The shape of danish science fiction
|The shape of danish science fiction|
Publicat Duminică, 11 Februarie 2007, ora 20:22
Before science fiction
Why 1741? As a modernistic literary offspring, the history of science fiction hardly dates back more than a century. You may define the beginning as early as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) or as late as Hugo Gernsback’s introduction of the word scientifiction (1926). But long before our tradition, the satire counted a number of untimedly, fantastic ideas. Ignorant of his future collegues, Lucian of Samosata (app. 120-180 AD) send people to the Moon, and Voltaire (1694-1778) let aliens from outer space pay us a visit.
This was also true for Danish s.f. Especially one premature contributer is known: Ludvig Holberg, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and originator to many wonderful acts. In 1741 he wrote Nicolai Kliimi Iter Svbterranevm (Niels Klim’s Underground Voyage) in which the main character investigates a Norwegian cave and discovers another world within our planet – a tale about ideal societies, along the lines of Thomas Moore’s Utopia and Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Some plagiarists followed Holberg too, but not many. After years of research the bibliographers Klaus Johansen and Henry Madsen concluded, that from Holberg to 1991, the total amount of s.f. titles published in Denmark was 1,774 ─ including translations, fantasy and slipstream in local newspapers. Since then we still haven’t reached 250 Danish authors, who ever wrote s.f. The manuscripts are easily stacked on a pallet. For comparison, we published 2,779 works of literary fiction in ’97, and estimated to house 6,000 active fiction writers. But although Denmark has a modest s.f. production, I can only comment on a few examples.
After Holberg until 1900 only trifles appeared. John Herman Wessel composed the act Year 7603 in 1783, and in the 1850’ies H.C. Andersen wrote a handfull of s.f.-like stories, but only his “In Millenniums” (1852) are considered noteworthy. Frankly, it’s a remarkably foretelling of American tourists exploring Europe in just five days. The first technically ‘hard’ s.f. appeared after the turn of the century. Niels Meyn and August Kingsley brought out their first novel, With Airship to Mars (1911). This was the starting signal for a mammoth-like production. Until 1957 Meyn wrote hundreds of young adult s.f. books. His “Tim Ryan” series became so popular, it is still found in any holiday cottage.
Wars to come and go
Except for Meyn, there were only slipstream titles until 1930, when Valdemar Hanøl made a classical ‘mad professor and his silverbrain zombies attempts to conquer the world’. Three years later, a sincere anti-nazistic novel was written – Mogens Klitgaard’s Planet of the Insane, about life on the planet Nedroj (the Danish word for Earth, spelled backwards). However, Klitgaard died in 1945, and his manuscript was not published until 1968. In 1938 another spectacular novel appeared, The Man Who Thought Life by Valdemar Holst. It is mainly interesting because Holst thematized ESP and ‘inner landscape’, before it was common to s.f.
After World War II, Eiler Jørgensen had his short story collection The Strange Experiences of Lecturer Hansen (1946) published. Hansen’s body is located both in the past and present, with his consciousness jumping between. Jørgensen’s later novel The Man Who Remembered (1951) is a satire about the Frenchman Pierre Auriol, who awakens one morning to discover, that everybody else are driven by instincts, and all traces of the past are vanished. Only Pierre and the bulldog Dicki (a reincarnation of a cosmetic fabricant) remembers.
