Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Novakova (ed.), Dreams From Beyond (2016)

Julie Novakova (ed.), Dreams From Beyond: Anthology of Czech Speculative Fiction. Julie Novakova, 2016. Pp. 189. No ISBN. Free e-book.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

“How many copies make a bestseller? What does an author need to do in order to have a novel accepted by a publishing house?” (181) Julia Novakova, the Czech writer of science fiction contemplates these questions at the end of her Eurocon anthology, Dreams from Beyond: Anthology of Czech Speculative Fiction. Such vibrant writing, narratives from former USSR countries, with the exception of such authors as Karel Čapek, Jiří Kulhánek, Josef Nesvadba (and of course Stanisław Lem from Poland), have been frequently cut off from the Anglo-Saxon world by the Iron Curtain of unrecognition. The works have remained mostly unknown due to a lack of translations into other languages. Julie Novakova’s Eurocon 2016 anthology gathers short stories and novellas from a group of contemporary writers: those stepping into the world of fantastic, as well as those whose literary presence has been accepted by the Czech world of speculative fiction.

To find twelve Czech authors appearing in the English-language anthology would still be surprising. To claim these writers enjoy a worldwide commercial success would be an overstatement. For the majority of those appearing in this volume, experienced as they may be, this publication has been their first step into the international world of speculative fiction. Translated into English, the stories by the Czech writers have a chance to shatter the West-East literary barrier, and offer a pleasurably eye-opening insight into the familiar Unknown.

Starting from a short story, “Dragon Slave” by Pavel Renčín, readers might have an impression of undergoing a journey into childhood tales populated by incarcerated princesses and fearful dragons. However, another rendering of these well-known stories with a few 21st century alterations is not what is given. “Legend has it that every time a myth is forgotten, a star flames out deep in space” (8). Mythical as it may sound, the opening does not point to lost Camelot inhabited by virtuous ladies and noble knights who seek to defeat an enemy. In Renčín’s story, it is the enemy that consumes “Camelot” in a form of a myth’s death. This is not caused by the lack of remembrance per se; as the narrator emphasizes, the elements of the original myths (dragons, innocent children, ogres) become uprooted—the emigrants in the context of the postmodern literature. Thus, the bold and fear-inducing dragon that once roamed the earth has been evicted to an old warehouse where it needs to “live off garbage and rats” (19). Encountered by an oblivious child who just wanted to avoid his mother, the beast commenced his woeful monologue: “Dragons never used to hide away from daylight, desperate and broken. Dragons stood up to their fears.” What is more, instead of devouring young virgins, he had to consume “a junkie who had overdosed” (19). This intricate list of complaints indicates the advent of the new in which there is no place for the paths already travelled. This even occurs when that path is crossed by an ogre who ends up homeless. Instead of inducing fear, he needs to bear humiliation, and fight his way to a warm meal. A hunter, on the other hand, does not kill mighty beasts, but frees a boy from a trap that turns out to be a sofa.

In his variegated flash-fiction-like narrative Renčín perfectly exposes the feebleness and moldiness of myths whose original shape has been deprived of its magical quality. Even a death of a dragon is devoid of proper ceremonialism, being more of a plea for euthanasia than a passage into the next (mythical) level of existence. In the era of intertextuality, the statements, such as “Myths must never die out” (22) become a sentimental platitude. To some extent, the situations presented in Renčín’s story, resemble Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra, being endless copies and variations of the original that does not exist.

“Whenever a myth is forgotten by mankind, a star flames out in deep space” (23). Renčín deliberately uses a mythical stylization to prove his point, and reveal that his “Dragon Slave” resonates the postmodern (re)generation and alteration of the myth. This perfectly fits into Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal: “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it” (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations). Neither do the myths.

The ghost of Baudrillard seems to haunt the anthology as the loss of a myth becomes a harbinger of a loss of the family. “The Real One,” a story penned by Petra Slováková, analyses the advent of postfamilialism. From the first sentence, the narration builds the idea of a family in lucrative terms. “Great times require great people who are not afraid of their visions!” (25) In Slováková’s future there is no room for a family understood as “a group of persons united by ties of marriage, blood or adoption constituting a single household interacting with each other in their respective social role[s]” (“Family,” Sociology Guide). A construct replacing it is a commodified unit, perfectly sellable and recyclable. A dramatic interaction between a high-ranking man and his mother reveals how irrelevant once strong structures might become. By mimicking a quarrel between an adult child and his parents, Slováková perfectly presents the sociological situation which, in the world oriented to youth and beauty, no longer seems to be distant.

A deep sense of irony pervades the story as love and devotion are second-guessed in the face of usability, representativeness and purchased perfection. The ordered parents become shaped in the client’s image, while the natural ones are incarcerated in the Garden of Eden (mind the irony) to vegetate, half-lobotomized, with their age and imperfections hidden from the world. Slováková is deft at utilizing an old idea in which a man takes the place of God in the world. More importantly, she pushes it even further—it is consumerism that usurps the place of God, making the Garden of Eden (a place of goodness and harmony) a facility for those perceived as lower humans.

“The Real One” is superb at observing how a long-range social change afflicts the individuals, erasing the caesurae between biological and “adoptive” parents. The question of what is real and what is not becomes irrelevant, alongside the eugenic practices introduced to keep the system working.

Jaroslav Mostecký’s “Axes on Viola” offers another kind of terror. Set in Viola, a planet of eerie ecosystem, the story presents the vicissitudes of a protagonist hired as a lumberer in a ghastly forest that refuses to be conquered. With mysterious deaths and enigmatic ghosts roaming the wild, Mostecký’s novella constitutes a typical merge of science fiction, suspense and horror. The story is so intricately woven that the reader is uncertain whether it is the revenge of an eco-system that resists human intervention, or the sloppiness of men influenced by the alien world and their own imagination.

