Monday, July 9, 2007

SFWA European Hall of Fame, James & Kathryn Morrow, ed.

This review originally appeared at

James and Kathryn Morrow have presented us with a labor of love in the SFWA European Hall of Fame, and it is a remarkable achievement. It contains sixteen stories from thirteen countries, each a memorable piece, each beautifully translated. There is no question that English-speaking SF/F fans would be interested in European (and Chinese and Indian, etc.) fiction if only there were more and better translations available. As some of us may remember, having perhaps read less-than-perfectly translated Jules Verne, translation is an art, not a science. By combining efforts and communication between the translators, writers and editors, and making use of the enabling medium of email, this collection provides us with the amazing styles and atmospherics of the story tellers, not just their raw content.

Not that their content is in any way uninteresting. In this volume we see a high density of political concerns from several angles, especially dystopian ones. We also see that fantasy motifs are crossing over into European science fiction as much as they are in English SF, with beautiful and fun results. There is obviously no "European" style here, as each author is uniquely their own. However, one can make some broad generalizations based on these stories, such as Northern European stories seeming darker than Southern ones, and stories from ex-communist countries being more overtly political than their American allied counterparts.

The politically-leaning stories range from the quietly elegant to the abundantly absurd. "A Birch Tree, A White Fox," from Russian author Elena Arsenieva, deals with the power of enforced silence on an alien planet, a piece of poetry. "Sepultura," from Italian author Valerio Evangelisti deals with the plight of political prisoners in a near-future Brazil, with echoes of both Dante and the native religions. "Baby Doll" from Finland's Johanna Sinisalo disturbingly deals with the sexualization of youth, forcing teen angst and behavior on children of seven or eight. From Poland we have "Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo." by Marek S. Huberath, a story of monsters and mutants in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, which does a remarkable job of humanizing its characters while never shying away from their deformations. "The Day We Went Through the Transition" by Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero is a straight-forward time travel story dealing with the importance of the post-Franco Spanish transition to democracy between 1975 and 1981. "Some Earthlings' Adventures on Outrerria" must be the oddest story in the collection, from Romanian Lucian Merisca. It is both a Lewis Carroll-esque surreal dance of alien courtly etiquette, and a post-colonial commentary on Earthly politics. Runner-up for weirdness and whimsy must be "A Night on the Edge of the Empire" by Portuguese author Joao Barreiros, an "Innocents Abroad" take on an alien ambassador traveling incognito on Earth, with pointed commentary about political activism and tolerance for the Other. Finally W.J. Maryson, a Dutch author, brings us a dystopia of perfection in "Verstummte Musik," a story of political escape full of the tension between beauty and death.

Of the more stylistically oriented pieces we have the two French entries, "Separations" by Jean-Claude Dunyach, dealing with ennui, romance and maturity by traveling through a worm hole with quantum repercussions, and "Transfusion" by Joelle Wintrebert describing with a woman assuming power over herself and her demons in a physical, sensual and spiritual way. Both of these tales are very dark in their tone. The Czech entry "The Fourth Day to Eternity" deals with time loops of the main character's own making, and the battle he must repeatedly fight. "Athos Emfovos in the Temple of Sound" is a mythic anti-war story, the sort of thing that could only be written by a Grecian author, in this case Panagiotis Koustas. The famous Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko contributes a piece reminiscent of early Heinlein, "Destiny, Inc.," in which a company presents itself as able to swap people's destinies around, free of charge. TANSTAAFL. Andreas Eschbach contributes a piece that goes straight for the extreme sense-of-wonder SF sentimentality with "Wonders of the Universe," a story of a dying astronaut on Europa. It's not subtle, but it's a good candidate to bring a tear to your eye. Spanish author Jose Antonio Cotrina brings us "Between the Lines," a fun fantastic story of a young man who learns to literally read new things between the lines of books. Finally pseudonymous Danish author Bernhard Ribbeck writes "A Blue and Cloudless Sky," a story about time travel, space travel and religion.

With any collection of this sort, one can argue about the editorial choices. For one, given the inclusion of such becoming-famous-in-English authors as Johanna Sinisalo (Troll – A Love Story), Sergei Lukyanenko (The Night Watch series) and Andreas Eschbach (The Carpet Makers), why not include something from Zoran Zivkovic, for instance? Or perhaps the better known authors should have been excluded in favor of newer authors needing more exposure? I'm sure these were painful decisions that the editors had to make, being faced with trying to represent all of European science fiction with only sixteen stories. A more significant quibble of mine would be that from this collection one would think that European SF was almost, but not quite, unrelentingly dark, with only "Transition," "Outrerria," "Edge of the Empire" and "Between the Lines" containing much in the way of humor, and even then only "Transition" and "Between the Lines" having anything resembling happy endings. It's impossible to know if that is a coincidence, a reflection of the editors' preferences, or the real state of European fiction.

Trifling issues aside, the editors are to be thanked for putting together such a beautiful collection of works that we might never have read otherwise. Science fiction is the literature of ideas, and the more geographically diverse the authors, the more broad the spectrum of ideas we will be exposed to. The fact that the editors were able to do so while still conveying the beautiful styles and poetry of the authors involved is icing on this already substantial cake.

No comments: