Editors and translators both, Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell (Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain) have done the whole genre of SF an immense boon by getting into print a long-lost Spanish time-travel tale, The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey. But they do not release it naked, instead swaddling it with much informed research and exegesis. What the reader learns is that Enrique Gaspar was a fascinating, cosmopolitan, and urbane figure, highly significant in Spanish literature although mostly forgotten and unknown today, who essayed this Jules Verne-like tale in 1887 for a number of reasons. First, to keep his own fiscal head above water. Second, to satirize follies great and small. And third, to uphold the honor of Spain in all technologically progressive matters. The shapely narrative resulting from these conflated motives is nonetheless organic, authentic, and enjoyable.
Gaspar created the story first as a very specific sort of play, a "zarzuela," or kind of comic operetta, and the structure and character suite of the adapted novel retain that early template. Don Sindulfo, a pompous inventor, is paired with his assistant, young Benjamín, while Clara, Sindulfo's niece after whom he lusts has her servant Juanita as chum. Two soldiers, noble Luis and lowborn Pendencia, round out the troupe. They would have all alternated songs onstage, but here the multivalent pairings and regroupings make for a lively banter.
The first chapter sets the scenario: Don Sindulfo launching his temporal expedition from Paris, to much public acclaim. In the next two chapters he lectures on theory, while Chapter 4 gives the back-story of the characters and the creation of the ship. With Chapter 5 we're off and running, as some amorous soldiers sneak onboard the ship and Don Sindulfo contracts with the French authorities to carry back some superannuated prostitutes in order to reinvigorate them. For, you, see, unless one is properly and scientifically insulated, backward time-travel regresses one physically, like Benjamin Button.
Before you can say "Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits," our chronic argonauts are back in imperial China, searching for the secret of immortality, and hubristically hoping to stun the ancients with nineteenth-century knowledge. But their plans go kerflooey, and much farcical action ensues, resulting in a series of further voyages (Pompeii on the eve of destruction, Noachian times, etc) and hairbreadth escapes, until ending at the dawn of cosmological time itself.
Gapsar's work exhibits much humor and genuine speculation although the latter has been since undermined. He finds human nature eternally perverse, and harkens to Voltaire's wry philosophy. Additionally, we get curious foreshadowings of the twenty-first- century phenomenon of "atemporality," where the past becomes a grab bag of disassociated tchotchkes freed from the original context. A charming and pertinent ancestor of modern SF, this worthy novel, overlooked for a century, will no longer be forced to hide its light of other days under a bushel.
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo