Friday, 8 December 2017

Interview with Benjanun Sriduangkaew

We are joined by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Campbell- and BSFA-nominated author of many postcolonial cyberpunk and South-East Asian fantasy short stories (among which “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods,” “Vector,” “We Are All Wasteland on the Inside” and “Mermaid Teeth, Witch-Honed” in TFF publications), who is celebrating the release of her new novella, Winterglass from Apex Publications.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared on Tor.com, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and year's best collections. She has been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella Scale-Bright has been nominated for the British SF Association Award.

She agreed to answer a few of our questions (after the Winterglass blurb below):

The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.

At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.

To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.

If the splinter of glass in Nuawa's heart doesn't destroy her first.


“A fairy tale, beautiful like an ice crystal, and razor sharp.”
SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA, WORLD FANTASY AWARD-WINNING CO-EDITOR OF SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS

“Winterglass is rich with diamondine prose, a scintillant retelling of the Ice Queen that challenges Occidental aesthetics, colonial mentality, and personal identity.”
CASSANDRA KHAW, AUTHOR OF HAMMERS ON BONE, BFA & LOCUS AWARD NOMINEE

The Future Fire: Winterglass isn’t the first subverted fairy tale retelling that you have written. What is it about this genre that appeals to you?

Lusadh, illustrated by Mumi
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: The obvious one for me is to queer it all up: most fairytales and mythological stories are depressingly heteronormative, even ones that purport to center a woman rescuing a boy are stuck in this quagmire (since when are boys worth risking your life for? Exactly). My hope is that by retelling and reconfiguring these stories there's something we can reclaim for ourselves and for our places in the world. Stories are a powerful thing, the human subconscious looks for narrative patterns. I like to think that by engaging with stories with origins in our cultural bedrock we can reconfigure our minds a little, shift our default assumptions of what love stories are supposed to be like, of who gets to have power and who gets to speak.

TFF: Do you have any plans to collect your fairy tale stories into a single project of some kind?

BS: At first I thought I hadn't written that many, but as it turns out—aside from full-length novellas like Scale-Bright and Winterglass (which are too thematically different)—I have actually written a fair number of stories that fit the bill. 'Paya-Nak' is a lesbian take on a Thai folktake, 'Mermaid Teeth, Witch-Honed' [in TFF-X, ed.] is a Lovecraftian lesbian retelling of The Little Mermaid, 'The Beast at the End of Time' is a post-singularity lesbian Beauty and the Beast, and so on. At the moment there is probably not quite enough volume, but it's very much a possibility to put them together into a mini-collection (plus a new story or two), and I expect there would be interest. It will have to wait a while, as I'll have a collaboration out next year, Methods Devour Themselves (Zero Books), that's partly a mini-collection.

TFF: Why did you choose a tale from the European tradition to talk, among other things, about colonialism and cultural assimilation?

BS: Andersen lived in a culturally homogeneous region, and his entire body of work is culturally/racially homogeneous. His fairytales, like many western fairytales and European narratives, are part and parcel with cultural imperialism. It seems as apt as any to regard his fairytales as a symbol of that hegemony. ‘The Snow Queen’ in particular struck me as a useful allegory—not because the original put in any such work or even pauses to think about it (Andersen was no doubt about as familiar with post-colonialism as he was with having a fulfilled romantic life, which is to say not at all), but because the idea of imposing an unfamiliar climate is essentially what colonization is. It changes ways of life, makes the colonizer's technology seem suddenly 'necessary', and demands total submission into the new order. Having said that, the colonizer in Winterglass—the Winter Queen—is neither white nor European.

TFF: Is there a particular pleasure in remodelling stories that have been told and retold for centuries and yet being able to use them to say something completely new?

BS: Yes! Structurally Winterglass has very little in common with the Andersen story, and eschews the bildungsroman entirely (Gerda and Kay are children; Nuawa and Lussadh are respectively in their thirties and forties). What I was interested in doing wasn't a literal retelling so much as referential, so I treated ‘The Snow Queen’ as material to mine rather than a framework to replicate.

While I don't think I'm saying something entirely new I do find that most retellings—being by white authors—more interested in the gender politics of fairytales (usually the agency and role and activity of female characters; somewhat more rarely, in queering up the stories) or in grimdarking it all up (by emphasizing or adding, sometimes to excess, the violence and sexual assault). The questions of empire and culture come up somewhat less. Either way I like to think that I'm bringing something to the table that, say, Disney very much hasn't.

TFF: As a reader/viewer, do you enjoy retellings of classic stories? Is there one that taught you something you found useful in your own writing of Winterglass?

BS: Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen was very interesting for its time, even if on reread now it doesn't hold up, partly because it depicts an improbable white-guilt fantasy: here's a planet inhabited entirely by white pagans, here's a bunch of brown people who colonized and exploited them. Unfortunate implications, as they say. I don't think it necessarily taught me a concrete lesson, but it does show that you can really put a fairytale in unexpected settings, clones and supercomputers and all.

TFF: Why do you think mirrors make such good symbols of our deepest desires?

BS: Reflection is potent, and reflection that can distort—such as in concave or convex glass—unnerves. There's a reason doppelgangers are creepy, because it can be either a very harsh teller of truth or a version of you that's not quite right, and sometimes it can be both. Mirrors can represent so much dream logic, the subconscious, suggesting that what it brings out can be something about ourselves we don't even know (or want to know). And physically glass is an attractive material, it does interesting, intriguing things with light. There's a lot of room for metaphor there.

Thank you so much for talking to us about Winterglass, Benjanun. I look forward to reading it!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Making Monsters Call for Submissions opens

We have just opened the call for submissions for Making Monsters — a mixed volume of public engagement essays on classical monsters, and speculative fiction short stories and poems that retell or reimagine monsters, their marginality and transgressiveness. This volume is being jointly produced with the Institute of Classical Studies (University of London), and is co-edited by Emma Bridges, an academic there.

We’re really looking forward to this collaborative endeavor and hybrid publication (and even more to being able to announce the   g o r g e o u s   cover art very soon!).

Monday, 27 November 2017

Science Fiction in Tunisia I

Panorama of Tunisian SF
Dr Kawthar Ayed (University of Tunis)

(Abridged and translated by Djibril al-Ayad)

In the Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (1986), an anthology that claims to present samples of work from all over the planet, editors Brian Aldiss and Sam Lundwall stated that they found not a single work of science fiction written in Arabic.

More than 40 SF titles were published in Arab countries between 1950 and 1990. From 1950–60 we find no explicit mention of the term science fiction, they speak rather of a new literary genre. From 1960–78 the notion of “scientific novel” (al-riwayya al-ilmiyya, الرواية العلمية‎) appears, and after 1978 the term SF (khayal ‘ilmi, خيال علمي) was finally adopted by authors and editors.

I believe that with the arrival of science fiction, Arabic fantastic literature moved from the irrational which drops us into the universe of The Thousand and One Nights, where extraordinary events are explained as miracles or magic, to the rational which explores the marvels (and the mischiefs) of science and technology.

