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Everything is Made of Letters
by Sofia Rhei
Aqueduct Press, $12.00, 152pp
Publications: March 2019

My better half has reviewed a couple of entries in Aqueduct Press's series of short volumes called Conversation Pieces, each of which features some aspect of feminist science fiction. Maybe that's how I ended up with this volume, a set of short stories by the prolific Spanish author Sofia Rhei, of whose name I have been blissfully unaware until now.

I hope that more of her copious work finds publication in English soon because these five short stories, originally published between 2014 and 2016 and each focusing on some aspect of language, writing or creation in some form, were an absolute joy to read. Each of them deserves mention here.

Techt does so much that it's hard to focus on exactly what it does best. It's a look at language, the process of creation and the inevitability of change, told mostly through a man past his time who is shoved into obsolescence but may or may not find hope at the story's close. That's three different major themes in a story that runs only thirty pages, perhaps appropriate given that much of it focuses on the future's way of condensing language.

This man is Ludwig and he's an intersemiotic translator, taking books written in Techt, a highly condensed language, and translating them into what's known as Long Language so that a Burton Machine can generate films from them. It can generate an entire film in three minutes but it can't do anything without his intricate work preparing the script to feed into the machine. Until the studio buys a newer version of the machine and he's suddenly redundant.

It's much deeper than “The BubbleLon Cyclotech”, which looks at a very different relationship between human and machine. Here, it's a librarian-esque guide by the name of Edwinta Ennistymon and the Cyclotech of the title, presumably the only printing machine left in an alternate 1920s after a devastating Great War. Being mechanical, words are physical objects and the nation's entire stocks of platinum and iridium were used to create them.

And, idiot kids touring the facility with inattentive teachers do damage. One breaks off a piece of the machine and literally loses an entire word from the language. Things escalate from there, whether Edwinta does the right thing or the wrong one, until a fantastic finalé at Oscar Wilde's funeral.

Both these stories are excellent but, frankly, these stories get even better.

“Secret Stories of Doors” is amazing, a story pitting truth against beauty and creativity against facts. Joan Perucho works for the World Encyclopaedia, an immutable central authority in a dystopian future, but he makes things up, an invisibly subversive act that has wider ramifications of which he couldn't dream. I adored this story, in which we have to wonder about the status of Perucho: is he a hero or a villain?

“Learning Report” departs the most from the theme but it's still an appropriate inclusion, focusing as it does on an interpreter on an alien planet who finds that the dominant species may not actually be the native one. I really can't say much about it but the emotional journey is a brutal one in ways that you probably wouldn't imagine by my use of the word 'brutal'.

And, finally, comes my favourite story, “You Cannot Kill Frownyflute!”, a wild trip into a bizarre future where the most popular author in the world, Jocasta Fableoak, finds herself trapped by her own fiction. She's less of a writer and more of a director, making the decisions by which embroiderers, or automatic writers, generate her works, tailoring different editions of each to different demographics. It speaks to the power of fandom, the real-world ramifications of hasty decisions about fictional characters and the disconnect between a writer and their work.

Each of these five stories is deep and insightful, often exploring more than one theme and differing so much from each other stylistically that it's oddly difficult to acknowledge them all as the work of the same pen. Of course, all of them are presented in translation from the original Spanish, translations attempted by different people so perhaps that's understandable. What can't be taken away from Sofia Rhei though is the sheer imagination on offer, which is truly magnificent.

The subject-matter speaks to any writer, even if it doesn't directly tie to their particular field. I present sets of short films about writers, books and the creative process at a local writers conference, Cirque du Livre, and I've loved seeing the reactions of writers to films they can connect with. I have no doubt that any writer would get a great deal out of this collection, whether they write science fiction or not.

Now, Aqueduct Press, please bring more of Sofia Rhei's work into the English language! I'll be first in line to buy it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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