Cristian Tamas : ”The Czechs appear to believe that the Earth is the centre of the Universe, Europe is the centre of Earth and Czechia (Česko) is at the centre of Europe. The Czechs have no one-word term to denote their homeland and will forever have to be content with merely an adjective for their nation. The Czechs would like to be seen as modern, rapidly developing country full of promise, opportunities and educated people; as being not only the link between the West and East, but also the cauldron in which all that’s good from West and East melts; as if not the best, then at least one of the top nations in the world. A Czech sees himself as the hero of a novel. Not the hero warrior from old Czech legends. But…the good old soldier Švejk” – Petr Berka, Aleš Palán, Petr Štastný; Is it just self-ironical czech humour, self-deprecatory central European auto-irony?
Julie Nováková : Yes, I see it as a self-ironical view. We seem to be good at that!
Cristian Tamas : Any educated person heard about (and any cultivated person read some Czech literature, saw some Czech films and listen some Czech music), Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Jaroslav Hašek, Josef Škvorecký, Pavel Kohout, Miloš Forman, Jirí Menzel, Vera Chitilová (the Czech New Wave), Leoš Janáček, Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Bohuslav Martinů, Alfons Mucha and František Kupka. Still, only Karel Čapek, Josef Nesvadba and Michal Ajvaz are internationally the best known Czech Fantastika writers. Why is that?
Julie Nováková : Their work is good and remains interesting and thought-provoking even now. Besides that, I guess it’s easier to have classics translated (and taught about at schools) than current works, not “tested by the march of time”. Your selection shows that Czech writers, dramatists, directors, composers and painters are still famous, and justly so. But from any of these categories, people would probably recall just a couple of names, and they’re mostly “classics”. In SF, it’s mostly Čapek, Nesvadba and Ajvaz (who is an honorable exception as he started publishing after the Velvet Revolution, his work is new in the long-term perspective). Who knows, it may change in the future (maybe even in the nearest future with the changes in current publishing world).
Cristian Tamas : ”There are people who wish that America would one day civilize old Europe as Europe once civilized the old empire of the Aztecs. I admit that this prospect terrifies me, as the cultural ideals of the European conquerors terrified the old Aztecs, and in my Aztec tongue I utter a war cry against this threat to our European reservation.” – Karel Čapek; How do you comment?
I think the point is that each culture’s ideals are to some extent different and some should be maintained, with which I agree.
Cristian Tamas : Has Czech speculative fiction developed in recent decades in constant reference to American SF and only under the influence of translations of the contemporary flowering of SF in English ? Is Czech SF today a secondary, derived product of the anglo-saxon commercial speculative fiction?
Julie Nováková : “I derive day and night, and when I’m at it, some functions I also integrate…” Sorry, couldn’t resist! Now seriously: First of all, I would like to avoid generalizing. A lot of current Czech fiction is derivatory and sort of “prefabricated”. But still many works are unique and I see a trend towards greater diversification from the “American template” (which is also a great simplification as the American SF itself is very broad). I also see boundaries shifting and dissipating. Anyone can publish practically anywhere nowadays if they know the language or find a translator. It may lead to more “derived, sell-well” stuff but it also gives more opportunities to authors of more unusual works.
Cristian Tamas : How do you depict for a non-fan of speculative fiction the last 25 years of the Czech SF&F? How you’ll describe the actual status of the Czech Fantastika: main authors, books, awards, magazines, printing houses, conventions, etc.?
Julie Nováková : An in-depth answer would requite a full-length essay but I’ll try to be brief here:
The XB-1 (formerly Ikarie) magazine goes through the whole modern history of Czech SF and contributed immensely through discovering new interesting authors, publishing foreign fiction and original genre essays, reviews and popular science articles. Pevnost is more multimedia-oriented lately but it’s also a magazine that cannot be omitted from any such summary. It too discovered many new authors, especially of fantasy, and found more genre fans.
The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Awards have been here for twenty years and awarded a lot of great work. Otherwise we’ve got the Aeronautilus (awards of the fans attending Festival Fantazie) and several story contest awards, mainly the Karel Čapek Prize (“CKČ”).