Between the 5th–10th centuries, the Arab cultural space saw the birth of a category of text that mixed the marvellous and the strange (al-‘adjib wal-gharib, العجيب والغريب) in multiple extraordinary imaginary universes. Al-Mass‘udi’s Prairies of Gold and Mines of Jewels (9th century), includes a story about Alexander the Great featuring a submarine (centuries before Jules Verne!) and terrifying hybrid sea creatures. In his 2006 dissertation, ‘Abd Allah Tādj considers The Thousand and One Nights as a foundational text of Arabic fantasy literature, full of magic and sorcery, and including in particular the story containing an ivory and wood horse built as a flying machine, with buttons on its shoulders to control altitude and acceleration.

Modern Arabic science fiction was born in Egypt, effectively starting with Mussa Salama’s 1924 novel, Introduction to an Egyptian Utopia, which may predict the Internet and eugenics. A key phenomenon of Arabic futuristic fiction was the military utopia, visible in particular in a 1986 anthology of SF edited by Nabil Faruq, an anti-expansionist genre in which stories take a defensive character, telling of perpetual struggle for freedom (of Egypt, of Earth, or even extraterrestrial peoples)—in stark contrast to, and perhaps even deliberate conflict with, the conquering hero of 1950s American science fiction.

But on to Tunisian science fiction itself. I will try to summarise the few literary productions of Tunisian SF in three categories: precursors, founders, and dabblers.

I have found traces of two precursors to the genre. Sadek Rezgui’s 1933 novel The Lost Continent, is an unfinished but important futurist utopian novel, set on a non-existent continent and featuring advanced technologies including wireless telecommunication, transport, complete police surveillance, and laser surgery. Tayeb Triki in 1977 published a collection of short stories titled Sindbad in Space, whose cover situated it in science-fictional space by featuring a cosmonaut in a cockpit preparing for take-off. These seven adventures of “Sindbad the Terran” actively recall, but remodel, Sindbad’s adventures in The Thousand and One Nights, and thus situate the fiction in an Arabo-Persian rather than Western context. The stories are full of scientific jargon, justified by the presence of academics and scientists, and so I consider this a precursor of the science fiction genre in Tunisia.

The principle founder of the genre is Hedi Thebet, who published Ghar El Jin (1999) and Djebel Alliyine (2001), two futuristic novels, followed by If Hannibal Returned in 2005, and The Temple of Tanit in 2012. The covers of three of these novels included explicit reference to science fiction (رواية قي الخيال العلمي), for the first time to my knowledge in Tunisia. Through Hannibal in particular, Thebet makes Tunisia’s glorious past into a promise of a better future, resurrecting a utopia by reconciling with our history. His texts are a vehicle for an acerbic criticism of the reality of twenty-first century Tunisia, and propose an alternative. He attempts to send a subdued, impoverished and assimilated people the message that change is possible.

I have also detected traces of texts that belong to the genre of science fiction but that did not have the label attached to them, and will present a few examples here.

Dhafer Naji’s 2006 collection of short stories, The Things, is especially interesting to consider and analyse; it bears the significant subtitle, “four imaginative stories that could come true in a century.” The first story, “The Forbidden Language” is an Orwellian dystopia in which the Arabic people are ruled by the Free State of “Zone 01” (previously known as Texas), forbidden to speak their own language, and dictated to daily with regard to the colour of clothing to wear, food to eat, and so forth—rules which they follow with mindless docility. A parable of American cultural imperialism that evokes the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the erasure of linguistic, cultural and even intellectual diversity that follows from forced “civilization” and democratization.

In a similar context, Mustapha Kilani’s 2004 Mirrors of Dead Hours, recounts a sombre dream—the narrator warns the reader in the prologue that the novel tells of a premonitory dream that he is compelled to write. He tells the story of a world seven hundred years in the future, in which the people of the global south are imprisoned within electric fences by the totalitarian northern state, their land polluted by nuclear waste and clean air rationed daily. Recounted as a nightmare, this novel captures the fears and obsessions of a people crushed by despotic regimes and haunted by ravaged, crisis-filled future.

Finally, Abdelaziz Belkhodja’s 2005 novel, 2103, The Return of the Elephant, opens with a description of the Republic of Carthage in the year 2103. Advanced technology allows the city a utopian status, and maintains stability and peace. This African utopia recalls the promise of a future that brings humans wisdom and knowledge rather than violence and hegemony. The novel alternates two messages: one that criticises the situation in countries of the third world, and another that questions the logic of the domination, thanks to their progress, of developed countries.
In conclusion, the themes addressed by Arabic science fiction echo modern reflections on humanity and the world, and often display a deep unease. Fiction reflects reality, but as it might be transformed by time. These future societies “are built on the allegory of the fears and hopes of the period of their production” (as Gianni Haver puts it in De beaux lendemains, 2002). They depict therein hypothetical societies placed in a future time-frame, by deforming or exaggerating features from reality.

In the Arab world, the twenty-first century has seen the birth of a disenchanted form of expression that accompanies the arrival in power of tyrannical systems in tandem with American military hegemony and Western cultural influence. This expression takes the form of futuristic nightmares, such as Taleb ‘Umran’s The Dark Times (Syria, 2003) and Mustapha Kilani’s Mirrors of Dead Hours (Tunisia, 2004). The restrictions on liberty, exploitation of wealth, inequality of opportunity, levels and conditions of life between people in the West and those of the third world push these authors to ask questions and to disturb the reader.

Science fiction literature is transforming into a spacecraft that transports us to worlds distant in both time and space, a time machine that casts a curious and ravenous eye on the future. Built by an imagination full of innovative ideas, this machine transcends reality to delve in the deepest depths of history and of space to question homo sapiens, to reveal our dreams and unveil our fears. It is a world literature that deserves revaluation and study—far from the ignorance and disdain with which it is often addressed.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Interview with Subodhana Wijeyeratne

We are delighted to welcome on our blog Subodhana Wijeyeratne (author of the haunting story The Hulks in TFF #41), and to ask him about his Tales from the Stone Lotus (Writingale Publishing), a collection of short stories and novellas set on both our world, and others. The book follows the loves and lives of a variety of creatures, from the downtrodden underclass of humans forced to slave on a distant moon, to the fleeting insect-like inhabitants of a planet on an extreme orbit.

Born in the UK to Sri Lankan parents, and raised there and in Russia, Subo Wijeyeratne has been writing speculative fiction for nearly twenty years. His favourite writers and biggest influences are Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, James Tiptree Jr, and Isaac Asimov. He currently lives and works in Tokyo, Japan.

TFF: The title of your collection, Tales from the Stone Lotus, sounds fascinating, maybe even slightly mysterious. Where does it come from?

Subodhana Wijeyeratne: It comes from a couple of things. In the collection is a story called 'The Stone Lotus', about this peculiar object that appears in a city on the north, and the one of the men who researches it. My incredibly talented artist friend Sara Gothard (who's provided all the illustrations in the book) did a painting based on the story, which serves as the cover image. In it, there's a bunch of people gathered around it, as if listening for something. If you read the story, you'll see that one of the characters talks about only seeing things if you look for them. It occurred to me that maybe that's what the Stone Lotus does - go looking for stories, from all over the universe, for the people waiting for it back home. Hence the title!

TFF: Who would be the perfect candidate to direct a movie adaptation of Tales from the Stone Lotus, and why?

