SCIENCE FICTION BEYOND THE ANGLOPHONE TERRITORY: THE CATALAN CASE

This weekend I have been participating in the IV CatCon or Catalan convention on science fiction and fantasy, celebrated like the first three in the lovely seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú, about 50 kms south of Barcelona. CatCon gathers together fans and writers and is also the event during which the Ictineu prize is awarded. CatCon is organized by the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia, founded in 1997, and had its first, zero edition during Eurocon 2016, held here in Barcelona.

For this edition, I proposed a round table on the current state of Catalan science fiction, to try to find out whether this is case of a half full or half empty bottle. During my intervention in the 2018 CatCon I made some comments on a text by an author, Montserrat Segura, who happened to be in the room, and this sparked a conversation about what the university could do for the Catalan authors of science fiction. I managed to convince my colleague at the Catalan Department of UAB, Víctor Martínez-Gil, that we had to legitimize academically a literary tradition which started back in the 1870s and which is now at a particularly rich moment. We decided to publish a monographic issue in a journal that would serve to present the currently indispensable authors, for which we made a selection of seven: Antoni Munné-Jordà, Jordi de Manuel, Montserrat Galícia, Carme Torras, Marc Pastor and Enric Herce (I’m now very, very sorry we did not include Salvador Macip). Then Víctor recruited four more specialists in Catalan Literature (Francesc Foguet, Maria Dasca, Jordi Marrugat and Toni Maestre), and we wrote a proposal. A bit rashly, we decided to contact first the top academic journal for Catalan Studies, the Catalan Review, and to our relief and happiness its editor Bill Viestenz welcomed our proposal. He was familiar with my translation into English of Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) as Typescript of the Second Origin (2018); every little thing helps, as you can see.

The proofs for the monographic issue arrived last week (it is to be published in July), and so it seemed the perfect moment to have the round table. For this, I invited Antoni Munné-Jordà, Carme Torras, Eloi Puig and Jordi Marrugat. Munné-Jordà is not only a great author of science fiction but also the person who knows most about this genre and fantasy in Catalan. He was the director of two key sf collections (for publishers Pleniluni and Pagès), was also one of the co-founders of the Societat Catalana de Ciència Ficció i Fantasia, and maintains the amazing bibliography of works (1873-2021) which can be downloaded from the Societat’s website. He has published more than twenty volumes, among which I’ll mention Michelíada (2015), an Ictineu winner. Carme Torras, is an internationally renowned researcher in the field of assistive robotics and a leading author known for her Ictineu award-winning novels La mutació sentimental (2007) and Enxarxats (2017). Eloi Puig is the current president of the SCCFF, the promoter of the Ictineu award and also of a series of fan meetings all over Catalonia known as Ter-Cat. I invited him as the author of the more than 1000 reviews published since 2003 in his website La Biblioteca del Kraken, which he runs in Catalan and Spanish. Last but not least, Jordi Marrugat teaches Contemporary Catalan Literature at the Universitat de Barcelona, and is the author, among others, of Narrativa catalana de la postmodernitat: històries, formes i motius (2014).

My own introduction made the point that whereas Anglophone sf can rely on a complete academic circuit, there is nothing similar to support and publicize the work of Catalan authors of sf and fantasy. The Science Fiction Research Association, founded in 1970, has been celebrating regular conferences since then; the peer-reviewed journals Extrapolation (founded in 1959), Foundation (1972), and Science Fiction Studies (1973), provide a wonderful forum of discussion. Although there are no full degrees in sf studies, there are courses in a variety of universities and also a notable research hub at Liverpool, which is also home to the key collection of monographs Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. All this is lacking in Catalan, with the exception of Víctor Martínez-Gil’s indispensable collection Els altres mons de la literatura catalana (2005), a couple of dissertations (one BA, the other MA), and the work I myself have done on Mecanoscrit del segon origen. Without bibliography, as we know, there cannot be research. Indeed, one of the reviewers of my article for the Catalan Review complained loudly that I could not publish a piece with no academic secondary sources; since there are none in Catalan, I included in a few crowded lines references to half a dozen academic books… in English.

