On 26 June, at our joint AGM with the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), the SFF celebrated its 50th anniversary with two events: a panel chaired by Maureen Speller, with Roz Kaveney, Farah Mendlesohn, Andy Sawyer and Graham Sleight, and a conversation between myself and John Clute (the latter is available here). Much genial and insightful talk ensued, and yet—what exactly is the Science Fiction Foundation?
As Clute acknowledges, for much of its life, certainly up until the move of the SFF Collection to the University of Liverpool in the early 1990s, the SFF existed as a nebulous entity without legal status. We are now a registered charity and are reliant, for all our activities, upon the support of our members and the generosity of private donors. Our aims remain the same as stated in the first issue of Foundation in 1972: to provide research facilities for anyone wishing to study science fiction; to investigate and promote the usefulness of science fiction in education; to disseminate information about science fiction; and to promote a discriminating understanding of the nature of science fiction. Sounds clear enough, and yet…
Long before para-academia was even a thing, the SFF was a para-academic research center-cum-network. The story of its survival, and even more than that, its growth, is not only a victory against the odds but also a tale of how independent research, carried out by full-time academics, postgraduate students, non-affiliated scholars and out-and-out fans, can flourish within the margins of academia.
The origins of the SFF are unclear, even to those who were around at the time. Its prime instigator was George Hay, SF writer and editor, environmental campaigner and self-styled ‘futures consultant’, a man who, as a teenager, had feasted upon the works of John W. Campbell, and believed that SF offered a blueprint for not only how the world might be but how it should be. As reported to Andrew Darlington, Hay created his ‘think-tank’, the Science Fiction Foundation, in October 1970 with a view to re-educating the planet with the values of SF. I say ‘created’ but actually it was more like a feat of magical thinking. At this stage, the SFF was no more than a speech-act ventriloquized by Hay in performance with a few, notable friends: James Blish, John Brunner and Ken Bulmer.
The formal establishment of the SFF occurred in early 1971. According to Charles Barren, the first editor of Foundation, Hay persuaded George Brosan, an SF fan and the first director of the North East London Polytechnic (NELP), to establish the SFF as ‘a semi-autonomous unit’ within the Faculty of Arts. A public meeting was held, where Brosan stood aside, and Barren became the first Chair of the SFF. And here the first fault-line appeared. Whereas Hay was driven by a desire to save the world from itself via SF, Barren had the rather more limited desire of establishing SF as serious literature for writers and critics alike. The flagship of the SFF would be the journal, Foundation, and its engine, the SFF Library, initially created by donations from the BSFA. Much myth-making ensued. Hay painted a picture of Foundation as being edited and largely written by himself, a samizdat publication knocked-out on the polytechnic’s photocopiers. Barren recalls that Foundation was actually published by a small science press, and that it was he, not Hay, who conceived it as a mixture of academic and literary journal. The snag, as Barren later conceded, was that hopes of selling up to 5000 copies via high-street retailers were drastically misplaced. Furthermore, like other areas of academic publishing, contributors were not paid. Nonetheless, Foundation did manage to attract a Nebula-nominated short story from James M. Tiptree and a poem by Marilyn Hacker. When the SFF Administrator, Peter Nicholls, assumed editorship of the journal in 1974, in what amounted to a coup, both the fiction and the poetry were dropped (with occasional exceptions, most notably, the all-fiction Foundation 100).
From the contrasting perspectives of Barren and Hay, Nicholls’s ascendancy marked the growing academic dominance of the SFF. This is not how Nicholls saw it. The SFF had been formally launched in May 1971; Nicholls joined as Administrator in October, on loan from NELP, where he had been employed as a lecturer. Although physically situated in the polytechnic, the SFF was not fully part of it: its Management Committee was divided between NELP staff and Hay’s more revolutionary faction. (The SFF’s original patron was Arthur C. Clarke, later to be joined by Ursula Le Guin. Its current patrons are Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson and Prof David Southwood.) The idea of the SFF appealed to NELP because of its interdisciplinarity: it chimed with values which, in the early 1970s, distinguished the polytechnics from the older universities. However, although SF was taught as part of the University of London’s Extra-Mural Studies, it did not become part of the official undergraduate provision at NELP. With few UK scholars working in SF, Nicholls became the genre’s academic face: much of his time as Administrator and journal editor was spent writing for newspapers, appearing on TV, and organizing events at the National Film Theatre and the I.C.A. He was supported by professional writers such as Christopher Priest and Ian Watson: although, in 1975, Nicholls wrote a jeremiad attacking the New Wave, he was necessarily reliant upon writers and critics associated with New Worlds. In 1977, as his own position at NELP became economically precarious and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was contracted for publication, Nicholls left both UK academia and the SFF. He later declared that Foundation is ‘not an academic journal, for there is no academic infrastructure to support it’. If SF is often regarded as para-literature, then presumably, Foundation is para-literary criticism, somewhere between a prozine and an academic title. (Later editors may have revised that opinion.)
Malcolm Edwards, Nicholls’s successor as Administrator, stepped-up to become journal editor but left in 1980. His successor was David Pringle, but now there was no paid Administrator: Barren, Ian MacPherson, Ted Chapman and, most importantly, John Radford all took on unpaid duties. The only paid member of the SFF, and that part-time, was Joyce Day, who fronted the SFF Collection now held at NELP’s Barking campus—the largest, publicly available SF library in the UK with some 20,000 titles. There was, therefore, a massive discrepancy between the size of the SFF’s assets and its dwindling infrastructure. Yet, despite this, the platform that Nicholls had established with the journal was successively built upon by Edwards, Pringle and, from 1986, Edward James. The SFF therefore became identified with Foundation and the Collection—membership of the SFF, though, has always been more than just subscription to the journal.
An appointed Council lent the SFF the appearance of an infrastructure, but in the late 1980s, the Friends of Foundation was formed to protect it. In 1991, when NELP became the University of East London, it removed its remaining support from the journal and the Collection. The following year, the Council took up the University of Liverpool’s offer to re-house the Collection and, in 1993, Andy Sawyer was appointed as both Librarian and Administrator. On 26 January 1995, a charter was signed between the University and John Clute, representing the Friends of Foundation, ensuring the safekeeping of the Collection at Liverpool. Three years later, the Friends were dissolved and reformed as the Science Fiction Foundation, a registered charity with a Committee and Trustees. Only in 1998, therefore, did the SFF become a legal entity, some 27 (or maybe 28) years after it was willed into being.
Although, since the mid-1990s, there has been a veritable renaissance with conferences, academic tracks, book publications (in addition to the journal), the annual George Hay Lecture, the SFF Masterclass, Science for Fiction, and a doubling in size of the Collection, the SFF remains something of a phantom. It has no office, no building, and it would be going too far to claim the Sydney Jones Library, which houses the Collection, as its own. The Committee meets twice a year, in addition to the AGM, but currently dispersed and online, from the comfort of their own homes. In other words, legal entity though it now is, the SFF retains its alluring, mysterious, para-academical status. It may be the closest thing to Bohemia that an academic can get.
At the same time, there has been a fluorescence in the UK of younger academic networks, propelled by tech-savvy and socially aware postgraduates. These include Current Research for Speculative Fiction (CRSF) based at the University of Liverpool, the Fantastika conferences and online journal initially founded at Lancaster University, and the London Science Fiction Research Community based in or around Birkbeck College, London. Sometimes these networks, most notably CRSF, overlap with the SFF but mostly they have emerged alongside it. In addition, there are now research centers and research clusters at Anglia Ruskin, Brunel, Glasgow and Liverpool. Although these developments bear witness to the SFF as a pathfinder, it can also become overlooked. It’s hard to contemplate a time when the SFF might disappear: its material assets, most notably the Collection, are vast, and Liverpool continues to commit itself via the outreach and MA degree now led by Phoenix Alexander and Will Slocombe. Yet, at some point, the SFF will have to merge with these networks since these younger academics constitute the future of SF studies in the UK.
The other transformative factor is that of digitality. As the events of 2020/21 have shown, we can now pursue several of our educational activities online. For example, this year’s Hay Lecture, given by the forensic archaeologist Kirsty Squires, was presented virtually while the next SFF Masterclass is earmarked for online delivery. We are gradually constructing an online archive for the journal, and at some point, we may have to consider whether Foundation will continue as a print and/or e-journal. (Past and present issues are already available electronically via EBSCO and ProQuest.) I certainly hope that when we next consider holding a conference, we will do so digitally—the SFF has already sponsored online events such as last October’s Riddley Walker Day. How we interact with our members will also change through the prism of digitality: the journal’s Facebook group currently has 847 members and, as I often remark, if each of those followers became actual members of the SFF, our fortunes would be dramatically enriched.
Which brings me to my final note. As Farah Mendlesohn observed at the anniversary panel, the UK’s university sector is going through severe changes with wide-scale job losses and departmental closures. The bankruptcy and merger of whole universities is on the immediate horizon. Due to its para-academic status, the SFF is not only placed to weather these storms but it can also provide shelter. Annual membership remains low, from £15 for a student to £25 for a salaried individual to £50 for a university. In the coming years, there are likely to be more independent scholars as universities contract. Foundation has repeatedly shunned the likes of Elsevier to remain as open and as accessible to as many scholars as possible. I hope that you will consider joining the SFF for the greater good of the academic community, whether affiliated to an institution or not.
Barren, Charles. 1990. ‘Guest Editorial: Foundation in Retrospect’. Foundation 50: 4-9.
Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! It’s been quite a summer (here in America), with people slowly emerging from their homes, blinking in the sunlight, visiting friends, going out to dinner, and sending their kids to camp. Contrast this with publishing during these warmer months, when books seem to slow to a trickle. And yet, and yet, we still have some fantastic new SFT to discuss! Because SFT never quits.
Of the five works of SFT that I’ll discuss in this issue’s column, four are out in English in July, with the fifth coming out in September (I’m looking askance at you, August!). Three are collections, translated from the Korean, Spanish, and Polish. July 15 brings us Korean author Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny (tr. Anton Hur), which includes quite the mix of genres—magical realism, horror, and science fiction. Chung’s stories here defy genres and also readers’ assumptions about patriarchy and capitalism. The first story in this collection, “The Head,” first appeared in Samovar Magazine in 2019. It’s one of those deliciously-disturbing stories that sticks in your brain.
Of Claudio Ulloa Donoso’s Little Bird, translator Lily Meyer says “there may be no way to tell which stories in Pajarito are fiction, but there’s also no need. Each one has the immediacy of a diary entry and the floating nausea of a sleepless night.” This quote and an accompanying excerpt from the collection are available on Electric Lit (https://electricliterature.com/the-successful-candidate-will-not-have-a-dead-bird-in-her-pocket-claudia-ulloa-donoso/). Like Cursed Bunny, Little Bird refuses to fit neatly into generic constraints, though the latter focuses more on pushing the boundary between reality and fantasy. One character turns fireflies into men, another vacations in her cat’s stomach. Sounds like my kind of book!
And then there’s Stanislaw Lem’s The Truth and Other Stories (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones), which represents the most recent Lem published by MIT Press (from which an essay collection is due out later this year). Only three of the stories in this volume have been translated into English before, offering readers a banquet of new science fiction from one of the genre’s masters. Darkly funny, as many Lem stories are, these portraits of mad scientists, artificial life forms, and more will surely enthrall both new readers and Lem-loyalists.
The two novels out this summer/early fall include a Chinese story about strange creatures who live alongside humans but remain almost invisible and a work of Swedish horror about an epidemic of suicide. Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (tr. Jeremy Tiang), set in a fictional Chinese city, tells the story of an amateur cryptozoologist’s attempt to learn more about the city’s fabled beasts. Their greenish skin, birthmarks, and other characteristics make them stand out from the human residents, but they’ve figured out how to blend in…until this cryptozoologists starts looking a little deeper.
Finally, it should come as no surprise that the work of Swedish horror I mentioned is the brainchild of John Ajvide Lindqvist—he of the popular Let the Right One In and Little Star. Known as Sweden’s Stephen King, Lindqvist has a gift for turning a simple horror story into a larger meditation on human psychology. In I Am the Tiger (tr. Marlaine Delargy), a journalist tries to understand the rash of suicides plaguing Sweden’s underworld and what connection the drug-dealer named “X” has to do with it. When the journalist’s young nephew gets pulled into the maelstrom, this search for truth becomes more immediate.
And what of short fiction? The July issue of Clarkesworld brings us St. Petersburg-native Leonid Kaganov’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” (tr. Alex Shvartsman), an engaging time-travel story about hope and resignation.
Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: email@example.com.
Coming home from the first international academic conferences we ever attended, incidentally the ICFA, the SFRA, and the Utopian Studies conference—admittedly quite a few years back—we both agreed that science fiction people shared an incredibly warm and welcoming attitude that made it easy to catch fire. Engaged discussions over coffee about books, films, and games, which we all felt passionate about, helped to easily connect and make national and cultural borders seem meaningless. Nevertheless, SF scholarship is also a field where difference is crucial and, at its best, is celebrated as it adds depth and can yield the most productive results—both in the texts we engage with, as well as in our interpersonal, institutional, and academic contexts. SF fascinates us because it can come in so many different shapes and forms. Therefore, we were delighted to read the wonderful country reports from England and India and the last issues of SFRA Review, which gave us some insights into engagements with sf from (to us) largely new perspectives. We would like to contribute to this exchange and present to the members of the SFRA, a status report on how research in SF is faring in Germany.
The Science Fiction Club Germany (SFCD), a fan-organization, is arguably one of the oldest institutions of sf engagement in Germany. While it was already inaugurated in 1955, it took until the 1980s to bring enough public attention to the field to establish several national awards recognizing the growing interest in science fiction (and the fantastic more generally). In 1980, the Kurd Laßwitz Preis (named after the German ‘father’ of SF) was established, followed by the Phantastik-Preis (granted by the city of Wetzlar) in 1983 and the Science Fiction Award (granted by the SFCD) in 1985, and finally in 2012 the Seraph Award presented at the Leipzig book fair.
