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Mariano Martin Rodriguez

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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Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2020/2

Lectori salutem.

As our European home base is emerging from the clutches of the pandemic (or at least its first wave), we hope that our readers, authors and their loved ones have weathered the storm in good health and high spirits.

We resume our standard format this quarter, but given the doom and gloom of recent months, we try to add a cheerful touch this time, with quite a few stories that strike a light-hearted cord. These are punctuated by three essays, each courting controversy in their own particular way; be it the relationship between faith and science fiction, the dearth of SFF translations from languages other than English, or a timely reflection on pandemics as depicted in the sci-phi canon.

During the spring, we had received a record number of submissions – a welcome development, which we, however, ascribe to the unfortunate circumstances of the global lockdown. Solitude is good for literature, it seems.

The rules of social distancing also meant that the crew availed themselves of the opportunity to spend more time with their families, while doing their day jobs (and reviewing submitted stories) confined to their library armchairs. Co-editor Ádám marvelled time and again at the manner in which the world that to him seemed to be closing in, was at the same time opening up for his little daughter, barely three years old, who is at the age when the mere shadow of a cloud on the balcony is ripe with speculative possibilities.

In a way, science fiction (and sci-phi in particular) is a genre that at its core sets out to inspire in readers that same inclination towards subliminal wonder, as if seeing a new phenomenon through the eyes of a child. May we never lose our ability to revel in this playfulness of the human mind!

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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Editorial – Sci Phi Journal 2020/1

Lectori salutem.

As we enter the second year since the relaunch of SPJ and encourage our readership to retreat into cosy bubbles of isolation to avoid the looming spread of a ‘novel’ contagion*, it is sobering to contemplate that we are protagonists (or, at the very least, extras) in a major SF scenario.

At the time of writing, your co-editors are hunkering down to witness epic, planetary-scale medical speculative fiction unfolding in front of our eyes. Fortunately, for the time being, the events are mostly mediated by our screens, ensuring a distance akin to that of a reader to words on a page. Or to the dispassion wherewith an immortal being would regard the morbid curiosity of death (c.f. Brian Stableford’s now-classic “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death”).

Which brings us to our first departure from the usual mixture of speculative essays and challenging fiction. The Q1 issue of 2020 is made up entirely of short stories, all clustered around the theme of immortality, and various antitheses thereof, from legislating a timely death to erasing one’s memory from the bookshelves of history. These were selected from a rich spectrum of submissions, and we note with relief that more and more authors ‘get’ the conceptual narrative and world-building approaches to speculative fiction, and particularly the fictional non-fiction (FNF) subgenre we strive to cultivate.

The time of the fabled spring clean will be upon us soon, and fittingly our plans for 2020 include completing the process of making archived digital content from SPJ’s previous incarnations available, which had previously languished behind a subscription or paywall, and strive to clean up the tags and category markers across the site.

Coinciding with the 2020Q1 issue is an update of our FNF bibliography, which we intend to continue expanding, grateful as always for further recommendations. We might explore the possibility of another thematic issue later during the year (depending on our means), but also hope to continue our series of articles on speculative fiction in less well-known regional literary markets. If you speak a language that is, perhaps due to lack of exposure or translations into English, less accessible to the international public, and feel inclined to write about the state of SF in that milieu, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Stay safe, memento mori.

Speculatively yours,

the co-editors

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* In reference to the virus carrying the ‘novel’ epithet, we wish to reiterate our long-held opposition to fat literature.

