Call for Applications: Fiction Editor

Call for Applications: Fiction Editor

The Editorial Collective

The SFRA Review would like to invite applicants for the position of Fiction Editor. To submit an application, please email Ian Campbell at and briefly outline qualifications and interest.

In collaboration with the Editor and Associate Editor(s), the Fiction Editor is generally responsible for soliciting, evaluating and editing submissions to our Fiction section. They may also choose to aid the rest of the Editorial Collective in preparing each issue, though this would not be required.

Overview of Responsibilities:

  • Participate in regular meetings with the Editor and Associate Editors
  • Solicit short (< 4k words) fiction pieces from scholars and the general public
  • Be the point of contact with authors of fiction
  • Edit and copyedit submissions (generally less than ten per quarter)
  • Occasional other responsibilities

We look forward to your submission. This is a great opportunity for a graduate student or emerging scholar to gain experience in the field in a low-pressure situation.

The SF In Translation Universe #14

The SF In Translation Universe #14

Rachel Cordasco

Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! I don’t know about you, but life’s been like a rollercoaster lately. Fortunately, though, I can now devote more time to SFT, and I have so many ideas for essays and books and so many things I want to read. I’ve figured out that I’ll need to live approximately 835 years, give or take, to read everything that looks interesting and that’s already been published, so one of you needs to start building that immortality machine.

Back to SFT. This year is starting off slowly but is rich in its SFT offerings. Case in point: French author Grégoire Courtois’s The Agents (tr. Rhonda Mullins), which came out in January. Described as “Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Tron, via The Office,” The Agents is indeed a bizarre dystopian story, with humans eating, sleeping, and “working” in highrise buildings that they can never leave (many have never been outside). Their bloody cubicle conflicts and distant machine masters seem to drain the agents’ humanity, until one small group of agents decides to try and take it back.

February offers us a new work in English by Dutch horror author Thomas Olde Heuvelt, of Hex fame. In Echo (tr. Moshe Gilula), Nick Grevers, a travel journalist and mountain climber, ventures into an uncharted area in the Swiss Alps with his climbing partner. Something grim and horrifying happens there, and when Gravers wakes up from a coma, he finds that not only was he badly injured and his partner is missing, but that something has invaded his soul—something terrible that he discovered on that lonely mountain peak.

Next, we have new Chinese and Japanese SFT in March, with an anthology edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang and a new novel by Yoko Tawada. The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation contains stories about dining out in the far reaches of the universe, finding immortality in the mountains, watching roses put on a performance of a Shakespeare play, and more. Published in English for the first time, these stories offer Anglophone readers a new window onto modern Chinese speculative fiction.

Tawada, who has brought us brilliant speculative fiction in both Japanese (The Emissary) and German (Memoirs of a Polar Bear), is out with Scattered All Over the Earth, (tr. Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani). Here, she imagines a Japan that has been figuratively (and in some ways literally) splintered and scattered across the globe. That nation, in the near-future, has vanished and its survivors are roaming climate refugees who search for others who can still remember how to speak Japanese. Roaming around Scandinavia and Western Europe, they encounter material pieces of their culture’s past and bond with one another. Compared to Alice in Wonderland and “a surreal Wind in the Willows,” Scattered is the first in an expected trilogy.

If you’re looking for short SFT published so far, look no further than Apex Magazine (Cristina Jurado’s “Lamia” and Yilin Fan’s “City Lights”), Clarkesworld (Gu Shi’s “No One at the Wild Dock”), and World Literature Today (Yuki Fuwa’s “Devour Me”).

The rest of the year promises some further wonderful SFT, including a trilogy by the one and only Shimon Adaf! Can you tell that I’m excited?

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to:

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

From the Editor

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

From the SFRA Review

Winter 2022

Ian Campbell
Editor, SFRA Review

Welcome to Volume 52 of the SFRA Review. We’re nearly as old as the Super Bowl and filled with more content. In this issue, we have the first half of our symposium on SF from Hungary, which contains articles and interviews; in addition, we have a wide selection of papers from the LSFRC conference held recently via the virtual meeting technology that I rather doubt will ever stop being the norm.

Technology doesn’t always flatten the curves of hierarchy and privilege: all I have to do to understand this is to compare my own Facebook feed to that of my World War II veteran father. How and why it doesn’t flatten these curves is increasingly the subject of twenty-first century SF: I look forward to works published in the immediate near future where the effect of simultaneous physical isolation and constant online companionship is estranged. For the very most part, I applaud the shift to virtual meetings, precisely because they flatten hierarchy and privilege.

We can hold the upcoming SFRA conference “in” Oslo, and not worry about the prohibitive costs of travel even for privileged, tenured scholars like me: now, it’s trivial for graduate students, independent scholars, visiting/adjunct faculty and even regular faculty who don’t have access to travel funds to add their perspectives to the discourse at conferences. Nothing can quite replace the collegiality of walking into a meeting room or the hotel bar and randomly encountering colleagues: those sorts of ad hoc discussions are the best and sometimes even productive. Nevertheless, on balance the shift has made the discourse around SF better—and more importantly, fairer.

Please see our CFP on sexual violence in SF: I very much hope you’ll consider contributing. I leave you with a photograph of my daughter from 2016, when I tried to troll her into thinking that the Noah’s Ark story was real. Not all SF is cognitively plausible, even within the world of the text.

From the President

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

From the SFRA Executive Committee

From the President

Gerry Canavan

This is the start of my last year as president, a term which has corresponded with an incredibly tumultuous time for the globe, much less our organization. Moving on will be bittersweet, but I’m very happy about what we’ve accomplished (especially under these circumstances!) and I’m looking forward to the coming year with a lot of optimism, especially at conference in Oslo, which is shaping up to be a simply incredible, totally unique event in the history of our organization, in all the best ways.

Over the coming months we will be populating some of the new positions we added in the last bylaw revision, so please watch out for more information on that front very soon.

I wanted to formally welcome Ida Yoshinaga and Jess FitzPatrick to their new roles as vice president and treasurer and thank Sonja Fritzsche and Hugh O’Connell one more time for all the hard work they put in the last three years. I also wanted to thank Carma Spence for the heroic work she has put in (and continues to put in) migrating the SFRA website to its new home. As always, if there’s something I can promote on social media, or some other way I can put the SFRA to work for you, please, reach out! I hope to see many of you in Orlando, and the rest in Oslo.

From the Vice President

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

From the SFRA Executive Committee

From the Vice President

Ida Yoshinaga

Greetings, SFRA–Hoping that your health and personal journeys thrive in the Year of the Tiger.
As vice president, I am looking forward to expanding my knowledge about the speculative and fantastical genres, as I meet with you in 2022. I hope to hear about your scholarship and artistry–so do not hesitate to be in touch, especially should I run into you (virtually or in person) at March’s ICFA or our annual summer meeting in Oslo! 

We just held SFRA’s first-of-2022 gathering of country representatives over Zoom, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how intellectually persistent and curious SFRA members have been (thus far!) during this third year of the global pandemic. Reps from Estonia (which will host a national SFRA conference in the next few years) and South Korea testified as to how the field is growing in their regions, while others from Europe, the U.S., and Latin America spoke of intriguing hybrid and online conferences on posthumanism, AI, materialism, weird narratives, spoiler studies (!), critical futures research, and affect theory. Many have been publishing on a slew of old-reliable SF subgenres (cyberpunk, utopian studies, cinematic/televisual spec fic, area/language studies) in all kinds of fresh, necessary, fascinating collections.

Everyone has been astonishingly generative amidst the spread of corona’s variants! And calls for a hopeful speculative arts, for comforting genre stories that inspire optimism and celebrate utopian communalism, have bloomed…though these have never quite been my jam. But what public-health historians are calling a mass-disabling event are giving at least some people pause to rethink anti-science ideologies. In the U.S. south (where I now reside), we are finally seeing people queue in long car lines for free COVID-19 testing. The hardcore dystopian inside me who has waited a whole life to experience the apocalypse—that films and pop culture of a 1970s childhood had once promised—is now giving way to a fresh variant. She does not bake sourdough, but she does dig into her family recipe file to re-make ancestral meals anew. If the world is ending soon, this is not what the post-apocalyptic playbook had laid out as the first step towards humanity’s inevitable return to its own decisive mistakes.

We will try to freshen SFRA with mindful, engaged conversations about how to diversify our membership ranks, to (further) globalize our conversations and research, and to live lives  vibrant and rich with community-centered imaginative arts. Why not share your ideas with us in this growling wildcat of a year!

Interview with Theodora Goss

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Interview with Theodora Goss

Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi

The interview was conducted in writing in the summer of 2021.

Guest Editors Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Theodora Goss: I was born in Budapest to Hungarian parents, but my mother left the country when I was still a child, taking me with her. First, we lived in Brussels, and then we immigrated to the United States, where I became an American citizen as a teenager. Unfortunately, I lost my Hungarian language—at that time, people believed that bilingual children would not become fully fluent in their second language, and my mother wanted us to be as American as possible. So, I have been relearning Hungarian as an adult. I expect that I will probably be studying it for the rest of my life! My father remained in Hungary and remarried—he is still a professor at the University of Debrecen. My two sisters from his second marriage grew up in Hungary but now live and work in London.

I grew up in Maryland and Virginia, and got a B.A. in English literature at the University of Virginia. I moved to Massachusetts to attend law school at Harvard. I practiced law for a few years, then went back to graduate school for a PhD in English and American Literature at Boston University, where I still teach. While I was in graduate school, I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, where I sold my first short story. I have been publishing steadily since. I write novels, short stories, essays, poetry—everything, really. After I graduated, I turned the research from my doctoral dissertation into the Athena Club trilogy, about a group of young women who also happen to be female monsters (Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein). They meet in late nineteenth-century London and help Sherlock Holmes solve a series of gruesome murders. The second book in the series takes them to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and eventually to Budapest, to battle the villainous Professor Van Helsing. Most recently, I wrote a collection of fairy tale-inspired short stories and poems called Snow White Learns Witchcraft and edited an anthology titled Medusa’s Daughters: Magic and Monstrosity from Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. I teach literature and writing in the Boston University Writing Program, but in the spring of 2022 I will be teaching at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest on a Fulbright Fellowship.

Guest Editors: How do you see the development of the fantastic in the past ten years? What do you think are the most important shifts in terms of how the fantastic is perceived and conceptualised?