Leipzig has become the central public trade fair for the fantastic, connecting literary publishing with comics and cosplay and becoming a hub for fan engagement, while the Frankfurt book fair’s bigger and more established venue rather caters to the economic (and decidedly more mainstream and highbrow) side of the literary market. In addition, several larger commercial and a whole slew of smaller conventions keep fantasy and SF fans busy during the year, highlights being the German Comic Cons (currently in four different cities), MagicCon (since 2017, larger in scope but following in venue for Tolkien-based RingCon), and the science-fiction themed FedCon.
Research in science fiction—mainly conducted by SF enthusiasts—has been developing since the late 1970s, but due to historically rather rigid and conservative structures at universities and a strong focus on canon in the fields of literary and cultural studies (for the most part in German or English studies), this engagement has, for a long time, mostly taken place outside of academia. It fell to individuals and small institutions to begin early forays into the field. Academic interest in SF and fantasy slowly began to manifest with Suhrkamp (a well-regarded publishing house) producing a book series of collected essays from both national and international authors (among them Roger Caillois, Louis Vax, and Edmund Wilson) on theoretical aspects of the fantastic: Phaïcon: Almanach der phantastischen Literatur, published in five volumes between 1974 and 1982. But a uniquely German research tradition was first institutionalized with the inauguration of the Phantastische Bibliothek Wetzlar, a research library, which began its collection and research work in 1987 and can be credited with establishing the first German-language book series  on research in the fantastic during the 1990s.
It took until 2010, though, to firmly anchor the fantastic as a field of university-based academic research in Germany. The Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (GFF, Association for Research in the Fantastic) was inaugurated in the fall of 2010 during a conference at the University of Hamburg and has since provided a research network for more than 120 members, establishing an annual international conference in varying locations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Its next annual event will take place as an online conference, hosted by the Universities of Cologne and Bamberg under the title “Speculative Fiction and Ethics” from 23 to 25 September.  It might be appropriate to mention here that the GFF does offer small stipends for international students to attend the conference.
Overall, it can be said that, over the last decade, research in SF and the fantastic has become a much more respected and recognized field at German universities and has found its way into curricula. Even at conferences with a more general scope, papers on science fictional topics are no longer a rarity (one example would be the annual conference of the German Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies [GAPS] that hosted four distinct panels dedicated to SF). And as a productive perspective to contribute to diversified interdisciplinary research, the importance of SF has been recognized as well, with ´third-party funded research projects such as Fiction Meets Science, which has dedicated a subproject to representation of science in postcolonial SF (that one of the authors of this text works for).
In terms of German-language academic journals on research in the fantastic, the Zeitschrift für Fantastikforschung (ZFF), established by the GFF, has the honor to be the first of its kind. Since 2011, the journal has published peer-reviewed original articles, German translations of key texts from other languages, introductions to international fantastic literatures, and much more twice per year. In 2019, the ZFF has become the first German-language journal to move to the open-access platform Open Library of the Humanities , establishing new and very successful formats, such as a collection of shorter essays under the rubric “Forum”, which initiates academic debates around new aspects of the fantastic and thus serves as an ideal spark for longer research endeavors, or unusual interviews on the fantastic, i.e. currently an interview with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis about his book Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present (2020).
As for science fiction production from Germany, there is a large field of creatives in SF covering a large range of areas, styles, and genres—ranging from the famous pulp series PerryRhodan (established in 1961 and still going strong, putting out a weekly space opera) to high literary endeavors that somewhat shy away from identifying with the genre (historically, SF was stigmatized with a low-brow reputation). Examples are Juli Zeh’s Corpus Delicti (2009, The Method) or Christian Kracht’s Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten (2008, not translated into English, but meaning: “I’ll be here in sunshine and in shadow”). One important issue for international audiences is the limited availability of translations of and English-language scholarship on German SF. Some (subjectively) selected texts of SF since the 2000s, which have been available in English translation, include Frank Schätzing’s SF-thriller The Swarm (2004), Dietmar Dath’s posthumanist philosophical novel Abolition of Species (2013), and Marc-Uwe Kling’s recent social media satire QualityLand (2017). But if German SF has ever made a big international splash in recent years, then it is probably due to the Netflix series Dark (2017–20) by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. The show plays with well-established SF tropes of time travel but connects it with the 1980s nostalgia of Stranger Things and a very distinctly German sense of Heimat (home) and Spießigkeit (roughly translates to narrow-mindedness). It is international in its scope and yet can immediately be recognized as distinctly German—a mixture that is typical of much German SF.
All in all, Germany has a vibrant SF community, both in- and outside of academia, striving to diversify and connect with international perspectives. This feature helps us learn more about SF in other countries, and we are delighted at this opportunity to introduce our own community you. We hope that we can further develop and foster exchange and connections beyond our own contexts.
Julia Gatermannis currently writing her dissertation with the working title “The Future is Female: Non-Normative Embodiment as a Site of Resistance in Contemporary North-American Cultural Production.” She works as a researcher at the University of Bremen for the interdisciplinary research project “Fiction Meets Science II” with the subproject “Science in Postcolonial Speculative Fiction: Nature/Politics/Economies Reimagined.” She is a founding member of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung and has served on its executive board for ten years.
Lars Schmeink is Vice President’s Research Fellow at the Europa-University of Flensburg and project lead of the “Science Fiction” subproject in the “FutureWork” research network. He is a founding member of the Gesellschaft für Fantastik–forschung and has served as president of its executive board until 2019. He is the author of Biopunk Dystopias (2016), and the co-editor of Cyberpunk and Visual Culture (2018), The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2020), New Perspectives in Contemporary German Science Fiction (2021) and Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture (2022).
The Life and Work of Bulgarian SF Writer Lyuben Dilov
In decay, a specimen’s constituent parts are revealed, and, with close observation, we earn new knowledge. The twentieth century saw the birth and death of one of SF’s most integral discourses, which can be very broadly grouped under the descriptor ‘Soviet speculative fiction’. The determination to instill the socialist-realism ambitions of the communists’ cultural architects manifested across the republics and its satellite states in degrees proportional to the strength of their respective ties to Moscow, and so it was with SF. Thus, we end up with an array of constituent parts, all of which add up to the whole corpus, and one of which is addressed herein.
In 1990 the modern Republic of Bulgaria directly succeeded the socialist People’s Republic of Bulgaria, which itself had succeeded the Kingdom of Bulgaria after World War II only forty-four years prior. The Communist party, in less than half a century of control, the final thirty-three of which were under the totalitarian Todor Zhivkov regime, was able to boast many advancements in industry, infrastructure, and developing technologies, but the dividends were hardly equally distributed. By the 1980s, the computer components being produced in Pravets, the ‘Silicon Valley of the Eastern Bloc’, were helping Russia get their rockets into orbit, but if you were to leave Pravets and go five miles in any direction, you would leave not only the cybernetic age but the age of electricity and running water.
Amidst the clamor of processors, microscopes, hammers, and sickles, a uniquely Bulgarian speculative tradition arose. Just like the Americans, British, Russians, etc. they built on the foundation of their own national literary heritage and herded the twentieth century’s technological stampede through the canyons of their own cultural morality in search of the greener pasture of whatever the future may hold for humanity. Forgive the already extensive backstory, but understanding the deep and complex works in this tradition requires some knowledge about the direction of the lives and works of its creators. Among the best are Agop Malkonyan, Dimitr Peev and Svetoslav Slavchev: remember those names for later.
Lyuben Dilov, the first name in Bulgarian SF, was born in the Kingdom and then raised for a time in Hitler’s Germany before returning “home” to the People’s Republic and becoming part of its first generation of intellectual elite. Compelled to speak his mind openly from at least his university years, the non-partisan Dilov relates that various obstacles to his free expression led him to expound his humanist philosophies under the thin guise of allegory as a SF writer. He might have been content to join the still developing national literature, a fusion of their own pastoral folk sensibilities with the rationalist, democratic values espoused by the Enlightenment, but in order for him to say what he wanted to say, he found it necessary to say something different. But it would be short-sighted to see only camouflage and aloof estrangement. Like Lem and the Strugatskys, the Soviet world was his frame of reference and his audience, and besides, his wouldn’t be the first stories to have relevance in different places and times.
In Lyuben Dilov’s speculative fiction, the mores of socialist realism are delivered without any art, often deployed on the first page and occasionally quoting directly from, or loosely translating, Bulgarian and Soviet state memorandi. The author fulfills what clearly reads as his professional duty, but only just. The rest of the pages are his alone, and whether they are used to rethink the given or to drape something completely unrelated over it, the rest of the pages serve the reader a candid philosophy that speaks, not to the ideal future citizen of any specific nation but to something even more collective, primordial, and difficult to deny. The reader, by the end, isn’t turned towards or against any one set of myths or canons, and certainly not against myths and canons in general. Rather, the purpose of having myths and canons is discussed with deferential honesty alongside the very myths the books themselves contain. Dilov spoke often of modern SF as fitting into the crucial human developmental slot traditionally occupied by fairy tales. To borrow a term he wouldn’t have been familiar with (although Polish researchers were already describing the concept with the word “stereotypes”), Dilov thought of good stories as the “memes” of a good future, references for doing and speaking good that can be understood as goodness, even among strangers; indeed, especially among strangers. And it is this binding power of commonality, rather than any ideological motifs, that his tech-magic fables invoke to inform all their morals.
The tools of the trades, SF and allegorical literature, are ably employed by the author in chiseling the evasive truth from our common bare stone, variously embracing and completely neglecting the “fourth wall,” reworking the oldest testaments and myths, laughing at our shared fear of the unknown. Motifs recur throughout the oeuvre (drinking, suicide, and pride in one’s craft are examples) and effectively nuance the sometimes challenging discursive passages by tethering each newly birthed narrative to a perennial philosophy. All these years later, we are left with a temporal, dialectic continuum which I will very broadly section up for the purpose of exposition.
But first, I’ll briefly mention a connection between Dilov’s early life and that of many seminal individual contributors to twentieth-century SF: WWII. Lem’s work was impacted by his experience as a blond Jew in Lviv, using fake papers to pass for a gentile during the brutal prison pogroms. Arkady Strugatsky was evacuated from the Nazi seige of Leningrad, not without tragedy. Arthur C. Clarke was billeted in a decimated London, Vonnegut took shelter in the number five slaughterhouse, and Gene Roddenbury flew eighty-nine combat missions. Heinlein, Asimov, and de Camp fixed equipment for the US Navy. Komatsu Sakyō, after Japan’s surrender, worked clearing charred bodies. The Berliner Günther Krupkat was active in resisting the Reich and later became the first chairman of the East German Writers Union’s Science Fiction Working Group. Lyuben Dilov spent six years of his childhood in Berlin. His father evacuated the family from Allied bombing, but upon returning to Bulgaria, he was politically imprisoned in notorious concentration camps like the one on Belene Island. Of course, no segment of society was left untouched by the global conflict, but the flames of burning cities did coincide with the ignition of a new wave of speculative literature.
Dilov’s early non-fiction works and non-fantastic narratives had been well received and earned the young author a reputation, and a dream for the better technology of the future. His first SF novel, The Atomic Man (1958), was initially held up at the state publisher, there being no hard-SF frame of reference in the country at that time. The book was unsuccessful, but nonetheless warranted a second printing; the new edition gives the protagonist a nationality transplant from American to Bulgarian. A lesser artist might have despaired at the imposition of obtuse moral coordinates, but Dilov seemingly accepted the challenge and embarked on a decades-long journey to reveal what is truly located at those coordinates.
His next novel, The Many Names of Fear (1967), was a detective fantasy lampoon of psychosurgery, but as the space age came to dominate the hearts and minds of many, Dilov’s attention turned towards the heavens. Dilov didn’t live to witness Starlink satellites repainting our night sky, but in The Weight of the Spacesuit (1969) we find that he was very much concerned with technology’s encroachments on our world’s sense of wilderness. Following nine cosmonauts’ journey to contact another civilization, the dense imagery is concise and laconic in describing primarily the inhabitants of the cabin, rather than what’s to be seen out the porthole. The spacesuit, and other manifestations of technology, are seen by the author as the vestments of a death cult that thrusts humanity into the icy cold horror of space, but they also define the physical limitations of existence.
The characters assess important philosophical puzzles, and the human characteristics each of them revealed in discussion accurately inform their later reactions. The result is an unbreakable coupling of human virtue with humankind’s eternal pursuit of the unknown and the unattainable. It is a testament to the triumph of human will under conditions of immense strain and a suggestion that such strain actually sharpens some human virtues while blurring the lines between them: camaraderie, duty, responsibility and self-sacrifice. Frequent Dilov reviewer Ognyan Saparev called it “the tightest, most complete, cast as if in one breath” of all Dilov’s works.
The Path of Icarus (1974), which first earned Dilov international recognition, is a first-rate space opera and a significant literary achievement. Considered by Arkady Strugatsky to be one of a handful of socialist speculative novels that defined the genre, the story follows an intellectually elite space crew piloting a generation ship in search of other habitable worlds. The story follows the young Zenon, first born child of the Icarus society, who has never seen the Earth, but Dilov proves, almost mathematically, that the Earth won’t be so easily left behind. Following family discord and changing human expectations, the novel rests heavily on the saga of a forbidden cyborg/clone and its creator, who is eventually removed from the society for his Frankensteinian ambition. The “child” is destroyed in a hyper-emotional scene that casts doubt on the entire utopian genre. Meanwhile, the enclosed society’s stringent code of conformity is repeatedly battered and invalidated by the never conforming space they encounter, ultimately leading Dilov to remind us that the “gaping abyss of contradictions between our new knowledge and old views” has always been bridged within the mind of a single person rather than a collective. It’s a masterwork of recasting scientific ideas which were then in their early stages into their potential future forms, not just as shock hypotheses but as a means of examining their socio-philosophical challenges.
Zenon, facing the incomprehensible alien “cloud” on the uninviting alien world, reflects on his part in the narrative of humanity as it will seem to the future colony:
These tales will surely seem like fantasy to them, but let’s hope they love them. And when, after centuries or millennia, their Neanderthals are civilized, they may recognize in their genes the memory of the Earth and follow the tales in search of it. And so it is with us, we will not stop looking to meet our own estranged children, to meet ourselves in space and close the circle of the great unity of the worlds.
