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Mariano Martin Rodriguez

Sci Phi Journal 2022/3 – Autumn Issue For Download

Sci Phi Journal‘s 2022 Autumn Issue features another glorious cover art by Utopia Award finalist Dustin Jacobus and our customary melange of speculative philosophical fiction and essays off the beaten track.

If you like to peruse your seasonal dose of SFF on trusty old paper, or the slightly less old, but similarly trusty screen of your e-reader, you can download your free PDF copy just below.

We hope you enjoy the trip,

the SPJ crew

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2022/3

Lectori salutem.

More by happenstance than by assertion of intent, our Autumn 2022 issue features stories that circumnavigate themes of language and perception, both at individual and anthropological levels, as these tend to gravitate towards each other on our editing desks. Sometimes, ideas seem to exert a mutual pull of attraction on the platonic plain, and we are but swept along.

This time around, our imaginary voyages shall range from the ancient past (incl. Sasarman’s classic Isopolis, hitherto unpublished in English), via alternate interpretations of the present reality we live in, to reports of future leaps of human evolution and far-flung planets with societies very different from our own.

A common concern amidst these tales is that how we perceive our relationship to our environs, our predicament in life, or our station within the wider community, is a substantive determining factor in a person’s picture of reality – even independently of external, material circumstances. It is hard to conceive of concepts we do not have words for. Thus, it can be uncomfortable to be made to think outside the “box” – or the dictionary. But language (as well as technology) can also be used as conduits to reprogramme minds, if the stimuli involved are sufficiently pervasive and persistent.

In this vein, our co-editor Mariano had recently returned from an immersive linguistic expedition of his own in the Swiss canton of Graubünden (or Grischun in local Rhaeto-Romance parlance), home to the speakers of Romansh. Having sufficiently recovered from his language lessons, he is now ready to publish his findings on the fantastic and speculative fiction that thrives with surprising vigour within that arcane literary corpus. Mina is also back with an essay on “proper and improper monsters,” exploring the shades of differences along the spectrum that spans from Frankenstein to futuristic cyborgs.

And as always, we thank you for your continued support on this journey of epistemic exploration – all aboard!

Speculatively yours,

the SPJ co-editors & crew

~

Peaks Of Imagination: Speculative And Fantastic Fiction In Romansh

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Among the super-minority languages of Europe, there is one, Romansh, which may count itself as one of the richest in literary terms on the continent, at least relative to the small number of its speakers. They barely amount to fifty thousand, but looking at their literature, we will be astonished not only by the large number of works published, but also and above all by their quality, as suggested by their translations into other languages, firstly into German, but also into French, Romanian, and even English. One of them is already an undisputed classic of the postmodern fiction of our century, Arno Camenisch’s Sez Ner (The Alp,[1] 2009), just as Gian Fontana’s short novel about rural xenophobia and its totalitarian manifestation, “Il president da Valdei” (The Mayor of Valdei, 1935), is a classic of 20th-century fiction.

Both works belong to the genre of rural realist fiction that predominates in Romansh literature, as would be appropriate for a language spoken in small villages in various valleys of the Swiss canton of Graubünden. However, fantasy and speculative literature (or, rather, literatures) have also been brilliantly cultivated. In fact, to speak of a unified Romansh language or literature is not entirely accurate, as there are several regional linguistic standards with their corresponding literatures. Rumantsch Grischun, which is used by the cantonal and Federal administration, is a recent syncretic linguistic standard which does not correspond to any particular dialect and whose literature is, in any case, limited. Romansh literature is expressed in three main regional variants: Surmiran (surmiran, spoken in the Surmeir area situated in the centre of Graubünden), Ladin (ladin, spoken in the Swiss county by the Inn river called Engadine, a variety sub-divided into two subregional standards, the Southern one, called puter, and the Northern one, called vallader) and Sursilvan (sursilvan, in Surselva, in the valley of the Anterior Rhine, which extends from the source of the river to the vicinity of the cantonal capital Chur).

These main three standards of the Raetho-Romance Swish group have a similar relationship to each other as Gascon, Occitan (which has two concurrent rules, Provençal and Languedocian) and Catalan do in the Southern Gallo-Romance group, with Catalan as the most powerful, orthographically and grammatically stable, and culturally relevant language. In Romansh, mutatis mutandis, Sursilvan, the language of the aforementioned Fontana and Camenisch, would be equivalent to Catalan within the Rhaeto-Romance group, which also includes the Ladin dialects of the Dolomites in South Tyrol, now part of Italy. For this reason, this overview of speculative and fantastic fiction in Romansh focuses on Sursilvan, although it should not be forgotten that there are also works of great interest in the other varieties, including in Dolomitic Ladin. For example, their traditional oral literature is allegedly the origin of the legendary matter of the kingdom of Fanes, which has all the characteristics of high fantasy. Unfortunately, this rich mythological and heroic matter, which could rival that which inspired the Finnish Kalevala (1835/1849), seems to be nothing more than a display of fakelore, and even an example of cultural appropriation. It was first published in 1913 by the folklorist Karl Felix Wolff in German, under the title Das Reich der Fanes (The Kingdom of Fanes), but the compiler omitted to include a single line of it in one or the other of the Ladino dialects in which he claimed it had been orally transmitted. Later, there have been several versions of the legend in German and Italian, but only one in Dolomitic Ladin, Angel Morlang’s tragedy Fanes da Zacan (Fanes from Days Gone, 1951).

There are no legends, genuine or false, resembling those of the Fanes in the proper Romansh Kulturdialekte, which are the Surmiran standard and the two varieties of Engadine Ladin. The local production of fantasy is an artistic and individual endeavour. In Surmeir, there is a portal fantasy novel Sindoria (Sindoria, 2013) by Dominique Dosch, which takes place in parallel in our primary world and in a secondary world designated by the name in the title. In Engadine, one of the modern classics is a humorous and acerbic roman à clef entitled La renaschentscha dals Patagons (The Revival of the Patagons, 1949). The Patagonians of the title are none other than the Romansh exposed to the activism of certain intellectuals who would have wished to import the premises and methods of European ethno-nationalism to the region, following above all the Catalan models. Rather than the narrative itself, the most interesting part of the book is perhaps the series of fictional non-fiction reports on the imaginary country of the Patagonians, its organisation and customs. Years later, Ladin writers from Engadine led the modernisation of fantastic and speculative literature in the Romansh-speaking region thanks to a couple of short-story collections by Clo Duri Bezzola and Ana Pitschna Grob-Ganzoni, respectively. The former, entitled Da l’otra vart da la saiv (On the Other Side of the Edge, 1960), includes a masterful fantastic tale entitled “Tube to Nowhere” (Tube to Nowhere), which is set on a London Underground train that ends up in an undefined and mysterious Kafkaesque space. The second, entitled Ballas de savon (Soap Bubbles, 1970), is composed of three short stories: a high fantasy entitled “La clav dal paradis” (The Key to Paradise), a theological fantasy entitled “Ormas dal diavel” (Devil’s Souls) and a highly original science fiction entitled “Inua vi?” (Where?), which takes place on a spaceship and is narrated in the first person by a woman whose emotions are expressed in a highly poetic style that makes this text an outstanding example of lyrical SF prose narration.