Theodora Goss: I think there have been three significant shifts in our cultural perception of the fantastic. I would say these have taken place over the last twenty years—the past decade has seen an acceleration of these shifts, but they started some time before that. I saw them taking place while I was still in graduate school. The first is that genres of the fantastic have become wildly popular. This has had quite a lot to do with the success of the Harry Potter franchise, but there are so many examples of popular books and films that draw on fantasy elements—Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, etc. The success of these books allows other books to be written that may not capture the public imagination and rise up the bestseller lists in quite the same way, but that can be published and find their audience. So, we have a proliferation of fantastical fiction. The second is that genres of the fantastic have become much more respected as literature. They are taught in university classes, and scholars treat them with serious critical attention. This is partly because fantasy is being written by wonderful, thoughtful writers like Aimee Bender, Michael Cunningham, Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Ken Liu, Helen Oyeyemi, Karen Russell, Sofia Samatar—these are just a few examples that come to mind from my own syllabi, but there are so many more. And the dividing line between fantasy writers and writers of realistic fiction is not as rigid as it used to be, although “Literature” and “Science Fiction and Fantasy” are often still separated in the bookstores. Margaret Atwood goes on the Literature shelf and Ursula K. Le Guin goes on the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelf, even though they were doing similar things in The Penelopiad and Lavinia. But writers cross over more than they used to. The third shift is that fantasy is once more an important component of children’s literature. When I was growing up, the children’s fantasy I read was quite old—the Narnia books, the Oz books, E. Nesbit. There was a cultural assumption that children should be reading about the real world. But now we seem to be in another golden age of children’s fantasy. So really, the entire landscape has changed. That change started at least twenty years ago, but it has certainly reshaped how fantasy is published and perceived in the last ten years. I haven’t mentioned a fourth shift that I think is just beginning, which is that fantasy is becoming much more international. We see this in the popularity of the Hayao Miyazaki movies and the Witcher books, games, and television series. But I think that shift will accelerate significantly in the next ten years.

Guest Editors: As a Hungarian-American SFF writer, how do you incorporate and subvert the Hungarian fantastic into the themes and tropes of Anglo-American fantastic tradition? Do you find that engaging with elements of the Hungarian fantastic influences your writing or national identity?

Theodora Goss: I honestly don’t know because I think the elements of Hungarian fantasy are so deeply buried in my head that I’m not even sure what they are. What I mean is that I read and was told Hungarian fairy tales as a child, and then after my mother left Hungary and we moved to the United States, I read Kate Seredy’s The White Stag and Hungarian and other central European fairy tales in English. I still have an old copy of Magyar Fairy Tales by Nándor Pogány, as well as Hungarian classics like Sándor Petőfi’s János vitéz and Elek Benedek’s Ezüst mesekönyv. When I started relearning Hungarian as an adult, I read fairy tales again because I could more or less understand them. My mind was formed by these tales so long ago, and in such a fundamental way, that I can’t separate them from anything else I do. For the most part, I don’t consciously incorporate them—they’re just there. It’s like my use of English. I think I write standard American English, but once a reviewer said that my stories sounded as though they were in translation, and I think my writing is still inflected by having first spoken Hungarian and then French. I still cross my 7’s and z’s because that’s what I was taught in first grade, which I attended in Brussels, and my sentence structure is, in a sense, haunted by the Hungarian language. It’s not completely standard English. A Hungarian editor once told me that my stories were easier to translate—perhaps because of that buried memory. The one place where it’s conscious, perhaps, is in my stories about the imaginary country of Sylvania, which is located somewhere in Central Europe—but that’s also deeply influenced by Le Guin’s Orsinia stories. So many things have gone into how I write that I don’t know how to untangle them. What I do incorporate deliberately is Hungary itself—the reality of it. I did quite a lot of historical research on late nineteen-century Budapest for the second Athena Club novel, and I’ve written a number of stories set in Budapest or that feature Hungarian protagonists. As for my national identity, it’s complicated. I am both American and Hungarian, and I don’t think I can untangle those identities any more than I can untangle the influences on my writing. But my Americanness only goes back to when I first arrived in New York as a seven-year-old. My Hungarianness goes back much longer, as far back as I can trace the history of my family. When I am in Hungary, I feel that I am somehow at home, even as I recognize that I am traveling with two passports.

When I was young, Hungary itself was fantastical to me. It was a distant land that I could not get back to, with magical food and a half-remembered language. In a sense, it was not that different from Narnia—there were even lions (on the Lánchíd in Budapest)! I’m certain that’s one reason I write fantasy.

Guest Editors: In the field of Anglo-American SFF, generic boundaries have become increasingly porous and experimenting with different genre-bending practices has been encouraged and celebrated. You have edited and written for slipstream and interstitial anthologies, and your work has been associated with the New Weird as well. How do you think fantastic genres appear in Hungarian fantastic literature and culture? How do you think this might affect your own writing?

Theodora Goss: My interest in interstitial fiction came in part from reading European and Latin American literature in English translation as a teenager and at university. In high school, I read Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. At university, I read and studied writers such as Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende. Later, in graduate school, I read and taught Angela Carter. She was a wonderful surprise, because I was not used to that sort of boundary-crossing in English. When Delia Sherman and I edited the first volume of Interfictions in 2006, it felt as though we were doing something quite new and subversive. We were very pleased to include a Hungarian story in translation, “A Drop of Raspberry” by Csilla Kleinheincz. My impression is that the interest in interstitial, slipstream fiction developed around the same time in Hungary as in the United States. For example, Kelly Link was influential for fantasy writers like Kleinheincz, just as she was influential for American writers. That sort of boundary-crossing fiction is still the exception in the United States, and I believe the same thing is true in Hungary—what sells are books and films that rely on and often reinforce genre tropes. Readers still take a great deal of pleasure in wizards and vampires and spaceships. But you’re right that there is a greater market for experimentation, and many places where the boundaries can become porous. Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and its sequels are a good example in the United States. In Hungary, the annual anthology Az év science fiction és fantasynovellái (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories of the Year), published by Gabo Kiadó, gives writers a place to submit boundary-crossing, experimental fiction.

I think my own tendency to write in that interstitial space comes in part from being an immigrant, living between two national identities. Compared to my American friends, who were born and had grown up in the United States, my life seemed fantastical. Now that I regularly travel between Boston and Budapest, I feel as though I am always looking at the world from a double perspective. I often feel a sense of displacement, which I suppose one might link to the New Weird. But we are all living in the New Weird nowadays, aren’t we? Particularly now, in 2021, when so much of what we have been through recently feels disconnected from the lives we lived before. We are all suddenly living on a planet we thought we knew, but that has become strange to us—where we might be invaded by an alien life form.

But there is also something interstitial about Hungary itself, positioned as it has historically been between East and West, with fluctuating borders. It has been described that way in Hungarian literature, and of course in the Western cultural imagination as far back as Dracula. The Count is described as a Székely, a guardian of the border; however, like all vampires, he is an inveterate border-crosser. So perhaps that interstitial space is a natural fit for Hungarian fantasy.

Guest Editors: Anglo-American SFF 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 does the fantastic itself negotiate women’s experiences and social discussions around gender roles? How do you see the position of women’s SFF and YA in the field of the Hungarian fantastic?

Theodora Goss: I think the fantastic is about our world, just as much as realism is about our world. They are simply two ways of talking about our current reality. Realism reflects it, fantasy interrogates it and dreams up other possibilities. Realism asks “What is?” and fantasy asks, “What could be?” The fantastic has negotiated women’s experiences and roles as long as society itself has—in the late nineteenth century, with the rise of the New Women and the suffrage movement, we had fantastical representations of powerful female figures, such as Carmilla the vampire and Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard’s She. They were not all negative representations—we have good and bad and complicated female characters, like George MacDonald’s North Wind, Frank L. Baum’s Glinda, and C.S. Lewis’s White Witch. The concept of gender has itself been interrogated since at least Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but we could go back farther to Ozma of Oz, who spent a significant part of her life magically changed into the boy Tip. I think fantasy is continually in conversation with what is going on in the real world—it is always talking back to the culture, both affecting and affected by it. In terms of literature, we see this in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willows, in the writing of Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr., in the ways Le Guin’s Earthsea evolved over time. All of these writers responded to the social roles available for, and the cultural construction of, women. Perhaps the difference between realism and the fantastic, in this respect, is that fantasy literature and film have greater latitude in discussing and envisioning what could be, in both dystopian and utopian directions. On the one hand we have Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other a story like Seanan Maguire’s “Each to Each” in which women transformed into genetically modified “mermaids” by wealthy capitalist and the U.S. military create an underwater alternative to life on solid ground. They choose freedom over their programming. One important element of modern fantasy fiction, particularly for children, is the way it casually gives us heroines who are smart and capable, without making much of a deal about gender. Lyra Belacqua in the Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman and September in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series are two examples.

What I see in Hungary is women writers like Kleinheincz, Ágnes Gaura, Anita Moskát, and Mónika Rusvai, to give just a few examples, doing important, interesting work in the fantasy field. They often write from a feminist perspective, redefining both the fantastic and the role of women for our new century. The storyteller Csenge Zalka, who completed her PhD in the United States, collects Hungarian folk and fairy tales that often feature active, ambitious female protagonists. There is significant pushback against redefinition of gender roles in contemporary Hungarian politics, but one function of fantasy in society is to imagine new possibilities and futures—I think it’s doing that on both sides of the Atlantic.

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?

Theodora Goss: I think writers of the fantastic in Hungary are in a significantly more difficult situation than American writers. Most obviously, the market is much smaller—it’s almost impossible to make a living as a fantasy or science fiction writer in Hungary. Of course, books can make more in translation, but writers usually can’t afford to pay for translations themselves, so they have to rely on foreign publishers. Usually, only the best-known or most popular Hungarian writers are translated. There are three other structural constraints on Hungarian writers. First, the market for fantasy short stories is much smaller than in the United States. Short stories are often where writers experiment, because they are low-stakes: if something does not work, you can easily move on to the next story. Short stories are also an easier way to get your name out to readers—if they like your story, they might buy your novel. Second, there is no easy way to market your writing online, like Kindle Direct Publishing in the United States, where you can create a book and make it available through Amazon. This means one way of marketing your work to readers is not available in Hungary. Finally, the publishing system is structured around the publisher. The publisher may also function as editor, distributor, and bookstore. Most Hungarian writers do not need to go through the American system of getting an agent and publicizing not only their books, but also themselves, simply to get space on a bookstore shelf. This takes significant stress off Hungarian writers, but it also offers writers fewer ways to reach readers directly or make a business out of writing. Overall, I think the Hungarian publishing system makes it more difficult for fantasy writers, who are often in a marketing niche by nature of their genre.

There are two things I would like to see happen. The first is more publishing opportunities, particularly online, for Hungarian fantasy writers. The online environment means that we are living in one world—it should be possible for me to purchase Hungarian-language e-books on Amazon as easily as I can buy ebooks published in German. I also hope there will be more opportunities for translation in the future. Here I see hope in the final shift I identified above: fantasy is becoming much more international. If The Witcher can become an international sensation in translation, why not a work of Hungarian fantasy? There is certainly as rich a Hungarian tradition of folk and fairy tales to draw on. In terms of its place in the culture, my hope is that Hungarian fantasy will continue to gain popularity and respect in Hungary. It still does not have the respect given to realistic fiction. The second thing I would like to see is greater access to boundary-breaking, experimental English-language fantasy in Hungary. For example, Elizabeth Hand is one of the best American fantasy writers working today, but the only books of hers available in Hungarian are tie-in novels (for example, for the Star Wars franchise). Hungarian readers are missing out on her exquisite short stories or novels like Mortal Love. The English-language books available in Hungary tend to be bestsellers, so smaller but important literary works don’t make it across the linguistic border—I would love to see that change. If we can bring more English-language fantasy to Hungarian readers, and more Hungarian fantasy to English and American readers—well, that would be a wonderful cultural exchange.

