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Optimism in literature around the World and SF in Particular, part 6: Israel

After a hiatus that was longer than planned, here’s the sixth installment of this series:

Optimism in Israeli SF

By Lavie Tidhar

Israeli science fiction, such as it is, is founded on the most optimistic of novels — Theodore Herzl’s Altneuland, published in 1902. Altneuland (Old-New Land: full text of the English translation here), is a utopian vision of a Jewish state in Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Herzl was the founder and leader of Zionism, the movement seeking to establish a national home for the Jews. It is interesting to note that many alternatives to Palestine were suggested at one point or another (including land in Syria, Egypt, South America, the United States and British West Africa), with Herzl negotiating opposite the British government and the Ottoman Empire, but without results.

Altneuland was Herzl’s futurist manifesto, a utopian novel following two protagonists, a Jewish intellectual and a Russian aristocrat, as they visit Palestine first in 1898, when it is a desolate place, and then twenty years later, when they discover a Jewish utopia had emerged during their absence. In the typical fashion of utopian novels, they then go on a guided tour of this new society.

As a novel, perhaps, Altneuland lacks literary merit. As a vision of a then non-existent future, and as a rallying cry for the establishment of a Jewish state, it has been remarkably influential, though Herzl’s vision of a peaceful Palestine did not come about…

In the novel, the port city of Haifa is the main urban centre, electricity powers homes, trains run throughout the country, and European cultural institutes — an opera house, theatres, etc. — are commonplace. The inhabitants speak German rather than Hebrew or Yiddish. And a Third Temple has been built in Jerusalem…

Incidentally, the Hebrew translation of the book, as Tel Aviv, would lend its name to a newly-established suburb of Jaffa, later to become Israel’s main city: Tel Aviv.

Herzl’s novel is itself pre-dated by an earlier utopia, and the first in Hebrew —

Elhanan Levinsky’s mostly forgotten A Journey to Israel in the Year 2040, published in Poland in 1892. Again, there are electric lights, bustling ports — and airships!

The establishment of a Jewish state in what was by then British Mandate Palestine (The British won it from the Ottomans in First World War) did not go quite as planned. Conflict with both the British, and the Arab population of Palestine, proved costly and increasingly bitter, and the eventual foundation of the State of Israel was done only after the first of many subsequent wars. And over all fell the shadow of the war in Europe and the Holocaust, forever imprinting itself into the collective Israeli psyche.

Which meant optimism in fiction, despite its hopeful beginnings, might have been in short supply.

Israeli literature has always been more concerned with the here-and-now than with the — increasingly uncertain — future. Such stories fitting into a science fiction and fantasy mould were published almost exclusively as children’s books. Perhaps the most notable of these were the three books written by Eli Sagi: The Adventures of Captain Yuno, published between 1963 and 1964. The books follow the adventures of two children, Yuno and Vena, as they stowaway on an Earth spaceship and then become involved in a series of adventures throughout the solar system, in which each planet is populated by different alien races. Earth itself is a sort of utopia, run by the United Nations — and Earth’s space programme is headed by none other than one Professor Asimov… With wonderful illustrations by the master of the Israeli children book, M. Aryeh, the books are nevertheless almost unknown today, and the nearly 50-year old copies fetch high sums — if one can find them at all. Sagi, incidentally, went on to become a successful playwright and, in the 1980s, was the creator of The Big Restaurant, a Hebrew-Arabic sitcom set in a restaurant in Jerusalem which was successful, it was said, across the whole of the Middle East.

The Adventures of Captain Yuno, alas, did not extend beyond the first three books – a fourth book was listed but never published. It is itself pre-dated by The Mystery of the Flying Saucer, by Menahem Talmi, published in 1955, in which a boy from Tel Aviv goes on a journey to Mars and other planets, and experiences the utopian societies of the aliens.

Science fiction only really became widespread in the 1970s — the Hebrew term for SF had to be negotiated first, the earlier “Mada Dimyoni”, or imaginary science, leading at last to “Mada Bidyoni”, or fictional science — and the most important event in this nascent field was the establishment, in 1978, of the first genuine Israeli SF magazine, Fantasia 2000. It was an act of pure, unadulterated optimism, by four young students who, later, would admit that had they known what they were doing they would never have done it in the first place. Nevertheless, the magazine not only came into being but continued for an unparalleled 44 issues over 6 years, translating many of the classic American stories of the genre (but also the occasional French and Russian) and offering the first ever stage for Israeli writers themselves. Though some — many — of the Hebrew stories published in the magazine were not of a very high calibre, some still delight – particularly Mordechai Sason’s “The Beggar and the Tin Man”, about a future Israel in which robots beg on the street and are pursued by the malevolent bank, who wants to destroy them — but in which the Israeli public takes up their cause instead, with both hilarious and thought-provoking results. Another writer making his debut in the pages of Fantasia 2000, Amir Gutfreund, would later become the author of the critically and commercially successful Shoa Shelanu (Our Holocaust) and other novels, and win the prestigious Sapir Prize in 2003.

The 1980s saw the demise of Fantasia 2000 and a long period of drought in Israeli SF that would be, ten years later, spectacularly revived.  Of the handful of science fiction books published in the 1980s, however, special mention should be made of another utopia, and perhaps one of the most interesting — and certainly controversial — of Israeli SF novels. Luna: The Genetic Paradise was published in 1985, written by geneticist Ram Mo’av as he was dying of a terminal illness. This extraordinary novel tells the story of a dying scientist who is given the ability to view the future via a device called the Camera — specifically, the future of a utopian settlement on the moon, in which principles of eugenics determine immigration, births and much more. The novel is at the same time a searing indictment of Israeli society — at one point depicting Israeli-born children, or sabras, tormenting the nameless narrator (a Holocaust survivor), in which they are compared to the Nazis — and the story of a multicultural, utopian society on the moon based, as mentioned, on the somewhat dubious arguments of eugenics. While not necessarily a good novel — like Altneuland before it — it is a fascinating novel, though once again its influence may be negligible: as with the previous books mentioned, it is very hard today to locate a copy.