Main authors – I’m sure I’ll forget to mention someone important but hopefully others’ lists will complete mine: Michal Ajvaz, Ondřej Neff, František Novotný, Vilma Kadlečková, Jiří W. Procházka, Eva Hauserová, Jana Rečková, Jiří Kulhánek, Karolina Francová…
And then we’ve got many new authors of approximately my generation – Lucie Lukačovičová, Jan Hlávka, Jan Kotouč, Dan Tučka, Hanuš Seiner… Let’s wait how people come to see us in some time. As to printing houses, we’ve got a lot of them but I’d mention those whose production I read a lot and find interesting and stimulating or possessing a unique position on the market: Argo, Triton, Brokilon, Laser-Books, Straky na vrbě, Albatros. I’m sure others will name some other ones too.
Finally, conventions: The biggest one is Festival Fantazie each summer. The oldest one is Parcon, whose tradition goes back to 1982. Fénixcon is also very well-known. And apart from them, we’ve got many small but popular cons like StarCon, Trpaslicon, Minicon, CONiáš, and several anime festivals.
Cristian Tamas : Is the Czech Fantastika part of the Czech literary canon? Did you notice from the part of the literary/cultural establishment a high brow attitude concerning the „Trivialliteratur” of speculative fiction?
Julie Nováková : Classic SF like Čapek, Nesvadba of Fuks is an integral part of the canon and is commonly taught at schools. As to modern SF, that mostly depends on the teachers. Some devote only a brief one-sentence mention to it, some go to introduce it to pupils at length. I think most of the cultural establishment still views all speculative fiction as something inferior, “only fun”, but it too changes gradually. I remain optimistic.
Cristian Tamas : Entertainment vs ideology? Mercantilism & consumerism vs. communist governmental status (and state control & state censorship)? Private initiative vs. state monopoly? The former Czechoslovak SF vs. the actual Czech SF?
Julie Nováková : I shudder whenever someone claims they had written a novel to spread their ideology. In my view, most of these works don’t end up well though there are notable exceptions. And I think there’s a false dichotomy in the question; I like works that are entertaining and at the same time present brave new ideas, characters with different worldviews and make the reader think. But they shouldn’t be trying to blindly indoctrinate the reader with some ideology. The reader is not stupid and doesn’t need to be pushed. Of course, author’s views can often seep into the work but if it’s through some character or worldbuilding. That’s perfectly okay. From my stories, it’s perhaps apparent already by the choice of ideas and characters that I love science and technology, am a technooptimist and value knowledge. But if someone told me they’re ideological, I’d be horrified and try to find out where I made a mistake (and what ideology am I supposed to have – seriously, I don’t have one, I have views on specific matters that overlap with some political directions and fit neatly in none and I’m certainly not convinced I’m right). With the other two questions, we get into politics and I sincerely don’t know the answers. I’d probably have a chance to earn a Nobel prize for economics or peace if I had. But literature can explore the possibilities and make us think about them. And as to former/current SF: Any of it, as long as it’s good
Cristian Tamas : What is the Czech speculative fiction’s specificity, and performances (if any) in the last 25 years?
Julie Nováková : I don’t think we have just one shared national specificity regarding the content or style of the works; it may actually be rather boring if we had. But the Czech fiction market is specific in the number of published works in spite of the small audience of Czech-speaking people. I hope this unique feature persists and the market flourishes ever more, and I’ll try to contribute to that.
Cristian Tamas : Culturally, continental Europe is dominated by the English language translations, by the English language culture and visual entertainment. Why is it so? Do you think that the continental European SF (and the continental European popular culture) suffers from an inferiority complex in face of the anglo SF and is desperate for the angloSFere’s validation? Should European SF emancipate itself from “the yoke of the American hegemonic consumer culture”?
