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Romanian science fiction

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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The Arms of the Gods

by Ovidiu Bufnilă
Introductory note and translation by Cătălin Badea-Gheracostea

Ovidiu Bufnilă (b. 1957, mechanical engineer by education, journalist and writer by trade), though having published only three books in print over the three decades of his speculative fiction career, has nonetheless managed to capture the attention of Romanian fandom and specialized reviewers of SF as one of the most divisive, problematic and original authors writing in Romanian. Tending to a discourse reminiscent of the absurd, but also of a peculiar magical realism, Bufnilă’s texts, no matter their length, start with a heavy atmosphere and finish with a bang of ideas – precisely as his iconoclastic columns, blog entries and the literary as well as political comments he has produced over the years. Bufnilă established himself as a master of a renewed species of science fiction concetti and forged his reputation thanks to short stories published in Moartea purpurie (The Purple Death, 1995). Through his work, Bufnilă distils the world we know, including its literature and culture, down to a point where it can be explained by his so-called “waved philosophy”. There is an uncanny coherence in this author’s delirium, proven by the extraordinary impact some of his writings has had over the years. His story entitled “Armele zeilor” (2005), here translated as “The Arms of the Gods,” is the only narrative having received maximum marks (10 out of 10) at the first online SF workshop in Romania (atelierkult.com), rated by dozens of readers. It was published in fanzines and magazines as well. A list of Bufnilă’s publications can be accessed here (in Romanian): https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovidiu_Bufnil%C4%83#Edi%C8%9Bii_speciale.

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Over a millenium ago, in Katai Islands, thousands of women had for a long time been lusting for the Prince, and he was still begrudged by the Glass Barons who were casually conspiring against all empires, and he was still religiously taken heed of by Mount Assahor’s scholars there, where the Saviour’s face had been revealed for the first time.

Yet now, resting on a boulder, having fallen from the sky not far from the sea shore, the Prince is dying.

Alone.

The air is heavy. The heavens loom like cast iron. Ever so slowly, a random light is passing, looking for a fit body, craving to be, at least for a moment, an antelope, or the smile of a woman, or the toll of the Balkoon’s Franciscan Bells.

Here comes a monk walking towards Katai Islands. He cares for nothing, he does not even give a glimpse to the Prince. The monk has the cheeks fully blushed, as he just stepped out of the depraved lovers’ boudoir; those should have been waiting untouched for the knights lost in the sunset. The monk has a belly full of Madella wine, a fine, dizzying, perfumed red.

“Be good to me, a sip of water!”, the Prince begs, crawling after the monk. The path’s dust is stirred by the ordained sandals and whitens the Prince’s beard, choking him.

The monk fades away in the glitter of a sick, mad sunbeam.

Here comes and goes a hurried armourer, taking an order to a valiant lancer; then some merry girls; then some astrologists; then some very, very noisy whores with awful makeup.  

The Prince is firmly holding his cane, getting a whiff, lusting for their impudent thighs, envisioning himself to be asleep on their lap, barely touched by the big, juicy areolas. 

Here comes a chronicler and hatefully kicks the Prince. Then comes a star digger from Copa, the City of Liars, and he also strikes him, full of spite. A trumpeter passes next and punches the Prince, laughing disdainfully.

The Prince is finding out ever so slowly that, beyond the programmes which he had input in the Network which was built by his subjects, some other instructions were coming forward, and these instructions, hey!, he never ever had them in his navigation registry. The Prince has been thinking all along that the worlds were built for ambitious navigators only, those able anytime to stand against the fury of the virtual whirls.

A tear rolls down his chin.

Where from were coming all those creatures, all so careless, all so evil, where from were coming these hideous constructions?

Walking around the rocks, here come five drunkards; they gloat while throwing organic structures at the seabirds. Those clip the shiny wings and drill deep into the birds’ bodies. The air fills with blood and time itself wavers, melting together past, present and future.

The Prince gets to reset his programmes.

The drunkards come closer. They are ready to trample him.  

Vruuuum!

Their bodies burst in multicoloured garlands, the sand is dampened with salty, mauve fluids. Somewhere, in the vortex of events hit by the Prince’s viruses, the monk falls on his knees. His tongue turns swollen. His skin is bristled.

The crowds of Katai scramble to the beach to acclaim their Prince. He embraces them all in his majestic glance.

The halberdiers clean the remnants of the programmes, they pour the gathered blood in some silver cups humming with electricity.

The Prince makes an august sign. Everybody, absolutely everybody is kneeling. The women are crying, wounding their breasts with their own nails. The scholars chafe themselves in corners, under the platinum and glass arcades of Caraba, the City of Desolation. The Prince rearranges the events in the Network and, full of wisdom, he kills all those led astray who wantonly worshipped the reign of the mob and the lack of principles, while hoping to find the Arms of the Gods in their own wandering.

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