The 1990s saw the first true flowering of Israeli SF, with the advent of the Internet leading fans and writers to get in touch with each other, and subsequently leading to the formation of an Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, the establishment of national conventions, and to the rise of a new SF magazine — and the first of its kind to be devoted almost exclusively to original Israeli SF short stories.

Chalomot Be’aspamia (the expression can be loosely translated as “pipe dreams” or “daydreams”) was began as a fan initiative but was taken over by Ron Yaniv as publisher, leading to the first magazine since Fantasia 2000 to be distributed in Israeli bookshops. It was edited by Israeli writer and translator Vered Tochterman from issue 1 to 16 (plus a special themed issue, the first original shared-world anthology to be published in Israel), and by Nir Yaniv from 17 to the current issue 20. Another optimistic gesture, the magazine published a wide range of stories and writers but is currently on hiatus, with its future uncertain — though at least one more issue, number 21, is projected to appear. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that the magazine came a full circle recently by publishing, in its issue 19, a story by an older Amir Gutfreund — the only writer thus to be published in both Fantasia 2000 and Chalomot Be’aspamia.

Bur what does the future hold for Israeli SF? While it is unreasonable to assume speculative fiction will ever have a large number of writers in Israel, the future does look hopeful. A new generation of writers is experimenting with short stories and publishing new novels, some with more impact then others. There are now conventions, web sites, forums, even writing workshops devoted to genre fiction. The future, as it is wont to do, remains to be seen.

Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas Cloud Permutations (2009), An Occupation of Angels (2010), and Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, of The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). He also edited the anthology The Apex Book of World SF (2009). He’s lived on three continents and one island-nation, and currently lives in Israel. His first novel, The Bookman, is published by HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot imprint, and will be followed by two more.

Optimism in Literature around the World and SF in Particular, part 5: Brazil, “the Country that Could Have Been and Maybe Will”.

In this ongoing series Jacques Barcia portrays his home country Brazil:

The country that could have been but maybe will.

By Jacques Barcia

Author Ian McDonald, when talking about his latest novel Brasyl, said the South American giant has always been the country of the future. That’s an epithet that every Brazilian knows by heart for it goes back to the post-war days and through the age of mass industrialization in the 1960s. An idea that became part of our national identity. The idea of being almost there, almost reaching the echelons of economic superpower, being just a few steps away from the First World. And getting closer. Forever getting closer. From the 60s to the 70s, then 80s, 90s and crossing to the 21st century, Brazil has been forever getting closer. But maybe now, Brazil’s fulfilling that prophecy. Or getting closer than ever.

Not surprisingly, this cultural aspect has everything to do with the way science fiction has presented itself in the country for the last 40 years and how, today, it may change.

naoveraspaisnenhumBrazilian SF has always been pessimistic. Worse yet, in many occasions it has been ironical to the very idea of future. The 70s and early 80s, the “age of lead”, as we call it, because of the military dictatorship on course, were marked by the publication of some classic dystopian novels, like “And Still the Earth” (originally Não Verás País Nenhum, or You`ll See no Country) by Ignacio de Loyola Brandão. A decade later, when cyberpunk finally arrived in Brazilian bookstores, it quickly grabbed readers and writers alike because, well, Brazil IS a cyberpunk country. And as the original punks would say, there’s no future.

Crime rates are really high. Last year in my home city, a 3 million people metropolis, there were about 4,000 homicides. Literacy rates are very low and many live in extreme poverty. That lack of perspective, high crime rates, political corruption and years upon years of repression from the military dictatorship made Brazilian people (and Brazilian SF writers) believe that the country of the future would be even darker than it already was. Or that future was a very bad joke.

Sunrise-BrasiliaBut this same country of extreme conditions is hopefully getting better. There’s less extreme poverty, there’s more education, and general conditions are way better than ten years ago. And even though there are still extreme problems to be faced, there’s an interesting thing going on. Brazilians, especially the poorest, are in love with technology. By the numbers, there are more active cell phone lines than living Brazilians. Everybody has a cell phone. Everybody is on Orkut (you know, that social network from Google). Everyone has a flog, uploads videos to Youtube, shares MP3s, even the illiterate. And though the vast majority of people can’t afford a PC, Brazilians hold the world record for hours spent online per month per capita (24h07 in average).

Again, that has everything to do with SF literature. Brazil was cyberpunk and it’s becoming post-cyberpunk. If Brazil used to have marginal tech with a dirty, gritty and violent setting, now the country is techy, edgy, and hopeful. There are tons of examples of how things could get better with technology and how literature could represent those facts and hopes in fiction.

Cyberpunk FantasiaFor example, 3G networks are used in public web-based long-distance education programs. Computer games (like Civilization) are used in many schools to teach history, political science, administration, etc. Indigenous tribes use the web to preserve their cultural heritage. Almost-forgotten languages are available online, as well as ritual dances.

Another example: Brazil has cars running 100% on alcohol since 1979. Total-flex cars are sold since 2003, a technology developed by Brazilian engineers. Brazilian alcohol comes from sugarcane which has lower impact than corn alcohol. The blend commonly called E25 (that is, 25% of alcohol and 75% gasoline) is the standard of Brazilian gasoline. Brazilian energy comes mostly from hydroelectric power plants and there are projects to build fields of wind turbines in the country’s Northeast.

brazil-ethanolBut unfortunately, Brazilian SF hasn’t realized those facts yet, mostly because established authors are reminiscent of a very depressing age. Maybe the current generation of SF writers, and certainly the next one, will feel more comfortable with imagining a better future. And dreaming with a brighter tomorrow they’ll certainly build a better one too.

Brazil-country-of-the-future

Jacques Barcia is a Brazilian science fiction and fantasy author living in Recife. He has sold microfictions to Outshine and Thaumatrope. He’s currently writing his first novel. He can be reached at jacquesbarcia@gmail.com.

Optimism in literature around the World, and SF in particular, part 4: Anime

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OK: so this is a particular art form from one country (Japan), and not about the whole of literature & SF in Japan (although I do hope to get a piece about that in the future).

Madeline Ashby was so good as to send me this. Enjoy!

