amazons on guard duty rushed in, and seeing their queen writhing and moaning, speared the one holding her captive under the weight of his body before she could make the slightest gesture of resistance. And by the time Antiope roused herself, they had snatched the dead body from the profanatory embrace and dragged it into the square, to the entrance of Artemis’s temple, where they intended to let it rot. The unhappy queen, however, stole the corpse one night and secretly buried it.

She futilely tried afterward, even at the cost of her reign, to break the androphobia of the Amazons, to end the barbarous custom of invading neighboring citadels and kidnapping girls—whose right breasts the Amazons would later cut off so that once the girls became warriors they could more easily wield the shield and spear—in vain she proclaimed love, the union of woman and man, which had been destined by nature from the beginning as the fulfillment of life. Not even the miracle—never before seen in Virginia—of maternity had the power to convince the adamant ascetics. Cast off the throne, pelted with stones and banished from the citadel, fate refused Antiope even her final consolation: her child was born a girl!



by Joe Aultman-Moore

In this best of all possible universes, I led an international team that translated the book. The book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. We know this is the best of all possible universes because the book says that it is the best of all possible universes.

We know that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it because the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. The book explains that our lives have cosmic meaning in relation to the universe and everything in it as explained in the book. The book tells a history of the universe in which we play a unique and central role. Our unique and central role is to understand that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it.

At least, this is what we are told it says.


As the book explains: because we have been created with a specific unique role in the universe, every action, every thought is infused with cosmic meaning. If you pick this flower, or linger over the sight of a star shining through the trees, it ripples out through space-time. Drive this type of car and it might result in a disease in a loved one, or a promotion. Cursing excessively might cause a plague. Make this particular form of sacrifice and your family will be favored for generations. Donating money to this organization could heal cancer. Or change the trajectory of a comet. Certain impure thoughts or choice of breakfast cereal, to watch or not watch a certain film could result in the collisions of galaxies or the implosion of neutron stars.

Fortunately, the book also contains rules for living. What is right and what is wrong. Payments for certain goods and services. What and how to eat, what to wear, how punishments should be carried out for certain crimes, how marriages may proceed and debts be paid.

Every moment of our lives, every thought, when taken in relation to the book, takes on importance that reverberates back to the moment of genesis and forward into eternity. It’s all in the book. Not necessarily as direct prescription, but as an allegory. Not that this makes it purely metaphorical. Can a metaphor, when only interpretable as a direct infallible truth, really be considered mere metaphor?

This is, at least, what we thought when we began the translation.


The book is old, of course, ancient beyond history. In the long span of generations, societies shift, languages and power change. Sometimes, observations of nature do not match exactly the phrases in the book. Some passages, on superficial reading, seem antiquated or outdated. Place names that no longer exist, though they are present tense in the book. Currencies and units of measure no longer in use. Some phrasing is grammatically ambiguous, and could be interpreted in several ways. The book was written in a language that died thousands of years ago, and has been translated by generations of scholars, motivated by the cosmic importance of their work.

My team was commissioned by international consensus to execute the greatest translation of the modern age, to preserve the original perfectly—yet understandable in modern idiom. This way, we might shape our society as literally on the original as possible, to return to the original units of measurement, and replace the new maps with the old.

I speak many modern languages and have studied all the bygone ones the book has been written in. But this was an undertaking of much vaster importance and magnitude—I knew I had to become closer to the original than anyone alive. With international governments’ assistance, I procured every document in the world composed in the ancient language, the work of several years.


The following decade was spent so immersed in the old language that I became fluent, even started to dream in it.

This language is subtle and beautiful, but not easy to understand. Many words do not translate easily, there is a certain shape to them that is lost in the process—some flavor of meaning. Sound and rhythm. The feel of words in the mouth. Each as important to language as pattern, tempo and melody is to music, or the feel of food on the tongue is to eating.

Everything is, in those ancient words, as beautiful and mysterious as a moonless night, when the blinding world becomes transparent and you can see again the loneliness and grandeur. I became obsessed with the fullness of the ancient book and came to understand it as if a lover had whispered the words to me. Multilayered ironies, poetics, alliteration, double-entendres, even witticisms—revealed themselves.

As did the impossibility—the futility—of true translation.


Then came another terrible revelation.

The universe described in the original language is not the universe described in later translations. The words are similar, the grammar translatable, but the entire worldview—the whole cosmos of the original is lost. Where the original gives mystery, the translations have certainty, where it is subtle they are blunt, where it is reverent, they are commanding.

Still, driven by this awesome task, I succeeded in making the greatest translation of the age. Such a complete understanding of the—should I say poetics?—of the original had never been written in modern times. It was a complete disaster. The translation was banned and any copies rooted out and destroyed. I was excommunicated from society, disgraced—lost career, friends and all social standing and sentenced to live in exile. It would’ve made too many people curious about the contents of my translation to execute me outright.

In the decades since, however, my translation occasionally springs up somewhere before being found and destroyed. It comforts me immensely to know that it is still out there.

I think it is because some people prefer mystery to certainty and beauty to comfort.



Joe Aultman-Moore is a librarian, guide, and writer living in Haines, Alaska. His award-winning essays and articles have appeared on Daily Science Fiction, The Dirtbag Diaries, and Taproot among others. Find more of his work at and on Instagram @joeaultmoore.

Philosophy Note:

For me, science fiction is about tweaking aspects of the real world in order to play with ways of thinking and being. At its best (Bradbury, Orwell) sci-fi brings us back to reality with a new perspective.


by Gheorghe Săsărman

Introduction by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

In our Summer 2022 issue, we discussed the life and work of Gheorghe Săsărman as an introduction to “Motopia,” one of the descriptions of imaginary cities composing his speculative masterpiece Squaring the Circle – the title chosen by Ursula K. Le Guin for her translation of the Romanian original, Cuadratura cercului. “Motopia” was one of the cities that she had left out of her version, which was intended from the beginning to cover only parts of the collection. She related this to me at the time when I was helping her by reviewing the translation, which was based on my Spanish rendition of the complete body of stories. Before Le Guin undertook her task, Săsărman had already asked Jean Harris to translate a few cities from his book. Two of those did not fall within the scope of Le Guin’s later translation, namely “Motopia” and “Isopolis.” Being aware of this, we asked both Săsărman and Harris to allow us to publish them in Sci Phi Journal. We are grateful for their kind permission.