In The Path of Icarus, we are also introduced to the Fourth Law of Robotics, ostensibly for comic effect. The claim to have produced the earliest known addition to Asimov’s sacred Three Laws is a matter of great pride for Bulgarian SF, but the passage where it is actually stated is somewhat condensed and unassuming. This new law obligates the robot to identify itself as a robot in all circumstances. The cynical justification mentions market forces and the embarrassment of accidentally flirting with an automated female voice on the phone, but the less obvious utility of including, and immediately augmenting, Asimov’s holy commandments is an uncondensed skeptical analysis of robotics, laws, humans, and the soothing nature of small numbers. Lest it be said that Lyuben Dilov was picking on Asimov as a foreign competitor, do note that he used equal diligence in his treatment of Bible stories, apocrypha, Plato, all historians, nationalistic traditions, the socialist-realism he was paid to promote, and his own narrative offerings, which were often as simple as an ordinary Bible story. And in this sense, you could call him irreverent, but, in most cases, you cannot fail to credit the exemplary modesty of his presentation.
In the wake of the resounding legitimacy brought by The Path of Icarus, and before his most biting satirical offerings, Dilov wrote a space novel for teenagers, Niki & Numi (1980, 1983), released in two parts. Still ever vigilant in his anti-establishment allegory (the school guard in the role of the state), Dilov addresses children with moderation, temperately, and accommodates without compromise, but avoids talking down to his audience, something the author often warned against with regard to children’s literature. Taken in the context of the oeuvre, the saga of the earthly Niki and the extraterrestrial Numi demonstrates Dilov’s consistent motivation to deliver a specific, vital message to a specific audience who needs it, not only to unload his imaginative excesses (a license he also fully utilizes, nonetheless). But perhaps good timely advice can also be universally valid by coincidence. Sometimes framed as familiar Aesopian diagramming, other times stated more directly, Dilov captures the child’s thin distinction between laughter and tears, and he educates the characters and us by having the heroes compare the two different worlds they come from. They discuss the pain of being unjust to others and whether each civilization has its own truths with equal vigor. Adult readers can rediscover the great historical markers of human civilization through Numi’s alien eyes and the various alien beings they meet paint a full image of the possible spectrum of the imaginary. In Bulgaria today, the two Niki & Numi books are probably the best remembered of Dilov’s works, owing to the timing; they’ve already been introduced to the first generation of the twenty-first century.
The best anecdote from Bulgarian SF lore involves the founding of the Biblioteka Galaktika publishing series. In 1979, author and translator Milan Asadurov launched the book series to introduce Bulgarian readers to the top SF and detective-fiction being produced around the world. The imprint went on to release over one hundred books, translated classics alongside the best domestic offerings, all with unique, story-specific original paintings by Tekla Alexieva. It can’t be overstated how seminal Galaktika’s editions and Alexieva’s eye-catching images were in bringing valuable ideas into legitimate competition for the Bulgarian workers’ meager beer money. So, as legend has it, Asadurov had tried to bring five-hundred books of American origin into the country. Naturally, they were stopped by State Security, but after negotiating their release for some months, Asadurov eventually managed to prove that the books had actually been translated and published in Moscow. Presenting readily available domestic and Soviet-sphere authors alongside hitherto unread Western giants such as Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury, Biblioteka Galaktika’s books would go on to become a cherished commodity, not a small feat for a poor socialist country. But what the State Security didn’t know is that these books had gotten the entire editorial board of the Moscow publishing house “Molodaya Gvardiya” fired in the autumn of 1968 for the publication of “ideological diversion.” Lyuben Dilov was on the small editorial board at Galaktika, alongside Melkonyan, Peev, and Slavchev, and the “commodities” they produced for a little over a decade are iconic artifacts of the Cold War’s more artificial borders and SF’s rebellious attempts to thaw them.
Bulgarian SF also got a second boost in those years. Arkady Strugatsky left Russia for Bulgaria on his first ever visit abroad, on Melkonyan’s invitation. Strugatsky was an admirer of Dilov’s work, especially The Path of Icarus, and they became friends. Dilov would fictionalize their meeting in The Missed Chance (1981), which with Unfinished Novel of a Student (1982), and The Cruel Experiment (1985) are grouped not only chronologically but existentially. The ease of the author’s narrative direction and, paradoxically, the uneasiness it could lead to had been well exercised in his earlier work. But Dilov had bigger things in mind than Moscow’s perfect man and caricatures of despots. Besides, his 1979 story “Even If They Leave”, a seething berating of gasping totalitarianism in a small country, hadn’t even earned him a proper censor, perhaps because he already had some international awards to his name. But the extent of state censorship in Communist Bulgaria is by no means a settled issue. There were tragedies, state agencies approved publications, and despite widespread destruction of records, ample physical evidence of State Security’s political profiling has survived, but prominent voices from the Bulgarian literary community have, in more recent times, characterized the situation as one more driven by the artists’ own self-censorship. Dilov certainly writes candidly about one of his former colleague-informers, “one of those aspiring writers who didn’t ever become a writer, perhaps because he failed to get past the retelling stage.”
So, on the geographic and ideological fringes of the Soviet hemisphere, potentially emboldened by cultural exchange and an increasingly receptive audience, Dilov revisited his own literary path, and that of his nation (and all humanity), through its various forms and genres in The Missed Chance. Like Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971), this composite work is first and foremost, structured as a literary experiment. A Perfect Vacuum is a playful metafictional “anthology” of fictional reviews, that is, reviews for books that don’t exist (unless you count the opening review for A Perfect Vacuum by S. Lem). But while Lem’s arguably genius lampoon of postmodern literary self-indulgence efficiently mobilizes the structure against his target, and though the sequence is not inconsequential, it is non-narrative, a fundamental impossibility for Dilov.
In The Missed Chance, a true composite novel, the reader gets their metafictional lesson, the value of story and the storyteller’s responsibility to humankind, between interludes detailing a few frustrating work days in the life of SF writer Lyuben Dilov. He has been compelled by the Writers’ Union to switch to the newest model of writing computer, which knows all world literature, recorded history, and data and can produce original works in the style of the author it serves. Dilov need only submit his spoken commands according to the manual. The eager computer effortlessly produces page after page, but the author is offended at the perceived diminution of his craft. Dilov hates all the stories, and as he vainly attempts to vocalize his specific complaints with this “highly-evolved” reflection of himself, the computer’s tales turn more and more bitterly satirical against their human patron and his arrogant self-denial. The effect is so immersive and complete and entertaining that it’s easy to forget what you definitely know: that you’re reading the words of Lyuben Dilov.
But even though The Missed Chance is seemingly fully occupied with Dilov’s experimental techno-puppet show format, the author stays true to his penchant for layering multiple textures and softly demanding the reader pay heed to the overlapping connections. Opening with an already solved murder case, Dilov’s facetiously challenging parameters elicit facetious responses from the computer-storyteller: a dragon tale without an end, a “secular” retelling of Cassandra, and a transgender, interplanetary transporter malfunction. The familiar sci-fi themes of time travel, alien encounters, and sex robots also appear, all with quotable comments on their respective spheres of influnece. But perhaps the most “subversive” topics pervading the composition are the decidedly un-collective concepts of “self” and “identity.”
For the closing tale, “The Plundered Truth”, let’s look at the cast of characters: So, in a story in a story written for Dilov by his computer, which is also him, we only find the author’s real-life friends, Arkady Strugatsky and Karl Levitin, one Lyuben Dilov confronting another Lyuben Dilov, and a seemingly innocuous cameo by Dilov’s secretary. It is strikingly tempting to draw a parallel from here to Dilov’s initial impression of the computer’s voice in the beginning: “…maybe the dark-eyed, passionate, and secretly-in-love-with-her-boss secretary. Its voice was well-selected, but I don’t yet know whether or not I will love this secret secretary back.”
The computer-composer had already been directly accused by Dilov of writing itself into an earlier story, as a martyr for an owl-like alien race being imposed upon by the arrival of humans. And its mischievous, Scheherazade-like voice, which Dilov skillfully delineates from his own, can be detected in some others of its self-produced characters. But this designedly subtle call-back to the secretary, less than ten pages from the end of the book, whirls the reader’s cognition back through the ten preceding stories, and upon examination we find that all ten, seemingly hidden in plain sight, are covalently bonded by the shared electron of marital infidelity. Now, if you’re imagining Dilov crafting some banal confession to his wife, Milka, the mother of his children, his great love and muse, please try to pay closer attention. This encoded, guilty admission is for unfaithfulness to his own creative influences from bygone eras, to the “tradition of all dead generations,” as Marx put it, and for partaking in modernity, as demanded by his own revolutionary era, and his own contrarian whimsy, and his Marxist administrators. Ironically, when critics accused Ursula Le Guin of departing from genre tradition, they called her work “Balkanized.”
Nothing in its finishing or function separates The Missed Chance from Dilov’s other intricate productions, but the full blooming of the central concepts within the limits of the format, itself carefully selected, leaves this piece as one of the most instructive “textbooks” on writing style we have at our disposal today. But be careful not to confuse it with his later short story “How to Write a Science-Fiction Story”, which is actually Dilov’s comment on “just following orders.”
Time travel is SF’s flying trapeze. The discerning reader demands a daring spectacle and suspended reality, but every flyer must be skillfully caught and landed safely on the opposite board. And no nets, please! So, why not start the book with its third chapter and go back for its first two? Unfinished Novel of a Student (1982), Dilov’s contrary foray into the tradition, proclaims its own nonsensicalness from the start with a disclaimer reminiscent of these introductory words from Lucian’s True History:
…I turned my style to publish untruths, but with an honester mind than others have done: for this one thing I confidently pronounce for a truth, that I lie: and this, I hope, may be an excuse for all the rest… Let no man therefore in any case give any credit to them.
Dilov writes in the introduction, “Let the reader not worry if some things seem unmotivated and unclear, they also seem so to the author”, and then later when the unnamed, modern-day historian is considering the career switch to science fiction,
You can shovel all the historians in our country! And besides, our so-called science is making up more than a few things! At least SF isn’t telling you the lie that what it’s telling you ever really happened!
The historian had learned of his literary destiny by accident after stumbling into the twenty-fourth century. Soon after, but ages earlier, a little too much Corinthian wine compels a careless student of Temporal Flight to prematurely tell the ancient Greeks about their aeorema, the machine used to more convincingly lower the “gods” from above in the theater. Later, the future’s interference in the past is illustrated even more immaculately; a chrononaut’s indiscretion with an ancient Nazarene girl accidentally launches Christianity. (It’s worth remembering Dilov’s audience here: the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had been a vital force in forming the national identity in the nineteenth century, but the arrival of Soviet oversight had forced even Christmas behind closed doors.)
The protagonist of Unfinished Novel of a Student is Cyana (named after cyanide), a well-intentioned but flippant aspiring chrononaut. She is vigorous and youthful, the least informed but the most willing. Her superior, the aged Professor of Temporal Flight, warns her about the dangers of time travel with his own tragic testimony but to no avail. Experience cannot silence sanguinity, but it can waylay it; he sends her to the asteroid belt. The central research computer has stopped responding to the scientists there but only after it compiled an unsolicited treatise on human abuse against machines. Tasked with debugging the stubborn computer, Cyana and Dilov check all the familiar boxes of asking where the human and the machine begin and end and so on, but the way Cyana fixes the “broken” computer is purely Dilov. She tells it a story. She recounts her research mission to the Cretan Labyrinth and her run-in with the Minotaur. Dilov often appealed to readers’ familiarity with the Classics, Daedalus’ Labyrinth also supplying the titular metaphor in The Path of Icarus. Cyana sums up her framed narrative, “My Minotaur,” a lesson in the subjectivity of truth, with diplomatic platitude:
…they’d been envisioning a being less selfish than themselves, to be objective and fearless in its judgement. Humans have always strived to become that ideal, but when they realized they would never achieve it, they created a computer from metal and energy to have a more virtuous companion on their path. And here again, with these stories of yours, you’re making yourself just that—their fair and fearless judge. Love them in the future, dear colleague, help them because humans are very lonely in the universe and, in this endless loneliness, there’s no one to lead them out of the labyrinth they built.
“Colleague Cyana, you are a cutie,” said the computer beyond the wall that humans had placed between it and themselves.
The “real” Labyrinth was solved using a thread from Ariadne, a detail with symbolic value for which the author doesn’t fail to account, because Dilov, rather than telling the future facing forward, follows the threads back through the endless maze of tragic lies that brought us here, and reminds us that we’ll be looking back on them just as endlessly when the future arrives. But if you haven’t guessed the prime intent that unites all the threads by now, then you haven’t been paying attention. It’s love.
Around the time the Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern Bloc’s first generation of speculative masters took a step back. Arkady Strugatsky died in 1991, Lem’s final novel had already been written, and Dilov was occupied delivering a specific, vital message to a specific audience who needed it. Bulgarian identity was then, and is still now, actively developing, and I find an apt metaphor in the post-Communism debate over formal personal address. Bulgarian men had called each other “Mr.” in the Kingdom, but it had been replaced by “Comrade,” then after 1989, a brief reactionary period of “Citizen” before going back to “Mr.” (in Bulgarian: Gospodin, Drugaryu, and Grajdanin, respectively) Dilov’s characters very often used “Colleague”, by the way.
Dilov had released some short stories during the last few years of the Communist regime, notably “Adam’s Rib” and “Down by the Spring,” and prolifically defended SF’s credibility in his articles and interviews, but the next substantial batch of new material that was officially published has been described as the “manuscripts in the drawer,” meaning they had been prepared in anticipation of imminent regime change and the freedom of expression that entailed. Among these are a short story collection called We and the Others (1990), a brief historical memoir called Sex Life Under Totalitarianism (1993), and a difficult to categorize gathering of anecdotes entitled Impressions from a Planet: Notes of a Science-Fiction Writer (1990). The “manuscripts in a drawer” nomen was only selectively applied at the time, indicating a perceived distinction between those who were legitimately oppressed and those who didn’t have much to say anyway.