I think none of us knows what the future will hold, and the last two years have certainly made me doubt my ability to prognosticate. But I can at least tell you what I would like to happen. I would like to see the Hungarian fantastic continue to draw on a rich Central European tradition, while growing bolder and more experimental in expressing the strangeness of the world we live in. I would like to see it engage contemporary issues while remaining its wonderful, fantastical self. As a genre, the fantastic expresses what it feels like to live in our world today—often more accurately than literary realism. It should be valued for what it can show us of contemporary society and the futures it can dream up. I would like to see more respect for fantasy as a genre within Hungary, and more attention to the Hungarian fantastic outside of Hungary. I suppose in the end it’s up to us, as writers and scholars, to make that happen.

Interview with Bogi Takács

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Interview with Bogi Takács

Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi

Bogi Takács (e/em/eir/emself or they pronouns) is a Hungarian Jewish agender intersex author, critic, and scholar. Bogi lives in Kansas with eir spouse RB Lemberg and their kid Mati. Bogi has won the Lambda and Hugo awards, and has been a finalist for other SFF awards, including the Hexa award for advocates of Hungarian SFF. Bogi has academic book chapters forthcoming about Hungarian SFF in Lingua Cosmica II and in an anthology on SF in translation edited by Ian Campbell. Bogi’s debut short story collection, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation, was published by Lethe.

The interview was conducted in writing in the summer of 2021.

Guest Editors Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi: You won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer category in 2020, and have been nominated several times. Your reviews, essays, and critical work are undoubtedly contributing to shaping the reception of the fantastic within and across borders. How do you see the development of Hungarian fantastic over the past ten years? What aspects do you consider the strengths of the fantastic in Hungarian literature and culture?

Bogi Takács: I’ve seen a lot of growth in Hungarian SFF in the past decade, across all aspects of community development. There are more publications, more conversations; speculative short stories are having a revival too… I think part of it is that social media has both allowed fans to organize better, and publishers to get the word out about their offerings—not just current and upcoming titles, but also opportunities like calls for submissions. SFF is also becoming more integrated into general discourse about literature.

I think SFF allows a unique way of commenting on, and engaging with, Hungarian culture. This was true before the fall of the Iron Curtain, when speculative works were less likely to be censored and/or banned due to the strong Communist Party connections of Péter Kuczka, chief editor of multiple SFF venues; and I think it remains true now, in other ways. The speculative readership in Hungary appreciates and rewards an engagement with current issues, and at the same time, there are probably different expectations placed upon SFF writers compared to non-genre writers; the entire structure of genre publishing is different from non-genre. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just pointing out that these aspects lead to varying outcomes.

Guest editors: How does the Hungarian fantastic incorporate and/or subvert the themes and tropes of Anglo-American fantastic tradition? How does uniquely Hungarian storytelling appear in the Hungarian fantastic, and how does the fantastic as a mode itself aid and amplify the Hungarian perspective? How does writing in both English and Hungarian and for different audiences affect your own writing and take on the fantastic?

Bogi Takács: I think Hungary is in a unique situation where Hungarian literature has both been affected by Euro-Western (more than Anglo-Western) traditions and Russian-Slavic ones, while being conducted in a language that is not Slavic or indeed Indo-European at all. So, there is this tension between being exposed to multiple different traditions and yet being in a somewhat insular position, having fewer opportunities to influence other literatures. Further, Hungarian has no mutual intelligibility with any other language, even with languages related to it. None of this is specific to SFF, but these aspects of Hungarian literature definitely affect SFF, too.

As for the second set of questions, I actually haven’t written any original speculative work in Hungarian for over a decade; I translated some of my English-language stories (one of them I also lightly revised), and Csilla Kleinheincz also translated one. I really enjoy her writing—I think her recently concluded fantasy trilogy Ólomerdő [Leaden Forest] was spectacular—and it’s been an honor to be translated by her. I also translated one of her stories from Hungarian to English this year, and it’s forthcoming in mermaids monthly edited by Julia Rios. Back to Hungarian: I wrote a non-speculative flash piece commissioned by a newspaper last year, but I wouldn’t say I write a lot in Hungarian these days. I do try to read widely both in Hungarian and in English.

I generally write for marginalized people even if audience specifics differ in each and every case. This means I also write for myself!

Guest Editors: In the field of Anglo-American SFF 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?

Bogi Takács: I think this is also true of Hungarian SFF, and one trend that’s even more marked compared to Anglo SFF is the newfound popularity of weird fiction. There’s also been a similar tendency in Finnish SFF, and quite a few of those works are in fact available in Hungarian translation, but mostly published in non-SFF contexts; Hungarian and Finnish weird have developed in parallel and haven’t interacted all that much (yet?).

Genre-bending has always been near to my heart, but that’s because I’ve long been a fan of offbeat, mind-bending science fantasy with space magic; it’s not something I’d classify as particularly new. In my own writing I like to put a bit of a twist on it and combine it with strictly science-based elements; there’s no rule that science fantasy can’t be heavy on the science! Except our various unstated assumptions about how science must look like, what “hard science fiction” must look like, what are acceptable and unacceptable elements in such a story, and so on…

Cosmic horror is enjoying a newfound popularity in Hungary, intertwined with the new weird; as a reader I especially appreciate the work of Balázs Farkas and Attila Veres.

Guest editors: Anglo-American SFF has become the site and source of exploring the lived experiences of gender fluidity and neurodiversity—themes your own writing engages with sensitively and imaginatively. These conversations seem to have been lacking or entirely missing in the context of Hungarian SFF. How do you think different gendered and disabled identities appear in more recent Hungarian fantastic literature and culture, and how the fantastic can facilitate inclusive representation?

Bogi Takács: I don’t think these themes are missing from Hungarian SFF; there is a discovery problem, but not an existence problem. There are fewer conversations because people find it harder to locate these titles, and also there are just fewer conversations overall because there aren’t that many Hungarian speakers out there. (Though the percentage of Hungarian speakers who read SFF is proportionately probably higher than among English speakers; due at least in part to the above-mentioned historical context that in the Communist regime, SFF was more likely to contain politically subversive elements.)

Just a few recent examples I enjoyed reading: Anita Moskát’s novel Irha és bőr [Hide and Skin] deals with intersex themes among others, a rarity even in English-language SFF, especially when it comes to thoughtful portrayals; Tamás Rojik’s ongoing YA postapocalyptic/climate fiction series Szárazság [Drought] has a protagonist with developmental language disorder, again a topic I haven’t seen all that much in English either. The long-running Csodaidők [Times of Wonder] far-future science fiction series by Etelka Görgey, writing as Raana Raas (with four volumes, and so far three volumes in a followup series Időcsodák, [Wonders of Time] has been the first time many Hungarian readers saw queer themes and heterosexist discrimination appear in fiction altogether, at least if the online reviews are any indication! This same series also deals with themes of physical and mental illness, especially as a consequence of military conflict, in depth. I’m just scraping the surface here and mentioning some of my favorites, but I could go on for a while.

I’ve been jurying for the Zsoldos award and I think most current SFF novels in Hungary attempt to say at least something about gender, and also often LGBTQIA+ aspects, if only tangentially. I can’t say I always like what these works end up saying—I’ve certainly seen my share of ham-fisted attempts at inclusion that backfired, similarly to English-language SFF. I don’t think I need to name works here, I’m sure everyone can recognize the phenomenon. What I’m getting at here is that this is a topic that’s definitely part of writers’ thematic awareness and repertoire. In fact, probably more so than in the current mainstream of Hungarian non-genre literature. Many people have noticed and discussed this phenomenon with respect to migration as a theme, when SFF seemed to react overall faster to current events than Hungarian literature as a whole; but I think it also applies to gender and/or queerness. (I’m not sure whether I would highlight gender fluidity in particular, that’s a very specific form of gender expression I myself also don’t share.)

This relative responsiveness doesn’t necessarily mean increased inclusion, both on the level of narratives and on the level of actual people; I’d discuss the two separately. It seems to me that people are often allowed and even expected to explore LGBTQIA+ topics as something of political interest, but queer writers are not necessarily welcome in the field.

I do need to note something else as well. I think that themes related to ethnic and/or racial minority groups are in fact much less common in current Hungarian SFF than either gender or disability themes; with the possible exception of migration. I often get the impression that majority, ethnic Hungarian authors deliberately avoid saying anything about these groups; this is not specific to SFF. Something that endlessly frustrates me is when a writer sets a work in inner-city Budapest, but there are somehow no Romani or Jewish characters. Autochthonous minority groups are especially avoided, doubly so if racialized; it is probably easier to come across American racialized characters in Hungarian narratives than Hungarian racialized characters. (While noting that racialized autochthonous minorities do not even tend to appear in a ‘safely foreign’ context in Hungarian stories. I’d also note here that the targets of racialization are sometimes different in Hungary than in Anglo-Western settings, though the mechanisms are remarkably similar.) I get an impression that authors often make these choices out of a desire to avoid causing offense locally, while still projecting some form of inclusion; but erasure is also a choice. These kinds of obvious lacunae also create an impression of an unspoken genocide—where did the people go in this and that particular fictional continuity? I’m going to be extremely blunt: these works always make me think, did my former neighborhood end up gentrifying in this setting, or were the people straight-up murdered; it clearly wouldn’t be the first time in living memory. These scars carry across generations, and SFF tends to shy away from tackling them. To be honest, English-language SFF does too; when I wrote a story in English about third-generation Jewish Holocaust survivors in Budapest, it was the hardest sale of my entire writing career.

The flipside of the coin of these themes that are relatively—though not entirely—absent from Hungarian SFF is that ethnic and/or racial minority authors are not exactly welcomed in Hungarian SFF either, though there are some (I mentioned Csilla Kleinheincz above, who is Vietnamese Hungarian), and a new generation of second-generation immigrant authors like Omar Sayfo or Kitty Bich Thuy Ta have also begun to publish SFF in the past few years.

I don’t know of any first-generation immigrant authors who published SFF; Palestinian SFF author Anwar Hamed had a novel in Hungarian, the excellent historical-autobiographic A fájdalom kövei [The Rocks of Pain] about life in Palestine and anti-occupation activism, but this book was not speculative at all. He currently lives in the UK and writes in English; his speculative writing can be found in the anthology Palestine+100 among others. 

