by Stanisław Krawczyk
Several years ago, I spoke to a British science fiction author at Pyrkon, a Polish convention. I told him that the history of SF in Poland had had a marked right-wing component. Many leading writers had grown up in the Polish People’s Republic, a post-WWII state formed under heavy Soviet influence, and they had developed strong negative feelings about the state and its proclaimed socialist ideology. In consequence, they later disliked all manner of things associated with the left.
“I know,” the author told me. “I’m from Britain and I’m left-wing. I grew up under Margaret Thatcher.”
Much of North American and British SF now leans to the left. It would be simplistic, of course, to ascribe it all to the writers’ biographical experience with Thatcher and Reagan. It would also be simplistic to explain everything in Polish SF with a reference to the Polish People’s Republic. Still, if we want to understand the strong right-wing leanings of SF prose in Poland in the 1990s and their partial reverberation in later decades, going back to the 1970s and 1980s is inevitable.
We should keep in mind, though, that the “right-wing” label is, necessarily, a generalization. More research would be needed to clarify what a right-wing worldview meant for different groups and in different periods. I hope that such research will be carried out in time.
Under the Soviet shadow
The late history of the Polish People’s Republic coincides with the early history of the Polish SF fandom. Among the several dates we could choose as symbolic starting points for the latter, the most suitable seems the year 1976. It was then that the influential All-Polish Science Fiction Fan Club was founded in Warsaw, and its members took part in the third edition of EuroCon, itself organized in Poland. The fandom began to grow quickly in the mid-1970s, and so did the number of SF novels and short stories. Throughout the 1980s, more and more independent fan clubs were also set up, and more and more grassroots conventions were organized.
In most cases, science fiction writers and fans were not directly engaged in the dissident movement. However, they often had little love for the state authorities. To begin with, they shared in the broader discontent with the deteriorating economy and political oppression. In the book publishing system, the combined effect of printing issues, paper shortages, and state-wide censorship was that some books suffered delays that could last years. And a severely limited access to Western culture was a major obstacle for those interested in SF.
Because of censorship, this enmity could not be openly expressed in public. However, it did find an indirect expression in the subgenre of sociological science fiction. Its foremost author, Janusz A. Zajdel (1938–1985), a nuclear physicist and a committed member of the Solidarity movement, published five novels in this subgenre. They may be read as universal visions of enslaved societies, but they may also be read as a veiled criticism of the realities of the Polish People’s Republic. The novels quickly became popular, and Zajdel was posthumously made the patron of the most important award for speculative fiction in Poland.
To the right and against the left
The years 1989–1991 were a political breakthrough, ushering in the Third Polish Republic. Censorship was gone, and the available spectrum of expression became much wider. As part of my PhD, I have studied commentaries on public matters in the central journal of the Polish SF field, Nowa Fantastyka. Liberal, progressive, or left-wing ideas were very rare; right-wing ideas were quite frequent. This image seems even sharper than in the whole Polish society, which did turn towards the right overall, but which also gave the most votes to a post-communist coalition in parliamentary elections in 1993 and which elected a post-communist candidate as president in 1995.
A recurrent thread in the journal was negative references to the Polish People’s Republic. These were part of a narrative that attributed a positive role to the Polish science fiction of the 1980s, casting it as instrumental in the social resistance against the authorities and underscoring its advantage over that decade’s “mainstream literature”. A strong opposition was thus constructed between the SF field and the authorities. Only later was serious consideration given to the idea that the latter may have treated sociological SF as a safety valve, enabling the publication of allegorical criticism as an apparently ineffective form of protest.
A few less regular threads can also be traced in editorials and columns in Nowa Fantastyka in the 1990s. They can be summarized as religious and bioethical conservatism, a critique of cultural trends associated with the left (political correctness, relativism, feminism), and a critique of the European Union. Each of these themes was only represented by a small number of texts, but together they demonstrate that right-wing ideas were expressed much more often than liberal or left-wing ones.
In addition, in the early 1990s two key figures of the SF field decided to try their luck in politics. Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz was a spokesman of a right-wing party between 1993 and 1994, and Lech Jęczmyk was a candidate of two other right-wing parties in parliamentary elections in 1991 and 1993. However, neither became a successful politician, and this kind of involvement in the public sphere remained rare.
The 1990s pessimism
Apart from the commentaries, a right-wing worldview permeated science fiction itself. According to a later essay by Jacek Dukaj – an accomplished SF writer in his own right – this manifested partly in “the conviction that destructive civilizational processes were inevitable,” which replaced a previous sentiment, “the sense that there was no alternative to the Soviet rule.” Indeed, Polish science fiction in the 1990s was largely pessimistic, and its anxieties appear similar to those in right-wing discourse outside the SF field: in the media or in parliamentary politics.
One common theme was the spiritual fall of Western Europe, or even all Europe. Possibly the most influential writer dealing with this topic – then an author of numerous novels and short stories, now a well-known opinion journalist – was Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz. His short story A source without water (Źródło bez wody, 1992) will be a good illustration. In that story, Western Europe has been dominated by Islam; the Roman Catholic Church, too, has become lax and soft, and must be renewed. The moral corruption also has a sexual side, which is revealed in a notable detail. One of the characters we follow is an important official who forces himself to sleep with women he despises. He does so to maintain a womanizer’s façade, which he needs to safely turn down the offers from highly placed gays. Western Europe was also shown at times as a direct threat to Polish independence, as in Barnim Regalica’s short story collection Rebellion (Bunt, 1999). It presents an uprising against the European Union, which has taken away Poland’s sovereignty.
