On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture
The Hungarian Way of Science Fiction
Translated by Gergely Kamper
As early as forty years ago, those meddling in the world of speculative fiction in Hungary often joked that defining science fiction is a favoured indoor sport among their ranks. It seemed like a nice joke, and it was at least as true as it was funny, although in those days few really grasped this.
Science fiction is a genre of British and American origins which was shaped by the scientific and social changes as much as by literary trends of the twentieth century. Defining it would not be easy even if it could be described by formal or content-related criteria like other genres, but the fact that these have been changing along the way makes the task even more difficult.
In the 1970s attempts at forming a definition originated from three different sources: academic literary studies, commercial book and magazine publishing, and communities of practice. That decade is the period when the first theoretical works appeared, and although it was a formalistic approach that first found a way to a definition, a new theory also surfaced emphasizing a historical aspect in the system of genres. Partly motivated by this paradigm shift, SF, still in its infancy, started to seek out its literary antecedents.
Nevertheless, this approach—like the formalistic one—did not result in an unequivocal definition. As a matter of fact, neither answered the question of what science fiction really was. In Hungary not only theoretical research—similar to what was going on in the United Kingdom or the United States—was lacking at the time but there was no de facto SF publishing, either. The authors of sporadic speculative works were either practitioners of young adult literature—Péter Tőke, Miklós Rónaszegi, Péter Bogáti—or came from ‘high literature’ and only took a short trip to the genre—Péter Lengyel, Dezső Tandori, Gyula Hernádi. Every now and then a scientist—like astronomer György Kulin or biologist Tibor Dévényi—signed on, but their works never received the SF label. They also did not relate to the then-canonized British and American science fiction (not to the current topics let alone the institutions of publishing) or the works of the contemporary authors coming from a world of class struggles and positivistic technology—although educational policies explicitly required the transmission of socialist ideals for the coming generation. (Examples are Földrengések szigete (1957) by Klára Fehér or Endre László’s series Szírusz kapitány, which first found its way to audiences in the form of a radio drama.)
It was high time that a new collection of books labelled as SF came to life. It finally got the go-ahead in 1969 and interestingly enough is associated with the poet Péter Kuczka. The well-connected and pragmatic Kuczka found a market gap he could fill in Hungarian literature. He was fortunate, not only because he got the backing of the socialist cultural leadership, but also because communities of practice similar to those in the United States had not been formed yet, and literary science found SF unworthy to deal with, which meant that Kuczka did not have these two to comply with.
Three years later Kuczka raised the bar attached to the books and created a more extensive project: an SF anthology, Galaktika. At first, to gain proper intellectual and financial backing, they intended to present the roots of the genre, thus proving the literary legitimacy of science fiction (academics remained silent on the issue). The definition was imported from overseas. The formalistic approach of Serbian-Canadian Darko Suvin was adopted. He defined SF as “the genre of cognitive estrangement, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (8-9).
Helikon, a periodical dealing with world literature, devoted a whole issue to SF. Besides Kuczka and Suvin, contributors included Stanislaw Lem, Yuly Kagarlitsky, and Philip K. Dick, thus giving international legitimacy to the genre. The above definition presented to socialist cultural leadership imported a formalistic view and later, a historical approach was added to that. This combination allowed the community to search for the first work that could be labelled as SF in the distant past. That leads to some theories calling the Epic of Gilgamesh the first example of science fiction in the world. Going back to ancient times for the roots of SF was no more than an absurd interlude; still, it persevered amongst devotees of the genre. Indeed, it was also accepted by Hungarian persona publica just to legitimise it. With this 1972 definition, Péter Kuczka, who supervised SF publishing, raised a wall around the genre. He let in works that were supposed to improve the literary standing of science fiction (e.g., The Circular Ruins by Borges), at the same time filtering out many of the American works with a basis in popular culture.
Kuczka’s concept also meant the seclusion of the newly defined genre, which included shutting out all domestic works that were not regarded as high literature. Hungarian authors could only publish in Galaktika or appear in the series “Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek” if they were specifically invited by the editor. Nevertheless, they were not seen as science fiction writers—all they had was knowledge of previous works in the genre. Checking out domestic authors besides the heavily screened British and American writers we find the same categories. Literary giants like Mór Jókai, Frigyes Karinthy, Géza Laczkó; poets or belletrists like Endre Darázs, Lajos Mesterházy, Gyula Fekete, Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, György Gera; or authors of young adult literature like Zoltán Csernai. The esoteric writing of Mária Szepes is a peculiar addition, although her presence strengthens rather than weakens tendencies. Interestingly enough, none of the domestic publishers thought of contributing to the education of SF writers or editors. The literary training in the SF Division of the Hungarian Writers’ Association was more like a PR project than anything more.