I discussed in various interviews that I personally knew of several minority authors in my generation who had negative, exclusionary experiences in Hungarian SFF communities—e.g., in an interview in Lightspeed with Arley Sorg I mentioned queer authors in particular, but this also applies to Romani and Jewish authors, and all sorts of marginalized groups. Many people have left SFF altogether, in my generation several of them also left the country. Every time I mention this in an interview, more young writers message me on social media, telling me of similar experiences; so, this phenomenon is sadly still ongoing and there is still plenty of work to do, despite improvements. Of course, the state of SFF is only a reflection of the state of the country. I’m not claiming that people leave because of SFF, I don’t think that happens? But rather that this is one facet of larger patterns of systemic discrimination. (All the more painful because SFF has an image of inclusivity and progressiveness, at least.)

Guest Editors: How do you see the development of fan communities in and out of Hungary? How do they shape and reflect changes the fantastic is going through?

Bogi Takács: I’m not in Hungary, so I’m not the best person to answer the first half of the question! But I can comment on what I see online.

A lot of Hungarian SFF fandom discussions currently happen on Facebook; I’d especially highlight F.I.O.K. moderated by Zoltán Szujó and Szabolcs Waldmann. I’m not a heavy Facebook user, but I do try to keep my eye on goings-on and participate as much as I can. I also feel there have been an increasing number of events in the past few years, COVID notwithstanding. Something that I think is especially great to see is the ever-increasing openness toward discussing speculative work in non-genre literary spaces, also including book events. For example, Élet és Irodalom [Life and Literature], the major Hungarian literary weekly, regularly organizes roundtables where four critics discuss a recent work and then the discussion is printed in the journal; the next event upcoming this October will feature Katalin Baráth’s novel Afázia [Aphasia], a far-future science fiction novel engaging with core genre themes and released by a genre publisher.

While the usual stereotypes about SFF exist in Hungarian literary circles similarly to English-language ones, it was my impression growing up that both Hungarian readers and writers of “realistic” fiction were relatively more open toward the speculative compared to many other countries. This was possibly at least in part due to the fact that I mentioned above that SFF was less censored during the Communist era than non-genre fiction, and a certain amount of translated magical-realist classics could only be printed as SFF. (SF studies scholar Anikó Sohár has plenty of work on this topic in English, and I also have some forthcoming articles.) But in the turbulent 1990s after the regime change, I feel speculative and realistic fiction grew away from each other; the gap is now closing again. There has also been a possibly unprecedented amount of academic speculative fiction studies activity from research groups at multiple Hungarian universities; there are so many people involved with these efforts that I can’t even begin to list them. Margit S. Sárdi was one of the scholars who started these efforts decades ago, and by now they’ve borne not only fruit, but multiple other trees, if I can extend the metaphor. Many of these scholars also increasingly reach out to the general public to share their findings; literary publisher Athenaeum has published several volumes of essays on SFF Studies topics for a general readership, most recently an anthology edited by Ildikó Limpár focusing on monsters in popular culture. This publisher also has an ongoing series where scholars of various disciplines engage with SFF media—from political science to education research.

Something very different that hopefully illustrates the sheer range of new approaches within Hungarian SFF: fan communities now have their own investigative journalism, brought to us by Bence Pintér, who is a political journalist also active in SFF and not one to back down from heated topics, including financial misconduct and rights violations by publishers. His work is sometimes decried as something that stirs up controversy for its own sake, but I think that’s deeply unfair. Bence has also done a lot for the visibility of Hungarian SFF both within Hungary and abroad, and the webzine and newsletter Spekulatív Zóna [Speculative Zone] he’s running together with Péter Hetei have been consistently one of my must-reads. I would like to ask people to not only notice the occasional controversy, but also the immense amount of labor that goes into these projects day after day. 

Guest Editors: Considering current trends in the production and consumption of fantastic literature and media, how is Hungarian fantastic likely to change in the future? What new directions do you think are possible?

Bogi Takács: I think the best moments happen when I’m surprised, and actively guessing at future trends would counteract the potential surprise! For example, and to pick something that came from non-genre publishing: the poetry collection Lomboldal [roughly ‘Foliageside’] by Mátyás Sirokai was recommended to me in an SFF context—I’m no longer certain who recommended it; possibly Anita Moskát in F.I.O.K.?—and I found it both unexpected and fascinating, with its approach to identifying with plant life and merging with plant consciousness.

I don’t think anything is impossible that would be impossible in other SFF traditions either; I don’t consider Hungarian SFF a lesser-than. There are many works with layers of meaning that have only been possible to express in Hungarian SFF; for example, I don’t think the recently passed András Gáspár’s Kiálts farkast [Cry Wolf] and its sequel Két életem, egy halálom [My Two Lives, My One Death] could have been possible without the milieu of post-Communist Hungarian society in the 1990s. 

One other development I’d like to note is that the field of publishers is also widening, and both independent and self-publishing are also becoming stronger. For an example of the former, I just read the Celtic historical fantasy novel Druidaösvény [Druids’ Path] by Bíborka Farkas, the first release by startup woman-owned publisher Pergamen Libro, and I’m looking forward to its upcoming sequel. This book was completely unexpected to me and highly intriguing in its approach to religion and sacrifice. The publisher reached out and sent me a copy—which is a lot less common in Hungary than in Western countries—and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. I was happy to see the publisher awarded an EU grant for small business development, and I hope this means many more books to come, and I’m also glad that small presses can and do also avail themselves of these resources.

I didn’t talk much about the latest developments in Hungarian awards, but I’m glad to see that there are now at least three different awards I’m aware of, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to jury for the Zsoldos award, for the third year now.

I’d also like to mention that in great measure I’m able to keep up with new developments in Hungarian SFF, and to do historical research related to the same, thanks to my mom and my brother—both avid readers of SFF themselves—who’ve gone to considerable lengths to send me the print books I am interested in from Hungary. I’m grateful to them too.

Hungarian Rhapsodies: A Survey of the Alternate Histories of an Isolated Literary Corpus

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Hungarian Rhapsodies: A Survey of the Alternate Histories of an Isolated Literary Corpus

Ádám Gerencsér


It is oft repeated that humankind is growing into a global village, and that seems certainly true for speculative fiction. We may pick up translated works from regions otherwise unfamiliar to us, but easily disregard their exotic origin, for the tropes of science fiction and fantasy therein will likely be of universal appeal. Science fiction, in particular, tends to be cosmopolitan in outlook and converge around contemporary or future-oriented concerns that are instantly recognizable to readers across the world. But what if a sub-genre were to buck this trend towards homogenisation and prove to be a wellspring of narrative diversity? Which brings us to the central premise of uchronia: “what if.” Alternat(iv)e history, as it is better known, remains much more closely tied to national psyche and historical memory, thus appealing to familiarity with a local body of knowledge within an ethno-cultural setting which the author presumably shares with the reader. Within this context, Hungarian alternate history provides an interesting case study into the speculative preoccupations of a relatively isolated cultural topography. Examining the uchronia dreamt up by practitioners of a linguistically insular body of literature may help to shed fresh light on paths less frequently trodden in the dominant English mainstream of the sub-genre.

Alternate History à la hongroise?

Hungarian attempts to define the nation’s identity in terms other than language made the search for its place in history a recurring theme in all literary genres. The second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are generally considered a golden age of Hungarian narrative literature, a period that gave rise to several masterworks of early SF and future history (e.g., by Frigyes Karinthy and Mór Jókai, respectively). Apart from a few tentative examples in short prose form, however, works of genuine alternate history did not emerge until the second half of the twentieth century. The sub-genre developed throughout the 1900s against a backdrop of a cultivated sense of insularity within the Magyar microcosm surrounded by unrelated languages and hostile political entities, and subsequently as part of speculative literature being one of the few available outlets of counter-culture seeking to skirt the censorship prevalent in Soviet-occupied Hungary. This led to uchronia arising as a form of patriotic literary introspection, enticing readers with visions of how history could (or ‘should’) have turned out for the better.

While the uchronic sub-genre itself is rarely the subject of academic discourse, the very existence of a Hungarian ethnocultural island in a sea of Indo-Europeans is at times perceived to be akin to the setting of an alternate history scenario. As historian Ferenc Glatz puts it in István Szakály’s 2001 documentary 1000 évről 100 percben [Across 1000 Years In 100 Minutes], Hungary lost every war over the past three centuries and yet it still exists: What is that if not an unlikely success story?

Historiography (the writing of history) is, among other things, also about claiming ownership over the historical narrative, particularly in societies where one’s interpretation of the past actively informs their political allegiances. Alternate history, then, certainly in a Hungarian context, is a means of challenging ‘mainstream’ (commonly accepted) historical narratives by imagining that familiar turning points could have had radically different outcomes or by committing cultural sacrilege through the injection of satirical melodrama into previously hallowed historiographic subjects. As János M. Rainer puts it in his essay Mi lehetett volna, ha…? [What could have been, if…?], the resilience of “communicative memory” is a reason for the ongoing popularity of alternate histories: history remains “the terrain onto which political forces seek to map their identities,” and use the debates of the present day to “offer historical closure for their voters in a manner they consider most beneficial to their respective cause” (Cserna-Szabó, 2016, 228). [1] Alternate history, in this sense, is therefore a form of applied hindsight, often tinted with a blend of melancholia and ideology.

The Dawn of Alternate Hungarys

The sub-genre itself may be further subdivided by themes, but also by the temporal mechanisms whereby the author introduces the alteration. Therefore, before addressing the historical themes themselves, it is interesting to note that according to the narrative taxonomy, almost all Hungarian alternate histories fall into either of the two categories of pure uchronia or time-travel alteration. [2] In the former, a past event unfolds differently from the reader’s historical continuum, but for the purposes of the fictional universe and its inhabitants, their timeline is the only real one (as opposed to multiverse fiction). In the latter, our consensus reality may be the baseline, but a significant change is introduced by means of time travel, and the story explores the branching paths thus established.

The earliest example in Hungarian literature that we can consider uchronia intimates no interference by time travellers, but features another form of alternate science: alchemy. Két Hajó [The Two Ships] by Frigyes Karinthy, published in 1915, describes the point of departure as follows: in 1492, Columbus agrees to a wager with the mystic Synesius, and instead of Christian missionaries, he takes alchemists on his voyage to the New World. In this proto-uchronia, however, while the voyage itself is narrated, the consequences are merely hinted at in passing. Incidentally, this early example was also odd in its cosmopolitan focus—with the tragic consequences of World War I and Hungary’s subsequent territorial division and economic impoverishment, the country’s writers soon turned inwards to past glories and missed opportunities closer to home. Thereafter, the main themes covered by the emerging corpus of Hungarian uchronia ranged from the arcana of medieval and religious history (including the Reformation and Islamic Conquest), to alternate outcomes of the 1848 Spring of Nations, the World Wars, and the Cold War.