Another significant theme was abortion. Here a telling example is Marek S. Huberath’s novelette The major punishment (Kara większa, 1991). It shows a man imprisoned in an afterlife which is part hell, part purgatory, and which resembles a combination of Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. A part of the afterlife’s population are embryos that have been torn apart by abortion and now need to be sewn back together by women who had aborted other embryos. An editor’s note accompanying the piece in Nowa Fantastyka called it “a dramatic pendant to the . . . discussion on abortion,” and several months later another editor commented on the readers’ reactions: “It appears that even an artistic voice in favor of life can evoke angry reactions, and that ‘the civilization of death’ has determined followers among our readers.” Other notable examples include Tomasz Kołodziejczak’s Rise and go (Wstań i idź, 1992), which highlights the ubiquity of abortion and euthanasia in the macdonaldized United States, or Wojciech Szyda’s The psychonaut (Psychonautka, 1997), in which Christ is incarnated and killed again as an aborted foetus.
Beyond a stereotype
Despite the caveat I made in the introduction, it may seem at this point that the contemporary history of Polish SF is a monolith. However, there are a few ways to illustrate that this image would be inaccurate. First, in 1990, a 15-year-old Jacek Dukaj published a short story The Golden Galley (Złota Galera), focused on an extremely powerful and rather immoral organization that blended corporation and church into one. The story was hailed as the first in the subgenre (?) called “clerical fiction,” which also featured some pieces by writers who might be easily identified later as right-wing. Perhaps the authors’ aversion to state oppression was such that they would not accept a hegemonic political role of any institution, even the Roman Catholic Church, which may have seemed poised for similar power in the early 1990s. If we looked from today’s perspective and focused on the cooperation of the Church and the political right throughout the Third Polish Republic, the phenomenon of “clerical fiction” would be impossible to explain.
Second, Polish SF and related commentaries (at least those in Nowa Fantastyka) became less visibly right-wing after the early 2000s. Of course, these attitudes have not disappeared; one illustration would be the national focus of many alternative history novels in a multi-authored book series Switch Rails of Time (Zwrotnice Czasu, 2009–2015). However, capitalism has grown to be a much more powerful force than the right-wing worldview in the field of SF in Poland. Together with the concurrent generational change, it means that fewer and fewer writers have been treating science fiction as a means to changing people’s minds, including a change towards the right. Instead, fiction has been perceived more and more as a market commodity, aimed at giving people what they already want. This is in itself a very short look at a very complex process, but the bottom line (to use an economic metaphor) is that the space has shrunk for SF which carries openly political ideas.
Third, some recent developments indicate a growing potential of left-wing science fiction. For instance, in 2020–2021, a fan group Alpaka released a collection of queer speculative fiction, Nowa Fantastyka published an issue devoted to LGBT+ topics, and Katarzyna Babis – illustrator, comic artist and political activist – publicly criticized a number of older works in her YouTube video series The Old Men of Polish SF&F (Dziady Polskiej Fantastyki). There have also been noteworthy ideological clashes in the Polish science fiction and fantasy fandom around Jacek Komuda and Andrzej Pilipiuk, two writers active since the 1990s. It is too early to say that the left-wing worldview has established its presence in Polish SF, but it may happen.
Questions of capitalism, questions of context
Right-wing science fiction in Poland had its time foremostly in the 1990s (and early 2000s). Some of its elements remained, but in general Polish SF became less overtly political. Do the current developments mean that the genre is on track to active involvement with the public sphere again, right-wing, left-wing, or otherwise? It is possible, given that capitalism itself – or its present version – is increasingly becoming an object of public critique. The book market could change to create different conditions for writers and readers. But it is just that, a possibility, and even in that case it may also be other genres of speculative fiction that will carry the political mantle this time.
Regardless of what the future holds, we have seen that the ideas conveyed through Polish SF in the 1980s and 1990s were related to the historical context of those two decades (including the writers’ own biographies). When the context changed, the ideas did, too. This is not to say that there is some social determinism at work here; I prefer to think about fiction as a response to the empirical reality, not just its reflection. This response sometimes goes in surprising directions, as in the case of “clerical fiction.” However, we can understand SF better if we understand its context. And we can certainly say it does not naturally lean to the right or to the left; it can do both, or neither.
To know more about these leanings, we would need to look at other science fiction traditions, too. Would a hypothesis hold that other post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have had a similar ideological trajectory in their SF? Has there been a markedly different trajectory common to the countries of Western Europe? And what about other regions, such as Latin America?
If context matters, it is not just the national context but also the regional and global one. This broader story, however, has yet to be told.
Stanisław Krawczyk is a sociologist and opinion journalist living in Warsaw. Once engaged actively in the fandom, he has now published a book in Polish, based on his PhD, on the history of the science fiction and fantasy field in Poland. He has also studied video games and the situation of the Polish humanities and social sciences under the recent research assessment regimes.
 Jacek Dukaj, Wyobraźnia po prawej stronie, część trzecia [Imagination on the right side: Part three], Wirtualna Polska, https://ksiazki.wp.pl/wyobraznia-po-prawej-stronie-czesc-trzecia-6146199054882433a, April 26, 2010.
 Maciej Parowski, Marek S. Huberath, Nowa Fantastyka 7/1991, p. 41.
 Lech Jęczmyk, untitled editorial, Nowa Fantastyka 3/1992, p. 1.