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MIND MELD: Guide to International SF/F Part IV

There’s a great big world out there! And we’ve been happy to bring you their views for the past month. (See Part I, Part II and Part III.) This week brings our International Mind Melds to a close (for now!) with contributors from the Netherlands, India, Japan, Finland and France. We’re giving the closing word to those who did so much to start the conversation, Jim and Kathy Morrow.

Thanks again to all our contributors, translators, editors, wranglers and recommenders! This has been a really amazing experience and an honor to put together.

Q: What is going on right now in the international sf/f scene that anglophone readers might be missing out on?
Anil Menon
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, InterZone, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave & Other Cyber Stories, and From The Trenches. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Young Zubaan) is scheduled to appear in Fall 2009.

I can speak to the situation in south-Asian SF in English (Desi SF). While Desi SF has roots that go back to the late nineteenth century, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the themes and movements of 20th century SF failed to excite the imaginations of desi writers. But I sense a change in the air. For the first time, there’s a critical mass of desi writers with an interest in, and talent for, speculative fiction. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of these writers are female. The feminist publishing house, Zubaan, has published a number of female authors in science fiction and fantasy, including Priya Sarukkai Chhabria, Payal Dhar, Manjula Padmanabhan and Vandana Singh. The tradition-creating novels have yet to be written, but in my estimate, the next ten years will see the emergence of a series of works that will redefine the genre. The unclassifiable stories of Kuzhali Manickavel, the feverish mythic fantasies of Samit Basu, pathbreaking desi SF movies like Sudhir Jha’s Matrubhoomi or S. P. Jananthan’s E, the inauguration of a desi SF workshop series at IIT-Kanpur (India’s premier technological institute), the strong support of editors like V. K. Karthika (Harper), Vatsala Kaul (Hachette), Kaveri Lalchand (Blaft), Anita Roy (Zubaan) and Jaya Bhattacharji (Routledge), and the unexpected creation of an indigenous graphic novel industry all point to a new-found confidence that the future has as much a chance of happening here as anywhere else.

Yves Meynard
Yves Meynard, a multiple award-winning author, has been publishing SF/F in French and English since 1986. His latest book is Suprématie (Éditions Bragelonne), written in collaboration with Jean-Louis Trudel under the pen name Laurent McAllister. Full disclosure: in time for the WorldCon in Montreal, Éditions Alire will be bringing out two short-story collections, one by Laurent McAllister and one by Yves alone.

Canadian SF/F in French has been going strong these past few years. We’ve even got a couple of commercial success stories, though given the mediocre quality of the works in question, English-speaking readers aren’t missing out on anything. Of far more import is the continuing growth of Éditions Alire, which offer a very desirable publication spot for top-drawer talent in the SFFQ community. In contrast to the overflow of Harry Potter clones, Alire is putting out strong, literate yet accessible work by our best writers. Élisabeth Vonarburg, Francine Pelletier, Joël Champetier and Esther Rochon are writers anyone would benefit from discovering.

Wim Stolk
Wim Stolk is a Dutch author who writes under the pseudonym “W. J. Maryson,” and it is under that name that you will find him in the table of contents of the SFWA European Hall of Fame. He is also a musician and an editor. He has two fantasy series, the Master Magician and the Unmagician.

A lot but not enough.

As for Europe – The Continent: A few shorts, a lot of long. Very few sf, a lot of fantasy.

With the decrease of new Anglo-American blood in fantasy, a lot of interesting stuff has come to the fore over here in Europe.

The Germans are big, with writers like Andreas Eschbach (who tends to go more mainstream now), Markus Heitz (The Dwarfs), Bernhard Hennen (The Elves) and others. Only the brilliant Michael Marrack seems to hold on to real sf. France has its Dunyach, Bordage and some others and also some new fantasy-kings like Henri Loevenbruck. Poland’s Sapkowski leads the forefront of stunning and powerful fantasy, of which I hope to be a part as well. In Spain, Bibliopolis and Planeta bring talents like Javier Negrete. And now also Eastern European writers like Bulgarian Poshtakov are coming to the fore.

In my own country, The Netherlands, new talents come to the front and within a few more years they will be crossing (language) borders, like I did twelve times.