After “Motopia,” now we are honoured to offer our readers the other city translated by Harris, “Isopolis.” According to its description by Săsărman, “Isopolis” was conceived as a strictly geometrical construction intended to be the material embodiment of a purely homogenous social order. All citizens are equal except for sex and age. All of them act within the same framework of a grandiose, but monotonous architecture, which is described using a scientific style aptly connoting the lack of emotion of people living in a place where individuality seems to have faded away. Isopolis would have endured for ever if Alexander the Great would have not conquered it and burned it down due to the irreconcilable contradiction between his uniqueness and the city’s inability of even conceiving the unique. We might long for the lost city or rather celebrate its destruction. The text does not seem to favour one or the other outcome. Speculative fiction is not about giving answers, but about asking us the right questions in a meaningful way by the means of art. “Isopolis” is but a good example of this.



Translation by Jean Harris

Imagine a grid made of two groups of equidistant parallel lines perpendicular to each other which, when drawn on a plane, would yield a uniform field of equal squares, like a sheet of graph paper. Now imagine that this graph paper, enlarged several thousand times, is nothing less than a stone platform and that in each of the vertices of its unseen network rises a slender column, the architectural abacuses (or flat tops) of which each support four wooden beams arranged along the lines of the grid. On the main beams rest the square, coffered panels of the ceiling, while each coffer is covered with plate of translucent alabaster. The uniform series of columns goes on as far as the eye can see in both directions. Filtered through the roof, the diffuse light casts no shadow. This was how the city of Isopolis looked before it was set ablaze by order of Alexander of Macedon. Evil tongues say that after a ferocious orgy, in an evident state of inebriation, the underaged conqueror of the world would have set the fire with his own hand. To understand, however, that the order was pronounced by a lucid mind and, what’s more, after mature reflection, the reader is requested to halt for a while in this city as it was at the time when Alexander the Great had not yet crossed the Hellespont.

In those days Isopolis had an extension such that the inhabitants did not know its boundaries and not one of them could recall that he had ever seen the outside of it. The homogeneity of the construction, the perfect identity of the squares of which the city was built, the absence of center or edges, of a privileged place or any preferential system of reference had profound effects on the lives that unrolled under the roof of alabaster. To all appearances, people scarcely resembled each other, but on more careful examination, it could be ascertained that no matter how great the distinctions might be with regard to their exterior appearance—coiffure, style of dress, makeup and way of speaking—these were the result of a constant premeditation and they aimed to counteract the monotony of the architectonic framework. This deliberate mottling was as obsessive and tiring as uniformity would be, and beyond any distinction, the conduct of the inhabitants—their mentalities—proved them to be surprisingly similar. All the citizens (who were, evidently, equal, no matter their age or sex—while other considerations of social difference did not seem to exist) busied themselves with tiring operations, for from the very beginning these people were doomed to fail in finding and taking possession of a privileged place. People moved chaotically here and there, ceaselessly homogenizing the space from the point of view of its occupation. If an empty space formed anywhere for a few seconds or, to the contrary a very dense nucleus took shape that might have served as a point of orientation, the movement of the crowd made it disappear immediately.

Sometimes, very rarely, a person would stop, perhaps tired out with so much straying, or perhaps intuiting that in that Brownian universe lack of movement would represent the only possibility for becoming extraordinary. The intuition would not pass the gate of reason, however. For a while that individual would self-constitute as the absolute center of the city, as the zero point of a unique system of stable coordination. He would become the embryo of the end of his own kingdom, however. Happily, neither he nor those surrounding him would realize these things, and the danger would be defeated by having been ignored. Soon the individual would reintegrate himself in the aimless race. Moreover, even if we would suppose that the solution could have been realized, it would have been annulled, paradoxically, by itself. In truth, if the neighbors had recognized the singularity of the one who stood still, by virtue of the necessary recognition—the monarch having, otherwise, none but an illusory existence—the neighbors would have stopped too, and step by step the generalized pause would have lost its singularity.

Isopolis could not admit the unique.

Alexander was the expression of uniqueness incarnate.

The true cause of the blaze is to be found in this irreconcilable contradiction.



by Gheorghe Săsărman

Introductory Note by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Born in 1941, in Bucharest, Romania, Gheorghe Săsărman spent his childhood and attended high-school in Cluj. He studied architecture in Bucharest and after graduation was employed as a journalist, mainly specialising in articles on architecture and popular science. Politically compelled to abandon public writing, he left Ceauşescu’s Romania in 1983 and settled in Munich, Germany, where he currently lives.

Săsărman made his debut as an author of fiction in 1962, when he won the first prize at a SF short-story contest organized for seven East-European countries. He then began to write science fiction stories and soon acquired his current status as one of the main SF writers of his generation in Romania. A story in the volume Chimera (1979), “Fuga lui Algernon” (“Algernon’s Escape” in English – whose title paraphrases that of Daniel Keyes’s famous novel –) brought the author the Europa Award at the 5th EuroCon convention (1980). After 1989, he resumed publishing fiction in his native country, which he continues to this day. His two latest books are the critically acclaimed novel on the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth in current Munich titled Adevărata cronică a morții lui Yeșua Ha-Nozri (True Chronicle of the Death of Jeshua Ha-Nozri, 2016) and a collection of dystopias beginning each by a different letter collectively spelling out the word “utopia” titled Alfabetul distopiilor (Alphabet of Dystopias, 2021).

This last volume can be read as a science fiction and narrative counterpart to his best-known work, Cuadratura cercului (Squaring the Circle, 1975). This masterful collection of descriptions of imaginary cities, set in fictional past, present and future venues or in dream-like symbolic and fantasy worlds was written without the author having read Italo Calvino’s book Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities, 1972). Both books are, indeed, quite different, since Calvino’s is rather a collection of prose poems only vaguely portraying the life in his invented cities and hardly belonging to speculative fiction, while Săsărman focuses on the relationship between his cities’ physical features and their impact on the posited societies and the lives of their inhabitants. This speculative dimension, which is often critical towards humankind’s psychological, social and political follies, explains why the book had clashed with the communist censorship prevalent at the time, which cut out one quarter of its contents. The unabridged original work appeared in Romanian only in 2001, when it had already been translated into French in 1994. It was translated into Spanish by myself in 2010. Since I knew that one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, could read Spanish, I sent her a copy. She liked it so much that she decided to translate into English the cities that she liked best, roughly two thirds of those in Săsărman’s volume, based on my Spanish version and with my subsequent revision of her translation with an eye on the Romanian original. Some of the missing cities had been translated into English by Jean Harris, but they have remained unpublished until today. Thanks to the kind permission of both Săsărman and Harris, Sci Phi Journal is able to bring to light in English two further cities among those untranslated by Le Guin.