I cannot reproduce here all that was commented in the hour-long round table, but I’ll try to highlight a few ideas. Today, Catalan sf and fantasy interest a remarkable number of independent publishers (mostly established in the last ten years) and fandom is active in the Ter-Cat and CatCon meetings, whereas websites such as La Biblioteca del Kraken, El Biblionauta and Les Rades Grises provide specialized reviews and criticism. This appears to be positive in all senses but, as Eloi Puig noted, the impression is that the field is growing very slowly and there seems to be no generational replacement so far (this is something I add considering the average age of the CatCon attendees, with a clear absence of persons under 30).

While the number of authors is growing, the market is not strong enough for any of them to be professional writers, a situation which extends to all Catalan authors with very few exceptions. Munné-Jordà and Torras do not see this as a problem, since they believe that in this way authors are freer to write as they wish. The size of the market with, possibly, 300-400 copies sold for each moderately successful novel, suggests that professionalization is hardly going to happen in the near future, but I do agree that this is not necessarily a negative situation. Similarly, reviewing and criticism is in the hands of committed fans. Eloi Puig explained that the task he has been doing at La Biblioteca del Kraken started as a way to share his impressions with friends. He does not see his role as the main reviewer of Catalan sf and fantasy (both original and translated) as a main referent. I myself believe he is doing a superb job which is a foundation for any academic work that could be done in the future. In fact, I would like to see a Catalan university volunteering to publish a selection of his reviews to commemorate the web’s 20th anniversary next year.

Puig and Munné-Jordà have done, then, plenty but they are not academics in Departments of Catalan Philology. Jordi Marrugat explained that even though it should be in the hands of academics to write a history of Catalan sf and fantasy, to do research and teach courses, the reality is that we are very much limited. He himself is the only specialist in contemporary Catalan literature of the Universitat de Barcelona, and with a BA syllabus concentrating in a just one subject all the 20th century and part of the 21st there no room for sf and fantasy. The canon and its insistence on celebrating Modernism takes priority. It seems to me, however, unlikely that readers, no matter how passionate, can make up for this lack. Munné-Jordà’s splendid bibliography and his recent donation to Library Armand Cardona Torrandell de Vilanova i la Geltrú of his own personal collection of books and other materials aims at building a legacy that needs to find committed readers. But where, I wonder, can they be found? Shouldn’t they be the students of Catalan at university?

Perhaps what baffled me most was the idea that the authors of sf and fantasy value their themes above the quality of their writing, at least this is what I understood from Carme Torras’s intervention when I asked her about MIT’s translation of La mutació sentimental by Josie Swarbrick as The Vestigial Heart, published accompanied by classroom materials to encourage the discussion of robotics and ethics. Puig explained that he proposed the creation of the Ictineu award because after reading this novel he thought that this kind of effort should get recognition. I do believe that Torras has a distinctive style, and I very much appreciate Catalan sf and fantasy writers not only as contributors to current discussions on technoscience, but also for the passion they put in writing works that, as I have noted, can only reach a limited circle. I find this year’s Ictineu winner, Enric Herce’s cyberpunk yarn L’estrange miratge [The strange mirage], much more engaging as narrative than many novels now winning Hugos and Nebulas. I did ask the participants at the round table what they thought about how few the translations from Catalan are in comparison to the translations into our language, and only Munné-Jordà was bold enough to say out loud that some of the translated books are no good. He played around with the words ‘cannon’ and ‘canon’ to suggest that who is translated often is a matter of who has the power.

The round table was, I think, extremely enlightening and illustrative of the current situation of sf and fantasy in Catalan. I see the bottle half full if I think of the display of activity among publishers, authors and the most committed fans, but I see it half empty if I think of where the young are. More and more children educated in Catalan are reading in Catalan than ever but, as happens in other linguistic areas including English, the allure of social media is robbing them of precious time to read starting around age 10-12, as soon as they get their smartphones. Their love of screens does not extend to e-books (I was told that only 5% of all readers of all ages use them in Spain, 20% in the USA) and with books around 15-20 euros it is hard to see how the numbers of readers is going to grow. In the case of Catalan sf and fantasy I also miss good adaptations that can attract a bigger audience, but with TV3 in dire straits this is unlikely to happen. Hence the half-empty bottle.

More on this when the Catalan Review publishes the monographic issue in July. In the meantime, check La Biblioteca del Kraken for lost of amazing books to read.


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

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