Fictions of Non-Fiction: An Overview of Scientific Discursive Genres in ‘Science Fiction’

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

‘Science fiction’ is, obviously, composed of two substantial elements: ‘science’ and ‘fiction.’ In literature, fiction is constituted by any text that generates a possible world where imaginary events take place or imaginary objects exist; it operates as a construct of an artistic nature not expected to be factually true. Fictional worlds are created through language, and often through pre-existing rhetorical macro-devices, or formal genres such as the novel or drama, which are prevalent vehicles for literary fiction today. Fiction can also be expressed, however, through non-novelistic, and even non-narrative devices. There are fictional works entirely written using diverse prescriptive discourses, from legal codes to directions, as well as texts written as mock advertising. In both cases, they may posit alternate or futuristic imaginary worlds, thus taking on the conventions of sf and/or speculative texts and fulfilling the above semantic criterion for fiction.

The main way in which fiction writing masquerades as non-fiction is related, however, to the first element of the sf linguistic formula: science. This is not the place to discuss what science is, or which sciences are, indeed, ‘scientific.’ However, both the human, or ‘soft’ sciences (such as Historiography, Ethnology or Philology), and the experimental and highly mathematized ‘hard’ sciences (such as Physics or Chemistry), are commonly associated with scientific and academic status in our society. More importantly for us here, their textual expression has been well-established from the 19th century onwards, and it is readily recognizable by any reader exposed to the discursive features used to communicate knowledge to the public. Although the manner in which findings, theories and facts are presented in books and journals devoted to science is not fully uniform, a purely expository kind of discourse is now prevalent in most disciplines, even though the argumentative discourse, as well as a greater degree of rhetorical variety and stylistic ornamentation, may also be important in the so-called human sciences. In all of them, however, the scientific text must be seen as devoid of any subjectivity, as well as of any literary self-referentiality, ideally being only a transparent linguistic vehicle for a description of pure factuality. Indeed, drawings, graphs and formulae abound in modern scientific texts, as well as the footnotes and bibliographical information more prevalent in traditional human sciences, in order to enhance the objective tone required, as well as to suggest the objective and extra-textual nature of the phenomena described. These textual devices underline that the reported facts do not result from any form of personal fancy and invention, but are based on documentation and true evidence – this is to say, that they have a scientific basis and, therefore, that the text portrays and expresses ‘science.’ Even when the facts are false, the text which reports them does so in such a discursive way that the reader is invited to see them as ‘factually’ sound, as well as ‘scientific.’ Their textual discourse supposes their ‘factuality,’ or, in other terms, ‘non-fictionality.’ In short, when reading a novel, its fictionality is taken for granted, whereas when reading a scientific report, we assume its factuality.

This reading effect caused by factuality, however, can be used for fictional purposes. We would have then a particular kind of ‘fictional non-fiction’ that could be named ‘scientific fictional non-fiction.’ This encompasses all works where a fantastical content is infused into a text that methodically and consistently presents, in its entirety, as a formally independent written work, the standard rhetorical features of scientific discourses usual in real-world scientific practice. This fantastic content can be of a science-fictional nature (it can include Suvinian nova), and a great number of fictional texts which use factual discourses actually feature contents that can safely be labelled ‘sf.’ The content is, however, of little relevance for a taxonomy of scientific fictional non-fiction. The main criterion to define the genre and its major subgenres is, actually, formal. In all of them, literariness is achieved mostly through the fictionalisation of their contents, while their language imitates the highly formalised, uniform, descriptive, seemingly objective, and un-literary tone commonly used in current natural, formal or social sciences. Each science, however, has its own jargon which in turn generates various discursive subgenres.