In Sursilvan there is a large amount of genuine oral literature, sometimes of pagan origin, such as the short aetiological myths featuring wild men that Caspar Decurtins collected in 1901, in the same volume in which he published the “Canzun da sontga Margriata” (The Song of Saint Margriata), the best-known Romansh folk narrative poem. Despite her name, the main character seems to be a fertility goddess who passes herself off as a shepherd and, after her true sex is discovered (to speak of gender would be anachronistic here), abandons the fields, which become barren. A similar plot is used by other texts conceived as artistic literature, but which are presented as folk texts, such as the tale “Il nurser da Ranasca e la diala nursera” (The Shepherd from Ranasca and the Fairy Shepherdess, 1941) by Guglielm Gadola, and the poem “La diala” (The Fairy, 1925) by Gian Fontana, the brevity and concision of which make its story of the abuse of a fairy by shepherds in a mythical time all the more atrocious.

Other folktales collected by Decurtins were used in a modern Romansh Decameron, set in the Middle Ages and entitled Historias dil Munt Sogn Gieri (Stories from Mount Saint George, 1916), authored by Flurin Camathias. The stories included are for the most part gracefully versified renditions of local folktales that follow the conventional motifs and plots of the fairy tale. We even encounter the traditional combat between knights and dragons, though told with pleasant humour. An exception is “Il sogn cristal” (The Holy Cristal), which describes a Catholic mystical vision related to the Holy Grail.

Whereas Camathias versified oral tales in prose, Sep Mudest Nay did the opposite by developing in prose a popular song (even in our days) entitled “Il salep e la furmicla” (The Grasshopper and the Ant), which Nay turned into a tragicomic, almost neo-realist tale, despite its fabulous subject matter and insect characters. This is perhaps the best-known example of a whole series of stories featuring animals as allegorical figures of humans, as in Gian Fontana’s story “Corvin e Corvina” (Corvin and Corvina, 1971), or living in a fictional secondary world embedded in nature in the manner of Rudyard Kipling’s beast fantasies, as it is the case in Rico Tamburnino’s books entitled Igl uaul grond (The Big Forest, 1988) and Ratuzin (Ratuzin, 1990).

The Sursilvan fantasies mentioned so far are closely related to forms of oral literature, even if their writing is not, since the authors generally strive to offer literary versions, stylistically and structurally much more sophisticated than the folk texts themselves. They are works of literary art, not mere transcribed folklore, as befits a literature that had achieved standardisation by the end of the 19th century, during the so-called Renaschientscha revivalist period, parallel in some ways to that of the Catalan Renaixença. That normalisation, which at first followed (neo)Romantic patterns also in Surselva, became gradually more modernised in its literary outlook. The process was, however, rather slow. Highly original symbolist fantastic prose poems such as “Verdad” (Truth) and “Buntad” (Goodness), were published in 1971, decades after the death of their author, Gian Fontana. A fantastic tale as innovative as Gian Caduff’s “L’uldauna” (The Undine, 1924), which combines psychological fiction, allegory and pagan legend, went virtually unnoticed.

The full alignment of Surselvan literature with modern international trends in speculative fiction was, in fact, something that took place after the Second World War. The main architect of this was Toni Halter. In 1955 he published Culan da Crestaulta (Culan from Crestaulta), a novel set in the Rhaetian Alps in proto-historic times. Its hero, Culan, manages to bring the technology of bronze metallurgy to his village, Crestaulta, which was technologically still in the Neolithic period, after numerous adventures that Halter narrates in a perfectly balanced way between fast-paced action, with hunting and war scenes and even a criminal intrigue, and the detailed recreation of the atmosphere of that time and place. In doing this, he takes full account of both natural and cultural conditioning factors, including power relations among the populations, as well as the way in which customs and beliefs shape mentalities and personal and collective agency. If we add to this the plausibility of the psychological characterisation of its characters, especially the protagonist from adolescence to maturity, and the richness and flexibility of its style, it is perhaps no exaggeration to consider Culan da Crestaulta a world masterpiece of its kind of fiction. In any case, it is an undisputed and repeatedly reprinted classic of Romansh fiction.

Culan da Crestaulta interestingly includes a couple of narrative samples from the invented mythology of the peoples evoked in the novel, so that these examples of mythopoiesis makes the novel all the more appealing as speculative fiction. A later writer, Ursicin G. G. Derungs, did the same in perhaps his most famous story, “Il cavalut verd” (The Little Green Horse), which gives its title to the collection in which it appeared, Il cavalut verd ed auter (The Green Little Horse and Other Things, 1988). That ‘little green horse’ appears one day in an Alpine village to the astonishment and consternation of the adults and the joy and delight of the children, to whom he tells of his origin in an earlier, peaceful, paradisiacal natural world in which everything was permeated by bright colours and music. Its appearance and disappearance are fantastic, but the questioning it implies of the primary reality is not a source of horror, but of wonder. It is also a cause for sadness arising from the conviction that something so beautiful could not remain in our present world. The critique implicit therein is expressed in other speculative stories from the same collection, in which Derungs shows the rhetorical sophistication of his writing. For example, in “Il papa che saveva buca crer en Diu” (The Pope That Could Not Believe in God), a pseudo-historiographical narrative shows the hypocrisy of an official Catholic Church that accepts an atheist Pope, but not his decision to live in the world according to the Gospel. In the short imaginary historiographical text “Ils plats” (The Flat People), a mysterious disease flattening people and its consequences are described using a literary technique that can be considered science-fictional. Other stories by Derungs from the same book are also good examples of speculative fiction of the fantastic kind, such as “La sala de spetga” (The Waiting Room), where that venue is a Kafkaesque symbolic place suggesting an anguishing concept of human existence, and “Niessegner sper il lag dils siemis” (Our Lord by the Lake of Dreams), a masterly Borgesian tale of divine suspension of the flow of time. However, Derungs rarely eschews social criticism in his speculative fiction. This can easily be seen, for example, in a former tale entitled “Correspondenza cul purgatieri” (Letters from Purgatory, published in the 1982 volume Il saltar dils morts (The Dance of the Dead), a highly original vision of the different planes of that theological venue from a rather social perspective, from the hell of selfishness to the utopia that precedes the ineffable space of Heaven.

Other writers of Derungs’s generation adopted similar approaches to speculative fiction, conflating it with social criticism, although not as consistently as he did. Notable works in this vein are, for example, Theo Candinas’ “Descripziun d’in stabiliment” (Description of a Plant, 1974), a piece of fictional non-fiction adopting the highly original form of an architectural and topographical description of the exterior of an industrial slaughterhouse in order to criticise the Swiss party system, and Toni Berther’s “Ils ratuns vegnan” (Rats Are Coming, 1978), which is a kind of historiographical account of a small town’s efforts to attract tourism by organising rat-hunting parties and the catastrophic consequences of the proliferation of these intelligent animals. The black humour of the story and its narrative fluency make of Berther’s parable an effective anti-tourism dystopia.

