An anthology of British writers from the 20th century might not contain the most important texts of those authors but it can become a sample, presumably representative, that can be used as an hors-douevre to the literary main course. Besides, wider scopes and tighter selections result in lesser representations: the same 20th century anthology will exclude more writers than perhaps will an anthology of English stories taking place in Manchester on the summer of 1990. Casanova calls the anthology:
“The concentration camp par excelence, and a great mechanism of canonical hygiene.”
Probably the very first anthology about science fiction ever to appear in Portuguese is O Que É A Ficção Cientifica (What Is Science Fiction?) edited by Victor Palla. It’s a small pocket paperback of 330 pages and the question in its title has Science Fiction within quotes, assuming that this strange, new name needs an urgent answer. It contains 10 stories plus a introduction and an ending note, both by Palla himself, in which he tries to explain and provide context to the theme and his choices.
The fact that the name of Victor Palla, a well known Portuguese architect, painter and photographer, appears under the guise of anthology editor should not surprise anyone, considering he was involved with the publishing industry in general during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, designing the covers of innumerous Portuguese and translated books, and he was frequently involved with several publications in the crime genre, from the Vampiro Magazine, the series of crime anthologies «Gato Preto» («Black Cat» – which published some Portuguese authors) and the «Historia do Conto Policial». He will reprise his role as editor in the 1970s but with single author collections such as H G Wells.
However, seeing Palla connected to a science fiction book will cause eyebrows to rise in wonder. Contrary to Lima de Freitas, as we shall discuss in a while, Palla was not deeply or otherwise involved with SF. It’s of course safe to assume that he had been asked by the publisher to assemble a lineup of SF stories given his background in crime anthologies – back then and up until de 1990s with the cancellation of the Caminho book label, crime fiction and science fiction walked hand in hand. Palla probably was the safest bet to setup a book about this brand new, probably weird looking literature.
In his opening remarks, Palla will try to compare SF with crime fiction in the sense that both had energetic fan bases exhibiting similar social behaviors, but quickly he’ll comment on their main differences:
“Novels about cops and robbers don’t really care that the Earth travels around the Sun, that artificial satellites are in orbit or that atom bombs are dropped. “Science fiction” however uses this (and so much more) in its daily routines.”
Palla will find in this popularity, this large scale success of the «subgenres of romance fiction» the excuse to publish a book about SF:
“anything that leaves a mark on millions of people deserves to be known, instead of dismissed without another thought. This is the reason for this book.”
But for him this is a source of discomfort:
“The editor must loyally admit that he fears [that the stories he chose] do not correctly represent the SF field. His personal tastes led him to translate the least bad examples, above the average quality of this genre, therefore painting it in a more flattering, positive image. It’s true that a literary genre has the right to be judged by its finer works. But it’s equally true that many of the «best SF works» are – as well as its worst ones – poor in style and writing, repetitive and most lack any psychology depth – even when dealing with relevant matters such as prophecies of destruction and the terror of the atom bomb, or nobler claims such as making a better world and end racism.”
We’re aware of the perhaps unfair interpretation that we might be causing by highlighting this quote. It’s true that Palla also warns us that:
[The book] is not, however, a treaty about SF, nor a History of the Genre from its Beginnings to the Present Day. It is a modest presentation of ten short stories somewhat diverse who we expect provide an answer to the question in the title of this book (instead of the comments of its editor).
Fair enough but we cannot dismiss it without comment, given that Palla is introducing a new literary genre to his readers who know nothing about it, and he is giving his derogatory, general and vague opinion (he doesn’t provide names to either writers or stories he considers to be “poor in style”) about work that is in fact absent from his list, meaning every other SF text that there is, and therefore preventing the reader to form his own unbiased opinion.
About his choices he will say this:
The reader will find herein problems of stellar exploration; speculations about traveling through time; the development of hypotheses in physics; social criticism; political satire; and humor about SF itself. We do not have robots mutants and telepaths, for sure, but for them to be considered we’d need a larger book. We also don’t have other stories the editor would have liked to include by were already translated and therefore unavailable to publish (…)
His choices seem to be guided by this troublesome feeling. The stories are about being human, about society and its beliefs, using the technique of (time, cultural, spatial) displacement to illuminate our behavior or existence as a species. Science elements are mostly used as background or plot accessories and could be swapped by other elements without major structural changes, placing the story in a different genre. Probably Efremov is the only exception.
So what is the source of Palla’s selection? We tried to search for a common one, such as another book or magazine, by looking into the publishing history of each story – an effort made more difficult because he doesn’t list either original title nor date or venue of publication, and since there’s no mention of translators we can only assume he probably translated all of them. But the diversity of sources leads us to believe that he might have had access to a wider bibliography or even relied upon the suggestions of others.
Either way the selection reveals an obvious trend: even though SF existed since well before WWII, most of his stories were first published in the 1950s, and the ones before that might have been reprinted in this decade – quite close to the date his book was assembled. This suggests he was also new to the genre and was using material recently published. This book is therefore not retrospective nor evolutionary but a «state of the art» as it were.
And of course, when we talk about SF, we mean American SF. American authors and the odd British one. Asimov and Heinlein along with Clarke. Simak, Stapledon and Aldiss. Not that SF didn’t exist or was represented in other countries and languages, but it was precisely the momentum that was started by American pop culture spreading throughout Western Europe after WWII that caught the attention of the readers, developed an identity, an awareness of itself as a genre and in the end became the reason for editing an anthology such as this one. The fact that Palla includes Sternberg, a French author not familiar to the American market means that he had access to French publications, and that he might even have based his selection on some of them. The presence of Efremov, also a non-English author, can be explained also through the mediation of the French language, for the chosen story was his only one available in translation back then.
The definition of SF that Palla provides us with his selection is a showcase of social critique (Reynolds/Brown, Kuttner), twisted endings (Sternberg, Tenn, Oliver) with only a highly scientific but not really speculative story (Efremov) acting as counterweight. It has authors that might be reasonably considered canonical (Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein), and from these, Nightfall, the only story that is still heavily reprinted and famous nowadays.
By Luís Filipe Silva
Luís Filipe Silva (b. 1969) is a Portuguese SF author of O Futuro à Janela (Caminho award winner in 1991) and several novels, including Terrarium with João Barreiros (1996, redux edition in 2016). He’s also a translator and editor of anthologies, and his short fiction has appeared in several venues in Portugal and abroad. Lately, he’s been researching the history of Portuguese literary SF, having written the entry about “Portugal” for the online SF Encyclopedia