1953 was the year when Niels E. Nielsen came up with his first two novels, Report from Sahara and The Blacksmith of Happiness. For nearly two decades Nielsen was our only ‘real’ s.f. author, thus casting a vast influence on following generations, himself being inspired by American writing. At his death in 1993, he had produced more than fifty novels and short story collections, and was published in many countries, including Russia in the mid-seventies. In many ways Nielsen is associated to the cold war. But while the establishment reacted on Hiroshima by writing metaphysical essays and existentialist poetry in the magazine Heretica, Nielsen took another direction. Characteristic for his writing is the escatological picture of nuclear war and its effects upon culture as well as nature. But more important than mutants and radioactive cities, are the main character’s pschological conditions, and where we evolve after the apocalypse – and he was not altogether pessimistic. Some of his stories differ, like Planet of the Vagabonds (1970) in which clans are living constantly on the move on the global highways, only stopping to repair their plastic tanks. The movie version (The Ramblers) has been described as a kind of Mad Max clone, years ahead of Mad Max. In a review on the Swedish translation of The Rulers (1970), Roland Adlerberth wrote: “Read this book. Then you will understand why I consider Niels E. as one of the best s.f. authors of Europe.”
Although Nielsen overshadowed his time, a few other authors and events of this period is worth mentioning. Planetmagasinet (The Planet Magazine), a short-living s.f. magazine, was released in 1958. The first novel by Herluf T.H. Flensburg appeared in 1960. Flensburg primarily made his living by writing trivial short stories to women’s magazines, but he also wrote s.f. His most important work was Flasks for a Planet (1970), about CCIs – Chemically Created Individuals. In quality, there is a big leap from Flensburg to Holger Hansen’s scary novel Zygotos (1963) set in a psychological dictatorship. Sven Holm’s Termush, the Atlantic Shore (1967) was another post-apocalyptic novel, but surprisingly well-written.
Splitting the literary atom
An interesting tendency occoured in the late sixties. Simultaneously, ‘serious’ fiction began experimenting, while trival magazines made efforts to raise the standard, and the blurring of literary boundaries led to dreary disputes. Anders Bodelsen was a famous mainstream1 author, who tried out different genres. For instance he wrote detective stories, but the critics did not approve his novels Think of a Number and One of Those Accidents (both 1968). 125 years after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1843) detective stories were still not acceptable in our little kingdom. Later, when Bodelsen thematized cryogenics in his s.f. novel The Freezing Point (1969), he realised, that s.f. was facing the same problems. Among many well-reputed reviewers who criticised Bodelsen, Hans Hertel wrote:
There is something almost reckless by the way Anders Bodelsen administers his talent. Is it speculation in “current issues”? At least I do not remember any such perspectively example of the complicated interaction between work and introduction, artistic value, and image.
He proceeded to question, if Bodelsen did not simply want trash devotees to buy his books. It was not a matter of quality, but simply unthinkable, that a promising author wasted his talent on genre literature. If women were the niggers of the world, as John Lennon once sang, then s.f. was the nigger of literature.
But whatever arrogance expressed in the literary cold war, writers like Bodelsen and Svend Åge Madsen demonstrated, that fusion of genre-oriented literature and mainstream was after all possible. In time, like J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut, they became mediators, with supporters in both camps. And as some genre elements could no longer be rejected, a slow chain reaction began.
Now the detective story is assimilated, but s.f. is still subjected to ‘genrism’. If a s.f. novel is recommended, it happens in spite – the generic characteristcs are offhanded as insignificant – even though the story only works within this tradition. If it’s good, then it’s not s.f. If, on the other hand, it is poor, then s.f. alone is to blame. And anybody feels free to write reviews on s.f., thus neglecting points and babbling out muddled observations on top of tragic fallacies. In one coarse case, the reviewer proclaimed her lack of knowledge in the literary field – and took the genre apart, based on a single work. That leads to fear of contact og damages your self-esteem. Authors as well as publishers are reluctant to deal with the genre or derives a rule: Don’t mention your s.f. ancestors! On book covers, the expression is replaced by neutral labels – thriller or action novel. However, books can be well written or not, but the fact remains, that a genre is never a label for quality.
The golden age of red faces
The years from the end of the sixties to the mid-seventies offered a flood of translations – anthologies and novels, old and new, subversive and ground-breaking works. In seven years Arne Herløv Petersen alone translated thirty books for Stig Vendelkær’s Publishing House ─ and Vendelkær was far from alone in publishing s.f. It was probably a side effect of the space race and escapism triggered off by the energy crisis.