After this flowering of the speculative and fantastic tale in Surselva, which coincided with the same phenomenon in Engadine, as we saw in the above-mentioned works by Bezzola and Grob-Ganzoni, the following years witnessed the hegemony of postmodernism also in this linguistic area. As a result, realism, albeit sometimes formally innovative as in Arno Camenisch’s case, virtually excluded speculative and fantastic fiction from current Romansh literature. With the exception of the short novel L’umbriva dil temps (The Shadow of Time, 2017) by Paula Casutt-Vinzenz, in which life in a Bronze Age village is recreated with pleasant verisimilitude and from a female perspective, Sursilvan speculative fiction took refuge mainly in young adult literature, especially in the form of high fantasies following global sets of conventions. So do the two novels written by young lady authors entitled Emalio (Emalio, 2015) by Flurina Albin and Stina Hendry and Oranja (Oranja, 2021) by Stella Sennhauser. While the latter reads as a sort of compensatory teenage fantasy, the former shows a surprising maturity in the description of the characters’ motives and actions, as well as a good command of narrative, within the limits of the simple writing style common to the genre of high fantasy in the 21st century.

Novels such as Emalio give hope that Romansh fantastic and speculative fiction could recover at some point from its current postmodern crisis and, after having adopted high fantasy, may undertake the task of filling in its main gap, the science fiction novel. Even without doing so, the Romansh language in general, and Sursilvan in particular, can still boast of having one of the richest literatures in Europe in relative terms to its small number of speakers, also with regard to fantastic and speculative fiction.


[1] Titles in italics are those of translated works in English that I am aware of. In this case, this short novel by Camenish was translated into English from Romansh, but from the German version written by the author himself. All the other translations mentioned in this essay were published in the following book: The Curly-Horned Cow: Anthology of Swiss-Romansh Literature, edited by Reto R. Bezzola, translated from the Ladin by Elizabeth Maxfield Miller and from the Surselvan by W. W. Kibler, London, Peter Owen, 1971.

~

Sci Phi Journal 2022/2 – Summer Issue for Download as PDF

Sci Phi Journal‘s 2022 Summer Issue comes out hot on heels of this nerdy publication winning the European Award for Best SF Magazine – and it’s brimming with more off-beat essays and speculative philosophical fiction than ever.

If you like to peruse your seasonal dose of SFF on trusty old paper, or the slightly less old, but similarly trusty screen of your e-reader, you can download your free PDF copy just below.

Enjoy,

the SPJ crew

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2022/2

Lectori salutem.

We write these words humbled by the developments of recent months. When word was sent, back in April, that Sci Phi Journal would be an award finalist at EuroCon, the annual gathering of the European SF family, it was more than we had ever thought possible for our exceptionally nerdy sub-genre: speculative philosophy (or “sci phi”).

Indeed, we’d have been happy to make the journey to Luxembourg simply to commune with like-minded (and, even more so, with contrarian) readers and other members of fandom, and render our homage unto the eventual laureates.

You may then imagine our astonishment when, at a dramatic moment during the ceremony, the announcement came for the Best SF Magazine award and the Sci Phi logo appeared on the mighty overhead screen, emblazoned over the grand auditorium. The conférencier had to call us out twice before we were able to arise, such was our surprise.

Unbeknownst to us, over the course of the convention weekend, the assembly of the European Science Fiction Society (ESFS) had voted to elevate Sci Phi Journal into the “hall of fame” of European SF. In the tapestry of our continent’s speculative literature, where much of each country’s output and nominations are (understandably) specific to their linguistic island, it was a rare moment to have an award bestowed upon an English-language magazine, published in Belgium, cross-nominated by Hungary, and run by a ragtag crew ranging from Malaysia to Spain.

Thus, in line with the sentiment we sought to express in our improvised acceptance speech, we hope for this award to be the pylon of a bridge. One little piece in a chain of many links to bring Europe’s fragmented literary and publishing landscape closer together. And a source of encouragement for the endeavours of authors and thinkers, who seek to tell timeless (rather than timely) stories, for whom speculative fiction is more than just literary entertainment or public activism, but rather an epic tool for philosophical enquiry.

To avail ourselves of an oft abused word: we feel that this once-in-a-lifetime award “validates” the editorial approach that Sci Phi Journal stands for. A respect for classic rhetorical standards; carefully guarded intellectual independence; and a commitment to keep our little bit of literature unshackled from the fashionable agendas of the day.

Much to our delight, the journey doesn’t end here. At the start of summer, Dustin Jacobus was shortlisted for a 2022 Utopia Award in recognition of his work on our cover art, in addition to another nomination in the non-fiction category (citing Eric Hunting’s essay “On Solarpunk”).

Onward, then! Let us carry the torch further still into the twilit corridors of the Library of Babel

Speculatively yours,

the SPJ co-editors & crew

~

Sci Phi Journal wins 2022 European Award for Best SF Magazine!

We are stunned and speechless – though still just about able to type! 🙂

At the 2022 EuroCon in Dudelange, Luxembourg, the European Science Fiction Society (ESFS) voted to honour Sci Phi Journal with the Hall of Fame Award for Best SF Magazine.

This is a fantastic moment for our all-volunteer crew and for the Journal’s mission to bring high-quality, concept-driven, philosophical SF from Europe and beyond to a world-wide audience.

We thank our authors, illustrators and readers from the heart for having shared this journey with us since our re-launch in 2018. And we thank you for your continued support for our non-profit publication and its commitment to offer semi-pro financial recognition to both established and emerging SF authors for their work.

Check our the list of all Award recipients across 12 categories for a flavour of the richness and diversity of European SF in all its contemporary glory!

THANK YOU – WE COULDN’T HAVE DONE THIS WITHOUT YOU!

~

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2022/1

Lectori salutem.

As you are reading this, the world as we know it will have already slipped from a global pandemic into a second cold war, both scenarios that were the stuff of (albeit plausible) fiction barely two years ago.

Most of our crew is based in Brussels, Belgium, which happens to host the headquarters of major geopolitical protagonists such as the European Union and NATO. Thus, we labour under the threat of Russian nuclear warheads permanently aimed at our homes and loved ones. Existential uncertainties have the gift of putting things in perspective, and make us dream of what might have been.

So it comes that our thematic issue for 2022 is dedicated to alternate pasts (and their futures). Alternate history is an immensely versatile sub-genre of speculative fiction, and one undeniably close to our hearts. Which student of history has not dreamt of going back in time and making better decisions at some past point of junction in order to avert disaster for his ancestors or ensure a fortuitous outcome for her favourite hero? If one could but stand on the ramparts of Constantinople on that black day in May 1453 armed with modern weaponry; or walk among the disciples of Christ or the Buddha in the Holy Lands of yore; or step out of the crowd in Sarajevo on a fateful morning in June 1914 and deflect the bullet that inflicted the 20th century on the world.

Uchronia imagines histories that never were, but might have been, and by extension, futures that could have resulted from these alternate pasts. As such, it is worth pointing out that to be fully appreciated, unlike other forms of speculative fiction, alternate history requires some measure of familiarity with the established timeline in the reader’s reality. Moreover, while much of SFF is cosmopolitan in its appeal and thus addresses ‘standardized’ concepts with a set menu of flavourings, the uchroniae of various linguistic literary corpora are still wildly diverse and often not readily translatable from one cultural context into another, particularly as they often address the historical grievances or fantasies relevant to the deep memory of their ethno-cultural context.

While Sci Phi Journal is and remains an English-language publication, as the world’s lingua franca best enables us to promote a philosophical exchange amongst geographically distant members of the SFF community, we are mindful that uchronia is a stark reminder of the importance to read works written in (and intended for) other languages. Only thus can the true (semantic and conceptual) diversity of the speculative field be safeguarded. As an example, we draw readers’ attention to an overview of Hungarian alternate histories published by our co-editor Ádám in the latest volume of the SFRA Review.