During its eighteen years of existence, Móra Publishing House’s “Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek” series published seven books a year on average. This meant seven SF books a year plus five Galaktika anthologies (also published by Móra), that was all. When British and American science fiction was well into its second golden age—the new wave—and the genre started to carve itself a growing slice of cinema, in Hungary these were the only two places where science fiction par excellence could come out.
But why would anyone have wanted to expand the definition of the genre in a country or a language area where science fiction literature meant the stories in Galaktika magazine or the novels in the attached book series and nothing else? Considering the then-status of the genre, we could simply say that SF was whatever appeared in the anthology and in the series of books. Who needed a new, different definition?
By the end of the seventies, a new participant of the ‘institutional network’—well-known from overseas—appeared: the community aiming at playing an active role in the shaping of SF. Dozens of clubs were established in Budapest and other cities which then contacted one another. These communities of various sizes, while exploring their own identities, expanded the notion of science fiction and started to push the boundaries with their periodical fanzines. These fanzines (Kvark, Metamorf, Supernova, etc.) published one hundred, maybe five hundred, copies by these scattered clubs with the permission of the local city councils and provided several amateur writers an opportunity to appear in print.
Though it remained unsaid, their presence and new approaches threatened the official position. Should SF acquire a different definition, it might be able to separate from the official position, which neither the cultural establishment nor Péter Kuczka, who was very particular about his status, were willing to allow. Ironically, the very existence of Galaktika was speeding up this process, but the publisher did not support any of these communities (even though many of the clubs were actually named after the anthology). The underlying reason was probably the fact that Kuczka saw the power of these organizations. He had written in Helikon recalling the golden age in America: “As early as with the first magazines, so-called ‘fanzines’ appeared created by volunteering fans. In these small mags so proud of their independence, marketing angles were cast aside, and theoretical work began, as serious aestheticians, literary historians or critics had not acknowledged the existence of science fiction for decades—not even as part of popular culture.” In spite of this, Galaktika dissociated itself from the clubs even though its monopoly (along with Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek) in publishing was not threatened at the least in those days.
So the change—just like in the United States much earlier—came from the fans in Hungary, too. Véga, Hungarian SF Society’s publication of works by amateur authors, was the first to penetrate the impenetrable looking political force field around Galaktika. These publications did not only reach readers on HungaroCon, a nationwide convention held from 1980, or via mail but were also distributed in book shops. Véga attempted to lift the amateurs in the clubs from the periphery to the high waters of publishing.
Galaktika then went on the counteroffensive and started its annual convention, Gagarin SF Days—hosted by the House of Soviet Culture and Science—and organised its own community, Galaktika Friends. The former hardly survived a few years and the latter basically operated as a book club during its eight years of existence. Starting the periodical Robur for the youth did not help, either, as only sixteen issues were ever printed. Galaktika was turned into a monthly, which brought along a conversion of format—more graphical elements appeared at the expense of the written content.
In the end, this battle of David and Goliath had no real winner, as in the eighties a third combatant emerged which subdued both the gigantic Galaktika and the feeble, dying Véga. Popular culture was beginning to gain ground and as the socialist era was coming to an end and the party-state was losing its grip, it was easier to publish light literature that could be sold in greater numbers. And there was a demand for science fiction, which Népszava Publishing House attempted to fulfil with the novels of István Nemere.
By the end of the decade, the public recognized three authors whose work was mostly in the field of science fiction: the independent István Nemere, and László L. Lőrincz and Péter Zsoldos under the wings of Galaktika. Nemere and Lőrincz were the first representatives of popular culture who started to tear down the wall of socialist cultural policy from the inside. After the change in the political system had brought along market economy in the book industry, though, there was a higher demand for novels in other genres, and both pushed science fiction to the background. Today, István Nemere is the most prolific Hungarian writer with his eight hundred books (a negligible percentage of which is science-fiction), and László L. Lőrincz built a reputation primarily with his crime novels.
Péter Zsoldos is a different story, though; in this context he is the exception that proves the rule. Zsoldos’s first science fiction novel came out in 1963 with Móra, the last one in 1988 with Háttér Publishing House. After the political changes, he never published again. He did not come from literature but from a different segment of culture: he worked as a music editor at the radio. With his exceptional and high-standard oeuvre, he raised SF to the level of high literature, although he did not even think of himself as an author. He was unique in the history of Hungarian science fiction. His intellectual impact and legacy is indisputable; nevertheless, he never had a chance to make an impact on a practical level during the decades when he contributed to literature.
