Chinese Science Fiction Studies in Japan

Chinese Science Fiction Studies in Japan

Noriko Yamamoto
Translated by Jin Zhao


In Japan, the study of Chinese science fiction started quite late, and only one outstanding academic book, Chinese Science and Fantasy Literature Museum (2001), written by Takeda Masaya and Hayashi Hisayuki, has previously been published. Since then, no book has been published, including translations, that surpasses this masterpiece. This means that if a Japanese person wants to learn about Chinese science fiction, they would have no other options but to read this book. It is fair to say that for a long time, Japan’s understanding of Chinese science fiction has been extremely limited and outdated. Admittedly, the Chinese Science Fiction Research Association, with Hayashi Hisayuki as its president, has persistently introduced and translated Chinese science fiction works into Japanese over the years, but the fact is that as it is only a doujinshi [1] (同人誌), its influence is inevitably modest. Its activities are well known to a small group of fans and enthusiasts, yet remain completely unknown to most.


In 2007, the situation began to change. At the World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama, a number of guests from the Chinese science fiction community came to Japan and had a series of discussions with Japanese science fiction writers and editors. It was this meeting that prompted Hayakawa Publishing’s S-F Magazine to publish a special issue of Chinese science fiction the year following (S-F Magazine September 2008 Issue), in which works by major writers such as Liu Cixin, Han Song, and Jiang Bo were published, along with a column by Yao Haijun. This was the first time that an entire issue was exclusively dedicated to Chinese science fiction, which was a huge step forward. However, although this special issue successfully introduced Chinese science fiction to the Japanese science fiction community, the reality is that to most Japanese people, Chinese science fiction is still little known and inaccessible, and as a result, hardly attractive.

The situation suddenly changed with the appearance of Chinese-American science fiction writer and translator, Ken Liu, whose The Paper Menagerie (2015) became a huge success as soon as it was released in April 2015. This book was so well-received in Japan that even people who don’t normally read science fiction started to read it. As a result, Chinese science fiction came under the spotlight for the first time since its brief popularity in 2007. Readers eagerly looked forward to reading Ken Liu’s translations, firmly believing that as long as they were translated by Ken Liu, they would be interesting. Since then, a series of works such as Chen Qiufan’s The Year of The Rat and Han Song’s Security Check have been translated into Japanese through Ken Liu’s initial English translations and subsequently introduced in S-F Magazine. The point, however, is that these works were not translated from Chinese into Japanese, but from their English versions into Japanese. Admittedly, Ken Liu’s English translations are excellent, but the question that inevitably sprang up in the reader’s mind was, “Why not just translate these works directly from Chinese into Japanese?” However, the sad fact is that at the time Chinese science fiction was not yet acknowledged by the Japanese market, and it was still a product that had to be tagged with Ken Liu’s name before it could be approved.

It was not until 2019, when Hayakawa Publishing published Liu Cixin’sThe Three-Body Problem, that we could be rescued from this embarrassing situation in any real sense. Upon its release, the book immediately became a bestseller, with sales of over 100,000 copies, an unprecedented figure for foreign science fiction publications in Japan. The book has a huge readership, and many businessmen in particular are keen to read The Three-Body Problem. It is safe to say that The Three-Body Problem fever has already evolved into a social phenomenon in Japan.

It was also thanks to The Three-Body Problem that Chinese science fiction began to be translated directly from Chinese into Japanese, changing the old tradition wherein Chinese science fiction had to be translated into Japanese via English. A new model of translation has gradually taken shape. With this model, editors will read the English translations to get a good understanding of the stories, but in the meantime people who are proficient in Chinese will preview the relevant works. They will then recommend those works that are suitable for translation, offering suggestions and consulting with editors over details. In the subsequent years, a series of Chinese science fiction works have been translated and published, including The Ladder of Time: Selected Works of Modern Chinese Science Fiction (2020 ); the second book in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy, The Dark Forest (2020); Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide (2020) (translated from its English version into Japanese); and Hao Jinfang’s The Other Shore of Man (2021). In May 2021, the third book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy, Death’s End, will be released as well. With many more works scheduled to be published in the coming years, it is expected that there will be many more opportunities for Japanese readers to read Chinese science fiction in Japanese.


Thus, under such a situation, how should we study Chinese science fiction in Japan? First, there are virtually no universities or institutions in Japan that specialize in the study of science fiction in general, let alone Chinese science fiction. Certainly, we do have distinguished scholars such as Professor Tatsumi Takayuki at Keio University, who enjoys a high reputation not only in science fiction, but also in American literature. Arguably, his accomplishment in science fiction studies is entirely outside of his high professional competence. However, when we look at the current situation of science fiction studies in Japanese universities as a whole, we find that science fiction studies are not yet well-organized, and there is not even a professional academic group devoted to their study. The truth is that, in Japan, science fiction studies can only be done through the efforts of some individual professors. As a result, the first thing to do when you try to study science fiction is to look for a competent teacher. Moreover, since American and English science fiction is the predominant genre of science fiction nowadays, we are thus faced with the dilemma that we find neither teachers nor majors when we try to study Chinese science fiction in a symposium or a university graduate school. Actually, until very recently, it was practically impossible to study science fiction on a professional level other than to study under the tutelage of Professor Takeda Masaya at Hokkaido University. Fortunately, thanks to the translation boom of Chinese science fiction, many Japanese scholars of Chinese literature have finally begun to draw attention to Chinese science fiction, among whom are professors specializing in pure literature [2] (純文学). Some of them have begun to read science fiction, and many others project to write theses on science fiction as their subject. Hence, it is our expectation that in the forthcoming years, we will see a field dedicated to the study of Chinese science fiction taking shape and taking root in Japan.


[1] Doujinshi (同人誌) is a Japanese term for self-published print works, such as magazines, manga, and novels. Being part of a wider category of doujin (self-published) works, doujinshi are usually derivative of existing works, and are often created by amateurs, although some professional artists are also involved in order to publish material outside the regular industry.

[2] Pure literature (純文学) is a term in Japanese literature that refers to novels that place more emphasis on artistry than entertainment, as opposed to popular novels.

Noriko Yamamoto, known by her pen name Tōya Tachihara, is a Japanese scholar, translator, novelist, and associate professor of literature at Hokusei Gakuen University. She is the translator and editor of the Japanese edition of The Three-Body Problem series. In 2020, she was awarded the Nihon SF Taisho Award for her contribution to translation and introduction of Chinese science fiction works.

Jin Zhao is a science fiction enthusiast, science fiction scholar, science fiction translator, and science fiction writer. For many years, she has devoted herself to the comparative study of Chinese and Japanese literature and culture and the study of science fiction literature. Currently, she is working on a dissertation devoted to the study of Japanese science fiction culture.

The Life and Work of Bulgarian SF Writer Lyuben Dilov

The Life and Work of Bulgarian SF Writer Lyuben Dilov

Andy Erbschloe

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.

Covers by Tekla Alexieva for Double Star and The Weight of the Spacesuit

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 humanityIt 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.

Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”

Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”

Emily Lange

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,”[1] 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)[2] 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[3] 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.

[1] Also published in Lightspeed Magazine in 2011.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


Bakare, Lanre. “Tate Modern Fountain Tells ‘Jarring’ History of British Empire.” The Guardian, 30 Sept. 2019. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020.

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.

The Modern High Fantasy Novel was Born in France: An Essay on Reverse Literary History

The Modern High Fantasy Novel was Born in France: An Essay on Reverse Literary History 

Mariano Martín Rodríguez
Independent scholar and co-editor of journal Hélice

Bibliographies, encyclopaedias and literary research by both fans and scholars are increasingly revealing the international wealth of science fiction’s past and present. In contrast, the other great branch of speculative fiction, fantasy, has still a long way to go in this respect. Andrzej Sapkowski’s “Witcher” series is virtually, and exceptionally, the only international fantasy works well known in English. This contention could seem far-fetched if we consider that Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist works, as well Italo Calvino’s post-modern fancies are widely read and praised world-wide, and that Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte, 1983) has previously taken the world by storm. The European “fantastique,” from E. T. A. Hoffmann to the French “Décadents,” not to mention Franz Kafka’s symbolic parables, enjoys high critical consideration. My contention stands, however, if we consider how fantasy, and high fantasy in particular, can be defined. This task of defining is not an idle one even from the historical perspective here adopted. Without exactly knowing what we are talking about, namely the high fantasy novel and its origin in French literature, any contention about this matter would probably lack a solid scientific foundation. A prior specific theoretical description of high fantasy seems, therefore, necessary to escape the vagueness that affects all too often academic approaches to this kind of fiction. 

Whereas science fiction is, despite its range of definitions, a clear literary entity, the English word ‘fantasy’ is so all-encompassing that it has virtually lost any taxonomic value. Putting Edgar Allan Poe and J.R.R. Tolkien under the same heading because both use the supernatural amounts to a complete disregard of the specific nature of fantasy, and namely of high fantasy. Faster than light travel is as supernatural as ghosts appearing to the living. Narrative omniscience in the realistic novel looks like a godlike, supernatural power as well. On the other hand, fantasy, especially high fantasy, is a literary species with distinctive fictional features that can be inferred from even a superficial reading of its classics. High fantasy is about the realistically consistent building of a fictional secondary world fully independent from the mundane one (past, present, or rationally anticipated). Whether it is specifically named or not, high fantasy hardly stands intrusions from our world without losing its ontologically autonomous status, if we are to follow the definition of ‘secondary world,’ as it appears in this genre, proposed by Waggoner: “A fantasy world is a secondary reality whose metaphysical premises are different from those of the real world” (4). Using a more precise narratological language, Trębicki contends that fantasy follows:

a strategy aimed at the creation of a secondary world model with its own precisely described spatial and temporal parameters, its own social and ontological order, and its own causality, unusual from the point of view of mimetic reality but perfectly coherent and logical within the fictional universe. 

2014: 488

Therefore, I would exclude from high fantasy those works in which modern characters intervene in the secondary world, thus depriving it of the illusion of completeness in its own legendary, far-away setting in place and time, as well as distracting readers from a fully immersive experience. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia is a wide and sophisticated secondary world but the children’s access through a cupboard during World War II implies that it coexists with modernity, instead of remaining impervious to it as it would be the case in the true exercises of sub-creation in the Tolkienian sense. Portal fantasies (Conkan, 2017) such as Lewis’ (and Ende’s), to which one could add the weird awakening of alien gods in modernity in H. P. Lovecraft’s horror stories, are enjoyable in their own right but they cannot be considered genuine high fantasy. 

High fantasy eschews implausible contacts between ontologically different kinds of fictional worlds (the mundane and the fantastic) in order to offer the complete result of a speculative process of world building akin to that of science fiction (since it is rationally created on the basis of a particular set of premises). These appear to be scientific in science fiction, as its name implies. They are rather mythical in high fantasy, thus warranting the presence of supernatural beings, magical powers and extraordinary occurrences in the framework of a plausible pagan and pre-technological society.1 In this kind of imaginary society godlike forces intervene, or are believed to intervene, in human affairs in the same way as they do in the true mythological lore that modern archaeological, philological, and ethnological research have revealed to us using rational methods from the Enlightenment Age onwards. However, unlike mythological and legendary fiction based on existing matter (Greek mythology, Arthurian legends, Arabian Nights, etc.), as well as fairy tales, where narratives follow traditional and stereotyped settings and motives usually borrowed from folklore, high fantasy is ‘created.’ Its worlds are essentially personal artistic inventions by a particular author, although fantasy writers often find inspiration in existing mythologies as well as in ancient history for their creations. As Braga notes, “la littérature fantasy actuelle … est une pseudo-morphose, modelée par l’esprit positiviste et réaliste, par la sensibilité et le goût contemporain, de la littérature magique et féerique traditionnelle” [current fantasy literature … is a pseudo-morphosis, shaped by the positivist and realist spirit, by contemporary sensibility and taste, of the traditional magical and fairy-tale literature (my translation)] (2018: 44).

High fantasy writers, however, treat features borrowed from the ancient lore yet revealed by the modern human sciences as mere elements in their free world building, the consistency of which is internal, and which need not to be externally consistent with previous mythological, ethnographical or historical knowledge. For example, while Robert H. Howard uses names and peoples from the true ancient history of our planet, his work does not constitute archaeological fiction, because his history is invented, as his fictional historiographical account of the Hyborian age shows. Lord Dunsany was probably inspired by Japanese mythology but his mythology of Pegāna was his own. 

These features are common to all high fantasy worlds now considered canonical in the Anglosphere, such as Lord Dunsany’s Pegāna, Robert H. Howard’s Hyboria, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique, Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Fletcher Pratt’s Dalarna, L. Sprague de Camp’s Novaria, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, Samuel Delany’s Nevèrÿon, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. A similar mythopoetic imagination already appears active in William Blake’s narrative poems where his personal mythology is, rather confusedly, presented to the world as an alternative to Christianity. Regarding prose narratives, John Sterling’s short story “The Sons of Iron” (included as an independent narrative in the novel Arthur Coningsby, 1833) explores the customs and history of an ancient race of men made of iron with a sober speculative tone similar to that adopted by later fantasists such as Giovanni Papini and Jorge Luis Borges in their imaginary ethnographies. 

