Few names from the history of Czech science fiction such as Karel Čapek or Josef Nesvadba are known worldwide. Julie Novakova, editor of Dreams From Beyond: An Anthology of Czech Speculative Fiction, asks authors and editors from the Czech Republic about the current position of Czech SF, its directions and exciting trends. Jaroslav Mostecký is a renowned Czech author of ten novels, two short story collections and many stories published in magazines and anthologies. You can read his novelette “Axes on Viola” in this issue of Mithila Review. Martin Šust is an editor of the foreign section of the SF magazine XB-1 and edited the Czech version of F&SF and many award-winning anthologies. Vlado Ríša is the chief editor of XB-1, as well as a successful writer and publisher.
We live in an increasingly globalized world and literature, including speculative fiction, is no exception. Translations – from English, apart from a few exceptions – dominate the Czech market. How do you perceive this situation? Do you read more translations or original Czech works (or perhaps read a lot in other languages) and have you noticed some influences of foreign fiction on Czech stories?
Jaroslav Mostecký: It’s perhaps natural that fiction from across the ocean dominates the market for over twenty years. Before 1989, there was much hunger for good speculative fiction. Sometimes, let’s say twice a year, a book that was really worth it was published. I remember the excitement when Nonstop by Brian Aldiss appeared here! Sometimes books by Russian authors were published here, for instance The Time Wanderers by brothers Strugackis, but neither had good promo. Speculative fiction wasn’t favored in general. And then the door suddenly opened after the year 1989 and our market was overwhelmed with Anglophone world production. It was too much, not unlike when a rock collapses and the stream from which you were sipping all of a sudden changes into a tsunami and you’re struggling to catch your breath. Not just good fiction came here, there was also real trash, and who was supposed to get one’s head around it? The biggest inflow had ceased, but American speculative literature production is still large in our circumstances.
There had been fans boasting about having read the complete speculative fiction production in our country each year. They’re gone. In the 80s, the Super-List of all speculative fiction published here existed. That’s barely possible now… So my perception of the situation is somewhat split. On one hand, I’m excited about being able to read books I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. On the other hand, the competition is crazy. I currently read foreign and local works about fifty-fifty. And I’m choosy. Speculative fiction is like a tree bearing different fruit on each branch. I like some and am disgusted by another. As to the influence of foreign fiction on the local scene, it’s present in the whole world. Those incapable of doing their own thing and capable of anything at the same time always try to copy what is popular and commercially successful.
Vlado Ríša: This question itself would yield material for a whole article. Logically, Anglo-American SF dominates our market, because it produces most works, but you can find Russian, Polish or German novels and Chinese, Indian and other stories in magazines. There are also plenty of published Czech authors. It’s always good to have a comparison, so I’m all for it and it seems to me that our authors are at least comparable to foreign one. I read both. Of course it’s impossible to read everything – after all, Czech authors alone publish over a hundred titles a year. I follow Czech authors most closely, then I also try to follow Russian and Polish fiction alongside Anglo-American. Foreign fiction of course influences ours. It wouldn’t if no foreign works reached us. That’s why subgenres like steampunk or ubran fantasy appeared among Czech works.
Martin Šust: I perceive the dominance of foreign works as something entirely understandable. It’s a situation that has both pros and cons. I personally read more foreign fiction, be it in the original language or in translation, but that’s tied to my editor’s work focused on foreign fiction. It certainly influences works by especially young authors strongly and in many ways. However, as long as the local works keeps a certain character, it cannot be perceived as a negative process. After all, even the Anglo-American market has become strongly influenced by authors of different nationalities lately.
What’s the current situation and direction of Czech speculative fiction? Are there any specific themes used by Czech authors in the genre and outside of it?
Jaroslav: I don’t think there’s just one direction, there’s more. Like the proverbial fairytale paths: the straight and appealing one went to Hell, and the rocky uneven one somewhere entirely different. Only some authors are trying to follow this path. I support these and I dare to say I’m one of them. Discovering new specific themes today is difficult, but I think there is at least one, although sparsely used. Unlike the Western tradition, we can build our fantasy worlds upon the foundation of Slavic myths.
Vlado: Czech speculative fiction is living its Golden Age. Apart from the mentioned roughly hundred titles by Czech authors published yearly (not counting reprints), we’ve got two print monthly magazines focused on the genre (XB-1 and Pevnost) and lots of e-zines. There are also many competitions and some (such as the Karel Čapek Prize or Daidalos) receive over three hundred entries. Beside all the usual themes and motives, Czech authors are attempting to address Czech and Slovakian history, legends and myths.
Martin: I think that as of late, the desire to be as good as foreign SF authors is prevalent especially in the works of young Czech writers, be it by using current themes and trends, or by defining themselves against them and finding their own ways. With that, the “Czech action school” defined by a mix of unbound action, irony and dark humor is weakening somewhat. Czech speculative fiction has a lot to offer to the world and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until some of the young Czech authors find their place on the foreign market, especially if there’s will to do that.
When did the Golden Age of Czech science fiction, fantasy and horror occur in your opinion?