Saparaov writes that Dilov “doesn’t like categoricality. His skeptical writer’s attitude prefers the open discussion, the collision of contradictory points of view without a didactic-unambiguous answer.” Such an ambitious Socratic endeavor necessarily employs many elegant, but deliberate, deliveries. Pieces of such intricate devices can be, have been, and will always be taken, quite literally, out of context. So in Dilov’s writing, one encounters ‘-isms’ that are considered, at best, dated by today’s standards, but the author never digresses (even when he does) from the non-linear and non-dualistic meander that leads the reader straight ahead through a logical circle that tidily reduces to absurdity anything that lacks compassion.
Case in point: In Impressions from a Planet we find a chapter entitled “We Feed the Children Lies” which describes Dilov’s own experiences with state conspirators and mentions his father’s work and imprisonment. He quotes a song, remembered from his father, that perpetuates stereotypes about Romani, the predominant minority ethnic group in Bulgaria. He goes on to compare his poor childhood living conditions, and also the treatment of writers in well-fed nations, to the conditions of “gypsies” (Bulgarians use the word tsigani but rarely the endonym Romani). The implicit hierarchy of cultures would have been fully relatable to Dilov’s audience, not in any way controversial. He then recalls that, after relocating to Germany, the “gypsyism” of their young family, now immigrants living in Nazi Berlin, was even more confirmed. Already, the structure of the allegory is taking shape, but don’t count your dimensions before they hatch; Dilov isn’t done yet. Over just a few paragraphs, the author exponentially expands his father’s “prodigal son” return to Bulgaria into a continuum of moral wisdom extending through time from Homer to Archimedes, with nods to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jack London, encompassing both the racist song from earlier and his father’s own journalistic accomplishments.
Valuable for the historical information alone, Impressions from a Planet runs considerably longer than any of the novels Dilov published. But the mindful voice is the same, bright optimism and cold truths are still treated with equal respect, and the simple intent of spreading only good still lends a certain warmth to the reading. In fact, reading this collection of personal musings being shared unencumbered by the more or less state sponsored censorship mechanisms, those familiar with Dilov’s fiction work will be most struck by how successfully he had been delivering his “subversive” message in his own open code all along, but from the perspective of the fantastic.
Shortly thereafter, Dilov released another book of anecdotes, this time very easy to categorize. Fellows of the author, all Bulgarian, who had preceded him in death are commemorated with intimate recountings that are united by one purpose: cheer. For the Dead, Either Good or Funny is a continuation of Dilov’s reflections on the Communist era, and again uses contemporary history, rather than SF, as the stand-in vehicle for the real discussion. In the chapter on Georgi Markov, the dissident journalist assassinated in London under apparent orders from Todor Zhivkov, Dilov writes about an embarrassing social faux pas that the quick-witted Markov had covered up with a joke, and then, abruptly:
By the way, in the same manner, through his death, he covered up the self-delusions of our whole generation and its shameful compromises… His ambitious urge to always come to the fore naturally turned him into the scapegoat for what our generation did not dare do.
In 1991, Dilov established the Graviton award, the first for SF writing and art in Bulgaria (it would later recognize translators, too). Specifically established as an honor “For Good Imagination”, Dilov himself clarified its intent further: “for imagination that creates good”. Its inaugural recipients were Agop Malkonyan and Tekla Aleksieva. At the presentation of the statuettes, though his own literary credentials were not confined to the genre, Dilov took the opportunity to respond to some of Bulgarian SF’s domestic critics. These remarks, spoken on behalf of his fellow fantasists, would have been impossible just a few years earlier:
… our escape was an escape forward to greater space and more air to breathe… we tore our readers away from the absurdities of a poorly organized workday. We made them think about another reality. We prevented a machine, completely built for manipulating thought, from weakening the minds and imaginations of the young people… we reflected the real fears and hopes of our time, encouraged young people to worry about their future, to think about the great and common problems of humanity… It was not pure literature. It was real.
The Graviton award passed away with the author in 2008. I’m reminded of his lament in the preface for his own translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:
…a bookstore was opened in his honor in the Buddenbrook House; Hitler closed it down and it seems that to this day in the Free City of Lübeck, as it’s called on the sign, no one dares or thinks of finally reversing this decision.
With the drawers emptied of their manuscripts, Dilov again resumed the voice of the allegorist, crafting narrative fantasy, rebuilding SF’s powerful engines to propel his space-age, philosophical vessel ever further into the unknown. For years, his veil of satire had earned him sideways epithets like “under the zodiac sign of SF.” But after having forayed into non-fiction in the free new marketplace of ideas, Dilov’s waning creative years were spent telling fantastic stories. And perhaps it’s not surprising, considering how often he spoke about the power that a good myth or fairy tale has to spread good among people. As far as I know, he never spoke highly of non-fiction.
The novella Hominiana and Time (1993) depicts a visit to a world that worships time, brutally enslaved by those who can give it and take it away. An excerpt,
…when you declare something your god, you automatically declare all other gods to be wrong. Meanwhile, the virtuous are constantly trying to expand the boundaries they carry within, to incorporate into them as much of the world as possible, and it is precisely this striving of the human soul that represents its merger with the infinite.
Lilith’s Bible (1999) is a convincing retelling of the Old Testament that’s impossible to decontextualize and warrants many pages more than I have left here. Bigfoot (1999), another novella, was released at the same time and follows the activities of an international expedition to the Himalayas in search of the Yeti. The Bulgarian title is also readable as The Big Step and the double meaning is intended. Interspersed with the adventure are the conscious thoughts of the Mountain Spirit’s true nature.
It’s easy to name names from the early days because SF writers were so few. Today, that’s not the case; Bulgarian literature, including fantasy and SF, is thriving. But there is a general scholarly consensus that immediately following the fall of Communism, the new republic was producing literature of merit, but nothing of note (save for the authors with “manuscripts in the drawer”). Perhaps emerging Bulgarian authors yielded shelf space to the influx of translated options, with some Western publishers offering vast catalogues of previously unavailable, proven best-sellers, but I’m speculating.
Maxwell’s Demon (2001) and Choose Yourself (2002) are Lyuben Dilov’s final two novels. The author was already facing too many obstacles related to Parkinson’s disease to continue his writing, but, ever prescient, he had foreseen this and prepared some works in advance for when such a time came. So, perhaps they will someday be retrospectively slid backwards in time to the twentieth century from whence they came, and the 1990s can be proclaimed Dilov’s fourth consecutive decade as undisputed champion of Bulgarian SF.
In the very second sentence of The Missed Chance, Dilov writes, “I’ve worked with writing computers of all generations to date…”, but in the 2014 edition from Enthusiast, edited and noted by Lyuben Dilov Jr., that page includes a note at the bottom stating that the writer never once used a computer to write, relying always on his old German Erika typewriter. So then, some questions arise: As the robot age draws nearer and our cosmic horizon grows ever more distant, can we really, truly rely on ourselves like you say, Uncle Lubo? And was Arkady Strugatsy really the inspiration for “The Plundered Truth”? Did your father really sing that racist song? Were your thinly veiled barbs at socialist-realism sincere, or were they an absurdly reduced tacit approval? Has this reviewer occasionally quoted directly from, or loosely translated, your own kind words about Thomas Mann to describe you yourself herein? The path to these answers is fraught with difficulty, but it sure is a good story.
Andy Erbschloe is a native English-speaker living in Bulgaria. Primarily occupied as a homemaker, Andy pursues a variety of interests including sociolinguistics, labor socialism, comparative religion, mushroom picking, and sequential art. He prefers to earn knowledge in lump gold rather than any debased cultural coinage, with its idolatrous stamping and unfaithful measure. Actively translating Bulgarian texts from the public domain since 2019, the author is presently advocating for what he considers his greatest discovery: the science-fiction works of Lyuben Dilov, virtually unknown in English. Two Dilov novels, The Missed Chance and Unfinished Novel of a Student, are set for English debut in 2021.
This is my first contribution to the SFRA Review in any format and I am deeply humbled and honored to write the country report for India. The report features an Introduction to the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) and our activities including the organization of an International online conference in 2020 and proposed activities for 2021, followed by an overview of the Indian SF films and literature released in 2020 and 2021 until now.
IASFS is a non-profit association established on 2nd January 1998. The association’s headquarters is in Bangalore, Karnataka State. This is the only registered association in India which promotes the research in science fiction and fantasy. The association promotes research in the field of Science Fiction, organizes conferences and conducts SF short story writing workshops for Indian citizens of all ages and levels of education. IASFS has organized 14 National and 5 International Science Fiction conferences at different locations in India. The Association has collaborated with many Colleges, Universities, Local Bodies and Institutions in organizing conferences. Hence, it was able to bring together hundreds of academicians, scholars, students, scientists, writers, publishers, critics, movie makers, journalists, fans, industrialists, technologists, farmers and readers. So far the Annual Conferences of IASFS were held at Chennai, Coimbatore, Gandhigram, Gudiattam and Vellore in Tamil Nadu, Bangalore, Yelahatti and Mysore in Karnataka, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Aurangabad and Pune in Maharashtra, Pondicherry, and Ernakulum in Kerala, my home state. Each conference had plenary sessions and story reading sessions by respective authors in addition to the paper presentations. IASFS had also arranged a SF Story Writing Workshop conducted by Eric Miller and story reading sessions by respective SF writers. The association was also able to organize a video conference with Professor James E Gunn, Director of the Center for Science Fiction Studies at Kansas University.
Dr. Srinarahari is the Secretary-General of IASFS and he plans and distributes all the duties and activities of the association including memberships, roles of members in association and conference related activities. I am a life member of the association since 2019. The 19th Annual or the 5th International Science Fiction virtual Conference of the association was held in collaboration with Bangalore University, from December 7 to 10 in 2020. This conference was entitled “All Roads to Science Fiction”. A unique feature of the conference was that all the 52 departments of the Bangalore University, SF fans, media and the general public had converged at “ISFC 2020”. Themes of the conference varied from myths to advanced technology and to the life in other worlds. The conference was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Karnataka State, and the Deputy Chief Minister, the Minister for Higher Education, the Minister for Primary and Secondary Education, the Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University, and the Physics Nobel Laureate of 2019 Professor Didier Patrick Queloz had made their esteemed presence. Some of the highlights of this conference include plenary sessions from SF experts and scholars from different countries, paper presentations, special lectures, interviews, panel discussions, and the narration of SF stories. Guest Speakers of the conference included science fiction writers from Czech Republic, Julie Novakova and Lucie Lukacovicova. The conference also hosted guest speakers from different disciplines including Neural Engineer Dr. John RoLacco from Singapore, NASA scientist Ravikumar Kopparapu, and Dr. Ashish Mahabal, Astronomer and Data Scientist from Caltech.
The Association publishes a quarterly magazine entitled Indian Journal of Science Fiction Studies. It comprises of papers and stories presented in the previous conferences, review of books, and an interaction by the readers. As part of the conference, we had also prepared a collection of all the abstracts received for the conference and it was released as an E-book after the conference. Selected papers from the conference will be published in a peer reviewed journal maybe later this year. IASFS proposes to hold Regional, National and an International Conferences during 2021-22. This year’s National Conference may be held at Shridi in Maharashtra.
As for the recent developments in Science Fiction novels, films, and TV shows from India, there is very little to mention from the year 2020 till now. One SF novel worth noting is Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits. This is a dystopia set in a near Indian future and has all the elements of a traditional dystopia like surveillance, an exploitative government, and the manipulation of technology. It was featured in the short list of the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020. Other honorable mentions include The Wall by Gautam Bhatia, Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Your Future by Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, and Hunted by the Sky written by Tanaz Bhathena. S.B. Divya, who is known for her SF short stories, published her first SF novel Machinehood in March 2021.When it comes to SF films and TV shows, the trend is no different in the number of production. Only two SF films were released in theatres after the pandemic. It is to be noted that both of these are Telugu-language films. Disco Raja directed by Vi Anand was released on 24th January 2020 before the lockdown phases started in India. Zombie Reddy directed by Prasanth Varma was released on 5th February 2021 when the theatres partially reopened amidst the pandemic. This film is considered as the first zombie film in Telugu language and it is also based on the COVID-19 pandemic. Two Hindi language SF web series were released in 2020, Betaal and JL50. Betaal is a zombie horror series directed by Patrick Graham and it was released on Netflix. Even though it received mixed to negative reviews, it is still India’s first zombie web series. JL50 is directed by Shailender Vyas and it is available on the streaming platform Sony Liv. OK Computer is the only Indian SF series released in 2021 till now. This SF comedy drama series is directed by Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar and it was released on Disney+ Hotstar.
I feel that this is the ideal time for me to write a country report for India. Because India is going through the worst second wave of COVID pandemic and people are dying from the lack of oxygen supply in hospitals all over the country. It feels like we are living in a dystopia on the verge of apocalypse which also reflects our common interest in this venture, Science Fiction. Let us hope that the pandemic will be over very soon so that we can survive this trial and get back to our normal lives.
Vishnu Prasad Thandassery Radhakrishnan is a Ph.D. Student in the English department of St. Thomas’ College (affiliated to the University of Calicut) in Thrissur, Kerala, India. His MA dissertation was on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and TheLord of the Rings Trilogy. In his Ph.D. thesis, he is working on Young Adult Dystopian literature which tries to look into the genre’s impact on popular culture, film adaptations, and social media discussions all over the world. Vishnu is a lifetime member of the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) which promotes science fiction research both in English and India’s regional languages and organizes an International Science Fiction Conference every year. He is also the current country representative of India for the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA). Vishnu is also a member of the YA Studies Association and his research interests include Science Fiction and Fantasy, Utopias and Dystopias, Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Media, Gothic Studies and Popular Culture Studies.
Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! It’s supposedly Spring here in Madison, Wisconsin, but it actually snowed for about five minutes this afternoon, so I don’t know anything anymore.
Wait, I do know one thing, and that’s the fact that 2021 is giving us a lot of fantastic SFT. So much, in fact, that since I wrote the previous installment of this column, I’ve discovered even more novels and collections that came out between January and March. Thus in a first for this column, I’ll include a paragraph about SFT that came out in the first three months of this year, and then I’ll jump into what this installment is supposed to be about, which is SFT coming out between April and June.