So after the political changes, Nemere and Lőrincz headed in different directions, whereas Péter Zsoldos stopped writing altogether with no one to follow in his tracks. At the same time, the spreading of popular culture and the free market had a murderous impact on Galaktika, whose prevalent position on the market had already faltered. What Kuczka had been afraid of transpired. Suvin’s cognitive estrangement as the grounding notion of publishing was lost without a trace in the melting pot of the domestic market, which now encompassed everything that could go down as speculative fiction in the wildest possible sense: from ufology to esoterica to heroic fantasy books. Finally, Galaktika was discontinued in 1995, along with Móra’s SF book series and Galaktika Friends. In the mid-nineties, everything around Hungarian science fiction literature had to be rebuilt from scratch.
To recall the (re-)birth of independent Hungarian science fiction we have to check back to clubs of the early eighties, the times before Véga. Like glowing embers beneath the ash, amateur authors survived after the changes, alone and with no opportunities—the age of fanzines declined with the death of the clubs. Several initiatives were launched in the field of science fiction magazines (Vénusz, Birodalom, Nexus and X-Magazin with its record fifteen issues) but these were all discontinued after only a few releases. The most (in)famous publisher with domestic authors on its roster, Walhalla, later Valhalla Lodge, was more of a fortune hunter than a diligent engineer on the book market. Other than the ‘unofficial’ Star Wars and Alien vs. Predator series written by Hungarian authors under Anglophone pen names, it is linked to the role-playing game M.A.G.U.S. and the connected fantasy book series. The latter still runs today, but during its two and a half decades of existence heavy with legal disputes and lawsuits, a special circle of authors have worked within its bounds and they hardly touch on science fiction.
Finally, a one-time Debrecen clubber and his Cherubion genre publisher played a major role in rounding up Hungarian science fiction writers (something similar had happened sixty years earlier in the United States). István Nemes and the authors around him had known each other from these earlier communities. This Cherubion team of writers operated as a kind of incubator for amateur writers, although science fiction only complemented fantasy, which gained ground lightning fast in the nineties. Authors only wrote sci-fi to supplement their portfolio.
In the end, influenced by the market, the genre produced its first authors; nevertheless, they came up with a practical approach: anthologies and novels were mostly adventure stories where the scientific background was only part of the setting. All that mattered was the publisher’s angle on what was going on in popular culture, therefore the Cherubion team never even thought of attempting to define sci-fi. Their main task was to set the genre apart from fantasy and to do that they conveyed a simple rule of thumb for readers: “sci-fi has spaceships, fantasy has magic.”
The transition to the next phase was instigated by a group from outside publishing circles: in 1997 Avana Hungarian SF Society established the Zsoldos Award, which in spite of the ongoing debates gave a huge boost to domestic science fiction. Avana, though, did not consider training Hungarian SF authors as one of its tasks. Defining science fiction was not really an issue during the formative years of the prize. That is the reason why the genre (and sometimes the quality) of some of the winners is questionable. The shift in attitude, which prioritised the definition in the process of evaluation, was first instigated by Margit S. Sárdi in 2005.
This was a lucky break as academic literary theory met the intentions of a science fiction community. The only definition since 1972 is ascribed to ELTE Institute of Hungarian Literature and Cultural Studies, namely a seminar led by Sárdi (which, in turn, gave rise to Magyar Scifitörténeti Társaság). The concept follows Suvin and reads science fiction along formalistic lines while adopting an approach by Lem. As Sárdi writes in “Műfaj-e a sci-fi?” [Is SF a Genre?]: “Science fiction is a branch of fiction which deals with as of now non-existent or non-recognised problems, offering sensible solutions; or the other way round, it deals with existing, recognised problems offering non-existent but sensible solutions.” However, this definition by the seminar at ELTE is far from flawless. It works fine in the sterile environment of a university (and for the purposes of the decision process for the Zsoldos Award) but it rules out plenty of writings (though still fewer than Darko Suvin’s definition) from the genre which are considered sci-fi by writers, publishers, distributors, readers, critics, and other members of the public.
And now we return to the third branch of science fiction’s institutional network. Almost fifteen years after the political change, SF publishing managed to recover. Finally, contemporary Hungarian writers had the opportunity to publish explicitly SF works. The first attempt at this was Átjáró SF&F Magazin. Átjáró attempted to fill the void after the discontinuation of Galaktika. Along with translated international works, it published short stories by Hungarian authors and reviews of their books. The editors used existing contacts to publish the writings of several Cherubion authors. Some of István Nemes’s writers found other publishers for their novels and at that moment in time it seemed that Hungarian science fiction as such would be a thing.