S.f. is not easy to translate, but that period presented so many sloppy translations. We read about a meeting at “counter no. one,” after the English “bar one”, and a “power plant” was transformed to a “force flower”. But in spite of the variable quality of the books, they attracted a lot of readers, and you finally had a sense, that the genre was establishing in Denmark. The local production increased. The national s.f. association (SFC) was founded and gave an international congress. The first regular s.f. magazine, Månedens Bedste Science Fiction (Best Science Fiction of the Month), was distributed in kiosks from 1975. Almost every year a new Danish s.f. movie had premiere (except for Jens Ravn’s The Man Who Thought Life, based on the novel by Holst, nothing had happened in that field since Poul Bang and Sidney W. Pink’s dreadful Reptilicus and Journey to the Seventh Planet, both 1961).
But then things went wrong. Having published too much crap, several publishing houses went bankrupt or stopped publishing s.f. altogether. The market dried out.
Danish s.f. sure needed attention, but we had to wait for the nineties before a number of works got significant publicity. Regrettably, that was. Having just dicovered Blade Runner or William Gibson, and then still being clueless, the new writers had not much in common with s.f. or literature at all. Danish ‘cyberpunk’ was primarily an Augias’ stable for hacking, Ecstasy and anarchistic staging, introduced by the local techno sub culture. As a secondary activity they made stories like ‘some guy attempts suicide by watching too much television’. At that moment, journalists became interested i computers, designerdrugs, implants and related topics. So with a ten year delay a distorted cyberpunk version was suddenly promoted as the cutting edge of s.f. Briefly they usurped all attention, embarrasing s.f. more than helping it. Then they vanished like dew before the sun.
Since then, the interest rose again. Mainly due to the falling membership, a decline in publication rate and the death of older authors, SFC realised that the genre was stagnating, and decided to do something about it. It was in 1994, and SFC aimed for a festival in 1996, when Copenhagen was chosen as the European Cultural City. A scheme entitled Fabula 96 was worked out. After prolonged and promising negotiations with the Cultural City Committee, the association recieved a letter, stating that Copenhagen had already “attained a wide covering program within the categories painting, photography, applied art, design, classical music, dance, historical city, green cultural city, the city of the children and young people”. It is noted, that the festival’s entertaining, literary and academic tracks did not belong to any of these categories. So much for s.f., when it came down to the cheque.
At that moment, SFC almost threw up the sponge. But gradually a new plan was laid out. Fabula 96 summoned reinforcement, through collaborations with bookshops and publishing houses. Publications, posters, t-shirts and coffee mugs were produced as never before in the 22 year history of SFC. Lectures were prepared, movie facilities rented and we got up exhibitions. Forlaget Cicero published Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, before it was released in English, and Forlaget Klim published my novel Baffling Noise. Local authors, scientists and cultural celebrities were recruited and Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Sherryl Jordan and Bruce Sterling were brought to Copenhagen. A steady stream of press conferences and interviews for newspapers, radio and tv announced, that an amazing event was about to begin.
Thousands of guests had a marvelous weekend. The arrangement came out with an economical surplus, the list of SFC members exploded, and two new associations were founded: Trekkies.dk and the B5 Link. The organizers were beside themselves with joy.
And then we were hit by a boom of s.f. movies. Independence Day had premiere on the first day of the festival, and right afterwards the American Sci-Fi Channel was connected to Danish cables. We were flooded by Hollywood products and tv series. And our new allies also sticked to merchandise and video tapes. They never read Tzvetan Todorov or poetry. Mentioning poetry is deliberate, as s.f. condenses language much like poetry, and requires time to adapt. You can hardly claim the same about s.f. movies. Although s.f. and moving pictures are sisters, born almost simultaneously, and early film was up to date with s.f., the present media prefer clichés.