Fiction in the natural sciences has brought about a whole genre, the spoof paper, of which examples abound. Many of them are often intended as humorous hoaxes or practical jokes by actual scientists. Others have appeared, however, in literary venues, and they should be studied as literary fiction. Since both the natural and the formal sciences employ a highly formalized prose, fictional non-fiction of this kind leaves little room for rhetorical embellishment. Their literary interest is to be found elsewhere, in the altered views on science and society brought about by their confrontation within the text. A strict adherence to the dry styles of Mathematics or Linguistics can highlight the potential inhumanity of scientific objectivity; for example, George Orwell’s semiotically independent appendix on “The Principles of Newspeak” tacitly suppresses all suffering from the terrible events just narrated in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Also in the natural sciences, the coldness of ‘hard’ scientific discourse can be adroitly imitated to undermine it, as it happens in the two papers collectively entitled “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline” (1948-1952; collected in Only a Trillion, 1957) by Isaac Asimov. These not only demonstrate the linguistic and rhetorical skill of the author, but also allow for readings deconstructing the way in which truth presents itself as absolute, as well as instrumental, at least through the linguistic expression common in the natural sciences. Regarding ‘softer’ sciences, such as Biology, the descriptions of imaginary beings and of their habitats are usually devoid of the irony pervasive in the fictional use of ‘hard’ scientific discourse, often implying attempts at renovating, through the biological discourse as well as through the pure invention of the animals and plants described, the traditional genre of the bestiary, for example, in J. K. Rowling’s textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001).

Perhaps because the high formalism of written expression in the natural and formal sciences imposes a rhetorical discipline that many writers are unwilling or unable to adopt, spoof scientific papers constitute only a small part of scientific fictional non-fiction, at least if compared to the high number of imitations of human/social sciences discourse. Among them, historiography has provided the discourse most extensively used in the formal macro-genre of fictional non-fiction, from the 19th century onwards. Imaginary history written in the historiographic style has three main varieties, according to the chosen time frame: past, present or future. If set in the past, the historiographic narrative may describe events that had occurred in an imaginary country or civilization, such as the ancient Eurasia described by Robert E. Howard in “The Hyborian Age” (1938). Alternate history initially employed a true historiographical form, in Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde. 1812 à 1832. Histoire de la monarchie universelle [Napoléon and the Conquest of the World, 1812-1832: A Fictional History] (1836), before being replaced more recently by alternate history in the form of mostly novelistic ‘stories.’ What could be called ‘anticipated history’ is a narrative usually by a future historian which uses the verbal past tenses of past events to present readers with future events that we know to be imaginary. Among fictional historiographical works of anticipation, some are classics of scientific romance, such as Gabriel Tarde’s Fragment d’histoire future (1896), whose English translation appeared in 1905 as Underground Man with a preface by H. G. Wells; to this we may add Olaf Stapledon’s history of the successor species to humankind along many millennia, Last and First Men (1930), and Wells’ socio-political history of The Shape of Things to Come (1933). Anticipatory history, which is the kind of fictional historiography closer to sf proper, has been relatively popular among speculative writers for both intellectual and formal reasons. Imagining future history as if it were past has allowed them to directly show, with the persuasive power of the factual ‘true’ discourse, the evolution of human societies had any particular trend prevailed, from the ‘yellow peril’ in Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910; collected in The Strength of the Strong, 1911) to technocracy in Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). Moreover, although its narrative is of a descriptive nature, historiography also tells a story, which can be expanded in time and detail until it reaches novelistic proportions. The same applies to mythopoeias such as Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegāna (1905).

Both the discourses of narrative historiography and of mythography are, therefore, less alien to the usual patterns of the readers’ novelistic consumption than other subgenres of fictional non-fiction based on plain descriptive social sciences, such as Geography and its sibling discipline Ethnography. These are often combined in fictional works on the conditions and customs of imaginary peoples – in the present, on Earth or otherwise, or in the past, when the borrowed scientific discourse is that of Archaeology, such as Andrew Lang’s “The Great Gladstone Myth” (1886; collected in the same year in the volume In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories). True geographic/ethnographic accounts have offered a rhetorical model for world-building in the descriptive mode such as the famous tongue-in-cheek study on reverse anthropology entitled “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” (1956) by Horace Mitchell Miner, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the workings of social groups in “La secta de los treinta” [The Sect of the Thirty] (collected in El libro de arena [The Book of Sand], 1975). This latter ‘fiction’ could also be considered an example of fictional Philology, since it is presented as the translation of an ancient text with a short introductory note. Philology is, unsurprisingly, an academic discipline also quite popular among literary writers. As readers at least, many of them must be familiar with the presentation features of critical editions of classics, and some have imitated them in reviews and studies on imaginary works, such as “A prophetic account of a grand national epic poem, to be entitled The Wellingtoniad, and to be published A.D. 2824” (1824) by historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the “History of the Necronomicon” (1938) by H.P. Lovecraft. The latter has inspired a number of alternative, but equally philologically-oriented histories of that mythic grimoire.