The main problem still is the many different languages, but there are plans for translations pools to cope with this problem. Praise for James and Kathy Morrow’s The SFWA European Hall of Fame. It was a balanced view of how all those authors in all those different languages cope with sf/f.

For the Dutch Guild of Genre Writers (GNG), of which I am vice-president (wow!), I have made a plan to take on translators ourselves and act as a partner when a foreign publisher should be interested. The European Union provides money for (language) border-crossing activities like ours.

A weak spot is sf. In my country one title was published this year by the bigger publishing houses. The few others come to us through small, very small publishers with print runs varying from 500 to 1,000. Anthologies: a few. Fantasy still flourishes and carries the fantastic genre forward, with American and English publications drawing back and European “sturming” forward.

In Germany, France, and Spain sf still means a bit more, but it loses ground by the month.

So, to answer your question: You are missing a lot, especially good fantasy. I believe Sapkowski has been or will be translated to English. So am I. My Unmagician trilogy will appear in the US with Zumaya by the end of 2009. I think Markus Heitz and Eschbach have been translated to English, but there are a lot more writers, books, and stories that deserve to go that way.

Yoshio Kobayashi
Yoshio Kobayashi, known as Takashi Ogawa, is a translator, whose works include most of Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear’s Blood Music, Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime, Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide, etc. He’s also an editor, and co-edited The Best of the 80s. He used to be a fanzine publisher and now a chief member of 26to50, a band of translators promoting new writers. He coined the term, Sprawl Fiction, for the new generation slipstream, and edits an annual Sprawl Fiction special issue for Hayakawa’s SF Magazine. He is happily married, living in Tokyo with a dog and four cats.

Japanese SF is traditionally focused on Hard SF, as we’re accustomed to regard books as nothing but good learning tools, rather than mere entertainment. To our general public, science fiction is intellectual but difficult and weird stuff, and not silly escapist adventure as Hollywood treatment of it suggests. And the tradition lives. For example, at Nippon 2007, the first Worldcon in Japan, our current prime minister attended and gave a speech to the fans, even though he was not remotely a candidate then. We take SF seriously, compared with the American public. Now we have a lot of new writers who prefer science fiction to mere fantasy. That is the most significant aspect of Japanese SF. Although we prefer the term SF to science fiction, we admire the writers who tell stories based on detailed calculation and design of worlds and their physical features (not cultural and sociological, though), which is now easier with computers and the Internet. And they always build stories with scientific and technological ideas to solve the problems, rather than speculation for speculation’s sake. So to unfamiliar eyes, our hard SF may look too optimistic and simplistic, a primitive form of scientifiction, but that’s not true, I think. Foreign scientists used to dismiss the idea of humanoid robots, but we’ve developed ones like Asimo, which are not expensive toys, but actually intended and developed to serve the handicapped and elderly people more efficiently. And science fiction actually inspires and stimulates our scientists and hi-tech engineers. In this vein, you can find some examples in the newly started Japanese SF line at Viz, called Haikasoru. Housuke Nojiri, Joji Hayashi, Issui Ogawa and a bunch of writers are trying to write hard SF, although they have to do lighter stuff to survive. Greg Egan and Ted Chiang are the most popular foreign SF writers, now, which shows how much we like serious SF.