So was the situation in Danmark, 1996. S.f. appeared more frequent, and the number of people occupied by s.f. was higher, than ever before. But the knowledge about s.f. as literature had not increased, and the danger of drowning in alternate media offers was imminent.
Fueling for the future
The wave did not settle towards the end of the century. On the contrary – it speeded up, powered by the upcoming millennium. The daily newspaper Information had two article series going simultaneously – one on trends and news, and one on classical s.f. books. Many more newspapers and magazines presented s.f. in feature articles. Counted in publications, the year 1999 might have been our best yet. But more important, they represented a broad variety of subgenres, and nearly all were well recieved. We are lucky, having a small, new batch of s.f. authors, familiar with fantastic literature, but first of all considering literary workmanship. These few, riding high on the surf, are a great and all-important asset for us, appearing just at the right moment.
Among the fifty titles published in 1999, Klaus Æ. Mogensen gave us a young adult action universe in his novel The Dimensional Pirates. Johan Springborg had his second ‘hard hivemind’ novel, The Copy, published. My own novel Mission to Schamajim was a hybrid of new wave and horror. And Bernhard Ribbeck presented the most poetic time travel stories for decades in The Ice Among the Islands.
I got to admit, something wonderful has happened in Danish s.f. With new energy and approaches to writing, the future seem just as bright as it seemed sullen, seven years ago. Yet something is still missing: no woman is among the new-born writers. If you want to know, how s.f. authors reproduce – read science fiction.
A dish of topics
Having come this far, you might question what it is all about. Do Danes prefer certain motives or write in specific ways? What can Danish s.f. offer the international scene?
There is no doubt that Danes are just as inspired by Anglo-American writing and firmly based in our own culture, as all Europeans. We do draw on geographical location and history, but most stories are set in space, the future or alternate worlds, using cultural aspects and names from all over the world or made up for the occation. I consider this to be characteristic for s.f. In general, we follow the habit of not writing much about every-day middle class people, but about artists, prophets and up-front scientists – world historical individuals. It is part of playing by the rules of the genre.
Regarding the stylish aspects, we were never rich in seventies style s.f., which is odd, as it was a most active period. Traditionally Danish s.f. authors were not very stylish or literate. They were old fashioned, meat and potatoes, simple writers, telling wierd, complex stories. It works for s.f., because the more complex a story is, the simpler the style should be and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll get lost into wonderful magic realism, that nobody comprehends. But we did miss a touch of the elegance, found in the recent works. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Stig W. Jørgensen and Svend Åge Madsen.
A volume of Danish s.f. confirm Robert A. Heinlein, having said that s.f. is “the only form of fiction which stands even a chance of interpreting the spirit of our times”. They attempt to comment on contemporary issues in near future surroundings, but often in a moralising tone, and not very well researched. For instance, the prospect of building nuclear power plants in Denmark led to a good many stories, full of grotesque assumptions and no distance in their point of view. And with some delay, the introduction of computers in trades and public schools, did the same2. Others followed a growing fear of technology and disposed politically correct geia novels, to demonstrate the most dishonest and destructive aspects of human enterprise. This group was no more, no less thoughtless than the ‘cyberpunks’, as both groups committed the blunder of supporting (definite) attitudes instead of investigating the (general) conditions of existence. The normative polarisation only confirmed, what to think and say in particular circles on nature versus technology. It was expressed through two types of main characters: The alienated, hardcore hacker and the self-important, ecological hero. The first was worshipped by young yuppie writers, the last by older left wing slipstreamers. Sure, you can track the Zeitgeist, but I got to admit, I don’t find this kind of s.f. edifying. Thus, Heinlein’s words takes on an unintended, betraying course.
As for the truly fantastic we are much better off. Even in the sense of diagnosticing the present through adequate metaphors, not being symptoms themselves (at least I am unable to tell). So many original stories have been written, I can mainly describe what it is not. First of all Danish space opera is a rare species. Some stories by Johannes Donnerstag and Bernhard Ribbeck resembles space opera, but the closest contribute to the subgenre was probably a shared world initiated by SFC in 1993 (“The Circle of Ngorongoro”). These tales are full of hyper-science, alien cultures, space ships and phenomenas, and the galaxy is really BIG.
