Robots and Vigilante Vampires
Many people know the standard quiz question about who introduced the word "robot" into the language - the answer being the famous Czech author, Karel Čapek. Čapek wrote in the first half of the twentieth century and, amongst many other things, can be considered to be the father of Czech science fiction. Science Fiction and Fantasy are extemely popular in the Czech Republic today and I was interested to find out more about the sci-fi world. So I met with the translator Jan Vaněk Jr., a very active member of the Sci-fi fandom and asked him about the development of Czech sci-fi since the days of Čapek.
“Čapek may not have been the founder of Czech Science Fiction but he certainly influenced it the most, or at least one branch of it. Čapek was a reader and acquaintance of H.G.Wells so his Science Fiction was Wellsian in that it was philosophical speculation intimately connected with serious mainstream literature. On the other hand, you may call the other pole Vernian, which is adventurous or even popularising science, and is even more pronounced in American Science Fiction which, for various historical reasons was not such a direct influence on Czech Science Fiction as elsewhere.
”Probably the biggest influence of Čapek which remains to this day, is the concept of the ‘Small Czech Man’. Čapek was interested in Everyman, not an heroic figure but an ordinary person living his ordinary everyday life and how history influences him. And this has turned out to be a strong topic in Czech Science Fiction.”
It's also a feature of other branches of Czech Literature too, if you think of Švejk, for example.
So, after Čapek's day, in the fifies, sixties, seventies, how did Czech Science Fiction develop?
”There were several historial upheavals which influenced it strongly and not always postively, or rather almost never positively I must say. First was the Second World War, then the Communist takeover, so there was very little imported from the West. Then, the next important figure in Czech Science Fiction, Josef Nesvadba, emerged. It is little known but Nesvadba was an Anglophile just like Čapek. He graduated from English College and when he was quite young translated Coleridge's ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. But then he had to decide what he wanted to write about if he didn't want to lie and praise the Communist Party. So it turned out that Science Fiction was a very good way out, it could be used as a metaphor or an allegory for talking about the essence of the regime without being caught up and censored. And this remained until the 80s.”
I'd like to read a short extract from one of Nesvadba's more famous short stories, and a number of his stories have been translated into English, and this is one called "Inventor of his own undoing" and I think you can see in this exactly what you've been talking about, this underhand or subversive critique of the communist regime.
In this story the hero invents a gadget that enables a complete automation of work, but his dream of a golden age turns into a nightmare. He goes to a shop on Wenceslas Square and tries to buy a necklace for his girlfriend.
When he wanted to pay they were most embarrassed.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Surely you're not giving jewellery away, free too?" The older woman took him by the hand and lifting the curtain at the back of the shop showed him about twenty people crowded into the little workshop behind.
"People come here from all over the place - turners, welders, precision mechanics. This seems the craft of their dreams. They're provided for, so they can work for nothing - and look at the lovely things they make. The jewellery you have chosen was made by a girl from the finishing shop. We've got all the gold we want, it's a cheap metal now." He understood. Research work, the crafts, sport - that was what everybody had turned to now. And they were glad of the chance to work, because there is nothing worse than boredom in the world.
... As he went back to the airfield the newsboys were shouting the latest news. He bought a paper more out of habit than interest. Glancing at the headlines he almost fainted. MONEY ABOLISHED. His bank account was worthless... Money had been abolished. He was an ordinary man again. The most insignificant of idlers.
(From Josef Nesvadba, Inventor of His Own Undoing, translated by Iris Urwin)
So fandom, which is the name given to the whole community of Science Fiction fans, was a place of semi-dissidence where people could express themselves more freely?
”Yes, provided they did so metaphorically. Fandom emerged in Czechoslovakia at the end of the 70s and was somewhat different from how it looks today, or how it looked in the West or in the world everywhere today. Because first of all it became a kind of replacement activity. A lot of very clever and active people who couldn't find any other means of expression gravitated towards fandom, so Czechoslovak fandom of the 80's was, as the fannish word goes, very “Sercon”, that is very serious and constructive. There wasn't much goofing around and also there wasn't so much "nerdiness", which is usually associated with Science Fiction fans.”
So you think the "nerdiness" exists more now than it did in the 80's?
One aspect of this relatively free space was a number of women writing Science Fiction. I'll read now an extract from a story by one of the leading female writers of the younger generation, Vilma Kadlečková. This is from her story Cinderella, or Longing for Blood and this extract describes the dramatic visit of the protagonist to her sister.
I managed to cross the Moor by a more-or-less visible path and warily approached her stone cottage. I peered through the open leather flap of the door. Hildur squatted sullenly in darkness, leaning against a damp granite wall stained with nitre. Our eyes met and within her mind I saw a bottomless emptiness.
At the sudden unexpected sight of me, a chasm of hunger split her open like an earthquake. I knew instantly that I should never have come to see Hildur in her lair in the Outside World. It was very dangerous; it was a terrible mistake.