“The World is Made of Love and Peace”: Optimism in SF Anime.

akiraAnime (アニメ, or Japanese animation) has been unkindly described in a variety of ways, many of which will sound familiar to readers and viewers of science fiction accustomed to the pejoratives hurled at their genre of choice: childish, violent, disgusting, derivative, nationalist, misogynist. “Optimistic” isn’t the first word that leaps to mind when one considers the greats of the medium: Akira and Ghost in the Shell have been critically acclaimed for undermining the metanarratives surrounding the body, the nation, reality, and gender, but it’s difficult to argue for hope in a story featuring total body disintegration as a method of escaping governmental observation and control. However, there are other greats neglected by both critics of anime and consumers of traditional science fiction. This post hopes to introduce you to some of them.

ghost-in-the-shell-stand-alone-complex-677To understand optimism in science fiction anime (and, I might argue, to understand Japanese science fiction in general), one must accept the ambiguity inherent in Japanese depictions of advanced technology. This ambiguity stems from two sources: the loss of the natural world in the face of modernization after the Meiji Restoration (a significant loss in a country where priests and priestesses still guard ancient trees), and the catastrophic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atom bomb. Of all the countries that produce post-apocalyptic science fiction, Japan is one of the few that has endured a real apocalypse. It should therefore come as no surprise that Japan’s science fiction is more optimistic than most, but also more realistic about the sacrifices necessary for survival and success. They’ve been there. They know.

giant-mechaThis might be why, although Japan built Heinlein’s “powered suit” into the giant mecha or mobile suit we all know and love, most of the best mecha titles feature anti-heroes who wish desperately that they could put the armour down, or that the armour were no longer necessary. From the Jungian analysis that is Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) to the alien/human love triangle of Macross Plus (1994) to the bishounen angst-fest of the latter Gundam (1979-present) series, proper stewardship of the giant mecha means having a conscience that shrinks from violence, but also the internal determination to carry it out in order to protect others. The pilots who feel differently, who rejoice solely in battle and find their life’s meaning in chaos and destruction, are frequently depicted as deeply broken people who cannot survive in a peaceful world because they have no bonds or ties keeping them attached to the world of humanity.

voices-of-a-distant-starThis theme of human connection plays itself out in a number of anime titles. It’s a staple among multiple genres, but significant examples abound in SF. The afore-mentioned Evangelion suggests that our affection, however grudging, for our fellow humans may be all that keeps our reality from collapsing. And in Voices of a Distant Star (2002), teen romance survives the vagaries of relativistic time dilation, and the strength of the lovers’ connection gives them the will to continue meeting their civic and military obligations despite living in light years apart. Similarly, the characters in The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) know that saving the world will mean wiping out their memories of one another, but trust in their ability to re-connect — and in Japan’s ability to re-unite itself as a nation. This theme of youthful hope for the possibility of enduring love and friendship repeats in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), in which time travel is a metaphor for adolescence, and growing up means learning that time can’t be stopped and deeds can’t be done over.

girl-who-leapt-through-time-756763Adolescence is the time when most of us begin engaging in self-definition, frequently through relationships (or conflicts) with the Other. SF anime is replete with stories about this phenomenon. Consider Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki Hayao’s 1984 story of Nausicaä, a young pilot and amateur biologist seeking to learn the secret to reviving the “Sea of Corruption,” a toxic wasteland inhabited by the Ohmu, a prehistoric race of sentient insects. Despite their ugliness and their predilection for violence, Nausicaä takes the side of the Ohmu when a group of humans steal a larval Ohmu in an attempt to divert the wrathful, rampaging herd toward their enemies.

nausicaa_ars_setup_3Miyazaki does not have a monopoly on stories about flight or strong young women, however. A similar story plays out in Eureka 7 (2006). The series starts out in a very traditional way (a young boy named Renton who dreams of piloting a giant mech gets the opportunity to do so, and in the process falls in love with an otherworldly girl), but manages to undermine many of anime’s longest-held tropes while still utilizing and exploring them. Renton may have skill with the mech, but he still gets air-sick in the cockpit and occasionally flees his responsibilities when things get too difficult. Eureka may be a beautiful hybrid of humans and the sentient Scub Coral, but the story continually emphasizes her Other-ness through grotesque metamorphoses and repeated (and quite painful) misunderstandings of human motivation. As bildungsromans go, this one has a slow start but comes to a satisfying conclusion because everyone grows up and learns more about their world including the grown-ups. Plus, the writers make reference to everything from the Beastie Boys to Greg Egan.

eureka-7

Overwhelmingly, anime creates an optimistic sentiment not by depicting a utopian future, but by locating the reason for hope in humanity’s ability to make the right decision — to sacrifice, to embrace, to re-build. In the face of apocalyptic destruction, impossible odds, and a long record of mistakes and misdeeds, the heroes (and anti-heroes) of anime maintain a stalwart faith in heir fellow men and women. Case in point, the source of this post’s title, Vash the Stampede, star of Trigun (1998). Like Eureka (whom he clearly inspired), Vash is a sentient-but-alien creature with the capacity to wreak terrible destruction on the humans of his planet. His Plant DNA lets him live far longer than most humans, and he can regenerate from mortal wounds (though he often chooses not to, perhaps in order to maintain empathy for the short-lived people he’s sworn to protect). Despite having every reason to hate humans (they killed his sister and most of his species), and despite living as a fugitive thanks to the massive bounty on his head, Vash stays positive, goofs off, and does his best to help the downtrodden. A crack shot, he refuses to kill even when massively outgunned.

trigun_04_1024Optimism in sf anime might best be summed up by this moment from Trigun: Vash, unarmed against cannon-wielding post-human thugs, pauses and smiles. Taunted by his enemy about the lives he must have destroyed to survive so long, he reaches for the last weapon in his arsenal: a child’s toy gun. He covers the man in suction-cup darts, grins and says: “Can’t we just quit? After all, the world is made of LOVE AND PEACE! LOVE AND PEACE! LOVE AND PEACE!”

vash-the-stampedeHis enemy falls, literally bowled over by the audacity, the sheer madness, the undefeated spirit, of the man before him. He’s stupid. He’s crazy. He’s dangerous.

