Science Fiction Studies

#79 = Volume 26, Part 3 =November 1999

Current Trends in Global SF

Roger Bozzetto.  Science Fiction in France: The Comeback

Science fiction in France seems to oscillate between lush times and lean. Modern sf in France has always comprised two distinct traditions: those sf books and films translated from English (mostly from the United States), and those originally published or produced in French (mostly from France). These two domains are not necessarily antagonistic: it might even be argued that the periods of prosperity for French sf have been marked by its openness to the Anglo-American sf world. Such was the case, for example, in the postwar 1950s when the sudden influx of anglophone sf books into the French marketplace gave rise to a proliferation of francophone sf authors who imitated them. And such was the case in the early 1970s, in the wake of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, when homegrown French sf flourished (despite a certain undercurrent of aggressive anti-Americanism) and appeared alongside translated Anglo-American titles in a variety of sf collections created by French publishers. In contrast, in the 1980s and the popularity of Serge Brussolo's works notwith-standing, the situation for French sf as a whole suddenly worsened: its sales began to drop off rapidly—the victim of intrusive political agendas by French sf writers and their misguided attempts at “literary legitimization” via stylistic experimentation. During this decade, one might say that French sf retreated into a kind of self-imposed elitist “ghetto,” alienating its own readership and distancing itself from the continuing and abundant Anglo-American sf of the period. Opportunities for young French sf writers shriveled, sf magazines and journals disappeared, and many French publishers discontinued their once-profitable sf lines. After the best of times, it was the worst of times.      

Fortunately, the late 1990s have once again witnessed a sudden renaissance in the popularity of science fiction in France. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of this recent upsurge of interest in sf among French readers. Might it be due to the pervasive influence of today's media industry—i.e., the success of sf cinema, the availability of cable television and pay-per-view programming, and the proliferation of videocassettes? Is it perhaps because of a change in publishers' attitudes? Is it the result of a young public who, in opposition to what they perceive (wrongly) as the traditional “dead” culture taught in schools, have adopted sf as a kind of generational “counterculture,” one that seems more relevant to their lives in this high-tech world? Or, conversely, is it a byproduct of the efforts of their teachers who, in trying to instill in their students a taste for reading literature (a challenging task nowadays), have turned to sf as a means to initially “hook” them in the hopes of subsequently repatriating them to mainstream literary texts? Or finally, could it simply be due to the new wave of French sf writers who are now finally “in sync” with their public's expectations for the genre?      

Whatever the reason(s), science fiction in this country is now on a roll. And it is becoming acceptable even to those who had previously been labelled members of the dominant culture “establishment”: for instance, the ex-president of the French Senate chose to invite Jack Vance and several European sf authors to the recent government-sponsored exposition called Futuroscope, held in Poitiers in 1998. Furthermore, large cash prizes have now been attached to certain annual awards such as the “Eiffel Tower Award for Science Fiction” in order to encourage young sf writers, both domestic and foreign. Last year, this award was won by French author Pierre Bordage for his two-volume sf novel Wang; and this year both the categories and purse were doubled, with the best novel going to Valerio Evangelista of Italy and the best short story to Roland W. Wagner of France. Sf conventions are also beginning to catch on here. In particular, for the past three years in Nancy, an sf convention called “Les Galaxiales” has been held in early April, gathering together a wide variety of French and non-French sf authors, fans, critics, and editors (Galaxies, BP 3687, Nancy 54097 cedex, France). Last year several well-known Anglo-American writers including Mike Resnick, Poppy Z. Brite, and Brian Stableford were invited; on next year's schedule are Robert Silverberg, Karen Haber, and Norman Spinrad, as well as the French-Canadian Jean-Louis Trudel and the above-mentioned award-winner Evangelista. Finally, a group called “Association 42” has recently developed a new Internet website devoted exclusively to sf ( It features many links to other sf-related sites and contains a very rich databank of French online texts—short stories, book reviews, and sf criticism. It includes, for example, all of Michel Jeury's published short stories as well as Gérard Klein's editorial prefaces to several French sf paperback editions.      

This rebirth of interest in sf in France—where (to the great frustration of some purists) the reading public seems to make no distinction between the genres of sf and fantasy—has been accompanied by the appearance of several new sf journals and fanzines. Following the unfortunate disappearance of Nous les Martiens (one of the better sources for sf criticism) and of Cyberdreams after thirteen theme-based issues (devoted mostly to presenting the translated works of such anglophone sf authors as Greg Egan), the venerable French sf fanzine Yellow Submarine has taken on a new life and, in addition to its customary sf fiction, now publishes many critical articles à la SFS. Another sf fanzine, Ozone, has transformed itself into a professional magazine and now carries the name SF Magazine. Its print-run is 30,000 copies, and it is now in its third issue. Similar in some ways to Locus, it is a good source of information on the sf genre as a whole—books, films, publishers' data, interviews with authors, advertisements, etc. And, serving as it does to unite French sf readers around a common corpus, it is the type of sf publication (lacking since the demise of Fiction) that is capable of providing them with a shared cultural identity. The journal Galaxies was begun by the “Galaxiales” group of Nancy, but it is distributed only by subscription. It publishes sf short stories by both French and foreign authors, and it often includes substantial editorial pieces. Bifrost, run by a doubtlessly younger team of enthusiastic editors, is more oriented toward the ideas and images of this fin-de-siècle and doesn't hesitate to publish a special issue on fantasy as well as sf. But it too publishes the works of authors of different nationalities and has served as the springboard for young sf writers including Thierry Di Rollo and Jean-Jacques Nguyen, who are beginning to make a name for themselves in the field.      

