Alien nations

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz RRP£18.99, 266 pages

Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky, translated by Natasha Randall, Gollancz RRP£14.99, 458 pages

Loups-Garous, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, translated by Anne Ishii, Haika Soru RRP£9.99, 458 pages

Escher’s Loops, by Zoran Zivkovic, translated by Alice Copple-Tosic, PS Publishing RRP£20, 330 pages

In the future, international divisions and rivalries will be a thing of the past. Or so science fiction often predicts. The bridge of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, for instance, is a commendably multiracial place (and not all of those races are from Earth, either); and there are any number of SF novels that prophesy a world government, a kind of super UN with legislative powers.

In publishing terms, however, science fiction is not quite so freely cross-cultural. Rights for English-language SF novels are frequently sold abroad in non-English-speaking territories, but the traffic is mostly one-way. Rare is the foreign-language SF novel that is imported into an anglophone country, against the prevailing current.

One reason for this is translation costs, which take a chunk out of what may already be slender profit margins. But there is also, perhaps, an inherent conservatism in the core readership. By and large, anglophone SF aficionados know what they like and like what they know. An appetite exists for experimental and esoteric SF but the preferred fare is meat-and-potatoes stuff: future war, alien encounters, and the galaxy-spanning melodrama known as space opera. Since there are plenty of anglophone authors who supply demand, why look elsewhere?

Even when non-anglophone books would seem to cater for anglophone tastes, they seldom cross borders. The Perry Rhodan series of novels, begun in 1961 and still going to this day, is a German phenomenon. These spacefaring adventures, starring the eponymous American astronaut and written by diverse hands, appear on a weekly basis, and the total number of individual volumes published so far stands at a whopping 2,500. Many were reprinted in the US during the 1960s but since then English-language publication has been sporadic at best. For all the seemingly universal appeal of the books’ subject matter and the vast amount of ancillary material (comics, fan sites, audio plays, etc) that has accreted around them, they’ve failed to find much appreciation among anglophone audiences.

The four novels under consideration here are drawn from diverse corners of the non-anglophone world. The choice has been somewhat constrained by virtue of the fact that the range of material available is so limited. Does this furnish proof of an unconscious chauvinism in the home market? And what can non-anglophone SF tell us about the state of the genre in general?

At first glance The Quantum Thief would, for all its undoubted quality, be unexceptional. We might regard this debut novel, written in English, from an Edinburgh-based academic with a PhD in string theory as just another fine addition to the anglophone SF canon – were it not for the fact that Hannu Rajaniemi, its author, is Finnish and English is not his mother tongue.

Not that you’d know it reading the book. Many an anglophone author would kill to turn out prose half as good as this, especially on their maiden effort. Like Nabokov, Rajaniemi gives the impression of someone approaching English as a child might a dressing-up box full of wonderful costumes. What’s more, he doesn’t confine himself to our language. Among the inhabitants of his novel’s 25th-century Mars, polyglot borrowings abound, be it the super-powered guardian entities known as the “tzaddikim”, who derive their name from the Hebrew word for “righteous person”, or the common term for an extended family, “zoku”, from the Japanese for “tribe”.

The Quantum Thief tells of con artist Jean le Flambeur and his escape from a virtual-reality prison and subsequent search to recover lost memories from his former life. It is, at heart, a noir thriller in cosmic drag. In addition to its amnesiac antihero there’s a down-at-heel detective and any number of femmes fatales. Wild SF concepts come thick and fast. Cities are mobile, spaceships are sentient, memories can be shared, and portions of a person’s lifespan form the basis for financial transactions (time literally is money).

Nothing here, though, strikes one as obviously Finnish. Where’s the snow, the Scandinavian melancholy? If anything, The Quantum Thief’s influences seem predominantly American. With its jazzy style and hard-bitten protagonist, the novel is reminiscent of the work of Alfred Bester, who produced two of the finest American SF books of the 1950s, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.

Perhaps by writing in English it’s easier for Rajaniemi to embrace the tropes of anglophone SF that he so admires. It also has the handy side-effect of making the book much more readily saleable around the world (an American deal has already been secured). A Finnish-language SF novel, however excellent, would struggle to find a publisher in the UK or US.

In SF publishing, as elsewhere, a foreign-language title almost invariably must be a mega-seller in its homeland for it to generate interest in a market where there’s already a surfeit of locally grown produce.

This is certainly true of Metro 2033, which has been a big hit in its author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s native Russia since appearing there first online in 2002 and then in print form in 2005. The book’s reputation has been buoyed by a popular video game spin-off but, nonetheless, sales of nearly half a million copies in Russia alone are significant.