During this process of accumulation, the Hungarian alternate history sub-genre accomplished its arguably most notable ‘achievement’: it brought forth the world’s earliest known example of a novel based on the premise of an Axis victory in World War II, which can be properly considered alternate history. [3] László Gáspár’s Mi, I. Adolf [We, Adolf the First] is undeservedly obscure. The novel fits into a long tradition whereby the amount of attention received by a work often stands in no direct relation to its literary merit. Previously unreviewed by Western philology, Éric B. Henriet estimated in 2004 that this was likely the earliest ‘Hitler wins’ story (205), though he was unable to quote it or provide a full reference. The novel is remarkable not only because of its genre pioneer status, but also for its stylistic choices. If one were pressed to draw parallels, Olaf Stapledon’s seminal masterpiece Starmaker (1937) would come to mind, but with a healthy dose of satire reminiscent of Karel Čapek’s Válka s Mloky [War with the Newts] (1936). Dialogues are secondary, and where they appear, take the form of transcripts of official proceedings, quotes attributed to famous personalities, or long, descriptive exposés. Thus, world-building (or, in this case, constructing the intricate political, geostrategic and technological details of this alternate timeline) takes centre stage. The novel itself follows the course of a much longer and even more devastating World War II which carries on with varying intensity (including an intermittent period of ‘Cold War,’ another first use of a trope which has since become commonplace in alternate history, c.f. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) until March 1965, culminating in a thermonuclear exchange which destroys Berlin and indirectly leads to Adolf Hitler’s death. [4]

The original edition was published in November 1945, under forbiddingly challenging circumstances amidst the ruins of the Hungarian capital. Given the noticeable number of spelling mistakes (corrected in later print runs) and the author’s apparent familiarity with the effects of urban warfare (the 100-day Soviet siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944), and the atomic bombs, it is very likely that the manuscript was completed in the summer and autumn of 1945, and rushed to press as soon as printing capacity was available. It remains a mystery whether the author (or his publisher) was aware of the truly pioneering nature of his work.

The Threefold Path of Hungarian Uchronia

In the post-war decades, which we might call the Modern Era of Hungarian publishing, with large, state-owned (or state-sanctioned) printing houses and popular, annual book fairs providing a steady stream of new titles, alternate histories start to appear on a more regular basis. These take the form of both novels and short stories, the latter particularly in journals such as Galaktika, the leading Hungarian speculative magazine at the time. [5] Allowing for a measure of abstraction, uchronia of the Modern Era tend to follow one of the following three common narrative approaches:

‘Serious’ alternate history

At the ‘academic’ end of alternate history that still falls within the realm of fiction, works in this category explore the consequences of major historical departure points, not for satirical nor purely narrative reasons, but as an earnest thought experiment, with story or plot development, if any, being purely secondary. The most notable Hungarian-language example of ‘serious’ alternate history in epistolary form was a fictional essay written around the 1960s—in prison. Hungarian politician and academic István Bibó was held by the Socialist regime in the Vác penitentiary for political crimes, particularly his role in the 1956 Uprising. The memorandum in question, which was only published posthumously in 1990 after the abolition of Soviet censorship, purports to summarize a debate between the Canon of Vác and a bishop set in an alternate timeline wherein the Roman Catholic church managed to reconcile its internal differences in the sixteenth century and thus avoided the schism of the Reformation.

In a couple of brief pages, the essay then scales a dizzying landscape of historical, philosophical, and social ideas that shape a Central Europe radically different from (and, certainly from the author’s perspective, more liveable than) the reality of the 1960s. Brimming with delicious irony and duplicitous references (what today one would call ‘Easter eggs’), from the Communist Manifesto turning into a Papal Encyclical to a Hungarian constitutional monarchy ruled by a branch of the Polish Catholic dynasty, Bibó’s work even provides a sort of meta-definition of uchronia itself, before concluding with a (theologically) devastating twist.

National self-irony

Perhaps the most prevalent form by volume of publications, satirical alternative history attempts to draw attention to the vicissitudes of past or present circumstances while ‘taking the edge off’ through enveloping its message in an oft melancholy, yet ultimately ironic tone. This can often be seen as the least confrontational manner in which to engage critically with events in the more recent past, which may be inextricably linked to personal tragedies in the families of many readers. [6] A prime example of this gently ironic approach is Csaba Gábor Trenka’s Egyenlítői Magyar Afrika [Hungarian Equatorial Africa] published in 1988. Narrated in the form of a retrospective diary, the author recounts the narrator’s adolescence and adult career as a lowly government official raised and employed in a forlorn Central African colony allocated to Hungary by a German Reich victorious in World War II. Hungary, a landlocked state with little previous naval or colonial experience, is (at times comically) exposed as a half-hearted administrator of an overseas territory larger than its home provinces. Readers at the time were unlikely to miss the irony pervading the novel, as a thinly veiled criticism of the ostensibly benevolent, yet blatantly incompetent and counterproductive Socialist regime forced onto Hungary by its Soviet occupiers throughout the author’s life up to the publication of his novel.

Colonial literature is almost entirely absent in the Hungarian literary corpus, yet there is little evidence of the author ‘borrowing’ from Western European models. Rather, the distinct self-irony of Eastern European dissident voices from the era of the Iron Curtain is transplanted into an exotic, yet familiar environment, where one-party rule allocates favours and scarce resources on the basis of party loyalty as well as social and ethnic classes. It is interesting to note that the same author explores another fairly unusual historical scenario in a much more recent novel: Place Rimbaud (2013) embeds Hungary in a Europe where France is both politically and culturally dominant after its victory in the Napoleonic Wars. On account of its recourse to magic and somewhat implausible ‘deus ex machina’ elements, one could arguably include the novel with the earliest point of departure in this category as well: Ezüst félhold blues [Silver Crescent Blues] (1990) by András Gáspár (no relation to László Gáspár). In the first century BC, tectonic plate movements open up a permanent body of water between Africa and the Middle East. With the direct land connection between Egypt and the Holy Land thus removed, the direction of the main thrust of Islam’s early expansion takes a different direction and Muslim conquest arrives earlier in Eastern Europe than in our timeline. Long centuries of occupation and the successful assimilation of the Balkans lead to twentieth-century Hungary being a firmly integrated part of the Islamic world, with Buda-Pest as its Western-most outpost.

At the other end of the spectrum, stories and novels with the most recent point of departure are those where the Socialist regime never falls—and these inevitably tend to include ironic elements. One such endeavour at novel length is Zoltán László’s Hiperballada [Hyper Ballad] first published in 1998, and in reworked forms in 2005 and 2011, where the historical timeline follows real-world events until the 1960s, but thereafter imagines a Soviet Union which undertakes the necessary reforms to ensure its lead in the technological space race. Therefore, its satellites, such as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, remain in power well into the twenty-first century.

Consolation literature

Although rarely played ‘straight,’ a third strand of uchronia attempts to offer comfort and compensation, at least in imaginary form, for perceived historical slights or calamities. Such stories, due to their tendency to entice and titillate readers with particularly strong patriotic leanings, often choose to eschew abstractions and opt for a relatively uncomplicated style with a straight-forward narrative. Among such works, the best-selling novel is Bence Pintér and Máté Pintér’s A szivarhajó utolsó útja [The Airship’s Last Journey] (2012). The novel conjures up a Golden Age of political prowess and economic might following Hungary’s counterfactual victory in its War of Independence (1848–49) to leave the Austrian Empire. The events of the book are set two generations later, in the “Danube Confederation,” a federal republic founded by Lajos Kossuth (the ill-fated leader of Hungary’s nineteenth-century revolution). The story itself employs the tropes of conventional spy thrillers, here centred around the pursuit of secret military plans for building a fleet of armed airships.

Aimed at a younger readership, the adventurous plot is nonetheless punctuated with fictional newspaper reports and quotes from in-universe history books to build an alternate geopolitical landscape consistently upbeat about Hungary’s prospects in this ‘better timeline.’ A map included in the print edition shows the territory of the Confederation stretching from Bavaria to the Black Sea, and one of the quotes in the book describes the state as having been richly endowed with resources and one of the fastest developing economies in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, strong enough to embark on an attempt to colonise Egypt. These clearly address many of the ‘pain-points’ of Hungarians who tend to be dissatisfied with the historical achievements of the country when compared to its Western European cousins.

Latest Development: Alternate History Moves into the Mainstream

In recent years, the most significant development in the sub-genre’s Hungarian field is the public success and critical acclaim garnered by two alternate history anthologies which had finally put this arcane creative niche firmly on the literary map. The first of the two was published in 2016 by Cser Kiadó under the title A Másik Forradalom – Alternatív Ötvenhat [The Other Revolution – Alternative ’56]. Its appearance was timed to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising against the socialist dictatorship imposed by the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World War II. While the anthology included a wide range of approaches and angles, and about half the stories therein would rather fall in the categories of secret histories, period parodies, magical realism, and time-travel tales, the themed volume nonetheless contained noteworthy contributions to the alternate history genre.

For instance, Tibor Bödőcs’s pastiche with the rather complex title of Márai Sándor: Napló – részletek – (Részlet) [Sándor Márai: Diary Excerpts – An excerpt], falls into the epistolary sub-genre. The famous emigré author Márai exercises his biting social critique not in self-imposed Italian and American exile, but in a Hungary ‘liberated’ by the Western Allies and inundated with the vicissitudes of Capitalist consumerism. In Foxtrott, György Dragomán imagines the victory of the 1956 Uprising ensured by the simultaneous rising of ‘forest brothers’ and criminal gangs hiding out in the Carpathian Mountains, whose insurrection hinders the counter-attack of the Soviet war machine. In a particularly interesting piece, Forradalmi Naptár [Revolutionary Calendar], Viktor Horváth offers a chronological account, broken down by calendar days, of the 1956 Uprising. While the revolution is ultimately defeated, it comes about through the Red Army mobilizing indentured people of colour against the indigenous Magyar population, thus the reader eventually pieces together that a major point of historical alteration must have occurred much earlier, since Hungarian society is portrayed as being stratified along class distinctions and racial lines reminiscent of nineteenth-century America—thus in effect constituting a work of demographic uchronia.

The publishing house timed its second anthology for the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon, which led to the loss of up to two-thirds of Hungary’s territory and population, and became the cornerstone of Hungarian historical grievances for a century. Including historical studies and uchronic fiction from the crème of Hungarian speculative authors, the 2020 anthology sets the tone with its title Nézzünk bizakodva a múltba! [Let Us Hope For A Better Past!]. The volume’s stories range from straight-forward consolation literature to metaphysically challenging pieces, like Sándor Szélesi’s A volt-kávéfolt [The Ex-coffee Stain], which uses the negotiation of the post-war order as the backdrop of its extrapolation of higher forces taking the reins of human history.