A superbly representative example of science fictional non-fiction is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” (1974; collected in The Compass Rose, 1982). This work conflates the concepts and rhetoric of the three main groups of sciences (formal, natural and social) into the framework of a model scientific paper, endowed with all the intellectual and rhetorical features that make this genre culturally and literarily significant. Divided in three parts, the first one offers a version of a text written by an ant, the second explores languages written by groups in moving media, and the third speculates about the possibilities of plant languages and literatures. Le Guin’s fictional science ‘Therolinguistics’ combines linguistics, literary criticism and biology in order to invite readers to consider the almost infinite possibilities of both nature and culture beyond any limiting human-centred perspective. As scientific fictional non-fiction usually does, this fully academic text shows how fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities, thus increasing our awareness of the literary potential of any kind of written discourse, including the scientific one through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents – this is to say, science and fiction: ‘science fiction.’

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A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Romania is a country that foreign readers rarely associate with speculative and science fiction (collectively abbreviated as SF). However, its multilingual young population is among the most IT-literate in the world, and their cultural output, including SF, is not only extensive but also fully up to date. While some might attribute this to globalisation, it is in fact a long-standing feature in Romanian culture from its very modern beginnings in the 19th century. Once it secured its independence, Romania embarked on a path of rapid progress, quickly adopting Western liberal institutions and world-view. In this context, as a manifestation of a new mentality centred on science and industrial technology, Romanian SF embraced from its outset the national project of modernisation, although not uncritically, and not without originality.

Utopian fiction usually preceded SF before their intimate fusion in offering descriptions of future societies. This almost universal pattern is also valid for Romania. Thus, economic liberalism was both supported and mocked in one interesting ambiguous utopia describing a present “Insula Prosta” (Stoopid Island, 1884) by Ion Ghica, before the liberal utopia was transferred to a future setting, where it was questioned. Alexandru Macedonski, one of the leading poets of the Decadent movement in Romania, produced thus a short history entitled “Oceania-Pacific-Dreadnought” (1911) where this gigantic ship intended as a floating house for the richest brings about an economic bubble of epic proportions, until it bursts (as bubbles are wont to do). This Romanian author probably took inspiration from Jules Verne’s L’Île à hélice (Propeller Island, 1895) but his description of the workings of pure speculation in capitalism is not only more precise, but also prophetic. Indeed, very few contemporary writers in Europe used anticipation in such a perceptive manner.

In the same years, Victor Anestin followed Camille Flammarion, rather than Verne, both in popularising astronomy and in setting his stories on other planets of the Solar System. Anestin describes them as populated by decent and highly developed human-like civilisations inspired by Positivistic utopianism, though unfortunately still subjected to nature’s whims. In O tragedie cerească (A Celestial Tragedy, 1914), a celestial body destroys Earth’s inhabitants. This dramatic apocalyptic scenario always poses the problem of which narrative voice to use: who can recount the end if it obliterates us all? Anestin solves this problem by adopting the perspective of an astronomer who witnesses our tragedy from Venus. In spite of his sober account, Anestin knows how to add a sense of loss to the sense of wonder in his grandiose planetary vistas.

