Back to the (socialist) future

Ilustration in Pionýr magazine by František Škoda

A recently opened exhibition in Prague turns the spotlight on science fiction in Czechoslovakia between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, when countless magazines, books and films promised a bright, socialist future.

Photo: Iveta Kopicová
Prague’s Dox gallery of modern art is currently home to a fascinating exhibition entitled Planet Eden: The World of Tomorrow in Socialist Czechoslovakia, 1948 to 1978. It features posters, paintings, magazines, books, films and toys, offering a comprehensive picture of the sci-fi produced in this country during the first three decades of communism.

Standing in a section entitled Between the Radar and the Labyrinth, the show’s co-curator Tomáš Pospiszyl outlines the essential difference between Czechoslovak and Western sci-fi in that era.

“Because Czechoslovakia at the time was a communist state, there was a clear vision of what the communist future would look like. That was quite different from the vision of the future in Western sci-fi, where we can find many dark visions of the future. That was something unimaginable for writers and artists from Eastern Europe, or the communist part of the world at that time.”

Photo: Iveta Kopicová
Was there anything specific about Czechoslovak sci-fi?

“I would say what is quite specific is the care that was given to certain publications, especially in the 1960s when sci-fi anthologies were illustrated by well known famous, avant-garde visual artists who were often working with abstract visual language to illustrate science fiction. That is something unique, not only for that period of time, but for the whole genre of science fiction.”

Planet Eden’s second curator Ivan Adamovič says many Czechoslovak sci-fi writers were influenced by the great Polish writer and futurologist Stanislaw Lem, as well as Russia’s Strugackij Brothers. And, of course, their work was required to follow certain ideological principles.

“It had to follow some unwritten guidelines as to what socialist literature should be like. Unlike Western science fiction, which was more plot-oriented, Czech writers tried to be more oriented to ideas, and maybe moral issues. It lasted for around 20 years and then Czech writers found that plot is not a bad thing [laughs]. I mean action-oriented plots. They started to learn how to attract readers as well.”

Ohníček magazine, cover by Zdeněk Burian, 1960
Looming large over all of this like a flying saucer hovering on the horizon was the big bad USSR. Tomáš Pospiszyl again:

“The influence of the Soviet Union was crucial. Especially in the 1950s, when many Czechoslovak illustrators were even afraid to develop their own images. Quite often they were recycling or using elements that they could find in Soviet magazines of that time. We can see one type of spaceship used all over, and the original source is Znanie Sila magazine. There are many examples of this recycling.”

So there was clear inspiration from the Societs in terms of design. But would it be possible to compare in general sci-fi from Czechoslovakia with that produced elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc? Ivan Adamovič:

“I think it’s more a matter of individuals than special schools or groups. In Poland there was the monumental work of Stanislaw Lem, which maybe helped to create a little bit more of an established tradition of science fiction in Poland then here. Also the number of writers in the Soviet Union was really high, so plain statistics can show that they also had many more first-rate writers than we did.”

Ilustration in Pionýr magazine by František Škoda
Sci-fi in Czechoslovakia under communism was in great part focused on a bright, red world of tomorrow. It was about visions of utopia, and there was little room for its opposite, dystopia, says Pospiszyl.

“It was actually quite a problem for writers and artists of that time to even find dramatic situations. Because the future was supposed to be optimistic and great. They found a solution in ceding little pockets of capitalism that somehow travelled in time, or were rediscovered in the future. And they were the source of discomfort or drama – dramatic situations.”

However, Adamovič says more negativity did begin creeping into science fiction in Czechoslovakia as people began to lose their illusions about what the future could bring.

“It came in the second half of the 1960s, when people realised we would not reach communism within the 20th century. Also they noticed that technological progress will not solve everything, as they thought before. Fears of the future were more and more visible in Czech culture, and a number of dystopian novels were published in the late 1960s.”

The exhibition covers the period from 1948, when the Communists took power, until 1978, when Vladimír Remek was part of the crew on the Soyuz 28 mission and became the first – and only – Czech cosmonaut. Balding and not an athletic type, Remek didn’t look much like a pioneer of the space age, says Adamovič.

“It was a tragic…image, which didn’t fit the previous, optimistic visions of how the heroes of space would look. He was not anything like some kind of superhero in a spacesuit. He lived so long in the Soviet Union that he almost forgot how to speak Czech [laughs]. People laughed when they heard him speaking, in fact.”

The Planet Eden exhibition isn’t entirely new, having first run at Brno’s House of Arts during the summer. What was reaction like there? And did it differ depending on the age of visitors? Co-curator Tomáš Pospiszyl:

Dikobraz magazine, 1958
“The old generation takes science fiction very seriously, especially hard-core fans. During the talks that we’ve given in galleries quite often they would correct certain things that we did wrongly. I’m not a sci-fi fan so there were many mistakes, and it was important for them that everything should be in order.

“With the younger generation, this type of material is perceived with a certain flavour of nostalgia. Because it is something that most of them grew up with, and these visions of the future were not fulfilled.

“For example, the year 2000 was quite a magical date during the 1960s and 1970s. Everybody was dreaming about how the world would be in the year 2000. Well, it was quite a boring period of time, very, very far from those luminous visions from the magazines.”