Dark Mothers and Lovelorn Heroines: Avatars of the Feminine in Elia Barceló’s Sagrada
In 1989, Elia Barceló, currently a leading voice in contemporary Spanish sf, published her first book: the collection of short stories and novelettes Sagrada [Sacred]. The edition of this volume is at once symptomatic and exceptional within the field of Spanish sf. On the one hand, the publication of the book in the Nova series (Ediciones B) accounts for the progressive stabilization and consolidation of the genre in the Spanish publishing industry.1 As Miquel Barceló, the series director, argues in the prologue to Sagrada, science fiction is a well-established genre in the Anglophone tradition, but its penetration in Spain throughout the twentieth century has been slow and tortuous, finding its main gateway into the literary market only through peripheral paths.
In his prologue, Miguel Barceló highlights the specialized magazines as a key piece in the professionalization of the Spanish sf writers, singling out Nueva Dimensión [New Dimension, 1968-1983]. Nonetheless, the consolidation of the genre in Spain is more complex and needs to take into account different actors and formats involved in it. Fernando Ángel Moreno underscores among them the translations of short stories and anthologies that have become popular since the 1960s, the push of specialized series in the 1970s, and, of course, the publication of magazines and fanzines such as Kandama (1980-4), directed by Miquel Barceló himself and where Elia Barceló began publishing. This breeding ground promoted the appearance of accomplished novels such as Rafael Marín’s Lágrimas de luz [Tears of Light, 1982] and Javier Redal and Juan Miguel Aguilera’s Mundos en el abismo [Worlds in the Abyss, 1988]. These mark a turning point in Spanish sf to the extent that Moreno proposes including these authors in what he calls “la Generación de los Noventa” (or “1990s Generation”), a group of sf enthusiasts, connected by friendship and their joint participation in events and publications, who finally became professional writers in the 1990s (Moreno 133-34). Elia Barceló would be part of this group, also known as the Hispacón Generation.
The publication of Sagrada is a perfect example of the complex process of implementation of sf in the Spanish market, thanks to a very specific combination of reading practices, publishing mechanisms, and generational renewal, as Barceló herself explains in an interview:
My first book was a science-fiction novella that was published together with a collection of science-fiction short stories....When I was twenty-two, I started getting short stories published in all the fanzines and magazines available in Spain and little by little I started being known in the small world of science-fiction fandom.... Some years later, one of the people who had been publishing fanzines got a job with a big publisher and asked me if I would like to publish a book with them. Of course I said yes and my first book—Sagrada—was published by Ediciones B in 1989. (qtd. in Engles)
The exceptionality of Sagrada also derives from the fact that Elia Barceló is a woman, a point she also notes in the above-mentioned interview, in which she refers to two key factors that played a part in her consolidation as an sf author: “I think that two things helped: my literary style (that was unusual at the time for science-fiction stories) and the fact that I am a woman (actually, the only successful female science-fiction writer in Spain)” (qtd. in Engles). While being female and an sf writer in Spain was—and still is—quite unusual, I do not think this is the determining factor in Barceló’s success. Clearly, the main factor is her distinctive style, although the centrality of gender issues and the relevance of powerful and sophisticated female characters in Barceló’s works are certainly fundamental.
The exploration of gender and sexuality is, of course, not new in sf; in fact, to some extent it could be said that the very rules of the genre promote this kind of speculation. As Patricia Melzer points out, “the element of estrangement, or the confrontation of normative systems/perspectives and the implications of new sets of norms” (4) that sf explores at structural levels, and the preference for topics such as socioeconomic relations or the construction of nature and culture, have endowed the genre with enormous political implications that feminist authors have recognized. This has resulted in a wide list of literary works that call into question “the ‘naturalness’ of the patriarchal world and the belief in male superiority upon which it is founded” (Lefanu 93) to represent women in new roles and to challenge the subordination to which they have been subjected (see Cranny-Francis) or, ultimately, to develop new myths beyond pre-established gender roles (see Russ). In my view, Barceló partakes of this literary tradition—to which Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Nalo Hopkinson, to name a few, also belong—as her works constantly question the naturalness of the categories woman/man, explore the social order in which gender roles are inserted, examine individual consequences, and offer alternative representations of gender identity.