SW: Seeing as its a collection of shorts, I think I'd like to see what a few different directors make of it. I think The Best of All Seasons would look great in Terrence Malick's hands (a boy can dream). The Opal Gates would be a nice Christopher Nolan piece, and I'd love to see what Darren Aaronofsky does with As Kazanuhr Falls.

TFF: Ideally, next to what other books would you place Tales from the Stone Lotus in a bookshop (or library)?

SW: I'd love to see it between Ted Chiang's Tales of Your Life and Others and Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones. They're two people I strive to emulate - particularly Borges - and I reckon the book can only be lifted by the association!

TFF: Can you tell us about a little-known author you think everyone should read?

SW: She's not necessarily little-known in a certain circle, but I think everyone should read the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. She was an 11th century Japanese courtier, and Pillow Book is basically her diary. Her writing is so fresh, and her personality so vivacious, it just blazes off the page, even after a thousand years. It's heartbreaking and hilarious in turns and I really, really recommend it.

TFF: If you were an aerospace engineer, what would you name your first spaceship?

SW: Tough one! Probably Hedonismbot because he is my spirit guide and Futurama is my Bible.

TFF: Do you think there is a theme or some sort of fil rouge that connects the stories in Stone Lotus?

SW: I think underlying all the stories is the idea of impermanence. I was raised Buddhist (though I've drifted a bit), and nothing strikes me as being truer than the idea that all things change. I'm constantly amazed by how this is true on every level of existence, but in such drastically different ways. I've often wondered how they're related. Is there something about the way energy moves in the universe that means that humans are constantly changing what their definition of 'good' or 'love' is?

TFF: And what is your current definition of "good"?

SW: I think I've had the same definition for a long time - which is to, as much as possible, avoid causing other things or people to suffer. Obviously sometimes this is unavoidable, but I often find that being unkind and not caring about how much pain you inflict on other people is a much easier road to take than being respectful and considerate -- which goes a long way towards explaining a lot about the world, I think.

TFF: If you could ask any author, living or dead, to help you brainstorm a story, who would you ask?


SW: I adore Greg Egan's imagination - his work blows me away every time I read it. I'd love to brainstorm a story with him, or with Ted Chiang.

TFF: You have spent many years living in different cultural contexts, often belonging to a minority. Do you see this experience as a continuous challenge or as something that has enriched you?

SW: It's a bit of both. Moving around constantly means its hard to hang on to friends; it's really amazing how many people just slip away and disappear when you're not looking. But I think the enrichment has been overwhelmingly the stronger experience. Other people's subjectivities - even if they can be infuriating - are fascinating to me, especially when they are far away from mine. The distinctive histories of places are also really compelling. Every time I go somewhere I learn something about that place that explains something else half a world away to me, which is the best feeling.

TFF: What is the most incredible thing you have learnt studying the history of the Japanese space program?

SW: That the Japanese developed a death ray during the Second World War! It was actually a highly powered microwave designed to blow up engine blocks. They tested it on a dog and a rabbit, but it didn't do much harm to non-organic material.

TFF: You have travelled extensively since you were a child. What is your absolutely favourite place?

SW: Japan is hands down my favourite country in the world. I love living here, am fascinated by the culture, and my body is 56.4% sushi by mass.

TFF: Has exposure to many different languages changed your literary style? In what ways?

SW: I'm so high-strung about my own writing that I've not really stopped to think about it. My pleasure reading is mostly, if not entirely, in English. But I did study medieval history at university, and have an abiding love of Middle English. As such I try to avoid overly modern turns of phrase - there's something transient and inexpressive about the way so many people speak today, it drives me mad. I'm particularly against the rise of 'of' instead of 'have' (e.g., people saying 'I should of done X'). But I also get that when it comes to stuff like this I'm mostly like Canute in the sea.

Illustration of "The Hulks" by Miguel Santos
TFF: What is your next project?

SW: I'm working on my third novel, Triangulum, which is a sci-fi piece influenced by ancient Indian texts. Yes, it is precisely as pretentious as it sounds, but I've always wanted to combine the cryptic metaphysics of texts like the Rig Veda with a sort of dark sci-fi aesthetic: huge statues on empty world, layers of history piled upon the characters like invisible chains. We'll see how it goes!

TFF: This sounds fascinating! Who would be the main characters in the story?

SW: The main characters include a criminal who gets sentenced to death, but ends up being castrated by his cellmates (for a variety of reasons). His main love interest is a 'snake-girl', whose bodily fluids are venomous, and who hence cannot be touched. Beyond that there are two characters who are male and female manifestations of the same person, and who often speak and walk in tandem. Rounding up the group of five is the central protagonist, Izme Gulthara, an otherworldly presence with an agenda that could either be transcendentally good, or utterly evil.

Thank you Subo for chatting with us, and best of luck with your projects!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Fairytales Told Twice

Fairytales Told Twice, and the Idylls of the King


Guest post by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

When working on Winterglass, I wanted to thoroughly remove it from its milieu (white, Christian, Finnish, heteronormative). One of my inspirations for that relocation of culture and narrative? It came by a very odd, sideways manner — through Nasu Kinoko.

In Nasu’s extensive (famous or notorious, depending on your perspective) Fate/stay night franchise, King Arthur is a bisexual woman.

From left to right: Gawain, Mordred, Lancelot, Artoria, Bedivere, Tristan, Agravain. Yes, Mordred is a woman.
It’s not that she is reincarnated in an American high school as a girl — how wishy-washy — she has always been a woman, though her gender was kept a semi-secret, known mostly to her knights. Her son Mordred in the red armor: also a woman. Sir Gareth, not pictured here: also a woman. It’s not a big change, and gender-flipping in retellings is a common enough trope (though oddly, when it comes to Arthuriana specifically, this seems to be the first of its kind and hasn’t been replicated since). But Nasu also made a number of other changes: in classic Arthuriana, the court at Camelot is celebratory, a place of pageantry and performative gallantry — there are jousts, there are quests for the grail, and King Arthur pulled the sword from the stone without knowing what it meant. In Nasuverse, Artoria pulls the sword knowing exactly what it means, and she grows into a king best known for her perfection, aloof and removed from her people, a monarch without emotion who’s dedicated entirely to her duty. Arthuriana regards the land as owing a duty to its king; King Artoria sees kingship as making her subject to her people—it is she who owes Britain duty, not the other way around.

Artoria contradicts classic Arthuriana for more reasons than just her gender: it is crucial to the King Arthur figure to not know what the sword in the stone means, and for him to have yanked it out in innocence; it is crucial for him, pre-kingship, to be reluctant and naive to the idea of leadership. Him turning out to be the rightful heir and rightful king is supposed to be a surprise to him. Artoria fundamentally differs from her source counterpart in that, not only does she know what the sword means, she is forewarned that kingship is a terrible, lonely burden and that her reign will likely end in tragedy.

Merlin, either in Mallory or de Troyes or The Vulgate Cycle, never quite gives Arthur the same warning.

