Science Fiction Studies

# 17 = Volume 6, Part 1 = March 1979


Antoni Smuszkiewicz

Space and Time in Contemporary Polish Science Fiction

Translated by Hania Fedorowicz; edited by D.S.

This brief article deals with two related essential elements of narration, which through their meaningful relationships with other components of the plot, have a significant influence on the shaping of the theme. As a constituent element of the overall action, every event (a veritable atom of narration) is always situated in some place and some time. The relationship which arises between space and time and the narrative accessories is also significant, since these aspects are most often not explicitly described but substantiated by means of props, i.e. objects filling out fictional space, and of the accompanying characters taking part in the action. Props in SF fall into two fundamental groups — natural and artificial.                

Natural props serve primarily to directly describe the place of action. They appear most abundantly when the scenery on a foreign planet is described. Although almost all descriptions of this type are full of elements referring to nature on Earth, they are nevertheless also characterized by a sometimes insistent emphasis on their difference and strangeness. On the other hand, artificial props usually serve as immediate descriptions of time, since they complete the fictional space of those works whose action takes place in a far-off and — as dictated by SF conventions — highly technologized future. In this group, we usually also find objects of everyday use accompanying the characters, as well as technical apparatus of unusual features and often of unlimited operational possibilities. Like props in non-SF, they fulfill the function of a peculiar narrative "padding," while also creating an appropriate atmosphere for a future world, especially when they are aptly named by cleverly constructed neologisms. Sometimes, the invented apparatus or gadgets themselves are not as essential to the narrative flow as an original name evoking appropriate technological-cum-scientific associations.

1 . Since every event occurs in some place connected with some landscape, space is not only a decorative element in the work, constituting a pretty background: "spatial symbols serve to construct meaningful places, co-creating events as if they were acting together with them."1 Great significance is attached to space in artistic works by Russian semioticians of the Tartu structuralist school. Yurij Lotman writes: "Artistic space in the literary work is a continuum in which the characters are placed and the action unfolds. . . . The descriptions and detailing of expanses, in which these or other episodes cannot take place, set limits to the world of the text, while on the other hand the singling out of places to which they can be transferred indicates a variant of the defined invariant model .”2 He emphasizes further that "artistic space is not an indifferent place for fictional heroes and episodes. Its connection with the characters and the general model of the world shaped by the artistic text testifies that the language of artistic space is not meaningless, but rather constitutes one of the components of the total language spoken by the artistic medium .”3               

SF quite readily avails itself of varied places of action and diverse "moments of time," in which the described events are situated. In SF, space is organized not only with the aid of props that constitute its fixed points, but also with the aid of heroes who mark out as it were the changing points. Moreover, we usually come into contact with the event only when the active character appears in the place of action, or in other words, "places only gain .... concreteness due to the arrival of heroes."4 The presentation of the place usually follows the hero's appearance, since the narrator in SF is usually simultaneously a participant in the events or follows the main protagonist. Only rarely does the description of the place precede the appearance of the characters.                

Although place plays a central role in SF, it has nevertheless not as many aspects as outside SF, where in addition to geographical concretization (place-names) the topographical element fulfills the function of historical substantiation, by indicating the background of events as well as the social reality which limits the sociological horizon.5 In SF only the first function appears, and furthermore it is not the concrete locale that matters so much as the exotic sounding name, evoking a SF atmosphere. For this reason also, efforts to catalog and describe locales would lead to no end. Of much greater cognitive value seems to be a division based on two oppositions: "near/far" and "closed/open." The intersection of these oppositions allows us to distinguish four categories of place in SF, in which the action of the works is most often located: 1. closed near; 2. closed far; 3. open near; 4. open far.                

Places located on Earth belong to the first category. In the majority of cases they have no further, more precise geographical specification; they are limited by the four walls of the lonely scientist's workshop or some laboratory on the closed grounds of a scientific institute. Such a place is connected to the theme of the work, generally the "fantastic invention" or unusual scientific discovery. The limited space helps the scientist to fill it with few objects, which is particularly necessary when the action takes place in the far-off future.                