Her fanged mouth snapped open with a screech of hatred and she sprang on me. We wrestled on the muddy floor, Hildur going for my throat. The transformation had made her much stronger than I had realized; she was crushing me with terrific blows of her bony knees and winged elbows. I could not tear loose. Finally I wrenched my left hand free and jammed it into Hildur's mouth. Her jaws clamped shut and I heard more than felt the cracking of my own crushed bones.
Hildur fell limply to the earth, flopping, glutted. It was very rich blood. She was gagging with ecstasy. Vampires were almost defenseless when they fed. Pain rose up my arm like a fiery wall as I struggled to shriek the syllables of a spell of binding. The pain overwhelmed me for a moment, but when I came to, Hildur was lying there motionless. I pried her jaws apart and freed my trapped and bleeding hand.
I worked on my bleeding hand for an hour, long enough to knit the flesh and bones, if not my other, sadder wounds. Then I let it be and turned to Hildur.
She would sleep for centuries.
(from Longing for Blood by Vilma Kadlečková, translated by M. Klima and Bruce Sterling)
Vilma writes on the border of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Would it be true to say that Fantasy has become more and more popular in these past years?
”Yes, certainly, and it is the same development as everywhere. Fantasy lends itself more easily to escapism I would say. And there was stronger pressure on Science Fiction to be a vehicle for popularising science under the communist regime, which considered itself supremely scientific. So of course when it fell, and people could start publishing and reading what they were interested in there was a big boom of Fantasy, which remains until this day.”
What are the trends in Science Fiction now, post-1989?
”There is a backlash against the Čapek tradition I mentioned before and now the pendulum swings the other way and there is interest not just in fantasy but in straightforward adventure fiction, military science fiction even. And there are stories that are pure entertainment and are not so interested in the human condition.”
So, is there any particular aspect of Czech Science fiction that makes it particularly Czech?
”Well, it may be playfulness. There is a strong Czech tradition of humorous science fiction which is still thriving.”
And who is the most popular author?
”Right now it is certainly Jiří Kulhánek. Kulhánek could be called the Quentin Tarantino of Czech fiction. He writes a lot of action-packed yarns with a lot of splattered blood. But much post-modern irony and wisecracks also. He doesn't take himself too seriously and he's very popular because of it.”
Unfortunately I think he hasn’t been translated into English yet.
“No, there isn’t much interest in the English language publishing world in importing science fiction from small countries. That is understandable in a way. But he and a fan of his are working on an English translation right now of his greatest or most important book, so we may see it published in a couple of years.”
And what is this book about?
“Well, it is about vampires and another super-human race and a hero who happens to be a shy writer by day but a very well-trained vigilante fighting crime during the night.”
That’s something we can look forward to – a hard-working writer by day and a vigilante vampire by night!
“He doesn’t start off as a vampire but he gets turned into a vampire later, and it helps him a lot. In his fight against other vampires. And their minions and masters.”
Clearly there is a huge interest in Science Fiction in the Czech Republic. Whenever I go into any bookshop there are always shelves and shelves of various genres of science fiction and speculative fiction. And I know there is also a great tradition of meetings conferences and conventions. Which is the most important of these gatherings?
“The Czech national ‘con’ is called Parcon, from the city of Pardubice where several of the first years were held. This year it’s going to take place in the last weekend of August in Plzeň, of the Pilsner Urquell beer fame. It’s going to be a bigger occasion because we are going to get several foreign, English and American guests of honour and part of the programme will be in English. The Czech Science Fiction fandom has had some problems with, let’s say, cocooning, closing in on itself. Just because it’s thriving so well on its own sources it doesn’t have to look abroad much and grow connections to other countries. So this might show a change in this.”
So, this may mean not only the Czech Science Fiction community looking outwards, but maybe also more interest from abroad in the very interesting writers who are writing today in the Czech Republic?
“Well, there’s always the problem of translations, so we can’t expect much, I’m afraid.”
It’s not a very hopeful note on which to end!
“It is a realistic point.”
Thank you very very much, Jan, for giving us this overview and information about what’s happening on the Czech Science Fiction scene. And I suppose we can only speculate about what the future will bring. Thank you.
“It was a pleasure. But I hope that the future will bring some listeners to the Plzeň Parcon where I may be able to talk about the Czech Science Fiction in more detail.”
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LINKS TO CZECH SCIENCE FICTION SITES AND SITES MENTIONED IN THE PROGRAMME
The Parcon festival http://fandom.cz/fandom/parcon_engl.htm
A Josef Nesvadba page http://home.sprynet.com/~awhit/nesvadba.htm
Vilma Kadlečková http://www.argenite.org/docs/cinderella.pdf
An unpublished anthology of Czech SF with author bios and some historical overview at http://bradburyshadow.vostok.cz/index_e.html
A brief bibliography is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czech_science_fiction_and_fantasy#Further_reading