A number of new publishers specializing in sf have also sprung up in the past few years—Destination Crépuscule, with its book on space opera entitled Le Feu aux étoiles (Fire in the Stars, 1996), L'Atalante with its best-selling novels by Pierre Bordage, etc.—and have offered new opportunities to fledgling sf writers. Although not seriously threatened in their business, the traditional French sf publishers of Le Fleuve Noir, Denoël, “Présence du Future,” Laffont's “Ailleurs et Demain,” Presses Pocket, or J'ai Lu Science-Fiction have nonetheless taken notice and have begun to respond to the changing tastes of their readerships. Le Fleuve Noir and Presses Pocket, for example, have added new fantasy series to their lists. And it must be noted that these larger publishing houses have also not hesitated to steal young, successful sf authors away from the smaller houses whenever possible (to the great indignation of the latter).      

In contrast, there is almost a sense of camaraderie and reciprocal emulation among the participants of the various French sf journals and fanzines. For instance, at a Cyberfiction convention in Cannes at the end of 1998, the publishers of the sf journals Galaxies, Bifrost, and SF Magazine were amicably rubbing shoulders and sharing their space with the publishers of the horror journal Ténèbres, the more “generalist” Parallèles, and a veritable plethora of fanzines of every type (see, for example, Jean-Pierre Queille's website at: http://www.integra. fr/XLII/PGEFF/Guide.html).      

It seems reasonable to assert that this new fan activity is at least partly the result of a “changing of the guard” in the ranks of French sf writers themselves over the past few years. Michel Jeury, Gérard Klein, André Ruellen, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, and an entire generation of sf authors born before 1940 have now more or less retired from the field. The next group—such authors as Emmanuel Jouanne, Pierre Paul Durastanti, Francis Berthelot, et al.—have all but ceased writing sf and now pursue careers in translation or research. And Serge Brussolo seems, at least for the moment, to have abandoned the sf genre. Accordingly, the field is now open sf authors in their 30s or even younger—for example, Laurent Genefort, Serge Lehman, Roland C. Wagner, Ayerdahl, Pierre Bordage, Jean-Jacques Nguyen, and Thierry Di Rollo—along with a handful of veterans in their 40s such as Jean-Marc Ligny, Jean-Claude Dunyach, and Richard Canal.      

What characteristics does this new generation of French sf authors have in common? First, they have learned to write sf stories that hold the attention of their readers. Even if, for some, this has meant reverting to “popular” themes and styles, their works have been much better received by French sf readers—in contrast to the pretentious “literary” sf produced by certain members of the preceding generation. Their stories often present visions of alternative worlds that are near-future extrapolations of our present (where the original model is often difficult to perceive) but where the reader is projected into new dimensions of dream or nightmare. Such is the case, for example, in Genefort's Les Chasseurs de sève (Sap Hunters, 1994), the works of Bordage, or the F.A.U.S.T. series by Lehman (1996-97). Sometimes, in the manner of Dan Simmons' Hyperion (1989) or Greg Bear's Eon (1985), they also portray more elaborate far-future speculations where the plausibility of their imagined universes is enhanced by the cogent efficiency of their plots and the concrete vividness of their descriptions. Such is the case, for instance, in the sf works of Ayerdahl, where social concerns are occasionally present but remain tightly integrated into the fictional story itself.      

Other distinguishing traits shared by the French sf writers of the 1990s are their views concerning the politics and the sf of the United States. Long past are those years of the Vietnam War when angry French sf authors and readers systematically promoted sf texts that denounced America's paternalism and hypocrisy, and where most American sf was viewed with suspicion and often dismissed as the product of mercantilism, militarism, and cultural imperialism. In contrast, France's sf community of today is greatly interested in all English-language sf: French authors analyze the models used therein, and often emulate them. The works of Philip K. Dick are no longer their exclusive focus, and they now devote their attention more to the works of such writers as Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Dan Simmons, and (curiously) Cordwainer Smith. These contemporary French sf writers no longer wish to create a national “sf à la française” in response to some ideologically-conceived “hegemony” of American sf. They are more interested in discovering new and innovative sf themes to develop in their own works, and in cultivating a loyal public that reads both French and translated sf.      

It is perhaps partly a result of this dramatic change in attitude among French sf writers that the frequently formulaic near-future dystopias and catastrophe novels of the past have given way to extrapolative dreamscape novels or works depicting far-future universes totally detached from the present. Writers have rediscovered the imaginative power of “space opera” without its escapist tendencies—“new look” space opera, one might say, where the issues and problems of today are not ignored but are, rather, embedded in a richly inventive narrative coupled with strong psychological overtones.      