The battle of Camlann
The Arthuriana of Nasuverse is meticulously researched: Gawain possesses the Belt of Bertilak, a version of Artoria owns and wields the lance Rhongomyniad, a wealth of obscure minutiae from Mallory and the rest are surprisingly included. But what King Artoria does not concern herself with, what this retelling of Arthuriana doesn’t rate in high regard, is England. King Artoria is transported to Avalon to rest until a time of need arises, but it’s not Britain that she comes to aid; she is instead summoned into a duel of mages in contemporary Japan (twice). While Fate/stay night and its various spin-offs occasionally brings the action to England, usually London, Artoria herself is always absent from such outings. She appears in the fictional city of Fuyuki fully acclimated to its culture; she sits on tatami and sleeps on futon; she enjoys Japanese food and (thanks to magic) speaks the language perfectly. Her version of chivalry more closely resembles bushido than the European concept, and she doesn’t distinguish her national identity as a Welsh from the Japanese characters’ understanding that she is simply British. Not once, in her various appearances, does she ask how modern Britain is doing.

In other words, King Artoria — Saber — isn’t all that British beyond surface details; Nasu Kinoko (and the bevy of writers who have joined him over the years) is not that interested in the Matter of Britain. Artoria and her Knights of the Round Table, despite their source material, are not there to tell a British story. Their myths and legends are there, essentially, as window dressing.

This more than anything is what keeps me interested: that a team of writers (ever-expanding) would take a body of legend that is considered quintessentially English and then discards its Englishness entirely. It’s not something that white, western writers do — even limp retellings like Avalon High cleave to British origins, with the protagonists’ parents as professors of Arthuriana studies. Several darker-and-grittier fantasy makes a point of distinguishing the various English/British identities, down to the regional distinction between Caledonian and Saxon and Scottish or what have you, all distinctions that Nasuverse never even thinks about because to Japanese writers, all white Britons are more or less the same, belonging to a single amorphous culture (so much so that Lancelot being French is beside the point, he’s lumped in with the rest of the Round Table). There’s a hundred stories that claim to subvert the story through telling it from the point of view of Mordred, or to make Guinevere a warrior queen or chieftain (this is very popular), or to gritty-it-up by making Arthur and his knights a bunch of hooligans (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the 2017 film). There’s a lot of ‘King Arthur was actually a Roman soldier named Artorius’. But no one thinks to make King Arthur a woman, because that goes just a little too far. (Sorry, but Avalon High’s reincarnation deal is too limp for me.)

Lancelot du Lake
This is what interests me: the deep and fundamental difference between a retelling and its source material, especially when the source material belongs to a dominant culture and the retelling does not, especially when the writers of a non-dominant culture mixes, matches, and uses the details of the dominant culture as surface dressing with no regard for what’s underneath — to the extent that the new creation is almost its own independent thing, a second canon, a Japanese Arthuriana.

Nasu Kinoko may have read a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but it was probably to mine what skills and powers Gawain would have as a Heroic Spirit. It’s irreverent, not in the satirical slapstick manner of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but in simple disregard for anything English. This is a media property that mines Arthuriana for plenty of material while entirely decentering Britain and all things associated with it. Nasu’s Arthuriana is culturally removed from its source, and King Arthur is not just a bisexual woman but also an idealist who despises expansionism and colonization.

You couldn’t get any less British than that.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Recommend: Monsters of the World

For this month’s recommendation post, we’re asking readers to tell us about their favorite monsters of the world. What inhuman or almost-human beast, hybrid, giant or otherworldly creatures most fascinates, terrifies or speaks to you? As usual we have asked a handful of authors, artists and other friends to prime the pump with their suggestions, but what we really want is to hear from you.

Jo Thomas (Journeymouse; Elkie Berstein trilogy)

It probably comes as no surprise to people who know even a little bit about me that my favourite kind of monster is werewolves. After all, I’ve written three books that involve killing and/or living with them: 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf, A Pack of Lies and Fool If You Think It’s Over. I’ve even written blog posts about why I decided to write werewolves, the rules I use, and what I see as the history I'm tapping in to. (Although I’m not an academic who specialises in werewolves in historic literature, and I may be wrong or filtering out the stuff I don’t make use of.)

However, here’s the thing. Furry monsters have been the most intriguing to me for a while, even before I had dogs of my own and even before I started trying to work out how they would actually, well, work. Werewolves seem to represent the monster within, the animal nature that's hiding inside every human being, just waiting for that “it’s in my nature” or “it’s just the way I am” excuse to come trotting out. I want to be better than that. I want to be a human being, a person in control of themselves. On the other hand, there are times I envy these monsters, even if it’s a curse and it means they are forced to exist outside of community and civilisation. After all, they get to be a rampaging monster with no thought to the consequences.

Ernest Hogan (Mondo Ernesto)

The best monsters though are the ones that haunt your dreams, give you nightmares, and change the course of your life. So I'll have to go with the mutant slaves from the original 1953 version of Invaders from Mars—those bug-eyed, furry brutes with visible zippers down their backs. In the dreams at least, there was only one, and he was coming after me. I would go to adults, but they couldn't see—or even believe in—him. This developed into a phobia of monsters, and hatred of science fiction.

Then one nightmare, after some adult had told me there was no such things as monsters, I turned around, and there he was. I grabbed one of his arms, and it snapped off, and crumbled. He was made of the same delicate, almost solid smoke of the Magic Snakes fireworks. I punched him, and he fell apart like those flimsy snakes. I was no longer afraid of monsters. I loved them. And I loved science fiction, too. Since then, my life has been full of monsters. It makes me smile.

Alina Dimitrova (academic page)

Baba Yaga is… an old Slavic perception of horror. In the numerous variations of her legend, spread over an enormous territory, she appears as an anthropomorphic, monstrous-looking figure, a cannibal and terrifying magician who hates humans. Dwelling in a deep forest outside the human realm, she is profoundly related to the wilderness and to nature cults. Her house on chicken legs reflects in a curious way an ancient burial custom of cremating the dead in small wooden huts built on tree stumps. Absorbing elements of witch and goddess, and often associated with some female evil spirits that exist beyond the Slavic imagination (just compare the horrifying tale of Hansel and Gretel…), her multidimensional figure provides infinite perspectives for exploration that trigger the curiosity of the researcher.

The most astonishing aspect of her mythological image is her ability to turn into a positive character that helps humans, sometimes involuntarily, especially the young hero who struggles to accomplish his task and save the day.

Don Riggs (faculty page)

I was born in the Year of the Dragon. A tarot instructor once said of the King of Staffs in a spread I head dealt myself with my own deck, a card which features an old dragon, “That is your job”—not realizing that I also worked at a school with a dragon as its mascot!

The dragon has differing associations in different cultures. Largely negative in Western culture, in Chinese tradition the dragon is associated with rationality (as opposed to the passion of the tiger). In the Near Eastern roots of Western Culture, the dragon is associated with the Female, as in the Babylonian Tiamat, which was slain by Marduk. Merlin Stone, in When God Was a Woman, argues that the killing of dragons by (male) heroes in Western myth and folklore reflects male fear of the primordial Mother Goddess, whom they were trying to obliterate even in memory. Tolkien glossed the medieval dragon as an emblem of “malitia,” or malice, and it is with this in mind that one may read Smaug in The Hobbit as manifesting pride, wrath, avarice, and possibly even sloth (sleeping on a pile of treasure for 100 years).