Julie Nováková : If you can choose between publishing a known international bestseller backed by a lot of promo and some local author (and you don’t want your publishing house to crumble down), which one do you choose? That’s the answer, I guess. The safety of return of the investment. But as readers are turning more to original works, this approach also shifts. In the early 90s, many Czech authors published under English-sounding pseudonyms. Nowadays nearly no one does that – they don’t need it. Readers read Czech fiction, some actively seek it. I think there’s no need for pompously sounding phrases like the last question. Publishers will always turn mostly to fiction that sells if they don’t want to lose their business – but what sells is changing, and not just in the Czech Republic. And if there really is some validation seeking in some cases, well, what can we do? Write and promote good fiction. That’s what matters ultimately.
Cristian Tamas : What Czech SF&F titles and authors do you recommend to our readers? What are themes, the obsessions and preoccupations, the trends of the Czech SF&F?
Julie Nováková : It’s impossible to generalize in such a way as to pick one or two themes and trends. But I’ll try… Cyberpunk and dystopia seemed quite popular in the 90s, not so much later, and they may be coming back slowly. Interesting alt histories of our country have been abundant from the 90s to now. Vampire or witch romances became popular in this century, they sell well. Recently, both classic and new space opera experienced a boom with the edition “European Space Opera” of the Brokilon publishing house (so far, Czech and Polish authors have been published there and other European authors are planned to appear). And maybe I’m setting a new transhumanism-driven trend now with my anthology Terra nullius, we’ll see…
Cristian Tamas : Is the Czech SF&F known in Europe and in the world? What do you think about the “vernacular” languages and “vernacular” literatures’ future? Will they resist to the “mcdonaldization” of the world?
Julie Nováková : I think it is, especially the classics. To some extent, they likely will resist, as we see with a variety of barely spoken languages nowadays. As carriers of new cultural trends, I’m not so sure.
Cristian Tamas : Which were the first SF texts and books that you read? Did you follow the developments within the imaginary domain from the last decades? What is your conclusion? Has science fiction any meaning and any relevance for the earthlings? Why read and write literature as it wouldn’t make you rich and famous?
Julie Nováková : Wait, it doesn’t make me rich and famous? Oh damn… Well: I got to SF rather young through Star Wars and then started reading the classics – Clarke, Lem, Asimov and such. I gradually broadened my scope throughout the genre and I read most of the subgenres of SF, though I have a special fondness for well-written hard SF (e.g. Egan or Watts). I’ve followed some of the genre developments and appreciate how they both broaden and deepen the scope of SF. Science fiction surely has meaning and relevance, like all stories. Unlike other genres, it can explore the society and people in it by a multitude of ways, present possibilities of future scientific and technological development, actively shape our thinking of the future… I guess that’s why I like SF. The ideas! The stories stemming from them! The wonder, the “why not” and “what if” !
Cristian Tamas : Do you read Fantasy? What is Fantasy in your opinion? In Europe we’re differentiating between Fantastika (grosso modo la litterature fantastique) and Fantasy, the later being mainly imported from the anglo-saxon countries, and having conquered the market of the world imaginary domain…Do you think that Fantasy and Fantastic Literature is representing the same thing, covering the same themes and tropes ?
Julie Nováková : It depends on the definitions, as you’ve already said in your question. I personally have a broad view of fantasy, including subgenres so different as high fantasy, urban fantasy and magical realism. So yes, for me the categories overlap greatly. It’s all labels in the end – useful in most cases but we should not forget that it’s rather a continuum than a puzzle of distinct pieces.
Cristian Tamas : Is a European Science Fiction existing or it’s just a theoretical concept ? Could European Science Fiction be defined, doesn’t it have a specificity and it’s own originality ? Could be promoted worldwide ?
Julie Nováková : Yes, it exists and it’s simply SF originating in Europe. What else would you like to hear? Common cultural concepts etc.? Sure, to some extent, but isn’t the individual variability greater than the common themes? When I read a good novel or short story, I often cannot tell where the author is from if it isn’t set in some specific national environment. I would very much like to see more European SF in the worldwide market. Hopefully, with the new tendencies to embrace translations in the Anglo-American SF market (starting with magazines like Clarkesworld or F&SF), I think there’s a good chance of that happening.