For readers wishing to taste a representative sample of this “new French sf,” an excellent place to start is the recently-published anthology Escales sur l'Horizon (Stops on the Horizon, 1998), edited and very intelligently prefaced by Serge Lehman. This anthology includes a variety of sf works by sixteen promising francophone authors of this new generation (including two Qué-bécois, Jean-Louis Trudel and Yves Meynard). In these stories, one can witness the wide spectrum of creativity, orginality, and narrative talent that these new writers now offer to the French sf public. In their ingenious treatments of both subject and theme—the lucidity of their descriptions, the depth of their portrayals, the polished professionalism of their narration—these sf works are worthy rivals to the best Anglo-American efforts of the last few years.      

Another recent French anthology worth consulting is Musées, des mondes énigmatiques (Museums, Enigmatic Worlds, 1999), published by Denoël in its “Présence du futur” line. This collection features short stories by young and relatively unknown francophone sf writers who were invited to submit contributions on this specific theme. It follows in the footsteps of a similar publishing venture by Denoël in 1980 with its Futurs au présent (Futures in the Present) anthology—a gamble that was very successful and ultimately launched the writing career of Serge Brussolo, among others. Let us hope that this latest publication by Denoël will prove to be just as effective as its predecessor in bringing widespread public recognition to these young sf talents. In my opinion, several of them have special promise: I was particularly impressed, for example, with the narrational originality of Xavier Plathey's “Casse au musée” (Museum Scrap) and Cécile Voin's “Silence d'outre tombe” (Silence from Beyond the Tomb).      

Therefore, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of French sf are decidedly premature. During the past decade, it has attracted a host of vibrant “new blood” writers with fresh ideas, has succeeded in reestablishing contact with its readership base, has developed a kind of esprit de corps among its francophone aficionados, and has even begun to draw the attention of the French university system (see Times have changed. As it enters the new millenium, French science fiction is now poised on the threshold of what may yet become its Golden Age. (Trans. ABE)

Elana Gomel. Science Fiction in Russia: From Utopia to New Age

Any account of sf in contemporary Russia risks falling into the historical fissure opened up by the sociopolitical earthquake that has separated the USSR from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Is the Russian-language sf of the 90s the natural heir of Soviet sf or is it a completely new entity, cut off from its historical roots? Even the question of scope becomes murky: should a review of Russian-language sf include all the former republics of the USSR or limit itself to Russia proper? And what is Russia proper, for that matter?      

Though political unity is lost, a fragile cultural unity still holds together the fragments of the Soviet Empire, especially those where Russian is a dominant language. Moscow and St. Petersburg are cultural and publishing centers of the region. The trends I survey are common to all Russian-language sf within the geographical boundaries of the former USSR. There are interesting new developments in sf written in local languages (Ukrainian, the languages of Central Asia) but they are beyond the scope of this review.      

On the surface, the life of the Russian sf community consists of the same elements as in the West: a continuous stream of new titles, both translated and original, fanzines, Internet sites, fan awards, and annual conventions (the two most important ones are Interpresscon and Fancon). There is at least one respectable and long-lived magazine, Yesli (If), that publishes sf. Of course, the social and economic instability of the country has obvious consequences: sf publications go through rapid boom-and-bust cycles battered by the unfamiliar market forces. In the first years of democracy, the bookstores were flooded with cheap, often pirated translations of Western authors. The supply of translations, however, soon exceeded the demand, and recently the situation has changed dramatically: foreign sf has receded in importance and influence, while Russian authors are cornering the market in both “serious” literature and mass entertainment.      

But apart from such clear material influences, the transition from communism to democracy has been a profound spiritual upheaval that has affected all aspects of Russian culture, sf perhaps most of all. Under the fragile layer of normalcy, Russian sf strives to come to terms with its new role of apolitical entertainment in a society in which politics is a matter of life and death, and in which “entertainment” used to be a dirty word. The forward-looking genre has to find its place in a culture that has been robbed both of its future and its past.      

The collapse of Communism deprived sf of its utopian horizon. Even in the twilight of the Soviet regime, the enforced compliance with the ideologically prescribed history of the future had provided Soviet sf with a shared “master narrative.” Once the ideology was irrevocably discredited, the future was lost. The sense of being stranded on the shoals of history is, of course, felt by all segments of Russian society. But sf has suffered a particularly crippling blow. Insofar as Communism was a utopian ideology, its bankruptcy has led to a traumatic revulsion from the very idea of historical progress and change. Even though Soviet sf often participated in the dissident critique of the regime, it nevertheless spoke the language of forward-looking utopia, bolstered by a “total” scheme of history. The crisis of ideology, therefore, was tantamount to the crisis of generic tradition. Many otherwise inexplicable developments in contemporary Russian sf, in particular its penchant for conspiracy theories (echoed by political discourse at large), may be explained by a search for a new master narrative. The novelty of the social and political milieu is counterbalanced, however, by the inertia of the literary community. A majority of the Russian sf writers began their careers in the Soviet Union. The doyens of Russian sf, Kyr Bulychev, Vladimir Michailov, and Alexander Mirer, first achieved popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. And overshadowing all of them, the influence of the Strugatsky brothers, the undisputed rulers of Soviet sf, has continued into the post-Soviet period.      

Even though half of the duo, Arkady Strugatsky, died in 1991, “the Stru-gatsky school” continues to flourish. The tradition is kept alive by the annual award of “The Bronze Snail” (the name derives from the Strugatskys' celebrated dissident novel, The Snail on the Slope [1980]), by a series of sequels to the Strugatsky canon with the collective title The Time of the Disciples, and by the occasional solo publication of Boris Strugatsky under the pen name S.Vititsky.      

