Skip to main content

Trafalgar (SF) - Angélica Gorodischer ***

Penguin has decided to bring back some 'science fiction classics', in a handsome new series (if rather oddly formatted - they're unusually small books, perhaps to make them fatter, as we're less used to the sensible length books of the past). 

In Trafalgar, we get a series of linked short stories featuring the interstellar trader Trafalgar Medrano. Although taking place in a range of settings, the stories are in the tradition of bar tales: short stories, where the main character bends the ear of friends (or just anyone in earshot) with their exploits. P. G. Wodehouse, for example, wrote a number of these, and they reached their science fiction zenith with Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart. In Angélica Gorodischer's book, Trafalgar tells his stories to the female narrator and whoever else is around.

I'm not sure why, but these stories rather reminded me of Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo tales, though they were significantly less nimble than Guareschi's, feeling rather stodgy sometimes as Trafalgar relates each far-fetched story of encounters on alien worlds where the aliens are all human and speak his language, though they are culturally very varied. Most of the interest in the stories comes from the differences in culture, though one, perhaps the best, Of Navigators, finds Trafalgar on a planet that is nearly identical to Earth where he arrives in 1492 at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and ends up making things a lot easier for Columbus by giving him a lift to the New World. One recurring aspect of the stories that feels a little grating 40+ years on (as is often the case with classic SF) is that they are unashamedly sexist, with Trafalgar seducing his way across the universe.

This new series is a great move by Penguin, but I am a little concerned that some of their choices don't match up to the 'classic' label - Trafalgar included. To be an SF classic, a book has to be of some age - I'd suggest in science fiction dating back at least to the 70s, it has to from a widely recognised author, a good measure of which would be for the author to appear in Clute and Nicholls' definitive Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, and (somewhat obviously, surely) to be science fiction. Trafalgar scores two out of three. It dates back to 1979, Gorodischer is in the encyclopaedia... but this is definitely not science fiction.

The stories could be interpreted two ways. Either it's pure fantasy - because a 1970s character spends his life running an interstellar trading ship to planets where the intelligent lifeforms are human and speak the same language - or it's straightforward fiction in which the main character is a fantasist who makes up impossible stories. I incline to the latter - and just because those stories happen to use science fiction tropes does not make this a science fiction book. 

Even if there weren't the problem of this not being SF, the whole concept, which was initially entertaining, became very samey after a few stories, making the book decreasingly appealing as I read. It was, frankly, a bit of a let down.


Paperback:    
Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Meteorite - Tim Gregory ****

There have been many books on astronomy, ranging from exploring individual aspects of the solar system, such as the Sun or Mars, through to studies of the most distant depths of the universe, but there has been relatively little on the only astronomical objects that we're able to touch (other than the Earth itself) - meteorites.

In Meteorite, Tim Gregory fills in many details of the nature of these rocks from outer space, from how they formed in the first place to the range of types and origins that are possible. Most come from the debris of the forming solar system left in the asteroid belt, but some were smashed off the Moon or Mars by an incoming impactor.

Although the main focus is the meteorites themselves (if there's any doubt, we are talking about the solid remains that fall to Earth when a meteor - a shooting star - in part survives the journey through the atmosphere), Gregory also fills us in on the contribution that meteorites have made to the Earth, whether it be brin…

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…