This late but promising start of Romanian SF was followed by its relative normalisation along mainstream lines. As happened elsewhere in the world (except perhaps in the US), Wellsian scientific romance opened new avenues to speculative anticipation by infusing it with the freedom of imagination regarding world-building shown by old imaginary voyages since Lucian of Samosata, as well as a diversity of narrative and writing techniques explored by High Modernist authors. Among them, Felix Aderca stands out thanks to his avant-garde short story “Pastorală” (Pastoral, 1932), which is written as the summary of an unwritten play, and his novel Orașele înecate (Drowned Cities, 1936). The latter is set on a future Earth threatened by universal cold. The last human communities have withdrawn to submarine cities under the rule of a fascist-like pro-eugenics dictator, but his measures cannot prevent in the end the technical failure and destruction of the remaining cities. Only a couple escapes from our planet in a rocket. The varied societies, their exchanges and development in a pre-apocalyptic framework are finely portrayed using an art-deco tone of writing full of tragicomic irony, not unlike the one used in Karel Čapek’s contemporary novels, which makes this work a masterpiece of international interwar SF.

The political crisis brought about by World War II did not spare Romania, where home-grown ethnic nationalist Fascism supported by Nazi Germany was defeated and then replaced by the Communism imported and imposed by Soviet troops. In this context, there was little room for unregimented literature, speculative or otherwise. Even more intently than fascists, communists guided by Stalinist Social Realism effectively put an end to any fantasy about medium- and long-term futures. Furthermore, writers wishing to denounce totalitarianisms of any sort were silenced. Romanian readers were thus deprived of any dystopias comparable to those written by Zamiatin, Boye or Orwell. Vasile Voiculescu’s short story “Lobocoagularea prefrontală” (Pre-Frontal Lobocoagulation) purports to be a historical summary of the forced lobotomies undertaken on the population in order to extirpate their human souls. Written in 1948, this text was only published posthumously in 1982 as a simple curiosity by a renowned modern poet.

The Iron Curtain prevented Romania from being subjected to the massive influx of US SF literature (both pulps and Golden Age) which ended the more intellectual and literary scientific romance in Western Europe, though Communism was equally efficient in depriving SF of its former artistic respectability. Romanian SF was reborn in the 1950sas a tool for educating young readers both in Communism and technology in order to prepare them for the rapid pace of re-industrialisation soon established as a goal by Romanian authorities under nationalist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was rather unsatisfied with the role of agricultural producer allotted to their country by the Soviet bloc. Although his rule was even harsher than others in the Eastern Bloc, Ceaușescu used his national policy of apparent dissent from the Soviet Union to get the technological and financial support that his country needed to become industrialised. As a result, Romanian writers were allowed to deviate from old dogmas, and SF quickly took advantage of the opening, soon updating itself to Golden Age standards thanks to Adrian Rogoz, whose short stories recall the clarity of form and speculative wit to be found in those by Isaac Asimov. The other Romanian SF master of the age, Vladimir Colin, adopted a more lyrical writing akin to that of Ray Bradbury, although the best part of his work was devoted to fantasy; indeed, his series of stories and legends from an ancient imaginary people, collected in Legendele țării lui Vam (Legends from Vam Country, 1961), are still considered a masterpiece by Romanian fantasy readers.

Rogoz, Colin and others also succeeded in joining the vogue for national promotion abroad triggered by Ceaușescu’s national-communism, since some of their works were translated into German and French and published in widely distributed anthologies of Romanian SF. Furthermore, they were generous enough to include in these volumes stories by new writers interested in a SF literature similar to that of the Anglophone New Wave, namely Ovid S. Crohmălniceanu, Gheorghe Săsărman and Mircea Opriță, who would eventually produce some of the best works that Romanian SF can boast of. The oldest of them, Crohmălniceanu, was a highly regarded mainstream literary critic when he published his two series of Istorii insolite (Unusual Stories) in 1980 and 1986. Taken together, they read as exercises in reasoned imagination on utopianism, technology and the role of literature in modernity in which irony enriches a deeply philosophical questioning of humankind and its place in the universe, not unlike the best tales by Borges or Lem, whom Crohmălniceanu could certainly be compared to.

