New York: Tor, 2007; $26.95 hb; 336 pages
reviewed in The New Yory Review of Science Fiction 234, February 2008
Science fiction has always owed a lot to Europe. From Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634) and Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des Estats et Empires de la Lune (1656) to the various works of Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatski brothers, some of the genre’s most important and innovative work has come in languages other than English. But we don’t always see it. Around 150 years after he started writing, we are still being presented with new and corrected translations of the novels of Jules Verne, attempts to get closer to what he actually wrote, and he is one of the most significant figures in the history of sf who has always been widely read and widely translated. Most non-English language genre authors are not so lucky, and many have been plagued with no translation or poor translation. I remember, some years ago, that a group of Romanian writers put together a collection of their work in English, but the quality of the translation probably did their cause more harm than good. Nevertheless some European sf has, from time to time, appeared in English (one is grateful, in this respect, to a very small handful of editors, notably Damon Knight and David Hartwell), and recently we have seen novels appear from the German Andreas Eschbach, the Serb Zoran Zivkovic, and of course Finland’s Johanna Sinisalo won the James Tiptree Award with Troll: A Love Story. Even so, finding a good translation of non-Anglophone sf is so rare that we should be very grateful for this new collection.
We should, perhaps, be rather less grateful for the title, since it sets up expectations that the book itself does not even attempt to fulfil. Previous SFWA Hall of Fame volumes have been the result of SFWA members voting on worthy stories, on what should have been award winners. But there was no balloting involved in the selection of stories for this volume. Not even, as we might have anticipated, among the writers in the various countries represented here. Instead, this seems to be entirely the personal selection of the editors, and since they seem to have had a hand in at least the final polish of a number of the translations it is never entirely clear whether they have chosen the contents on the basis of the story or the translation. Nor is it ever clear why one author has been chosen over another. Since James Morrow’s introductions to each story either even-handedly praise numerous other writers from the same country, or mention no others at all, we cannot tell if, for instance, Panagiotis Koustas is included here because he is the only sf writer in Greece, or the one other Greek writers look up to, or is somehow emblematic of Greek sf, or is simply a writer the Morrows like. Best, therefore, to ignore the title and take this as just a collection of non-Anglophone sf that happens to have caught the attention of the Morrows.
On that level, this is actually a pretty good collection, though like most collections it is variable. If Koustas really is the best sf writer that Greece has to offer, and if ‘Athos Emfovos in the Temple of Sound’ (translated by Mary and Gary Mitchell) is the best of his work, I can’t say we’re missing much. It is a story of rebellion and the power of music that promises much but doesn’t really deliver, the climax in particular losing the coherence the piece seemed to be developing. At least this is a story with an overall shape and intelligence, as opposed to Lucian Merisca’s ‘Some Earthlings’ Adventures on Outrerria’ (translated by Cezar Ionescu), an illogical mishmash of the ludicrous and the nonsensical that leads me to suppose that earlier anthology of Romanian sf wasn’t let down by the translation after all.
Most of the rest is good, some of it is excellent, though it has to be said that few of the stories do anything we wouldn’t otherwise see in English language sf. And where they do display idiosyncracies we don’t really know if that is an expression of some national character (or at least of some tradition in the national literature) or a particular quirk of the author (or translator). Is the strange mixture of a frightening technological prison and some sort of voodoo magic in Valerio Evangelisti’s ‘Sepultura’ (translated by Sergio D. Altieri) something that develops out of the history of Italian literature, or the South American setting, or some private perspective of Evangelisti? Certainly the idea of prisoners literally fixed in a genetically engineered gel that is gradually integrating with their flesh seems to sit uncomfortably with the arousal of dark native gods, and the weird prison break at the end does not need the additional layer of strangeness imposed by the irruption of those gods into our reality.
As in most modern science fiction, death is a constant presence in this collection. It is there, for instance, in the stories by Arsenieva, Huberath, de la Casa and Romero, Barreiros, Maryson and Ribbeck. It is the whole point of both ‘Separations’ by Jean-Claude Dunyach (translated by Sheryl Curtis) and ‘Wonders of the Universe’ by Andreas Eschbach (translated by Doryl Jensen). Since ‘Separations’ was chosen to open this volume, it is perhaps intentional that it has a sense of both strangeness and familiarity: an overly enthusiastic artist and an overly dour space captain as unwelcome companions on a trip through hyperspace seems like the sort of set-up described in the sort of way we’ve grown used to over the last few decades. But the doomed and startling ending feels like an attempt to wrest something fresh from a tired theme, and it provides the sort of disorientation we look for in a collection like this. Yet too often it seems that the familiar wins out over the strange. ‘Wonders of the Universe’ which recounts the final hours of a downed spacewoman beyond reach of rescue could, but for the sex of the protagonist, have been written by Arthur C. Clarke in his prime.