What the Strugatskys have bequeathed to their “disciples” is, paradoxically, contempt for sf. According to the authors' often-stated view, sf had to justify its existence by being “literature”—that is, conforming to the aesthetic criteria of the mainstream. The elevated view of literature as moral force, deeply embedded in Russian culture, eventually led the brothers to neglect specific science-fictional narrative strategies in favor of stylistic experimentation and obscure religious and mystical messages. The Strugatskys' last works, such as Burdened by Evil (1989), are much closer to allegory and fable than to Western-style sf. In the writings of their epigones, stylistic experimentation has often become unreadability. But on the other hand, the blurring of the boundaries of sf has enabled the rise of postmodern fantasy and magic realism.  

The privileged role of literature in Soviet culture stemmed from its being the focus of otherwise repressed political energies. But this traditional nexus of literature and politics has not been broken by the emergence of the free media. Despite the existence of other channels of political expression, literature—even, or especially, popular literature—is still ideologically engaged, propagating messages in which a political agenda is indissolubly linked with a metaphysical Weltanschauung. While more mass-orientated works crudely expound an ideological agenda, however, the literary mainstream deals with the general malaise of society. In contemporary Russia, where the democratic process seems to exemplify the workings of chaos theory, politics seethe with postmodern literary problematics. Literature provides a substitute social and political identity to the intelligentsia who find the cognitive or entertainment aspects of sf far less important than its capacity to ponder moral, philosophical, and historical issues. The sf that actively engages with such issues, taking over the vocabulary and the spirit of the Strugatsky brothers' work, imperceptibly dissolves into the general realm of literary fiction. This process can be seen in the oeuvre of two writers, Vyacheslav Rybakov and Viktor Pelevin. Rybakov, known for his contribution to the script of the celebrated film A Dead Man's Letters (1986), combines solid urban prose with psychological analysis and ethical pontification. The fantastic element in his writings is often reduced to a mere pretext. In Pull the String, for example, a tragedy of everyday life is filtered through the perception of an observer from the future. Viktor Pelevin, on the other hand, belongs to the movement that calls itself “turbo-realism” but that, in fact, can easily be compared with the postmodern writings of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. Pelevin's notorious novel Chapaev and Void (1996) is just such a postmodern romp through the twentieth-century cultural wasteland, complicated by allusions to Russia's tragic revolutionary history. Pelevin and other “turbo-realists” (Stolyarov, Gevorkian) freely use the repertoire of postmodernism—pastiche, parody, metafiction—to convey a sense of existential absurdity that is bound to resonate with their bewildered and dispossessed audiences.      

While part of Russian sf gradually merges with the literary mainstream, precisely the opposite process is also taking place—the generic consolidation of fantasy, which enjoys unprecedented success at the expense of “hard” science fiction. There was no indigenous tradition of fantasy in the Soviet Union. The first translations of Tolkien, appearing in the late 1980s, were a literary bombshell, giving rise to a youth subculture of medieval role-playing games and guitar-accompanied wistful ballads. In 1993 Nick Perumov, one of the most popular fantasy writers today, published The Ring of Darkness, a three-volume sequel to The Lord of the Rings. More trilogies followed, distinguishable from the original only by the Russian accent in spoken Elvish. The craze for fantasy was fed by the flood of translations, whereby everything put on paper by Andre Norton, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, David Eddings, and other Anglo-American creators of “sword and sorcery” was promptly issued in hardcover, Homegrown imitations followed, such as those by Yuri Petuchov who began his literary career in 1990 by publishing an eleven(!)-volume collection of pulp fantasy.      

But Western fantasy was soon felt to be inadequate to the needs of the Russian readership. Partly, this was a legitimate revolt against slavish adherence to the Anglo-American model based on alien Celtic and Teutonic mythologies. The most interesting examples of original Russian fantasy mine the rich field of Slavic ancient history and pagan beliefs. Maria Semenova's Wolfhound (1995), for example, is set in a stylized milieu of pre-Muscovite Russia. Co-authored by Nick Perumov and Svyatoslav Loginov, Black Blood (1996) utilizes Russian folklore to create an intricate world of fantastic beings that are not mere carbon copies of Tolkien's elves and orcs.      

It is not only Slavic mythology, however, that underwrites world-creation in original fantasy. Sometimes armed with academic credentials in ethnology or Far East studies, fantasy authors ransack exotic belief systems (especially those of Siberia and Central Asia), whose popularity goes hand in hand with the general revival of mysticism in contemporary Russia. An example is the popular two-author team of Dmitri Gromov and Oleg Ladyzhenski, young Ukrainian writers who publish under the pen name of Henry Lyon Oldie (the ubiquity of collaborations in Russian sf may have something to do with the heritage of the Strugatsky brothers). Despite the Anglo-Saxon nom de plume, Oldie's novels are eclectic compilations of motifs from all the world's mythologies. There Must be One Hero is a variation on the myth of Hercules, while Black Balamut, like Zelazny's Lord of Light, ranges far and wide over the rich field of Hinduism. Oldie's most popular novel, The Way of the Sword, offers a clever twist on the traditional conventions of fantasy by narrating part of the story from the point of view of an intelligent and animate weapon. In addition to genuine mythological lore, the team also draws inspiration from American Golden Age sf, as shown by Twilight of the World, the novel whose depiction of a decadent earth populated by a variety of strange creatures echoes Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld (1966). Finally, one of the most interesting works of contemporary Russian fantasy, S. Loginov's Many-armed God of Dalayn (1992), eschews grounding in folklore altogether and develops a world based on an arbitrary set of game rules that nevertheless is both nightmarishly vivid and cognitively complex.      

