Trafalgar

Trafalgar
Angelica Gorodischer

I found out about this book from the always excellent Far Beyond Reality blog. I had planned on putting it further down the To Read list, but when I checked the library, there it sat. And so, Trafalgar Medrano, the daring hero of Angelica Gorodischer’s book, somehow leaped to the front of the line. To be honest, this is not at all what I thought I’d be reading right now. A quick look at the planned reading list for the year shows no Argentinian SF to speak of, but sometimes these things creep up on us.

Trafalgar is a slim volume of short stories that are, if not chronologically sequential, at least meant to be read that way. The central figure in each is Trafalgar Medrano, a galactic merchant who returns to his home base in Rosario, Argentina after each adventure to regale his circle of associates with heroic tales. Often as not, he does this in the friendly confines of his favorite Rosario cafe, while consuming remarkable quantities of coffee and tobacco. His most obvious literary counterpart is Nicholas Van Rijn, though Trafalgar bears little resemblance to Poul Anderson’s rather grotesque creation. The stories generally follow traditional SF paths, wherein the brave, capitalist hero finds himself in a strange land beset with strange troubles; only his wits and business acumen can save the day.

The fun begins when the reader realizes that Gorodischer isn’t just serving up the usual Campbellian fare. Instead, she is slowly deconstructing SF cliches and building a new perspective on the typical Competent White Man so prevalent in the genre. To begin with, many of the stories are told by women. (Trafalgar narrates his own of course, but usually within a framework of someone else reporting on what Trafalgar said, creating multiple layers in each chapter.) The ladies obviously take a different view of Trafalgar’s inveterate womanizing; they let him know that at every opportunity. The last story in the book presents our leading hero with an especially tart irony that all but the densest will enjoy.

It’s not just the womanizing that comes under fire. These secondary narrators subtly undermine the whole affair, deflating Trafalgar when he gets pretentious, though still recognizing his more noble accomplishments. There is an air of unreality to it all however, and I come away from the book wondering how much of it is supposed to be “factual.” Trafalgar is allegedly traveling the stars, but we see no evidence of planetary commonwealths or some such. Is he crazy? Is it all a deep secret? Should we take him at face value? I have no idea. That is, I suppose, part of the fun. He may be exactly what he claims to be, or he may be a compulsive yarn-spinner. Gorodischer delivers it all with a perfectly straight face, as though daring the reader to doubt her.

Even with all of these layers in place, Gorodischer still isn’t content. Woven into many of the stories is subtle social commentary, clear to those with the eyes to see, but unobtrusive, likely hidden to many. It is strongest in “The Gonzalez Family’s Fight For a Better World,” my favorite episode, when said family literally has to escape the tyranny of the past. This bonus of humanism means that Trafalgar is masterfully constructed, both in its pieces and as a whole, slowly opening into a strikingly comprehensive synthesis of the best characteristics of science fiction, fantastical writing, and square-as-a-box literature.

This book is a must read for the serious SF consumer. It broadens the science fiction’s cultural base and adds a feminist voice to the discourse without lecturing or haranguing. It picks apart hoary cliches without disrespecting its heritage. Best of all, Trafalgar paints an interesting and engaging portrait of a character that is familiar, but still manages to surprise. Gorodischer’s book will likely end the year on my top list.

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