Literary dragons that have inspired me include: Fafnir, whom I remember from reading Sigurd of the Volsungs; the unnamed dragon from Beowulf; the combination of the two in Tolkien’s Smaug, also the delightful Chrysophylax, from Farmer Giles of Ham; the dragon in Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea; Anne McCaffery’s dragons; Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s The Great Chinese Dragon.

Katharine A. Viola (art page)

My favorite monsters are trolls. I have been fascinated by these creatures since I was a child. I love how they are a diverse creature with several different species; mountain trolls, forest troll, etc. I particularly love how they are depicted as larger (much larger) than humans, but not too intelligent; they are scary and intimidating, yet easily escapable if you can outwit them.

Now tell us about your favorite/most nightmarish monsters in the comments. If you prefer, you can share your favorite monsters as images on social media, and have a chance of winning a prize (see rules from Classics International). And if you haven’t had enough of monsters, there’s a whole evening of them in London next Tuesday: Why do we need monsters?

Friday, 6 October 2017

Why do we need Monsters?

Later this month, TFF associate editor Valeria will speak at an event hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, titled Why do we need monsters?

Date
17 Oct 2017, 18:00 to 20:00

Venue
The Beveridge Hall, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Description
Today we worry about chimaeras - organisms created by combining genes from more than one species - and science fiction writers imagine bizarre aliens on other planets, just as nineteenth-century novelists placed them in the Centre of the Earth, on Lost Worlds or in Lands that Time Forgot.

Almost every society has imagined monsters, often as hybrids of humans and beasts. This free public event brings together some of the most interesting researchers on ancient monsters and invites us to reflect on what purpose these nearly humans serve in societies ancient and modern.

This is a free event but booking is essential.

Dr Valeria Vitale (ICS), ‘Making Monsters’

Does your house look too quiet during the night? Do you really want to scare off the annoying neighbour’s cat? Do you want to, literally, amaze your friends at parties? Nothing like having your own monster! Join us as we share our tips on how to make and customise the monster of your dreams! You can leave the clay at home as we’ve moved into digital technologies. We will start by looking at the most common features that make a class of imaginary creatures perceived as “monstrous”, and try to extrapolate the recurring rules behind their creation. We will then transfer the same concepts into 3D modelling, using free software to explore the combination and modification of different components in order to build brand new digital monsters ready for 3D printing and the monsters’ entrance into the material world.
Disclaimer: we cannot be held liable for the actions of your newly-created monsters.

Other speakers

Prof David Wengrow (UCL), ‘What is a monster, and do we really need them?’

Dr. Dunstan Lowe (Kent), ‘Real monsters in ancient Rome’

Dr Liz Gloyn (Royal Holloway), ‘Why does the ancient monster survive in the modern world?’

Monday, 2 October 2017

Recommend: progressive SFF movies

This week in our series on recommendations, we’d like to hear about your favorite progressive speculative fiction movies and television series. Films that reflect the importance of feminism, race issues, queer activism, the environment, class and politics and ethics of any kind. This is obviously a broad brush, and we’d like to hear about anything you've seen in any of the speculative genres that might talk a skeptic into giving cinema or TV a chance again.

To get us started, we have as usual asked a handful of authors, editors, and other friends to give us their suggestions:

Mari Ness (blog) (author: Through Immortal Shadows Singing)

On the surface a silly comedy about the afterlife, The Good Place (2016–) turns out to be a surprisingly deep, witty and hilarious meditation on ethics and social justice, and what good—and not so good—people should do. Veteran actors Ted Danson, in arguably his best work since Cheers, and Kristen Bell, shedding both her Veronica Mars and Anna personas, are anchored by a solid cast including William Jackson Harper and Jameela Jamil. Anything more than this would be spoilery, so just enjoy the ride.

E. Saxey (fiction site)

Get Out (2017) starts out with a domestic setting and some spot-on excruciating social commentary. Then it slews into something darker and more weird; I won’t spoil the film by defining it as science-fictional, fantastic or supernatural, but it’s brilliantly horrible. Before I saw Get Out, I feared the weird elements might undermine the critique set up in the first half of the film, and let society off the hook. However, the unfolding horrors only intensify what goes before. It’s gruesome and cathartic and definitely worth a watch, particularly at Halloween.

Valeria Vitale (TFF associate editor)

I came across the British TV series AfterLife by chance, but I quickly grew fond of it. The premise is quite traditional: a woman able to interact with restless ghosts, and a psychologist academically fascinated by what he believes is a case of self-delusion. Each episode is a self-contained ghost story, often original and always excellently written by Stephen Volk. But the reason why it is included in this list is that I have become more and more interested in the dynamic between the two main characters, how issues like gender, class and mental disability impact on them. The protagonist is a middle-aged woman, with low income, little education, and mental health issues. Her character is unapologetically unpleasant, and she often faces resistance, not because of her supernatural claims but just because of her fragile position in society. The contrast with the well mannered, balanced and agreeable male character, who is “naturally” trusted and respected is telling, and sensitively portrayed.

Alasdair Stuart (Man of Words)

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best sequel that’s also a reboot ever made. Tom Hardy’s monosyllabic, feral Max is a perfect heir to Gibson’s original and Hardy brings 1000% more intelligence and emotion to the role. Never before has a cautious, uncertain thumbs up been so moving. But what really makes this work is Furiosa, the women who raised her and the women she saves. The way that the rebirth of society and the path that takes is explored is stunning. The short sighted brutalist capitalism of Immortan Joe, and of Max, being replaced by a world that people can live in and a heroine that can protect it. The past, the green shoots of hope and seeds of potential, reborn in a present that may not take but is damn sure better than what it replaces. No wonder Max looks sad when he leaves. So do we.

Bruce Stenning (TFF emeritus editor)

Attack the Block (2011)—there are strong characters in this action-horror that also comes with some solid social commentary. They will be the women and people of colour. You will want all the white male characters to get ripped to shreds by the impending alien invasion—for their excruciatingly embarrassing cultural appropriation alone. Will it happen?

Djibril al-Ayad (TFF editor)

You probably saw this when it was getting all the Oscar nominations and rave reviews five years ago, but I still feel Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) deserves a place in the speculative hall of fame for a movie that tackles several very topical issues of our time: climate change, disaster relief (especially of poor and marginalized communities), gender, race, wealth inequality, the importance of community, all while being subtle, beautiful, oneiric, magical, speculative and fabulously performed by two newcomer actors with great talent and heart. If you haven’t watched it in five years (or ever), give it another go. It’s an especially essential story at the moment.


Now please leave a comment and tell us about your favorites. I want to hear about science fiction, fantasy, horror, surreal, or other speculative movies that I may not have seen yet, or that I might not have thought of as progressive or political, and for you to talk me into giving them a chance.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

New Issue: 2017.42

“Toute ma vie, j’ai continué d’associer la musique avec l’émancipation des femmes.”

—Angélique Kidjo

Issue 2017.42

 [ Issue 2017.42; Cover art © 2017 Cécile Matthey ] Flash fiction
Short stories
Poetry
Full issue and editorial

Download e-book version: EPUB | Mobi

Friday, 15 September 2017

Speculative and Dark Fiction in Croatia

Guest post by Milena Benini

Croatian speculative fiction has a long and surprisingly rich history. Although fantastic ideas can be found even in Renaissance texts, it is usually considered that the key-work of autochthone Croatian fantasy is Jože the Giant (Veli Jože), the story of a gentle giant, the eponymous Jože, who works as a serf for the people of Motovun, a small and picturesque town in Istria, on the west coast of Croatia. The story is based on local folklore—Istria in particular has numerous stories about giants—but also addresses political issues, particularly the position of ordinary folk in contrast to (most often foreign) nobles and rich men. Although nominally a children’s story, this short novel remains a classic to this day, and has even given rise to a festival dedicated to all things Jože, held every year in Motovun.