But he wins. He always wins.

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NB: check out the SHINE COMPETITION, PRIZES & RULES (four days left)!

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For more information on SF anime, I suggest Mechademia, the journal of anime and manga, as well as the November 2002 issue of Science Fiction Studies, which focused on Japanese SF, and Fullmetal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America.

madeline-ashby Madeline Ashby is a graduate student, otaku, teacher, and immigrant. She has lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto, where she is now a member of the Cecil Street Irregulars and a contributor to both Frames Per Second Magazine and WorldChanging Canada. She speaks a smattering of Spanish, French, and Japanese. Her fiction has been published in Tesseracts and FLURB. Hopefully that list will lengthen as time passes.

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Optimism in Literature around the World, and SF in particular, part 3: SF in South Korea today

SF in South Korea Today, an article by Gord Sellar.

Before the article, a caveat: I am not yet much of an expert on Korean SF. In order to write this article, I have relied upon the knowledge of others, most particularly Ms. Jeong So-Yeon, an award-winning translator and author whom I interviewed one evening in February. Most of the information here is courtesy of Ms. Jeong, and other members of the Korean SF community, especially Mr. Park Sang Joon. Any errors, misconceptions, or exaggerations herein ought to be blamed on me, however.

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Science fiction has existed in Korean translation since 1907, when a group of Korean science students living in Japan and publishing an academic journal titled Taeguk Hakbo translated and adapted Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which they published as a serial titled A Strange Story About Traveling Under the Sea.[i] This was about the same time, and in vaguely similar circumstances, to the first translation of Western SF into Chinese, by Lu Xun — who also translated Jules Verne. But while SF has amassed an enormous following in China — this fact created quite a stir in the SF-blogosphere last year — the SF scene in Korea is relatively modest.

The reasons for this seem to be relatively complex, so much so that I’m devoting most of my academic study to this area, but probably boil down to historical circumstances, culture, and the particular political situation that South Korea endured during the 20th century, a set of circumstances that have also profoundly shaped literature in general in South Korea.

garoojigi

The fact is that 20th century Korean fiction was, very often, gloomy stuff. Older Korean literature ranged from bizarre and fantastical mythology (such as certain tales found among Korea’s various Three Kingdoms narratives) to bawdy ribaldry (as in texts like the Garoojigi, a folk narrative recently made into a feature film), and from literary eclecticism (such as the fascinating genre of literary miscellanies — collections of mini-essays, translations, reminiscences, and translations from Chinese literature like this one — that grew popular during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)) to religious and moral narratives (like The Cloud Dream of the Nine or the Buddhist pilgrimage narrative The Hye Ch’o Diary). In stark contrast, a great deal of celebrated twentieth-century Korean literature focused often on issues of identity, of cultural integrity, of loss and pain and suffering related to modern Korean history, especially the experience of being a Japanese colony from 1905-1945, and of the Korean War and the resulting split of the two Koreas, a split which divided families and which remains a national preoccupation today.

the-cloud-dream-of-the-nine

When I first arrived in South Korea, I clearly remember reading an article in a local English newspaper highlighting the tensions between younger writers, who were dealing with subject matter familiar to them from daily life — romantic relationships, work, contemporary politics, and recent history — and older authors who sternly criticized them for failing to write about what seemed to become the default (and almost the only) suitable topic for literary work in the South: the trauma of the Korean war and the division between North and South Korea. To anyone who has even casually read South Korean mainstream fiction, the standard metaphors quickly become familiar: stories feature loss of memory, broken families whose final reunion symbolizes the reunification of Korea, returns to ancestral villages, and mysterious disappearances within families, workplaces, or communities. A lot of it is gloomy, grim stuff.

the-hye-cho-diary

Part of this is a result of the way the postcolonial dictatorships (and the intellectuals they employed in rebuilding the education system after the Japanese left in 1945) went about building national identity. Han, a supposedly untranslatable word describing a mixture of unbearable burden which cannot be cast aside, a sense of resignation, and the pain of terrible suffering, has been elevated in a profound sense to the level of a keyword in Korean identity now.


I have been assured more than once that this is new to Korean literature, which was, pre-1900, much more diverse. (And even prior to World War II, authors such as Yi Sang — a penname appropriately homophonic to the Korean word for “strange” or “weird” — also experimented a great deal, not feeling bound to discuss only the colonial experience and nothing else.) In the postwar era, Korean literature focused on the past, probably as much out of the urgent sense of a need to build a national identity in the face of grinding poverty, a postcolonial social complex, the near-complete leveling of their monuments and cities, and probably as a way of avoiding the dire repercussions for any criticism of the dictatorships that ran South Korea from after the war until near the end of the 1980s.


In this literary environment, SF remained marginal for many years, in a sense understandably because Korea was, after all, pretty much a medieval society into which little of the outside world had penetrated prior to the Japanese occupation, and which remained mostly agrarian until modernization campaigns throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. There were attempts to use SF as bait for interesting children in science and technology, and such titles as I, Robot, The Day of the Triffids, and The Time Machine (as well as a smattering of Star Trek novelizations) were translated into Korea for kids to read. (For a more complete list of titles, check out this webpage, where many works are available, probably illegally, in PDF format.) The books included texts added by (if I recall correctly — the PDFs don’t display on my PC so I cannot check for sure) the Ministry of Science and Technology highlighting the importance of science and technology in Korea’s development, and suggesting the connection between this concern and SF as an enticement to study science.

natdvdBut while this probably did hook some young readers during their Golden Age (that is, the age of 12 years old) it also helped to build a sense among Koreans, persistent even in the present, that SF was really “kid stuff” or “junk” in terms of its literary merit. While certain authors (notably Bok Geo-il, though he certainly was not the only one) experimented with SFnal themes and tropes, they (importantly, according to award-winning translator/author Jeong So Yeon) did not consider themselves as SF writers. According to Ms. Jeong, the phenomenon of “SF authors” in Korea is relatively new, dating back to the late 90s at the earliest. Even today, mainstream literature is called soon moonhak (literally “pure literature”), a field from which SF is excluded on the basis of its relative “impurity.”[ii]

All of this goes some way to explaining why people I talked to about the theme of optimism in SF tended to talk more regarding optimism about the growth of SF as a literary field in the Korean market — the hope that the genre could grow in popularity, that fandom could build up in size and in its scope, and the desire to increase the translation of foreign SF into Korean for eager readers.


