„Science fiction is a part of the european culture and it’s about time that our EU cultural institutions realize that.”
An interview with french SF&F writer, Ugo Bellagamba
Mr. Ugo Bellagamba, thank you for accepting this interview. You are one of the leading science fiction and fantasy writers from France, history of law and political ideas Professor at the Nice University, an awarded author (Rosny Aîné and Bob Morane Awards, Pays de la Loire European Award), literary critic (Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire), journalist, organizer and animator of academic conferences, meetings, festivals (Utopiales), science fiction exhibitions („Science et Fiction”). Please answer to a few questions for our international readers.
Cristian Tamas : How and when did you discover science fiction?
Ugo Bellagamba: I discovered science fiction at the age of ten, simultaneously finding out three components of my SF imaginary: classic authors like Jules Verne, Herbert George Wells and J.H. Rosny Aîné, science fiction movies, especially Star Wars, mythologies and legends of the great civilizations, from Greece up to the American Indian, Scandinavian mythologies, etc… Science, or rather the fascination for technology and the political and utopian dimension appeared afterwards.
Cristian Tamas: When and how did you start to write speculative fiction and why do you continue to write it?
Ugo Bellagamba: I started writing speculative fiction, as you rightly said just for the love of assumptions, for the sake of the game that is to think differently the reality, telling to myself “what if”, and especially I did it for my friends. I may needed in a phase of adolescence when uncertainty became too strong, “to dramatize” my friends and my vision of human relations and from very young immersed in science fiction, I did it in imaginary worlds, and through a mythological search for ways of truth, freedom, ideals and the eternal values incarnations’. One of my early writings, fortunately unpublished, was also an awkward tribute to Robert Howard. I continue and I will proceed to write science fiction because it’s the more open literature, the more flexible, the more entertaining and the more useful that I know: concomitantly providing the pleasure of pure fantasy without consequences and the sometimes incomparable clarity of a thought experiment exercised over the world.
Cristian Tamas: Tell us please about your work. What are the topics, issues, concerns, your favorite formats?
Ugo Bellagamba: My themes are related to my intellectual development and to my family history, without being extremely original, and that’s the case for many SF writers. From this point of view, I nourish myself from the history of political ideas and institutions, for example through knowledge of the fabulous Rome capital, from the Middle Ages until modern times, to instill in my stories the nature of the political system issue, the merits of the political struggle, and the remained unresolved until today asymmetry, despite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence, between the state and the individual. In a more “familiary” way, my fiction is inspired by music, especially classical music, and sometimes by the history of great military figures, facts or great men of history as Alexander the Great, because my grandparents that I admire, were one artillery general and the other orchestra conductor. On a broader plan even my travels with the family or the business travels ones, even if they have nothing in common with the Jack Vance’s heroes adventures, they are often supplying my imagination.
Cristian Tamas: How would you characterize the French science fiction from the last twenty years?
Ugo Bellagamba: It’s a vast topic. They were twenty fascinating years because of the transition from one generation of writers who had to advance disguised and to find their way in the shadow of the great American or Anglo-Saxon writers, a generation without inhibitions, born in a world where science fiction had contaminated the dominant culture and had left the underground condition and had to be confronted in turn, not with a search for literary credibility, but with the obligation to renew the themes, to take note of an ever-present movement. Both have their charm and actually I can not really say to which generation I belong. Many new authors have demonstrated great subtlety, but sometimes they seem to forget the brute force of the sense of wonder concept, of the adventure which is the heart of science fiction.
Cristian Tamas: What, in your opinion are the most important contemporary French writers of speculative fiction?
Ugo Bellagamba: I will not make an Umberto Eco list. All of them or almost all have essentially contributed either in terms of depth, identity, either in terms of energy and efficiency. Serge Lehman, Thomas Day, Xavier Mauméjean, Johan Heliot were and remain my musketeers, finding the balance between the pen and spirit, and the new generation is flamboyant and I will just mention Jeanne-A Debats, because she, in my view, is writing texts already becomed classics. As for the masters, fathers, uncles, huge paternal and protective figures, they are still present: Michel Jeury, Gérard Klein, to name just a few. And other, forever professional writers, they still destroying the barriers with an incomparable energy and talent as Roland C. Wagner.
Cristian Tamas: What french magazines should read, what french sites should access the SF fans?
Ugo Bellagamba: Regarding the SF french magazines, three are essential and complementary: Bifrost is often a cutting edge having an outstanding relevance, Galaxies is in the heart of the genre and has a strong and lasting tradition and Fiction, an unrivaled elegance and perfectly assumed editorial line. Regarding the websites, the only one that I think it may give the international SF readers a vivid panorama of French production, covering all ranges and themes is ActuSF .
Cristian Tamas : Concerning the export of French speculative fiction what is your opinion, is the french SF & F read abroad? And in Europe what is the role and weight of French SF?
Ugo Bellagamba: I am afraid that the french science fiction & fantasy is not so much read world wide, although some authors go well for export. However, in Europe, the role of French science fiction, even if it’s not equals that of anglo-saxon science fiction, is important. And not only how you might might think, due the political dimension of the narrative. Today, due to international SF festivals, as Utopiales of Nantes, the exchanges between European authors have increased the contacts and the ideas’ communications and this gives rise to a mutual and thematic human enrichment. Some European authors in fact are very popular in France, Javier Negrete, Andreas Eschbach, and Charles Stross.
Cristian Tamas: You are the initiator of the Interdisciplinary Sciences & Fictions Days from Peyresq (from 2007), a meeting dedicated to the science fiction academic studies.
What are the results after four years?
Ugo Bellagamba: The Interdisciplinary Sciences & Fictions Days from Peyresq were created in collaboration with Eric Picholle, Daniel Tron, and more recently, Estelle Blanquet, who joined the original team. Not only are they academic meetings using science fiction as a epistemological and pedagogical tool, or as representations of science, but a meeting place of artists and researchers, midway between a workshop and a literary „atelier”. The participants are coming both for the announced theme (chronologically from 2007 onwards, Robert A. Heinlein, Rudyard Kipling, collective subjectivity, hard science fiction and scientific imagery, Mars, and this year, Artificial Intelligence), and for the for the sole right, the landscape : a village perched on a hill, entirely dedicated to this type of meeting. The results are, in my opinion, exactly in line with what we expected from the beginning: publishing of the studies and the positive feedback have made Peyresq one of the important places of European science fiction exegesis fiction, by the intellectual and scientific approach to the speculative fiction, with the presence, we must insist on this point, of outstanding actors (editors, authors, researchers, etc.).
Cristian Tamas: The Utopiales SF Festival has become in a decade, the world’s biggest SF & F convention (45,000 participants). You are one of the Utopiales’ organizers, how do you explain this phenomenon outside the Anglosphere where only about 3,000 – 5,000 participants are gathering at a Worldcon?
Ugo Bellagamba: Firstly I have to say that Utopiales is not strictly a convention. Utopiales isn’t a meeting of SF fans, but rather an event dedicated to the general public. As I had organized a french national SF convention in 2008, I can clearly measure the difference. Utopiales’ goal is to provide both a popularization of science fiction as the best of all its subdomains (movies, comics, animation, illustration, manga, games, and of course, literature), in order to attract the general public and at the same time, through a series of conferences, lectures, and more than fifty workshops and panels in each edition, to be the witness on political technological, social, cultural changes, understanding the contemporary world by how science fiction, more than ever a literature of the reality, metabolize everything. This year, the increased presence of scientists and the dedicated focused meetings of professionals, editors, lecturers, translators, authors and education professionals, will further contribute to the amplification of this dimension. The Utopiales Festival, thanks to a significant investment by Nantes city and region have managed to create in only ten years a real wonder, that is to break down the mental barricades who previously had walled the Imaginary City in separate sectors of publishers, authors, fans and readers.
Cristian Tamas: What is the Nice science fiction colloquium?
Ugo Bellagamba: The Nice SF Colloquium is a genuine academic meeting, created by Denise Terrel and the English literature researchers from Nice-Sophia-Antipolis University, and at its fifth edition in 2005 was an opportunity to bring together leading academic researchers dedicated to the exegesis of European science fiction. We hope that someday, perhaps with a different team, to announce a new Nice conference dedicated to the international science fiction.
Cristian Tamas: The “Science et Fiction” Exhibition in Paris was highly appreciated by the public, are there opportunities to organize more exhibitions of this kind? How many visitors were counted? Was there an impact?