For the present issue, we’ve chosen “Motopia.” It is the description of a city where motor vehicles are so important and prevalent that they have even fused with humans into a new nature/machine hybrid species with terrifying results. This is written with the objective style of a non-fiction report, which makes all the more harrowing the description of the city and the consequences of certain societal choices. Although its subject can be seen as topical, we should not forget that it is above all a superb piece of speculative literature, as well as of fictional non-fiction. It also shows what Sci Phi Journal stands for as regards the art of writing, and why Săsărman is one of our acknowledged masters in the literary field.



Translation by Jean Harris

It is not known with certainty when exactly it appeared, or when it began to expand, or what force fueled its expansion. Few dare approach the difficult subject of its future though many fear that nothing can stop its growth. Motopia is a city in a state of explosion. But is it, really, a city?

Imagine an area with clearly marked limits—though here figures can be only approximate—of a circle with a diameter of c. 100 kilometers. The perimeter of this circle is made up of over 100,000 gigantic machines [with bulldozing action, inter alia], placed one next to the other and engaging in a slow radial motion toward the exterior. To the extent that the machines move away from the center, intervals of free space begin to form between them, at which time other machines fill the gaps at the forefront of activity. These genuinely and completely automated moving factories prepare an offensive.

Hills and slopes are leveled; depressions are filled to the extent that even the steepest mountain is reduced to a perfect, horizontal plane. Forests are transformed into timber and cellulose, the vegetable earth of the planes is removed and compressed into certain desiccated lakes, the rivers are turned into covered canals and the whole body of fauna is assigned an industrial value. The machines do not simply execute a simple leveling operation, though; a fabulous network of roadways takes shape in their wake. This lattice of multi-leveled highways ramifies in tens of directions that intersect in a stupefying lace of concrete and asphalt. Above and below ground parking lots, garage towers with tens and tens of levels, and warehouses locked by enigmatic metal gates all site themselves in the cells of this network. Several hundred meters above ground level, a bluish cloud floats over the city day and night, wide-spread and wrapping the entire horizon.

The city is exclusively inhabited by a fecund species of humobiles. Accounts have been written by the few intrepid deponents that have miraculously managed to return. Bearing in mind their pronounced disturbance—even after extremely short stays—as well as the many mutually contradictory points in their accounts, the pieces of information judged worthy of being put in circulation are summary at best.

The existence—at least the public existence—of the humobiles begins at the gates of their warehouses from which they exit, hourly, in compact groups. It seems that only mature specimens with high tank capacity and many cylinders appear at these gates. Different subspecies distinguish between themselves only by the type and position of the heart, transmission, suspension and other such anatomic data. Each family is characterized by a certain auto-body construction, individual differentials localizing themselves particularly at the level of line, color, number or headlights—or else they limit themselves strictly to registration numbers. A common trait, about which all accounts agree, is the presence of a red eye, like a bleeding wound, on the top of the individual’s head, where it blinks hideously, without any intelligible sense.

The humobiles manifest an irresistible vitality consumed particularly through apparently senseless travel at considerable speed within the highway network evidently destined for this purpose. This lack of sense is, in truth, only apparent: in reality this magic dance of speed supports the process of natural selection, which unfolds in specific ways. Only the most robust specimens with the most diabolical reflexes, well-adapted to the infernal rhythm of existence survive this demented race over the asphalt lanes. Any defect in the breaks or of the directional signaling systems involves terrible risks. The slightest deviation of the vertebral column is fatal. Special vehicles, of great tonnage, transport the cadavers to the vicinity of the warehouses, where—after a preliminary pressing into rectangular shapes—they are recovered in a mysterious way, probably serving the complicated procreation of new hotrods.

Outside the prolonged hours belonging to the fierce highway confrontation that is their daily struggle for existence, humobiles find brief respites within the confines of their parking lots. Silent, motionless, insensible to the approach of their rivals, the humobiles sack out in a peculiar torpor, often with their backs toward the gigantic screen where an oppressive film inspired by the hard life of the digging machinery plays interminably. When they are not consuming themselves on the highways, the Motopian families spend their nights in the tower garages, touched by a metallic sleep without dreams.

The most horrifying detail of the life of Motopia’s inhabitants—and which makes the growth of the city so perfectly odious—is their way of feeding themselves. In short anthropophagy is practiced here. Human beings are the humobiles main food. Lured from their traditional cities by false but well-directed propaganda, captured as a result of their proverbial naïveté, people who have been lured there are discharged in large numbers into the train stations and airports of Motopia, where they are flung directly to the starving hordes or transported in bulk to special warehouses, pompously called hotels and joined directly to the edifices in which the inhabitant families spend the night, to be served live for breakfast. Satiated, bloated, with their bellies hanging within several fingers of the asphalt and leaning lazily on the curbs, the humobiles start to digest their prey. Their opaque, beveled foreheads hide their thoughts. With the exception of the few deponents mentioned above—and they are our true saviors, for the greatest danger isn’t so much the existence of Motopia as it is ignoring its existence—no one else has returned from that lugubrious city. In parenthesis, let it be said, the phone calls and enthusiastic letters through which those who have arrived there express their supposed delight or announce their wholly improbable decision to remain in that city forever can only be counted as desperate acts extracted under menace of death, if they are not vulgar travesties, grotesque forgeries from whole cloth.