Ms. Jeong had very interesting things to say also about the specifically Korean sense of a notion like “optimism,” related to the different social construction of optimism and the specifically Korean understanding of what problems make literary sense. For example, she noted that in Korean SF, it’s much more common for the narrative problem to focus on something domestic, something specifically Korean, such as the education system. (Contrary to what President Obama thinks, pretty much everyone in Korea sees the public school system here as rife with problems that both dire are difficult repair. Perhaps the best book on the subject in English is Michael J. Seth’s Education Fever.)

education-fever

Jeong pointed out — and it resonates well with my experience in the classroom and in social situations — that Koreans tend to be primarily interested in problems of national concern: South Korea’s broken education system is, socially, a much higher priority than global warming, and the result according to Jeong is that characters who are concerned with globally pressing problems come across to Korean readers as unbelievable or unrealistic. Thus, the themes that predominate Korean SF — even in stories of alien invasion, like “Proxy War,” a locally well-known novella[iii] by a South Korean cyberpunk writer going by the penname Djuna — seem to resonate mostly with local, national issues of concern, and not the “big problems” that an anthology like Shine or the Mundane SF movement urges SF authors to tackle.


(More SF at the same Crossroads site where “Proxy War” was published, which hosts pretty much the only collection of Korean SF in currently available in English translation, can be found here.)


Moreover, according to Jeong there’s a certain sort of sensibility that is particularly Korean, in which characters are likely to try solve a problem but end up finding it insoluble. The solution may arise, but more as a matter of chance or luck, or of some change in the system beyond the schemings of would be problem-solvers. (One case Jeong cited was, I think, from her own writing, about how a crippled astronomer finally got a chance to become an astronaut, but only because the government realized that physically handicapped people made for lighter payloads on space missions. In another story by another author, she described how teacher found a way to free the children from the shackles of the schoolroom and of alien mind — an apt metaphor for Korean educational problems — but only by sending his students into outer space.) The sense of people surrendering and throwing their hands up in resignation in the face of intractable problems is a very Korean aesthetic, probably a result of historical circumstances and one may suppose a habit learned under long dictatorships; this is optimism in a society without a truly utopian social tradition, and a society only now beginning its third decade of ostensible democracy.

alternativedreamDespite the fact that SF tropes are well-enough known to have become part of the popular political discourse in South Korea (see my article in Clarkesworld on the subject), SF remains relatively marginal here. As a result, the lines between professionals and fans are extremely blurry, and the cross-pollinating influences are still quite profound, something I find really refreshing and invigorating. Make no mistake: economics does enter into the picture, but passions are also a powerful driver for the way Korea’s native form of SF is taking shape. There are, for example, currently two major fan clubs I’ve come across: JoySF and Mirror.

mirrorI don’t wish to draw too-broad lines between the two, since overlap exists. However, to put it simply, JoySF is dominated by male fans and has a stronger focus on military SF or space opera, while Mirror has a larger number of female fans and tends to focus on SF with a social component, as well as fantasy. (I’m much less familiar with Mirror than with JoySF, in part because I’ve had a chance to attend a festival run by JoySF but not one by Mirror.) These two groups aren’t necessarily inimical to one another: Mirror set up a table and sold books at the JoySF festival I attended, and members of both groups gathered at the recent launch of a fan-stocked SF lending library in Seoul last month. The fact that more female fans are involved in Mirror also means a greater interest in fantasy, which is (it must be said) a genre that has far more successfully been popularized in Korea; and like everywhere, the dominant buyers of books are young women, who are rather more likely to be interested in fantasy or social SF than young Korean men. Both groups publish small-print material, zines and otherwise, in addition to more elaborate productions. But even points of overlap, they are somewhat separate organizations, with their own websites and social networks.


Still, fan energy has been harnessed to achieve some amazing things in the recent past. For example, the establishment of the Seoul Science Fiction & Fantasy Library started out when one fan decided to find a place where he could offer his personal library — including many books that have gone out of print and are not really available anymore, even in libraries — for public lending. A real lending library including several hundred texts (not just fantasy and SF novels but also science books, books on RPG gaming, and more) and many hundreds of comic books, as well as other resources, was established basically using this one fan’s collection, supplemented by astounding numbers of book donations and/or purchases made with money donations. The library opened for business in March 2009, with a ceremony that, instead of featuring the traditional lucky pig’s severed head, had a talking Darth Vader helmet as the donations table centerpiece.

Likewise, the strong sense of identity within fandom is giving rise to other interesting projects, such as one academic association which is being formed at present to work in the area of the translation, study, and publication of Korean SF in English, of which I am lucky enough to have been invited to be a part. (The organization is so new that it hasn’t got a name or a website yet, but at the first meeting, the others I met there were simply bursting with interest in the project, and with spreading the word about an SF naissance going on in Korea.) One important dynamo of activity is Park Sang Jun, the publisher of the Omelas book imprint that specializes in SF, and has recently produced stunningly packaged Korean translations of novels by authors like Lem and Stapledon; he is so actively involved in the SF scene here that he seems to be in ten places at once, from organizing film screening series and workshops to launching the aforementioned new academic association and speaking at science fiction events; his tireless efforts have contributed to almost every SF-related event I have attended in Korea.


Fandom also plays a massively important role in the building of the SF canon in Korea, both in terms of foreign works in Korean translation, and in terms of the development of domestic Korean SF. As stated earlier, the line between pros and fans is very blurry: many people I have been introduced to as fans also turned out to be aspiring translators or authors, and several well-regarded authors are also translators and ardent fans themselves. The reputation-economics that determines the success of foreign SF in translation is a topic I’m researching right now, specifically looking at how authors like Ted Chiang, Roger Zelazny, and Ursula K. Le Guin have achieved popularity here; each of these authors seems (to me) to occupy a slightly different position within the Korean SF canon than in his or her own language — a position interestingly contextualized not by other major SF authors that surround them in English, but by other factors such as the reputations of those who have translated their work, and the care and attention that their texts have been given by dedicated translators who work so energetically in part because of their own ardent fandom of that particular author’s work. Likewise, fandom supports younger authors by publishing their work in zines and allowing them to build a reputation that will springboard them into the world professional publication.