We also lack shared worlds and co-works. Although authors meet and help each other, ideas and style stays individual. In fact I only remember two shared worlds in addition to the before mentioned. Five episodes of an incomplete story was serialized in Novum in the early nineties. The last shared world is a funny art project. Based on a concept by Ribbeck and the artist Frank Tomozy, a number of texts are exhibited from time to time. The texts are followed by objects, accordingly provided by time travellers. Some of the objects are real – airplane wreckage, mutant plants, antique amphoras etc. – some are manufactured by Tomozy – time machines, alien artifacts etc.
Free of fandom
The impression, that an interest for s.f. did not exist, is far from correct, but throughout the century, mainstream and s.f. lived seperate lives in Denmark. While literary connaisseurs hardly knew s.f. besides from Star Wars, the underground housed people with extensive knowledge about the genre. Mainstreamers became famous for modernistic experiments, not knowing it was old news to us. They catalogued us as trivial and lumped us with Scientologists or ufo fanatics. In frustration Niels E. Nielsen declared: “I am not a science fiction writer, I am an author who writes science fiction”. And some of us sold stories to porno magazines – the only way to reach a wider audience. Prejudices and compromise of literature was everyday to us.
Therefore the active s.f. environtment lead a withdrawn existence. For decades it was characterised by meetings along salons – it is evident from the name of the old association: Science Fiction Cirklen (The Science Fiction Circle). The members, who almost all knew one another, published fanzines3 in the attempt to spread their favourite literature. They were printed as illegal leaflets, and circulated outside the ordinary distribution networks for a limited flock in Denmark and members of sister organizations in Scandinavia. Pc’s and off set relieved us for typewriters and duplicating machines, but the print runs did not rise markedly, so only a few of the Danish fanzines managed to survive. The most important are Proxima, Cirkel Serien and Phantazm. Proxima, founded 1974, is a literature scientific periodical concentrating on articles and reviews. Cirkel Serien brings anthologies and novelettes. Phantazm is a distinctly layouted magazine about the fantastic genres and peculiar realities. Most of the contributors meets regularily in a former barbar shop in Copenhagen, and the lot counts astronomers, futurologists, poets, artist and similar eccentrics.
It is told, that the Danish fandom is in reality a prodom, consisting of old authors. ‘Pro’ is true in the sense that the fans publishes a lot, and some translators, non-fiction writers and other ‘fans’ makes money out of their interest. But most Danish s.f. authors started before fandom and never joined up. Or they were one-shots. No professional author came out of fandom until 1996. Probably due to lack of continuity, the Danish fanzines were never breeders of new talent.
The ghettoization within Denmark made us seek contact abroad. Our arrangements with oversea guests took place in The English Institute in preference to The Danish Writers’ Association, and at the annual cons, authors were always involved, authorities were never. So, it is hardly an exaggeration, that knowledge about Danish s.f. was better in Oxford and Moscow, than in our own literary establishment.
Therefore, at gatherings in workshops or associations, you felt like belonging to a secret society – fascinating and frustrating, like being an under cover agent in your own country.
Science fiction does not hold the answers
The increased frequency of publications and articles in ‘literate’ periodicals calls for an explanation. When s.f. is taken serious now, it is not due to the higher standard or a public interest in the literary qualities of the genre. There are many signs to tell why not: the way journalists and critics confuses s.f. and fantasy, or the way they ignore questions of literary method in favor of popular science. It was the millennium blur, and a demand for taking a stand on the future. The recently acquired ‘acceptance’ mainly reveals the rigid ideas that s.f. foretells the future, are up-to-date with technological research, offers a competent debate or cajoles young people into ‘future safe’ educations. But those who, inspired by such promotion, tries out s.f. are at risk getting dissappointed. Those, who might appreciate the literary qualities of s.f., will not respond to the promotion.