Younger Săsărman and Opriță have had both long and distinguished writing careers. Săsărman produced in 1975 Cuadratura cercului, one of the masterpieces of the late modernist genre consisting of descriptions of imaginary cities, in a manner similar to the invisible ones by Calvino. Unfortunately, this edition was heavily censored, and the whole book was only known in 2001, when its author had long been excluded from Romanian literary life following his exile to Germany. The translation of his cities into Spanish and then partially into English as Squaring the Circle by top-ranking SF author Ursula K. Le Guin has secured him at last his rightful place in Romanian speculative fiction, now supported also by well-received recent novels such as a story on the resurrection of Jesus Christ in modern Germany entitled Adevărata cronică a morții lui Yeșua Ha-Nozri (True Account of the Death of Jeshua Ha-Nozri, 2016).

Opriță, who stayed in the country without compromising himself, is renowned for his short stories (e.g., “Figurine de ceară,” or Wax Figurines, a witty rewriting of Lem’s Solaris first published in 1973), though he also produced a successful novel, Călătorie în Capricia (A Journey to Capricia, 2011), which is both one of the latest sequels to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a most original commentary on the 2008 Great Recession as it was suffered in Romania. Moreover, Opriță has accompanied the last decades of Romanian SF as a respected and fair critic, as well as its best chronicler: his history of Romanian SF literature is comprehensive up to a point rarely encountered in similar endeavours for other national SF traditions. It is a monument of SF scholarship, only comparable to another Romanian production in the theoretical field, Cornel Robu’s extensive O cheie pentru science-fiction (A Key to Science Fiction, 2004), the English abstract of which has been influential in our consideration of the sublime (popularly known as ‘sense of wonder’) as an essential part of SF aesthetics.   

After this remarkable group of writers and scholars, a certain decadence of Romanian SF was perhaps inevitable. Postmodernism soon acquired a status in the Romanian literary scene unmatched in other countries up to this very day. This was both bad and good news for Romanian SF: good news if we consider that the leading literary postmodernist in Romania, Mircea Cărtărescu, has introduced SF tropes in his work, especially in his latest novel Selenoid (2015), thus adding respectability to them; bad news if we consider instead that postmodernism has promoted a literature of chaos, or arbitrariness, deeply uncongenial to the usual SF frame of mind (marked by reason, order and science). Very few writers have succeeded in balancing these opposite trends. Among them, Mihail Grămescu is to be mentioned for his stories collected in Aporisticon (1981; final version, 2012), where postmodern egotism is nuanced by Borgesian detachment. There were other interesting young writers who tried to renovate SF following contemporary international trends, but unfortunately two parallel occurrences prevented them from acquiring a reputation similar to that of Săsărman, Opriță and even Grămescu.

On the one hand, the postmodernists, still very much in power in the Romanian intellectual scene, seem even more reluctant to appreciate SF as the modernists were once Wellsian scientific romance had become obsolete. Therefore, SF has not been able to join the literary mainstream in Romania as it has in other countries where SF novels, especially of the dystopian kind, are now read and reviewed beyond the limited circles of SF fans. On the other hand, the end of censorship allowed Anglophone SF to enter the Romanian market with a revenge, marginalising local production even more than in Western Europe forty years earlier (until today). Romanian SF writers tried to regain some of the genre’s former strength by mimicking foreign fashions, such as pulpish cyberpunk, in a country where hackers are, indeed, numerous, and IT has been enthusiastically embraced. Others wanted to preserve the New Wave heritage through carefully written stories, some of them quite experimental, such as Dănuț Ungureanu’s dystopian “Domus” (1992), which is entirely written using prescriptive discourse, and Ovidiu Bufnilă’s cyberpunk prose poem “Armele zeilor” (The Arms of the Gods, 2005). Although a number of these stories could make up an invaluable anthology, none of them succeeded in truly seducing the local fandom. Romanian SF only recovered when it revisited, in the form of long, epos-like novels, older genres such as space-opera in Dan Doboș’s Abația (Abbey, 2002-2005), lost-world romance in Sebastian A. Corn’s Ne vom întoarce în Muribecca (We Will Return to Muribecca, 2014), as well as apocalyptic dystopia in the series begun with the shorter novel Vegetal (2014) by Dănuț Ungureanu and Marian Truță. Their success, at least among fans, has contributed to lending new life to a SF now nearly as diverse and literarily successful as it used to be before the postmodernist/cyberpunk crisis. Prospects seem to be positive, with emerging writers now being aware that they are adding their contribution to a long and distinguished history of Romanian SF, although it is still too early to mention any outstanding ones.