Actually, the first high fantasy novels are believed to have appeared relatively late in the 19th century. If we do not consider the portal fantasies and fairy tale novels by Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald, as we should not do if the above descriptive definition of high fantasy stands, the high fantasy novel is to be found fully in Laurence Housman’s “Gods and Their Makers,” published in a collection of the same title in 1897. This appears as the first significant landmark2 in a long tradition of high fantasy novel that blossomed in Britain in the interwar period alongside with works such as Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), Margaret Irwin’s These Mortals (1925), Norman Douglas’ In the Beginning (1927) and Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). Together with the high fantasy stories written by Clark Ashton Smith and Robert H. Howard, and published during the same period in the US pulps, these narratives helped to elevate high fantasy to an inescapable feature of the contemporary literary landscape. It is easy to see that high fantasy novels not written in English are conspicuously absent from this list of early acknowledged classics, in the same way as they are hardly to be found in most surveys of fantasy, either in English (for example, Barron, 1990; Mendlesohn and James, 2009; Wolfe, 2011; Moran, 2019) or in other languages (Pech, 1990; Pato, 2019). Why is this so? Do other literatures lack writers who have created their proper speculative fantasy worlds long before Tolkien’s success and his countless global imitators? How is it possible that French, Italian, Spanish, German and Russian scientific romances have already been translated into English and taken into account in histories of world science fiction at this time, but no early continental high fantasy novels seem to exist according to present knowledge on the matter? 

In literary history, as in archaeology, one can hardly find anything without looking for it where others have not, for instance in French Literature. Since high fantasy scholars are rarer than science fiction ones even in the Anglosphere, let alone in other cultural areas of the world, it is a small wonder that some of the few hints of the existence of early, pre-Tolkienian high fantasy novel in French has been revealed at all by Brian Stableford, a writer, researcher and translator whose main field of work is science fiction. However, he has also translated other kinds of speculative works. For instance, two novels translated by him, André Lichtenberger’s The Centaurs (Les Centaures, 1904) and Han Ryner’s The Superhumans (Les Surhommes, 1929), are perhaps better understood as high fantasies. The latter is a rhetorically sophisticated work3 of its prospective brand, consisting of fantasies set in a future that looks like a mythic past, including the presence of supernatural entities and the absence of modern technology and science. Following its rediscovery in France thanks to Stableford’s English translation, the former has tentatively been considered there as the first French high fantasy novel.4 

Stableford has also translated shorter narratives by Remy de Gourmont, Gabriel de Lautrec, Bernard Lazare, Camille Mauclair, Victor-Émile Michelet, Éphraïm Mikhaël and other French Belle Époque authors. Most of these authors wrote in the so-called purple prose typical of Symbolism. French purple prose was widely imitated by British and American high fantasists from the Aesthetic Movement such as Lord Dunsany, Kenneth Morris and Clark Ashton Smith, and its influence can still be seen in Tolkien’s style. Rhetorically at least, modern(ist) high fantasy owes much to French Décadence. This style encompasses the high fantasy tales by those writers, as well as by Marcel Schwob and Remy de Gourmont, just to mention the ones whose work has acquired some canonical status in French literature. Now their contribution to the high fantasy short story should certainly be re-appraised, but it is also to be acknowledged that no high fantasy French novels written in this period or earlier other than Lichtenberger’s The Centaurs seemed to exist, except maybe for a short one by Mauclair entitled Le Poison des pierreries (1903), later collected in his collection L’Amour tragique (Tragic Love, 1908). This is indeed a beautifully decadent and weird high fantasy that was translated by Stableford in 2016 as The Poison of Precious Stones.

French high fantasy novel would seem then to have appeared later than, for example, Housman’s “Gods and Their Makers” (1897) if it were not for a famous mother and her less renowned son. They were Aurore Dupin (1804-1876) and Jean-François Maurice Arnauld (1823-1899), better known as George Sand and Maurice Sand, respectively. The latter inaugurated modern fantasy novels about Atlantis with Le Coq aux cheveux d’or (The Golden-Haired Rooster, 1867 in book form). Although it is set in the mythical ancient city-empire described by Plato, complete with its end by the gods’ wrath, Maurice Sand’s novel reads as a Howardian sword and sorcery story, with its barbarian protagonist, the blond ‘rooster,’ endowed with virtually supernatural strength and panache negotiating his way among the intrigues and decadence of ancient sedentary kingdoms. This hero rescues his romantic interest from her scheming father the king, as well as from her religious and marital duties as high priestess and wife of the volcano god worshipped in Atlantis. He even saves her from the eruption and the deluge that destroy the mythical world of Atlanteans, Scythians and other ancient peoples. These coexist in that legendary place and time without regard for archaeological findings, but according to the artistically controlled freedom of high fantasy. Maurice Sand’s style, with his short sentences and narrative conciseness and dynamism combined with colourful descriptions capable of generating the desired atmosphere of decadence, looks exactly like that of Howard’s Hyborian stories. Having arrived a century too early, Maurice Sand’s novel unfortunately went virtually unnoticed.5 Its existence is thus rather an anecdote in the history of (high) fantasy.

By contrast, George Sand’s Évenor et Leucippe (Évenor and Leucippe, 1856), afterwards re-titled Les amours de l’âge d’or: Évenor et Leucippe (Loves of the Golden Age: Évenor and Leucippe, 1861), is arguably the first high fantasy novel, at least the first subject to some academic attention6 and re-issued. Its author achieved fame as a writer throughout the Western world. Although this particular work did not enjoy the popularity of her novels of manners, and it was not translated into English, it was known in Anglophone intellectual circles, where French was widely read. This “Légende antédiluvienne” (‘antediluvian legend’) was anonymously commented upon, for example, in April 1862 in The North American Review. The unknown reviewer mentions its models, namely the Biblical account of the fall and the Platonic Atlantis myth, but only as the basis for a fully new mythology created by Sand about the origins of humanity, love and civilization. Both the Hebrew single god and the panoply of Greek deities are absent from the narrative, which tells the life as well as the emotional and philosophical growth of Évenor, a human child living in a balanced primitive society. The seeds of selfishness and evil already exist among humans, however, and the little protagonist is happy to find, after getting lost in the forest, a secluded, paradisiacal valley where he decides to stay. He meets there another child, Leucippe, who is being raised by Téleïa, the last of the ‘dives,’ a species of beings “half humane, half divine, – rather at once divine and human, having the heavenly soul and knowledge, with an earthly body and needs,” according to the American reviewer of the novel (558). The ‘dive’ (name adapted from ‘diva,’ the Latin and Italian word for ‘goddess’) teaches them morality and true love as the main inheritance from her race to this couple of children, then teenagers and married couple, so that they can deliver it to the successor sentient race, the humans. They fail, however, in their mission. Evil has already grown deep roots in human society. Évenor, Leucippe and their followers are forced to escape from their tribe. Only the dive’s supernatural intervention finally saves them from their pursuers, allowing them to return to their paradise in the valley, called Éden. This parts them from their fellow humans and therefore from the course of human history. Their fate is lost in the mist of myth and legend. Despite the echoes of their names and place in later traditions, namely the aforementioned Biblical and Platonic ones, their internally consistent world is a closed one, having nothing to do either with sacred or secular history. 

