On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture
Interview with Csilla Kleinheincz
Csilla Kleinheincz is a Hungarian-Vietnamese SFF writer, author of the Ólomerdő [Leaden Forest] trilogy, and co-editor of Az év magyar science fiction és fantasynovellái [The Best Hungarian Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year] for Gabo publishing house. Her short stories A Drops of Raspberries, After Midnight, Before Dawn, Rabbits, Last Service Line and A Single Year have been published in translation in various magazines and anthologies such as Expanded Horizons, Black Petals, Interfictions, The Apex Books of World SF, Heiresses of Russ, and Sunspot Jungles.
Guest Editors Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi: How do you see the development of the Hungarian fantastic over the past ten years? The 2017 launch and continued popularity of the Best Hungarian Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthology series you’ve been co-editing with Gábor Roboz is undoubtedly a significant part of this. Could you reflect on the origins of the projects and how it has shaped your own perspective of Hungarian SF?
Csilla Kleinheincz: The development of the Hungarian fantastic and fantastic fiction available on the market are inextricably bound together. Since fantastic literature, like any other literature, does not exist in a separate space, there’s been a shift toward publishing more translated fiction from contemporary authors and relatively new titles, sometimes only a few months after the international publication, and also publishing works that have won some kind of award and therefore are considered the “best,” as opposed to the previous practice of leaning heavily on classics and/or franchise literature lead to an opening horizon for Hungarian authors as well, not all of whom read in English. Mainstream and literary fiction also have had a great impact on Hungarian SF writers, and the publishers have been also more open to experimental and unconventional fiction, seeking unique visions and voices.
The Best Hungarian Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthology project stemmed from the realization that such new voices need to be heard, and that there are few open (and paying) anthologies or magazines that are not organized around a specific theme or that gather only authors of a particular publishing house or circle. The first time we opened the submissions to the public we were amazed at the diversity of topics and styles, and as the years passed, the ratio of unique and daring visions just increased—I like to think because, by selecting interesting ideas and exciting narratives the writers felt encouraged to experiment.
Guest Editors: How does the Hungarian fantastic incorporate and/or subvert the themes and tropes of Anglo-American fantastic tradition? Do you think there’s a pressure to follow international trends?
Csilla Kleinheincz: There is certainly a pressure, if by pressure we mean that Hungarian SF has to compete with translated works (dominantly Anglo-American) on the market, and readers compare Hungarian sci-fi and fantasy to award-winning titles.
I think it is important to mention here that while my colleague Gábor Roboz and several other editors in the field are advocates of the “new Hungarian SF,” and encourage writers to diverge from mainstream science fiction and fantasy, other editors or publishing houses have different preferences and are more open to SF that resemble successful imported story types. This is especially true for YA, heroic fantasy, and space opera, and Hungary has its own kind of RPG literature as well. [Editor’s note: The M.A.G.U.S roleplaying handbooks were first published in 1993 by Valhalla Páholy publishing house, and the latest one came out in 2007.]
What Hungarian SF can offer is its own unique blend of the fantastic that could be written only by Hungarian authors, reflecting on our own cultural and historical influences and leaning on our own surroundings. Hungarian weird fiction is especially strong nowadays, perhaps because our history and our present are so rich in grotesque and dystopian elements and also because a small but very active creative community has formed around the main publisher of weird fiction, The Black Aether.
The trending topics of science fiction also find their way into Hungarian SF: artificial intelligence and uploaded consciousness, climate change, biohacking and the future of current power structures, and entertainment media. These global phenomena can all be viewed through the lens of our small, central-European country and I think this angle can be really interesting. Although there are plenty of Hungarian SF works that follow Anglo-American traditions, even using American characters and settings, or copying story structures seen in Hollywood films, the exciting part is where Hungarian writers find ways to utilize their own personal experiences, living here to bring about something new and refreshing.
Guest Editors: Hungarian folklore seems to inspire a whole new generation of Hungarian SF writers; your own fantasy novels draw upon this rich tradition. How does the uniquely Hungarian storytelling appear in the Hungarian fantastic, and how does the fantastic as a mode itself aid and amplify the Hungarian perspective?
Csilla Kleinheincz: Fairy tales and myths always had a strong presence within fantasy, and it was only a matter of time until Hungarian writers realized the immense possibilities in Hungarian folklore. Many of the classical fantasy stories are based on Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Germanic mythologies so it is easy to forget that these are not required to be incorporated into a fantasy novel just so it can be considered “fantasy.” Archetypes and mythical symbolism provide a great structure to tell new stories about ourselves and our place in the world, and the familiar mythology brings these stories closer to the readers. My own Ólomerdő trilogy is based loosely on Hungarian fairy tales. Túlontúl by Ágnes Gaura and A látszat mesterei by Krisztina Tímár both draw upon Hungarian folklore while Kukoricza by Csaba Csurgó retells and modernizes one of the most famous epic poems of Hungarian literature. Also, Hungarian folk tales provide a rich basis for weird and horror stories stemming from local legends and mythological creatures (like Túlpart by Zsolt Jónás, or Attila Veres’s many short stories, for example).
The unique position and historical background of Hungary within Europe provide advantage in the genres that are so interested in the Other. As someone with mixed nationality I am perhaps not the most authentic person to talk about the soul of the Hungarian people, but this otherness, this feeling of not quite fitting into the tapestry of our surrounding countries is very close to the sense of alienation and strangeness that is permeating the fantastic.
