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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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