Évenor et Leucippe is not a fictional reconstruction of prehistory as it could have been but rather a symbolic narrative intended to convey, for a grown-up readership, an ethical and philosophical meaning through mythopoesis. The fictional world created there by George Sand fulfils all the requirements of high fantasy. It has “its own precisely described spatial and temporal parameters, its own social and ontological order” (Trębicki, 2014: 488) with its own beliefs and customs, which are all realistically shown. Its characters are individualised, and are radically different from those typified in fairy tales,7 as it is its plot, where the folktale motifs inherited by the literary fairy tale are also absent or, at least, they do not define the structure of the novel. Moreover, it has further features usual in later high fantasy literature, such as the presence, as well as the agency, of a supernatural category of beings independent from any previous lore and mythology, the ‘dives.’ Even Sand’s use of expressive invented anthroponyms (Le Guillou, 2013), similar to the ones typical of high fantasy is witness to her pioneering high fantastical approach. Nothing of this sort existed in the European and American novel at that time, at least as far as we know given the current state of research and translations, and there would be virtually nothing similar until the Symbolist/Decadent experiments in creative mythography and ethnography a few decades later. Therefore, unless further comparative research proves it wrong, there are solid grounds to maintain that the modern high fantasy novel to have been born, indeed, in France. It would can be claimed that two women, Mary Shelley and George Sand, invented in the Romantic age, most likely without knowing it, the science fiction and the high fantasy novel, respectively. Shelley has been given her due credit for it. Sand awaits hers.


1 Trębicki has proposed a further definition of high fantasy that takes into account the pre-modern technological level of its secondary worlds. Actual supernatural agency is taken for granted in them following a posited pre-modern and pre-scientific world-view: “The basic structure of SWF [secondary world fantasy] is … placing the plot in a world whose technological level is rather low and spatial parameters closed, and which is presented as a reality not connected with the mimetic universe either spatially of temporally” (2011: 45).

2 Histories dealing with high fantasy usually mention the late romances by William Morris published in the 1890s as pioneering works. Christian institutions and real place names (for example, Rome) appear in these romances, which have a quest structures borrowed from medieval chivalric narratives. These features trouble their high fantasy status, since Morris’ fictional worlds would not be then full-fledged secondary subcreations in the Tolkienian sense here adopted (Tolkien, 2001). Moreover, they often lack an easily recognizable usual landmark of high fantasy, namely what Lin Carter called ‘neocognomica:’ “In creating an imaginary world with words, the author is thrust into the role of Adam. Everything must be named” (1973: 192-193). What kind of secondary worlds can be the ones in Morris’ chivalric romances when their characters are named Ralph or Arthur?

3 In my essay on this work which accompanies its contemporary edition, I describe it as follows: “Les Surhommes semble être un « monstre narratif », où le roman doit cohabiter avec d’autres genres, comme la poésie (en prose) dans ses manifestations tant sapientielles qu’épiques, ou l’historiographie, faisant fi de l’illusoire psychologie des personnages, collectifs par ailleurs, et des exigences d’une action conventionnelle” (2016: 125). My translation: “The Superhumans appears to be a ‘narrative monster,’ where the novel must cohabit with other genres, such as (prose) poetry in its sapiential as well as epic variants, or historiography, ignoring the illusory psychology of the characters, which are collective for that matter, as well as the demands of conventional action.”

4 In the preface to its contemporary edition, Fraysse contends that it could be considered to be the “« premier roman de fantasy français »” (‘first French high fantasy novel’) but with a possible caveat: “mais rêvons plutôt qu’il existe de nombreux textes antérieurs dignes d’endosser ce rôle” (2017: xiii). My translation: “but let us rather dream that there are many earlier texts deserving this consideration.” These earlier French high fantasy novels are precisely the matter of the present essay.

5 The most detailed review of this novel was written by his mother (Sand, 1867). In contemporary times, only a book devoted to Maurice Sand briefly comments on it (Bissonnette, 2017: 228-235, 331, 380-381). There is no contemporary edition of this significant work.

6 It is to be noted that none of the recent academic studies on this novel that I have been able to read (Gillet, 1977; Le Guillou, 2012, 2013, 2016; Mathias, 2018) clearly mentions its high fantasy features. French academic study of this kind fiction is still in its early infancy, though (Bougon, 2019).

7 Matthew David Surridge argued in a blog entry from 2010 ( that Sara Coleridge created in her novel Phantasmion (1837) the first fantasy secondary world. However, this novel’s subtitle, “A Fairy Tale,” is very clear regarding the particular kind of fiction it belongs to. Although the fairy tale is an important predecessor of high fantasy, their secondary worlds are different, even in the many instances, before and after Coleridge, where fairy tale worlds are fully independent from our mundane one. In high fantasy characters are individuals whereas those of the fairy tale are “occupational labels” (Waggoner, 23). Moreover, in the fairy tale magic and supernatural occurrences are taken for granted; in high fantasy they “must be realistically established” (22) following the posited rules of the (sub)created world. Following Tolkien, Nikolaya states that “genuine and skilful fantasy creates Secondary Belief (unlike the Primary Belief of myth or religion), putting the reader in a temporary state of enchantment. As soon as suspension of disbelief is disturbed, the spell is broken” (153) whereas “the addressee of a fairy tale knows that the story is not true” (153). Furthermore, the intrusion in fairy tales of elements from the phenomenological world also disturbs the suspension of disbelief or secondary belief. On the other hand, high fantasy stories “take place in a closed, self-contained Secondary World without any connection with reality. However, unlike fairy tales, they are definitely based on Secondary Belief” (154). Last but not least, ‘fairy-land’ “is a space where things happen, not a place of itself” (Hunt, 12) as Sand’s Éden is.


Dr. Mariano Martín Rodríguez is a translator and independent scholar based in Brussels (Belgium). He obtained his Ph.D in Philology at the Universidad Complutense (Madrid) in 1994. Since then, he has published numerous studies in different languages related to modern drama, scientific romance, and utopian, speculative (including high fantasy and theological fiction) and science fiction, in Spain and in Europe, as well as several critical editions of translations from different Romance languages and English into Spanish. He has also published several critical editions of Spanish works of utopian, fantastic, speculative and science fiction. He is currently co-editor of the online journal on speculative fiction Hélice (


Anon. “Évenor et Leucippe. Les Amours de l’Âge d’Or. Légende Antédiluvienne. Par George Sand. Paris: N. Lévy Frères. 1861.” The North American Review 94.195 (1862): 557-559.

Barron, Neil (ed.). Fantasy Literature: A Reader’s Guide. New York (NY) and London: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Bissonnette, Lise. Maurice Sand : Une œuvre et son brisant au xixe siècle. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017.

