There's a hint of "finally" in my discovery of Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by Amalia Gladhart). Not just because it's one of the better books I've read this year. Not even because I had to wait a few weeks between reading the first chapter in this book and the rest. Mostly, it's a feeling of finally finding what I'm looking for - high quality, well-written, unique fantastic sci-fi from an interestingly non-Anglo perspective. It's almost as though Gorodischer has tailor-made this novel-in-stories for me. Decades before my birth. And continents away. Well played, Angélica Gorodischer, well played.
If you're looking for information on Trafalgar, you'll be hard pressed to find any on its back cover. Rather than giving hints about the stories found within its pages, the blurb instead aims to set a mood. Relax, it says. Open your mind. Take in something new and different and maybe just a bit unexpected. This might be frustrating for some readers (indeed, I personally found it to be an annoying gimmick-like choice), but it does set the mood fairly well. Because these aren't whip-fast, neck-breaking stories. These aren't swashbuckling sci-fi tales to set your hair on fire. These are coffee-shop stories that happen to take place on other worlds, with other cultures, and other frames of reference.
The first thing of note in Trafalgar is its wonderful clarity. A lot of books (particularly sci-fi) stumble over how to build their world without resorting to bloated, heavy-handed descriptions, but Gorodischer leaps over this hurdle lightly, opting instead for a casually limited scope. Because each story takes place on a different world, and because the stories are being told directly to another character, they remain small and relatively undeveloped. But we don't expect there to be a lot of descriptions of the places, the buildings, the people. That wouldn't be very conversational, would it? By making these actual stories, Gorodischer is able to get away with a crisper, cleaner storytelling style. I loved it.
The stories themselves touch on such a wide array of topics that it's hard to even classify them. Our titular main character, Trafalgar, doesn't seem to find anything wrong with this either. His stories aren't quite adventures, really - he's a businessman, after all. These are just the odd things that sometimes happen on his business trips. We get glimpses of wonders through this very particular filter.
There were two things I kept finding myself comparing Trafalgar to: one with a bemused excitement and one with a fair share of annoyance. The first was related to the way certain phrases and philosophies of the book resembled Star Trek (with a particular resemblance to TNG, which would not exist for another decade as of this book's original publication). In more than one story, Gorodischer touches on themes that often crop up in Star Trek, such as various cultural distinctions and even ideas resembling the Prime Directive. The stories were just light enough to keep me from getting too bogged down in them, but also thoughtful enough to keep me thinking throughout them. Also afterwards.
The third comparison is both the strongest, and the most frustrating. Because, though a much better book, Trafalgar very strongly reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, a book I've been struggling with for many, many months. Both are novels in stories, surrounding the somewhat bizarre travels of seemingly ordinary people in outer space (engineers in The Cyberiad, a businessman in Trafalgar), to odd, yet often very human, societies. Superficially, this makes these books extremely similar. Except whereas The Cyberiad is utterly absurd - and seems perfectly aware of this - Trafalgar is subtly whimsical. The Cyberiad drags on and on, while Trafalgar ends quickly and as lightly as it opened. The Cyberiad piles on more and more details; Trafalgar focuses purely on its storytelling.
This, of course, is Trafalgar's major flaw. A book that is so slim and so heavily tilted towards a storytelling form cannot dig quite so deep in other areas. World building is obviously low on Gorodischer's list of priorities in this book, but so is character development. The characters are just that - characters - but they move through their stories comfortably. They didn't feel out-of-place or particularly stiff. They don't necessarily leap from the page, but... it works. Within the context of Trafalgar's storytelling style, it makes sense.
I enjoyed Trafalgar. If it had just a bit more of a firmer impact on me, I might have even said that it was brilliant. But it falls just shy of that claim. Instead it will stand as a wonderful book with a lot of interesting ideas and vividly imagined stories. Easily recommendable.