These thematic patterns are already visible in Barceló’s early work: many of the stories in Sagrada develop an intense reflection on the emotional bonds between humans and/or non-humans, with female characters often placed in the center of this web of relationships. This leads to an unconventional exploration of women’s roles, which gives prominence to unusual figures and deconstructs the traditional literary representation of the feminine, for example by challenging the idea of woman as life-giver or by rejecting the idea of women in love as passive and defenseless figures. Although the critical revision of femininity is organized around such clichés as matriarchal societies or mother-daughter relationships, Barceló never falls into a naïve exaltation of the feminine; on the contrary, as I intend to show, she rejects any essentialist definition of woman and anticipates a sophisticated and fluid vision of gender and identity that she explores in depth in her later novels.
Mothers, Daughters, and Killers. One of the most notable features of Sagrada is the prominent role that female characters play in many stories, a choice that the author herself discusses:
The truth is that while I was reading science fiction I was quite annoyed with the lack of credible female characters. There was a woman, but it was always as an excuse for the hero to do something with her or for her. And it was assumed that women should identify with male characters.... In my stories, from the very beginning, there are women who do everything, anything that a man can do. They are “bad” and “good,” sweet and angry, gentle and cruel women, because in real life there are all kinds of women. (qtd. in Sánchez)2
Barceló’s statement corresponds with what other authors and critics have observed: classic sf is full of openly sexist images and models, and often male sf writers keep female characters subservient. This is the thesis defended by Joanna Russ’s article, “Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction,” which argues that anxiety regarding gender relations is usually solved in sf literature by means of role-reversal narratives that often revolve around the myth of matriarchy, to present it as either a desirable utopia or a threatening dystopia.
As Sharona Ben Tov observes in her study of feminist sf myths, some narratives with feminist concerns fantasize about what Theresa De Lauretis describes as “a matriarchal past or a contemporary ‘matristic’ realm presided over by the Goddess, a realm of female tradition, marginal and subterranean and yet all positive and good, peace-loving, ecologically correct, matrilineal, matrilocal ...” (20, ellipsis in original). De Lauretis rejects these fantasies for their essentialist character and, ultimately, for their inability, as Veronica Hollinger argues, “to deconstruct the oppositional hierarchies organizing the phallogocentric universe” (226). These fantasies are defended by some trends within feminism, as in the case of ecofeminism, which reclaims “the image of the goddess as a token for the liberation of women and nature … [and] also propose[s] to revalue, celebrate and defend what patriarchy has devalued, and that is the feminine, non-human nature, the body and emotions” (Sanz Alonso 70).
These last four terms can be applied without reservation to the topics of the novella “Sagrada,” which focuses on both matriarchy and motherhood and uses the image of the goddess. Barceló’s story is not limited to an exaltation of this imaginary, however, but “invites the deconstruction of binary oppositions: magic/technology, religion/science, man/woman, rulers/ruled” (Rímolo de Rienzi 173); I would add that it reexamines the emotional bonds between women and redefines motherhood.
“Sagrada” includes fantasy traits. It is organized as a quest that is developed in a pre-technological world, dominated by magic and the cult of a matriarchal religion, whose priestess, the Untouchable or Holy Mother, is its most visible figure. The protagonist of the quest is the lethal assassin Nawami Fang Tai, charged with assassinating the Untouchable on behalf of the Intergalactic Confederation. Nawami comes from a highly technological, advanced planet, governed by rationality. The idiosyncrasies of the peripheral world are quite different, since “religious faith, emotions and family occupy the most important place in the lives of people” (Rímolo de Rienzi 176). Also, the mythology of the planet places women at the origin of the world; for that reason, men are relegated to a secondary role. Despite using the myth of matriarchy and the goddess, the text does not fall into a role-reversal narrative, but aims at a constant tension between opposites (nature/culture, magic/technology, reason/emotion, etc.).