Having said that, I will now move on to fantasy. Fantasy is still regarded as inferior to hard SF by core genre fans but is becoming more popular these days. Its market has evolved from children’s literature, as the fans of Michael Ende, Ursula K. LeGuin (The Earthsea books), and Diana Wynn Jones (after the animation, Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle) demand more. Although Lord of the Rings sold fairly well, that kind of genre fantasy never attracted our readers. Even beloved writers in America, like Neil Gaiman, sell poorly, although his novels were made into films. Contrary to SF’s gravity, fantasy is regarded as kiddy stuff, and loved by moms as light entertainment like romance novels. Really serious world building and epic scope never appealled to general readers, as in the cases of Jack Vance, Phillip Jose Farmer and Gene Wolfe on the SF side. But such epic fantasy attracted the new generation of writers and was eventually adopted into our own cultural background. Some writers in children’s literature like Sho Tatsumiya and Naoko Uehashi write good fantasy using Japanese myth and legend (or Shintoist philosophy) as the background. Historical Japanese fantasy has been written by many writers including Baku Yumemakura, Ryo Hammura, and Katsuhiko Takahashi, but the recent success of the Shabake series by Megumi Hatakenaka established a new subgenre of humanist ghost stories. Some transplanted fantasy into Chinese mythology and wrote a bunch of pseudo Chinese fantasy in the late 80s and the 90s. It attracted a lot of readers after the commercial success of the Three Kingdoms video games and novels (including Ginga Eiyu Densetsu, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, by Yoshiki Tanaka, adaptation of the story of Three Kingdoms into a grand space opera), and you can read the most successful ones by Fuyumi Ono in English now. Although the boom of pseudo-Chinese Fantasy is gone, it produced a lot of good novels and the readers have built their reading habits around the simple joy of it. These new writers are supported by anime and game fans and eventually develop a new genre called light novels. It’s like your YA but not built after the success of Harry Potter or Buffy. This paperback line uses manga illustrations on the book covers, and becomes must-haves for manga enthusiasts. And manga artists love that kind of light fantasy featuring a lot of handsome guys, cute girls and fantastic animals/monsters. The commercial success of Light novels has saved our genre writers. You can find some samples of Light novels at Haikasoru, too (Otsuichi and Hiroshi Sakurazaka).

New Weird and slipstreams? We have those, too, the first being more inclined to horror, and the slipstream being written mostly by mainstream writers, rather than genre writers, but that can be expected by readers of Haruki Murakami. New Weird/ New Horror writers like Yumeaki Hirayama, Yasumi Tsuhara, and Yasumi Kobayashi have founded their careers in this genre, thanks to the success of Koji Suzuki (Ring) and Hideaki Sena (Parasite Eve), rather than that of Stephen King, and the style was established in short story format, with the Igyo Collection anthology series edited by Masahiko Inoue. On the other hand, slipstream fantastic literature is very popular among our mainstream writers, such as Hideo Furukawa, Eiichi Ikenaga, Aki Misaki and Manabu Makime, whose novels are filled with fantastic ideas and are good sellers.

And the success of Kelly Link seems to have broken the barrier between “pure” literature and SF. Now we have a lot of surrealistic writers working in both genres, including Toh Enjo. Hayakawa, a major genre publisher in Japan enjoys the success of its J Collection, original Japanese SF line for new writers, and now have started a new interstitial line called Literature of Imagination. Although it has not produced a new Murakami yet, genre fans are looking forward to it, expecting a new literary star will be born from our genre.

9/11 affected our writers, too, and a bunch of good apocalyptic (not post-apocalyptic) novels are born. Bunzo Uchiumi and Keikaku Ito, both sadly passed away recently, have very strong apocalyptic novels of a war-torn world/Japan, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Also, the cruelty of people and their beliefs can be interpreted differently in the Buddhist view. Although we have a good tradition of Buddhist SF after the influence of Arthur C. Clarke, that tradition is dwindled now. Yet I have to recommend Yoseiden (1975-80) by the late Ryo Hammura, which featured Buddhist fundamentalist terrorists in the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

As I cannot give you full reviews of the above-mentioned works and writers here, you can expect to read part of them in English now. So please support Vertical and Viz (Haikasoru) and those brave publishers to venture into a tough business of translated fiction publishing, and try and see how SF is alive and well in Japan.

Jukka Halme
Jukka Halme is a long-time fan, conrunner, critic, interviewer and editor. He edited a collection of modern fantasy short stories called Uuskummaa? (New Weird?) in 2006, and has just co-edited two reference books, one about translated fantasy authors and one of historical narrators. He’d love to write a collection of essays on speculative fiction and, in a fit of frenzied conceitedness, his long-suffering epic fantasy sequence about a wizard who tattooed souls.

The “missing out on” -bit is definitely not just an anglophone problem. We’re all missing out a great deal. Such is life. Only a limited portion of it is available to us at a time. Most of us are only able to master (or manage with) a few languages. A lot of really good, interesting and worthwhile speculative fiction is written and published in pretty much every single country in the world that has a decent publishing system. Like in Finland. Or Sweden. Or Russia. Or Brasil. Or Kenya.