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Endnote: A first version of this essay was published as a preface to the following anthology of recent Romanian SF stories: Daniel Timariu and Cristian Vicol (eds.), East of a Known Galaxy: An Anthology of Romanian Sci-Fi Stories, București, Tritonic, 2019, p. 10-19. We thank the editors, as well as the publishing house and the Helion SF club having fostered this anthology, for their kind permission to publish here this slightly modified version of the paper.

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Against Fat Literature

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Obesity has become a pandemic of worldwide proportions. Apart from a limited percentage of congenital propensity, bad eating habits, lack of physical exercise and a general want of self-discipline seem to be the main causes, while medical warnings are paid little heed. Similarly few seem to be concerned by the parallel pandemic of excessive fat in contemporary literary fiction. Shelves at bookshops are on the verge of collapsing under the weight of huge volumes, each containing thousands of pages, many of them part of series composed of equally ponderous bricks of print. It could be argued that these displays of written thickness are nothing new. In the 19th century, three-deckers were usual in Victorian Britain, and they were avidly read, not only bought to sit pretty on shelves as current best-sellers often are. But the three-deckers of yore tended to be leaner than the hefty best-sellers of today, as their considerable body was composed of muscle rather than fat. They offered a highly diverse and controlled prose combining detailed, atmospheric descriptions, relevant reflections, a slow but fully functional narrative and, above all, meaningful dialogue. What do we find in best-sellers today, for example, in Stephen King’s brick-like books, as well as in most commercial speculative fiction? Mountains of literary fat around a thin narrative backbone hardly able to sustain all that heavy weight.

Readers are forced to swallow page after page of banal conversations adding virtually nothing to the plot or to the sense of the story, narrative utterances enlightening us about actions devoid of any interest, cushioned in lengthy and plain functional novelistic prose entirely lacking the rhetorical devices that have graced literary texts from the dawn of written history. It often seems that computers have eased the physical task of writing so much that these creators of pot-bellied fiction feel that writing is just endlessly putting one word after another in order to outdo each other regarding textual length, without considering that the most useful key on a computer is the ‘delete’ one. Even short stories published in magazines, be it off- or online, suffer from this disease of literary obesity, since the utter banality of best-seller writing has spread to every corner of conventional narrative fiction. One may even come across one-page ‘flash’ stories composed in the gossipy vernacular of discussions by the water-cooler, as if authors were unwilling to appreciate that the art of fiction, as a branch of literature, requires the weighing of each word in such a way that readers intuitively realise that not a single virgula could be altered without changing the meaning and the effect of the whole. One can try this exercise on Ursula K. Le Guin’s or Ted Chiang’s best short stories. The truly literary nature of their language will then become obvious. If we submit George R. R. Martin’s notorious ongoing fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire to the same treatment, we might find that perhaps hundreds of pages of text could be replaced with no stylistic loss; directly suppressing them could constitute a sort of slimming cure that readers keen on the wordsmith’s craft would probably appreciate.