The stories in this present issue span a broad spectrum, from ancient steam technology to far-future time travel, from imaginary medical sciences to the shores of fallen empires. We hope you enjoy the journey into alternate timelines as much as we did curating this selection for you!

Speculatively yours,

the SPJ co-editors & crew

~

Sci Phi Journal 2021/4 – Winter Issue for Download as PDF

Some of us like to read our seasonal dose of speculative fiction on trusty old paper.

For your convenience, here you can download the 2021 Autumn issue of Sci Phi Journal in a printer-friendly PDF layout.

We are also looking into more eReader-friendly formats for future releases.

Enjoy,

the SPJ crew

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2021/4

Lectori salutem.

Imagine a child growing up alone in a locked room, with no one for company but a mirror.

Every morning, the rays of sunlight seeping into the chamber entice the infant to crawl or toddle towards the mirror and reveal a smile, greeting its imaginary friend on the reverse side of the glass. Only upon maturing would the child realise that its companion is none but itself, and that it was utterly alone.

Likewise, the human species has always lifted its gaze to the stars, projecting its own reflection into the interstellar void. Our ancestors had once peopled the skies with spirit images of their traditions and aspirations, painted on the canvas of the celestial horizon. Only at the cusp of maturity did they realise that they have been staring at a heaven ordered in their own likeness. That did not dampen their appetite for seeking to lift the veil and step through the mirror, though – quite the contrary.

Indeed, the season of Christmas (like its parallel festivities around the world) carries a message of hope about a story that continues, whether we conceive of it as part of our faith or as a repository of our forebears’ cultural memory. For the journey we are on – the odyssey of scientific fabulation, theological extrapolation and philosophical speculation – is as old as history, and yet it has barely even begun.

Sci Phi Journal certainly wishes to carry on this torch of the imagination and to walk in humble loyalty along that eternal thread that runs through the heart of literature, connecting the voices of the past and the future, unconcerned with the here and now.

Alas, occasionally the present beckons. We’re but a small crew of volunteers, and have to admit that we can no longer manage the hitherto familiar method of accepting submissions by email. The volumes have outgrown the magnitude we had originally reckoned with, so we see no alternative but to reluctantly upgrade to a ‘modern’ (and admittedly more impersonal) online submissions management system.

Naturally, for all other queries and amicable banter, we remain available for all esteemed readers and authors via our trusty email address: team@sciphijournal.org.

And now, we invite you to “unwrap”, as it were, the festive cover (created by Belgian artist Dustin Jacobus, in a nod to his ancient compatriot Brueghel) and dig into the rich offerings of our winter issue. The stories range from space opera to theological amusement, and from the vaguely unsettling to the downright apocalyptic, complemented by two essays on Black Mirror as philosophy, and religion in Star Trek, respectively.

Speculatively yours,

the SPJ co-editors & crew

~

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2021/3

Lectori salutem.

As summer turns to autumn in the Northern hemisphere, and the global doom and gloom of ever new pandemic variants roll on, it is easy to forget that once upon a time speculative fiction had a utopian calling. The “scientific romance”, as it was often called in the 19th century, sought to entertain, of course, but also to illuminate the reader and whisk them away to a better future. A future that is separated from the present not only by time, but by Progress writ large.

While contemporary SF tends to succumb to the temptation of merely projecting present challenges onto a date set later than our own, classic speculation took the liberty to invent futures both whimsically and radically different from the author’s world. What more, these imaginary realms were oftentimes presented as aspirational – more appealing than the reader’s own reality. Alas, with the exception of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (and possibly Iain M. Banks’ Culture), one has to think hard to name any widely-known current SF universe one would actually like to inhabit.

While grittiness seems the dominant narrative mode of present-day sci-fi, there are utopian currents within the genre that offer relief from these dark overtones. One such stream is the emerging sub-genre perhaps best labelled as “solarpunk”.

You may have noticed our slightly different cover this quarter. It is the work of Belgian artist Dustin Jacobus, and seeks to convey at a glance some of the solution-oriented optimism that typifies solarpunk. But don’t take our word for it. In his essay, Eric Hunting offers a more substantial introduction to the resolutely positive outlook of this sub-genre.

David Kyle Johnson and Mina also return with fascinating essays on SF philosophy and speculative linguistics, respectively. And our autumn issue is, of course, filled with a band of stories ranging wide from humans wishing to make good impressions on invading aliens, to extra-terrestrial visitors who don’t at all seem interested in Earthlings.

Speculatively yours,

the SPJ co-editors & crew

~

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2021/2

Lectori salutem.

It’s been said that God is not a pacifist.

That certainly rings true when contemplating matter and anti-matter annihilating each other after the Big Bang or the not-quite-peaceful manner in which cosmic matter collides and the dust of long-dead celestial bodies serves as the building material for new ones. Explosive reactions drive astrophysical processes, and the competition between species, tribes, cultures, corporations, sports clubs and SF franchises serves as the basic catalyst for evolution.

If we really think about it, doesn’t it rightly inspire awe that our ancestors have come up against the universe and survived long enough to give rise to us? And if we came to be here, might there not be others out there, too? But for how long?

These are the questions we explore in this year’s special thematic issue. What follows is an anthology of 14 hand-picked original stories scouting the frontiers of xeno-anthropology (the speculative study of extra-terrestrial ways of life) and the potential ends of the world (even the universe) as we know it.

We had enormous fun curating this selection for your reading (and day-dreaming) pleasure, and sincerely hope you enjoy the journey.

Speculatively yours,

the SPJ co-editors & crew

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2021/1

Lectori salutem.

Science-fiction, like any drama with existential implications, is better read from the safety of a couch than ‘lived’. This is felt all the more keenly by some on the editorial team and SPJ crew who once again experienced the life-affirming miracle of becoming parents in the weeks leading up to the present issue going to press.

Alas, as we continue to drift through the interminable litany of Belgium’s precipitous spring days, we may grow accustomed to look at the world outside our immediate bubble, mediated through artifices like the news, connected devices and (anti-)social media, as real but distant. Something in which we no longer partake, but digest with the same receptors we use for reading fiction. Lest we become saturated with the vicarious tedium that is Terra in 2021, let us therefore cast our mental eyes, if not away from the screen or paper, at least to subjects far from present concerns.

We promise you that our first issue this year will be entirely free of pandemics and untainted by the arcane politics of former British colonies across the Atlantic[1]. We like dystopian plague tales and discussing elections as much as anyone, but in order to renovate our mental furniture dulled by yesteryear’s gloom, we have hand-picked every tale in this issue with a view to amuse, to divert, perchance to fuel daydreams (or nightmares).

Our stories and essays (and the grey zones between them) range from the sacred to the profane, in styles from the epistolary to the challenging. Like every first issue of the year, the line-up closes with a story penned by our co-editor Ádám reflecting, as usual, on some specific niche concept we rarely see addressed in submissions.

Encouraged by the positive reception of our 2020 thematic anthology issue on immortality, we are happy to announce that we’ll be publishing another one in June 2021, this time dedicated to ‘xeno-anthropology and the end(s) of the universe’. Thereafter, Sci Phi Journal will be open for submissions again in July, so if you’d like to read more from specific authors, encourage them to keep sending us their work!

Stay safe, speculatively yours,

the co-editors


[1] Absolutely no offence intended! We just really cannot bear to read yet another story riffing on the finer points of North American governance. Let’s broaden horizons! If you want fictional elections, why not set them on the Faroese Islands for a change, or in an alt-history Babylonian Republic, or on Alpha Centauri?

Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2020/4

Lectori salutem.

Imagine, if you wish, 2020 as lived through the eyes of a science-fiction editor.

Over the past twelve months, across a landscape composed of pages, paragraphs and phrases, we could almost ‘watch’ the mental foci of the SF writing community shift as a seismographic imprint of real-world preoccupations. This was quite a sight to behold and we were privileged to keep a finger, as gently as we could, on the pulse of the collective intelligence of those who enjoy thinking about the future. This current issue of Sci Phi Journal offers what we hope is an interesting selection of though-provoking and challenging pieces that stray from the most prevalent concerns of the age and explore less frequently covered mysteries – in tones ranging from grim to perky.

Global issues like the COVID crisis affect regions of the world, and various strata of society therein, differently – this is also true for the invisible fellowship of writers. We are a European publication, but given that we select pieces to publish purely based on their literary and conceptual merit (i.e. no quotas or ‘brownie points’ of any kind), the majority of our authors hail from the Anglosphere. That is fine – even natural, perhaps. However, a side-effect is that we see a preponderance of ideological concerns permeating many of the stories submitted to us that are specific to the former or present constituent parts of the British Empire, and thus fairly alien to the psyche of continental Old Worlders like ourselves.

In order to widen the diversity of fixations, prejudices, biases and other perfectly normal human proclivities represented, and to provide some guidance on future submissions, we are adding a page to our guidelines (an “index of heresies”) specifying what we’d prefer to encounter less often in works sent to us for review. For inspiring this section, we owe a debt of gratitude to ‘role models’ provided by excellent sites such as Metaphorosis and Strange Horizons, even if the content and stylistic preferences espoused therein differ markedly from ours.

We also continue to update the ever-expanding Fictional Non-Fiction bibliography and encourage you to send us further recommendations for works in English as well as other languages (and please don’t take it personally if we happen to disagree with some of them on grounds of genre definition).

Stay safe, speculatively yours,

the co-editors

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ps: While most of the SPJ crew lead rather old-school, analogue lives, we are following the advice of a couple of kind readers to re-animate the Journal’s Twitter account from its long cryogenic slumber. If you wish to support our authors by sharing (re-tweeting?) their work, you may do so by following @sciphijournal (which we are told is not a hashtag, but an account handle, apparently).

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Horizontal Totalitarianism in Life and Literature

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

There once was a society in which horizontal totalitarianism was so successful that, without any need for a State or institutions, simple social pressure from friends and neighbours was sufficient to conserve a culture and its customs, perhaps for over forty thousand years. One could even speculate that if Captain James Cook had not disembarked in Australia it may have lasted even longer. The indigenous people of this island-continent are suggestive of the power of horizontal totalitarianism as a form of organisation capable of formatting people so that practically any individual initiative that may alter traditional world-views and customs virtually disappears. Aboriginal Australians did not need to burn at the stake those who broke taboos or refused to respect and follow traditional rites. It was enough that their peers would exclude them from the community, and that they would then perish in the desert (see, for instance, Philip Clarke’s comprehensive anthropological history Where the Ancestors Walked, 2003).

In other societies, more technologically advanced and on the whole ideologically less monolithic, institutional repression has been necessary to eliminate ideologies and behaviours that diverge from horizontal totalitarian norms. In many places, professionalised clergy quickly assumed responsibility for fixing community laws and seeing that they were obeyed, using prosecution analogous to criminal trials against what was considered sinful conduct. These sins were widely understood as crimes against society, or rather, against the maintenance of totalitarian control over individual minds. This is the case, for example, of the ancient Hebrew priesthood, whose sentences were carried out collectively by the people through stoning, a fact that indicated that the punishment was not purely the responsibility of an authority that enforced its will from top to bottom, but also that of the neighbours and acquaintances of the sinner/offender. It was the community that took on and carried out the right to punish. Over time, the State increasingly assumed this power for itself, substituting a vertical order for the earlier horizontal one, which ultimately culminated in modern forms such as fascism and communism. Nowadays, aside from its use by the Cuban dictatorship for its own interests, as well as those who aspire to imitate it in other parts of Spanish-speaking Latin America, horizontal totalitarianism has lost its institutional power in almost all geographical locations and civilizations. This includes Australia, where the aboriginal people, like those of New Guinea, have had to accept modern respect for the individual and the separation, at least in theory, of church, State and ethnicity. However, this does not mean that horizontal totalitarianism is a thing of the ancient past. Even without an established institutional power, its social manifestations continue to oppress people in all too many places, and the modern Western world is no exception. In contrast to the vertical kind, horizontal totalitarianism does not by any means need to dominate public institutions in order to come into being, or to crush the individual, because it pre-dates and exists independently from these institutions.

 In fact, horizontal totalitarianism may also arise without availing itself of institutional agency, since it does not require any institutions in order to repress or eliminate dissidents. It is difficult to fight against this type of totalitarianism because anyone could be one of its agents and its workings can remain opaque even to those who enthusiastically practice it in their daily lives. Horizontal totalitarianism represents a totalitarianism exercised by the majority (or a dominant minority able to sway and manipulate a majority) of a given community by oppressing other members of that community who do not adhere to its unwritten rules. It oppresses minorities as well as those who are seen as disturbing or threatening the homogeneity of the community as a unique and complete entity. In horizontal totalitarianism, there is no need for external authorities to impose their will, against whom the community of the oppressed can, in turn, rebel. Since the majority, made up of oppressors and their conformist followers, and the minority of oppressed people live on the same social plane, the persecuted can hardly rely on the solidarity of their fellow dissidents because they find themselves isolated and disempowered among the mass of individuals who apply the unwritten laws of uniformity, and of the totalitarian unity of the community.

It may seem excessive to some to term this horizontal oppression ‘totalitarian’. However, its consequences for people and societies are even more serious than those of vertical totalitarianism. An incalculable number of people have died at the hands of their neighbours and countrymen since the beginning of time. How many Muslim women have been stoned to death by their neighbours for not adhering to their society’s sexual mores? How many Hindu men and women have been murdered by their relatives for daring to marry outside their caste? How many individuals have died for not believing in their tribe’s chosen god? How many have died for daring to question the beliefs and prejudices held by the majority of people in their community? And we are not talking about primitive societies here, nor solely those of the past. Today, homosexual people still commit suicide in communities where widespread homophobia turns their existence into a living hell. We still see people exiled or forced to seek asylum because they refused to partake in the religious or political ideas of their people, or because they do not belong to the predominant ethnicity or ideological affiliation of their region. Criticism, whether more or less open; social vacuums; and the impossibility of leading a life of one’s own, continue to hound all those who, for whatever reason, are seen as being abnormal.