For example, in the technological and rational society from which Nawami Fang Tai comes, the numinous is still present, as evidenced by the fact that she and her mother attend the reading of the Arcane repeatedtly. This tension also affects the configuration of the feminine mythology on the planet. At first, the story seems to fall into a simple reversal of the hierarchy of genders—in this case, women have the power, while men are subordinate—and the reformulation of gender stereotypes: women are resolute, powerful and aggressive, while men are submissive. This strategy, in Mirta Rímolo de Rienzi’s view, shows the relativity of the gender system, though, ultimately, “deconstructing gender stereotypes simply reverses the polarization of the binary male/female, and simultaneously confirms that all men and women, human and post-human, are subject to the central power” (193). In my opinion, Barceló deals with gender issues in a far more sophisticated way. On the one hand, the reversion of the male/female binary is not devoid of criticism, as shown in Nawami Fang Tai’s reflections on the social system of the planet she visits on her lethal mission:
What a strange people! Some dominate others for the simple reason of being born with an unchanging sex. Men are slaves of women and they are proud of it. Is it so important being born male or female? Will there be any difference between them by birth and unprovoked by education? I don’t know. There are many things I do not know and I do not know if I want to get to know them. (125)
Nawami concludes her reflection by rejecting any further analysis of this situation to focus on her professional and personal goals: to kill the Untouchable and to find her mother: “Then I’ll kill her, go back to my world and start looking for Tai Fang Djem” (127). As happens, both objectives are the same thing, since the Untouchable turns out to be Nawami’s mother. Like her daughter, Tai Fang Djem was an efficient killer recruited by the Intergalactic Confederation to eliminate the previous priestess. After completing her mission, she was abandoned on the planet and ended up replacing the murdered priestess. I would stress that the encounter with the mother and the exploration of the mother-daughter bond precisely challenge the subordination to the central power to which Rímolo de Rienzi refers. Simultaneously, the encounter between priestess and killer, mother and daughter, erodes the traditional idea of motherhood and matriarchy.
Both Tai Fang Djem and Nawami Fang Tai are professional assassins, instruments of higher powers, who operate in a strictly organized society to which they are subjugated. In this context—and from the start of the story, which focuses on Tai Fang Djem—it is evident that motherhood is far from being the subject of celebration and exaltation of the essential feminine. Instead, it is configured as a space of resistance to the ambiguous dynamics of that society.
As we learn at the start of the novel, Tai Fang Djem belongs to a social class (“State children”) whose members can only exercise technical professions (intergalactic pilots, mining engineers, etc.) and who are not allowed to have children, since the State regulates human reproduction and only the wealthier citizens have access to this privilege. Though it is not explicit, this policy seems to be accompanied by a more drastic measure, because Tai Fang Djem, “like all State children, was infertile” (34). Her professionalization as a giver of death allows her to earn a fortune that, ironically, finally enables Tai Fang Djem to become a mother, a life-giving being. The connection between the capacity to give life/death, on which the mother/daughter bond is based, not only overturns the conventional notions of motherhood, but also works as a mechanism of bodily control that empowers the subject. Thus, Tai Fang Djem’s decision to gestate Nawami Tai Fang in her body—a practice regarded as “monstrous primitivism” (35) by her society—runs parallel to the act of receiving death from her daughter, an individual choice that allows her to resist the destiny imposed by the Confederation. This is shown in a conversation between Nawami and the priestess:
“Do you not want to come with me? Do you not want to leave?” ...