The turn to “nativism” in fantasy has more ominous connotations as well. Slavic fantasy has become a vehicle for a nationalistic, quasi-fascist world-view, which finds many overt and covert supporters in post-Communist Russia. The seeds of such a world-view germinated in the USSR within the group of sf writers linked to the journal Molodaya gvardia (Young guard) who called themselves “the school of Efremov.” The group had an ideological, if not political, affiliation with the notorious nationalistic organization Pamyat. Ivan Efremov, author of the celebrated communist utopia The Andromeda Nebula (1958), inspired this “school” with a heady mixture of millennialism, conspiratorial paranoia, occultism, and pan-Slavic nationalism. The resulting brew is selling briskly in the contemporary Russian marketplace of ideas. Among its literary incarnations are such works as Yuri Nikitin's fantasy series, including Three from the Forest (1993)and Hyperborea (1993), in which an interminable journey through Slavic mythology turns into a barely disguised glorification of Russian imperial history. The precursor of such fantasies is V. Nasarov's 1979 novel The Apples of Silai, which hid a frankly racist and anti-Semitic content under a thin allegorical disguise. Nowadays, with the repeal of censorship, no allegory is necessary.     

Conspiratorial, paranoid, and quasi-fascist views are given an ever freer reign in a peculiar—and highly popular—generic hybrid that combines elements of thriller, dystopia, mystery, and horror. If Russian fantasy, of whatever ideological persuasion, still preserves the generic features of its Western model—fake medievalism, “sword-and-sorcery” action, a self-contained Secondary World—this hybrid unabashedly presents itself as a topical comment on current events. The action generally takes place either in the present or the very near future. The novel, then, purports to explain Russia's predicament—which explanation generally takes the form of aliens, the International Jewish Plot, or Satan himself. Alexander Gera's The Bugle (1998), for example, is marketed as a “warning” rather than fantasy or sf, despite promulgating the notion that a joint conspiracy of cabalists and communists is out to get Russia. Other novels of the same ilk use the names of real-life politicians for characters who collaborate with the forces of evil in plotting a genocide of the Russian nation.      

The difficulty of classifying such works is a symptom of what might be called “the erosion of reality” in Russia, the erosion that has caused the decline of traditional sf. One of the hallmarks of communist ideology was its (largely fake) rationalism that, nevertheless, kept the lid on the spread of mysticism, while encouraging popular science on a scale unequalled in the West. Two of the most popular magazines of the Soviet era, Technika molodezhi (Technology for youth) and Znanie sila (Knowledge is power), were dedicated to the popularization of science, while also publishing sf. Thus, most Soviet sf was, at least ostensibly, science fiction.

Russia's entrance into the New Age happened with dizzying rapidity. A proliferation of sects, healers, prophets, would-be messiahs, alien abductees, and conspiracy theorists, coupled with economic and political instability, has unsettled the consensus reality to the point where sf's cognitive estrangement does not work anymore, simply because nothing is too strange to be claimed as true. The decline of “hard” sf has occurred in the West as well, but not with the abruptness of its fall in Russia, where it has gone overnight from being the outpost of reason in the sea of Western intellectual anarchy to a nightmare Wonderland.      

The fate of cyberpunk in Russia is highly characteristic of the current indifference to science, despite the fact that the Internet and computers have become an integral part of youth subcultures. The Russian translations of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling met with a cool reception. There were sporadic attempts by Russian writers to create local cyberpunk, notably Sergei Luk'yanenko's Maze of Reflections (1997) and Alexander Tyurin's Fall from Earth (1995). They were not successful, however, in either winning over the audience or establishing a “school.” Tyurin's move from cyberpunk to what he himself termed “mystic techno-thriller” exemplifies the general direction of Russian sf.      

The one subgenre of sf which enjoys a vigorous development is “alternative history.” Again, one hardly needs complicated theories to account for the attraction of the “what if” game in the country whose recent historical experience seems a chain of unrelieved disasters. “Alternative history” is so popular that there is a special award, “Sword in the Mirror,” for the best work in the genre. The work of Andrei Lazarchuk is characteristic of this trend. His novels Tranquillium, Soldiers of Babylon, The Other Sky (1993), and Look into the Eyes of Monsters (co-authored with M.Ouspensky) have complex structures of both parallel and intertwined temporal lines whose clash destabilizes the master narrative of history. This destabilization, however, is balanced by the attempt to create an overarching metaphysical scheme of the interaction between World and Creator, that would contain the bewildering complexity of “branching” history.      