Even our private lives are threatened, and not only by corrupt and opportunistic politicians who take advantage of people’s prejudices to limit minority rights and secure their own power. This power, built on populism, is but the political face of horizontal totalitarianism. Thanks to the development of the surveillance methods and mutual control structures offered by information technologies, before long we might begin to receive scores (c.f. China’s social credit system) and, consequently, punishments and rewards, based on our neighbours’ or communities’ opinions of us. No longer will anyone wish to be original, extravagant or creative, nor outspokenly contrarian, because this may cause that group of people who judge us with each passing moment to turn against us. This phenomenon can be observed in the actions of existing successful public silencing initiatives, which confront questions and divergent opinions with insults, as seen in the unfortunate social media lynchings perpetrated in recent years by fanaticised supporters of MeToo or Black Lives Matter, or by similar movements with equally extreme ideologies. While it is true that these phenomena are not new, in the past they were only dangerous once they crossed into the physical realm, when people became a policing mass, as explained by Gustave Le Bon in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Psychologie des foules 1895). Thanks to current technologies and the eternal social instincts of the human being, the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of closed, traditional communities, as described by Émile Durkheim in The Division of Labour in Society (De la division du travail social 1893), may even accumulate more repressive force today than it has already enjoyed for millennia.

The Internet has been and continues to be a powerful tool for unleashing self-expression and individual creativity. In theory, anyone can propose anything online, and by the same token, can oppose anything. Then again, it is important to ask oneself how many people might maintain their silence, or hide their convictions for fear of the aforementioned media lynchings. We are also aware of numerous children and adolescents who have committed suicide to escape cyberbullying perpetrated by their neighbours and classmates, for their apparent lack of conformity to some ideal or principle of normalcy prevalent at the time. For horizontal totalitarianism, social harassment is a powerful weapon that the Internet has not deactivated; one could even argue that its power has intensified, since the Internet makes it easy for the number of bullies to increase exponentially.

The danger appears even greater when taking into account that neither writers nor intellectuals wish to denounce it. On the contrary, the modern and postmodern idealisation of all manner of closed societies, from primitive tribes to rural villages, has inspired numerous texts precisely condemning that one place where the individual may, to an extent, escape horizontal totalitarianism. That is, the great modern city in which economic and political freedom prevail, as well as freedom to practice traditional customs. In the city, it is not possible for everyone to know and control you. Unlike the village or tribe, in which everyone knows everyone else, no one has any reason to know anything about you and thus you can carry on your life without fear of criticism or attacks from other members of the community. No one will disapprove of you because you do not attend mass or believe in the God or gods that the village or tribe dictates you should, make love in a way that is condemned by the ruling community’s morality, or fail to profess belief in your nationality being superior to that of foreigners. Aside from mandatory compliance with laws and the reciprocal respect essential to a peaceful coexistence, the individual is sovereign and is no longer a mere component of a mechanical social body that nullifies free will, creativity or, indeed, individuality. Nonetheless, nowadays those who should be the most interested in preserving their individuality, since their writing depends on it, are publishing a steady stream of dystopias instead. These works no longer describe the workings of vertical totalitarianism (imposed from above, by a ruling government, party or all-powerful person), as was the case in the modern classic dystopias against fascist or communist regimes, despite the fact that these still exist today, albeit in marginal countries such as North Korea.

Conversely, it seems very few writers have addressed the oppression of dissident individuals by horizontal totalitarianism either in ‘primitive’, traditional communities or in complex, modern societies. In dystopian literature, following a strict definition of the genre, there are hardly any examples of complex descriptions of this type of totalitarianism. In the context of anarchist movements that aim to eliminate all vertical institutions so that horizontal organisation becomes all-inclusive and, as a result, total(itarian), one can call to mind dedicated anarchists who have warned, through their fiction, against the danger to the individual, as well as to technological and cultural development, posed by conformism horizontally imposed by a libertarian community. One supreme example is the destiny of the scientist who discovers a device for interstellar communication in the novel The Dispossessed (1974), by Ursula K. Le Guin. The reaction of the utopic anarchist society in which he lives is so negative that he is forced to go into exile on another planet, just like countless peers who have had to escape their closed-minded villages in order to avoid being stoned to death.

In Western literature horizontal totalitarianism has mostly been described in a single setting: the countryside, despite the frequent idealisation of rural life from Ancient times until our contemporary intellectuals who seem to be incapable of getting past the noble savage stereotype, or rather the stereotype of the virtuous peasant, which mainly originated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s widely read and imitated novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse [Julie, or the New Heloise] (1761). The traditional European village and its oppressive mechanical solidarity feature primarily, and almost solely, in realist narratives written mainly between 1850 and 1960. At this time, both progressive positivists and Marxists were aware that modernisation and development would be impossible if there were to be no break with the inertia and resistance to change that dominated the most traditionalist areas of countryside. In this way, these writers entered into conflict with the defenders of traditional closed societies, those in which one did not question ritual, archaic religiosity as a collective phenomenon closely tied in with the consciousness of each individual, nor the patriarchal nature of customs, nor the ethnic purity of a group of peasants as the repository of national spirit, unlike the ungrateful strangers of the city. In a context in which the actions of the modern State and its laws penetrated further and further into the countryside, in which urban influence was making itself known in progressive freedom and diversity of ideas and customs, the authors of rural dystopias knew how to narrate, using expressive realism, the way in which villagers could resort to collective repression against those they perceived as contrary to a mechanical solidarity threatened by liberal individualism and the latest capitalist organisation.

It is worth mentioning the French novel Les Paysans [The Peasantry] (1855), by Honoré de Balzac, the story of a wealthy outsider who buys and moves into a mansion and the corresponding agricultural estate, before ultimately having to leave due to the opposition to, and even criminal action taken against, his presence and productive activities by both wealthy and poor locals. A similar collective reaction is narrated in La barraca [The Cabin] (1898), by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in which, in order to survive, a very poor family moves into a small farm that has been declared off-limits by the people of the village. They are eventually forced to leave after their neighbours burn down the farmhouse. In Switzerland, Gian Fontana also shows, in “Il President da Valdei” [The Mayor of Valdei] (1935), the way in which village peoples’ xenophobia violently defends the homogeneity of the community with such fanaticism that they would rather destroy their home than open it up to the world: in this Romansh novella the arson of the house rented by Gypsy families spreads and ends up burning down the whole village. In Italy and Romania, Giovanni Verga’s story, with the title “Libertà” [Liberty] (1882) and the novel Răscoala [The Uprising] (1932), by Liviu Rebreanu, are more than just two examples of tales of peasant revolt. In both, the blind violence of the masses illustrates the instinctive character of a village’s mechanical solidarity which reveals itself in an irrational (and counterproductive) collective violence directed against landlords and their administrators, who in the community are perceived as outsider elements. Being outsiders, they must be removed from the community with a fury akin to that reserved for the poor individuals who, due to their physical appearance, are removed from the bosom of society. This is the case, for instance, of the dwarf in the Portuguese short story “O anão” [‘The Dwarf’] (1893), by Fialho de Almeida. In other examples they may become outsiders because of their behaviour, like the elderly characters of Victor Català’s “Idil·li Xorc” [‘Barren Romance’] (1902) who are stoned to death in a Catalonian village for having married at such an advanced age. To these realist examples one could add Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play Der Besuch der alten Dame [The Visit] (1956), which demonstrates how within a given community horizontal totalitarianism can be stoked and exploited by external elements in order to eliminate certain individuals. In English, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948; collected in The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris, 1949), is worth mentioning, as well as Dorothy K. Haynes’ “Fully Integrated,” a horror story written around 1949 and published in 1976. The former is a masterful gothic parable dealing with the sacrificial nature of collective justice in societies subjected to mechanical solidarity. The latter is also a parable, this time of the rejection of outsiders by a rural community so closed and mutually bound that outsiders can only be integrated into it in the form of cannibalistic food for locals.