Somehow The Lunar Trilogy—a famous series of science fiction novels by Polish author Jerzy Zulawski—slipped under my radar at the time of my last writing, though it is now not just on my radar but also my website. Written between 1901 and 1911, and published in English in January of this year, these books tell the story of Earth astronauts who get stranded on the Moon and establish a colony, one that goes on to develop in many ways like the civilization they left behind. February brought us Rabbit Island, a collection of magical realist stories from Spain, and In the Company of Men (Côte d’Ivoire), which explores the Ebola outbreak through a fabulist lens. In March, we were treated to German SFT from Julia von Lucadou—The High-Rise Diver, a story about the cost of ubiquitous surveillance—and Markus Heitz (of the Dwarves and Alfar fantasy series), who is out with the Doors trilogy, an alternate-history thriller about a mysterious cave system to another timeline. March also brought us Zabor, or The Psalms (about writing as a way to achieve immortality), the fourth installment in Jin Yong’s wuxia series Legends of the Condor Heroes, plus Italian SF author and editor Francesco Verso’s collection Futurespotting and the ecologically-focused (and quite excellent) anthology Elemental:Earth Stories.
Which brings us to April, May, and June, when flowers should be blooming and snow should not be falling…but I digress. Korean SFT continues to roll in—which makes me very happy—this time in the form of a collection of interconnected stories by Kim Bo-young (I’m Waiting For You) and a novel by Choi Jin-young (To the Warm Horizon), about a group of people trying to move forward literally and metaphorically across an apocalyptic wasteland. From Japan, we’re getting Izumi Suzuki’s first stories translated into English—Terminal Boredom—a collectiondescribed as “at turns nonchalantly hip and charmingly deranged.” Sign me up.
Staying in Asia, we have a Chinese novel and anthology to look forward to in June. Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes is a near-future tale about humanity living in undersea domes after climate devastation. Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni, offers readers thirteen newly-translated stories from some of China’s most engaging science fiction authors.
French post-exotic author Antoine Volodine shows up in May with Solo Viola, where a viola player might just save his compatriots from the suffering they’re experiencing at the hands of an authoritarian leader. From Mohamed Kheir comes a magical story about Egypt’s hidden, magical spaces and life after the Arab Spring. And surely most of you reading this column know about Lavie Tidhar’s latest anthology of world speculative fiction—The Best of World SF—with stories about time travel, aliens, and everything in between. With authors like Taiyo Fujii, Cristina Jurado, Francesco Verso, and Nir Yaniv, you know this’ll be good.
“But what about short fiction?” I hear you asking. So far in April, we’ve gotten two excellent stories available for free online: “The Final Test” (Future Science Fiction Digest), translated from the Chinese, about a machine that must prove its worth by facing a virtual reality human in a test of wills; and the disturbing Icelandic story “The Sea Gives Us Children” (Words Without Borders) about a community without adults living on an island, where the sea periodically deposits babies for the children to care for.
Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
My contribution to this column will consist of an introduction to the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), which I co-direct, followed by an overview of our 2020 activities and 2021 plans.
The LSFRC (est. 2014) is an organization of sf scholars and fans, led by a directorate of graduate students. The Community presents film screenings, work in progress colloquia, and special talks with guest speakers—whose number has included Brian Stableford, Sherryl Vint, and David Brin—several times a year, and also hosts a monthly reading group (previously located in Central London but currently online) on Monday evenings. Each year the reading group engages with texts organized around a central theme. Since 2017, we have hosted a conference centered upon our annual theme each September. The 2017 conference was entitled “Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures,” and subsequent themes have included “Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction & Metaphysics” (2018) and “Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction” (2019). In addition to academic keynotes, we also invite authors and other creators to participate in roundtable discussions—previous guests have included Aliette de Bodard, Gwyneth Jones, Jeff Noon, Chen Qiufan, and Larissa Sansour—as well as activists and organisers for a “provocations beyond fiction” session. Our 2020 conference was entitled “Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions,” and we are currently planning a 2021 conference around the theme of Activism & Resistance. Expect a call for papers for that around early Spring.
LSFRC is not affiliated with any external bodies or institutions, although we enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. We also maintain friendly relations with the Beyond Gender collective, Vector, and Utopian Acts. Our events are open to all, regardless of geographical location; there is no LSFRC membership structure, and events we host always offer a free registration option. Our primary community presence is in our Facebook group, but we also maintain a Twitter page and website. We support and encourage diversity in sf studies and fandom, not only in the range of approaches to the genre, but also in our commitment to providing a welcoming space for engagement with sf for people of all backgrounds and experience.
Our 2020 activities began with a screening of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place as part of the “Beyond Borders” programme, followed by reading group sessions on Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and stories from the Broken Stars (ed. Ken Liu) anthology in February and March, the latter of which was conducted in part as a teach-out on a picket line at Birkbeck, University of London. Subsequent reading group sessions—Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer in April, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season in May, stories from Walking the Clouds (ed. Grace Dillon) in June, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti in August—and other events all took place online. The switch to online facilitated remote participation from people based outside of London, and for those still unable to attend we post session reports and/or bibliographies to our website. During this time, we also hosted a work in progress event that featured a guest talk from Glyn Morgan, started up an informal film club for remote group viewings, and hosted a bonus reading group session and Twitter Q&A as part of the launch of M. John Harrison’s collection “Settling the World.” In September, our efforts were focused on the Beyond Borders conference, after which several members of our team—Tom Dillon, Sing Yun Lee, and Katie Stone—stepped down after years of stellar service. In the wake of their departure, we issued a call for new directors that elicited a slew of excellent applicants, and our team now consists of Ibtisam Ahmed, Angela Chan, Avery Delany, Cristina Diamant, Rachel Hill, Guangzhao Lyu, Mia Chen Ma, Sasha Myerson, Josie Taylor, and myself.
The remainder of 2020 was spent formulating and launching our theme for 2020-2021, Activism & Resistance. The theme was born of a desire to re-examine the relationship between activism, resistance, and the mass imagination with regards to sf. As a genre dedicated to imagining alternatives, sf offers a space of radical potential which allows for diverse explorations of dissent. It is also however a space that has been rightfully critiqued for its historic inequities, formed by and favoring white cis-het men. Our hope is to instigate a reckoning with how precarious bodies engage in activism and resistance in the context of their material realities and restrictions, and acknowledge how communities in the margins—queer, disabled, BIPOC, immigrants & refugees, religious minorities, indigenous populations, casualized workers, the homeless and unemployed—have specific ways of subverting and undermining oppressive systems. Our 2020 programme rounded off with reading group sessions on Kwodwo Eshun’s “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” & John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History (October), Begum Rokeya Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” & Bani Abidi’s The Distance From Here (November), and Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (December). We also hosted a work in progress event in November that featured a stimulating and inspiring interview with Alison Sperling.
As things stand, it seems that our events will remain online-based for a while yet. In addition to the Activism & Resistance reading group sessions (the texts for which are listed below) and conference, we will be hosting a work in progress session sometime in Spring, and hope to also facilitate other events, with current ideas including an activism workshop and some sort of video games-focused event. We will also be brainstorming a theme for 2021-2022. We are eager to forge new, generative connections wherever and whenever possible, and are keen to ensure that our events and discussions are not cloistered within the bubble of career academia. While our focus is primarily scholarly, it is our view that any meaningful study of sf must necessarily engage with politics in a fuller way than academy-circumscribed approaches. We also acknowledge that we have much to learn, and welcome whatever transformative encounters with ignorance and learning we may meet in the days to come.
2021 Activism & Resistance Reading Group Texts:
January: Brother from Another Planet, John Sayles February: Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger March: Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R. Delany April: Deep Space Nine & Blake’s 7 (selected episodes) May: New Suns, Disabled People Destroy SF, and How long ’til Black Future Month (selected short stories) June: Wild Seed, Octavia Butler July: 80 Days, Inkle Studios August: Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown
Part 2: Paul March-Russell
In 2020, the activities of the Science Fiction Foundation were necessarily constrained by Covid-19. Eastercon was cancelled, so there was no George Hay Lecture this year, whilst an abbreviated version of our AGM was moved online. The SFF Collection, housed at the University of Liverpool, was inaccessible for much of the year, but our Librarian, Phoenix Alexander, continued to answer online requests. We still had a visiting scholar though, Iren Boyarkina from Belarus, who researched the Olaf Stapledon Archive with the aid of an SFF bursary. Foundation, the journal of the SFF, appeared as per usual with two general issues and a special issue on Canadian science fiction. This issue also contained Katie Stone’s Peter Nicholls Prize-winning essay on James M. Tiptree and a roundtable discussion, with Gerry Canavan, Jennifer Cooke and Caroline Edwards, about sf and apocalypse. Back issues of Foundation, since 2013, are now available online via Fanac while the revised SFF website has the beginnings of a cumulative index to the journal. Membership of the SFF remains competitive – students can join for £15 ($25) per year, overseas individuals for £32 ($48) per year, and overseas institutions for £50 ($82) per year. Please go to the Membership page of the SFF website or contact our secretary, Roger Robinson, at email@example.com.
Although in-person events were not possible, the SFF continued to support the Arthur C. Clarke Award and contributed two of this year’s judges, Farah Mendlesohn and Chris Pak. Both the SFF and the Clarke Award sponsored an online celebration, in its fortieth year, of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. The organising committee—myself, Andrew M. Butler, Fiona MacDonald and Sonia Overall—had begun planning in the summer of 2018 with the intent of bringing together the three major HE providers in Canterbury (Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of the Creative Arts and the University of Kent) in a commemoration of Hoban’s Kent-based apocalypse. Our initial vision was to feature a symposium on the Christ Church campus; a creative writing competition; dramatic, musical and puppet theatre performances; public lectures at the University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral; a walking tour of sites in the novel; a book group; films and public discussions at Kent and the local Curzon cinema; and commissioned art-works to be displayed around Canterbury and East Kent. We applied for funding from the Arts Council, England, only to narrowly miss out at the final stage, so we were forced to scale-down our plans. As it turned out, even if we had been funded, much of what we planned would have had been rendered impossible by the pandemic. On the eve of the lockdown in March, though, we received good news by becoming part of the Canterbury Festival program, which still went ahead in October with a mixture of online and socially distanced events.
In the wake of the lockdown, and its continuing effects over the summer, we opted to move our remaining plans online. These consisted of the symposium (‘Sum Poasyum’), the competition in collaboration with the local Save As Writers, and the book group with support from the Festival. With only a small budget at our disposal, we had to use our initiative and to make the most of opportunities. We devised a webpage via the Canterbury Christ Church website, and we received free illustrations of The Legend of St Eustace from the Canterbury Archaeological Society, and drawings from Hoban’s papers courtesy of the Beinecke Library. We asked for short (five-minute) responses to the novel from, amongst others, Neil Gaiman, Paul Kincaid, Una McCormack, David Mitchell and Max Porter, which we uploaded to our own YouTube channel. In exchange, we asked viewers to contribute to two local charities. Fiona received funding from the Whitstable Biennale to complete her filmed response to the novel, which also took the overall name of our celebration – Sum Tyms Bytin Sum Tyms Bit. Fiona’s film was premiered on 15th October, one day before the 40th publication of Riddley Walker, at the Folkestone Festival of Looking. In the meantime, we took guidance from Francis Gene-Rowe and Lars Schmeink, who had coordinated online and streaming events over the summer, and from the IT team at Canterbury Christ Church. Due to the institutional support, we used Christ Church’s preferred platform, Blackboard Collaborate, which in the end worked well.
The symposium took place on 24th October from 11 am to 5 pm. We began with Emily Guerry’s talk about the iconography of The Legend of St Eustace, the medieval mural that first inspired Hoban. The second session was a collaboration with the Kent Animal Humanities Network (Angelos Evangelou, Karen Jones, Kaori Nagai, Charlotte Sleigh), who focused on the role of dogs, borders and the nuclear context. The first post-lunch session featured a conversation between Fiona and Esi Eshun, a talk by Sara Trillo, and a live performance by Amy Cutler. The final session included a conversation between myself and the novel’s BBC Radio adapter, Dominic Power, and a roundtable discussion. The sessions were recorded and can be viewed here: https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/sumtymsbit/archive/. The winners of the prose and poetry competitions were announced that evening, and a virtual walking tour took place the following day.
Part 3: Jo Lindsay Walton
The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) is a venerable membership organisation of fans, scholars, authors, editors, publishers, and other stakeholders of science fiction. The BSFA has always been volunteer-run, and a rotating cast of volunteers mean that the exact nature of what we do regularly mutates. Our activities nowadays tend to encompass speculative fiction across all media, although true to our roots there’s continued emphasis on written science fiction. The principal glowing portals the BSFA maintains include a main website, a journal website, Twitter, Facebook group, Discord, Instagram, and YouTube channel.
Vector is the critical journal of the BSFA, currently edited by Polina Levontin and myself. Vector serves a mixed constituency of SFF scholars; other academics with an interest in SFF; as well as non-academic SFF fans and writers. With the lines between fandom and scholarship now not only blurring, but also shimmering and strobing, this remains a frenetic but very satisfying space in which to be working and playing. As of 2021, Vector is moving toward a more open access policy, publishing more content online and adopting Creative Commons licensing for most of it. We have also been collaborating with FANAC to make available our rich back catalogue, stretching back to 1958, and offering a fascinating and occasionally horrifying window into the history of SFF fandom. Publishing plans for 2021-2022 include several guest editors: there is a CfP out now for a special issue on SFF and Class (guest-edited by Nick Hubble), and future themes are likely to include SFF and Prediction, SFF and Social Justice, Greek SFF, and SFF and Modernism. Currently the majority of our articles receive editorial review only, while a few also go through peer review. We welcome submissions and queries from scholars at any career stage as well as non-academic authors and critics.