Jaroslav: That is open to polemics, but I see it sometime around 1981 or 1982, when the story collection Egg Inside Out(Vejce naruby) by Ondřej Neff was published, because it was very different (not better or worse, but just different) than anything else from the local production, and something changed on the scene of our speculative fiction. Suddenly people stopped sniggering at everything that wasn’t a “social satire,” and the theme-bearing tree for the local authors grew without being trimmed like before.
Vlado: The Golden Age has started after 1990 with the launch of the first professional SF magazines: Ikarie (1990 – 2009) and its descendant XB-1 (2009 –), Nemesis (1994 – 1997), the Czech version of F&SF (1992 – 2010), Pevnost (2002 –), the Slovakian mag Fantázia (irregularly published), and more. These gave space to new authors.
Martin: I personally don’t like the label “Golden Age” very much. It can be misleading based on whose selection it is and under what criteria. However, for me, the Golden Age of Czech speculative fiction started when the market was politically free after the fall of the Communist regime. The readers caught up on the foreign fiction and grew more interested in the works of local authors, sometimes even favoring them for a number of reasons. The passing necessity of taking on foreign pseudonyms and fear of publishers to give a chance to Czech authors had vanished.
What do you consider the most important point in the history of Czech speculative fiction? Is there anything in its history that strongly influenced you?
Jaroslav: For me, these are very different questions. The crucial point is certainly the publication of R.U.R. by the world-famous Karel Čapek, whose idea of robots was later greatly popularized by Isaac Asimov. Our authors and publicists decades later had the chance to invoke him when some pseudointellectuals were trying to diminish the existence of speculative literature alone. Karel Čapek has entered the speculative realm several times and didn’t just plant the cornerstone of modern Czech speculative fiction, but many of such cornerstones (even though he probably wouldn’t perceive it this way and may not like it, as he used fantastical motives more like allegories to his world, like in his novel War with The Newts, which clearly depicts the rising fascism in Germany of that time). So what most influenced me personally? It would leave the history of Czech speculative fiction for a second and name my favorite book of all time: Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
Vlado: The first conventions, which had not only introduced me to the fandom, but also gave me the first chances to be published and see myself alongside other authors. I think the very first one was Parcon 1982. I was personally most influenced by three things: publication of my first stories in the 1980s, the first conventions and joining the editorial staff of Ikarie in 1990.
Martin: The year 1989 and the arrival of democracy and free market changed all of our lives and earned its rightful place in the history of Czech speculative fiction too. Perhaps not too luckily at first, as the Czech production may have become a bit lost in the overwhelming flood of foreign big names, but it gained its position back even more strongly. No doubt I’m speaking from my personal experience, but it’s undoubtedly at least as one of the most important points.
Compared to American, but also Chinese or Spanish authors for instance, modern Czech writers remain relatively unknown in the Anglophone world. Why is it so and how can we change it? How do you perceive the position of Czech speculative fiction in the world?
Jaroslav: I think the answer is clear. It’s the non-existence of teaching English in our schools until 1989. It wasn’t so bad in the capital, but in smaller towns across the country, English wasn’t taught even as an optional course; German was the more usual choice. It wasn’t taught because it would have been outright banned, but we lacked the teachers. In our school, we could only choose English starting in the 7th grade. To our misfortune, the teacher had an accident with long-lasting effects on the way to the first class, and that was the end of the list of English teachers in a town of 15,000 people. How to change it? Those who started learning English or any other language when it was possible in later age, probably won’t even be capable of writing in English. The option is here first for your generation, Julie. That’s how we can change the situation – with the coming of a new generation. Unfortunately, it’s a tragedy for our generation. And how do I perceive the standing of Czech speculative literature in the world? Some authors have it in them to be among the top not just on our scene, they just have to be taken seriously outside.
Vlado: We’re a small country, therefore we have rather few good translators from Czech or Slovak into English. When I say translators in this case, I mean people who are native speakers in the language of the translation. There are only a handful of authors capable of writing not only in their mother tongue, but also in English, Chinese or any other language. For that, you ideally need to live in the environment into which you want to translate, and in the case of Czechoslovakia, it was practically impossible until 1990. Judging by the translations of Czech authors into Polish or German, our authors are not doing bad, but breaking into the American market in particular is difficult. Firstly, it’s not easy to get a good translation, and secondly, each country has lots of their own authors and finding your place as a writer on such a market without the support of locals is tough. Nevertheless, some authors are achieving that as of late, and I hope there will be more of them.
Martin: It’s hard to compare Czech fiction with the literature of Western countries or the currently so progressive Chinese literature. Countries of the former post-Soviet block had the same starting position as us and some are doing better, but a lot of them are doing worse. In this regard, Czech speculative fiction is just gaining its place on the world market and it will certainly continue so for some time, unless some of the Czech authors don’t make a breakthrough there. You’d need mastery of the English language and some writers have begun to possess it only recently. So far, Czech speculative fiction appeared in translation only sporadically. Only now, some authors are trying to get published on the Anglo-American genre market more consistently and boldly. With a few exceptions, Czech speculative literature is completely unknown to foreign readers, but that can be an advantage of a kind, because there is a lot of space for pleasant surprise where there are not high expectations. We just need not to stray from the path of a couple of new faces paving the way for others. We’ll see if it becomes a trend. A big success would help that.