Lazarchuk's starting point in the “what if' game is Russia's turbulent twentieth-century history. In Look into the Eyes of Monsters, for example, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, murdered by the Cheka in 1921, is saved by an esoteric “Council of Sages,” supposedly controlling human history, and is given the task of intervening at various junctures of the Soviet era. A similar idea is developed in Kyr Bulychev's monumental series, The River Chronos, in which the time-travelling protagonist journeys from 1913 to 1917, 1937, and 1941 in search of love and peace, only to find growing violence, persecution, and bloodshed. The series includes parallel historical scenarios as well, in one of which, for example, the October Revolution never happens. In another, Stalin gets the atomic bomb before the West and uses it to wipe out Hitler, while speedily dying himself of radiation sickness. The general drift seems to be that we are living in the worst of all possible worlds.      

The Russian “baseline” of twentieth-century history differs from its Western counterpart to such an extent that Russia occasionally seems to exist in a parallel universe of its own. Nowhere is this cultural difference more striking than in relation to one crucial twentieth-century event that has generated a considerable amount of Western alternative histories as well, namely World War II. The concept of “Hitler Victorious”—the title of the seminal collection edited by Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg—has been the basis for a number of Western sf works, from Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle to Robert Harris's Fatherland. A. Lazarchuk's award-winning novel The Other Sky is based on the same premise, as is Sergei Abramov's Mere Passed a Quiet Angel (1994). Abramov's novel in particular (defined by the author as a “utopia”) sees Hitler's victory and the conquest of the USSR as a positive development, that ultimately leads to a nationally healthy and economically prosperous Russia. In Lazarchuk's novel the Nazi solution to civilization's ills is not endorsed but neither is it seen as significantly different from any other. That in the choice between socialism and National Socialism, the latter seems preferable is as good an epitaph to Soviet sf as any. (Many thanks to Daniel Kluger, Pavel Amnuel, and Oleg Sverdlov for providing information used in this report.) 

Andrea Bell. Science Fiction in Latin America: Reawakenings

The good news is that the pairing of the phrases “Latin America” and “science fiction” no longer provokes the denial or dismissal it once used to. The bad news is that this is true only among a comparatively small segment of the population in Latin America and Spain, and is even less true elsewhere. Latin American sf, which can trace its roots back to the eighteenth century, has recently regained sufficient mass and velocity to sustain itself, though it has yet to break through the cultural and economic barriers that keep it from a wider readership at home and abroad.      

Before the 1960s there was no cohesive sf tradition in Latin America, and no Gernsback or Campbell came along to nuture writers or give a distinct shape and feel to the genre. What regional sf there was prior to the 1960s involved the irregular efforts of isolated writers who, for the most part, had no particular devotion to the genre but who found it a useful means of critiquing society, promoting a particular agenda, or tapping into the fin-de-siècle fashion for the pseudosciences. For some authors, of course, there was the joy of writing scientific adventure stories such as those being popularized in the American pulps.  But back then the literary scene was dominated by realism, and any flirting with the fanciful meant the cold shoulder for one's work. Notwithstanding these circumstances, a number of interesting sf texts were published in Latin America during the first half of this century, though arguably they are more important for their historical value than for their influence on modern writers.      

Sf got a boost in respectability when closer-to-the-mainstream artists such as Quiroga, Lugones, Nervo, Borges, and Bioy Casares introduced science-fictional elements into their writing. In 1940 Borges, Ocampo, and Bioy Casares edited a volume of fantastic fiction, and Borges wrote the preface to the Spanish-language edition of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (1950). Later, the worldwide recognition given Latin American writers during the “boom” helped to legitimize and popularize the literary fantastic and magical realism. These circumstances helped prepare the ground for the first true flourishing of sf in Latin America, a period that, in most countries to which it applies, ran from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Cuba were most prominent at this time, with less but still noteworthy activity occurring in a handful of other countries.      

Many factors made this an era of unprecedented achievement within the various sf communities: the increased availability of translated US/European sf; the appearance of foreign and domestic sf magazines—some of them of truly excellent quality—that were willing to publish local writers; the emergence of small presses specializing in sf; and a much greater level of communication and organization among fans (resulting in a flurry of fanzines and conventions).  Such dedicated editors as Brazil's Malheiros and Rocha Dórea, and Argentina's Porrúa and Souto, helped many authors make their mark or get their start during this time.      

This energetic and fruitful period was no match, however, for the political, social, and economic turmoil that ravaged Latin America through much of the 1970s and 1980s. Publishers, facing skyrocketing costs and, in some cases, the suspicious eye of authoritarian regimes, played it safe by banking on a few surefire national authors and stocking their shelves with bestsellers from abroad. Some writers stopped writing or emigrated; Argentina's beloved sf writer Héctor Oesterheld “disappeared.” Already scant government funding of the arts did not extend to sf, and many hoped-for books, magazines, and conventions were never realized. This is not to say that sf activity ceased entirely during this bleak era of dictatorships and economic decline; on the contrary, several interesting anthologies were published, along with the occasional single-author work. But clearly the first “golden age” of Latin American sf had come to an end.      

Until, that is, the mid-1980s—when things took off, well, like a rocket. Once again, a few countries in particular (Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil) are leading the way, but there is, to my knowledge, no Latin American country that does not currently have writers active in the field of speculative fiction and some degree of fan organization. There is so much being written and published these days that one can now find examples of just about every theme and subgenre within sf, including cyberpunk (or “tupinipunk,” as it's called in Brazil).  Given this diversity, instead of trying to catalog what's out there, let me look at some of the qualities that make contemporary Latin American sf distinctive.      