The survivors tell us hair-raising things about the limitless cruelty of the humobiles, who, though they can only nourish themselves with live prey, often kill not for food but for pleasure. As the prisoners, meanwhile, start to become aware of the danger threatening them, they center their thoughts around a possible life-saving escape. And as pedestrian flight is the only solution, they try to leave the cells of their ill-omened hotels. The refined sadism of the inhabitants shows its true measure only now: the exits are not even guarded. The humobiles know—and their cynicism surpasses imagination—that over the course of those several tens of kilometers to the boarders of Motopia, travelling by night, when the level of traffic is reduced, and hiding by day, human beings will have to cross so many lanes of asphalt that only a miracle will allow them to succeed. Happily, several such miracles have taken place. But a huge number of fugitives have paid with their lives for these rare miracles. For allowing them hope and then surprising them in turn, hounded and hungry, the humobiles have crushed escapees relentlessly, gnashed them to bits in the most sinister way, and left their dead bodies to rot on the sites of their terrible executions, unburied, so that their bones will whiten on the asphalt, so that their terrifying brain cases will attract the attention of others and choke any thought of escape from the beginning.


Communication In The Inky Blackness Of Space

by Mina

Code 46 is a little-known dystopian SF film bursting with good ideas, but what concerns us here is that woven into the film is a lingua franca or global pidgin. The DVD I bought in Germany includes a glossary of pidgin words (“kleines Wörterbuch der Code-46 Zukunft”) with elements of Spanish, French, Italian, Persian and Mandarin mixed into the English used in the film, for example:

                al fuera (“bastardised” Spanish) – the outer world, outside the State-controlled cities

                coche (Spanish) – car, taxi

                khoda hafez (Persian) – goodbye

                ni hao (Mandarin) – hello

                papeles (Spanish)– papers, a visa to the outer world

                par avion (French) – by plane

                ti amo (Italian) – I love you

                vite (French) – schnell

This blend of languages reminded me of “Sabir”, a pan-Romance lingua franca or pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean (mare nostrum) by sailors and traders in the Middle Ages over five centuries (15th – 19th), which was a blend of Italian (Genovese), Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and French (Occitan), with some Arabic, Greek and Turkish influences. The name came from the question “sabir sabir?” (do you know Sabir?). The speaker would speak the simplest form of their own Romance language and throw in shared pidgin phrases with basic grammar (e.g. using the infinitive form of the verb instead of conjugating it), such as:

                mi intender/ablar/sabir/sentir – I understand/speak/know/hear

                ti /ellu/ella/noi/voi/elli pensar/tazir – you (sing.)/he/she/we/you(pl.)/they think/be silent

                mi non pudir venir subito – I can’t come right away

                come ti star? / mi star bonu – how are you? / I am well

                mi andar poco poco in la casa del Signor M. – I’m going slowly to Mr M.’s house

I actually found a basic Sabir course on the internet, which allowed me to construct these phrases. This led me to ask myself what an interstellar lingua franca or pidgin could look like.

Before going further into what a common language might resemble, I had a quick look at how many “invented” languages I could find in SF. The answer was, surprisingly, not very many. The most well-known constructed language is of course Klingon in the Star Trek (ST) universe, but much has already been written about it. A less well-known fictional tongue is Drac, a language invented by Barry B. Longyear in his novel Enemy Mine (which later became part of a trilogy, along with The Tomorrow Testament and The Last Enemy). The film made of Enemy Mine is a highly watchable SF “B movie” but lacks the depth of the book, which is truly excellent SF (and which wanders into the realms of Sci-Phi as the trilogy progresses and Longyear builds on Drac philosophy and politics). We will focus here on Enemy Mine, The Author’s Cut.

Longyear is no Tolkien, so you are not presented with a whole language system, but there are a couple of hundred words that recur (rarely going beyond short phrases). All in all, the author has done a good job, in particular with how he ties the language into Drac culture, religion and philosophy. Being an SF and language geek, I was very happy to buy the omnibus edition (The Enemy Papers) on my kindle including the trilogy, an article on devising your own language (“On Alien Languages”), excerpts from the Drac holy book (the Talman) and a basic Drac-English-Drac dictionary. I did laugh when Longyear stressed in his article that he chose Drac names and words that his reader could actually pronounce (no clicks, trills, hyphens or apostrophes). And his language began by inventing an insult hurled by the human protagonist (Davidge) at the Drac protagonist (Jeriba Shigan) right at the beginning of Enemy Mine: “In a matter or mere paragraphs, the human and the alien are both speaking pigeon (sic, should be “pidgin”) versions of the other’s language, in addition to trying to survive”. Longyear tells us in his article: “It always bothers me when, in a SF film or story, beings who evolved on worlds thousands of light years away from Earth all speak English like Lawrence (sic, should be “Laurence”) Olivier”. The author is not a linguist, and he openly admits it, so he invents a straightforward language; it is how he uses Drac in his novels where things become really interesting.

In addition to giving us an accurate image of two beings initially communicating in a pidgin mix of both their languages (Gavey? Ae, I understand), as they learn each other’s languages properly, the author shows us that Davidge has truly mastered Drac when he learns to speak, read and write “high” Drac to be able to study and memorise the Talman, and to be able to recite Jeriba Shigan’s lineage. When Davidge returns to Earth years later, he meets only prejudice against the Dracs, even though the two races are now supposedly at peace. As a protest against the anti-Drac propaganda all around him, he replies to the customs official only in Drac. Later, travelling to Drac, Davidge meets prejudice from Dracs because he is human. At first, he pretends not to understand Drac but finally loses his temper with a particularly obnoxious Drac retorting in fluent Drac with an insult that also shows his understanding of Drac culture. The Number Two on the vessel persuades Davidge to apologise for the insult not because he treats him like a human but because he treats him like a Drac with a deep understanding of Drac religion and philosophy. Above all, what is a rare pleasure in Enemy Mine is that the human protagonist is, at the beginning of the story, barely able to articulate himself emotionally or spiritually, and he learns to do both from the alien, making a nice change from the human superiority trope when encountering alien civilisations.

The SF film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s novella, Story of Your Life) shows us aliens who communicate using elaborate symbols (semagrams, i.e. semantic symbols (pictures or glyphs) associated with concepts). The main protagonist and interpreter in the film version, Louise Banks, masters the alien language when she realises that it is a language that is not spoken in a linear fashion but in a circular, all-encompassing fashion, allowing the speaker to experience “memories” of the future in the past. Louise of course then single-handedly avoids the outbreak of interstellar war using her new linguistic skills. The language presented in the novella itself is more complex and not constrained by the need to create tension to captivate film audiences (although the film does capture the aching sadness of the novella). In Ted Chiang’s story, Louise concludes that the heptapods have two languages because their speech (Heptapod A) and writing (Heptapod B) are independent of each other, with Heptapod B being semasiograhpic (i.e. not based on speech utterances but on symbols). In the novella, the focus shifts to communicating through Heptapod B, where it transpires that the heptapods do not write a sentence one semagram at a time but draw all of them simultaneously, suggesting that they know what the entire sentence will be beforehand. And here the novella and film do meet when postulating a language based not on causality (i.e. sequential events) but on teleology (i.e. all events are experienced at once or, rather, the purpose of any statement is interchangeable with the premise behind it).