Ugo Bellagamba: The “Science et Fiction ” Exhibition from the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris was exceptional as well as perfectly logical. It took place at the right time and was desired by La Villette Center who already several times, but in a more punctual events had celebrated the links between science and fiction, including a Star Wars exhibition. The “Science et Fiction” Exhibition was in the same time very general and very educational, dedicated primarily to the general public and open to new themes of science fiction, testifying that in all its creations, science fiction has earned a well deserved place in the general, science and political culture of the citizens. Its sources of inspiration, as Utopia, all kinds of networks, space exploration, exobiology, the societies in crisis, nanotechnology, genetics, had been emphasized and have been appreciated by the general public via the science fiction stories. In my opinion, this experience does not require an immediate repeat.
Cristian Tamas: What is your perception of the European science fiction? What are the authors that you like best?
Ugo Bellagamba: I’m reading more and more European SF, with a preference for Italian authors such as Tommaso Pincio, which I find excellent and British hard SF authors as Stephen Baxter and I really like the “Time Odyssey” series initiated with Arthur C. Clarke. I like a lot the fictions of Javier Negrete, and in french authors as the French-Swiss Vincent Gessler. Above all, Iain M. Banks and his “The Culture” cycle, true center of gravity of a genuine European science fiction, in my humble opinion.
Cristian Tamas: In Europe, the academic dimension (the study, exegesis and criticism) is usually separated from the Fandom activities and those of the authors SF & F and the translators. Of course, there are exceptions, one of which you are. Do you think it is a syncretic approach important to the coagulation of the efforts, such an approach it may be relevant? Do you think that is an utopia to establish joint european projects by all stakeholders of the European imagination?
Ugo Bellagamba: To the first question, my answer is “yes”! With an important clarification: a syncretic approach should not mean the genres confusion and a skills fair. Let me explain: to try to turn all the authors in researchers, reviewers, critics or vice versa, is meaningless. But establishing contacts by favorable terms initiating mutual spiritual enrichment debates , is one of the key objectives that any imaginary domain’s actant should think, if not to touch it at least to support through such projects.
On the second question, my answer is “no”! Any joint European project is a needed project who must be supported. This is why I regret a lot that I could not finally be present at the 2012 Eurocon in Zagreb in April. I think the European SF conventions are expected to take much more importance and become not inaccessible utopias, but “heterotopias”, to use the typology that is liked by my friend Eric Picholle, exceptionally special places protected from the world and at the same time, the proper places to produce the best of all reflections on the world, situated at the confluence of all imaginary, local, regional, national, European, etc…
Cristian Tamas: The postwar founders of the Romanian science fiction, Ion Hobana, Vladimir Colin and Adrian Rogoz were Francophones and Francophiles, they had translated and promoted a lot the SF ; the French culture (including the French science fiction) was very popular in Romania, enjoying abundant translations, cultural exchanges, the ubiquity of French as the first spoken foreign language, etc… Between the 60s and 70s were published in France by Romanian science fiction authors, novels, SF collections of stories, an anthology of the best Romanian SF stories. Unfortunately, in the last twenty years, no French publisher was interested by the Romanian SF. What do you think, a smaller SF could have a new chance in France? What should we do?
Ugo Bellagamba: Arrived as late as 1996 in the middle of SF & F and previously being only a reader and a solitary dreamer , I realize that I do not know almost anything about any of these details, and I’m discovering reading your questions, with a somehow appalled naivete, and I’m preferring to confess it in the first place, the scale of the crossed heritage and cultural exchanges between France and Romania, not only in science fiction terms. I have only one answer to your last question: we must more often meet. To read each other last published works, to find ways towards quality translations and step-by-step, to rebuild the communication bridge between our cultures.
Cristian Tamas: Do you consider that the French Institute could or would be interested in promoting French science fiction, a vital part of the French culture?
Ugo Bellagamba: Of course, the cultural role of the French Institute certainly includes this mission, that of promoting science fiction, more than ever a real part of European culture, and not anymore as too many commentators have lamented, just a distorted echo of the American mass culture. As an academic I’m also responsible for the international relations of the Nice Faculty of Law and as such, it is my duty to look for new contacts between law researchers and historians, to sign, keeping them alive, new Erasmus contracts with law schools from all over Europe. What we need for the european science fiction, is the same: a minimum framework, a common model for those essential events that are the conventions and more broadly, available European funds.
