In Elia Barceló’s Natural Consequences, Nico Andrade is a mechanic on the space station Victoria who only cares about one thing: sex. Early in the novella, he laments, “We haven’t seen fresh meat in ages.” So when Victoria becomes the sight of humanity’s first contact with the Xhroll, he immediately propositions a Xhroll he perceives as female.
The Xhroll, Ankkhaia, asks his commander’s permission, and soon after the two are in bed, he asks Nico about using protection. Since humans in this future are sterilized until they want to have children, there are no more condoms. So Nico instead takes a packet of Advil, passing it off as a contraceptive pill.
Because Nico is such a jerk, what happens next is supremely satisfying: Ankkhaia does not get pregnant. Nico does. It is a great twist, which sends Nico and a government liaison, Charlie Fonseca, on a cross-galaxy cross-culture trip to the Xhroll’s homeworld.
An Examination of Gender
What follows in Natural Consequences is an examination of gender on Earth presented through the lens of another species’ model. The Xhroll have three genders — abbas who are capable of incubating children and are at the bottom of the social ladder; ari-arkhj, who are capable of implanting children and serve as the abbas’ protectors; and xhrea, who are incapable of either but hold decision making power for the entire species.
Ankkhaia struggles to understand the human (false) masculine-feminine binary, wondering to himself, “Am I a he or a she? The human says I am a woman and must use the feminine form to refer to myself. Nevertheless, within their sexual framework, implanting life in another being is masculine, and the one receiving it is feminine. That to me means I am a he.”
Barceló uses Ankkhaia to examine human gendered thinking in other ways as well. Some of the bits about language do not translate smoothly from Spanish into English, such as Ankkhaia thinking, “They constantly use sex in their language. Everything must be either feminine or masculine, even inanimate objects.”
The criticism, while still valid when it comes to a few choice objects (cars and boats are often referred to as female, for example), falls flat because most inanimate objects in English are not gendered. The translators—Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell—start the novella with their notes and an in-depth discussion of their struggles translating those particular sections.
In one of those essays, they argue that readers will find “the feminist themes Barceló tackles so straightforwardly in this novel are still relevant today.” They are right to an extent, but there is a pivotal sexual assault in the novel. The strangely positive aftermath will likely upset readers and force them to reconsider Barceló’s other more valid critiques.
Natural Consequences is Barceló’s second book translated into English, though she is a long-established Spanish writer residing in Austria. The novella is funny and does good work challenging patriarchal thinking, though the ending leaves much to be desired.
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|Pub Date: November 15, 2021||Page Count: 196pp||Age Range: 16 & Over|
|ISBN: 978-0-8265-0233-9||Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press||List Price: $19.95|