No world war is avoided in the novella, but Louise accepts with courage the inevitability of the events in her future that she has been “remembering”. Louise comes to the conclusion that her new way of experiencing consciousness through Heptapod B negates free will, but she does not perceive this to be negative: “freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion”. For her, language has become performative in that, although she knows what will happen in her future, it does not become a reality until she has said/thought/acted on it. Based on Fermat’s “principle of least time”, i.e. that a light ray takes the shortest path from A to B when it passes through water and therefore “knows” its destination from the very start, Louise muses: “From the beginning, I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain?” The most interesting thing about Heptapod B is that it changes the way in which Louise (and the reader) thinks. Woven into personal tragedy, Heptapod B haunts us after the last sentence is performed.

Heptapod brings us halfway to imagining an interstellar lingua franca beyond words. In John Wyndham’s novella Chocky, twelve-year old Matthew’s imaginary friend turns out to be an alien consciousness who, among other things, teaches Matthew to count using binary code. C.J. Cherryh takes this idea even further in her Foreigner series, where the alien Atevi languages are heavily influenced by arithmetic (e.g. to form plurals) and have a philosophy based on numerology. Some numbers are felt to lack harmony, whilst others are felicitous: the glossary at the end of the first Foreigner book contains the word agingi’ai meaning “felicitous numerical harmony”. Cherryh does not just imagine a language that functions in a radically different way but also an entire culture based on man’chi or “primary loyalty to association or leader” rather than on the human understanding of affection. Political allegiance is not anchored in territory but on man’chi and assassination is a legal means of settling disputes (when intent is properly filed). The main protagonist Bren Cameron is a human interpreter or paidhi who speaks the Atevi language spoken in the association that has a treaty with the human enclave on the planet. He is responsible for maintaining and updating the dictionary, and observing and reporting on social change (more specifically the transfer of technology from the human enclave to the Atevi in exchange for peaceful coexistence). In the first book, he becomes the focal point of a haronniin (“accumulated stresses on the system, justifying adjustment”) through an unsanctioned assassination attempt, lacking in biichi-gi (“finesse”). His youthful arrogance and mishidi (awkwardness, not understanding the allegiances of those around him) become tempered with experience and real understanding for the alien mindset as the first three books progress.

We could therefore imagine a lingua franca based on mathematics or teleological symbols. I must admit my non-mathematical linguist brain balks at this idea and would much rather imagine a lingua franca based on telepathy. In the ST universe, for example, we have the Vulcan mind meld first used by Spock in the original ST (an example of touch telepathy) and telepath-empaths like Deanna Troi in ST The Next Generation (NG), a half Betazoid who can sense strong emotions. Both forms of telepathy do still seem to be, at least in part, word-based. One of my favourite ST NG episodes “Tin Man” includes a sentient spaceship (Gomtuu) that communicates with a full Betazoid (Tam) at a speed that would suggest communication beyond words. There is also an episode of ST Voyager “Remember” where communication (accidentally) occurs through dreams. B’Elanna Torres learns of Enara’s shameful past history through the memories of an Enaran transmitted to her telepathically in her sleep. And dreams are tied much more to images and emotions than to words.

One of the advantages of telepathic communication would seem to be its instantaneous nature. In Ender’s Game – the “Buggers” (perceived as the enemy for most of the book and almost completely annihilated in an intergalactic war) communicate instantly with each other through telepathy. The humans create a communication device (ansible) to communicate instantly across space like the Buggers do. At the end of the book, the last Bugger queen (in pupa form) communicates with Ender telepathically (and Ender realise that the Buggers had tried to communicate with him before through the “mind game” he played as part of his training). Through this telepathic communication, Ender understands why the war happened and that it could have been stopped; he pledges his life to bringing an almost extinct civilisation back to life, in penance for his role in the mass genocide.

Certainly, imagining an interstellar lingua franca based on telepathy or mathematics is more fun than H.G. Wells’ fascination with C.K. Ogden’s “basic English” as a possible universal language, with a vocabulary of 850 words that are in common use divided into operations (100), things (400 general and 200 “picturable”) and qualities (100 general and 50 opposites). The most interesting words are the “operations” which include words with grammatical functions, e.g. verbs are reduced to 16 simple operators (come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send) and two auxiliaries (may, will) by relying on combinations formed by these operators with prepositions (e.g. “go in” for “enter”), adjectives (“get ready” for “prepare”), nouns (“give pain” for “hurt”), etc. It is not clear how far H.G. Wells believed in a universal, simplified English for communication in the world of the future, but he did feel that a living language would work better than an artificial language like Esperanto (I discovered his interest in such things in an article written by Sylvia Hardy, A story of the days to come: H.G. Wells and the language of science fiction). In his opinion, successful communication was crucial to be able to establish social cohesion because language structures the thinking of any community and shapes its view of itself and the world in which it exists. Many of his stories are reflections on the breakdown of communication leading to a breakdown of social order, or at the very least lack of effective communication being a symptom of dystopian worlds.

Having taught business English for several years in Germany, I felt that most students found it a chore because “international English” is often taught in a cultural vacuum. English may be the international language of commerce today, but there are many variants of English: British, American, Australian and Indian, to name but a few (and there is that English that is spoken in a room with not a single native speaker in sight). As a language teacher, I insisted on including culture in my business English classes. Bored students would come to life when I would ask them to analyse the accents in the first twenty minutes of Love Actually and what their accents tell us about each character’s class, education and origins. They would laugh their way through the beginning of Everything is Illuminated and throw themselves enthusiastically into the task of working out why the interpreter’s English was wonderfully strange (i.e. full of anachronisms, with a complete lack of respect for collocations and register). That said, I am not interested in a form of Basic English taking over the galaxy; I would simply like to see more SF authors imagining what interstellar communication could look like, particularly if it is not limited by words. Sci-Phi is most fun when it marries anthropology and philosophy in universes where aliens are truly alien, not just in their appearance but in their way of thinking.



Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

“Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered!”, or, Is the Universal Translator A Myth?

by Mina

There are two series which have coloured our collective consciousness when we think of the concept of a universal translator: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Star Trek (in all its guises). As a linguistic aside, “hitchhikers” was initially spelled in various different ways (hitch hiker, hitch-hiker, hitchhiker, with or without the apostrophe) until it settled as “The Hitchhikers Guide” in around 2000 (even the abbreviation has various forms: HG2G, tHGttG, HHGTTG, etc.). One wonders how many pitfalls communication may involve if one word can have so many variants within one language.

HG2G began its life in 1978 as a BBC Radio 4 series. This was followed by five novels, with a TV series sandwiched between novels two and three. The author, Douglas Adams, was involved in all of these versions, but they are far from identical to each other, and it is best to see them as a collection of leitmotifs. I am ignoring the 2005 film, which feels like a huge “mistranslation” (even if Adams was briefly involved in it before his death), missing the point on several levels – it is an attempt to turn HG2G into a PC, action story with a romantic subplot, dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, obsessed with Vogons and not at all true to the original radio/TV series or to the early-1980s-Britain pastiche that was so much fun. This sense of fun is very present in one leitmotif, the Babel fish described by the “book” as:

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”

I can always hear the voice in my mind of Peter Jones as the “book” narrating this passage in both the radio and original TV series (the “book” is almost a character in its own right). The description goes on to state that it was a “mind-bogglingly” useful invention and there is a hysterically funny passage on how it was used to disprove the existence of God (incidentally, a whole generation of SF nerds integrated “mind-boggling” and “I don’t give a dingo’s kidneys” into their everyday vocabulary due to this passage). Although the Babel fish makes it possible for the most unprepossessing human to ever travel the galaxy, Arthur Dent, to understand and communicate with aliens, the Babel fish is also dangerous:

“…the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Star Trek (ST) does not have a “Babel fish” but it does have a “universal translator”. It begins its life in Gene Roddenberry’s original ST as a handheld device and by Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG), it has been incorporated into the communicator pins all Starfleet personnel wear on their uniforms. All Starfleet vessels are also equipped with a universal translator. Although Enterprise is seen as a poor cousin to other series in the ST canon, it is actually the only series to look in depth into the development of the universal translator that is mostly taken for granted in the series and films that take place “later” (if we look at the ST universe chronologically). In Enterprise, we actually have a skilled linguist on the crew, Ensign Hoshi Sato. We see that new languages have to be added to the universal translator by gathering enough data to build a “translation matrix” (a data construct facilitating the conversion of symbols and sounds from one language to another). And Hoshi Sato does not just use this translation matrix, she improves upon it, inventing the “linguacode” translation matrix to anticipate and speed up the conversion of new and unknown languages. She is a main character whose linguistic skills are used time and again to get the crew out of thorny situations. I cannot stress how unusual this is in an SF (or any) series. We will come back to the idea of “training” a universal translator and translation matrices later when we look at Machine Translation technology today.

Not everyone sees a universal translator as a good thing in the ST universe. There is a scene in ST Discovery between Burnham and a Klingon (Kol), where Burnham sees the universal translator as a means of communication and reaching a peaceful accord, and Kol sees it as another attempt by the Federation to subsume Klingon culture. In fact, my husband was annoyed by the fact that the Klingons in Discovery speak Klingon all the time; I actually rather enjoyed the series’ courage on this point, as subtitling puts off some viewers, but I think Klingons speaking amongst themselves should speak Klingon. Interestingly, Klingon began as gibberish but was later developed into a language by Marc Okrand for ST III: The Search for Spock in 1984 based on some phrases originally developed by the actor James Doohan (Scotty) in ST: The Motion Picture in 1979. Okrand developed a grammar and expanded the vocabulary and, should you be so inclined, you can actually learn Klingon online through the Klingon Language Institute. It is fascinating to see interest from both the producers and viewers in a constructed language yet, at the same time, most of the series hinges on the existence of a universal translator.

The universal translator is shown to have its limits in the STNG episode Darmok. This episode is based on the premise that a universal translator cannot make sense of a language based on abstraction and metaphors, deeply rooted in culture, myth and history. Stranded on a planet with a Tamarian captain Dathon (a Child of Tama), Picard struggles to learn enough about Tamarian metaphors to communicate with Dathon as they face a common enemy. The Tamarian language is described by Troi as a language based on narrative imagery, with reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts, much like using “Juliet, on her balcony” as a metaphor for romance. Picard slowly learns to communicate with Dathon who tells him the story of “Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra”. In exchange, Picard reframes the earth myth of “Gilgamesh and Enkidu, at Uruk” for him. The whole episode is an absolute delight for anyone interested in languages, communication, linguistics, logic and alien thinking. At the end, Picard has learned enough to successfully communicate his regret for the death of Dathon to his first officer and that he and Dathon reached communion or true communication before his death:

TAMARIAN FIRST OFFICER: Zinda! His face black. His eyes red— (expressing anger)

PICARD: —Temarc! The river Temarc. In winter. (asking for him to be silent and listen)

FIRST OFFICER: Darmok? (asking if his Captain’s plan was successful)

PICARD: …and Jalad. At Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean. (the plan of two strangers working together to fight a common threat was successful)

FIRST OFFICER (to others, amazed): Sokath! His eyes open! (thank God, you understood)

PICARD (continuing): The beast of Tanagra. Uzani. His army. (shaking his head) Shaka, when the walls fell. (explaining how Dathon died and his regret at Dathon’s death)

FIRST OFFICER: Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. (a new metaphor enters the Tamarian language to signify successful communication between two races who were strangers to each other)

I have added the “translation” in brackets after each utterance but the lovely thing about this episode is that, having accompanied Picard and Dathon on their journey at El-Adrel, the viewer can understand the entire exchange without help.

In his article in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost feels that the episode has its shortcomings because it tries to limit the language of the Children of Tama to our understanding of how language works, i.e. using our familiar denotative speech methods. Bogost stresses that the Tamarian language works more like poetry or allegories, which replace one thing with another (rather than simply comparing one thing to another like metaphors do). But, he argues, the Children of Tama are not replacing one image with another, they are using the familiar logic (the intention) behind each situation to which they refer to communicate in a manner that is almost computational, i.e. procedural rhetoric takes precedence over verbal and visual rhetoric and dictates their immediate actions. Whether or not you feel that Darmok lends itself to this level of analysis or that Bogost is right or wrong, the whole episode serves to demonstrate a completely different linguistic system and logic.