The novel’s setting is a dim-lit underworld – a hellish vision of the Moscow subway system where what’s left of humankind now lives, having taken shelter there during a nuclear holocaust 20 years earlier. The mood is unremittingly grim. People subsist on a diet of mushrooms and meat from underfed pigs.

Through the rat-infested tunnels of this nightmarish realm journeys our young hero, Artyom. The subway station he calls home is under siege from hideous, mutated “dark ones”, and in order to fetch help Artyom heads for the fabled Polis, a nexus of four central stations that is reportedly the last bastion of true civilisation.

His odyssey is essentially satirical in nature. Different stations on the network are governed according to different forms of political ideology: distorted and attenuated forms of communism, Nazism, capitalism, theocracy, and so on. None of them work, and Glukhovsky pokes fun at them all.

Metro 2033 owes a clear debt to dissident Russian SF of the Soviet era, when authors would smuggle criticism of authority into their books by disguising it under layers of futuristic or intergalactic allegory. The debt is openly acknowledged by Glukhovsky as he writes of characters called “stalkers” who scavenge the radiation-blasted city above ground for useful items. It’s a doff of the cap to what is arguably the best-known work of Russian SF, Roadside Picnic (1972) by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in which intrepid individuals, also named “stalkers”, comb mysterious zones for powerful, unearthly artefacts deposited by visiting extraterrestrials.

What’s changed, of course, is that nowadays Glukhovsky can lay out his cheerfully gloomy critique of Russian society openly and, one assumes, free from fear of state reprisal. In other respects, the novel does not “translate” well. It’s too solemn to be fully engaging, the plot slowed by lengthy stretches of dialogue full of Dostoevskian angst and hand-wringing. The crepuscular darkness of Glukhovsky’s subterranean world is illuminated only by the occasional flash of dour wit. We could do with a little less conversation, a little more action.

Loups-Garous by Natsuhiko Kyogoku has also sold exceptionally well in its author’s homeland of Japan. Kyogoku meditates on a society so fixated on homogeneity and surveillance that there is scant room for freedom of self-expression any more. In a sterile, anodyne urban landscape, the generation gap yawns wider than ever; old and young seethe with mutual mistrust and antagonism. The loups-garous of the title – French for “werewolves” – are wayward youths, shapeshifting from respectful obedience to untamed, psychotic ferality, breaking free from societal constraints. As such, they reflect Kyogoku’s fascination with yokai, traditional Japanese fables. In this novel and his earlier The Summer of the Ubume, he’s exploring how folkloric monsters such as ghosts and werewolves might manifest in a rational, superstition-free era.

So the novel’s themes are peculiarly and fascinatingly Japanese. If only its execution wasn’t quite so lugubrious. We know that Japanese SF can be bracing and playful: Haruki Murakami’s early novels, such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), are laced with science fictional conceits and have a punky liveliness and energy, and one of the bestselling Japanese SF novels of all time, Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks (1971), is a disaster epic on a grandiose scale. Loups-Garous could have benefited from taking a leaf out of both those books.

Escher’s Loops is the hardest title to place geographically. Its contents give no clues to its author’s country of origin. Zoran Zivkovic, in fact, hails from Serbia, and has impeccable SF credentials. A fan of Arthur C Clarke, he spent five years compiling an encyclopaedia of SF and has hosted a TV series about SF cinema. His own fiction, which primarily takes the form of short stories, bears unmistakable traces of Borges and Bulgakov. Its most science fictional aspect is the nebulousness of its settings. The interlocking tales in Escher’s Loops are situated in some vague Anywhere, a locale not anchored by place names or proper nouns.

The stories themselves twist and turn around one another, shot through with an absurdist, deadpan humour (the delicate, unobtrusive translation deserves an honourable mention here). Characters, identified only by their occupations, recur and events seen from one viewpoint are often shown in a fresh light, from another viewpoint, later on. In an interview with the highbrow SF magazine Interzone, conducted in 2002, Zivkovic describes this storytelling structure as “larger than the mere sum of its parts – an amalgam, not a conglomerate”. The aim, he says, is “to force the reader to return to the beginning and re-evaluate everything from a new perspective”.

What emerges most strongly from Zivkovic’s work is the sense of western SF being absorbed, reconfigured, and served back up in an unusual and exciting new form. Whereas Metro 2033 and Loups-Garous are both distinctively born of their authors’ native cultures, and The Quantum Thief takes a foreign-sightseer approach to American SF, Escher’s Loops has a truly outward-looking, international feel.

Like other countries’ cuisines, then, foreign-language SF may not suit everyone’s palate. It can be stodgy, over-spiced, chewy. Nevertheless it’s worth sampling, because there’s every chance one may happen upon a flavoursome treat.

James Lovegrove is the author of ‘The Age of Zeus’ (Solaris)

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