Five stories of over-the-top science fiction, signed by an unknown name: La measure de l'home (Males Herbes) is the debut of Héctor Rivadeneyra Moll, who builds a future world in which human beings colonize space, and with his civilizations also take away their usual problems. However, the author is not exactly a debutante because behind the name is, without hiding much, Javier Calvo (Barcelona, 1973). With a solid literary career after ten books in Spanish, he began to write in Catalan with two goals: to have fun and to publish in Males Herbes.
Are you sure you needed a pseudonym?
The explanation of the pseudonym is quite absurd, but the fact is that I had wanted to publish with Males Herbes for many years, as a fan. I'm a fan of editorials, and Barcelona is the one I like the most. I always told them that I wanted to publish with them, but they didn't pay much attention to me, they didn't take me very seriously. And one day I said to myself: “I'll do it even if they don't want to”. They announce a short story contest, for an anthology, and I applied with a pseudonym, in fact I even put a fake photo, an invented email... and they accepted it. And of course, when the contract arrived I had to call and say it was me, and they took it well. And since I had written the story for the anthology and had had a great time, I thought I'd take advantage of it and do a few more with the world itself. I called out to them, “Hey guys, now I have a book!” It was a difficult time, with the start of the pandemic, and they didn't know what would happen, but in the end, when everything calmed down, they read it and carried it forward. And he kept the pseudonym, and they asked me if they could say it was me, and I thought about it.
Did it cost you?
My idea was not to go out openly like me, for different reasons. I find that this book has nothing to do with what I have normally written. Also because in the last novel I published, Silver Skin (Seix Barral, 2019), the protagonist is obsessed with a science fiction writer, it is a realistic novel but it is also a tribute to fans of the genre. And during the promotion the journalists asked me when I would publish a science fiction book, and I made it clear that never. It was my invariable answer. And of course, afterwards I was very embarrassed that my next book was precisely science fiction. And that's why I decided to do it under a pseudonym. And if it went well, since I'd had a lot of fun, I could continue making books with Males Herbes under that name. It is also true that I wrote the book with them in mind, and making stories that for me had, so to speak, the Males Herbes style.
And which one is it?
This kind of satirical science fiction that they publish from time to time, like Kurt Vonnegut. And they liked it I guess that's why, too: it was a very Males Herbes book. I wrote this book in Catalan and I signed it with a pseudonym to be able to publish it with them, I really like their catalogue. I like publishers that have a very strong identity, like them, you see that the catalog is a commitment to a type of literature, and there is also the work they have done to discover authors, people who had never published or who were forgotten. ..
Was it strange for you to write in Catalan?
Much. It was hard for me, because I had all the tics of a lifetime writing literature in another language. It was very complicated. Being the first, I asked for help so as not to do anything outrageous, because my main linguistic contamination is also from English, in fact all my books are not translations from English but almost... A large part of my life takes place in English, with my family, I spend half the year in the United States... and besides, I've been translating from English for thirty years, and that's hard to beat. I fully trust my proofreaders to de-English my books.
And do you think that such a book could have been written in Spanish? Or maybe in English?
There is an element of discomfort, and that is that I would never present myself as a writer in Catalan, I would not come to compete with people who can write a thousand times better than me, who have done it all their lives. It is simply a book that I have written in Catalan, and I suppose I could have written it in another language. But it was also a challenge, I'm almost fifty years old and I've never done it before. If things had gone differently when I was young... but the truth is that my first opportunity to write and publish as well as to translate was in Spanish.
Was it another time?
I was very lucky because it was so much easier to break through in this whole world, and it was an opportunity I would have been stupid to turn down. But as a result of that, you already know what happens a bit in Catalonia, and that is that writers achieve a bit of an identity from the outset and that's how they stay. And changing the language, especially at 49 years old, I thought it would be easier, but it isn't.
The stories in the book are independent, but located in the same world.