“What do you think I have wanted during the last two hundred and twenty years, every day and every endless night I have spent locked in this volcano? What do you think I’ve lived for, rather than to wait for a dignified and beautiful death instead of throwing myself into one of these wells or letting myself die of weakness and despair? I was waiting for you, you or another killer from our world to give me the death that I have the right to. They have taken everything from me but that. And finally my time has come. You’re here. (153)
Individual choice here undermines the exalted and conventional vision of motherhood as a biological fact, something that is clear in the artificial conception of Nawami Fang Tai, her partial gestation in the body of her mother, and her birth without labor. At the same time, the connection underpinning the bond between the two women is traversed by intense emotion. Thus, when the Untouchable is certain that Nawami Fang Tai has come, she says: “With love Tai Fang Djem had given her life. With love her daughter, Nawami Fang Tai, would give her death” (157). Indeed, death allows them to recover the link broken by the intervention of the Confederation, as we can see in the scene of Tai Fang Djem’s death:
She had been disconnecting Tai slowly, lovingly, with exquisite care … so she could feel the sweetness of death coming step by step, like sleep, like pleasure. She had had time to tell her how much she had loved her, to thank her for her love, for her care, for having delivered her the house, for having carried her within herself before becoming what she was, for making her become the most beautiful creature a human can be: a death-giver, a murderer. (169)
This last sentence is, in my view, a bold challenge to the mystique of motherhood as the highest and noblest destiny in a woman’s life. Significantly, the novella uses motherhood not only as a central topic, but also as the driving force of the plot: the end reveals that the search for the mother is not merely the reason that moves Nawami Fang Tai to accomplish her mission; it is also the main motivation of her companion’s journey. Arven travels to visit the Untouchable to find out what happened to her own mother, who disappeared when he was a child. We eventually learn that she was the former Untouchable, the woman who Tai Fang Djem killed and replaced. The heroic quest in which Arven and Nawami cooperate to achieve their own goals turns out to be a double search for the mother to renew the emotional ties to their respective pasts. In sum, “Sagrada” draws on one of the classic feminist myths in science fiction, matriarchy, but it evades the simple inversion of roles and the essentialism often associated with it. On the contrary, motherhood, no longer conceived as a purely biological fact, is instead filled with political implications, becoming an instrument of identity affirmation in response to social regulations.
This redefinition of motherhood reappears with different nuances in other stories in the Sagrada collection. The tension between the affective social system and the emotional bond with children is significant in “La mujer de Lot” [Lot’s wife, 1984], a tale in which Barceló develops a more intense critique of female social roles. The main character here is Paula, a mature woman who, after marrying a settler and living for several years on planet Idella, recalls her whole life. Her story is reminiscent of many women of previous generations—Barceló significantly dedicates the tale to her grandmother—who devoted their existence to the care of their husbands and children and renounced any other way of life, due to their internalization of the hegemonic discourse: “she had not been very valuable; she had not studied, like her brothers, she had simply learned from her mother and grandmother everything needed to be a good housewife and she had been a good one for many years, while it was necessary; now she only had loneliness” (290). The element of estrangement introduced into this family background is the lack of resources in Idella, which results in the mandatory separation of parents from children when the latter become teenagers. Paula recalls her daughter Moira’s farewell, and the legitimization of that heartbreaking cut in the mother/daughter relationship through the words of the officer who takes Moira away: “Soon we will have a real civilization, as we had before, but we have to sacrifice some feelings” (286). In this context, taking the path of memory constitutes a rebellion or, at least, an implicit challenge to the hegemonic discourse in Idella, which forces residents to work towards the planet’s full colonization in the most efficient and productive manner at the expense of breaking personal ties. The idea of memory as disobedience explains the title of the story: just as Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s command and looked back, in Barceló’s story Paula cherishes her past as she reads from the Bible:
She closed the book and thought about Lot’s wife. Why would this woman disobey the order of the angel? Her thoughts always returned to that question. Was her curiosity so great? So great as to expose herself to death and to leave her husband and her daughters behind? She threw her head back and closed her eyes. To look back was destructive. Where had she heard that? (299)
The parallel between the biblical Lot’s wife and Barceló’s protagonist culminates in the beautiful final image, with Paula metaphorically becoming a pillar of salt when she dies of a heart attack.