The BSFA also publishes Focus (a magazine for writers, edited by Dev Agarwal); The BSFA Review (a digital reviews zine of all things SFF, edited by Sue Oke); in 2021 we’ll be launching Fission (a fiction anthology, edited by Allen Stroud). Many BSFA members also participate in the Orbit writers groups, co-ordinated by Terry Jackman. During the UK’s first lockdown period in 2020, we ran the solidarity salon, AKA Very Extremely Casual Tales of Optimism and Resilience, a series of online readings. Historically the BSFA also ran Eastercon, the UK’s national SF convention; while this isn’t the case any more, the two remain closely linked, with Eastercon playing host to the annual BSFA Lecture (organised by Shana Worthen), and Eastercon members voting in the annual BSFA Awards.
The BSFA 2020 Annual General Meeting saw the first major constitutional overhaul in many years, with some expectation of further tinkering in the years to come. In some respects this brought the constitution in line with existing practice, but it also created some fresh roles. Councillors will be elected and/or appointed officers who, along with the Chair (Allen Stroud), Treasurer (Farah Mendlesohn), and Membership Officer (Luke Nicklin), will govern the association between General Meetings. Pat Cadigan also took over as President of the Association, leaving the Vice President role vacant for the time being: we expect to announce the new VP before the 2021 AGM. The AGM also passed a number of interlinked diversity and inclusivity motions, which will include making some BSFA memberships freely available through partnership organisations such as the African Speculative Fiction Society.
As of early 2021, there are volunteer opportunities at the BSFA: three Councillors, a Diversity Officer, an Awards Officer, and a Publications Designer. If you are interested in finding out more and perhaps applying, get in touch with the Chair Allen Stroud. Just as the ‘L’ in ‘LSFRC’ has been rumored to secretly stand not for ‘London,’ but for ‘Large,’ perhaps the ‘B’ in ‘BSFA’ could secretly stand for ‘Big’? — we aspire for our conversations, our connections, and our communities to be, at a minimum, planet-wide.
Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”
N. K. Jemisin has received well-earned critical attention for her novel-length works of speculative fiction, especially after her Hugo Awards triumphs in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her collection of short fiction, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month (2018), brought together pieces of several genres, both previously published and unpublished materials. The collection includes “The Effluent Engine,” which follows a Haitian spy through New Orleans in an alternative history adventure. Jemisin’s heroine must negotiate the new ideals of a liberated Haiti and the internalized norms of New Orleans’ Creole society as she attempts to garner vital strategic information. The story highlights intersectionality on a personal as well as a group level in a nuanced exploration of how we can change our worlds. As argued by scholars such as Sofia Samatar, alternative history itself can be a powerful tool of Afrofuturism. Alongside the concept of bricolage—a process of merging, reshaping, and redefining—alternative history highlights the confluence of individual and group identities within Jemisin’s story. Applying Samatar’s reading of alternative history and bricolage foregrounds how Afrofuturist techniques in “The Effluent Engine” explore the identities of intersectional characters, their community relationships, and their connection to place.
“The Effluent Engine” presents an alternative history where dirigibles and access to other technologies changed the course of Haitian struggles for independence. The main character, a Haitian spy named Jessaline, must enter the slave state of Louisiana to seek an engineer who can further refine the fueling mechanisms for these powerful airships. While Jessaline’s contact is unwilling to help lest it risk his position in New Orleans’ Creole society or prompt backlash from the white leaders of Louisiana and the United States, his sister, Eugenie, proves her knowledge of chemistry can help develop a dirigible engine powered by the effluent, or waste product, of sugarcane processing. Pursued by white supremacists hoping to steal the plans and sabotage Haiti’s independence, Jessaline and Eugenie flee to Haiti intent on developing the engine as well as their romantic relationship.
Speculative fiction as a broad category embraces alternative histories like “The Effluent Engine” for their ability to reimagine both the past and the future. Indeed, Sofia Samatar points out in “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism” (2017) that alternative histories engage with both points in time simultaneously: “To propose an alternate history is to propose that history can be altered, to change directions, to inaugurate an alternate future.” (Samantar, 187) One cannot imagine an alternative past without carrying forward the implications of such changes. In picturing a new history for Haiti, readers are inherently asked to apply these changes to the arc of history. A rich alternative history crafts space for readers to question how such alterations would affect their present time. While some references to the arrest of Toussaint L’Overture place the action of the story in the years following 1802, the lack of dates overall points to their middling importance to the narrative; Jemisin does not need to offer a blow-by-blow account of the changes to history to tell a compelling story that prompts readers to think about large-scale shifts in society. Jemisin emphasizes the transformative aspects of alternative history through characters who are invested in imagining new futures.
At the core of the changes to history in “The Effluent Engine” are Haitian airships, which allowed them to fight back against French colonial forces. Jessaline’s mission is an attempt to find a scientist who can turn the by-product of rum, the titular effluent that produces methane, into a cheaper and plentiful fuel source. Innovative use of by-products and discarded materials is a theme within many pieces of Afrofuturist media, which Samatar evokes in her discussion of the terms bricolage and bricoleur. (177-178) Initially coined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, bricolage was used to distinguish (white) Western invention and what Lévi-Strauss deemed the lesser reinvention, “proceeding in a haphazard fashion and working with second-hand materials, the leftovers of various civilizations”. (Samatar 177) Samatar aligns herself with creators such as Nnedi Okorafor, who uses the phrases bricolage and bricoleur in her novel Who Fears Death. Bricolage celebrates the process of excavating history: “it is from these historical fragments that the data thief or bricoleur constructs visions of what is to come…the bricoleur detaches objects from time, making them available for the creation of new histories.” (Samatar 178) The process of reclamation and reformation is paralleled, for Samatar, by the formation of cultural independence and positive engagement with technology, as she argues that “Afrofuturistic bricolage asserts black people’s right to use whatever is at hand, to enter the technologically enhanced future through whatever door is closest and to do so without assimilation into a global monoculture.” (Samatar 178) Haitian use of effluent as a fuel source repurposes the by-product of a process that itself was intimately connected to colonization. The economic benefits to France from rum and sugar production are re-integrated into the new, independent Haiti as something which has the potential to preserve the nation’s survival. Jessaline’s mission, therefore, is not only espionage but tied up with the process of bricolage.
Beyond the genre of the story itself, “The Effluent Engine” engages with personal uses of alternative history and bricolage as well as collective or group uses of the concepts; Jessaline is a notable character who uses these tools to create disguises and false histories for herself in her role as a spy:
She was indentured, she told the captain, and he had waved her aboard without so much as a glance at her papers (which were false anyhow). She was a wealthy white man’s mistress, she told the other passengers, and between her fine clothes, regal carriage, and beauty – despite her skin being purest sable in color – they believed her and were alternately awed and offended. She was a slave, she told the dockmaster on the levee; a trusted one, lettered and loyal, promised her freedom should she continue to serve to her fullest. He had smirked at this, as if the notion of anyone freeing such an obviously valuable slave was ludicrous. Yet he, too, had let her pass unchallenged. (Jemisin 78)
With every movement, speech, and look, Jessaline creates an alternative history for herself which both protects her and her nation while simultaneously eating away at the solidity of her own identity. In a single journey as described above, Jessaline navigates the elision between identities with practiced ease. Later, when she must change hotels to avoid the pursuit of white, anti-Haitian independence spies, she uses padding which “rendered her effectively shapeless—a necessity, since in this disguise it was dangerous to be attractive in any way”. (Jemisin 99-100) The disguise is meant to make her appear both older and poorer; it includes alterations to her walk and a patched dress. The implication that appearing attractive and poor would make her a target comes across clearly; when she dresses better, Jessaline references a white owner or takes the guise of a white man’s mistress. Through her disguise, her attempts at anonymity are successful: “She was, for all intents and purposes, invisible”. (Jemisin 100) In both of these alternative histories of herself, it is not her class that provides protection, but the implication that she is under a white man’s control. But what effect does this constant construction of alternative histories have for Jessaline herself? Her identity itself is fluid as her goals change and she comes across different challenges. While her disguises can act as a shield, the necessity for a shield itself takes a toll.
Jessaline’s assumed surname for the start of the story, Dumonde, offers a hint at her attempted invisibility. The French du monde, meaning “of the world,” obscures a sense of specific nationality or community. As a spy, Jessaline must attempt to be a member of any and every nation where her mission might take her, and as such, she cannot risk solidifying her identity. Jessaline embodies the bricoleur in her relationship with the names she uses. Her true name, which she reveals to Eugenie in an attempt to gain her trust, does not seem to resonate with her personally. She explains “My name is Jessaline Cleré. That is the name of the family that raised me, at least, but I should have had a different name”. Her actual name does not provide her with a sense of identity, because she feels that she “should have had a different name, after the man who was my true father”. (Jemisin 92) Jessaline is the illegitimate child of Toussaint L’Overture, one of the best-known leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Jessaline’s attempt to identify with her father through his family name is frustrated by her status as the daughter of his mistress, revealing yet another source of liminal fluidity at the core of Jessaline’s identity. Her family, we are left to interpret, is itself a collection of pieces, and Jessaline is the bricoleur attempting to bring the disparate elements into harmony.
Jessaline embodies the use of alternative history and bricolage as an individual, but when considering the group identities at play in “The Effluent Engine”, New Orleans provides a key example. Jemisin’s depiction of New Orleans emphasizes this assemblage of identity, narrowing in on the liminality of the free Creoles such as Norbert and Eugenie Rillieux. Caught between social strata, Jessaline describes the Creole class as “a closed and prickly bunch, most likely because they had to be: only by maintenance of caste and privilege could they hope to retain freedom in a land which loved to throw anyone darker than tan into chains.” (Jemisin 78) The retention of hierarchical structures in the relative freedoms of Creole society stands as a question for Jemisin’s alternative Haiti, whether internalized norms have persisted after revolutionary change. Creole society’s retention of strict hierarchical boundaries is one example of normative class division making itself known, as the social group ostensibly outside of hegemonic control reconstructs the same or similar categories of division and power. The tensions between the norms of Creole society, particularly regarding feminine sexuality, come to the forefront as Eugenie begins to vocalize an imagined life with Jessaline in Haiti.
Even though the alternative history of Haiti shapes the entire story, “The Effluent Engine” never directly engages the alternative space. The fact that readers never see Haiti itself in the story encourages the perception of Jemisin’s Haiti as a potential utopia. Jemisin inverts the contemporary narrative of Haiti as a disaster-wrought refugee nation, especially as Eugenie and her brother Norbert are forced to flee their home in New Orleans. In “The Effluent Engine,”Haiti as a nation embraces the method of re-examination of that which is cast aside, a nation of bricoleurs. Airships function as more than the trappings of a steampunk-influenced alternative history here; rather, they are the site of a collective bricolage. “Producing rum is a simple process with a messy result; this effluent, namely, and the gas it emits, which until lately was regarded as simply the unavoidable price to be paid,” Jessaline explains to Norbert Rillieux. “We wish you to develop a process by which the usable gas—methane—may be extracted from the miasma you just smelled.” (Jemisin 81) The production of sugar and rum has decimated the landscape in parts of Haiti, Jessaline affirms, hinting at the ecological impacts of colonial production methods. Even when independent Haiti builds upon its relationship with sugar, not completely discarding it, but reframing the ecological relationship such that the country may have a more balanced impact on the landscape and fuel their airship engines. Jemisin’s Haiti engages with bricolage not only in the use of effluent as a fuel source but through examining how elements of the colonial past can help form an independent future.
Part of this imagined future for Jessaline and Eugenie comes from the alterations Haitian society has already undergone in its own history and accepted ways of being. By creating an alternative history for Haiti, Jemisin as an author has opened the door for greater representation of sexual preference. Jessaline explains to Eugenie that the revolution changed circumstances for women in Haiti, and that “it is not uncommon for a woman to head a family with another woman, and even raise children if they so wish”. (Jemisin 96) The word “wish” becomes operative here; couples have agency in choosing whether or not to have children, rather than a sense of responsibility to reproduce. But Eugenie’s eventual enthusiasm does not seem to acknowledge the radical potential of changes in Haiti; rather, she still relies upon the norms she finds familiar, such as the fact that one partner would provide for the family as in the typical heterosexual couples in New Orleans. Eugenie declares her concern for Jessaline’s work as a spy, “I’m not fond of you keeping up this dangerous line of work. My inventions should certainly earn enough for the both of us, don’t you think?”, and seems more than willing to step into the breadwinner role which she has seen enacted during her life in New Orleans, “there’s no reason for you to work when I can keep you in comfort for the rest of our days”. (Jemisin 111) Going to Haiti means that Eugenie can follow her passion for science both openly and lucratively, but she does not pause to ask whether Jessaline’s work as a spy provides her with similar fulfillment. Since Eugenie has only recently acknowledged her sexuality, one could interpret this as a part of a newly accepted identity trying to retain some of the structures of socially acceptable relationships, i.e. heterosexual, patriarchally-organized couples. Jessaline, as an individual, is once again caught in between, this time between the social openness of Haiti’s new society and the stricter norms of New Orleans Creole expectations. On the level of group identity, Haitian society allows for alternative ways of being, the crafting of alternative histories, but individuals such as Jessaline and Eugenie must still navigate the internalized norms embedded in their conceptions of possible futures.
Jessaline’s personal liminality reflects the transitions taking place around the main characters in “The Effluent Engine” and the resulting tension between new ideals and internalized norms. Both individuals and larger societies must negotiate such tensions to survive. Jessaline must create alternative histories for herself to be a good spy, but these take a toll on the solidity of her identity, which she must then attempt to reassemble in her role as a bricoleur. On a larger scale, the society of both Haiti and New Orleans must deal with different types of bricolage to make sense of their histories and strive for alternative futures. “The Effluent Engine” captures the struggle for socio-cultural survival and the balance between persistence and change. Jemisin’s short story is not only an example of richly imaginative Afrofuturism but a beautiful example of how authors and scholars can use tools of alternative history and bricolage in their writing to highlight both personal and group identity.
 Also published in Lightspeed Magazine in 2011.