This would be the other great learning. When you start writing science fiction you have to re-educate yourself, in a certain way, and my experience is that you have to put this world much more in the foreground than if you were writing a novel like mine, set in Barcelona. This construction of the world is the first step. I did that in a somewhat improvised way in the first story, but later I thought that I would take advantage of those elements to develop it. I'm not a science fiction writer either, but I am a reader, I like it a lot, and one of my most important influences is new wave science fiction, from the sixties and seventies, which I find to be very interesting literature regardless of genre, very useful for the writer. You have to learn, the scenario you build has to be complex and familiar at the same time, that has this sense of wonder that comes from seeing strange inventions, projections into the future... The idea anyway was to create a literary world where humanity has already colonized the solar system but continues to have the same shortcomings and continues to commit the same nonsense and continues to be just as pitiful in its decisions. Hence the title of the book, which was originally called Homo mensura, from Protàgoras' phrase that is normally translated as "man is the measure of all things".
Basically we are always the same.
Is that. Man is the measure of all things is a phrase that is actually born of a desire to exalt man towards the universe, and inspired Leonardo's drawing of the man with four arms and four legs. He can turn around and write stories about how humanity is defined by its shortcomings even though technologically it is a century further on.
Did you want to make a believable world in the future or didn't you care too much?
Although it may not seem like it, I did do a little research on things that could happen. For example, there was a time when studies were carried out by NASA to find out if a colonization project could be carried out on the planet Venus. And the result was that you could live on Venus, but only in the upper layers of the atmosphere. Who the hell would want to live high up in the atmosphere of Venus?! And how could they live there? There was even a project that was to make some platforms with very long columns that reached the ground... And that comes out in the last story of the book. Another story takes place on a satellite of Saturn, Enceladus, which is considered one of the celestial bodies where in the future, if it is possible to travel between planets, humanity could get ice, because the water in space can be used as fuel. . They are all ideas that to me, as I am of letters, seem super funny and super rare...
Colonize a planet to destroy it and have to colonize another, right?
Or like living on an asteroid, in which you have to put a motor to make it rotate... These are things that you also learn by reading science fiction. Within the genre there is also the space opera, totally reviled with reason in many cases, but it is full of these ideas. During the pandemic, since we had no social life and we couldn't do anything, I read many of these novels. I had a great time.
Is the book also a child of the pandemic, then?
No, I wrote it immediately before. There is a whole tradition of science fiction, I will not say that it is satirical, although part of it is, which is that of the sixties, which is very anti-heroic, a kind of response against the golden age of science fiction, which is precisely very heroic, that of the man who can conquer the universe or find ways to travel to space, and in the sixties it's the opposite, all these authors like Brian W. Aldiss or Ursula K. Le Guin. This anti-heroism is copied from here, all the things that man would actually fail if he did them, it is also a reflection on the conflict between nature and man.
Also between freedom and control? There is a strong political component in the book.
I am not very aware of the most political part, perhaps except for the last story, which is the one I wrote most seriously, because the others are mostly jokes. This was an attempt to make the conflict between nature and man more explicit. There is an issue that I realized once the book was published, and that is that the title is La measure de l'home, and here the man is used almost as an anachronism, because today man means a male individual, right? ? But in reality, when I say man here I mean the civilizational project of humanity, especially after leaving Earth. This last story, La Calexico aprèn a nedar, is a very explicit illustration of that, a person who goes to Venus with a perfectly rational and humanistic project as basic as achieving gender equality because in the rest of the inhabited places it has already been done , and you find a world where nature doesn't really allow you to do that, they've splintered back into these primitive roles and the poor woman can't do a thing. In the science fiction of the sixties, the universe is a metaphor about nature and about humanity, a bit like in romanticism, which is also man against the cosmos, and those novelists like Brian Aldiss also apply it to the universe, how man reaches a situation where nature destroys them. Here it is the same, a woman who represents the humanistic conscience, civilization, runs into a wall.
There are also many tributes and quotes, explicit as in the case of Shirley Jackson, Richard Scarry...