In Expanzió [Expansion] by László Csabai, the insurgents who declare a “Hungarian People’s Republic” in 1919 receive military support from Lenin’s nascent Soviet Union, which intervenes in the Carpathian basin despite still fighting its own civil war in Russia. The implied result hinted at in the story is an enduring radical socialist state in Central-Eastern Europe allied to the USSR, decades before the start of the Cold War in real history. By stark contrast, in Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s Szívek közönye [The Indifference of Hearts], the aging members of a Hungarian urban resistance group reluctantly continue a low-intensity insurrection against the governments of neighbouring countries amongst whom the entirety of Hungary’s territory was divided post-World War I. Yet positive alterations are far from absent. Szani tévedése [Szani’s Mistake] by László Imre Horváth is akin to uchronia wrapped within another ambiguous alternate history scenario, wherein Miklós Radnóti (a prominent poet murdered by National Socialists in the closing months of World War II) becomes prime minister and the persecution of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust haunts only the dreams of the eponymous character. Both levity as well as consolation are offered by III. Péter király szövegírója [King Peter III’s Speech Writer] by Zsolt Kácsor, one of the highlights of the anthology. The epistolary piece, heavily laden with historical irony, imagines Péter Eszterházy (a postmodern author of aristocratic lineage) as king of Hungary in the 1970s. The tale itself takes the form of the royal speech writer’s resignation letter, setting out the absurdity of King Péter’s intention to publish a piece of alternate history that would detail the timeline as it came to pass in reality, complete with the abolition of the monarchy and the country’s long Soviet occupation.

By gathering some of Hungary’s best-selling authors, the above two volumes have almost single-handedly propelled the alternate history genre into the limelight. The establishment of uchronic writing within the literary mainstream was confirmed by the prominent reception and even anticipation of the second anthology by the Hungarian literary press, from Élet és Irodalom to Magyar Hang, from Népszava to Magyar Narancs. [7] In this context, it is worth noting that ancillary sub-genres such as secret histories are thriving, too, a prime practitioner of which is Sándor Szélesi, one of the most widely read contemporary Hungarian SF authors. In his explicitly satirical 2016 novel co-authored with László Erdős, Sztálin aki egyszer megmentette a világot [Stalin Who Once Saved The World], the infamous Soviet leader survives into the 1980s and shapes the history of the Cold War from behind the scenes. Thus, the novel navigates the slipstream between alternate history proper and secret history, with the overt intention to keep the reader guessing which of the sprawling list of personae are historical and which are imaginary, along with the cultural references to places, events, even signature dishes of a restaurant most Hungarian readers would be familiar with (the Gundel in Budapest).

To Be Continued . . .

As we have seen, alternate history appears to meet different needs or demands in a relatively small, isolated literary corpus, as compared to large languages that have at some point played a dominant role on the world stage. In Hungarian literature, the uchronic niche serves a threefold purpose: (a) as a means for seriously exploring what might have been; (b) as a vehicle for satirical or melancholy introspection, and (c) as a source of bitter-sweet consolation. Surveys of the alternate histories of other rarely treated literary corpora might reveal similar tendencies, which are however tempered by different national circumstances. This is the case for Romania, for instance, whose territorial gains in the twentieth century’s two great wars left its literature with different issues to deal with as compared to Hungary’s experience of defeat and crippling losses of land, population and status. [8] Of similar interest would be cross-referencing the alternate histories of ‘dominant’ versus ‘isolated’ corpora with uchronia focussing on nations and states that aren’t merely diminished in importance, but have ceased to exist altogether as geopolitical entities, e.g., Byzantine or Native American alternate histories. Perhaps in an alternate timeline, this essay would have surveyed the rich tomes of Constantinople’s Eastern Roman National Library, searching for imaginary tales about a long-forgotten Finno-Ugric people who had once inhabited the Carpathian basin.

As my essay above demonstrates, however, these various approaches would arguably all lead to a rather counterintuitive conclusion. Uchronia, in their multitude of insular voices, often do not speak to a common cosmopolitan audience, but rather address the retrospective concerns and regrets of specific communities. Thus, it is precisely by virtue of its localised focus, and limited accessibility to those unfamiliar with the given cultural context, that the alternate history sub-genre makes a unique contribution to the diversity of speculative fiction.


[1] All translations from Hungarian works are my own.

[2] See Karen Hellekson’s taxonomy: (1) “the nexus story, which includes time-travel-timepolicing stories and battle stories”; (2) “the true alternate, which may include alternate histories that posit different physical laws”; and (3) “the parallel worlds story.” (2001, 5) in the Kádár era and its relation to it in SF, see Panka 342–48.

[3] This contrasts with speculative or future history, i.e., works about a theoretically possible National Socialist victory written while the war was still ongoing.

[4] For a detailed plot synopsis and a confirmation of Henriet’s hypothesis as to Gáspár’s being the earliest such known uchronic work, see my essay on Hungarian alternate history in Revista Hélice, vol. III, issue 6.

[5] Note, meanwhile, that to this day Hungarian cinema remains almost entirely untouched by alternate historyother is about the show having nothing to do with Lem’s work (no. 19, 4).

[6] Call to mind, for instance, the mass sexual violence and arbitrary deportation prevalent during the breakdown of society that ensued in the wake of Hungary’s Soviet invasion, which traumatized wide swathes of the population and would have informed readers’ attitudes during the following decades.

[7] For some of these reviews available online (in Hungarian), see:–alternativ-trianon

[8] For an overview of comparative developments in Romanian SF, see Rodríguez, “A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present”, in: Sci Phi Journal, 2019/3.


Bibó, István. Ha a zsinati mozgalom a 15. században győzőtt volna… Bibó István címzetes váci kanonok beszélgetései apósával, Ravazs László bíboros érsekkel a római katolikus egyház újkori történetéről, különös tekintettel a lutheránus és kálvinista kongregációkra. Egyház-, kultúr- és politikatörténeti uchrónia [If the conciliar movement had succeeded in the 15th century… Conversations of titular Canon of Vác, István Bibó, with his father-in-law, cardinal archbishop László Ravasz, on the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church, with special reference to the Lutheran and Calvinist holy orders. A ‘uchronia’ of church, cultural and political history] in: pp. 265-82. Bibó, István. Válogatott tanulmányok [Selected Studies], vol. 4. Budapest, Magvető, 1990. Also available online at:

Čapek, Karel. Válka s Mloky [War with the Newts]. Prague, Borový, 1936.

Cserna-Szabó, András & Renátó Fehér (eds.). Nézzünk bizakodva a múltba! [Let Us Hope For A Better Past!]. Budapest, Cser Kiadó, 2020.

Cserna-Szabó, András & Balázs Szálinger (eds.). A Másik Forradalom – Alternatív Ötvenhat [The Other Revolution – Alternative ‘56]. Budapest, Cser Kiadó, 2016.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. New York, Putnam, 1962.

Gáspár, András. Ezüst félhold blues [Silver Crescent Blues]. Budapest, Zrínyi Nyomda, 1990.

Gáspár, László. Mi, I. Adolf [We, Adolf the First]. Budapest, Magyar Téka, 1945.

Gerencsér, Ádám. The first ‘Third Reich Triumphant’: The world’s earliest Hitler-wins scenario and other alternate histories in Hungarian literature. A complete survey from 1915 to 2015. pp. 13-30, Revista Hélice, vol. III, issue 6, 2016.

Hellekson, Karen. The Alternative History – Refiguring Historical Time. Kent (Ohio), Kent State University Press, 2001.

Henriet, Éric B. L’histoire revisitée – Panorama de l’uchronie sous toutes ses formes, [History revisited – A panorama of uchronia in all its forms]. Amiens, Encrage, 2004.

Karinthy, Frigyes. A két hajó [The Two Ships]. 1915. Translated by Ádám Gerencsér in: pp. 72-80, Revista Hélice, vol. II, issue 3, 2014.

László, Zoltán. Hiperballada [Hyperballad]. Budapest, Inomi, 1998/2005/2011.

Pintér, Bence & Máté Pintér. A szivarhajó utolsó útja [The Airship’s Last Journey]. Budapest, Agave, 2012.

Rainer, János M. “Mi lehetett volna, ha…?” [What could have been, if…?]. A Másik Forradalom – Alternatív Ötvenhat [The Other Revolution – Alternative ‘56], edited by András Cserna-Szabó & Balázs Szálinger, Budapest, Cser Kiadó, 2016.

Rodríguez, Mariano Martín. “A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present”. Sci Phi Journal, 2019/3,

Stapledon, Olaf. Starmaker. London, Methuen & Co., 1937.

Szakály, István (dir.). 1000 évről 100 percben [Across 1000 Years In 100 Minutes]. Budapest, Mokép, 2001.

Szélesi, Sándor & László Erdős, Sztálin aki egyszer megmentette a világot [Stalin Who Once Saved The World]. Budapest, SZS Kiadó, 2016.

Trenka, Csaba Gábor. Egyenlítői Magyar Afrika [Hungarian Equatorial Africa]. Budapest, Agave, 1988/1991.

—. Place Rimbaud. Budapest, Syllabux, 2013.

Ádám Gerencsér is co-editor of the Hugo Award-nominated Sci Phi Journal, a speculative fiction quarterly dedicated to the intersection of SFF and philosophy. In 2016, he published the first comprehensive survey of the Hungarian alternate history genre. In his official life, he roams the planet to uphold the European Union’s utopian policy ideals in international relations. He lives with his wife and children in Brussels, Belgium.

Bricoleurs in SF: Making Do Beyond the Walls of Utopia

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Bricoleurs in SF: Making Do Beyond the Walls of Utopia

Dave Hubble

‘Bricolage,’ as well as approximating to ‘DIY’ in French, is a visual arts term referring to the production of artwork from whatever materials come to hand. In cultural studies, it refers to how people acquire objects from across social divisions to create new identities, especially within subcultures—for example, punk’s subversion of the safety pin as decoration (even if that was subsequently repackaged by capitalism). There is an innate element of activism and political commentary when the artist’s choice of materials aims to bypass commercialism, using rubbish or detritus to devalue the art object and give value back to the ordinary and everyday, the lost and discarded. From this viewpoint, if discarded materials can be valued, so can people—or any other species.

Moving beyond artists making objects that look post-apocalyptic or fantastical in galleries, there is a rich tradition of bricoleur characters in SF who typically use whatever they find to create gadgets, often in extremis. Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent popular example, and it doesn’t take many episodes of Star Trek before the crew escape peril using something they’ve made or adapted. This is something anthropologists will recognise, with Lévi-Strauss for example equating engineers with bricoleurs (16-19). However, none of this is activism per se, so where does that aspect come in?