            Who is to blame for this literary pandemic? Publishers would point the finger at readers (or rather, buyers of books). Many of the latter seem, indeed, to acquire books for their weight. They do not see them as works of art, but as merchandises to be valued by the quantity-price ratio, as if they were apples or steaks. Still, relatively short novels were much into fashion from the Edwardian age through the 1950s; for example, the thin early scientific romances by H.G. Wells certainly increased his (and his publisher’s) bank account balance. Popular taste in literature can be changed if big publishing corporations with the power to define the book market decide to do so. Literary magazines, online or otherwise, can also shape the taste of readers by proposing valuable texts created free from undue financial considerations. As television shows such as the refreshingly lean A Game of Thrones (based on the above-mention door-stopper) demonstrate, there is a large public able to appreciate high art in fiction when they are offered it. Why then do so few writers, at least in supposedly commercial genres such as science fiction and fantasy, go ahead and try it? I am afraid that many of them produce fat literature because they choose the path of conventional bliss over the rigour required to build literary muscle: authors who attend workshops on writing formulaic best-sellers, who do not read any other language than their own and are thus unable to understand how their own mother tongue works by comparison, who begin producing works without any direct knowledge of literary classics, including in the particular genre they try their hands on, and above all, who want to write for a living, instead of having the freedom to write only when they feel the inner need to do so. They force themselves onto a perfunctory and mercenary trajectory to pay for their bills, following publishers’ directions instead of their own heart and literary conscience. It is not to be denied that some professional writers, especially in the past, were able to produce apt literary works on command. However, reading anthologies for which authors have been asked to write on a particular topic indicates that it is rarely the case nowadays. The same applies to texts where each word is paid for: it is all too human to fill up the page with as many as possible, even if unnecessary, in order to receive a few more cents. Under these conditions, literary fat is unavoidable.

            Describing an evil is always easier than devising ways to fight it. Textual obesity is so pervasive today that it is hard to escape it. Nevertheless, some familiarity with literary history can yield hints for possible solutions. Firstly: greater length does not necessarily imply greater literary value, and sometimes brevity achieves the best impact. A couple of examples might suffice. Augusto Monterroso’s “The dinosaur” is a masterpiece of fantastic/speculative fiction thanks to its generating, through just one line of text, several distinct imaginary worlds, depending on the perspective and the context to be imagined by the reader: “Upon awakening, the dinosaur was still there” (my translation). In its mere seven surviving lines of verse, the Old Armenian song of Vahagn can boast of a literary intensity rarely seen in longer epic/mythological poems from anywhere in the world. Certainly, shortness is not a guarantee of value either, but at least less of the readers’ time is wasted.

            Another radical measure would be to submit fiction writing to a discursive discipline akin to the one to be found in non-fictional reports by transposing to fiction the diverse rhetoric of non-fictional genres, from prescriptive texts such as Mark Twain’s “Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine” to fictional documents written using the style of natural (e.g. Isaac Asimov’s “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline”) or formal sciences (e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics”), as well as of social sciences such as historiography (e.g. Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”), mythography (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë”), philology (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The History of the Necronomicon”) or anthropology (e.g. Horace Mitchell Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”). Being highly formalised, the ‘factual’ writing of fiction imposes a linguistic discipline preventing the risk of imprecision and arbitrariness all too common in current novelistic writing. Particularly in science fiction, what can convey the idea of science better than ‘scientific writing’? Through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents, this is to say, science and fiction, fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities. Thus we may grow to appreciate the literary potential of a variety of written discourses, without the inherent limitations of the incorrect, but nowadays commonly held belief that ‘fiction equals novel’, especially the fat kind. It is high time to let readers find tastier fiction off the well-trodden paths, just as they can find tastier food if they make the effort to look beyond the hamburger, pizza and soda diet with which multinationals are fattening us to premature death. Fat literature does not kill our body, but it threatens our taste and spirit. Literary obesity is an affliction worth combatting, and Sci Phi Journal is pleased to re-join the fight.

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