Bougon, Marie Lucie. “Cosmogonie de la fantasy française : Genèse et émancipation.” Revue de la BNF 59.2 (2019): 38-47.

Braga, Corin. “La littérature « fantasy ».” Pour une morphologie du genre utopique. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2018. 39-44.

Carter, Lin. “A Local Habitation and a Name: Some Observations on Neocognomica.” Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. New York (NY): Ballantine Books, 1973. 192-212.

Conkan, Marius. Portalul şi lumile secundare: Tipologii ale spaţiului în literatura fantasy. Bucureşti: Tracus Arte, 2017.

Fraysse, Thierry. “Le conteur homérique.” André Lichtenberger. Les Centaures. Paris: Callidor, 2017. vi-xiv.

Gillet, Jean. “Les Amours de l’âge d’or : l’Éden tourmenté de George Sand.” Romantisme 16 (1977): 46-55.

Hunt, Peter. “Fantasy and Alternative Worlds.” Eds. Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz. Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction. London and New York (NY): Continuum, 2003. 1-41.

Le Guillou, Claire. “Les Amours de l’âge d’or, une œuvre de la marginalité.” Eds. Pascale Auraix-Jonchière, Simone Bertrand-Grifftiths and Marie Cécile Levet. La Marginalité dans l’œuvre de Goerge Sand. Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2012. 434-355.

Le Guillou, Claire. “De l’usage des anthroponymes dans Évenor et Leucippe, Les Amours de l’âge d’or; Légende antédiluvienne de George Sand.” Nouvelle Revue d’Onomastique 55 (2013): 259-268.

Le Guillou, Claire. “Présentation.” George Sand, Œuvres complètes. 1856. Évenor et Leucippe. Paris: Honoré Campion, 2016. 7-24.

Lichtenberger, André. “The Centaurs.” The Centaurs, adaptation and translation by Brian Stableford. Encino (CA): Black Coat Press, 2013. 13-187.

Martín Rodríguez, Mariano. “Foissonnement fictionnel et richesse de discours: Les Surhommes de Han Ryner.” Han Ryner, Les Surhommes. Saint-Martin de Bonfossé: Théolib, 2016. 119-135.

Mathias, Manon. “Pre-Darwinian Species Change: Reincarnation and Transformism in George Sand’s Évenor et Leucippe.” Journal of Literature and Science 11.1 (2018): 33-49. 

Mauclair, Camille. “The Poison of Precious Stones.” The Virgin Orient, adaptation and translation by Brian Stableford. Encino (CA): Black Coat Press, 2016. 349-389.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short Story of Fantasy. London: Middlesex University Press, 2009.

Moran, Patrick. The Canons of Fantasy Lands of High Adventure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Nikolayeva, Maria. “Fantasy Literature and Fairy Tales.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western Fairy Tale Tradition from Medieval to Modern, edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 150-154.

Pato, Silvia. Breve historia de la fantasía. Madrid: Nowtilus, 2019.

Pesch, Helmut W. Fantasy: Theorie und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung. Passau: Erster Deutsche Fantasy Club, 1990.

Ryner, Han. “The Superhumans.” The Superhumans, adaptation and translation by Brian Stableford. Encino (CA): Black Coat Press, 2011. 181-288.

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Sand, George. “Essais et notices: Le coq aux cheveux d’or, récit des temps fabuleux, par Maurice Sand.” Revue des Deux Mondes 67.4 (1867): 1010-1022.

Sand, Maurice. Le Coq aux cheveux d’or : Récit des temps fabuleux. Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie, 1867.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” Tree and Leaf. London: HarperCollins, 2001. 1-81.

Trębicki, Grzegorz. “Mythic Elements in Secondary World Fantasy and Exomimetic Literature.” Mityczne scenariusze. Od mitu do fikcji, od fikcji do mitu, edited by Tomasz Ratajczak and Bogdan Trocha. Zielona Góra: Oficyna Wydawnicza Uniwersytetu Zielonogórskiego, 2011. 41-52.

Trębicki, Grzegorz. “Supragenological Types of Fiction versus Contemporary Non-Mimetic Literature.” Science Fiction Studies 41.3 (2014): 481-501.

Waggoner, Diana. “Theory of Fantasy.” The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy. New York (NY): Atheneum, 1978. 3-27. 

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Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue

Virginia L. Conn
Rutgers University / USA

As a mode of global and temporal situatedness, Sinofuturism has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, Sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “Sinofuturism” developed out of the same Orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies—such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms—allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues. (Xu 2015) Too, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds—a central tenet of Sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible. (Lek 2016)

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning Sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

To the extent that this is true, publishing regulations in China mean that the internet and other digital forms of publications, such as video games and online message boards, have become increasingly important outlets for science fiction. The Three-Body Problem, for example, was serialized first in the online-only Science Fiction World before being published as a book, and Western publication outlets like Clarkesworld have partnered with China-based Storycom to publish more Chinese science fiction in translation online. Because of the expectation of a global audience that online publication ensures, science fiction is changing as readership expands, yet the balance of global power remains uneven. Noted science fiction authors such as Xia Jia still describe science fiction coming out of China as having the mission of educating Western readers (Xia 2016), while English translators are increasingly burdened with the necessity of explaining historiocultural specificities through lengthy footnotes. (Liu 2014) That is, just as the West applies the term “Sinofuturism” to an entire national development project, Chinese authors are put in the position of responding and catering to Western assumptions in order to be legible on a global scale.

Here is where the specificity of China as a technologicized imaginary, located outside of both space and time, results in a an Orientalizing impulse fundamentally different from the fetishization of a high-tech Japan seen prominently in cyberpunk and the gleamingly sexualized noir adoration of the 80s. Shaped by and reliant on Western projections of Asia as the techne through which to shape a future defined by and created for the West, Sinofuturism not only projects China as a temporal locus for the project of modernity (Niu 2008), but also posits Chinese individuals themselves as resources, not originary producers of cultural or technological capital. Reduced by the West to faceless algorithmic data points, Chinese laborers and producers are commodified in an ideologically reproductive system informed by the racial panic of outsourcing common in the early nineties with the rise of overseas data centers. (Atanasoki and Vora 2015) Chinese science fiction writers are well aware of this and increasingly find themselves in a position to either push back against it or grapple with those fears in order to appear legible to an international readership.

Some authors do this by writing directly to the negative visions of a Chinese future most commonly held by the West: Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide, for example, deals with the physical detritus left behind by the dreams of digital development and the environmental devastation created when those developments are made obsolete and discarded, while Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” shows both digital message boards and spoken language as subject to the same censorship as physical media, giving lie to the aspirations of online communications as a state of expressive exceptionalism. Other Chinese content producers actively embody the digitizing impulse that seeks to turn human beings into images for consumption: Naomi Wu (Shenzhen’s “sexy cyborg”), for example, has created a 3D scan of her body and uploaded it for the purpose of 3D printing models. These models are marketed alongside 3D models of Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell—an explicit juxtaposition of two stylized bodies (one real, one fictional) that, in their respective worlds, represent the future through a conscientious abandonment of the biological for the constructed.