Motherhood is also the central theme, but with a very different tone, in “Embryo” (1981), a tale that transforms pregnancy, childbirth, and child care into an experience of terror. Beyond the real cause of unease in the plot, which is none other than the birth of a baby who turns out to be an alien gifted with lethal skills, the story recreates in detail the horrific image of the pregnant body. This is how pregnant Marta, looking “grimly at her husband,” free from any “annoyance,” feels:
And that awful feeling, when the child moved inside you as a locked rat looking for a way out. And the doctor visits, with all these misshapen, disgustingly fat women, and the smell of disinfectant and then the doctor’s hypocritical smile: “Come on, come on, ma’am, how are you? You look very well, lie down, please.” Legs open, staring at the wall, please, please, finish soon, his hands between her legs, eyes closed, please, please. To look at yourself every morning in the mirror and to recognize yourself less and less each day. And every minute closer to the end. To pain. (216)
This is, of course, a radical demystification of pregnancy, so often exalted as a process of highest personal fulfillment for women. Yet Barceló’s demystification of clichés around motherhood reaches a peak of originality in the treatment of parenting: the lack of attachment, even abhorrence, that Marta feels toward her daughter gives a twist to the literary treatment of postpartum depression. If in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic autobiographical fiction “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) postpartum depression was used to address the mechanisms of control over women’s bodies (marriage, medicine, domestic confinement, etc.), Barceló makes the most of sf estrangement to depathologize Marta’s rejection of her daughter in an ironic way. Marta’s abhorrence is not the result of an incomprehensible, intolerable psychological deviation but the consequence of her good sense, as only she recognizes the baby as a monstrous creature. In fact, the baby/alien will end up killing her mother, forcing her to jump out of the window by controlling her mentally. “Embryo,” therefore, offers a caustic critique of the traditional glorification of the mother’s body and maternal care.
Goddesses, Cyborgs and Lovers. The existence of a matriarchal society based on a religion that worships a female deity is also, as in the titular story “Sagrada,” the point of departure for one of the most prominent stories of the collection, “La Dama Dragón” [The Dragon Lady, 1981] which introduces another meaningful topic to the anthology: romantic love.
“La Dama Dragón” stands out in the collection for its formal experimentation: although it begins with a kind of scientific report in which the main features of the religious cult are described, the body of the story assembles different storylines set in different times, whose correlation we can only glimpse by the end of the narration. In broad terms, the story combines three plot lines: the arrival of the pilot Luna to the planet Hayan due to an accident with her spaceship; the mythical story of Peredur, which is central in the cultural imaginary of Hayan and narrated by the minstrel Talas; and Luna’s past history before her crash on the planet. These threads enable the reader to reconstruct the true nature of the planet’s goddess worship: it is a fiction orchestrated by Luna—who was abandoned on the planet by the military command—using the advanced technology that she controls:
The truth is that, when I arrived, there was already a very strong religion and all I could do to keep them at bay was to scare them a bit with our “prodigious technology.” ... it was a beautiful religion; the cult of the Dragon Lady, they called it. (264)
Such a religious fiction is paradoxically legitimized because it establishes a harmonious dialogue with the myths of the planet, such as the legend of Peredur, which in turn, as Talas confesses, is nothing more than a myth that he himself has been creating in each of his performances. Talas concludes this reflection by confessing with astonishment that he has seen the Dragon Lady and has come to believe his own story. Indeed, Talas’s and Luna’s stories cooperate unexpectedly in creating the cult of the goddess: Talas is inspired by rumors about Luna’s arrival to elaborate the mythical story of Peredur, which in turn provides a genealogy to the religious worship fostered by Luna. When the pilot leaves the planet with her dragon/spaceship, fulfilling the prophecies, both stories are no longer myth.
As we can see, therefore, “La Dama Dragón” shares with “Sagrada” not only the reference to a religion based on the figure of the goddess but also the questioning of the authenticity of religious discourse, since both cases expose the goddess myth as a narrative built by individuals with particular interests. In both stories, however, this postmodern look at cultural fictions does not invalidate the value of the legendary, the transcendent, and the marvelous. These are elements lost in the rational and technological society to which the main characters (Tai Fang Djem and Nawami Fang Tai, Luna) belong. In the case of “La Dama Dragón” María, Luna’s former lover, expresses this loss most powerfully:
“Religion is the best way to explain everything that one cannot or does not want to understand,” María said....
“But that kills the will to research and dumbs people down,” Luna answered.
“Yes … but it makes them happy; at times I hate myself for not having ever known that simple happiness one must feel upon accepting the marvelous, the immense joy of loving a god, or several.… Look at our civilization: we have completely lost the power to marvel at what’s beautiful, great, unknown.… And that’s the way we are: hard, dry, sterile, empty.”3
Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán use this passage to illustrate the tension among technology, religion, and magic that defines this novella, a feature they consider particularly significant in Spanish and Latin American sf. They argue this often shows “the tendency to utilize Christian motifs and iconography … and to portray their reconstruction or subversion through science fiction’s power to demystify religious beliefs by opposing reason and faith” (15). Without any doubt, “La Dama Dragón” unmasks how religion works, but rather than dismissing it as false discourse, the story shows us religious discourse as an emotional resource that Luna uses to cope with her personal and professional situation.
Luna is not only abandoned to her fate on an unknown planet, but she also must face the end of her love affair with María, a beautiful woman with whom Luna begins a passionate relationship. The end of the affair takes place when María contracts “the Disease”; facing the prospect of losing the sense of touch and ability to move, and, ultimately, of dying, she agrees to become a cyborg, more specifically, an explorer ship. Beyond the transgressive nature of the relationship between Luna and María, which obviously underscores the fluidity of sexuality and of the very notion of humanity,4 I would like to note how the elements praised by María in the previous passage become the basis of the myth of the Dragon Lady, as well as Luna’s only hope of emotional salvation: “Thinking about María hurt so badly, like an open wound, but it was an almost masochistic vice that she could barely suppress. She felt angry tears come to her eyes and forced herself to close her mind, swore she would do everything the way she would have liked: with magic” (246). Thus, Luna places María in the center of the cult, as the goddess, while presenting herself as a divine avatar, the Sasaya, which will be venerated by inhabitants of Hayan, starting with Thorn:
You can come to bring offerings but you should always come before her in a position of respect. Do you understand me? He said yes with his head, unable to take his eyes off the image. They were silent for a while. Then he asked: Where is Mother now? Luna felt a pang of old feelings in the stomach. She simply replied: She flies among the stars faster than light; she can know everything and everyone if she wants; she has more power than a hundred thousand men and there is nothing that is impossible for her. (265)
The final statement is true both in terms of reason (María flies among the stars because she has been transformed into a powerful spaceship) and faith (the description of the Mother/María fits perfectly within the idea of divinity); in fact, Luna’s whole description of the goddess is steeped in this ambiguity. This allows her story to take root among the planet’s natives, which ultimately solves the problem of being abandoned on Hayan, as Luna gains access to advantageous living conditions thanks to the adoration of the faithful and the gifts they offer her. Luna’s words, nonetheless, also reveal that beyond the material benefits, to weave a mythological story about María helps her emotionally to overcome the loss of the loved one.
The importance of overcoming loss by embracing magic, legend, and myth can be better observed by comparing “La Dama Dragón” with another of the stories in the anthology, “Piel” [Skin, 1989]. The tone of the two stories is, in principle, very different; Barceló herself connects the former with the new wave while the latter is related to cyberpunk, so that the fictional universe in the latter is much rawer and the resolution of the plot is substantially darker.
Both stories, however, focus on the emotional odyssey of their two female protagonists. In the case of “Piel” we find Shere, an efficient fighter pilot, whose appearance in the story plays directly with gender clichés: Shere displays violent and quarrelsome behavior and devotes her spare time to having as much sex as she can. Nevertheless, gender categories are eroded when we discover that they are not fixed and that Shere—like any other human in the story—can be male or female at will: “She thought of looking for a ‘Transformer’s’ and changing sex; it had been a long time since she was last a man. It might be good to look for a female and fuck her until she screamed with pleasure…. But to do so, there was no need to be a man” (333).