In a twist from the usual ideas of genders and genres, while Croatian fantasy started with a man, science fiction in Croatia started with a woman: Marija Jurić-Zagorka, a novelist and journalist from the early 20th century, who would deserve a post all to herself—she ran from an abusive marriage, managed to become the first female journalist in the region, and went on to become one of the most prolific and beloved authors of her time. Her novel The Red Ocean (Crveni ocean), published in weekly instalments in 1918-1919, described the adventures of a young inventor, combining the fascination with technology typical of early SF with the political ideas of equality and a better future.

It can be seen even from these two examples that Croatian speculative fiction before World War II has often had a political bent: considered ‘light’ and ‘popular,’ such literature was seen by a number of authors as a means to spread national awareness (Croatia was long under the rule of foreign powers) and later, as a way to support ideas of democracy, equality and political change. Of course, there was also a number of adventure stories, most often signed by foreign-sounding pseudonyms, such as the novel often considered as the first ‘true’ science-fiction novel in Croatian, On the Pacific 2255 (Na Pacifiku 2255) by Milan Šufflay, who published it under the name of Eamon O’Leigh in 1924.

This approach continued all the way to the war: in 1940, two local writers, Tanko Radovanović and Zvonimir Furtinger, wrote Omega Master Conquers the World (Majstor Omega osvaja svijet) and signed it ‘Stan Rager.’ This novel, in which a mad scientist tries to conquer the world using a nuclear-powered submarine, could stand the comparison with any other techno-thriller of the era and, had it been published in the States, would have probably inspired a black and white film adaptation with spectacularly bad special effects showing atomic bombs falling over New York.

Mr. Furtinger continued working after the War, teaming now with Mladen Bjažić but no longer feeling the need to use pseudonyms. It should be noted that, after 1948, Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was part, differed significantly from the East Bloc countries, so Western speculative fiction was freely available and so was fiction produced in the Soviet Union, so that local writers had access to both worlds, so to speak. The Furtinger-Bjažić tandem produced a number of speculative novels, among which of particular note are The Space Bride (Svemirska nevjesta), from 1960, which combines humour, a love story and robots, as well as Professor Kružić’s Mysterious Machine (Zagonetni stroj profesora Kružića), published that same year, a young-adult novel in which a pair of children on vacation discover an antigravity-machine in the attic of the family house in a small seaside town.

No matter how popular these novels were, the true blossoming of Croatian speculative fiction came in the mid-1970s, with the start of a legendary and internationally awarded magazine Sirius. Modelled after American SF magazines such as Asimov’s or Astounding, it was the brainchild of Borivoj Jurković and Damir Mikuličić, and it served two important functions: on one hand, it provided readers with an opportunity to see current and historically important short-story production in the genre, but also gave writers a chance to get published and reach wide audiences (Really wide: in its heyday, Sirius would have met SFWA criteria for a professional magazine both by payment and by circulation.)

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Marija Jurić-Zagorka, or maybe thanks to the socialist gender equality efforts, Sirius also revealed a relatively high percentage of women interested and working in Croatian SF. It is important to note here that the focus of Sirius was almost exclusively on science fiction, while fantasy, if it appeared at all, was mostly limited to satire and liminal cases. This was due primarily to the editors’ tastes, but also to the more general attitude that science fiction could be considered at least somewhat ‘mature’, while fantasy was either for children or for metaphor: while a number of literary authors used fantastic elements in their stories, commercial fantasy was, at the time, practically non-existent.

However, female writers such as Veronika Santo, Biljana Mateljan, Vesna Gorše and many others wrote for Sirius, and are today considered among the best Croatian SF writers: the editors of Ad Astra, an anthology of Croatian short-form SF from 1976 to 2006, often stress that women were, on average, superior authors, more in touch with the times and more inclined towards stylistic excellence. The authors—particularly women—produced mostly postapocalyptic and dystopian stories, with some old-fashioned space opera thrown in for good measure; it is interesting to note that cyberpunk, for instance, did not gain any significant foothold among local authors, and it was only later, in the 1980s, that first Croatian cyberpunk stories began to appear.

Among the most prominent authors of the ‘Sirius years’ (1976-1989) was certainly Predrag Raos, whose epic novel Shipwrecked at Thula (Brodolom kod Thule), published in 1979, encompassed both classic futurism, describing a future society that builds first ever faster-than-light ship, Clarkean hard SF, page-turner race against time and fine psychological insights.

In the same period, Croatia made its first truly speculative film, The Rat Saviour (Izbavitelj), loosely based on the novella “The Ratcatcher” by Russian author Alexander Grin. The film, shot in 1976, follows the destiny of a poor writer who discovers rats have developed the ability to transform themselves into humanoid creatures, and predates The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by two years, rivalling the more famous American creation by the slow mounting of horror and claustrophobic atmosphere. The film won an award at the Trieste SF Film Festival, and was part of a short-lived horror wave in Yugoslavian film, of which the other most famous product is the Serbian She-Butterfly (Leptirica) from 1973, a rural horror with a truly Slavic take on vampires.

In the 1990s, with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ensuing war, Croatian speculative fiction had to struggle to survive. It did so largely thanks to the existence of Futura, a magazine started in 1992 that replaced Sirius as much as it was possible in the circumstances, providing local authors with a venue to publish their production, and the continued efforts of the local fandom, which managed to keep SFeraKon, one of the oldest SF conventions in the region and the oldest (and largest) in Croatia.

At the turn of the century, another important step for local community happened with the appearance of Mentor publishing house, a small publisher specializing in local authors of speculative fiction. Between 2003 and 2006, they published short story collections for twelve authors: Tatjana Jambrišak, Igor Lepčin, Darko Macan, Aleksandar Žiljak, Zoran Krušvar, Dalibor Perković, Zoran Pongrašić, Zoran Vlahović, Milena Benini, Goran Konvični, Krešimir Mišak and Danilo Brozović. They were also the publishers of the already-mentioned anthology Ad Astra, and continue working with local authors to this day, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In the late nineties, the first inklings of commercial fantasy production started to appear, in the form of two novels: in 1995, Zvjezdana Odobašić published a YA novel Miraculous Scales (Čudesna krljušt), and in 1997/98, Futura magazine serialized the novel Chaos (Kaos) by the author of this overview. However, even though there were a number of other works that appeared more or less at the same time or in the early 2000s dabbling in fantasy, most were poor copies of tolkienesque worlds; only in the 21st century, particularly with the start of annual Istrakon convention collections with Istrian folklore-themed stories will fantasy in Croatia truly start to take off. Among the most prominent names in the field is Vanja Spirin with his Junker’s and Vailliant series, in which the two heroes are named after famous brands of water heaters, conveying the ‘potboiler’ nature of the series but also, of course, playing off the name of one of the most famous fictional knights of all times, Prince Valiant.