Is there any risk that a new generation of authors will abandon the Czech market and write in English where there are more readers and money? What would it mean for the Czech speculative literature?
Jaroslav: Yes, I fear this risk is present, and even that it has already started. But it won’t be any tragedy for the Czech fantastical scene. Few people have the means and time to start such a thing. There are lots of good authors here who don’t have the option of a translation or just don’t want to invest so much energy into it. Or they can be tired by trying to find a translator, publishing options, etc. Literary agents basically don’t exist here, especially with regard to local speculative fiction authors. Literature, and speculative literature in particular, isn’t a way to make a living here. One has to devote most of his energy to other things to support himself and his family.
Vlado: I don’t think there’s a risk of that. Firstly, few authors are capable of writing a first manuscript good enough to be selected by an Anglo-American publisher, because there’s always the question of money to be invested in a book. Every author needs to go through a development that connects the ability to think up a good story and to learn the craft. It will also certainly depend on the language skills of the author, and it’s easiest to achieve these in the author’s mother tongue at the beginning. I also suppose that the works in question would be published in both languages – so why not.
Martin: Although I don’t perceive this risk as high in the near future, there is some and it applies to all non-Anglophone countries. On the other hand, the Czech speculative fiction market is strong in many regards and has many publishing opportunities for local authors. A partial outflow of authors into the Anglo-American market could also strengthen Czech fantastic literature. I wouldn’t fear any decline of its quality caused by such an outflow in the coming years.
How do you perceive the differences among the publishing process in the Czech and Anglophone world? Should local publishers and magazines try to be more like those on the Anglophone market (clear submission guidelines, more transparent communication, etc.)?
Jaroslav: I don’t have sufficient experience with publishing in the Anglophone world to make a comparison. In the Czech Republic, I’m in a position where a publisher requests something from me, either “something” in general, or perhaps a story for a themed anthology, and I agree or I don’t. If I had to go around publishing houses and offer my manuscript making dog-eyes on them, I’d rather pack a bag and go touring the mountains. Clear submission guidelines? Transparent communication? If it means communication of an editor with an author, it certainly should be so, but I must admit I only had a solely positive experience in this regard with the editor Jaroslav Jiran from former Ikarie magazine (today XB-1 magazine).
Vlado: I can’t answer this question reliably, because I know the process on the Czech market, but not on the Anglophone one. As a chief editor of a SF magazine, where I work over twenty-five years, and a publisher for roughly the same amount of time, I don’t think there would be a huge difference. Working with authors, newbies as well as big names, cannot be too different, apart from the payment and financial opportunities provided by the size of the market. But it always depends on people, whether they’re editors or publishers.
Martin: It would be difficult to set the same standards on a small and in many ways limited market. Nevertheless, there is space for more professionalism. The Czech literature market is going through constant development. Medium and large publishing houses are becoming increasingly involved in speculative fiction, and with more competition and capital unavoidably comes a professionalization of the publishing process.
What do you consider most exciting or interesting in current Czech speculative literature? Is there something that should certainly be translated into other languages?
Jaroslav: Like our great fantasy author Leonard Medek said: “I write what I’d like to read myself and can’t find it anywhere.” So I naturally find most exciting and interesting the topics I choose myself: historical fantasy, science fiction with rich action, and adventure speculative fiction in general. I also like challenges, such as being asked to contribute to a themed anthology. So what should be translated into other languages? I think that an anthology would be a great start, provided someone who lives with speculative fiction today makes the selection, not a speculative literature veteran and self-proclaimed historian, which can be a problem. To recommend something in particular: short stories by Josef Pecinovský from his Abbey Road cycle, especially Throwing You A Rope, Friend (Házím ti laso, kamaráde) or Bear The Burden! (Nos to závaží!).
Vlado: It’s especially the use of Czech or Slovakian legends and myths, or urban fantasy set in the beautiful medieval cities of Czechia and Slovakia, so frequently used by foreign filmmakers. During the twenty-five years I’m considering the Golden Age of Czech SF, you could find a lot of deserving works, not speaking of the numerous books published before.
Martin: With the coming of the generation that has lived all its life in a democratic country, Czech speculative fiction opens to the world and becomes bolder. It wants to adapt and join the worldwide genre dialogue. We’re standing on the threshold of something big and I’m following all changes closely, even though they’re perhaps still baby steps and a part of the market is anxiously adhering to old proven ways. But even that is, unless something outside our control happens, just a matter of time. Czech speculative literature undoubtedly includes enough interesting works. I can think of a lot of short fiction that would deserve a translation into English and could be really successful. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to novels. In them, Czech authors may have aimed at the local market too much, or the works are too extensive to succeed without some impulse at the beginning. However, I’ll be happy if those words are proven incorrect in the future.
Dreams From Beyond: An Anthology of Czech Speculative Fiction is available to download here.