The second category ("closed far") also deals with places of limited extent but situated "far away" somewhere in the cosmos. This type of place is most frequently used in SF, probably because of objective difficulties of the genre. The closed and by assumption artificial world (e.g., the giant spaceship) is more easily and convincingly filled with the, elements creating a fantastic world 6 — of which there need not be overly many, e.g., screens, steering consoles with flashing signal lights, dials of control clocks, weights, levers — in a closed and limited space (e.g., a pilot-room). The remaining objects acquire a fantastic tint by the very fact of their being situation in an SF environment, e.g., an armchair, loudspeaker, lightbulb, door, floor, cupboard: "Once the context has been recognized as an SF one, it obligingly supplies what is formally missing - thus, that the ship is probably a spaceship and the suit a spacesuit."7 Among the most frequent closed spaces we find spaceships, described by different terms (in Polish with the equivalents of astrojet, photonship, starship, cosmoplane, etc.) or only by the general name of "spaceship" or "rocket." Particularly characteristic examples are provided here by the stories of Konrad Fiaekowski. Giant interstellar ships such as "Gea" in The Magellan Nebula (Oblok Magellana, 1955)8 by Stanislaw Lem, "Celestia" in The Lost Future (Zagubiona przyszlosc, 1954) by Krzysztof Borun and Andrzej Trepek, or "Astrobolid" in Proxima (1956) by the same authors, are rare, since their interior is so vast that, in spite of the closed space, its filling out with believable objects which would not spoil the illusion is as laborious as presenting open spaces on other planets.

The Earth is also used for the third category of places ("open near") with the difference that here it is described with all the future "coloring." Works presenting places that are open and near usually have the character of a utopian or anti-utopian vision of future society on Earth. Foremost among stories undertaking this theme are: The Magellan Nebula by Lem, People of the Atomic Era (Ludzie Ery Atomowej, 1957) by Roman Gajda, Catastrophe on the "Antarctic Sun" (Katastrofa na "Sloncu Antarktydy," 1958) by Adam Hollanek, Catastrophe (Katastrofa, 1968) by Maciej Kuczynski, Only Silence (Tylko Cisza, 1974) by Bohdan Petecki, The Crater of Black Sleep (Krater Czarnego Snu, Poznan, 1960), by Witold Zegalski, and the last part of Cosmic Brothers (Kosmiczni bracia, 1959) by Borun and Trepka.                

Distant worlds lend themselves to more daring speculations as science can still say little about them. They constitute the fourth category of places. Even the Moon, which was the first step in Polish fantastic voyages (begun already in 1785 with M.D. Krajewski's story, "Wojciech Zdarzynski”) has in recent times become very earthy, close, and shorn of its secrets, and if it is sometimes still utilized, it is only the locale for some "closed" base. Many more adventures are situated on other planets, among which the most popular are Mars and Venus, as well as Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede. Lately, one can also notice a fairly marked tendency towards more and more remote regions of the cosmos. This is undoubtedly connected to the development of our knowledge about the universe, to man's steps on the Moon, and above all to the wide popularization of this knowledge through mass media. One could say, metaphorically, that a particular literary "law of the expanding universe" is at work here.                

Among stars and galaxies used, in Polish SF, Proxima and Alpha Centauri must be mentioned above all. More distant galaxies such as Lalande 21, 185, Protion, or Regulus may be regarded as equal to other names which are either invented or noted down from the astronomical catalog, since they do not represent so much concrete astronomical locales, as "distant places," synonymous with "a certain planet of a certain star cluster." Drawing the readers attention to remote regions of the universe, such localization is to a certain extent reminiscent of folktales, where the designata of geographical names are also less important than their connotations.

In summary, one can say that there exists in Polish SF an evident tendency to place fictitious events in closed rather than open spaces, and in remote rather than nearby places.               

2. A similar statement, though formulated in somewhat different categories, can be made with regard to "situating" events in time. Time in SF can be considered under several aspects: 1. as a specific literary notion, on which assumptions of "time-travel" are based; 2. as a literary motif, most often connected with consequences derived from the theory of relativity, a rich source of inspiration for many authors; 3. as one of the co-creating elements of fictional events. Only matters pertaining to the third point will be considered here. A fundamental assumption is that in SF, just as in other fiction, the world presented in the literary work is somewhat "submerged" in the ideal current of objective time: "This ideal current of time is made apparent and concrete only by virtue of the 'happening' of the represented world, just as the dimension of space becomes apparent only through points situated in it."9               

The time of the action, then, is articulated — in agreement with the generally accepted convention — as past, present, and future, and thus treated as an ideal line on which these three temporal states are marked. Thus, all events can be divided into three groups, depending on whether they unfold: 1. in the past; 2. in the present; 3. in the future. One should note that although temporality does not constitute a specific characteristic of SF,10 nevertheless in a clear majority of its texts the action takes place in the future (relative to the moment of writing). Exceptionally, some events take place in the past (e.g., in the story by Witold Perkowicz "Message from the Fifth Planet" — "Poslanie z Piatej Planety")11 as well as in Maciej Kuczynski's novel Atlantis, Island of' Flame (Atlantyda, wyspa ognia, 1967).               

If the singling out of the past does not present any difficulties, the distinction between the future and the present is in the SF context sometimes almost impossible to make. Nevertheless, as with the discussion of problems related to space, it would seem pointless to catalog and describe "time moments." Instead, it seems more useful to divide them according to two oppositions: "near/far," and "determined/undetermined." The intersection of these two opposition yields again four characteristic categories for "moments in time" in which SF events happen. In works considered here we are dealing exclusively with conventional time, consistent with generally recognized chronological time, so that "determined" time is only operative, contemporary calendar time indicated exactly, while "undetermined" time is one for which there are no indications in the text, or where these indications relate to different calendar categories. Also time is often very precisely stipulated, but in relation to another, science-fictional point of reference. The action of Jerzy Broszkiewicz's novel, Eye of the Centaur (Oko Centaura, 1964), for example, takes place in the year 862 of the "earlier cosmic era," which began "the day after the flame of the ancient rocketship first scorched the red sands of Mars." Taking into account these stipulations, one can say that the action of most SF works is situated:

                1. in the present or near future, clearly indicated by mentioning the requisite year;
       the distant future, mentioned by the century or the year;
       the present or near future which is not directly indicated, but described only by the use of objects of a "futuristic" nature;
       the distant future, not directly indicated (see point 3).                

The first category is characteristic of early works in Polish SF, still clearly related to the tradition of Jules Verne and combining fantasizing with prognostication. In the nature of things, this could not be a too distant time, since prediction would then be greatly hampered. It also had to be pretty precise. We find examples of such temporal loci in Lem's The Astronauts (Astronauci, 1951) situated at the beginning of the 21st century, and in Gajda's People of' the Atomic Era (mid-21st century).                

The 20th and even the 21st century did not fascinate SF writers for long. Soon the second category of "time moments" began to predominate. The actions moved into a distant future, although - following the model of the historical novel - its temporal frame is still quite precisely designated according to the contemporary calendar. And so the action of The Megallan Nebula by Lem takes place in the 30th century, while People from Feri's Star (Ludzie z Gwiazdy Feriego, Katowice 1974) by Bohdan Petecki takes place in the 29th century (it begins exactly on June 20, 2832). A peculiar example is the cosmic trilogy by Borun and Trepka: The Lost Future, Proxima, and Cosmic Brothers, whose pre-action touches on the 20th century, while further events actually begin in the year 2406 (the meeting of "Astrobolid" with "Celestia") and reach in to the 21st century (the landing on Urpa's moon in 2536, the invasion of the silihomids in 2548).                

The main themes of the above-named works are, first, distant cosmic voyages, most often of a pioneering nature — e.g., the first flight to Mars, the first expedition beyond the solar system. The move into the far-off future turns out to be an excellent device motivating the presentation of advanced interplanetary and interstellar travel.                

In the third category we find a not explicitly indicated present or near future, so that only the introduction of a fantastic technological device, usually a single one, changes the reader's persuasion about the temporal situation of the action. Contemporaneity turns out to be a disguised future. In such a future, the action most often concerns a "miraculous" discovery or an invasion. Usually the authors attempt to mask as carefully as possible the futuristic character of the reality in order later to surprise the reader even more with some scientific discovery, technical invention, or other unusual occurrence, which can appear at any moment in our most everyday world. SF has borrowed this device from horror-fantasy. 12 Characteristic works are Lem's story "Truth" ("Prawda"), 13 "Report from the Basement" ("Raport z Piwnicy") 14 and "Telechronopator" by Janusz A. Zajdel, "Opportunities of a Genius" ("Szansa Geniuszu") by Krystyn Krzysztoforowicz and "Masters of Time" ("Wladcy Czasu") by Stefan Weinfeld.15                

Time is similarly treated in "invasion" tales where the action also takes place almost in the present, as indicated by the realia presented. This deliberate literary device is supposed to demonstrate to the reader that an event such as an extraterrestrial visit can at any time disrupt our present peace. Writers undertaking this theme are almost always not so much interested in the invasion, the phenomenon itself, as in the attitude of contemporary man to problems which he has never encountered up to now — e.g. in Lem's story "Invasion" ("Inwazja"),16 in "Event in Kraehwinkel" ("Zdarzenie w Krahwinkel")17 by Stefan Weinfeld, and in "The Cudgel" ("Maczuga")18 by Dariusz Filar.                

