A Tunnel in the Sky

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Natural Consequences
by Elia Barceló
English translation by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 18, 2021

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Originally published in 1994, Elia Barceló's Consecuencias Naturales was reissued in 2019 for its 25th Anniversary, and next month Vanderbilt University Press will publish its first English translation. I received an e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The translators are Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell, who both contribute to an introduction that attempts to explain the choices they made regarding the concepts of gender, and gender pronouns. The alien Xhroll obviously would not have words that correspond to he or she, yet those are used in certain circumstances, creating a bit of confusion, on my part at least.

The action begins on the human-crewed space station Victoria. There had been at least one previous encounter with the Xhroll, but it was brief, and little is known of their culture, but their language had been studied, and translator devices help with rudimentary communication. We later learn the Xhroll have one form of their language they use with xhri (other species), another for conversations amongst themselves. The Victoria receives a distress signal from a Xhroll ship which needs repairs before they can continue the journey back to their home planet. The humans think they can help, and since the repairs might take a few days, they invite several of the Xhroll officers aboard Victoria, in hopes of forming a bond between the two species. Enter one of the most obnoxious characters I've ever encountered in fiction, Lieutenant Nico Andrade. Considering what else we learn about human advancement in gender equality, it's amazing Nico was allowed off Earth, let alone be an officer in the space forces. Very self-centered, misogynistic, condescending towards women in general, including those serving with him. The type of man that is the epitome of the cliché of carving a notch on his bedpost to mark each sexual conquest. I have to assume Barceló felt it necessary to contrast his extreme actions and attitude with the more reserved Xhroll. Yet in the end we discover they might not be so different after all.

Xhroll are humanoid in appearance, the differences only visible when the clothes come off, which happens quickly when Nico hooks up with a Xhroll "female". 'She' has breasts, and what looks very much like a vagina, but she is hairless everywhere, and also white everywhere, no variation of skin tone color. He considers her beautiful and enticing, but it's hard for him to know how she feels since Xhroll do not exhibit emotions, or use body language that would give him a clue. It's puzzling why she would want to have sexual relations with a human, especially so soon after their first meeting, but maybe she's the Xhroll version of the type of predator Nico is. Maybe, but not in the same way, or for the same reasons. It wasn't happenstance that brought the Xhroll to the Victoria, it was for the specific intention of initiating such an encounter. A day or so later, after the Xhroll have left, the ship's doctor discovers something remarkable about Nico. He is pregnant, for lack of a better term. He doesn't have a womb of course, but whatever is growing inside him is attached to vital organs, and attempts to remove the parasite could prove fatal. Right now you're probably thinking of the movie Alien. Even in this far future some of the people still watch old movies, and Alien is mentioned as a parallel to what is happening to Nico. Human doctors don't know what to do, but the Xhroll offer their help if Nico is allowed to come to their homeworld. Agreement is reached, but another officer is assigned to accompany him, one who outranks him, Captain Charlie Fonseca. Charlie is female, so her full name could be something like Charlotte or Charlene, although that isn't mentioned. Nico had not met her before, and until told did not realize she was a woman. When they finally meet, Nico is disappointed since he does not consider her attractive. His circumstance has done nothing to change the way he thinks of women.

The Xhroll are divided into three classes, xhrea, abbas, and ari-arkhj. They all appear the same physically, except for ari-arkhj whose breasts are surgically implanted. Xhrea are neutral, neither able to bear children or to implant a child in an abba. These "genders" are not evident until the age of 15, which would correspond to human puberty. Their society's problem stems from more being xhrea, fewer abbas to bear children. Xhrea insist they should be the leaders since they don't have to deal with the distraction of bearing children or being the "fathers". If a Xhroll-human hybrid is possible it could revive their dwindling population. The "birth" of Nico's child proves that in the positive. The humans don't know Xhroll military capabilities, which are actually negligible, and they aren't prepared for an attack of more ari-arkhj raping humans to implant more parasites. That is averted though, as Charlie figures a better way for the Xhroll to save themselves.

It's hard for me to judge this since it is a translation from a language I don't read. I can't be sure if the translators used the proper terms and pronouns for the Xhroll. While Nico continued to think of the Xhroll in male/female terms, he was not privy to the knowledge that Charlie learns. He thought of Ankkhaia, the one who took advantage of him, as a she, but they refer to themselves as he, Nico as she, and Charlie as a he, since Charlie is Nico's surrogate ari-arkhj. It's also puzzling why the majority of the exposition is in third-person, while other passages have Ankkhaia narrating, and once that seemlessly sequed into a scene with Charlie being the first-person narrator. It was good to see Nico get his comeuppance, but as I stated above it didn't make sense he was on the station in the first place, or that his activities had been tolerated for so long. Charlie is the more sympathetic character, and the most resourceful, even though she had to be as secretive about her actions as much as the Xhroll. Is this a pro-feminist story? I'll leave it to women readers to decide that, but if that was Barceló's intention I'm not sure she accomplished it.

Something that is not the fault of Barceló or the translators, but the formatting of the ARC is the worst I've received from either Edelweiss or Net Galley. I won't try to describe how it was so jumbled, just say it slowed down my reading of this very short novel quite a bit.


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Elia Barceló
English translation by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell

Original - 1994 Translation - Nov 15, 2021

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