Eleni Aresenieva’s beautiful fable, ‘A Birch Tree, A White Fox’ (translated by Michael M. Naydan and Slava I. Yastremski), does have the feel of something Russian. Perhaps it’s the silence of the story, the cold isolation of its tale of three crashed cosmonauts who discover that any spoken word will cause them to be devoured by the strange planet on which they find themselves; or perhaps it’s the iconic birch tree that plays such a symbolic role in the mental survival of our hero and that seems to link this story to the long Russian folk tradition. Yet the other Russian story, Sergei Lukyanenko’s ‘Destiny, Inc.’ (also translated by Naydan and Yastremski), could have been the product of any language, any urban culture. It’s a neat revision of an old idea, that luck is a commodity to be bought and sold, that you can trade a little ill fortune in an area that doesn’t really matter to you for good fortune in an area that does matter. Perhaps it can be read as a satire on post-communist Russia with its new wealth and dodgy morality, but it could equally stand as a satire on the economic structure of Britain or America or anywhere that proclaims greed is good.
There is satire, also, in Johanna Sinisalo’s ‘Baby Doll’ (translated by David Hackston), a savage indictment of the sexualization of the young, though the story does follow a rather too predictable path. Her account of the way popular media has, in effect, colonised the imaginations of the young, is reflected more broadly in this collection in the way so many stories show how Anglophone science fiction has colonised non-Anglophone cultures. Several of the stories reflect less the way their non-Anglophone culture is refracted through their science fiction, than the way Anglophone science fiction has been absorbed unquestioningly. ‘The Day We Went Through the Transition’ by Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero (translated by Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and James Stevens-Arce) is a fairly standard time travel paradox story translated into an interesting Spanish setting but otherwise not really doing anything we haven’t seen half a hundred times before. ‘A Night on the Edge of the Empire’ by João Barreiros (translated by Luís Rodrigues) is a familiar comedy of a highly refined alien visitor being abused and ill-treated by the barbaric Earthmen. Joëlle Wintrebert’s ‘Transfusion’ (translated by Tom Clegg) is a story of contact with the alien recast as demonic possession that is allusive and poetic in its style but hardly fresh in its content. While ‘The Fourth Day to Eternity’ by Ondrej Neff (translated by Jeffrey Brown) is another time paradox story set in a sort of fractured time that calls to mind a host of other tales going back at least to Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘The Sliced-Crosswise, Only-on-Tuesday World’, though the sense of the ordinary continuing under the extraordinary does give this a distinctive flavour.
But if the homogenising reach of science fiction seems to be shown by some of the stories, there are others that reflect the universality of different literary influences. One of the best stories in the collection, ‘Between the Lines’ by José Antonio Cotrina (translated by James Stevens-Arce), owes more to Jorge Luis Borges in its tone and atmosphere than it does to science fiction. Yet in many ways it seems to follow a very traditional path: everything starts when our hero goes through a door that isn’t there. But beyond that door he finds a university professor who teaches him how to read the books inscribed in the white spaces between the lines of type. This literal and literary doubled world, like a glimpse of Tlön, is one of the most original inventions I’ve encountered in a long time.
One might expect, I suppose, that Eastern European writers, still remembering the Orwellian nightmare of Soviet rule, would be likely to write tales of enclosure, observation, restriction and sudden hopeless freedom. And that is exactly what you get in ‘ “Yoo Retoont, Sneogg, Ay Noo”’ by Marek S. Huberath (translated by Michael Kandel, and the title alone should be enough to suggest that he had the most unenviable task in the book). Set in a blighted future where no-one has escaped the after-effects of fall-out and all children are assessed for their degree of wholeness before those who fail the test are farmed for their body parts, it turns into a surprisingly moving and humane tale of love, loyalty and human possibilities. The bleakness of the ending in no way clouds the innocent hope and delight of the vision. Yet the most Orwellian tale comes from the Dutch writer W.J. Maryson in ‘Verstummte Musik’ (translated by Lia Belt), in which the Ministry of Quotation, like an offshoot from 1984, annually assesses each person’s qualities to discover whether they deserve being or non-being. Those who fail the test are eliminated instantly, their remains being formed into another brick to build the wall of a semi-mythical palace. But one technician in the Ministry, and his wife, plot a bold escape; an escape which leads them only inside that palace where one of the two must face a long and lonely future.
The volume ends with one of the longest stories and, along with the Arsenieva, Huberath, Maryson and Cotrina, one of the best. ‘A Blue and Cloudless Sky’ by Bernhard Ribbeck (translated by Niels Dalgaard) is yet another time paradox story (the idea of being trapped in time seems to be a popular theme with writers from across the continent, or maybe it’s just that those sorts of stories appeal to the editors, who can tell?). The planet Nakorza was settled some generations before on the say-so of a solitary explorer, but by chance the settlers were sent back through time on their journey to Nakorza. Now is the time when that explorer is actually conducting his survey, and yet an astronomical event, the Crown of Stars, is threatening the imminent destruction of all life on the planet. Why did the surveyor recommend settlement knowing that the planet’s destruction was near? And can the circle of time be broken? Ribbeck portrays the wintery, small-town culture of Nakorza beautifully, and deftly raises and develops the two key questions about which this story turns. If answering one of the questions means fudging the other, this is still a hauntingly memorable story.
All in all this volume does not contain, as the sub-title insists, ‘Sixteen Contemporary Science Fiction Classics from the Continent’, but there are good stories here, stories that demonstrate that interesting, entertaining and occasionally stunningly innovative science fiction is being written across Europe, though it is generally hidden from us by language. For that reason this is a very important and very welcome volume, and we must only hope that it does not prove to be yet another one-off. We deserve more than the periodic reminder that there are other science fictions out there, and so do the European writers.