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No doubt, Korean SF is still growing, and growing pains are inevitable, especially at the present time; the economic situation here is, if less profound than in the USA at the moment, nonetheless having pronounced effects on the publishing industry. For example, the (beautiful colorful, 300-page-thick) monthly SF magazine Fantastique — which launched in 2007 and offered regular translations of foreign SF and fantasy as well as new work by Korean authors, reviews, historical overviews, current-events columns with an SFnal twist, and more — has recently shifted from monthly to quarterly publication.

Likewise, book-publishing is hurting everywhere in the world, and translators with whom I’ve spoken have expressed anxiety about their recent translations of new-to-Korea authors, because if the first book by a “new” author fails to garner enough sales, later translation proposals are unlikely to be accepted. (A disappointing example of this is Greg Egan’s work: despite ardent admiration of his writing among a small minority of Korean SF fans, the Korean-language translation of Quarantine unfortunately seemed to garner too little general interest to warrant further translations of Egan’s oeuvre, as one Egan-fan complained to me.) Besides, Korean SF authors are struggling to adapt SF — a genre that is, if not about science, at least deeply informed by science, to a society that I have heard (and read) Korean SF translators complain is not so interested in science as it is in the tangible trappings of modernity. Korea is, after all, a society whose scientists and engineers are, it is often said, less respected and valued than are its doctors, lawyers, and even its celebrities. (There are exceptions, of course, but there is a pronounced lack of interest in science, and parental encouragement into other areas — including government bureaucratic work — is only one reason.)


But thanks to the efforts of fans, publishers, authors, and translators — and a dedicated core of people playing several of those roles simultaneously — SF in Korea is definitely on the move, growing and developing, adapting to this new environment just as any immigrant must do in order to thrive in an unfamiliar new land. The various people I’ve met who are involved in the scene are so energetic, devoted, and active that I have little doubt that the literature of the future has a bright future here.

host_ver6For more on other aspects of Korean SF — such as cinematic SF in Korea, festival/con reports, SF-related Korean rock music, the success of the Raelian UFO cult in Korea, and more — readers might want to check out the series on the subject at my blog, which begins here.

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Gord Sellar

(NB: edited April 14 with the replacement of a manga (Japanese) picture with “Alternate Dreams” picture, the addition of two movie posters (“The Host” and “Natural City”), and the correct romanisation of Mr. Park Song Joon’s name.)


[i]According to columnist, archivist, and SF publisher Park Sang Jun in his article “Science Comes to Life For All” (Beyond: Korean Air, November 2008).

[ii]Indeed, readership of books in general in Korea seems to be shaped by older prejudices against fiction and towards “useful” nonfiction: a visit to any Korean bookstore will surprise Westerners, who will find a much larger proportion of nonfiction to fiction than in conventional Western bookstores. In the Preface to his translation of A Korean Storyteller’s Miscellany (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1989), Peter H. Lee explains:

In [pre-modern] Korea, the traditional prose narrative, whether fictional or not, was deemed unofficial because it created a world other than that sanctioned by the court and offered an alternative view of reality. This social and cultural ordering of the Confucian society is mirrored in the spatial taxonomy. The East Asian term for the fictional narrative, sosŏl (hsiao-hsun in China and shōsetsu in Japan), literally “small talk,” stems from this prejudice against any writing that was viewed as unofficial by the custodians and censors of the dominant culture. (x)

Sosŏl is the term that is still used for both novels and short stories in contemporary Korean literature.

[iii]“Proxy War” was expanded into a novel of the same name, but the novel has not yet been translated to English. Indeed, as far as I have been able to discover, no Korean SF novel has yet been translated to English. The narrative focuses on how an alien sex-tour industry based in a satellite city of Seoul goes badly wrong, along the lines of an alien invasion and outbreak of war, but the story, at least in the novella, plays this trope out in uniquely Korean ways, and to highly comical effect.

Kindred Spirits, part 4

In recent weeks three projects were brought to my attention (OK: I knew about one quite a bit longer, but it’s only been made public early this year) that are either optimistic or try to be more inclusive of SF outside the western world, or both.

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  • First of all, there’s The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. Caveat: my story “Transcendence Express” (lead story in Hub #2 — the last print version — and reprinted online in Hub #44 and as a podcast on Escape Pod episode #122) will be reprinted there. Lavie approached me last year, so I knew about this project a while back. It’s full of stories both set in locales around the world, and written by writers from around the world (OK: predominantly from Europe and Asia/Oceania. I hope Lavie can do a second one that incorporates writers from Africa and Latin America). It’s slated for a September 1 release, but you can pre-order it here. Check it out!
  • Following that, on February 26, Lavie started the World SF News Blog. I’m not sure if Lavie is aware of the ‘Optimism in Literature around the World and SF in particular’ series I’m doing right here on the Shine blog (next installment will be posted tomorrow!), so I’ll inform him about it.
  • Ahmed A. Kahn — writer and editor of, amongst other things, SF Waxes Philosophical and A Mosque Amongst the Stars — has announced two new anthologies: Cheer Up, Universe and Fun Times in Strange Lands. The former looks for original SF/F that makes us feel good; the latter will be fully illustrated, and is aimed at pre-teens (“precocious kids between the ages of 10 – 12”).

I certainly don’t see the above projects as competition, but rather the contrary: that there is a growing undercurrent in SF that looks both for a truly more worldwide representation, and that looks for a more positive approach. Thanks to tireless people like Lavie Tidhar, Charles A. Tan — check out his mini-directory of SFF people on Twitter — Gord Sellar (check out his piece on Korean SF which I will post tomorrow), Fabio Fernandes and Jacques Barcia (and I realise I’m forgetting quite a few people here: apologies and do feel free to correct and/or inform me) non-Western SF is getting more attention. Also, as Matt Staggs noted earlier in the year, maybe the time has come for a post-snark era.