A few publishers embraced the genre, up to the economic crisis quite resolutely, after that in a more restrained fashion. Nagual Publishing (later Metropolis Media) resurrected Galaktika in 2004, but Animus, Deltavision, and Tuan also published domestic SF. Around this time Avana took over the anthology Új Galaxis [New Galaxy], which was created by Kódex Press, and only deals with domestic authors, although it is only able to provide amateur authors with an opportunity to publish.
Having said that, in the 2010s Hungarian science fiction still had no established canon. Metagalaktika 11 by Metropolis Media summarised the history of Hungarian SF, but no serious theoretical work was conceived in the field. We can name a book, or an author or two, but the genre is not really better off than it was at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. The debate is still going on about what should be considered science fiction while the old boundaries are long lost. Without a mutually agreed upon working definition the active participants of this segment of Hungarian popular culture are unable to communicate the genre of the works towards the market. During the past years, for publishers bringing out domestic SF—Ad Astra, Agave, Főnix, Gabó—it is a matter of vital importance how they position themselves for the readers. The latest attempts to influence the market concentrate on the trends in British and American mainstream SF, using their literary prizes (Hugo, Locus, Nebula, etc.) as reference points. There is no such standout reference point for Hungarian authors.
The more than twenty-year-old Zsoldos Award has been detached from Avana and now fantasy and weird novels can also be nominated. Avana’s recently established Monolit Prize is taking turns to find the best Hungarian SF short story and the best novel in alternating years. The few Hungarian anthologies attached to different teams of authors do not represent the diversity of domestic SF; thus all we have left are sporadic publications that are not defined as SF by familiar authors, like Tibor Fonyódi (Harrison Fawcett), Botond Markovics (Brandon Hackett), and Anita Moskát. New talents fostered by some publishers also appear, but often they don’t find their readers. Könyvmolyképző Publishing House invests a lot of energy to discover new talents, nevertheless, the novels of their first book authors are not published as sci-fi but as parts of a so-called ‘hard selection’ series. Even their resident author, Bea Varga (On Sai) writes her science fiction novels in ‘fine selection’ series marked with a red or gold dot. A perfect example of the disturbance in positioning is what happened to Imre Bartók’s three novels. Libri looking for high literature in SF or postmodern in high literature did not indicate the genre on book covers (what genre are they after all?), so hopeful readers ended up like Soviet soldiers in Hungary in 1956 when they tried to find the Suez Canal. It resulted in total confusion at the receiving end.
As of now, SF is dominated by selective traditions within (!) the genre and this could only be helped by the finding of a general introspective definition. The time has come to look beyond the unsuccessful attempts of SF communities and publishers, the sluggish stirrings of domestic literary science with which they turn to science fiction. Scholars still have an aversion to the genre. For instance, the seminar in ELTE’s Institute of Hungarian Literature and Cultural Studies never had the term “sci-fi” in its name but was advertised as a literary review seminar smuggling SF to the curriculum through the methodology. To come up with an up-to-date understanding of the genre we should step outside the traditional paradigm to approach science fiction through popular culture. We must also realise that science fiction is a uniquely interdisciplinary genre. In view of this fact, American scholars in the field have been trying to come up with a new approach. They consider science fiction (and other genres) “fluid and tenuous constructions made by the interaction of various claims and practices by writers, producers, distributors, marketers, readers, fans, critics and other discursive agents” (Rieder quotes Marc Bould and Sheryl Vint) If anything, this is definitely true about SF. The genre withstands structural and historical definitions, as these attempts are all static and there are no robes you can force on the corpus of science fiction.
On the other hand, if we look upon the genre as the dynamic cooperation and connection of publishers, critics and communities with constantly changing boundaries sooner or later every participant may find their place within, even in Hungary. Should this happen, a circle might emerge which will not shy away from putting the SF tag on book covers and the different groups could come to an agreement, which in turn may lead to the establishment of a Hungarian SF canon with authors writing within its bounds.
Rieder, John. “On Defining a Genre or Not.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2010, pp. 191-209.
S. Sárdi, Margit. “Műfaj-e a sci-fi?” [Is sci-fi a genre?]. Szépirodalmi Figyelő, no. 1, 2013, pp. 28-36.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979.
Sándor Szélesi (Anthony Sheenard) is a multi-award-winning Hungarian SFF and crime fiction writer, screenwriter, and editor, and the head of the Hungarian Writer’s Alliance’s SF Division since 2018. He is the author of over thirty novels and over a hundred short storie