How close are we to such a universal translator? How effective are Machine Translation (MT) tools? The best-known MT tool is Google Translate, which has moved from being just a Website to also existing in App form for mobile phones, and from just translating text to also translating text contained in images and translating speech. How accurate is it, for example, when translating into English? As a linguist, I can tell you that it depends on the language combination. It copes reasonably well with Romance languages where the syntax is not too dissimilar from English, less well with German where the syntax is quite different, and not at all well with Estonian, where the syntax and logic of the language are very different (and it is a small and rare language with a more limited dataset). MT currently needs to be used with caution and with a clear aim in mind: it can be very useful if you want to know the gist of an article, for example, to run it through an MT tool to obtain a rough translation. However, it is dangerous to rely on an MT of a medical or legal text where precision is vital. MT can sound very convincing until you get a native speaker to check its accuracy, since MT has to cope with languages being flexible and ambiguous, with meaning being derived not just from a word but also its co-text (e.g. collocations) and context (e.g. a word where the meaning changes depending on where you read it, in a novel – “Oh, that’s criminal!”, where I consider your taste in wallpaper a travesty – or an article – “David was arrested for his criminal activities”, where David really did commit a crime).

That said, how MT works has changed over time: early rule-based systems (using lexical, syntactic and semantic rules that hit their limits at the sheer number of exceptions and variables required) were replaced in the 1990s with statistical methods (using a large corpus of examples but which were divorced from context, thus often leading to errors) and, more recently, we have moved towards neural MT (NMT). It is NMT that most resembles the language matrices of the universal translator mentioned in Enterprise and where fiction and reality begin (on a humble scale as yet) to converge. In NMT, the input is a sentence in the source language, with source language grammar, and the output is a sentence in the target language, with target language grammar. In between, we have an algorithm, which is an application of deep learning in which massive datasets of translated sentences are used to “train” a model capable of translating between any two languages. For example, it must be able to cope with all variants of the word “hitchhiker”.

One established NMT structure is the encoder-decoder architecture, composed of two recurrent neural networks (RNNs) used together to create a translation model. Textual data is transformed into numeric form and back into different textual data (its translation):

“An encoder neural network reads and encodes a source sentence into a fixed-length vector. A decoder then outputs a translation from the encoded vector. The whole encoder–decoder system, which consists of the encoder and the decoder for a language pair, is jointly trained to maximize the probability of a correct translation given a source sentence.” (

This architecture has problems with long sequences of text which is why we now have an “encoder-decoder with attention” model. The system learns to only focus on the “relevant” part of the sequence to translate each individual word, so that length is no longer a problem. Google Translate uses this architecture and feeds it with millions of stored sentences. It is a system that still has its problems, however: the training and inferences speed is still too slow, it can be ineffective dealing with rarer words (it struggles with large vocabularies and a myriad of contexts) and it sometimes fails to translate a word it does not recognise, simply leaving the source-language word in the target-language sentence. MT initially focused mainly on the written word, but work is now being done on the spoken word as well.

So is a universal translator possible in our world? (N)MT will continue to improve, that is for sure. Whether it can ever fully replace the need for a human linguist remains to be seen. It cannot yet do what is one of our biggest strengths of the human mind: it cannot make inferences and assumptions based on context, background knowledge, culture and an instinct for which rules can be broken and which not. It cannot spot mistakes, decipher bad style or pick up nuances of embedded, deeper meanings. MT is based on algorithms and probability, it works with separate units (numeric representations of words) and even with the development of “attention” and “deep learning”, it cannot yet get a quick overview when examining a large sequence of units or adjust to circumstances when making a decision. It is not yet truly flexible. It is possible that one day, computers will imitate the way the human mind makes connections (and recreates the intention of the communication in the source language in the target language) so closely that we will not be able to tell the difference. The operative word is imitate: we are still a long way from a “sentient” computer able to think autonomously rather than applying a set of complex mathematical rules. That does not mean we will never get there but we are not yet at a point where the computer can translate the full meaning of “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” into other languages.



Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

The Existence Of God

by Leopoldo Lugones

Introductory Note by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

There are several modes in speculative fiction, even if we limit it, as we should, to fictions underpinned by a modicum of science and where imagination appears, therefore, in a guise disciplined by reason, even in the many instances where it does not look very reasonable. One of those modes is theological fiction, i.e. fiction based on the study of Theology as a science. This ‘queen of sciences’ is, indeed, a scholarly discipline, since it has its own systematic methods of investigation in order to rationally reach its conclusions and present them using a particular form of scientific discourse. Although its subject is not quantifiable, nor can it be proven or disproven through experimentation (as it is the case in the so-called hard sciences) or documentation (as in History and other human sciences), Theology still has a sounder basis than, say, Metaphysics. This is because it applies reason to pre-existent materials: the scriptures of any religion and their religious teachings formally deduced by scholars in the matter of God, both inside and outside of established clerical institutions, or concerning other divine entities and its (or their) ways in the universe and our world.

This divinity is seen by theologians as an abstract entity, rather than a sort of superhuman endowed with special powers, as the gods of mythology. For this reason, Theology usually finds its proper fictional expression in allegories rather than in myths. Its characters are not (super)people but concepts endowed with agency. In order to illustrate this, we only need to compare the Hebrew creator god, who is a male particularly subject to fits of anger and needful of rest after work, with the abstract and philosophical God-Logos of the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John. The former can inspire mythographies and mythological fiction, the second is at the heart of allegories or theographies, if this neologism may be allowed, as well as theological fiction. From a literary perspective, the latter can embrace different literary forms and discourses.