Guest Editors: In the field of Anglo-American SF, generic boundaries have become increasingly porous, and experimenting with different genre-bending practices has been encouraged and celebrated. How do you think fantastic genres appear in Hungarian fantastic literature and culture? How do you think this might affect your own writing?
Csilla Kleinheincz: While genre-bending works definitely exist within Hungarian literature, most of these are not traditionally published by genre publishers. The magical realist stories of Ervin Lázár, László Darvas, and György Dragomán, or the magical historical novel of Zsolt Láng (Bestiárium Transylvaniae) and several short stories that could be considered fantastic, are published by literary publishers and magazines and are marketed as literary or mainstream fiction. This distinction makes reader orientation difficult and creates a rift between “traditional” and “literary” fantasy.
Even so, I see a shift in the perception of fantasy in Hungary, and works by, for example, Anita Moskát, László Sepsi, and Attila Veres serve both as bridges and are amalgams of many literary and fantastic influences.
As for myself, I find my own writing changing. Not so much because of the trends but because I have gained the necessary confidence to freely experiment and write what I want, to use the fantastic as a finely honed tool, and I don’t let myself be restricted by what I perceive as “what is expected of fantasy writers.” Fortunately publication of unconventional fantasy is easier than it had been even ten years ago, and readers acquired a taste for the unexpected and the unique. Or rather, they were always hungry for it, just didn’t get it before in this quantity.
Guest Editors: Based on your work as co-editor of The Best Hungarian Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthology, what aspects do you consider the strengths of the Hungarian fantastic?
Csilla Kleinheincz: What came as a surprise to us was how many well written weird and dark stories we get. The dominance of science fiction is a thing of the past—truly, we struggle to find enough science fiction short stories to merit the title . . . Fantasy is in abundance, and stories are no longer limited to tolkienesque fantasy or spaceships and robots, but most of them have strong Hungarian elements in them as well. Many works reflect on the socialist era of our history, bringing a “retro” feel, but also indicating that this part of our history is still not fully processed within the fantastic.
The city/countryside polarization of the Hungarian nation is also represented in the stories we read. The sociological aspects of this distinction find their way into the SF and the specific neuroses associated with what living in Budapest or in the country power these dark stories. The fabric of Hungarian society leaves its imprint on the fantastic as well, and the symbols of the fantastic can capture our everyday struggles perfectly.
Another important revelation was the high percentage of women within the fantastic. Compared to the SF publications of the nineties it is very refreshing to see the number of women who produce high quality, innovative and exciting stories, and I very much hope we will see more novels by them also. The knee-jerk reaction of “women can’t write SF” starts to wear out, and women’s perspectives enrich the Hungarian SF.
Guest Editors: Anglo-American SF has become the site and source of exploring women’s experiences and role in socio-political and economic systems, which appears in your own writing as well. How do you see the position of women’s SF and YA in the field of the Hungarian fantastic? How does the fantastic itself negotiate women’s experiences and social discussions around gender roles?
Csilla Kleinheincz: Feminism and the discussion about gender has taken a different road in Hungary than in the US, and feminist science fiction and fantasy were mostly imported, with only a few Hungarian SF stories here and there. The great Hungarian SF boom was mostly run by male writers and editors, and for a long time, women were mainly portrayed only as love interests or sexy enemies. The romantic fantasy genre has always been dominated by women, but its readership was not open to other kinds of fantasy (and certainly not to science fiction), and “traditional” fantasy readers considered disdainfully romantic fantasy as a completely different genre.
After 2000, I see a turn in Hungarian SF as more women wrote and published short stories and novels. I think Raana Raas’s (Etelka Görgey) Csodaidők series was a paradigm-shifting endeavor that completely changed the way Hungarian science fiction viewed women and families. Written by a Hungarian pastor, the series explored the role of traditions and faith in a futuristic setting and had a huge impact: it introduced science fiction to a great mass of readers who never would have discovered the genre otherwise. The women readers stayed and voted for SF stories that were written by and for women. The market expanded and soon more and more women began to publish at the bigger publishing houses.
Exploration of women’s experiences and gender roles brought a fresh breeze into Hungarian SF as well. I think the most important, groundbreaking novel was Anita Moskát’s Horgonyhely, a dystopian fantasy set in a world where everybody was bound to the place they were born, and only pregnant women could travel. It’s a violent, dark story about gender roles and dominance that can be compared to Naomi Alderman’s The Power.
YA fantasy and science fiction is dominated by women in Hungary, probably because the readers, the editors and publishers of YA are also mostly women. I would say writers of YA SF now have every opportunity to be published, although publisher’s expectations can be more restrictive as in the case of “adult” SF, and there is a greater tolerance for formulaic stories.
Guest Editors: Considering current trends in the production and consumption of fantastic literature and media, how is the Hungarian fantastic likely to change in the future? What new directions do you think are possible? How do you think the anthology can affect and showcase these changes?
Csilla Kleinheincz: Based on my experiences with the anthology and what is published at other publishing houses, the two genres where I expect the greatest changes and the most buzzing are the weird, the slipstream and the unconventional fantasy, and many of the new writers will be women. They are already present with their short stories, and soon novels will follow, and of course the leading Hungarian writers of today will also bring new visions.