Optimism in Literature around the World, and SF in particular, part 2: “Finding Hope in Philippine SF”

In the nick of time Charles A. Tan sent me his contribution for this ongoing series. It’s titled:

Finding Hope in Philippine Science Fiction

When I was invited to contribute an essay on optimistic science fiction, I was struck with panic. While the Philippines is known as one of the “happiest” countries in the world, we’re actually a third-world country that’s fallen from grace. In Asia, we were once second only to Japan. Currently, we’re behind many developing countries such as Singapore. As for the state of the country, we’re plagued by crimecorruption, and pollution. If anything, the Philippine condition feels like a cyberpunk setting gone awry: pirated software and movies are being sold at readily-available kiosks, a good chunk of the population can’t afford computers yet we have an abundance of programmers whose skills are capable of creating programs like the ILOVEYOU virus, and there’s the ever-prevalent diaspora, whether it’s nurses and maids working abroad to fresh graduates being hired as call center agents for foreign companies. Our literature isn’t any help either as many modern works haven’t really strayed from the formula of one of our first novels, Noli Me Tangere, penned by our national hero Jose Rizal. Social relevance is the thrust of many of the established writers and the academe, and genres like science fiction is viewed as escapist at best.

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Lately there’s been a movement to promote Philippine speculative fiction but unfortunately, science fiction gets the short-end of the stick. Pulp horror was quite the money-maker a few years ago while fantasy is probably the most popular genre as far as writing is concerned (especially since under its umbrella is magic-realism and even surrealism). For the past three volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction, an annual anthology edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, science fiction tends to be the exception rather than the norm. That’s not to say science fiction doesn’t have any presence. Filipino writer/poet/editor/critic Roberto Anonuevo has an essay (my translation here) on one of the earlier Philippine science fiction texts which appeared as early as the 1940s. But for the most part, there hasn’t really been much foray into the said genre, especially if we’re talking about hard science fiction.

In the current decade though, there was motivation to write a form of science fiction as one of the most popular literary awards in the country, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, created a “Futuristic Fiction” category. (Unfortunately, the said category was recently abolished.) The Futuristic Fiction label however has some complications (in addition to the fact that just because one wins an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the winning work will be published). For example, a limitation is that the text must take place in the future, and honestly this restriction doesn’t limit the story to science fiction. For example, “Espiritu Santos” by Pearlsha Abubakar skirts the borders of fantasy. The premise is that Filipinos are able to see ghosts thanks to overexposure to the frequencies emitted by cellphones. Then there’s the recently-established Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards which partially exists due to the sponsorship of Neil Gaiman. At least during the first year of the competition, there were some science fiction stories that won including “The God Equation” by Michael A. R. Co (again, same dilemma as “Espiritu Santos”) or the fun and very pulpish “The Great Philippine Space Mission” by Philbert Ortiz Dy (in which a rocket is powered by gossip).

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Still, this is the Shine blog after all and instead of feeling sorry for the state of science fiction in the country, I want to talk about optimism–or in the case of the Philippines, hope. Perhaps what isn’t surprising is that we don’t have much utopian science fiction, at least well-written ones or the type that’s believable. Instead, we have apocalyptic or dystopian texts but there’s a caveat. While there are certainly stories in the mold of 1984 (“Kaming Mga Seroks” by David Hontiveros comes to mind), what might appeal to Shine readers are narratives that look towards the future such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver.

“Subterrania” (First Prize for Futuristic Fiction in the 2000 Palanca Awards) by Luis Joaquin Katigbak and “Keeping Time” (First Prize in the Short Story category of the Free Press Literary Awards 2008) by FH Batacan are good examples. In the former, it’s a bleak society that’s slowly mutating. In the latter, the end of the world is happening as a biological agent is slowly decimating the population. In both stories however, the focus are the characters and by the end of each piece, there comes the realization that the humanity of the protagonists can’t be torn away from them. There’s an attitude of perseverance and love, enduring despite all the burdens.

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Another story I’d like to focus on is “A Monumental Race” (Third Prize for Futuristic Fiction in the 2006 Palanca Awards) by Arturo Ilano which easily fits the mundane science fiction movement of Geoff Ryman. The characters are seeking a monument that best represents the country and while they don’t quite succeed in finding one to their particular tastes, there’s still an aftertase of victory at the end.

Returning to the topic of science fiction in the Philippines, again, there’s been a recent resurgence of Philippine speculative fiction, especially with more and more works getting published internationally and online (here and here) and hopefully this means more science fiction in the future. We have yet to reach the peak but we’re not at rock bottom either. Whereas once the Philippines’s only claim to fame was having a Filipino protagonist in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Manila being featured in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, we now have Filipino writers actually writing science fiction.

 Charles A. Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and his fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has conducted interviews for The Nebula Awards and The Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio and Comics Village. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker, where he posts book reviews, interviews, and essays.

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Optimism in literature around the world, and SF in particular, part 1

I have been approaching several people worldwide to guest blog on this topic. Reactions have been mostly very enthusiastic, and I’m happy to kick this monthly recurring feature off with a piece about optimistic SF in the Ukraine by Sergey Gerasimov.

Terra Fantastica
By Sergey Gerasimov

Some facts about Ukrainian science fiction:

Gogol, Lem and Bulgakov were born in Ukraine, and while it’s good to be born here, it has never been healthy to live in this place, so they wrote their best works in other countries.

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The 2004 Eurocon Award, Best Magazine, went to a Ukrainian magazine called Realnist fantastyky (‘Science Fiction Reality’ or ‘Reality of Fantasy’, in different translations). This magazine is published monthly in Russian in Kiev, Ukraine. It publishes Sci Fi, fantasy, and horror. Two hundred pages of quality fiction and articles.

Eurocon 2006 was held in Kyiv. It made Ukraine the first country of the former Soviet Union where this convention was held.