The only medicin I can think of, is that s.f. leaves its Matrix. The authors must stop feeling embarrassed by the genre, as by some maladjusted kid, and stop support arbitrary journalism, that does no good for s.f. They must start measuring themselves with other men of letters, and manuduct s.f. into proper literary circulations. A versatile selection must be translated, and in depth articles by damn serious critics must be printed in the periodicals. All of this depends on the co-operation of editors a.o. But the initiative is up to the s.f. people, for nobody else is going to take it.
Somehow frustrated by experience, somehow optimistic, I wonder if Danish s.f. will follow the detective story and enter the post-fandom era, where nobody cares about labels.
1. Mainstream used to mean contemporary fiction focused on the psychology of the main character. Today mainstream ranges from lyric minimalism to spy stories. Often it just means ‘average, non trivial’. For me it sometimes means claustrophobic – what John Updike referred to as becoming small enough and inky enough to be considered as serious writing.
2. The ‘delay’ was not by comparison to other countries. Very early, Denmark provisioned new laws on indtroduction of EDP. Register inspections were established and the concept of technological assessment gained a footing. Agreements on technology became an ordinary subject of the collective bargaining, attached to the liaison committees and the labour court system. Before 1980 computers were reduced to a small part of the greater whole. But when Danish s.f. finally became aware of computers, I was stunned to discover, how ignorant the authors were to the fact, that science, philosophy and democracy had already dealt with the questions proposed by their fiction.
3. 589 issues or 13,634 pages since 1974.
The Danish original titles in order of appearance
Nicolai Kliimi Iter Svbterranevm Noam Tellvris Theoriam Ac Historiam Qvintae Monarchiae Adhvc Nobis Incognitae Exhibens E Bibliotheca B. Abelini (Niels Klim's Underground Voyage) (Holberg) = Niels Klims underjordiske rejse (this piece however, was originally written and published in Latin)
Year 7603 (Wessel) = Anno 7603
“In Millenniums” (Andersen) = “Om Aartusinder”
With Airship to Mars (Meyn/Kingsley) = Med luftskib til Mars
Planet of the Insane (Klitgaard) = De sindssyges klode
The Man Who Thought Life" (Holst) = Manden der tænkte ting
The Strange Experiences of Lecturer Hansen (Jørgensen) =
Lektor Hansens sælsomme hændelser
The Man Who Remembered (Jørgensen) = Manden der huskede
Report from Sahara (Nielsen) = Der meldes fra Sahara
The Blacksmith of Happiness (Nielsen) = Lykkens smed
Planet of the Vagabonds (Nielsen) = Vagabondernes planet
The Ramblers (movie adaption of above novel) = Strejferne
The Rulers (Nielsen) = Herskerne
Flasks for a Planet (Flensburg) = Kolber til en klode
Zygotos (Hansen) = Zygotos
Termush, the Atlantic Shore (Holm) = Termush, Atlanterhavskysten
Think of a Number (Bodelsen) = Tænk på et tal
One of Those Accidents (Bodelsen) = Hændeligt uheld
The Freezing Point (Bodelsen) = Frysepunktet
Baffling Noise (Løyche) = Støj
The Dimensional Pirates (Mogensen) = Dimensionspiraterne
The Copy (Springborg) = Kopien
Mission to Schamajim (Løyche) = Mission til Schamajim
The Ice Among the Islands (Ribbeck) = Isen mellem øerne
“The Circle of Ngorongoro” (SFC) = “Ngorongoros Cirkel”
Other titles in Danish translation
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Poe) = Mordene i Rue Morgue
Holy Fire (Sterling) = Hellig ild
Reptilicus, Journey to the Seventh Planet and Independence Day were presented as such in Danish movie theaters
© Copyright H.H. Løyche
|Sursa : Imagikon
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