Before the 1980s, most Latin Americans didn't try too hard to establish a local setting for their sf or to feature Hispanic characters (chief exceptions include utopian and myth-based stories). Now, however, although there has been no published manifesto that I know of declaring a “Latino” movement, a signi-ficant number of contemporary writers do incorporate enough regional touches (lexicon, place and character names, cultural and historical references, etc.) to set them apart from English-language sf and to give them a discernibly Latino feel. In fact, locating a story within an overtly Latin American setting has become common enough to have inspired several regionally-themed anthologies; in Argentina plans are underway for just such a collection, provisionally titled Buenos Aires en 2030.      

Most Latin American sf still takes the form of short stories or poetry; it would be nice to see more writers take on novel-length projects, but editorial support for such endeavors is still insufficient. More techno-sf is being written now than during the 1960s and 1970s, but Latin American sf is, and always has been, predominantly soft. Its hybridization with tales of terror and the fantastic makes clear the continuing influence of Quiroga and Borges. Such writers as Peru's José Adolph, Venezuela's Luis Britto García, El Salvador's Alvaro Menén Desleal, México's Irving Roffe, and many others have penned Borgesian stories that probe metaphysical questions and explore paradoxes of identity, time, and creativity. Philip K. Dick, who is highly regarded by many Latin American sf writers, has inspired several of them to reinterpret regional history: in his latest novel, El mito del espejo negro (The Myth of the Black Mirror, 1997), Héctor Chavarría posits the turn WWII might have taken had Hitler gotten hold of a singular Aztec artefact. Daniel Barbieri speculates on what might have happened “Si Evita hubiera vivido” (If Evita [Perón] Had Lived, 1990). And in Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro's “The Ethics of Treason” (1992) a different outcome to Brazil's nineteenth-century border wars sets the stage for a WWII-era spy thriller.      

Most contemporary stories have an urban orientation, a general exception being Brazilian environmental sf of the type written by Roberto de Sousa Causo, an important Brazilian sf author, editor, and commentator. If the story is set in a city, chances are the social and physical environments will be hostile. The Mexico City of the future, for example, as described in the works of Ricardo Guzmán Wolffer, Gerardo Sifuentes, Gerardo Porcayo, and others, is a nightmare of corruption, pollution, overpopulation, alienation, and violence.  Guzmán Wolffer even pokes fun at a deathless urban legend by populating the sewers and alleys of Mexico City with giant mutant rats in his novel Que Dios se apiade de todos nosotros (May God have Mercy Upon us All, 1993).     

Protagonists tend to be young loners, alienated but resilient drifters on society's margins who, in spite of everything, retain a certain sardonic wit, occasional sensitivity, and, if they're male, a penchant for macho cockiness.  A fine example can be found in Arturo César Rojas's “El que llegó al metro Pino Suárez” (He Who Came to the Pino Suarez Subway, 1994), an edgy punk/apocalyptic ballad about a man who descends to Mexico City's netherworld to fetch his woman.      

Stories from all over Latin America target big business (licit or illicit) and consumer culture as truly malignant forces, the heartless imperialist appetites behind much human suffering. Mexico's Pepe Rojo is one of many talented young sf writers whose stories critique consumerism, the modern workplace, and the nature of identity; of special recommendation to those who read Spanish is his story “Conversaciones con Yoni Rei” (Conversations with Yoni Rei, 1998), a documentary of sorts that explores the tormented psyche of Yoni Rei, a rebellious test-tube boy who resents the corporation that owns, harvests, and sells his body parts.      

International relations are, naturally enough, a frequent theme in Latin American sf. Some stories reflect current events, as they imagine new political and economic alliances among nations or explore sovereignty issues. Frontera de espejos rotos (Border of Broken Mirrors, 1994) is an interesting collection of sf stories by US and Mexican writers who examine different aspects of US/Mexico border culture and politics.      

Another distinctive characteristic of a segment of contemporary Latin American sf is its comic book feel. The comic book is a medium of longstanding popularity in Latin America, easier to find and afford in some areas than books. (One publisher in Brazil is producing books in magazine form because there are so many more magazine kiosks than bookstores in that country.)  Central to stories of this type is the figure of the superhero, a construct with roots in the traditions of classic detective fiction, action-adventure movies, modern comics (especially the manga), and that unique Mexican cultural icon, the masked wrestler. Sf texts in the comic book style tend to have lots of action and graphic violence and to feature brash, individualistic heroes on some sort of quest. Female characters may play key roles and be smart and strong, but they must also generate sexual tension.      

Sex and sexuality were handled fairly openly even during the first wave, but now there is also a certain amount of gay and lesbian sf and fantasy, and erotica written by female as well as male authors. Women are in the minority among Latin American sf writers, but they are an active minority and have been since the 1960s (it is widely agreed that one of Latin America's greatest sf writers from that period is Argentina's Angélica Gorodischer). Stories and essays written by women have won the “Más Allá” (Argentina), “David” (Cuba), “Nova” (Brazil), and “Puebla” (Mexico) prizes, and women regularly publish in sf magazines and anthologies. They are active in fan clubs, judge literary competitions, present at conferences, and produce fanzines. There is as yet very little feminist sf, but given feminism's impact on the arts in Latin America, I would not be surprised to note its stronger presence in sf before long.      