Most frequent is the fourth category, where the action is "situated" in the remote future, as a rule not indicated by any clues accessible to the reader. It is used both in tales of the popular type, dealing in unbelievable adventures, and in tales with more serious ambitions, presenting contemporary problems in an SF costume.                

Distant places and distant times of action allow attention to be focused on problems in "laboratory" fashion, isolated from their context in our time and space, or to present them in a more expressive and at the same time attractive way. If the action that happens in the remote future is situated on Earth, which is often the case, then almost regularly its place is limited to some closed space, which does not distract the reader with the few objects involved.                

Contemporary Polish SF evolved from the positivistic tradition of popularizing scientific achievements. Clear traces of this didactic tendency can still be found in the first postwar works, whose authors generally started out from the actual state of knowledge in natural and technical sciences and tried to cleverly combine scientific information with literary fiction; whence the exact indications concerning the time and place of the action, as well as the detailed descriptions of objects. The construction of such hybrid texts required, on the one hand, a more than average literary talent and, on the other hand, reliable knowledge in different scientific disciplines. Most likely it is for these reasons that contemporary Polish SF rather quickly abandoned its didactic and popularizing aspirations, transferred the action of its works into remote regions of the cosmos and equally remote futures, and for the most part took up matters facing contemporary man, his attitude to phenomena unknown to him, and his preparation for the oncoming future.


1 . J. Jagiello, Polska Ballada Ludowa (The Polish Folk Ballad)., Wroclaw, 1975. p. 57.                

2. Lotman, "Zagadnienia przestrzeni artystycznej w prozie Gogola," ("Problems of Artistic Space in the Prose of Gogol"), Polish in Semiotyka Kultury (The Semiotics of Culture). Warsaw, 1975. p. 250. 

3. Lotman, Semiotyka, p. 251.                

4. S. Niekludov, " 'Sujet' a relacje przestrzenno-czasowe w rosy-jskiej bylinie" ("The 'Plot' and Space-Time Relations in Russian Folk Epics"), Semiotyka. p. 389.                

5. B. Owczarek, Opowiadania i semiotyka (Short Stories and Semiotics). Wroclaw, 1975. p. 70.                

6. R. Handke, Polska proza fantastyczno-naukowa: Problemy poetyki (Polish SF.- Problems of Poetics). Wroclaw, 1969. p. 56.                

7. R. Handke, " 'Odruch Warunkowy' Stanislawa Lema ("'The Conditioned Reflex' by Stanislaw Lem") in Nowela-opowiadanie-gaweda... (Novella, Short story, Legend ... ). Warsaw, 1974. p. 3 10.

8. Unless otherwise indicated, all Polish book titles were published in Warsaw.- DS.                

9. Jagiello, p. 86.               

10. Handke, Polish SF, p. 9.                

11. In the anthology Poslanie z Piatej Planeiy (Message From the Fifth Planet), ed. by Zbigniew Przyrowski. Warsaw, 1964.                

12. Roger Caillois, De la féerie à la science-fiction (Paris, 1966), cited from the Polish translation in R. Caillois, Odpowiedzialnosc i styl (Responsibility and Style). Warsaw, 1967. pp. 35-36.                

13. In: S. Lem, Niezwyciezony i inne opowiadania (The Invincible and Other Short Stories). Warsaw, 1964.                

14. In AImanach fantastyczno-naukowy 'Kroki w nieznane" (Steps into the Unknown), ed. by Lech Jeczmyk, vol. 5. Warsaw, 1974.                

15. The last three stories in the anthology Stalo sie jutro (It Happened Tomorrow), vol. 3. Warsaw, 1974.                

16. In S. Lem, Inwazja  z Aldebarana (The Invasion from Aldebaran). Cracow, 1959.                

17. In the anthology Stalo sie jutro (It Happened Tomorrow), vol. 2. Warsaw, 1974.                

18. In D. Filar, Czaszka olbrzyma: Opowiadania (The Giant's Skull: Short Stories)., Warsaw, 1976.

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