These classic works of modern fiction have never been studied as a thematic whole, a sub-genre capable of examining the mechanisms of horizontal totalitarianism with the same penetration and mastery of dystopias such as those of Yevgeni Zamiatin and George Orwell, which investigated vertical totalitarianism. But, how could those studies have been carried out if the very concept of horizontal totalitarianism is practically unknown beyond studies in crowd psychology, which are generally limited to those rare moments of paroxysm in which the masses become collective agents (violent protests, lynchings, etc.)? Perhaps the answer lies in that our herd instinct is so strong that we do not even notice its terrible effects. Sometimes, in the name of integration and equality/uniformity, we do not hesitate in treating misfits or abnormal peoplewith cruelty. Millennia of discriminatory religiosity, centuries of equally exclusive and discriminatory nationalism and an eternity of collective prejudices have desensitised us to horizontal totalitarianism, especially when one considers the all-pervading influence of its latest manifestation: peer-enforced political correctness.

In our postmodern times, it is fashionable to critique Popperian open societies and liberal economic and political systems, which are precisely the only ones having proven that mechanical solidarity and the ensuing communalism and horizontal totalitarianism can actually be curbed. But postmodern intellectuals usually prefer to imagine the downfall and disintegration of those classical liberal societies as demonstrated by the staggering amount of contemporary anti-capitalist dystopias from early cyberpunk fiction to the ones written, for example, in Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession (see Diana Palardy, The Dystopian Imagination in Contemporary Spanish Literature and Film, 2018). There are even intellectuals who have condemned tourism (see, for instance, Andrea Víctrix, a 1974 dystopian novel written in Catalan by Llorenç Villalonga targeting mass tourism in his native Majorca), followed by influential left-wing activists and politicians (most notably in Barcelona), for whom tourists represent a threat to ethnic integrity and economic self-sufficiency, in other words, two underlying ideals of traditional society, which are contrary to the globalisation and cosmopolitanism that tourism implies.

Currently, instead of humanist cosmopolitanism, it is multiculturalism that seems to predominate among hegemonic intellectuals in the academic sphere and the mainstream press. Underpinning this mode of observation is a form of cultural relativism that regards cultures as discreetly delineated, separate realities; their blending or co-experience thus often draws accusations of ‘cultural appropriation.’ Following this logic, the practice of horizontal totalitarianism becomes acceptable if it is part of ‘their culture,’ as an internal reflection and quasi justification of the superimposed civic community enforcing its overarching diversitarian narrative in an analogous process of higher-order horizontal totalitarianism. What is important is the group and, for multiculturalists, there is nothing wrong with formatting the mind of its members to such a point that they will accept, for example, that it is fine to riot, stone to death adulterous women, enslave members of neighbouring communities or sacrifice and eat prisoners of war, as long as it is or was done by ‘minority’ groups or communities subjected to mechanical solidarity, especially if these are believed to be ‘indigenous.’ Anything would seem to be better than individualism and liberal humanism, terms that today have become words with negative connotations for the postmodernists who dictate what is politically correct from their cosy North American university campuses or for the opinion-makers who reside in regions culturally dependent on the Anglosphere. Now perhaps it is time for humanist and universal reason and conscience to once again shine their lights upon society, in life and in literature, against the communitarian ‘politically correct’ obscurantism of a totalitarian nature that seems to continue to dictate much of our current way of thinking, as well as our behaviour, in the regions of Western culture and throughout the globalised world, including on the Internet.

Translated from Spanish by Josephine Swarbrick

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English translations of quoted works

Balzac, Honoré de: The Peasantry, translated by Ellen Marriage, introduction by George Sainstbury. London: Dent, J. M. Dent and Co., 1896.

Blasco Ibáñez, Vicente. The Cabin, translated by Francine Haffkine Snow and Beatrice M. Mekota, introduction by John Garrett Underhill. New York (NY): Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich: The Visit, translated by Patrick Bowles. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962.

Durkheim, Émile: The Division of Labour in Society, translated by W. D. Halls, introduction by Lewis A. Coser. New York (NY): Free Press, 1997.

Fontana, Gian: “The Mayor of Valdei,” in The Curly-Horned Cow: An Anthology of Swiss-Romansh Poems and Stories, edited by Reto R. Bezzola, translated by W. W. Kibler. London: Peter Owen, 1971, p. 70-116.

Le Bon, Gustave: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T Fisher Unwin Ltd, 1896.

Rebreanu, Liviu: The Uprising, translated by P. Crandjean and S. Hartauer. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques : Julie; or, The New Heloise, annotated and translated by Philip Stewart and Jean Vache. Hanover (NH): Dartmouth College Press, 1997.

Verga, Giovanni. “Liberty,” in Little Novels of Sicily, translated by D. H. Lawrence. South Royalton (VT): Steerforth Press, 2000, p. 125-134.

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Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2020/3

Lectori salutem.

Sometimes it really feels like we had fallen asleep in a normal, mundane universe, and somehow woken up on the wrong side of the alternate continuum. While the real Earth no doubt continues its spinning trajectory unaware of our predicament, the SPJ crew seems to have been trapped on a mirror planet slowly slipping into dystopia. Our day-jobs in international organisations forced us to witness the partial unravelling of the utopian multilateral order, while the world’s great cities continue to be wrecked by lockdowns and riots.

While we are trying to figure out which grimdark SF series’ prequel we find ourselves in, we wish to distract ourselves (and hopefully our readers) by bringing you our autumn issue, packed with thought-provoking and sometimes challenging content.

Our offering of speculative vistas ranges from the satirical to the outright macabre, from theology and world-building to chilling works of fictional non-fiction. These are accented by wholesome geekiness in the form of an essay by Mina on science-fiction in audio drama and an op-ed by co-editor Mariano on horizontal totalitarianism in real and imagined forms.

We firmly believe that controversy is the catalyst for progress, and that there can be no future worth living in without freedom of thought and expression. So while in numerous parts of the world, from Belarus to China, from North Korea to the United States, fundamental liberties like the freedom of speech are curtailed in overt or implicit ways, and the range and diversity of politically acceptable views narrows by the month, we shall continue as a peaceful waystation along the galactic highway, nestled in the heart of Europe, to provide a home for discourse and experimentation that push the limits of SFF. “May a hundred flowers bloom!”

Speculatively yours,

the co-editors

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ps: While most of the SPJ crew leads rather old-school, analogue lives, we are following the advice of a couple of kind readers to re-animate the Journal’s Twitter account from its long cryogenic slumber. If you wish to support our authors by sharing (re-tweeting?) their work, you may do so by following @sciphijournal (which we are told is not a hashtag, but an account handle, apparently).

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For a Truly Multicultural Science Fiction: Do Translations Matter?