 Divorced from the racially-charged comparisons of Lévi-Strauss, one might see how bricolage infuses the work of Black artists throughout history. The collages of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) are just one example of the work of African American collagists who reconstruct images out of seemingly disparate pieces. Visual artist Kara Walker’s installation piece Fons Americanus (2019) in the Tate Modern highlights this fusion of forms, echoing the Queen Victoria memorial, the Trevi Fountain, and Confederate statues in the United states while depicting images of slavery and black resistance (Bakare). Walker reclaims forms historically used in white European and American contexts to critically engage with historical and present harms and trauma.
 In order to make herself “disappear”, Jessaline chooses to make herself seem older, another layer of armor alongside the pillows she uses to make herself appear shapeless. With her obvious desire to avoid sexual violence, Jessaline ages herself in an attempt to seem sexless. Her strategies for personal survival rest upon the perpetuation of a belief that older people, and older women in particular, cannot be attractive. While not imperative for the argument of this article, acknowledging the intersectionality of both character identities and the identities they intend to evoke in the imaginations of others requires an understanding of the problematic character of essentializing conceptions of age.
Jemisin, N. K. “The Effluent Engine.” How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, Orbit, 2018, pp. 75-112.
Samatar, Sofia. “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 48, no. 4, 2017 Winter 2017, pp. 175–91.
Emily Lange is an undergraduate student at Elon University studying English Literature and Philosophy. She is completing her two-year thesis on representation and intersectionality in contemporary speculative fiction. She has an article in FEMSPEC and a forthcoming piece in The Journal of Popular Culture. Her research interests include the pedagogical uses of speculative fiction, work at the intersection of philosophy and literature, and archival ethics.
Egypt as a Test Case for Gender in Arabic Science Fiction
Emad El-Din Aysha
The status and portrayal of women in Arabic science fiction is at a precipice in the post-Arab Spring era. Using Egypt as a test case, it emerges that the number of women contributing to the genre is on the rise, and that the presentation of women is generally positive, if not very in-depth and challenging. The politics and economics of literary production is the greater issue, holding back all authors regardless of gender.
Like many literary and cultural imports from the West such as women’s literature and feminism, science fiction is new to the Arab world. Nonetheless, the record of Arab SF is generally good, given that one of the first writers of science fiction in Algeria was Safia Ketou (1944-1989), with her short story “La Planète Mauve” (1969). One of the first authors of SF in Kuwait, likewise, was Taibah Al-Ibrahim (1945-2011), author of a trilogy published in the 1980s-90s on cloning and cryogenic freezing, where it is the men who lose their sexuality thanks to these modern technologies (see below). One of the first and most distinguished SF authors in the UAE is Noura Al-Noman, with her award-winning Ajwan trilogy, beginning in 2012. The problem, however, is continuity. There haven’t been any distinguished women SF writers in the entire Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya) since then, while countries like Kuwait and the UAE are latecomers, with only a handful of SF authors, the bulk of whom are men.
Then there is the ever-tricky issue of content. Are female characters portrayed in a positive light? Do they share equally with men in the building of the future, and what is the status of gender in these imagined future worlds, as illustrated through family, sexual relations, love and intimacy? Modern Egyptian literature and pop culture certainly has its own species of gender-related prejudices, and in many cases has actually imported stereotypes from the Western world. One oft-cited case is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, adapted into an Egyptian black and white classic film Beware of Eve (1962), with the ‘modern,’ educated, assertive woman portrayed as the unfeminine shrew. (Zeyada, 2020; “Shakespeare’s Day”, 2007) Watching Egyptian black and white cinema, you feel like you’re watching cowboy epics, with a polarised separation of women either into the god-fearing, conservatively dressed housewife or the scantily-clad saloon girl. The older species of fantasy, fairy tales, is often captivated by this same polarised perception of the feminine—or Snow White and the Evil Witch, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously put it. (Eid, 2020; Tatar, 1999: 23, 28, 36-44; Gilbert and Gubar, 1984: 36-43) Such stereotypes emerge in modern SF guise via the vehicle of toxic male and female characterisations, as SFF author and literary instructor Christina ‘DZA’ Marie has amply documented. (Marie, 2020; 2019) One particular trope we shall touch on below is the mad male scientist inventing the seductive female robot on the Pygmalion model, to cite AI expert Stephen Cave (2019). There is the added problem of the appropriation of science by men, relegating women to the realm of magic and superstition; I Dream of Jeannie being a classic example used by John Carlos Rowe (2011) and Marie Lathers (2009).
Syrian researcher and author Muhammad al-Yassin insiststhat female characters in Arab SF works are generally portrayed in a positive light, regardless of the gender of either the author or the protagonist. The problem, however, he explains, is making effective generalisations, given the small number of Arab SF authors, let alone the even smaller number of female authors. (Al-Yassin, 2020) Egypt as a test case helps solve this problem, since Arabic SF essentially began in Egypt and has been hampered by much the same problems as the rest of the Arab world. Having spoken to many an Arab author, I found repeatedly that the first examples of Arabic SF they ever read were Egyptian, often inspiring them to become authors in the genre themselves. Comparisons are called for with other Arab countries, no doubt, but Egypt is still leading the pack quantitatively and qualitatively.
Making sense of the Egyptian experience can be helped through periodisation. What were the major concerns of the genre as a whole, not just individual authors, and why and how has this changed over time? How did these authors look at gender and how did this change over time, and was the presence or absence of female writers a contributing factor to this? These are the questions that will be answered in the section below, followed by a critical appraisal and set of final remarks on the future direction of gender in Arabic SF, post-Arab Spring.
BETWEEN CONTEXT AND CONTENT
Egyptian science fiction goes essentially through four phases. (El-Zembely, 2018) The first in the 1950-60s was helmed chiefly by playwright Tawfik al-Hakim and Islamic thinker Mustafa Mahmoud, with some mainstream authors trying their hand at SF. The second in the 1970s-80s began with the ‘dean’ of Arabic SF, Nihad Sharif, since he was the first to specialise in this genre, along with some other mainstream authors. The third critical phase stretches from the 1990s to 2011 when the Egyptian SF scene was dominated by the pocketbook (pulp sci-fi) series led by Nabil Farouk, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Raof Wasfi; the beginning of mass readership of SF in Egypt and many other Arab countries that read these pocketbooks. Finally, the fourth and current phase, from 2011 to the present, begins with the January revolution and the launch of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) in 2012 by Dr. Elzembely, a friend of Nihad Sharif, Nabil Farouk and Mustafa Mahmoud.
There are several layers of context lying behind this periodisation, some more unique to Egypt and some more general to the Arab world. Generally, there is little to no institutionalisation of SF in the Arab world. There are few associations and print magazines and little to no attention from the Ministry of Culture at the level of organising conferences or translating SF into Arabic, with the small exception of Syria, thanks to the diligence of Dr. Taleb Omran, the country’s top SF author, who began writing in the 1980s. Institutionalisation in Egypt only began in part thanks to the Arab Spring, starting with the ESSF and then the Nihad Sharif Cultural Salon and some advocates in the Egyptian Writers’ Union. Another common problem across the Arab world is the state of the publishing industry, with a lax intellectual property rights regime and outdated business model when it comes to distribution and profits, (Maklad, 2014) along with the usual political restrictions. (Qualey, 2013) The situation is more pronounced in Egypt, in fact, since authors often have to shoulder the burden of proofing their own texts and contributing financially to publication costs. Editors only enter the picture when it comes to academic texts, and literary agencies are almost unheard of, a common problem in Arabic-speaking countries.
Another problem more peculiar to the Egyptian marketplace is the format for SF and other genre publications, a pattern that took root during the third phase thanks to pocketbooks. Full-length novels are making their way onto the bookshelves, but most novels are within the 20,000 word range, while short story collections are still more popular—and the shorter the short story, the better. This places undue restrictions on you when it comes to plot and character development. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik only began writing full-length novels, beginning with Utopia (2007), later in life, mainly to please the critics and only after gaining a huge following among young readers. (Aysha, 2018)
Ahmed Khaled Tawfik is emblematic for another reason entirely, since most of what he wrote was horror and adventure. A generation of readers-turned-writers came to emulate him, which is why most SF writers in Egypt do not write only SF. Horror, detective fiction, dark fantasy and Young Adult are the more popular genres. All Arab authors traditionally have to make ends meet by having a regular job elsewhere: as a civil servant (like Naguib Mahfouz) or a medical profession (Yousef Idris), schoolteacher, IT expert, translator or graphic designer. In short, the potential out there for SF is huge, but the market is holding everything back, while the literary establishment takes little to no interest in SF.
Women only enter the picture in the second phase, with Dr. Omayma Khafagi’s classic novel The Crime of a Scientist (1990), but no other female authors emerge after that until the fourth phase, with novelists like Basma Abdel Aziz, Asmaa Kadry, Sally Magdy, Dr. Kadria Said and Dina Hekal. This is a deceptively short list of names, as the number who have written short stories is much, much larger, indicative of a swelling of the numbers of female writers attracted to this genre. We can use the ESSF’s anthology series Shams Al-Ghad [“Sun of Tomorrow”] as an example. The number of stories by men compared to women is: Volume One, 4:1; Volume Two, 8:4; Volume Three, 9:5; Volume Four, 15:8; Volume Five, 14:9; Volume Six, 21:9—a slow but steady increase. Admittedly, Volume Seven was 23:2, but this was an exceptional issue dedicated to resistance literature and military SF: some stories by female authors designated for this volume went into other contests, so the numbers aren’t as representative as they seem. While progress has been incremental, the prospects are good, as far as the female contribution to Egyptian SF goes: one of the most critically acclaimed, and internationally recognised, Arab dystopian novels published is none other than Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013). Equally important is the fact that women writers in Egypt testify to no discrimination upon entering the world of SF, despite the economic and institutional constraints we all face, men and women. (“In Conversation”, 2019) Even newcomers like Asmaa Kadry, an Egyptian writing and publishing in the UAE, have confirmed this. (Aysha, 2020) She also feels no need to have female protagonists only leading her storylines and is proud to write about men accurately. When queried as how to improve the status of Arab women in SF, she answered: “To just think of them as ‘writers’ not ‘women writers’, you know what I mean? The written word is an expression of the human soul, not the human body, and souls have no gender.” (quoted in Aysha, 2020)
This statement is illustrative of the experience of early Egyptian SF, since gender concerns were conspicuous by their absence. Khafagi’s The Crime of Scientist, purportedly a story about a scientist who makes a human-ape hybrid, has shades of Pygmalion in it, since the guilty scientist in question is a man while the victim is his wife, and the hybrid child is their daughter. Nonetheless, the focus here wasn’t gender, but fear of progress in the form of a searing condemnation of genetic engineering. The novel shocked many critics, because the author herself was a geneticist and trained in the Soviet Union. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 75-81) The first two phases in Egypt were characterised by a persistent problem shared by many SF works in the Arab world, namely, a profound hostility, fear and mistrust of modern science. There was no hostility to science and technology as such, but to the way they were employed by Western modernity. The classic statement of this in Arabic SF, often cited by Western academics themselves, were the two dystopian Moroccan novels The Blue Flood (Campbell, 2017) and The Elixir of Life. (Campbell, 2015) This was even more pronounced in Egyptian SF works. Mustafa Mahmoud praised mysticism and the world of the soul in the face of science in his novels The Spider and Out of the Coffin, while A Man Below Zero is almost a dystopian novel set in a cosmopolitan future world of material plenty but spiritual aridity and emotional emptiness.
To clarify how gender fits into this, we have the example of Tawfik Al-Hakim’s In the Year One Million (1947), set in a future world where people live forever, so there is no longer any sex, procreation, love or major biological differences between men and women. There is no awareness of change at all. People live indoors under artificial lighting and never sleep and aren’t aware of the distant past, forever living in the here and now. No art or poetry exists. Then, a scientist makes an archaeological discovery, the bones of an ancient man; he becomes aware of the possibility of death and nothingness and that their world could come to an end. A movement forms around him, it is quashed but persists nonetheless, and with that, death becomes a possibility again, so biological urges and procreation begin to return. The soulless world of the present, where humankind worships and is ruled by machines, gives way to the belief in God the creator. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 106-110) It is not so much gender that is at issue but modernity and the fear that technological bliss will unmake humanity; with no difference, there is no creativity, art, passion or emotion. Gender is incidental. Anxieties about modernity are expressed in gendered terms but no more. Similar themes abound in Sabri Musa’s The Master from the Spinach Field (1987), with the value of the traditional family upheld by the rebel heroes in the face of the hedonistic, impersonal dystopian world they live in. (al-Yassin, 2009: 32)
For a more contemporary example we have “Love in the Year 2060” (1993), by Syrian author Mohammad Al-Hajj Saleh. The text is set a future world where reproduction and love are forgotten memories. Existence is bland and boring, only regaining colour and vitality once the male hero cures the infertility problem that has been hoisted onto humanity by a malevolent alien race. (al-Yassin, 2009: 51) This isn’t too different, in principle, than Taibah Ibrahim’s works, since cloning and freezing became alternative conduits to immortality, so men lose their sex drive. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 255, 259-262)
The only examples of gender as a central theme or motif in early Egyptian SF are in Mustafa Mahmoud’s work. In A Man Below Zero, (1966) the hero is a scientist and university professor, an avowed atheist. His wife, formerly his student, is religious, and there is a love triangle of sorts with another male character who is envious of the professor and helps him with a dangerous experiment so as to take him out of the picture. Fortunately, his machinations come to nothing and the erstwhile hero of the novel, while heading on a collision course with the core of the sun, realises that the only truth is that of God and that his wife was right all along. She is left to try and propagate the faith afterwards, symbolically, through their offspring. Still, gender is not that high up on the priorities of the novelist.
In the next two phases, from the 1990s to the present, things begin to change, and for the better on all fronts. The level of hostility and anxiety towards modern science is less pronounced, with technologically bright futures portrayed in the pocketbooks of Nabil Farouk’s Future File series, accompanied with ample male and female heroes as scientific defenders of the realm. Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s Fantasia novellas are led by a woman. The important things are that women were not denigrated and that science came to be seen as something Arabs and Muslims could use on their own terms to advance themselves and recapture their civilisation. The classic statement of this came in a trio of novels by Dr. Elzembely – The Half-Humans, The Planet of the Viruses and America 2030. (2001) They do owe a lot to the pocketbook series, particularly in the action-packed scenarios of America 2030 and The Half-Humans, but even here, the women are active participants in the action: The Planet of the Viruses is about a global pandemic of extraterrestrial origin, with women scientists and doctors playing a key role in solving the riddle of the viral threat.