Horror fared slightly better, gaining a rather popular proponent in Viktoria Faust, a writer whose vampire-related stories, particularly the novel In the Angelic Image of the Beast (U anđeoskom liku zvijeri), published in 2000, developed a strong following among local fans of Anne Rice. In 2007, Boris Perić wrote a novel loosely based on the existing local stories about vampires, The Vampire (Vampir), while Zoran Krušvar created his own take on the vampiric lore in the dark fantasy novel Executors of the Lord’s Intention (Izvršitelji nauma gospodnjeg). Later, Vladimira Becić entered the vampiric field with fairly popular YA urban fantasy Orsia, a novel about truly teenage vampires looking for a way to express their rebellion against old ways of life.

After the demise of Futura in 2010, the gap in the market was filled by not one but two magazines: the literary Ubiq, started in 2007, is a biannual magazine covering both theory and practice of speculative fiction, which publishes fiction only by local authors, while SiriusB, as its name suggests, is intended to replace the old Sirius and publishes both Croatian originals and translations.

At the same time, Hangar7, the publishers of SiriusB, have started publishing books by local authors, focusing exclusively on speculative fiction. So far, they have published several novels: dark thriller The Road (Drum) by Ivan Lutz and Goran Sundać, Deeper than the Abyss (Dublje od bezdana), a dark fantasy by David Kelečić, Night Train to Dukka (Noćni vlak za Dukku) by Danijel Bogdanović, a sort of a science fiction take on Murder at the Orient Express, Milena Benini’s space opera Dreamseller (Prodavač snova), a philosophical variation on space exploration When Darkness Rules (Kad tama zavlada) by Oliver Franić, young-adult urban fantasy about energetic beings trapped on human plane The Exiled (Izgnani) by Ivana Delač, and a breakneck-paced dystopia leaning on the heritage of William S. Burroughs and Dick, EschatonTV (EshatonTV) by Goran Gluščić.

For those seeking to find an introduction to the world of Croatian speculative fiction, probably the easiest way is to find Kontakt (Contact), an English-language anthology of Croatian SF published in 2012, when Eurocon was held in Zagreb. (The epub version of the book is available at Kobo and Amazon). Or you can visit one of Croatia’s numerous conventions—there are five big ones and so many smaller ones that Croatian con-goers need a jointly kept calendar, which can be found on Facebook—Croatian fandom will welcome you gladly, and since most of us speak English, communication won’t be a problem, either.

Milena Benini is the winner of a number of local awards, among which the tastiest Croatian award, a whole prosciutto ham, for the most Istrian story published in 2009. She also received five SFera awards, of which the latest for her novel Dreamseller, also the winner of the Artefakt award. Her English-language stories have been published in several magazines and anthologies, including Contact (an English-language anthology of Croatian science fiction) and Salacious Tales (a collection of erotic speculative fiction). She has contributed to The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy and The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction, while her novel Priestess of the Moon was published in English before it appeared in Croatian. Her short stories have been translated into several languages, including Spanish and Polish.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Wickchester University Library special collections

Last week a couple of the TFF editors paid a visit to the special collections department of the Mary Anning Library, at Wickchester University. As well as the manuscripts we were there to consult (probably not of much interest to you) some of the more unusual items and curiosities the very friendly curator showed us were super interesting, and might serve as writing prompts or inspirations to any of you. Sadly we were asked not to take photographs inside, but some of our favorite items included:
  • Several boxes of historical wax seals, dating from Elizabethan England to the Victorian colonial administration, mostly in a poor state of preservation, but one famous example (which we weren’t allowed to touch) is a poorly copied but generally believed contemporary forgery of the seal of Robert Carr Viscount Rochester, dated 1612. It’s impossible to disprove the theory that a third party forged an official letter from Rochester as part of some political intrigue, but the whole story is lost to history.
  • A late Victorian Handbook of Botany for Ladies entirely embroidered (including the words) on thin linen sheets. Not a huge book, the 60-odd pages already make it thicker than most print volumes, and the spine is now in bad shape, but as far as we know this is a unique copy, not a mass-produced title. The curator suggests that this was an attempt to make the formal study of science by young women acceptable, by combining it with home economics!
  • A former curator’s handwritten notes for a never-executed exhibition of fakes, including 19th cent. forged Greek vases; a rubbing of the epitaph of Christopher Marlowe; a clumsily emulated and photocopied “manuscript” of Mary Shelley; a collection of modified playing cards used by medium and charlatan Eusebius Shaw in the early 1900s (that was sold for surprisingly high price at an auction in 1937, before being donated to the library in the 60s); letters negotiating the loan of 20th century forged Latin lead curse tablets from the local archaeological museum; an “Egyptian” figurine gifted to a Wickchester biology professor as a bribe by a student; the Rochester Seal mentioned just now; a draft proposal (never sent, and presumably doomed to failure) to request the loan of the Piltdown Skull from the Natural History Museum in London; a spurious plaster model purporting to be a cast of the right hand of the composer Arthur Sullivan, clearly made well into the 20th century.
  • Collection of photograph albums, rubbings, and notebooks full of transcriptions from a local graveyard enthusiast. Very incomplete, dated 1922-24 and 34-38, and with an eccentric focus—perhaps (we wondered) on cemeteries where relatives of the enthusiast were buried.
  • A set of 17 scrapbooks filled with newspapers cuttings, pasted over every inch of the page, often overlapping or exceeding the margins, detailing every murder committed in Wickchester between 1968-1992, the death of the compiler. This item is on restricted access because of some disturbing hand-written comments in coloured pencil. The librarians apparently gossip that police were briefly considering whether this should be considered evidence.
I bet every research library has a collection of shit like this! If you ask your local librarian and come up with any good stories, please let us know.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Speculative and Dark Fiction in Italy

We open our survey of Mediterranean dark literature with a guest post about the Italian scene, signed by Alessandra Cristallini and Andrea Gibertoni. Pronti al viaggio?

It hasn’t always been easy for Italian SFF authors to be successful: for decades the common opinion was that the country “of the sea and the sun” wasn’t able to produce dark literature, or that the Italians were just not very good at writing SFF at all. And yet, there’s a thriving SFF scene. Some of the best Italian authors have already been translated abroad: this is the case of Dario Tonani, one of the most popular Italian sci-fi writers. He has published several novels and short stories, and some of his works have been translated into English and Japanese. His most famous work is the universe of Mondo9, a desert planet full of dangers like poisonous sands and half-animal half-mechanical creatures where giant ships roam the sands. Always in the sci-fi scene, we find Francesco Verso, winner of several awards, the mind behind Future Fiction publishing house and much more. Some of his short stories have been translated into English, and his cyberpunk novel Nexhuman has been translated in English and Portuguese. Nexhuman is the story of an obsessions that consumes Peter Payne through all his life, the obsession for a perfect nexhuman woman torn into pieces. If you want to have a taste of Clelia Farris, one of the most popular female authors in this field don’t forget to check out this collection of short SF from around the world published by Future Fiction: it includes her short story Creative Surgery translated by Jennifer Delare.