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Science fiction is arguably becoming truly cosmopolitan today. After this genre was baptised in the United States and its fandom developed there, it was soon forgotten that scientific romance (or its equivalent forms of fiction often called utopian in non-English literary areas) had existed for decades, and that this truly international form of mainstream fiction was cultivated by critically acclaimed writers from Argentina to Japan, from Sweden to Bengal. Many soon believed that science fiction was only, or mainly, a US invention, that science fiction did not exist as such elsewhere and, if it existed, it could not be but a slavish imitation of American models. It might have been so in some instances, as the Perry Rhodan serial pulps from Germany amply demonstrate. Focusing only on the products of cultural ‘coca-colonization’ failed however to do justice to science fiction written in different languages by many gifted writers. Non-Anglophone science fiction was ignored in most instances. Hardly a couple of international authors, namely Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, succeeded in getting wider recognition, perhaps thanks to their being considered representatives of an allegedly alternate way of writing science fiction coming from the Eastern Bloc, a way that was moreover quite similar to contemporary New Wave literary and ideological experimentalism. By contrast, similar science fiction writers from the Western Bloc were little known, unless their speculative stories were received as mainstream literature written by authors having acquired a high critical reputation for their previous non-science fiction books. This was the case, for instance, of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, whose novel Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995) about a pandemic outbreak and its societal consequences was, however, rarely received as science fiction, despite its clearly speculative approach and subject matter.

Fortunately, this situation appears to be changing in the 21st century. Following already existing trends, in recent decades science fiction has been the subject of extensive historical surveys, and by no means limited to the Anglosphere. Bibliographies, encyclopedias, literary research by both fans and scholars still tend to emphasize works in English but there has always been an awareness of the international dimension of science fiction history. It was widely known that one of the fathers of science fiction avant la lettre was Jules Verne, or that one of the greatest prospective dystopias is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924). Now these are not just token international names as they used to be in the first considerations of science fiction as a particular genre of fiction. Competent translations into English having appeared in series such as ‘Early Classics of Science Fiction’ from the Wesleyan University Press, among other academic initiatives, are showing the variety and originality of European and Asian scientific romances. Thanks to these and other translations Anglophone readers can find quality renditions of significant science fiction classics from China, Bengal, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and other literary regions. Furthermore, Brian Stableford has undertaken a colossal task of translating into English a cross-section of the huge French output in scientific romance and related genres. He has translated into English dozens of novels and stories, some of which are quite difficult to come by in France and other French-speaking countries. Many of them have appeared with his own prefaces, where his astonishing literary learning and critical acumen make of them examples of what science fiction scholarship should be about.

Contemporary international genre science fiction has not fared equally well, though. Liu Cixin’s success can be explained by Ken Liu’s adaptation of the original works to the American pop style of writing, as well as the chance of having occupied the same niche as the Strugatsky brothers as ‘the’ representative of science fiction coming from the main geopolitical, ideological and economical rival of the United States: earlier the Soviet Union, now China. There are signs, however, that science fiction with different origins will not be ignored this time. One of the main Anglophone publishing companies, Penguin, has a new collection called ‘Penguin Science Fiction.’ Among its titles so far announced, almost half of them are translations from languages as varied as Japanese (Kobo Abe), Russian (Yevgeny Zamyatin, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky), Spanish (Angélica Gorodischer) and German (Andreas Eschbach). It is hoped that this catalogue will continue to be internationally balanced as it seems now. There are still many fine science fiction works awaiting translation under the good editorial and marketing conditions that Penguin and similar corporations can afford. Only if they are translated into English, the lingua franca of science fiction, this genre could become truly global and multicultural in a meaningful way. A monolingual multiculturalism, with supporters unable to read anything but English, as it is unfortunately the case in all too many instances, is a contradiction in terms, a mockery of true diversity. Does it genuinely serve multiculturalism that scholars and critics eulogize science fiction works by ‘non-white’ writers produced in English following postmodern-leftist American biases while ignoring genuine world-views from other cultures, ‘white’ or not, expressed in their own languages and conceived having their own local readerships in mind? An example among those appearing in the above-mentioned Penguin science fiction collection comes especially to mind.

Gorodischer’s Trafalgar (1979) deconstructs in one of her stories the Whig stereotype of Anglo-American good imperialism versus Spanish evil imperialism (beware the Spanish inquisition!). Its eponymous hero intervenes on an alternate Earth to ensure that the Spanish Empire does not neglect the Northern subcontinent during its colonization of the Americas. He thus prevents future US interventions in Latin America like those supporting the dictatorship oppressing Argentina at the time when the book was published. Such an approach is nowhere to be found in alternate histories in English, which tends to portray any victorious Catholic Spain as intrinsically evil (c.f. Keith Roberts, Harry Turtledove, etc.). Exposure to translations of speculative and science fiction written in languages other than English (for example, Italian alternate histories re-assessing Benito Mussolini’s rule) by authors averse to the current politically correct consensus would be helpful to achieve a truer form of multiculturalism. We might want to embrace that consensus for its being perhaps fairer and more (post)humane; but democracy as well as literature thrive in a varied cultural ecosystem. It is this wealth of dissenting voices that science fiction can tap into through the power of the translated word.

We might well rejoice, while still regretting that the number of translations remains lower than desirable. There is the huge obstacle of the diminishing linguistic skills of all too many Anglophones, who seem less and less willing to make the necessary effort to learn foreign languages. What is the need for memorizing thousands of exotic words and difficult grammar when English is, at least in theory, understood everywhere? Is there anything interesting to read or talk about that it not produced in English? Laziness being a fundamental feature of human nature, there is now little use of trying to convince anybody of the pleasure, if not the convenience, of learning how to encounter foreign ‘others’ as they really are, even if only to enjoy holidays abroad, in a more humane way than just getting drunk and suntanned (or burned, rather) in, let’s say, Benidorm. When classic languages are no longer treasured by educated Anglophones, when French is no longer the language of diplomacy, when cultural studies and various postmodern ideologies have displaced philological research at most universities, it is perhaps understandable that quite a few native speakers of English dismiss foreign languages as an utter waste of time, unless they are encouraged to learn them by enlightened entities such as the Irish Republic or the Mormon churches… Nevertheless, there still remains a sizeable demographic able to translate all kind of texts into English including, dare we say, literature. Globalization is increasing the number of bilingual people due to international marriages. Growing proficiency of English allows native speakers of other languages to skillfully translate texts from theirs to the current global tongue.

For many of them, the issue might be either to be paid for their endeavors or, if they translate for the sheer love of languages and culture, to find a publishing venue. Sci Phi Journal is one of them, at least for short fiction. Translators have, however, rarely answered this journal’s call, perhaps for obstacles that no publication can overcome on its own. Students and scholars able and willing to translate foreign science fiction into English are not encouraged to do it in a competitive academic environment where the principle of ‘publish or perish’ prevails and translations are not acknowledged as highly as, say, original scholarship. Writers able to translate seem to have forgotten that their earlier peers found translation to be an excellent school for good writing. The formidable rhetorical and stylistic resources of English seem to remain all too often untapped simply because writers forget that literary fiction requires a deep understanding of its raw material, language. The act of translation makes writers transcend the comfort zone of their mother tongue. When trying to reproduce the effects that arise from foreign authors successfully exploiting the rhetorical potential of their native language, translators are forced to reflect on the resources of their own language, and use them, both in their translation and eventually in their original writing. Is monolingualism an explanation for the limited rhetorical skills and the flat (“easy listening”) language now sadly prevalent in Anglophone (science) fiction? Is that the reason preventing us from having more stories written using sophisticated syntax, rich vocabulary and effective rhetoric? Such a statement would be a risky contention. It is not, however, that translation helps to improve one’s linguistic proficiency and therefore literary abilities, what more, it opens one’s mind to the world through the deep identification with the Other that literary translation always entails. The increasing numbers of translated science fiction works suggest that these advantages are being understood. Let us hope that many more will follow this path. Because the science fiction universe is too vast to reduce it to the literature produced in one single language.

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