In the Olden Times, when there still was Soviet Union and Finland had its “special understanding” with our great eastern neighbour and the world was less crowded and not so many books were published, we were treated with a veritable cornucopia of translated novels and collections from all over the world. Our publishing houses were still under the impression that their job was to civilize and educate the great Finnish masses. So we get translated science fiction books from Soviet Union, Poland, Denmark, Italy, France, Japan, and yes, even Great Britain and them United States! And it was interesting, and different, and not happening any more. Not really, anyway. Most of everything that is being translated is from English. Sure, there are occasional gems from other countries as well, but the overwhelming majority of translated SF is originally written in English.

But there is a nice little boom of original Finnish SF, too. Actually, I wrote something like this just last year in Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful blog, while I was guest blogging there with with Tero Ykspetäjä. Most of what I said then, still holds true. Viivi Hyvönen’s novel Apina ja Uusikuu should be translated, as should Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta, too. However, most of the “boom” is aimed at younger audience.

Sheryl Curtis
Sheryl Curtis is a professional and literary translator. Since 1998, her translations of French-language authors such as Ayerdhal, René Beaulieu, Sylvie Bérard, Jean-Claude Dunyach, Johann Heliot, Jess Kann, Michèle Laframboise, Francine Pelletier and Daniel Sernine have appeared in Interzone, On Spec, various Tesseracts, Year’s Best Science Fiction 4, Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 15 and elsewhere.

I don’t think it’s so much that something specific is going on right now in the international sf/f scene that anglophone readers are missing but that there is an immense non-English-language scene that is being missed out on. Speaking from my own admittedly very limited experience with French-language sf/f, a few authors are making it onto the English-language scene through the translation of short stories. But this is only the very tip of the iceberg, even when you just consider what is being produced in French. Then add to that the body of work being produced in a few gazillion other languages around the world. It’s mind-boggling!

Believe me, I’m familiar with the problem: so many books to read, so many short stories to read – and so little time.

But, that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is this whole wealth of writing that the anglophone reader is missing out on. I admit that translation is problematic. This is partly a result of the costs involved. But, more importantly, it seems to be taken for granted that English is the language that gets translated and other languages do the translating. Yet having access to material written in other languages, either through translation or the ability to read a second or even a third language, provides an amazing look into another culture. Themes can be the same, themes can be different. But it’s how people approach them and deal with them that fascinates me. And just maybe I find the world a little paler when I can only look out through my own linguistic and cultural window.

Tero Ykspetäjä
Tero Ykspetäjä is an sf fan and occasional fanzine editor and conrunner from Finland. He blogs about the Finnish fandom in Partial Recall.

Since I’m really not much closer to the international scene than anglophone readers, except for the quite small niche of Finnish sf, I’ll talk about that a bit.

The Finnish sf doesn’t have big, important traditions. Maybe that’s why it–despite the very huge US and British influence of course–could be said to be closer to earth (veering towards low fantasy instead of hard science fiction, on the fantastic literature scale).

Down-to-earth only means very few space ships or bulk fantasies with epic quests, though. What is doesn’t mean is a lack of experimenting. Finnish sf at its best is not afraid to blend genres and also mix the fantastical with the traditions of mainstream literature. Our short story market is pretty much only a few fanzines and semiprozines, so it is unfortunately non-paying, but also more free to publish good stuff, no matter how weird or unconventional.

Another factor might also be that while sf has traditionally been reasonably well tolerated even in the large mainstream publishing houses, they operate on the mainstream playground, and the writers also have had to play by their rules. So it’s usual to use the fantastic in more subtle ways, which can create very interesting results.

A very common trope of Finnish sf is a rural setting where either a stranger arrives or weird things just start happening. Often there is a hint of horror mixed with the fantasy. Even from this very familiar setting the best writers can create wonderfully different results. A “back to the roots” theme has been observed in recent sf: going back to the countryside, the rise of neopaganism, themes such as man alone in nature, gods of nature, and such. Also popular lately have been mashups of sf and the detective genre, and alternate histories.