Many works that have not been translated are definitely worth being taken into consideration. Just to mention a few:
  •  Dimenticami Trovami Sognami (Forget me, Find me, Dream me) by Andrea Viscusi, where a young man takes part in a science experiment with unexpected results. Published by Zona 42;
  • Senza Un Cemento di Sangue (Without a Cement of Blood) By Anna Ferruglio Dal Dan (who attended the Clarion workshop), a space opera that feels like an adult and cruel take on Star Wars. It’s a compliment. Published by Delos Books;
  • Real Mars by Alessandro Vietti, winner of the Italia Award in 2017 tells us the story of a space mission made into a reality show for financing reasons. Published by Zona 42.

Moving from sci fi to dark fiction, we feel like we have to start from some names of the “old school”, authors that have been in the scene for the past decades, and have heavily influenced the newest generations of writers. Impossible not to mention the great Danilo Arona, active for the past 40 years and author of an astonishing amount of short stories, novels, essays and articles. He is a passionate expert of traditional folk tales of his region (Piemonte) and has a past of proper “ghost hunter”. The Roman Paolo Di Orazio, mind and body of the magazine Splatter (that, during the 80s caused scandal for the violence and crudeness of the printed images), is also a prolific and interesting author of several novels that could be labeled as splatterpunk. Eraldo Baldini is one of the few genre authors that has managed to be published by a major publishing house like the historic Einaudi. Creator of the so-called rural gothic, it brings together, very personally, modern topics with the folklore and traditions of Italian rural areas, where the nights are still populated by archaic creatures and nightmares.  Nicola Lombardi, recognisable by his very elegant style, has been writing novels and short stories since 1989. His recent La Cisterna (The Tank, Dunwich 2015) was shortlisted for the last edition of the Bram Stoker Awards.

Some of the younger (and sometimes really young!) protagonist of the darker side of the Italian SFF seem to have learnt from the anglophone classics of the genre, but also to have added their own peculiar touches that make their work original and immediately recognisable. A very hot name is Luigi Musolino; only 30 years old, he has already won a flattering number of awards and is unanimously recognised as one of the best promises of Italian horror/weird. Piemontese like Arona, and passionate about local folk tales as well, he skillfully blends Italian popular tradition with atmospheres that reminds of Lovecraft and Barker. A completely different style characterises Pietro Gandolfi, prolific and talented author of “extreme horror” novels (inspired to Ketchum and Laymon, among others), and successful comic writer (The Noise, Cosmo editoriale). He prefers to set his stories in small, completely made up, American cities, creating a perfect, and quite convincing, personal microcosm.  Samuel Marolla, also comic writer for the prestigious Bonelli editore, is a brilliant narrator of metropolitan nightmares, usually set in Milano, his own city. Translated various times in English, his Black Tea has been the first Italian short story to be included into Apex’s Book of World SF. His two collections of stories Malarazza and La Mezzanotte del Secolo (Edizioni XII) are considered seminal works in the contemporary Italian horror.

Other honorable mentions are:
Alessandro Manzetti–the first Italian writer to win the Bram Stoker Award (2016) with his poetry collection Eden Underground–, Barbara Baraldi–author of novels and script writer for the iconic horror comic Dylan Dog–, Daniele Picciuti, Claudio Vergnani, Fabio Lastrucci, Maico Morellini (sci fi author who likes to explore, quite succesfully, much darker literary lands).
Moving from authors to publishing houses, in the last years, a number of brave and fierce PH (mostly small and independent) have been working to revive SFF literature in Italy, both translating foreign authors and publishing (or republishing) the best Italian voices. Besides the already mentioned Future Fiction, there is the Milanese Hypnos, founded in 2010 by Andrea Vaccaro, publishing for the first time in Italian classic authors like Hodgson, Chambers,  Aickman, Jean Ray. It is also thank to his work that the weird genre has been introduced in our country.

But many other names have contributed to carry the bloody ensign of dark fiction in Italy. Among them:
Dunwich edizioni, Nero Press, Vincent Books (PH emiliana offering names such as Arona, Di Orazio and Gandolfi), Elara (the first in Italy to publish Thomas Ligotti), Cut Up, Independent Legions, the amazing (and much missed) Edizioni XII and the very young people at Cliquot, who have just published, for the first time, a collection of horror story by Fritz Leiber.
The scene we have described so far appears to be dominated by male authors. The problem is that there are few women in the Italian fandom and among the authors. Since its creation in 1989 there has been only one female winner for Italy’s most prestigious sci-fi book award, the Urania Award: Nicoletta Vallorani with Il Cuore Finto di DR, which has been translated into French. It goes slightly better for the Robot Award, which has seen two female winners (Morena Medri and Emanuela Valentini) in its 12 editions so far. Another exception is Alda Teodorani, true dark lady of the Italian dark scene, influential member of the Neo Noir movement that animated Rome at the beginning of the 90s. She has written several stories, novels, poems, and has collaborated with cinema directors like Pupi Avati. She is still an important figure in Italian SFF. Her example has encouraged a number of young women writers and readers to approach a genre that too often seems reserved to men.

A certain lack of female presence in the Italian SFF scene can be seen already in the attendance at conventions and literary events. The important con Stranimondi, for example, is mainly composed of middle-aged men so far. Last year all the women invited to speak at a panel devoted to women in sci-fi had something in common: at least one of their works had been published with the picture of a naked/half-naked woman on the cover, even if their stories featured none. It doesn’t seem very welcoming, but there’s great determination behind many women in Italian SFF. This situation is probably due to sheer numbers as well: to give an example, this year Urania has created another award, specifically for short stories, and it has been revealed that of the 164 people who have sent a story only 20 are women. Statistics are against us, at least for now… but this doesn’t justify the naked women on the covers.

That being said, if you get the chance to attend Stranimondi do it, it’s definitely worth it: it has had only two editions so far (the third one will be held in October 2017 in Milan), but it has already established its importance in the field. It may be small compared to the biggest cons that are held abroad, but if you want to see what the Italian SFF/speculative fiction scene has to offer, that is the place to be. You can find out some of the most interesting independent publishers by looking at the list of publishers which will be present at Stranimondi. There you’ll see other publishers which also aim to publish works translated into English, like Acheron books.

We have no doubts that the internet is helping in keeping the local SFF community alive, and the more we look at the local scene the more we expect—no, we demand—an exciting future for it. We managed to convince some of the most reluctant readers, the Italians themselves, that Italian authors can write good sci-fi, crime, horror and weird so the future holds something promising indeed. Well, if global warming doesn’t kill us all first.

Many thanks again to our awesome contributors Alessandra and Andrea!

Alessandra Cristallini is the mind behind the blog Fragments of a Hologram Dystopia (bilingual page / English only page), a sci-fi blog where she collects pictures and posts short stories and reviews. She is a translator and has published two short stories for the charity event Penny Steampunk. She loves cats, tea and untranslatable grammar jokes.

Andrea Gibertoni born in 1975 in Reggio Emilia, where he still lives, makes ends meet with odd jobs until, on the threshold of his 40s, decides with his wife Giulia to open Miskatonic University: a bookshop dedicated to all sorts of speculative fiction. His shop has became a reference for all the Italian SFF lovers, and organises a number of event, exhibitions and launches. You can find more info at https://www.facebook.com/miskatonicuniversityre/ or drop Andrea an email at miskatonicuniversity@gmail.com