As a visual arts bricoleur (Hubble), I see this approach as a reflection of our own valuing of ingenuity, including movements such as maker culture, makerspaces, hackerspaces, and repair cafés. They have the potential to improve equity and empowerment (e.g., Diaz et al.), although this isn’t always realised for a variety of socioeconomic reasons linked to resources, living situations, and competing demands (Barton and Tan). Regardless, the politics of using waste materials are well documented (e.g., Whiteley) and form a commentary on resource (mis)use, alongside acts aimed at decoupling from consumerism. This in turn can disrupt normative, unequal power dynamics to develop more positive imagined futures. One clear aim of bricolage is to waste less and use less, especially since the Anthropocene is here; human activity is the main driver of changes at the Earth’s surface (mineral movements, temperature change, and so on) and we are arguably causing a sixth Great Extinction (Kolbert). This is happening alongside, and intertwined with, late-stage capitalism, a period when wealth is increasingly drawn toward a multi-billionaire few whose space-travel is a non-fictional leisure activity, ego-tripping while the world burns.

Given its innate thriftiness, bricolage in a broad sense can help decouple us from hyperconsumerism where we can easily find ourselves manipulated into working such long hours that we only ever have the time to discard and replace, not repair or build, something Frederick Pohl noted in the 1950s with “The Midas Plague.” As Beder and Higgs note, consumerism, including its hyper-variant, is a deliberate capitalist ploy, replacing thrift and prudence, with capitalists using it as a means of controlling the working population. ‘Status consumption,’ trying to improve social standing through conspicuous acquisition of consumer products (Sahin and Nasir), requires ever more working hours in an increasingly competitive environment and thus the leisure-starved work-to-consume world develops (James). In turn, the skills of making atrophy, if they develop at all. In such a system, resisting compulsory consumption or normalised over-consumption is a form of activism.

In the near-future graphic novel Tinkerers set in 2024, Brin et al. explore the decline of technical ingenuity and what happens when a small town is cut off by a bridge collapse. The focus is on the decline of American manufacturing, and is very much about the nation and its systems, but also celebrates individual ability and the amateur. With this in mind, note that Derrida disagreed with Lévi-Strauss, seeing the engineer as serving static systems (the railway, let’s say, maybe even the concept of God) while the bricoleur (who could be any or all of us) is fluid, repurposing, potentially transgressive or revolutionary, and taking anything at hand to reuse as required or desired (chapter 10). After all, in our world, neoliberalism wants to maintain the status quo, however broken the system, while bricolage tries to move beyond this, including in the sphere of ideas, as it can co-opt the conceptual and intangible as well as the material. In this, bricoleurs can be seen as parasites, both in a literal sense and in the sense of philosopher Michel Serres, where parasitism is static interrupting the signal, a notion that also plays on ‘static’ as an alternative definition of ‘parasite’ in French (Wolfe 13). Since then, there have been numerous examples of artists using parasitism for the purpose of activism, as described by Fisher. This is not the mindless (or amorally single-minded) spread of self-replicating machines; following Drexler’s 1986 coining of the term, ‘gray goo’ has often been featured in SF as a threat to civilisation. For example, Iain M. Banks’s Culture craft, which are sentient spaceships, enjoy destroying smart matter or “smatter,” and the Jain war tech of Neal Asher’s Polity novels is a core plot element. Instead, though there may be some intent to weaken the host (consumerism), the aim of bricolage is typically benevolent (making society more equitable, reducing resource use, commenting critically on consumerism), or at least neutral (living more frugally but without wider societal concerns)—though of course the SF versions might see themselves the same way, just doing what they do.

So far, bricolage has typically been presented as an act of necessity, at least to some extent, a response to limited resources. However, SF explores many post-scarcity or low-scarcity utopias and near-utopias such as Banks’s Culture, Asher’s Polity, and Star Trek’s Federation. When thinking about such societies in the context of bricolage, some questions arise: What role might ingenuity or thriftiness have when there are nanotech fabricators or ships able to convert and meld energy and matter however they choose? Why make or mend something that can, in effect, be wished into being? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, accidents happen, as do hostile acts. Any number of scenarios might mean that the relevant tech isn’t working or is unavailable. The various Star Trek series use this plot device regularly to prevent transporters, replicators, warp drives, and so on from functioning, forcing characters to scavenge and tinker. Aside from emergencies, there are those who live on the fringes or beyond, where bricolage is a vital skill in the absence of replicators or unobtainium. We then come to the crux of this topic as the question becomes, why would anyone leave utopia? It is worth qualifying the term ‘utopia’ here. In this context it is an actual utopia, at least for some inhabitants, rather than, say, an experimental living situation. For this reason, SF utopias are specified rather than real-world attempts to create them via communes and similar. A detailed examination of the latter is beyond the scope of this article but Garden covers reasons for leaving, such as reality not meeting ideals, internal conflicts, and management issues, while Bregman looks at broader changes that might be implemented, for example a universal basic income and open borders.

Returning to reasons for leaving SF utopias, some do so by choice, seeking adventure and experiences beyond their cosseted paradise. This could be seen as simply an act of privilege, an equivalent to a gap year or class tourism, going somewhere dangerous with their core selves backed up. This suggests they are just bored edgelords, but maybe they are making a point about their society and the need for self-determination. Iain M. Banks’s work has plenty of examples, such as Gurgeh, the titular Player of Games who is blackmailed into being a Special Circumstances agent—but then, his novels are intentionally set where potentially perilous ‘stuff’ happens. Most Culture citizens never encounter anything of the sort, and we never hear about them except as a generalised mass of pan-humanity. However, in a society with no formal hierarchy, joining the Culture’s Contact and Special Circumstances agencies has significant cachet. Even where that status has to remain secret, it is a way of determining self-worth by being one of the best among trillions of individuals, however that is defined when bodies and minds can be enhanced, rebuilt, replaced, and re-engineered.

For others it is an obligation or expectation, possibly based on a prior choice, for example, some Gzilt in Banks’s Hydrogen Sonata. Several civilisations in the Culture novels, including the Gzilt, reach a stage where they can “Sublime,” that is, advance to a godlike non-corporeal existence, but some Gzilt parents choose to stay in the “Real” because to sublime a child is considered unacceptable. By staying, they essentially exchange a utopia for its much-reduced remnants which will be plundered or colonised by less technologically developed races. They might remain amid this or relocate to the Culture or elsewhere, but their own utopia will be gone while the great majority of their civilisation exists in what is presumed to be a post-corporeal utopia of the mind.

Others, however well-adjusted in an era of perfect medicine and near-flawless mental health, might nonetheless experience ennui in the absence of a clear function. Joining the Culture’s Contact or an equivalent organisation might resolve this for a few, but such opportunities are limited, so without the need to earn a living, citizens of utopias may engage in self-allotted ‘work-hobbies’ or ‘life-tasks.’ This has also been explored in the real world, for example, by Kabakov, who states:

the only way and means to lead a worthy human life is to have one’s own project, to conceive it and bring it to its realization…. The project is the concentration, the embodiment of the meaning of life. Only thanks to it can one establish ‘who one is’, what one is capable of; can one receive ‘a name’. It is only from the moment of the determination of one’s project that one’s true ‘existence’ and not just ‘survival’ begins. (The Palace of Projects, n.p.)

This also challenges some of the standard objections to progressive policies such as basic income (Standing) and a short, fifteen-hour working week (Bregman). Detractors cry that people would become lazy, bored, spend their money on ‘bad’ things, that the standard of living would collapse, and so on. All of this can easily be countered and it is clear that for much of human history (and presumably prehistory) people worked only as hard as they needed to. They may have been poor, and they were certainly at the mercy of their environment (life could also be nasty, brutish, and short), but there was often an abundance of time for leisure. This doesn’t imply inactivity or even comfort; such time is likely to have involved making and mending in a world of limited resources—in essence, to be a bricoleur would have been the norm. Of course, individual regions varied depending on social structure, for example, a serf who has to work their feudal lord’s fields before their own might be short of free time if they also have their own land to tend. However, the trend continues and what changed was the development of capitalism and consumerism, the ‘time is money’ ethic, which of course means ‘your time is the bosses’ money.’ Technology allows us in principle to work less, but in practice communication devices mean we are constantly available (even when not formally at work) while also feeling uncertain about our finances, future, and well-being—a combination leading to what the World Health Organization has called a twenty-first-century epidemic of stress (Fink). We have ameliorated many horrors of the past as medicine and housing have improved, drinking water has become safer, and food supplies have become more reliable (in many places, and for now at least), but we have replaced them with contemporary problems which themselves need to be resolved if our potential utopia isn’t to become dystopian.

Returning to SF and The Hydrogen Sonata, Vyr Cossont is a Gzilt musician and military reservist who has chosen to play the titular (and notoriously difficult) piece of music, though it is widely considered unlistenable and requires the addition of an extra pair of arms and a specially made instrument. She begins the story clearly tiring of the task, but with only twenty-three days left until Subliming, determined to play the piece perfectly once. At the end of the twenty-three days, she does not Sublime, but has completed her task. She has an offer of passage on a Culture ship, no clear purpose beyond a sense of the adventure the journey might bring, and a lighter, freer feeling despite having, in effect, left her utopia. This isn’t simple contrarianism, but shows the importance of self-determination; as automated systems become less reliable post-sublimation, Cossont has to fly her small craft manually. In her world this is a significant loss; she is back in the land of the bricoleur. It’s also important to remember that the decision to remain is a long-term one. Whatever the reason for remaining, Banks is careful to clarify that delaying sublimation isn’t an option for individuals as the changes wrought in the ‘beyond’ soon mean they will be too late to join the majority who went before:

leaving it much more than an hour or so was risky; you’d get there and be isolated, those who had made the transition just hours before . . . would already have become so changed, so ascended in complexity, that you would have virtually nothing in common. You’d be on your own, or part of a hopelessly small group, effectively contextless, unanchored to anything greater than yourself, and so likely just to evaporate, dissolving into the generality of the fabric of the Sublime, meaningless. (The Hydrogen Sonata 23)

Meanwhile, some post-scarcity utopias are actually “ustopias,” a term coined by Margaret Atwood to indicate that utopias and dystopias each contain a latent version of the other. Thus SF societies might be utopian for some, but dystopian for others. It may look like someone is leaving a utopia, but from their perspective they don’t live in one to begin with. In such cases, some will leave out of desperation. For example, in Neal Asher’s Polity, a guaranteed death penalty for serious crimes (leaving an empty body for a ‘more deserving’ stored inhabitant) ensures that some will flee beyond its jurisdiction. The AIs of the Polity never forget or rescind the judgement, thus there can be no return. John Pierce’s introduction to Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man makes it clear that “The Instrumentality of Mankind” is an ustopia, shaped by the “ruthless benevolence” to create a “bland utopia.” As lifespans are extended and labour is completed by machines and animal-derived underpeople, there is little risk from the unknown, but humanity becomes “deprived of hope and freedom” (xviii). It is a bleaker view than offered in Banks’s Culture, but there are parallels with his peril-seeking individuals. It also highlights a sense of duty as a reason to leave utopia, in this case one that we clearly see in our own world. It could manifest in many ways such as military service to help defend their ideal society against threats, scientific or other knowledge-focused postings to less secure outposts and frontiers, exploration for the greater good or even martyrdom. There are countless examples of all these in the civilisations cited so far and they are not mutually exclusive, and many of the individuals involved survive (or ultimately don’t) though acts of ingenuity—bricolage—once detached from their home utopia.

Others embrace risk culturally. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as a Ferengi, Quark is a literal and figurative gambler who repeatedly derides ‘precious Federation principles,’ likening it to root beer with a distaste that the Cardassian tailor-cum-spy Garak shares, both characters acknowledging its sweet and sickly moreishness. Despite an overt avoidance of physical danger (after all, Rule of Acquisition 20 states “He who dives under the table today lives to profit tomorrow” [DeCandido]), Quark is a risk-taker, and not only at the Dabo table. He finds and acquires, whether tech or information, and uses these as he will—a bricoleur within the system but also playing his own game. After all, Rule 62 reminds us that “The riskier the road, the greater the profit” (“Rules of Acquisition”). Klingons meanwhile are famously stereotypical risk-takers, revelling in the thrill of battle and the idea of a glorious death. They are technologically advanced and presumably as post-scarcity as the Federation, but Sto’Vo’Kor, their afterlife for the honoured dead, strongly parallels the Vikings’ Valhalla, and challenges are often settled by combat rather than discussion or arbitration. Regardless, some bemoan the softening of Klingon life and leave their version of utopia as mercenaries, renegades, and the like; few if any take the ‘gap year’ option and such a life would likely be seen as dishonourable. Alongside this, many Federation citizens choose difficult existences, such as Kasidy Yates’s freighter captain, a recurring character in Deep Space Nine. There is no need to do so in a system where everyone has, in effect, a huge Basic Universal Income in the form of energy use, replicator and transporter allowances, and so on. This might not be far removed from the ‘bored edgelord’ suggestion above, but this choice to live a harder-than-necessary existence can turn into activism.

When even utopia leaves some behind, rebellion follows, as with Star Trek’s Maquis, whose homes are placed in Cardassian territory by a peace treaty. Not only do they rebel openly, but they also rely on peripheral characters such as Yates who are in a position to deliver (or smuggle depending on your viewpoint) scarce supplies. This echoes our world where elites make partition plans for India, Palestine, Chagos, and so on, while the Extinction Rebellion movement sees a global threat to human survival. With limited resources, such activism requires a DIY approach; some may find themselves relocated and dispossessed, or living in ustopias—refugee camps within sight of affluent Western cities for example. Campe de la Lande, commonly referred to as Calais Jungle, existed from 2015 to 2016, fewer than 500 metres from the Port of Calais. Places of worship, eateries, hairdressers, and other amenities were built out of junk, with help from external organisations and activists, combining bricolage with solidarity.

Some inequality is of course deliberately engineered, in SF as well as reality. Independents in the series Firefly and its film accompaniment Serenity eke out a precarious living, partly as they ideologically oppose the ruling Alliance, but also because the Alliance and its core worlds are another elite overseeing inequality of resource allocation. Within this framework, Kaylee Frye endlessly and intuitively bodges the spaceship Serenity’s engine. She is an engineer in the literal sense, but a bricoleur in the sense of Derrida. Ultimately, her work facilitates the activism of other characters: she keeps the ship going until it can deliver an Alliance-undermining message to Mr. Universe, the techno-geek who broadcasts it across all channels. Again we see the ‘official’ signal being parasitised. Humans mending and scavenging tech in The Matrix have a similar activist role, covertly broadcasting minds from their ships to rescue others, travelling via phone lines as pirate radio signals. Mockingjay (the final part of the Hunger Games trilogy) shows limited resources being used frugally and innovatively by the inhabitants of District 13 to develop an underground rebel stronghold against the tyrannical Capitol. The approach is material in nature, but transcends this. Some of the privileged of the Capitol turn out to be rebels (e.g., Plutarch Heavensbee), or shift allegiance and agree to help (e.g., Effie Trinket), willing to threaten the stability of their own utopian enclave, as the wider Panem is dystopian for most inhabitants. In this case however, the parallel with our world has become more literal. In The Hunger Games, the three-fingered salute spreads, signalling an uprising (and reprisals). It has since moved into the real world, used at pro-democracy protests in Thailand and Myanmar (Quinley) and spreading via social media. With protesters making DIY masks to counter teargas, stashing bags of essentials, making memes, placards, costumes, and so on, the bricoleur approach is clear to see.

This leads onto the realisation that bricolage doesn’t have to be material or even digital—ideas can have more power. After all, arguably the Federation’s biggest problem with the Maquis isn’t that they attack Cardassians, or even that some have broken Star Fleet oaths, but simply that they dared to leave. They broke the status quo, reusing its components, and that is the activism of the bricoleur. Similarly, in the Hunger Games, when the Hob (the venue for the Black Market) is destroyed, it is done to send a message telling the citizens to comply in place of acquiring, selling, and bartering outside the system. This is ever more relevant with the rise of intangible aspects of Virtual Consumerism, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Wiederhold). This is not simply online shopping, subscriptions, and so on, but encompasses aspects such as the purchase of virtual goods with real money. If we have enough material things, capitalism provides non-things for us to buy.

While profiting from power and income, elites want to determine everyone else’s place and to make sure they know it. Bricoleurs aim to break free of this, to do what they want with whatever they find and undermine power structures along the way—by making do, things are made better. Joseph Norman’s recent The Culture of “The Culture” sees it as an evolving utopia, fluid rather than a static end-state—a grand exercise in bricolage. As Banks himself wrote in his 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture,” “Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited.” I’m hardly the first fan to say that’s where I want to live, however ambiguous a utopia it might be at times.

To summarise, bricoleurs are activists in a consumerist and unequal world, and bricolage can be a tool to help decouple from consumerism and authoritarianism, hopefully making systems more equitable in the process. Examples from SF reflect the fringe nature of such activity in our world, highlighting issues of privilege and inequity alongside environmental considerations around waste, value, and resources.


Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood: The Road to Ustopia.” The Guardian, 14 Oct 2011.  Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.

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Dave Hubble is a visual artist and poet with a life-long love of SF. Creatively, he is a bricoleur, exploring the Anthropocene and humanity’s relationship with natural resources. He is a resident artist at The Arches studios in Southampton, U.K., where he tinkers and experiments. His first career was in ecology and this background informs his creative activity.

Review of Fauna

Review of Fauna

Susanne Roesner

Vadnais, Christiane. Fauna. Translated by Pablo Strauss, Coach House Books, 2020.

Christiane Vadnais’ Fauna draws the reader into a near-future scenario where humanity has changed the planet so drastically and irrevocably that unexpected variations are occurring more and more throughout the animal and plant world. Through evocative and creative language, masterfully translated by Pablo Strauss from French into English, the text pulls the reader into a nightmare world, hauntingly different and yet strangely familiar. In ten short chapters, Vadnais’ various protagonists try to make sense of this transforming and often hostile environment. Amidst them is Laura, a biologist attempting to determine the origin of the profound changes she observes around and inside of her. Parts of the earth have been flooded, altering ecosystems which take on a wilder, more dangerous shape. “Don’t swim in the evening, the villagers say. The lights dancing like a bonfire are far too alluring, drawing the lake monsters from all sides” (27). The story may be set in the future, yet humanity seems to have been set back into a darker past, where nightmarish beasts roam the darkness. On four black pages inserted throughout the book Vadnais writes about the night, about dreams, imagination, and fear. She sets the underlying tone for her book already on the first black pages when she tells her audience that “To dream of a future where our species survives, we must get back to wilder times” (9). As Vadnais’ protagonists struggle to comprehend their new reality and fight for survival, the reader soon learns what exactly these “wilder times” could look like.

Ecological discourses and the examination of human-nature relationships are central to science fiction literature, either in the world-building of other planets such as in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or in near-future scenarios of planet earth such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). While Wells explores the question of human evolution in a distant future, Robinson’s New York 2140 investigates humanity’s adaptation and technology in a post-apocalyptic world. Vadnais’ Fauna combines both aspects, the ecological discourse of evolution and the apocalyptic setting, to pose questions about human evolution in an environment transformed by anthropogenic climate change.

Like many current climate fiction novels, Fauna contemplates the question of humanity’s survival in relation to the aftermath of a drastically changed climate caused by human interference. However, unlike Robinson’s New York 2140, where the focus lies on various characters and their everyday business as well as adaptive technology in a now flooded city, in Fauna the human protagonists appear small and insignificant amongst the overwhelming forces of nature. Futuristic technology is absent. Instead, not elevated by superior technology, the characters in Fauna are presented as simply part of the mutating fauna on earth. Visiting a permanent settlement on the water, Laura meets one of the residents and observes his changed skin: “Curiosity makes her linger over the hard, scaly skin, a patch that grows larger by the day, increasing Thomas’s likeness to the other lake creatures” (33). Fauna explores the changing environment caused by human intrusion but now spiralling outside of humanity’s control: a parasite has emerged, infecting animals through the water and triggering rapid transformations. As the infection spreads, it is only a matter of time until all of humankind too will be affected irreversibly. The interconnectedness between humanity and nature is highlighted: as one changes, the other is bound to change as well.

Due to vivid descriptions in Fauna, nature takes on a life of its own, at times invasive, fierce, and almost like an alien foe. “Under a toxic green moon, the mist crawls along the centre of the zoo’s deserted walkways until it reaches the strand of trees and wraps itself around the trunks” (39). The intrusive quality of the fog foreshadows the threat that a changing environment can pose, not only to our surrounding flora and fauna, but to human existence itself. By further blurring the clear borders between animals and humans, Vadnais’ novel evokes a similar feel to the 2018 film Annihilation directed by Alex Garland, where an alien presence distorts the area around itself, causing all lifeforms in its vicinity to transform and merge in beautiful and horrible ways. Even though the transformations in Fauna are not caused by alien interference, the novel still poses questions central to science fiction literature: What does it mean to be human? And how do we imagine the future survival of our species?

Vadnais’ protagonists struggle with the profound transformation of their environment and are, like this environment, shaped by these changes. Fauna invites the reader to look inwards. Instead of asking questions of society’s large-scale adaptation to climate change, the audience is left to contemplate adaptation on a cellular level. How fast can evolution happen? How much can we transform and still be human? Fauna can be seen as a warning, showing in vivid details and through haunting language that humans are part of nature—vulnerable, fleeting, and wild—and that, as we change nature around us, we will inevitably change with it.

Susanne Roesner is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Swansea University in Wales. With her PhD project she explores current technological innovations regarding the climate change crisis to imagine and convey optimistic paths into the future. The insights she gained while conducting research for her master thesis on knowledge and worldview in Indigenous Australian storytelling inspired her to further investigate human-nature relationships. Susanne is interested in all kinds of positive visions of the future, be it in Solarpunk fiction, Climate fiction, or Indigenous Futurism.