So what, then, does it mean for Chinese science fiction to attempt to depict a Sinofuturist vision in the increasingly globalized space made possible by digital technologies? And what does it mean to produce content within a framework that imagines a techno-utopic future founded on artistic labor while simultaneously reproducing racialized tropes of dehumanization? How is material production changed by an increasing reliance on the digital? In the following essays, various researchers and theorists attempt to grapple with digital imaginaries, production, labor, and futurity across a wide range of topics multiply bound in Sinofuturist space.

The idea for this special issue developed out of a workshop organized by Dino Ge Zhang as part of the WuDaoKou Futurists collective, a collective aimed at decentering Sinofuturism from its Western articulations. The workshop, “Alternative Sinofuturisms,” already presupposes Sinofuturism as a venue for alterity and retains a space for various approaches and understandings of who and what is being foregrounded. Centralized in Beijing but held online with invited speakers from four different continents, the workshop was organized around a series of provocations, most of which are included in this issue. Amy Ireland articulated a view of darkside empathy that positioned Sinofuturist visions as methods of inculcating weaponized empathy, while Gabriele de Seta argued that Sinofuturism functions as a framework for denying the possibility of coevalness to China on the part of the West. I discussed Sinofuturism as an aestheticized projection that fixed images of the country in a perpetual futur antérieur; Vincent Garton, not included here, argued for a reappropriation of the term by Chinese theorists and politicians in order to reconstruct a new world system inclusive of heterogenous futures. The organizer, Dino Ge Zhang (without whom neither the original symposium nor this special issue would be possible), expanded on his concept of Sino-no-futurism to describe a world post-pandemic, which in many ways now reads as a science fictional dream for an American and British audience trapped in the perpetual now of our own countries’ ongoing pandemic-based immiserations.

The papers contained in this special issue respond to these various provocations and the overall concept of Sinofuturism from various angles. While some are supportive, seeing in Sinofuturism an opportunity for alternative epistemologies, others criticize its foreclosure of heterogenous elements and re-centering of global development vis-à-vis the West. What’s more, while Sinofuturism is an explicitly temporal projection, it is not necessarily a science fictional one except insofar as any futurist projection is a work of imagination—as a result, some of the essays contained here do not consider science fiction at all, while still engaging with the concept of how to situate the future on a global scale. By questioning who gets to imagine the future alongside who and what contributes to bringing those visions about, these essays incisively demonstrate that the material is never separate from the conceptual and the real-world consequences of imagining such alternatives.


Atanasoski, Neda and Kalindi Vora. “Surrogate Humanity: Posthuman Networks and the Racialized Obsolescence of Labor.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015,

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).” Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2016,

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2014.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.” Melus: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 33, no. 4, 2008, pp. 73-96.

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Xia Jia. “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2016.

Xu Jing. “’Golden Age’ Dawns for Chinese Web-Writers.” China Daily, 6 September 2015,

The Struggle over Information Curation in Fran Wilde’s The Fire Opal Mechanism

“We’ll Free These Words From What Binds Them”: The Struggle over Information Curation in Fran Wilde’s The Fire Opal Mechanism

Jeremy Brett
Texas A&M University

Science fiction and fantasy have by and large escaped discussion of a dismediated informational world. In SF, it is true, subgenres like cyberpunk concern themselves with the concept that information is, or should be, free. A common trope in SF is that of the limitless library or archive with instant access to information that makes no visible use of mediators, search tools, or mechanisms for establishing context between and among bits of information. Look no further than Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica, of the Foundation novels, or the vast library of memories assembled by Lovecraft’s Great Race of Yith. Perhaps even more familiar is the image of a repository of information ultimately (if in detail-shy) fashion directed by a figure—“the Librarian,” the “Chief Archivist,” or known by a hundred other titles. Some of these institutions are open to all and sundry, whereas others are generally restricted to a specified audience (e.g. the library at Hogwarts, the Jedi Order’s Holocron Vault, the locked-away stacks of forbidden books at Miskatonic University, the Library at Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork).

However, whatever the structure of the individual institution, little thought in the genre is given over to the ethics and democratization of information, that is, to how or why is the information within the archive or library arranged, contextualized, framed, made accessible, presented?1 James Gunn has been one of the few to mention these kinds of issues; in his essay on the role of libraries in science fiction he speaks of “visions of futures in which libraries are even more important to the fabric of society than they are today and librarians may be only computer programs offer little more than a hint of what lies ahead for all of us, those of us who pull together information, those who consume it, and those who are the custodians and the taxonomists of it” (Gunn, emphasis added).

Likewise, Frederik Pohl, in a speech given in 1965 to the American Documentation Institute, discussed the possibility that science fiction could help real-life thinkers develop new and better systems of information retrieval. He theorized, in reference to his 1956 story “Wapshot’s Demon”, that “it seems to me that there is a difference between information which is pertinent and useful and information which is not. I don’t know of a demon at present seeking the job of sorting them out, but I do rather think that such a demon, or at least some mechanical-electronic analogue of such a demon, may some day be found – on the simple premise that you and I are able to discriminate between such bits of information, and therefore, it should be sooner or later possible to teach a machine to do so too.” (Pohl 102)

Information curation is a serious issue in the real world and the library profession, certainly. There exists a dichotomy between the library as gateway vs. librarian as gatekeeper identities. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, for one, managed to believe in both these ideas at once. He pointed out in a 1998 article about the American public library system that “knowledge has to be accessible to all people” (11), a nearly universal sentiment. However, he went on to note that “the idea of knowledge-based democracy is threatened, in a peculiar fashion, by the information flood generated by the new technologies and by the overwhelming advance of the audio-visual, multimedia world.” (12) Furthermore:

I fear that all this miscellaneous unverified, constantly changing information on the Internet may inundate knowledge – may move us back down the evolutionary chain from knowledge to information, to miscellaneous raw data. We may be sinking down rather than rising up to wisdom and creativity – those twin peaks that are the highest attainment of the human mind and spirit. Instead of a knowledge-based democracy, we may end up with an information-inundated demagogracy.

Billington 12

In recent years, many librarians have tried to pivot their profession in order to cope with this informational Wild West, to reframe the old model of librarians who govern access rather than provide it. As one library blogger, Peter Murray, noted in 2006, “the library profession is a trusted gatekeeper—librarians have a track record of providing orderly access to shared information resources and taking seriously the responsibility to provide access to those resources under the terms with which they were acquired.” On the other hand, the Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) issued in 1999 defines libraries as “gateways to knowledge, thought, and culture.” “Gateways” is a telling self-definition, setting the modern conception of libraries and librarians apart from the more traditional or custodial role of gatekeeper, that is, one who guards the entrance to the court of knowledge and decides who gets access to which sources of information. It is a repositioning with the potential to assign the role of librarian a new kind of openness, free (free-ish, anyway) from traditional arrogance or paternalism.