The horrors of the forest give way to the second dystopia in this anthology, which presents its ideas more blatantly than the first. In a difficult future of “War Games” created by Jan Kotouč, the city of Pax Civitas governed with a brutal hand, men are turned into mindless military tools. The short story concentrates on the vicissitudes of a few characters: Marco, a young and inexperienced officer; Victor, a Pax Civitas citizen recruited and implanted against his will; and John, a leader of the resistance movement. Generic in its plot, the dystopian story offers a rather standard representation of social problems and a revolt against a totalitarian regime. What makes the reading worth pursuing is an interesting construction of the characters whose interaction and individual perspective makes the conflict more multidimensional. Marco has been raised and educated in the totalitarian system, and does little to question it. Victor, on the other hand, harbors strong feelings of hatred toward the regime. Marked as a person whose earnings had fallen below minimal income, he was brutally chased and caught by the recruiting officers. His only wish is to find a way to free himself from the implant which controls his body and find his beloved Anna. John is a leader who knows how to use Pax Civitas’ weapons against the city to put an end to the regime. As the three perspectives unfold, the reader can gain a wider view on the presented conflict. Although it is not the most complex narrative in the anthology, the swiftness of action and an interesting accumulation of events add to making the story a pleasant read.

A peculiar take on the dystopian theme can be observed in Jaroslav Veis’s “Winning Is Not Everything.” Set in the totalitarian version of the Czech Republic, it presents the country where capitalistic competitiveness constitutes a major element of the system. The narrator weaves the story around the idea of the Olympic Games whose noble qualities have been replaced by the merge of the Colosseum brutality and a cheap reality show.

In his tale of corporate functionality, Veis weaves a tragic story where the interest of the masses prevails over the good of a few. President Ulsak, the propeller of the change, sets a new sport standards, motivated to bring “the Olympics to their former role.” This, in his understanding, is synonymous with “a death affair[…]” (110). Somewhat reminiscent of The Hunger Games’s scenario, the narrative depicts exploitation of young people’s lives as they race for survival climbing the skyscrapers.

Orphaned and taken from children’s homes, the young people present no value to the society apart from their potential to entertain, especially in the moment of death. Veis intricately pictures the problem of future slavery propelled by cheap entertainment and corporate lobby. What happens when we include morality in the game? What happens when we lose a moral grip? The answer is as painful as it is obvious.

A more elevated and inspiring ambiance is generated in “Creators” by Tomaš Petràsek. During the voyage on board the Stephen Hawking spaceship, two scientists—the physicist and astrobiologist—discuss the issue of the origin of wormwholes. In this Vernesque short story, a question of the limits of science and the legitimacy of religion is raised, but without unnecessary mockery or heated arguments. The dialog between the two characters flows smoothly as both men, differing in space-travel experience and personal views are led by mutual hope to finally establish and comprehend the origin of the wormholes. As the journey into the dangerous unknown proceeds, the characters are led to a discovery more important than the wormwholes themselves, as reaching into the perception of science and religion enables them to comprehend their own limitations, as well as the limitations of the world that sent them on a mission. Very philosophical but devoid of loftiness, the story proves that our own expectations are never capable of withstanding a clash with a revelation reality has in store for us.

The story crowning the anthology, “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” by Julie Novakova, reveals that facing a revelation may lead to the discovery that the past, even one that does not belong to us, may weave into our own time. The story tentatively introduces the characters of Chiara, an Aesthete for whom “[f]eeling, sensing and imagining things was her job” (136), and Jurriaan, whose whole universe starts and ends in music. Their voyage into space on board the Orpheus leads them to the discovery that would move their hearts and minds. Coming to the surface of Sedna, they uncover an old ship with the bodies of two astronauts, Theodora and Dimitri, who died on its surface a few hundred centuries earlier. The investigation of the file found in the wreckage takes Chiara and Jurrianan back to the tragic expedition, revealing the details of the lives of humans preceding their arrival. Dramatic, incomplete and sentimental, the recordings generate feelings that awaken Jurriaan’s artistic sense, giving birth to an idea of symphony unlike any other. A story within a story, the fate of Theodora and Dimitri, the characters who truly become the protagonists of this narrative, adds dimensionality to the generic theme of spaceship exploration, turning music into an experience that outbeats the melodies born in our dreams.

This is not over yet, as apart from the stories and novellas, Novakova’s anthology whets readers appetites with some excerpts of larger narratives: Vilma Kadlečková’s “Mycelium: Part One,” Lucie Lukacovicova’s “Spark of Thought” and Hanuš Seiner’s “Hexagrammaton.” Witty, mediocre or enticing, the excerpts take the readers into different times from a distant future into 19th century Prague. Unable to be featured in the anthology due to their original length, the excerpts serve as an invitation for the reader to explore the realm of Czech science fiction which spreads beyond the book reviewed here. Although all the excerpts have been chosen to present the most enticing elements of the stories/novels advertised, not all of them, due to slow progression of plot or inadequate exposure, manage to reveal their beauty to the reader.

The richness of ideas, the postmodern eagerness to play with seemingly ossified themes gives birth to a world of dreams full of new possibilities. Morose or lighthearted, sentimental and wittily ironic, the realm of Czech science fiction as presented in Novakova’s anthology serves merely as a peek into the Unknown that is hardly a domain of one country or culture. Complex or simple, witty or utterly dull, the narratives appear as a unifying fantasy with countless scenarios which we, as humans, generate, tell and pass to other generations. Regardless of the original language of the stories included in the collection, the language of a dream proves to be an all-pervading one. With that in mind, the readers can disregard the imperfections of writing and see that the Czech dream has a potential to go beyond.

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