Cristian Tamas : The Euro-continentals are mainly watching US and UK movies and series, reading mainly US and UK novels and comics, playing US videogames, using US e-tools as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc, following like lemmings US trends and crazes… Globalization means Americanization? Has Euro-continental popular culture (and the world’s, too) been Anglo-colonized?
Julie Nováková : Probably. Let’s go colonize it back.
Cristian Tamas : There are non-Anglo European SF authors writing directly in English as Aliette de Bodard, Hannu Rajaniemi, Tom Croshill, Emmi Itäranta… the result being that their talent and originality are worldwide known. Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad are also fine examples of European authors writing in English. However, Zoran Zivkovic, the Serbian Fantastika author is saying that in spite of being a professor of English language and literature, he will never write in English: “I would never write my fiction in any other language than my native Serbian. It is the language of my art. When I wish a prose text of mine to be available in English translation, I rely on a good English translator”. Should one cultivate only one’s native garden?
Julie Nováková : There are Czech authors who would agree with Zoran, for example Vilma Kadlečková. I think it’s up to the individual author and what suits her best. I’m good at English and don’t see a reason why I shouldn’t write in English as well as Czech. I’ve also found that I conceive some texts much easier in English, some in Czech. The language can also shift the tone of my narration, the word choice… I don’t think it’s a problem, on the contrary: It gives one more opportunities to develop their style and hopefully write better stories, regardless of their original language.
Cristian Tamas : Shall we fear globalization and the soon-to-come posthuman society?
Julie Nováková : Is it coming anytime soon? I’d just like to sort out my stuff before that… Okay: What I see now is rather far from posthuman future, it’s rather transhuman – extending the current possibilities of the human condition. Hearing color or wi-fi signals, perceiving magnetic fields, remotely controlling machines, using bionics to improve one’s strength or speed… I don’t fear that. I’m curious. And in my experience, fear can lead to pessimism or irrational choices, while a healthy dose of curiosity with a dash of rational caution (okay, now I’m giggling because I recalled The Fear Institute) can do much more to actually improve things. Sure, any kind of technology can be misused. So we better take care it’s used well. I don’t think that fearing change and desperately sticking to the past is a solution. And as to globalization, it has many downsides – and some upsides too. We should certainly try to preserve cultural uniqueness, languages, history records… If globalization goes all ways, merges individual cultures into a rich mix, I find it refreshing. In many cases, it does not. Then it’s up to the people to nudge the balance back, creatively and peacefully.
Cristian Tamas : What are your actual and next projects?
Julie Nováková : Right now I’m working on a SF novel for an interesting literature-driven start-up. I’m curious how it turns out – both the novel and the project. If it fares well, you should hear more by the end of 2015. Apart from that, I have ideas for several short stories I really need to write as soon as possible or my head explodes. They involve peculiar comets, unusual hackers and fast-forward of human history, respectively. By the time this interview is published, I have hopefully succeeded in my final exams and thesis defense and can finally devote more time to writing again (though I probably need to sit down to write a few papers and prepare some lectures as well). My life is quite strange lately, fluctuating between several professional occupations. Which makes a good material for fiction. You’ll see!
Cristian Tamas : Would you be interested in a European Fantastic Arts Association or a European Speculative Fiction Society?
Julie Nováková : Yes, I think that could be very interesting and helpful for everyone involved.
Cristian Tamas : Kindly address a few words to the EUROPA SF readers! Thank you very much!
Julie Nováková : I’ll probably sound a bit pompous now, which I dislike, but I hope you’ll forgive me: “Be ever curious. Think, create, and have fun.”
© Cristian Tamas & Julie Nováková
Julie Nováková (born in 1991) is a Czech author of science fiction and detective stories. She published four novels and about two dozen stories in Czech and started publishing short stories in English in 2013. She’s also a regular contributor of the Czech SF magazine XB-1, publishing both fiction and nonfiction there, and a student of evolutionary biology at the Charles University in Prague. She participates in the Writing Workshop in Prague as an instructor.
“Terra Nullius” (Nobody’s Earth) – A transhumanist SF anthology edited by Julie Nováková (Brokilon Press, Prague, Czech Republic)