In modern times, there have been numerous outstanding examples of purely fictional approaches to Theology, such as historiographical accounts of imaginary doctrines and heresies, of which Jorge Luis Borges is just the most famous modern inventor, or new and allegorical accounts of creation, such as Ian Watson’s very short narrative poem entitled “Let There Be Darkness: An Origin Myth” (collected in The Lexicographer’s Love Song and Other Poems, 2001). Fictional essays and dialogues have also been used to convey original theological concepts intended as literature, not as contributions to scientific theological debate. Among them, Guillaume Apollinaire’s “L’hérésiarque” (L’Hérésiarque et Cie, 1910) deserves mention, which has been translated into English as “The Heresiarch” in the volume entitled The Heresiarch & Co. (Exact Change, 1991). A further theological fiction written as a dialogue, this time among the dead instead of the living portrayed by Apollinaire, is the very short piece by Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina, 1874-1938) entitled in Spanish “La existencia de Dios,” or “The Existence of God” in the below translation into English. It was first collected in a collection of short parables from 1924 titled Filosofícula, with the Spanish title using a Latinate neologism meaning ‘Little Philosophy.’

It might seem odd that its two sole characters, Epicurus and Voltaire (here named ‘the patriarch of Ferney’) are notorious critics of established religion but, as a science, Theology does not need to be confessional. Moreover, their dialogue seems faithful to the teachings of both philosophers and their intellectual struggle against the mythological gods and the theological one, respectively. Voltaire, the deist, is shown by the old Greek philosopher as having demonstrated rather the existence of the Devil, the anti-God whose work is all too obvious on our planet for its existence to be denied. Epicurus argues the inexistence of both the divine and the anti-divine supreme personal principles, for a reason readers will find convincing, or not, when reading it below. But this debate does not seem the literary point of Lugones. His prose adroitly hides a paradox when Epicurus states that he has extensive infernal experience, thus confessing the existence of the afterlife as it is taught by most theologies, not only the Christian and Muslim ones. Epicurus is then shown as a sophist denying a basic theological concept (God, or the Devil for that matter) while affirming another theological concept derived thereof. Another possible reading would perhaps be too deeply pessimistic to be seriously considered, although it would be suited to the decadent world-view permeating the Fin de siècle literature to which Lugones historically belongs. Contrary to contemporary theological teachings suggesting that hell does not exist (or that it will not exist in the future, which amounts to the same from the perspective of Eternity), his Epicurus would imply that only hell exists in the afterlife, whereas God and the Devil would be mere figments of the human imagination. Finally, for religious persons there remains the possible consolatory conclusion that heaven exists – but that the two philosophers are excluded from it. The literary-minded, meanwhile, may at least enjoy the pleasure of Lugones’ elegant irony.


The Existence Of God

Translation by Álvaro Piñero González

Epicurus, noticing his illustrious colleague, approached him and gracefully offered him a rose from the garden.

“If only I did not wish to pester you with the contradiction,” he said, “I would venture to remind you just how ingeniously you have demonstrated, despite being a deist, the monstrosity of God in the light of good judgment and logic. That monstrosity alone would suffice to prove God does not exist, were it not because it merely reflects how boundless human vanity is.”

“I feel inclined to believe so,” answered the patriarch of Ferney, “I must admit to finding the Devil ever more likely than God…”

“Because of my own infernal experience, much more extensive than yours, I would like to offer you this revelation: the Devil does not exist. It is yet another chimera of deism: the monster seen from the back. It is all man’s doing. Look at this flower: it does not need to know about the Devil or God to be perfectly beautiful. Look at that bird chirping beside its nest: it knows nothing of the Devil or God and yet it is perfectly blissful. I propose this simple philosophical experiment to you: assume for a moment man does not exist – God and the Devil cease to exist forthwith.”


Solitude Of An Orthogonal Language

by Binta Ohtaki

Translated by Toshiya Kamei

Let there be light. It then occurs to a mathematician that language itself is the ray of light that shines on all objects. As every object reveals its contour only in light, the light must have come into existence after everything else. At the same time, we want to believe the image formed on the retina in order to embrace the joy triggered by the beauty of color that hasn’t yet seen the light. Yet if language is light, then what we see is a shadow one language casts on another.

Our cognitive space is constructed upon all possible languages. This space has every object embedded. We can perceive an object only through a certain language. In other words, we get no more than a partial glimpse of the object each time. The mathematician’s study concerns the development of a method to see the multi-linguistic pluralism of an object through a single language. This method has come to be known commonly as translation.

If, according to him, translation refers to the shadow of one language on another, then the translation affinity between two languages manifests as its inner product. By paying attention to the angle formed by the distance between the languages that define the space, he has proven that an observed object can be calculated as the same square matrix as the number of languages from one set of observed data. He dubbed this “language matrix.” And the number property of the language matrix is given as its eigenvalue and eigenvector.

Yet when the mathematician observes the light in the universe, the characteristic equation yields no solution. The rays shoot toward all languages, i.e. all the shadows extending toward an imaginary number. We can’t even stare at a shadow we can’t step on. It then dawns on him that the language that goes straight to every language is his mother tongue.

His dwelling constructed by his own words isn’t located anywhere in the world.

Even so, from there, he gets an excellent view of the whole universe.


Translator’s Note by Toshiya Kamei

Binta Ohtaki (b. 1986) is a Japanese fiction writer and essayist based in Kobe. In 2017, he published the short story collection Colonial Time. In the same year, he won the first Awa Shirasagi Literary Prize. Organized by Tokushima Shinbun, a newspaper of Tokushima prefecture located in the island of Shikoku, this contest seeks the finest short fiction set in the region. Ohtaki’s award-winning story depicts the world of traditional indigo dyeing, known as aizome in Japanese, which is practiced in Tokushima. In addition, his short fiction has appeared in venues such as Hidden Authors, S-F Magazine, and Taberu no ga osoi.

While a PhD student in physics at Kyoto University, he spent several months at Carnegie Mellon University. There he was exposed to the works of U.S. writers such as Pynchon. This study-abroad experience deepened his preoccupation with language. As he immersed himself in an ambient where communication was hindered by the linguistic barrier, his interest in literary translation emerged around this time.

A decade ago, he discovered a Japanese writer whose work sparked his literary ambitions. It was Mieko Kawakami. Her poetic prose destroyed his preconceived notion of this genre and freed him from the self-imposed literary confines. Now he intends to produce texts that expand the traditional boundaries of fiction.

Recurring themes in Binta Ohtaki’s writings include linguistics and mathematics. As this brief text shows, his fiction proposes fictional linguistic theories and pseudo-mathematical formulae through which readers are asked to make sense of the universe and even examine our own existence.


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.