I don’t know if the phrase “Sci Fi is dead” is true anywhere in the world, but it is close to being true here in Ukraine. Sci Fi is in serious trouble. It’s almost lost its ground to fantasy. Downbeat science fiction about wars, Armageddons, and other equally nice things can still be found on the bookshelves, but optimistic Sci Fi has melted like a glacier in the European Alps. I’ve published a few Sci Fi novels and a hundred stories here. Once, trying to remember something optimistic among them, I looked through the titles but didn’t find anything.

Besides resource depletion, climate change, and pollution, there are some special topics in Ukraine: 99 percent corruption everywhere, Chernobyl, and we’ve already lived in a diluted variant of 1984; when reading George Orwell’s book, we don’t find anything surprising in it. That may be why Ukrainian readers don’t look for novels, which describe marvelous possibilities or give social commentaries anymore. With cannibalistic optimism they read another meaty spilling guts story. The best social commentaries are given here in R-rated language.

Hard to believe, but there was time when the main type of speculative fiction written in Ukraine was optimistic Sci Fi. The only subgenres of it I remember were: naive-optimistic and hypocritically optimistic. These soap opera flavored volumes populated with happy future communists illustrated some political issues of the day and the famous Michurin’s motto: “We cannot wait for favors from Nature. To take them from it — that is our task.”

But times have a tendency to change.

Now there are 63 actively published (those who have published three books or more) authors in Ukraine who work in the genre of “Fantastica”. Fantastica is a Russian and Ukrainian umbrella term for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Wikipedia gives us four pages in the category “Ukrainian science fiction writers”: Fyodor Berezin, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Vladimir Savchenko, and Alexander Zorich. Out of these four Berezin and Zorich write first, about wars, wars, and wars, second, about plasma rifles, tortures, bloody conflicts, and life after a thermonuclear war. Third, did I mention wars? If not, some titles: “Faces of War”, “Tomorrow war”, “War 2030”, etc. You have to be fantastically optimistic to find a nugget of optimism here.

Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko are very prolific. They have already published more than one million copies of their books. In 1996, at the European Forum of sci-fi and fantasy writers, Eurocon 1996, their novel was recognized as the best debut. In 2005, at Eurocon 2005, they were recognized as the best writers in their genre in Europe. But they are in fact fantasy writers.

Savchenko, who died in 2005, was an optimist, or tragic optimist, to be precise. The main idea of his books is deep and changing the way of thinking:

If a system oscillates at resonance frequencies, it stores the energy, and even a small force can produce large vibrations. This system might be a pendulum, a resonant coil, or our nervous system. If we understand the reality, we resonate with the Universe, and our small energy can do great things, virtually any great things. Our activity can result in either dissipated heat or new knowledge; entropy or information. Intelligent creatures are those who produce maximum information and minimum entropy. Our goal in this world is to change it for the better by means of understanding it, and we are able to fight against entropy and defeat it.

A novel by Savchenko Self-discovery is available at Amazon.com. This is a fragment of a review: Self-discovery (literal translation “Discovery of Self”) was one of my favorite sci-fi books, and Savchenko is one of my favorite writers. Using American scale he is on the level of Bradbery or Azimov [sic: these misspellings of Bradbury and Asimov are from the review, Ed.].”

Well, you can check that out.

Not many Ukrainian authors managed to be published in English.

The most famous is Andrei Kurkov. His work is currently translated into 25 languages including English, Japanese, French, Chinese and Hebrew.

Andrei Kurkov has achieved more commercial success abroad than any other writer from Ukraine in the post-Soviet period. As of fall 2008, three to four million copies of his 25 books have been published in most European languages abroad. Around 150,000 copies of his most popular work, A Picnic on the Ice, were sold in Ukraine alone. He is the only former Soviet writer whose works have made the top 10 list of European bestsellers. His books are full of black humor, post-Soviet reality, phantasmagoria and surrealism.

A very interesting personality was Oles Berdnyk, a well-known Ukrainian science fiction writer, author of about 20 novels, a founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki group (UHG), twice a political prisoner. You can go to http://www.khpg.org/archive/en/index.php?id=1113844054 to read about him. His best works are bright and optimistic, though they were written at that time when utopian future described with Vernian technical accuracy or without it was an unbreakable cliché. Main themes of Berdnyk’s science fiction are man’s quest for immortality, contacts with alien life forms from distant regions of space, man’s extraordinary journeys through inner and outer space, and accounts of dissident scientists who challenge the established scientific precepts and through their radical approaches achieve extraordinary results.

Dmitry Gromov and Oleg Ladyzhensky write fantasy and Sci Fi (mainly fantasy) under the joint pen-name: “Henry Lion Oldie”.

The list of H. L. Oldie’s novels and novelettes (up to June 2007) includes 45 books. At their official website http://www.rusf.ru/oldie/english/ you can learn more about them and read some novels and stories.

In 1991 they founded “The Second Pancake” Creative Studio in Kharkiv. Together with assorted Russian and Ukrainian publishers, The Second Pancake Creative Studio published hundreds books of fantasy and science fiction.

Ukraine is a fantastic Terra Incognita in the very centre of Europe. (Nobody knows where exactly its center is, perhaps in the small town of Rakhiv, in western Ukraine.) But when I ask people what they know about this country, they usually answer: “Pysanki, Chernobyl, and Taras Bulba.” Not more. Yes, Klichko brothers. If you want to have a glimpse at what Ukraine is you can read my article in Strange Horizons, at http://www.strangehorizons.com/2008/20081215/gerasimov-a.shtml. It’s a surrealistic country. Country of total freedom and democracy and total lack of any other vital things.

Country of fantastic people, fantastic ideas, and fantastic fantastica.

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I live in Kharkiv, Ukraine. My stories written in English have appeared, besides other venues, in Adbusters, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld Magazine, Oceans of the Mind, and forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine. I write mainly surrealism, which some inattentive editors can take for science fiction or fantasy and publish. If you are interested to know what is a good, solid surrealism in my understanding read my story at http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/gerasimov_07_08/. No, better not risk it. It’s too wild for the inexperienced eye.