In The Half-Humans in particular, we have a female android that the male hero falls in love with not only because she saves his life more than once, or because of her beauty, grace and intelligence, but also because she is presented as someone who has a ‘soul’. She is part mechanical, true enough, but also made of reconstituted human tissue, and the author deploys spiritual interpretations of the Qur’an that denote all things, even inanimate objects, as having some form of consciousness. To recollect the male-dominated gender stereotypes listed above, the Pygmalion and Jeanne stereotypes, Dr. Elzembely’s female android passes this with flying colours. Moreover, the early hostility to science run amok in Arab SF can be chalked down to fears of cultural colonisation in the early post-independence days. Not to forget that the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein (1818), itself was hostile to scientific advancement, because Mary Shelly’s generation of writers and poets romanticised nature as a refuge from the faithless, materialistic and imbalanced world of early industrialisation and urbanisation. (Eid, 2020)
SF following 2011 is still more complex. The conflation of Western modernity with science is essentially gone while a whole new swath of subgenres has emerged, from post-apocalypse to steampunk, along with more distinctive Egyptian brands: conspiracy theory SF and spiritual or Sufi SF. For an example of the place of gender in all this, we have “The Rebels”, a short story by one of the ESSF top female authors, Lamyaa Al-Said. Here, a group of young intelligent reptilians from another planet escape their rigidly controlled world and come to Earth to wreak havoc and become disguised overlords. The aliens are particularly interested in ruling ‘the East’ given its slavish devotion to superstition and worshiping their leaders, or so they think. Fortunately, a young Egyptian couple, scientists, expose the aliens and save the world. The reptilians are even charged with driving Egyptians against each other, after the January revolution, and the young couple are also political activists. There still are worries about the misuse of science, but its proper use is deployed as a solution that can reassert the natural balance of things. Hence, Muhammad Ahmed Al-Naghi’s dystopian short story “Eugenics”, where world peace reigns through genetic engineering. The bulk of the population is female, given the warlike instincts of men, and people have limited lifespans and predetermined careers. Nonetheless, a scientific resistance movement forms. The heroine, who is the spitting image of Nefertiti, with resurrected ancient Egyptian genes, gives birth to a boy to help repopulate the eart. The reassertion of the natural order of things is exemplified by the closing scene, where the mother and son are tilling fields with the wind on their brow, unlike the beehive world of urban civilisation.
Dr. Elzembely has described this latest phase as one of “cultural authentication”. (Cultural Salon, 2019) Young authors are searching for their own answers as to what they want the world to look like, whether it be the relationship between religion and science, or matters like equality, minority rights, religious pluralism, democracy and free speech, etc. Muslims want to stake their claim to modernity, to their position in the world, and the portrayal of women by and large is positive and expanding. The only remaining question is, will they be allowed to continue in this path?
REMAINING CONSTRAINTS AND FUTURE PROGRESS
SF literature, always plagued by many a problem in Egypt, is now facing a charged political atmosphere. A translator friend of a friend of mine was arrested, inexplicably, while another fellow SF author was arrested after participating in a protest march. It turned out the police chief in charge of the district needed to make his quota of arrests and this particular protestor hadn’t been pulled in for questioning. Another young author was arrested, along with his father, for posting a photo of a protest march on Facebook. Yet another friend confessed to me that he had to praise a former Egyptian president in one of his stories to make sure it didn’t spook any potential publishers. When I applied to join the Writers’ Union, I found I had to hand over my fingerprints, something I’ve been told they didn’t ask for before. There’s a lot of bad blood and cherry-picking out there too, with select books and authors being sued or having their works banned for sexual content, while other authors that are much worse get off scot-free. Egyptian publishers positively encourage lurid literature and many an author deliberately writes about controversial topics, as free advertising.
The limiting word lengths publishers insist on continue to create problems and in some cases problems the authors are unaware of. Dr. Kadria Said and Muhammad Naguib Matter’s Adam without Eve (2020) owes much to the pulp series mentioned above—specific pocketbooks are mentioned by name in the novel—and characters as a consequence lose their sense of volition. (Cultural Salon, 2020) The novel is also captivated by that strain of hostility to science and modernity that animated the initial phases of Egyptian and Arab SF. The story is about cloners using their technology to either steal military secrets from Egyptian nuclear scientists, or steal the secrets of the ancients by cloning ancient Egyptians. It is also noticeable that one of the evil characters is a foreign-educated Egyptian women with blue eyes (of mixed descent) whereas another woman that fights against her is also well educated, relying on technology to evade capture, while thoroughly Egyptian in her upbringing and appearance.
The younger generation of authors is a bit luckier. One of the most interesting examples of this is SFF author Ahmed Al-Mahdi, a literary translator and also an Arab Spring protestor. In his post-apocalyptic, steampunk novel Malaz: The City of Resurrection, (2017) the male hero, Qasim, falls in love with a girl named Jihad, the daughter of Muhab, leader of the so-called Outcasts, a warrior clan that live in the mountains. He meets her for the first time while scavenging the ruins of Cairo for scrap metal and she saves his life from a wolf on the prowl. When he joins the Outcasts, Muhab takes it upon himself to teach Qasim swordsmanship and chivalry. Qasim almost gives up, until he sees Jihad close by and he forces himself to keep practicing and practising till he becomes an expert and all in an effort to impress her. For all his disdain of the corruption and tyranny of the Sayydin (hunters), the warrior class that run the city-state of Malaz, he is an intellectual and doesn’t busy himself with rebellion or righting the wrongs of the past. Jihad also insists on going to battle when the southern kingdom of Abydos goes to war with Malaz, despite Qasim’s protestations.
The bandits, or ‘outcasts’ as they’re known, were originally part of the warrior caste that ran Malaz, in its golden age when it was a safe haven for all; malaz in Arabic means haven or sanctuary. Querying Ahmed, he insisted that female participation was part of this ideal, older order, something he wanted to revive through the character Jihad: jihad really means “effort” or “struggle”, but is often mistranslated as “holy war” in English. Querying Ahmed further he explained: “I try to give women more roles than just being passive watchers, and not stick to stereotypical gender roles”. Even more intriguing is the kingdom of Abydos, where the old gods of ancient Egypt are worshipped again, including: “Sekhmet is the Egyptian goddess of the sun, war, destruction, plagues and healing. She is one of the oldest deities and one of the most powerful. She is a member of the Memphite (cult center in Memphis) triad together with husband Ptah, the god of creation and wisdom and son Nefertum, the god of sunrise” (Mahdi, 2020). The boy prince of Abydos, Sia, overthrows his father and declares war on Malaz, reviving the old technologies of the pre-apocalyptic world to build a giant war machine to destroy the walls of Malaz; the machine is modelled on a lioness and named after the Goddess of War. The men of Malaz, including the Sayyadin, are terrified of the goddess, and it is only Qasim and Jihad that can take it on with his own retrofitted ancient technologies. Ahmed added that this was just out of historical accuracy, but it is noteworthy, one of the few instances when gender and male insecurities are tackled head on.
On the plus side, from all of the ESSF volumes listed above, I’ve only encountered two short stories that portrayed women in a negative light. Sex specifically is absent. There are romance stories in Egyptian SF, stretching as far back as Mustafa Mahmoud, but the relationships in question tend be innocent, platonic and cerebral. Nihad Sherif’s “The Woman in the Flying Saucer” (1981) has female humanoid aliens coming to Earth, asking help from an astronomer. There is a romantic atmosphere in the air but nothing more (Snir, 2000: 275-276). This pattern is repeated in many of our ESSF stories, not least one of the most interesting stories in our resistance volume. Mahmoud Abdel Rahim has a love story running parallel to an armed resistance movement, and it is the romantic story that inadvertently leads to an intifada that finally ends the occupation. Love is designated as the ultimate weapon, not the parallel-worlds mirror that allows the resistance to anticipate the enemy’s next moves.
This air of innocence is all the more amazing, given how mainstream Egyptian literature is captivated by sexualised stereotypes. Still, avoiding bad stereotypes is not the same thing as providing an alternative that isn’t didactic and flat, and that demands the kind of depth of characterisation and thematic controversy not allowed for in Egypt. Religious scruples are part of this hesitancy, no doubt. There is also the literary upbringing of the authors. Ahmed Al-Mahdi once noted how shocked he was at the rape scene in Utopia, given how he’d grown up reading Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s highly sanitised pocketbook series (Aysha, 2018). Still, the bigger problems are the constraints placed on writers, women and men, as outlined above.
Where things will go from here is anybody’s guess, but I’m personally optimistic. To cite Muhammad al-Yassin again, the onus is on the critics to highlight what is missing in Arabic and Egyptian SF and to help the genre gain the kind of notoriety and acclaim it deserves (2020). If this critical piece can help in any way in this regard, then there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
Campbell, Ian. (2015). “Science Fiction and Social Criticism in Morocco of the 1970s: Muhammad Aziz Lahbabi’s The Elixir of Life”. Science Fiction Studies. 42(1). March: 42-55.
—–. (2017). “False Gods and Libertarians: Artificial Intelligence and Community in Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Salām al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood and Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. Science Fiction Studies. 44(1). March: 43-64.
Cave, Stephen. (14 October 2019). “Imagining the Future with AI”. Paper delivered at Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for the Middle East and Africa?, Ninth Annual Workshop of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D), held at the American University in Cairo.
Cultural Salon for the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (31 January 2020). Nasr City, Egypt. [Arabic].
Cultural Salon for the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (27 December 2019). Nasr City, Egypt. [Arabic].
Eid, Nariman. (29 February 2020). “Igor and Eva: A Deeper Relation than Frankenstein and His Monster”. Paper delivered at the International Graduate Student Conference: Transmedia Explorations: Literature-Film-Media Formulations, held at the American University in Cairo.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. (1984). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP.
Snir, Reuven. (2000). “The Emergence of Science Fiction in Arabic literature”. Der Islam. 77(2): 263-285.
Tatar, Maria. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Zeyada, Nada. (29 February 2020). “From Stage to Screen: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Gender Stereotypes in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the Egyptian Movie Beware of Eve”. Paper delivered at the International Graduate Student Conference: Transmedia Explorations: Literature-Film-Media Formulations, held at the American University in Cairo.
Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and literary translator currently residing in Cairo, Egypt., He is a published SF author, in English and Arabic, and a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and the Egyptian Writers’ Union.
Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! Thankfully, it’s a new year, which means a whole new stack of exciting SFT to read. Korean SFT, in particular, is continuing to make a strong showing (thanks to publishers like Honford Star and Kaya), plus we’ll be getting the very first anthology of Greek SFT, thanks to Francesco Verso, Francesca Barbini, and Luna Press Publishing.
The first three months of 2021 are bringing us several tantalizing novels and collections (as well as the aforementioned Greek anthology). In terms of science fiction, Galileo Publishers is offering us Mountains Oceans Giants: An Epic of the 27th Century by German author Alfred Döblin (tr Chris Godwin). In this far-future dystopia, the elites of the world try to melt Greenland’s icecap in order to make room for the Earth’s growing population. Of course, their plan to tap into the planet’s heat via Iceland’s volcanoes doesn’t work out and…well, you’ll have to read to find out what happens. Other science fiction includes Robot by famed Polish science fiction author Adam Wisniewski-Snerg (tr ?), in which BER-64 tries to figure out if it’s man or machine; and Bug by Italian author Giacomo Sartori (tr Frederika Randall)–a wild story about family dysfunction, robots, bees, and more.
If you’re looking for fantasy (broadly defined), look no further than The Route of Ice and Salt and Eleven Sooty Dreams. Translated from the Spanish by David Bowles, Route is Mexican author José Luis Zárate’s unique reimagining of Dracula’s journey to England. Eleven Sooty Dreams is the latest book in English from one of Antoine Volodine’s post-exotic heteronyms—Manuela Draeger. Translated from the French by J. T. Mahany, it’s set in a burning building in which a group of young leftists is trapped and moves between their minds and memories about their childhood and struggle to survive in a dystopian world.
Turning to collections, we can look forward to two by Korean speculative fiction authors and one by the multi-talented Brazilian author, translator, and editor Fabio Fernandes. Tower by Bae Myung-hoon (tr. Sung Ryu) is made up of interconnected stories set in a 674-story skyscraper that is also a sovereign nation. We learn about how the people living in the tower navigate the complex power relations of this particular society. Out a month later is Bo-Young Kim’s On the Origin of Species and Other Stories (tr Sora Kim-Russell), which moves freely between science fiction, fantasy, and myth, focusing on how humans and non-humans try to survive via biological, technological, and social evolution. Fernandes’s collection (tr from the Portuguese by the author)—Love: An Archaeology—includes fourteen stories that span space and subgenres but ultimately focus on love and its discontents.
Both Love: An Archaeology and the anthology of Greek SFT will be out from Luna Press Publishing, which has been bringing us an exciting array of SFT for the past few years. Nova Hellas: Stories From Future Greece, edited by Verso and Barbini, includes fiction from some of Greece’s most acclaimed authors, including three who have published in English before (Stamatis Stamatopoulos, Natalia Theodoridou, and Michalis Manolios). This is a wonderful chance for Anglophone readers to learn more about Greek speculative fiction and its intersection with contemporary Greek social and political concerns.
In terms of short fiction, the anthology Ab Terra 2020, which comes out in January from Brain Mill Press, includes my translation of the Italian story “Chronotope” by Raul Ciannella. Set in a future data entry center, “Chronotope” imagines how a group of individuals, who have become subsumed by their digital work, might escape by combining their human senses.
Hopefully, we have much more short SFT to look forward to this year from magazines like Future Science Fiction Digest, Samovar, Clarkesworld, Mithila Review, and new publications like Constelación and Eita! Magazine.
Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: firstname.lastname@example.org.