Of course much of this paradigm shift, as Billington and others note, has been driven by the rise and ongoing world domination of the Internet, where information can be, to say the least, unguarded. We all recognize the advantages to the democratization of information, in allowing everyone to have equal access to the information they need to be informed citizens insofar as they have Internet access. At the same time, in this current age of “fake news,” a dearth of information literacy, and the fetishization of equality of opinion (that is, my YouTube video from an unknown source is just as good as your trained scientist), there exists, however much we might like to think otherwise, a societal threat inherent in unfettered and context-free information access.

We see that threat made manifest in a fantastical setting: Fran Wilde’s novelette The Fire Opal Mechanism. Wilde’s story, the second in her Gem Universe series,2 is singular in the fantasy genre in its centering of the control of information as a theme. It does so not in the cliched sense from so many fantasy works of “which questing party gets whose spell book to defeat what evil dark lord,” for example, but in the very modern sense with which librarians and archivists are currently grappling and which, as noted, has enormous implications for the future of society.

The overwhelming menace in Wilde’s story comes from the Pressmen, a group of militant information populists with tactical and rhetorical elements reminiscent of both the eighteenth-century French Revolution and the twentieth-century Chinese Cultural Revolution. As was common during these real-life revolutions, Pressmen launch demonstrations and attacks—particularly stinging are those from former students who turn against their universities—on the traditionally curated information environment, and threaten or suborn educational administrators, in the name of destroying elitism.

The Pressmen derive their name from their magical machine, a reverse printing press into which eager hands toss books and which removes the ink (and therefore the content) from the pages. What results from this destruction is a so-called Universal Compendium of Knowledge, a constantly-updating information source lacking boundaries, context, or structure. For the Pressmen, this is the ultimate freedom, but it comes at the price of violence and the destruction of tradition, as sorrowfully witnessed by one of the story’s protagonists, Ania Dem, a librarian at the beleaguered Far Reaches University:

The crowd shifted. Ania’s stubbornness increased at a swish of white and blue along the corridors. Two Pressmen stripped the robe from an art professor’s shoulders and let the garment fall to the ground.

Ania’s hopes sank in her stomach, suddenly heavy and sour.

The Pressmen hadn’t been held back. More colleagues, from university guards to Dean Andol, already wore blue and white cloaks, or shiny metal pins in the shape of a book split open, the pages left smooth and blank.

Wilde 23

The Pressmen’s movement is one of violence and intimidation to ensure an egalitarian purity. This “purity” is represented in their symbol: a book split open, rent asunder, with nothing remaining but blankness. For Pressmen, emptiness is a virtue, representing the erasure of structural or social or human barriers to information, and at the same time the destruction of contextual meaning that made the information relevant in the first place. Their barrage of slogans gives voice to this fervent belief: “Knowledge Unity: An Education for All,” “Conquer The Losses of Time With Knowledge,” “Masters of what’s right, what’s poor! Soon you won’t decide anymore!”

Another of the story’s protagonists, thief Jorit Lee, overhears at one point a Pressman sum up their motives in terms eerily similar to modern faux-democrats who claim that “experts” are unnecessary and universities are nurseries for blasphemy, treason, and elitism:

“Historically, universities never even enriched the towns they occupied. They kept all their best knowledge tucked inside their walls. The Pressmen have always fought to share that knowledge equally,” the guide was saying. “Now that we have the technology, we’re able to do that far faster. What was once a small protest against academic fortresses? Is now changing the Six Kingdoms for the better.”

The new assistants nodded in the dawn.

“So go out today and find as many hidden books as possible. Buy what you can to keep people happy. Take the rest. If you find a professor, call for help. We’ll free these words from what binds them. We’ll share everything. And then we’ll level the rest.”

Wilde 37

Now that we have the technology. The coming of the Press signals the dawn of “true knowledge,” free of the heavy hand of undeserved authority. But note that Billington frames the issue in exactly the opposite manner: “The idea of knowledge-based democracy is threatened, in a peculiar fashion, by the information flood generated by the new technologies and by the overwhelming advance of the audio-visual, multimedia world. We talk now about the Information Age, not the knowledge age; we talk about information centers rather than knowledge centers” (Billington 12).

However framed, the divide between knowledge and information is at the heart of the ideological conflict Wilde presents. And, depending on the time and shifts in power, both sides are prone to ridicule, assault, and stridency against each other. A time-travelling Jorit and Ania (having been swept into the past by the mechanism of the story’s title) witness a confrontation early in the then-less-militant Pressmen’s movement across the Six Kingdoms:

Ania nodded, taking the paper back. More knowledge is better. Learn how to spot accuracy. “I remember Grandmother talking about this march”, she said. “Everyone thought the Pressmen seemed smart.” She shuddered. “That they’d add to the local arts and culture, not—”

“Control it?” Jorit nodded. “Something changed.”

. . . Men and women wearing academic robes marking them as members of the two nearest local universities yelled. Their arms swung and their robes belled out as they threw fruit…”You cannot use what you can’t understand; knowledge refined is better than knowledge to hand!” More academics shouted the Pressmen down. The crowd seemed to stutter, its affections pulled both ways.

The Pressmen still smiled, but their parade slowed. “We differ in our opinions, that is all,” one of the bearers of the false gems said.

“You are wrong! That is worse!” a professor shouted. “You need education, not just knowledge. Progress cannot happen without refinement. Discourse.”

“But you would choose who gets to talk. Who progresses.”

Wilde 99-100

These early Pressmen are peaceful demonstrators; they smile and wave at the gathering crowds, and trumpet inspirational slogans like “Knowledge—More Valuable Than Gems.” Who would argue that knowledge is less important than riches or fame? Who would try to deny knowledge to others, especially when the deniers are academics at institutions that are attended by the elite? These seem like common sense and fair contentions, made emotionally more so by the disruptive and insulting attacks made by professors against the Pressmen. Jorit’s brother Marton agrees:

Marton had always been the one to try and explain the difference between being told a thing was true and experiencing the truth of it firsthand . . . Access to books and information should be easier than it is in the Six Kingdoms, he’d said while they studied late at night. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard to learn. She’d asked him then, But do people value it more when they have to fight for it?

Wilde 35, emphasis in original

But as Jorit notes to Ania, “something changed.” In the intervening centuries, the egalitarian call made in initial good faith transforms into a brutish demagoguery, a sadly familiar pattern that recurs throughout human history and that comes with great societal and spiritual cost.

