Saturday, April 28, 2012

World SF/F

There's a big ol' world out there, with more than 6.8 billion inhabitants. Around 370m of those, or roughly 5.4%, live in the US and UK. But writers from the US and UK account for, I'd have to guess, at least 80% of the SF/F that reaches bookshops/major online retailers (and that's a conservative estimate). There's a number of reasons for this: the US and UK have highly developed publishing industries; they have the SF/F tradition; the most developed markets; their writers write in English; etc. But in today's world, where global communications networks grow denser by the minute, where more and more people are being raised functionally bilingual, and where rapid changes to economic, social and political systems raise big questions about the pace of technology and our relationship to it, the science fiction world is both expanding globally and coming to the realization that it already is a global phenomenon.

About a month ago, LA Times had an interesting article on the re-emergence of SF/F in China:
Next month, Chinese writers will be under the spotlight as 2012's Market Focus country for the London Book Fair. It is a prime opportunity for China to push its cultural clout abroad (a top priority for the Communist Party), with dozens of authors traveling to the U.K. But political science fiction — long suppressed during the Cultural Revolution and afterward — is unlikely to be at the top of the agenda. Relations with the state remain fraught. (Last March, China all but banned popular "time travel" television dramas for promoting "feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.") 
Despite this, science fiction is having a comeback in the country. Thriving online fan sites host legions of amateur sci-fi writers. China's leading sci-fi magazine, Science Fiction World, boasts a circulation figure of 100,000. (American writers such as George R.R. Martin are also in demand in translation.) Above all, insecurity over China's meteoric economic growth coupled with an authoritarian leadership has produced ripe pickings for the genre's top writers.
Damien Walter over at Guardian Books argues that SF/F is emerging as a literary lingua franca:
It's as a response to that cultural void that science fiction becomes genuinely interesting. In the midst of an ever accelerating technological revolution, science fiction has emerged as the literature best able to articulate the relentless pace of social change. And as that technological revolution has spread outward from the western world, so the symbols and archetypes of science fiction have become a shared language for understanding the new world we are entering.
Then there's a nice plug for World SF, a blog that works hard to bring SF/F writers from outside the Anglophone world to the attention of readers within it. It's a great site, and one of the highlights for readers is their Tuesday Fiction series, where they post short stories from global writers for free. This week's story is "Flight of the Ibis" by Malaysian author Fadzlishah Johanabas. Ever thought of Malaysia as a place to discover SF/F? Me neither, but that's the point: good authors are everywhere. Bravo to World SF for helping us find them. More for short fiction lovers...

(Dutch) Jetse de Vries and (French) Aliette de Bodard are writing and publishing in English (de Bodard is even nominated for a John W. Campbell award this year), Vandana Singh and Anil Menon from India, Dean Alfar from the Philippines, Sergey Gerasimov from Ukraine – it’s a small but select list. And then there are more translations, too – (Serbian) Zoran Živković’s work is widely available in translation, as is (French) Mélanie Fazi’s, and I’ve been translating some of Nir Yaniv’s stories from the Hebrew, which led to his being the first Israeli to be published in Weird Tales magazine. Maybe there isn’t much, but there is more than before – and online magazines are leading the trend, publications like Clarkesworld and Fantasy Magazine publishing a higher percentage of non-Anglophone writers.

Some World SF/F Classics

Of course, there are more classics of translated science fiction and fantasy than you might realize. A few that I've read and enjoyed:

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Considered one of the great early 20th century dystopias, along with Brave New World and 1984, but the least read of the three. That's a shame, because We is arguably the best of the bunch. It's also clear that Orwell got a lot of his ideas from Zamyatin--who actually lived through something 1984ish.

Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

I don't really know how to summarize this succinctly; suffice to say, it's one of the weirdest, deepest and most haunting SF novels I've ever read. It's just come back into print in the US, and can be easily found in the UK, so you have no excuses. If you like books that are challenging and weird, yet impossible to put down, you owe it to yourselves to read this.

Solaris by Stanislas Lem

Before this was a movie with George Clooney, and even before it was a long-ass film by Tarkovsky, it was a short and profound novel by Polish author Lem. It's about the complexity and inevitable frustrations of trying to communicate with extraterrestrial life, and equally about the regrets and personal torments we take with us wherever we go. This is the kind of SF novel the literary types even read.

Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol

Cold Skin is a Lovecraftian horror/suspense novel, set in Antarctica. Piñol is from Spain, and writes in Catalan, which makes him a double-anomoly in English-language SF/F. That's not the only reason to read this book, though: it's scary and full of surprises, the perfect beach thriller.

The Fat Years by Chan Koochung

I have to admit that I haven't read this, but it sounds fascinating, is one of the most popular SF novels in China at the moment and has been well-received by Western critics, so I'm tentatively putting it on this list (with the caveat that, as I already mentioned, I haven't actually read it). Planning to check it out over the summer, though!

Obviously there's a lot more out there, both in terms of novels, short stories and compilations, so if you have any to add, you are strongly encouraged to do so in the comments below!