Just as the last story was the most serious, in the others my philosophy was that if this is to have a good time, let's have a good time. And he would make jokes, for example I remember that I was on the subway in New York and there was a sign that said: Richard Scarry Exhibition... And I remembered that as a child Scarry gave me a very bad vibe, he hated him so much! I think that as a child he already saw this fascist dystopian thing that he had, and my wife told me that she loved it, that he was very pretty. And I thought that he would make a horror story about his books. The case of Shirley Jackson is even more stupid: I wanted to write a story called Shirley Jackson a l'espai, because I really liked the title, but I didn't know what it would be about and I made up the story to justify calling it that. With regard to the exterminator, I wanted to make a story that would end up just like Lovecraft's Dunwich Horror, without caring too much what happened before. They are jokes of a person who has these references between cultured and popular, high and low culture.
And Schubert? It is surprising to find it in this world so pop.
The truth is that not only do I like Schubert but I find it super epic, and I thought that if the guy had to freak out killing alien species, he could perfectly do it listening to Schubert. It's like the Vietnamese who were shooting napalm listening to Wagner. Schubert gives you even more pre-Nazi nationalist high. He seemed suitable to me.
Can you imagine these stories translated? Whether in Spanish or English...
I can't imagine them, but for a reason. You can rightly or wrongly speak of the precariousness of Catalan literature, with respect to the market, but even so it has an international presence, especially in the last ten years, thanks to the Institut Ramon Llull, the subsidies, and also because they are coming out many very powerful young writers, and they are being translated abroad and people already know what Catalan literature is. I see it because my wife is a translator of Catalan literature into English. But the world of the fantasy and science fiction genre of literature in Catalan is somewhere between precarious and non-existent, except for four pioneers like Munné-Jordà and a few others whom no one paid any attention to. It gives me the impression of a literary tradition that is just beginning, that still has no chance of going outside. Marc Pastor, for example, who is a person who writes books like Stephen King and such, the book of his that was translated abroad was La mala dona, before he wrote fantastic literature, for example. It is a very weak situation, which still has no possibility of projection.
And do you need a literary system, a breeding ground, to get out? Wouldn't good books be enough?
I don't know, to be honest, it's not a subject that I know that much about, but I see that science fiction, from what I've seen, is a world in which the supremacy of the United States is absolute, from airport literature to more experimental. From time to time you see a Russian, a French... and little else. The Anglo-Saxon market is opening up to translation, ten years ago it had 3% of translations, like an autarchy. Getting people used to reading translations in a world where they have never done so, or that in countries like Germany or Norway where they are used to reading books translated from English suddenly a man who writes science fiction in Catalan arrives must seem super strange.
From the beginning, the idea is to write more books with this heteronym...
I would like very much.
Do you already have something in hand? Will he stay in the same world?
I have like a short novel that I would like to publish at some point, but it is not finished yet, because I am subject to the same curse as all writers, that we hardly have time to write because since it does not make money we have to be working all the time on something else. And bearing in mind that I also have to write books under my other pseudonym, which is Javier Calvo... But in the future I would like to continue making books for Males Herbes, I still find his project very attractive. And in a certain way, also considering myself an outsider, I feel a certain commitment to that, to the world of science fiction and genres in Catalan, because it is a very small and weak world, and I would like to be part of it. It would be the bomb.
But in Spanish it will not go to science fiction.
I think not, because it's not what I want to do. It is not my project. I still have a number of themes that I want to explore that are part of my work, and that's like a bonus that I didn't expect. It's like schizophrenia. There is a Scottish author that I like a lot, Ian Banks, who wrote let's say normal novels set in Scotland, signed Ian Banks, and later wrote science fiction signed Ian M. Banks... I thought it was very cool that a person just putting an M in the name could be transformed into another, I found it very liberating. But he said a phrase that puzzled me: that Ian Banks and Ian M. Banks are the same person who sometimes makes chairs and sometimes makes tables. But I can't write like that, I can only do it thinking I'm someone else and completely changing the chip.
Catalan version, here