Without context and structure, argues Ania, there is a lack of the necessary spirit that humanity imbues in the literature it creates. The kind of informational environment envisioned by the Pressmen is cold, sterile, morally void, and, indeed, anti-human. Intermediaries such as scholars and librarians provide guidance and judgment without which knowledge is an indiscriminate mass that can actually do harm. (Scholars of information such as Safiya Noble in her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression have pointed out how the creation of an “open” informational ecosystem with “unbiased” algorithms is, in fact, an avenue for prioritizing preexisting biases about race and gender.)3 

In passages familiar to any librarian or reader with an emotional investment in books-as-objects, Wilde records Ania’s meditations on the power of the works she curates and seeks to preserve.

All those words. The thought of Pressmen taking those words from her hands, churning them into pulp and ink, and thus into a full set of constantly current Universal Compendiums of Knowledge filled Ania’s stomach with dread. She’d loved books since she was a child playing in her father’s study while he taught his classes. Loved how each volume felt different in the hand, heavy or light; that each smelled of a different era, different knowledge; that they had to be handled carefully – like people – but that they were constant, finished – unlike people. How could she give any of them up?

“But the Compendiums could contain everything!” Dean Andol had, the year before, chided the reluctant Master Archivist, Sonoria Vos.

“How does a printing press lay down ink on a page that can twist and rework itself into new forms?” Vos had argued. “And what value do words have across a gap of time if they don’t stay put? Books are measures of time. They are made to grow old, to grow, occasionally, wrong.”

Ania, listening from the stacks, agreed with her mentor. She liked that books had conversations among themselves. That they, like people, sometimes faded or fell apart when not well called for. That made them precious.

Wilde 15-16

The human connection that makes collections of and commentaries on knowledge is crucial to that knowledge’s preservation throughout time. Ania would wholeheartedly agree with Billington’s observation that “[t]he very flood of unsorted information makes it more important than ever the librarians’ role of sorting, dispensing, and being neutral but informed navigators . . . the deluge of unsorted electronic information increases the need for a special cast of discriminating knowledge professionals who will add the value of judgment and the warmth of human mediation to all this unintelligible material” (13).4  Left alone and untended, information has a tendency to drift and its very nature becomes malleable.

Wilde makes this process fantastically explicit in a passage describing the workings of the Press:

A group of four Pressmen with close-cropped hair sat doing simple tasks. Feeding newly blank books into a slim, high-tech press. Dumping sacks of strange ink – dust, really – across the pages within a glass and iron box. The dust swirled like a storm. Then books emerged, filled Universal Compendiums of Knowledge. The Presskeeper lifted a still-warm book for him to see: Far Reaches University, the entry read. Two hundred years and counting, raising leaders in a region known for shipping and fishing.

As Xachar watched, the letters tangled and blurred, a ribbon of ink curling in on itself and releasing. When it stopped, the page read Two hundred years of knowledge hoarding in a region known for shipping and fishing.

Wilde 79, emphasis in original

Of course, human mediators are perfectly capable of actively altering the narrative, and do, and have. But Wilde’s larger point is that informational intermediaries like librarians or archivists or professors serve a vital purpose in preserving the human chronicle intact across the temporal continuum, passing informed knowledge on to the next generations, and transforming conglomerations of unrelated and unconnected data into story. That is no small thing.

Billington relates the story of speaking to a Native American in Nebraska, who told him that “librarians today are like the oldest person in a tribe in the Native American communities that preexisted the first white settlers. That person kept in his or her head the memory of the tribe, the oral tradition of the community, just as a library later kept its written memory. ‘We didn’t call him the gatekeeper,’ he told me. ‘We called him the dreamkeeper.’ Librarians,” Billington concludes, “must be gatekeepers to useful knowledge—opening windows to the wide world outside; but they can also be the dreamkeepers of each civilization” (16).

The Fire Opal Mechanism is unusual in the fantasy and SF genres for Wilde’s thoughtfulness in considering the ethics and politics surrounding information access. As the introduction to this piece notes, all too often libraries and archives in works of the fantastic are background scenery or mere plot devices—opportunities to show off shelves of mysterious and dusty volumes, for example, or vast computer banks where the exact information required is available through a simple query. Little attention, however, is paid to the intricacies of information arrangement, classification, and access. In reality, these things, undramatic as they might be, are crucial to the structure of an informed society. Science fiction has long engaged with the important concerns of the day; how we receive and make information accessible are issues increasingly vital to our societal future, and deserve more treatment by genre authors. (Writers such as Neil Stephenson and Malka Older, for example, have already produced substantial works concerned with the use and flow of information, so precedent exists for even greater specificity in future narratives.) It is more remarkable to see fantasy embracing this kind of subject matter that has significant societal import. This makes Wilde’s work all the more singular. What Wilde does so powerfully in Mechanism is to reinforce in a fantasy setting this need for a corps of dreamkeepers, to carefully curate and provide access to the knowledge that everyone—whether living in a fantasyland or not—needs in order to understand the human experience.


1. As a special collections librarian myself, who like many of my colleagues can become entertainingly frustrated at the inaccurate portrayal in literature and film of our profession, I do enjoy a particular exception to this trend in fantasy. In the series The Kingkiller Chronicle, set mainly at the arcane “University”, Patrick Rothfuss takes care to note the existence in the University’s Archives of phenomena familiar to us librarians: dueling and contradictory cataloging schema, an acquisitions department, a quarantine area for the removal of pests, and a staff of student workers to reshelve books and perform other grunt work.

2. See the first volume in the series, the Nebula- and Hugo-nominated The Jewel and Her Lapidary (2016), for background. Lapidary takes places several centuries before Fire Opal Mechanism, set in a world where certain gems are imbued with spectacular powers and worn by ‘Jewels’ (the ruling class). The powers of these gems must be harnessed and channeled by human ‘Lapidaries’. In Mechanism, it is a rogue gem that is ultimately responsible for the destruction of knowledge that is central to the plot

3. Note, also, that at the time of writing the United States continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, as not only ordinary citizens but state and federal politicians argue that expert scientific testimony is biased and unreliable in the face of “gut feelings” or self-obtained and unsourced information.

4. Whether or not librarians can be truly neutral (and I argue that they cannot), is a debate for a different forum altogether.


Jeremy Brett is the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, as well as Processing Archivist, at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University. He has previously worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration—Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.


Billington, James H. “American Public Libraries in the Information Age: Constant Purpose in Changing Times.” Libraries & Culture, Winter 1998, pp. 11-16.

Gunn, James E. “Libraries in Science Fiction.” Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, April 2006,

IFLA. “Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom.”, 25 March 1999,

Murray, Peter E. “Librarians as Gatekeepers.” Disruptive Library Technology Jester, 13 June 2006,

Pohl, Frederik. “Information Science-Fiction or Fact?” American Documentation, April 1965.Wilde, Fran. The Fire Opal Mechanism., 2019.