The radical collapse of the sex-gender system, which attributes a culturally constructed gender to a biologically sexed body, could not be more effectively shown. The male/female binary, however, is not the source of conflict in the story, but, rather the human/non-human dichotomy. In the world in which the story takes place, romantic relationships between humans are prohibited in the interest of the greater efficiency of the military class, since it is considered that the loving bond weakens the sense of duty in the pilots:
The Fleet could not allow its human element falling into absurd romantic relationships, beginning to consider the world as a couple within a perfectly individualized society without any personal ties. In other worlds, some could choose between different forms of group living, but not in the Fleet where life has no value, nor in most of the Federated worlds where each being has been created with a specific function. (365)
For this reason, pilots can only have intimate relations with androids, whose main function is precisely to serve as sexual relief to the pilots. Shere, as a good citizen, seems to assume this order without problems, staring in horror at any kind of sexual contact between humans, as Nel points out: “Your great training as first class citizen made you terrified of the thought of desire between a man and a woman” (338). Shere replies that, indeed, such an idea is a perversion, but Nel confronts Shere with her own desire: “But is not that what you want, human skin?” (339). And, certainly, the state of uneasiness with which Shere begins her journey has to do with experiencing a desire that messes up the simple and efficient economy of affects in her world. This economy is broken the moment she sees Ilain, an android with whom she becomes obsessed. In the first instance, then, Shere’s desire is a corrosive force that undermines her identity as a pilot and, more worryingly, that brings into question the emotional regulations of her world:
Why waste the tiny capacity for love that had been granted to her for an android, for a half-being produced for recreational purposes? And what else, if not? In the Fleet, on the ship, in battle there was all her strength, her madness, her life but not her love; the little love that still remained and made her feel so ridiculous, that little love he put into her glasses, in her firestone, in her body without a single bioconversion, in her pilot pride, in her delta. (337)
Nel arranges a meeting between Shere and the android, and they embark on a passionate love story, whose end arrives when Ilain confesses that he is an illegal, that is, a human pretending to be an android. This revelation unleashes a storm of unbridled feelings and places Shere in an ethical quandary, since violating the ban on relations between humans is punishable by death. This tension is channeled in a burst of violence: she gets involved in a bar fight with another pilot, triggering the intervention of the head of the squadron, Lol. The dialogue between the two women pushes to its limits the dialectic between reason and feeling, order and desire, individuality and community, humanity and non-humanity, for Lol downplays the relationship between Shere and Ilain, because he is a non-human being, a pure object; in addition, Lol offers Shere remodeling, that is, an intervention that removes harmful memories to ensure the stability of the pilots—or death if she prefers a more epic finale.
The resolution of the story explores this double path: Maeloc, Shere’s squad mate, rebels against the law and starts to maintain relationships with humans; at the same time, Shere discovers that Ilain has died, probably betrayed by Lol. Devastated and confused, she denounces Maeloc, who refuses to be remodeled and chooses to die while Shere accepts remodeling. The closure of the story leaves no doubt as to the implications of this decision:
Maeloc is over forever. And all for what?
“Because I reported him, because I have betrayed him.”
“Because he was a pervert, Shere”—she picked her up by the shoulders and shook her violently—and because he was a pervert and he was too stupid to accept the remodeling.
“He was a brave man.”
“He was an asshole. The only thing you have is yourself and if you lose that, what remains?”
“But if you are remodeled, you are no longer you.”
“Of course you are. They just erase the dangerous bits, what hurts. And besides, what are you? When you get another life, you’ll be happy with it. You have chosen well, old lady. You’ll thank me.”
Shere said nothing. Nothing was left to say. (405)
To renounce love, as well as pain, means giving up one’s identity and humanity itself. The devastating end of “Piel” contrasts with the resolution of “La Dama Dragón”: Luna and Shere are both hurt by a love story that ends badly; yet, whereas the former closes her wounds by embracing the legendary and the irrational, the latter assumes the established social order, accepting oblivion and, with it, the loss of her identity.
Interestingly, the two stories, perfectly adapted to the conventions of sf, explore emotions and their place in the human sphere, using the motif of failed romantic relationships experienced by the female protagonists. Barceló’s innovation lies in rejecting the victimization of these lovelorn heroines who are abandoned or betrayed, not only by characterizing them as competent professionals, and determined, resourceful subjects, but also by placing emotional vicissitudes in a domain where it is possible to make decisions and articulate an empowered position—even if this leads to an unhappy ending.
Conclusions. As I have tried to show, despite being a patchwork of unrelated stories, it seems evident that the literary treatment of the stereotypes of femininity and gender issues is one of the main connecting threads of Sagrada. On the one hand, stories such as “La mujer de Lot” or “Embryo” address the oppression suffered by women—forced to assume the narrow and inescapable roles of mothers and wives—typical of the second-wave feminism that inspired many sf works that “produced critiques of housewife oppression and studies of women driven mad by patriarchy” or fantasized about feminist utopias (or dystopias) (Donawerth 217). From this perspective, “Sagrada” can be understood as a proposal that takes advantage of the scenario of a matriarchal utopia as a starting point to explore the bonds between mother and daughter as an instrument of resistance to power.
On the other hand, stories such as “La Dama Dragón” or “Piel” approach gender from a perspective closer to third-wave feminism, with its rejection of the idea of an essential identity, its interest in the intersections between different forms of oppression, and its performative vision of gender. The literary experimentation around androgynous or hybrid figures, such as the cyborg we see in “La Dama Dragón,” or the idea of the fluidity of gender, sexuality, and identity, extensively explored in “Piel,” would be linked to this renewal of feminist criticism.
This perspective feeds Barceló’s later novels. Thus, Consecuencias naturales [Natural Consequences, 1994) addresses ironically the conceptualization of bodies and identities in any sex-gender system as well as the importance of language in it. The crazy plot—narrating how a human male becomes pregnant after a sexual encounter with an alien—shows that the apparently natural and biologically predetermined sexed body is not exempt from a cultural interpretation that defines it. The confrontation between the human binary gender system and the alien gender system (organized into three categories, but as tightly closed as the human ones) highlights the arbitrariness of gender itself.5
Similarly, the novel El mundo de Yarek [Yarek’s World, 1994] explores how “the human” is based on an ideal of rationality, disembodiment, and masculinity that fits perfectly with the xenologer and main character of the novel, Yarek. He, however, will have to question these assumptions after his meeting with the Iloi, a humanoid species that does not seem to fulfill the characteristics of humanity. Yarek’s strange contact with a female Iloi articulates an interesting fable about the relationships of domination that the rational male subject establishes with the Other, whether woman, animal, or colonized individual. In that sense, the novel explores the intersection between different forms of oppression, in line with the latest feminist critiques.
Sagrada, therefore, constitutes a key piece for understanding Elia Barceló’s career as well as the path trodden by Spanish sf in the last decades regarding its ongoing consideration of gender and identity. Barceló offers a range of literary treatments that address many of the concerns that have centered the debates of feminism since the 1970s onwards. And not only in Spain.
1. Nova, founded in 1987, is a fundamental series in Spain that publishes sf classics (Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Frank Herbert, et al.) as well as outstanding Spanish writers (César Mallorquí, Rodolfo Martínez).
2. The translations of Sagrada and the interviews with Elia Barceló are mine. The page references correspond to the original Spanish edition of Sagrada.
3. I quote here the translation of the passage included in Bell and Molina-Gavilán (16).
4. María’s fluidity in terms of identity recalls, of course, Haraway’s influential concept of the cyborg.
5. This idea is closely related to the propositions of late 1980s feminist criticism (Butler, De Lauretis).
Barceló, Elia. Consecuencias naturales. Madrid: Miraguano, 1994.
─────. El Mundo de Yarek. Madrid: Lengua de Trapo, 1994.
─────. Sagrada. Barcelona: Ediciones B, 1989.
Barceló, Miquel. “Presentación.” Sagrada. Barcelona: Ediciones B, 1989. 5-11.
Bell, Andrea L., and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán, eds. Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
Donawerth, Jane. “Feminisms.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 214–24.
Engles, Paul. “Interview with Elia Barceló.” Maclehose Press, 21 Apr. 2011. Online.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Feminist Science Fiction: Construction and Deconstruction.” SFS 16.2 (1989): 223–27.
Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: Women’s P, 1988.
Melzer, Patricia. Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Austin: Texas UP, 2006.
Moreno Serrano, Fernando Ángel. “Notas para una historia de la ciencia-ficción en España.” Dicenda. Cuadernos de Filología Hispánica. 25 (2007): 125-38.
Rímolo de Rienzi, Mirta. “Simulacro, hiperrealidad y pos-humanismo: la ciencia ficción en Argentina y España en torno al 2000.” PhD dissertation. U of Kentucky, 2013.
Russ, Joanna. “Amor Vincit Foeniman: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.” SFS 7.1 (1980): 2-15.
Sánchez, María Jesús. “Entrevista a Elia Barceló (2004).” Cyberdark.net. Online.
Sanz Alonso, Irene. “Redefining Humanity in Science Fiction: The Alien from an Ecofeminist Perspective.” PhD dissertation. Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, 2014.
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