Many promising sf writers have emerged in the past few years (just to name a few, Tiina Raevaara, J. Pekka Mäkelä, Anne Leinonen, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Sari Peltoniemi, and Viivi Hyvönen), but their works in general aren’t available in English. There are a couple of examples of good Finnish sf in English, though.

Johanna Sinisalo is perhaps the best know Finnish sf author. Her debut novel Troll: A Love Story (Not Before Sundown in the UK) won the Tiptree award, and her novelette “Baby Doll” appeared in the Year’s Best SF 13 anthology (and was nominated for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards). Leena Krohn has written many wonderful and weird stories. Her book Tainaron: Mail from Another City is available in English, and the short story “Letters from Tainaron” appeared in the New Weird anthology. Risto Isomäki, science journalist and environmental activist, has written several books that can be classified as hard sf and eco-thrillers. One of them, The Sands of Sarasvati, has been adapted to a graphic novel which was also translated into English (the availability is limited, unfortunately). The international rising star of Finnish sf (although living in Edinburgh at the moment) is Hannu Rajaniemi. His fiction has been published in several anthologies (and some of it is available on his web site, and he recently signed a three-book deal with Gollancz.

The excellent Finnish Usva webzine has produced two International issues that feature translations of great examples of Finnish short fiction. They are available for download on the zine’s web site.

I’d also like to recommend a couple of other, non-anglo works of sf. First, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America have published a European sf collection (already mentioned in the previous part of this series), The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent, which I heartily recommend as a good sample of excellent European fiction and very rewarding reading. Another recommendation is the novel Let the Right One In (Let Me In in the US) by the Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. The story, probably better known as the movie adaptation released earlier this year, is a very non-traditional handling of vampires, loneliness and abuse. My third recommendation is the World SF News Blog (also recommended in part 1), an excellent resource for getting tips and links to further reading about sf around the world.

Jim and Kathy Morrow
Jim and Kathy Morrow are the editors of The SFWA European Hall of Fame. Jim published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His efforts since then include The Continent of Lies (1984), This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), Only Begotten Daughter (1990), City of Truth (1991), Bible Stories for Adults (1996), and The Cat’s Pajamas & Other Stories (2004). He is best known for the Godhead Trilogy — comprising Towing Jehovah (1994), Blameless in Abaddon (1996), and The Eternal Footman (1999) — as well as The Last Witchfinder (2007), a postmodern historical epic about the coming of the scientific worldview, and The Philosopher’s Apprentice (2008), about a young ethicist hired to implant a conscience in an adolescent amnesia victim. Now he has a short novel out, titled Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

As the editors of The SFWA European Hall of Fame, we are grateful to SF Signal for sponsoring this edition of Mind Meld. We can perhaps best stir the potpourri by offering up a brief — that is to say, incomplete — bibliography of recent European science fiction available in English translation.

A few quick annotations. Jean-Claude Dunyach is widely acknowledged as France’s premier producer of SF short stories, and anyone with a passion for that form should know about this infinitely imaginative writer. We are also partial to the work of Serbian author Zoran Živković. Although Seven Touches of Music is generally regarded as Živković’s masterpiece, you can survey his entire translated oeuvre on Amazon.com.

Our European anthology included several authors whose exposure to Anglophone audiences otherwise borders on the nonexistent. Naturally we hope this situation will improve in the near future. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears cocked for any and all translations of these splendid writers: Joëlle Wintrebert, Pierre Bordage, Ayerdhal, Serge Lehman, Olivier Paquet, and Jean-Marc Ligny (France), Valerio Evangelisti and Luca Massali (Italy), Elena Arsenieva (Russia), Marek Huberath (Poland), José Antonio Cotrina, Ricard de la Casa, and Pedro Jorge Romero (Spain), Joao Barreiros (Portugal), Henrik Loeyche and Bernhard Ribbeck (Denmark), Lucian Merisca (Romania), Ondrej Neff (Czech Republic), W.J. Maryson (Netherlands), Marcus Hammerschmidt (Germany), Hedwig-Maria Karakouda and Panagiotis Koustas (Greece).

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.
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