Science Fiction is a part of the European culture and and it’s about time that our EU cultural institutions realize that.
Authors, publishers, event organizers, fans and readers we already know that. We need if not ambassadors (the fandoms are not states), but spokesmen !
Cristian Tamas: Finally, please address a few words to the science fiction fans and readers. Thank you.
Ugo Bellagamba: I hope to have the opportunity to meet you soon, in France, Nantes or Nice, or otherwise, somewhere on the Internet at the intersection of languages, cultures, texts and ideas. Do not hesitate to write me, and if you can, come to the french SF conventions or festivals: Utopiales, Imaginales, Futuriales, etc. To be worthy of our great predecessors, do not expect the best time: let’s create it!
© Cristian Tamas & Ugo Bellagamba (all rights reserved)
The romanian version of the interview had been posted in the Nautilus online SF magazine :
Ugo Bellagamba (born 1972) is a french science fiction writer who won the Rosny Aîné Award in 2005 (best short story) and 2010 (best novel : „Tancrède, une uchronie”), as well as the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2008 (best non fiction : „Solutions non satisfaisante, une anatomie de Robert A. Heinlein”).
Ugo Bellagamba’s favorite topics are utopia, alternative history, space exploration and his favorite format is the novel, being rewarded with Rosny Aîné and Bob Morane Awards ( “Chiméres”). He had published his first texts in the late 90’s, using the pseudonym Michael Rheyss. He was a finalist at the 2000 Rosny Aîné Award with the novel “Apopis républicain”, an alternative history several times re-edited
In 2002 published the literary manga novel, “L’Ecole des Assassins” written in cooperation with Thomas Day.
Ugo obtained his doctorate in law and became a professor at the University of Nice, where he teaches the history of law, the legal institutions and the political ideas. His novel “Tancred, une uchronie” had received the 2010 Rosny Aîné Award at the 37th National Convention of French Science Fiction in Grenoble and 2010 Pays de Loire Award.
He is the co-author of an essay on Robert A. Heinlein (“Non-satisfactory Solutions: a Robert A. Heinlein anatomy”, Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, 2008). He published a short stories collection, “La Cité du Soleil et autres récits héliotropes” and the novel, ” Le Double Corps du Roi”. Other projects include alternative history thriller in collaboration with André-François Ruaud, and a steampunk novel with Xavier Mauméjean, Thomas Day and Johan Héliot.
Co-organizer, under the aegis of the Institute for Scientific Culture Robert Hooke, of the annual meetings “Journées interdisciplinaires Sciences & Fictions Peyresq”, from 2007.
Between 2010 and 2011, Ugo Bellagamba in collaboration with Patrick Gyger (SF museum, La Maison d’Ailleurs, Yverdon, Switzerland), Roland Lehoucq and the astrophysicist Pieyre Clément (National Library of France) were the organizers of the exhibition “Science [et] fiction ” that took place at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, from 21 October 2010 to 31 august 2011. He is co-organizer of the annual Utopiales Festival of Nantes, France, the biggest worldwide SF&F event, with 45.000 participants in the last editions (http://utopiales.org/)
His site is : http://www.ugobellagamba.com/
Cristian Tamaș is a Romanian essayist, translator and SF fan active within the speculative fiction domain since the 80’s.
He is a founding member of the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society (SRSFF = Societatea Română de Science Fiction& Fantasy, www.srsff.ro/) in January 2009, and coordinates the ProspectArt, the SRSFF’s SF club relaunched in April 2009 in Bucharest (Romania), and the yearly Ion Hobana Colloquium. He is a member of the Ion Hobana and a SRSFF’s Jury Awards. He is also Editor of „Bella Proxima”, a trilingual Croatian SF anthology, together with Antuza Genescu and Aleksandar Žiljak (Eagle Publishing House, Bucharest, 2012).
He had interviewed David Brin, Prof. Rachel Haywood Ferreira (Division Head of the International Fantastic division of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, Iowa State University, USA ; research focus is Latin American science fiction), Prof. Arielle Saiber (Bowdoin College, USA; research focus : italian science fiction), Mariano Martín Rodríguez (SF scholar, Spain), Alexandre Babeanu (Prix Solaris awarded canadian SF author), Ugo Bellagamba (french SF author awarded with Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire & Prix Rosny), and Judit Lörinczy, a hungarian SF author and artist.