Many factors work together to sustain this new outpouring of sf, but chief among them are the electronic media. In Argentina Eduardo Carletti, author of (chiefly) technological sf novels and short stories, launched the electronic fanzine Axxón in 1989, and in 1993 it surpassed the longevity record—48 issues—previously held by the revered magazine Más Allá. Axxón (www.giga. has evolved over the years, but from the start it has published sf, horror, some fantasy, comics, and fractal art by artists from all over the Americas. It also features a variety of nonfiction columns and has a lively letters section. Axxón has had its share of internal and external troubles, but it has weathered its storms very well and recently celebrated its centennial issue. Thanks to the vision, dedication, creativity, and technical skills of Carletti, the new editor, Aníbal Gómez de la Fuente, and a host of others, Axxón is a splendid publication and a major force behind Argentine sf's second wave.

A number of other new sf publications in Latin America are bringing fresh material to readers. In Mexico, Axxón's paper counterpart might be A Quien Corresponda (nearing its 90th issue), or Umbrales, Federico Schaffler's labor of love. Umbrales lost critical state funding in 1998 and subsequently folded, but not before publishing over forty issues full of fiction, commentary, and artwork. Schaffler, an sf author and anthologist from Nuevo Laredo, remains busy in the field and has done much to promote a new generation of Mexican sf writers.      

There are many, many more fanzines than just these. Some of them, such as Fractal, Megalon, and Azoth, are available on-line; a few even provide texts in English.1 They all play a substantial role in the development of Latin American sf, for they give writers a place to publish, are a means of disseminating useful information, and help create a sense of community among the sometimes far-flung readerships. Publishing options are still scant for sf writers in Latin America, though things are looking up. Some authors such as Carlos Chernov and Ana María Shua have been published by non-sf presses, and, recently, speculative fiction works have taken top honors in mainstream literary competitions. Such enterprising authors as Daína Chaviano, Mauricio-José Schwarz, and Braulio Tavares have had success by looking to Spain and Portugal for publishers, and on occasion non-genre periodicals such as Nossas Edições, Ciencia y desarrollo, and Complot Internacional will publish sf or devote a special issue to it.      

The Internet has revitalized sf dialogue not only by means of e-zines and personal websites, but also through listserves that have been started in Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, and quite probably elsewhere in the region. A few years ago, Roberto de Sousa Causo and Bruce Sterling launched the Rede Global Paraliterária (Global Paraliterary Network, RGP for short), and it is now an active site where participants on several continents carry on serious discussions (in English) about sf and related genres. As writers are more actively seeking out publishing opportunities, a frequent topic on RGP has been how to break into, or bypass, the American market; various ideas and initiatives have been discussed, and recently a website was started that offers international sf in translation.2      

Active sf writers' associations and fan clubs include AMCyF and CIFF in Mexico, UBIK in Venezuela, CACyF in Argentina, Sochif in Chile, and Brazil's Clube de Leitores de Ficção Científica (in addition to scores of clubs devoted to television or movie characters, mangas, or role-playing games).  Thanks to the energy of volunteers and to occasional financial support from governments and universities, there have been a fair number of conventions over the years. Brazilian clubs hosted Orson Scott Card in 1990 and Bruce Sterling in 1997, and fans could enjoy Ray Bradbury's attendance at the 1997 Book Fair in Buenos Aires and William Gibson's 1999 public lecture in Mexico City on the future of that city. (These last two were city-sponsored, non-sf events, but they were a great treat for local fans nonetheless.)      

Clearly, the future of sf in Latin America looks very good. The new era has already brought to light some promising talents, men and women from all over Spanish America and Brazil who write with originality, knowledge, and style. It has also produced its flawed works, where the characters are shallow, the writing unsophisticated, or the treatment of themes stale. Contest judges and magazine editors can sometimes be too swamped with submissions (and the demands of their day jobs) to insist upon well-developed, professional-sounding stories. But there are a lot of real gems out there, texts by those mentioned in this report and a myriad of others. Such critics and historians as Gabriel Trujillo, Miguel-Angel Fernández Delgado, Ingrid Kreksch, Pablo Capanna, Yolanda Molina Gavilán, and Horacio Moreno have initiated much-needed critical dialogue. The air hums with creativity and passion, as readers read and writers write. As a couple, “Latin America” and “science fiction,” it turns out, are engendering a lot of interesting offspring.

      1. Fractal <>, Azoth <http://>, Megalon < CapeCanaveral/Hangar/8173/megalon.html>, Realidad Cero <http://members.tripod. com/~realidadcero/rc0.htm>, Cygnus (back issues only) < Area51/Vault/6156/cygnus5.htm>, Banana Atomica < 51/Corridor/5694>,  La langosta se ha posado < azothweb /langosta/langosta.html>, Planeta Gomol <>, Laberinto <>. (This list is certain to be incomplete, and does not include e-zines produced in Spain or personal sf webpages.)
      2. The International Publishing House website, which has texts in English, is located at <>. To subscribe to RGP, send an e-mail message to Roberto at <>.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home