07.11.2008

Polish Sci-Fi&Fantasy

After a long break caused by writing of my PhD thesis, I can at last read books for fun. The other day I was in "Empik", which is a large media store full of really cool things, books included. I spent most of the time there contemplating two bookshelves filled with Sci-Fi and Fantasy books. One was devoted to foreign literature, mostly coming from the USA. The other one, was packed with works of polish writers. It was a pleasing view, especially when I compared the sizes of these shelves. They had similar amount of books! Now, of course USA produces astonishing amount of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, so for an American this might be unremarkable, given the fact that you can make only so many translations per year.

Therefore, to explain my enthusiasm I must go back in the history. When the communism ended, Poland was drowned under waves and waves of American books. Nobody wanted to release books by Polish writers and it seemed that they would not stand a chance on such saturated market. The things have changed a lot since that times, it looks like prophets of doom were utterly wrong. I have recently read in "Science Fiction, Fantastyka & Horror" magazine that many people say that they want to read just a polish Sci-Fi & Fantasy. I think it is great. It is marvelous. When I consider the sheer number of books on the shelves I came to conclusion that even if I wold devote more time to reading I would not be able to deal with all the books and short stories produced by Polish writers.

Of course, there is a matter of quality. As with everything, I presume, there is a lot of rubbish and few precious stones. I am not saying that polish literature is better but I would frequently pick polish book over American one. I find that polish authors are very innovative and at the same time, their books ring a familiar tone. It is very different from US fiction and so Polish that I simply cannot stop enjoying it.

I have just finished reading "Lód" by Jacek Dukaj - a huge, to be sure, but gripping and beautiful book. It stands out from the crowd, not only because of its sheer size, but most of all due to its incredible story. “Lód” deals with a world where there was no World War I nor Bolshevik revolution. The Earth was struck by the Tunguska meteorite, but unlike in a real history, this event have caused the enormous changes to the world, spreading scraps of the weird metal caused tungetite across Siberia. After the explosion, a permanent winter started, covering land with ice, that slowly spreads from Siberia to european part of Russia and further into Europe. The reason for this phenomenon are most likely uncommon physical properties of tungetite. When it is struck with a hammer it cools down instead of heating up, when particles of tungetite are burnt they emits anti-light, which are called shlight. This anti-light casts spooky anti-shadows, so tungetite saturated candles are becoming an instant hit among the spiritualist crowd. To make it even more complicated ice is inhabited by a strange entities, “Lute”, which are moving assemblage of ice and matter caused by extremely low temperatures. Are Lute intelligent? Why they move toward cities? Why they seem to be able to predict the future events and appropriately modify their routes?

“Lód” is a very uncommon book. It is not something that you would read overnight. It forces you to devote your time and brain to dig in and understand the incredible concepts presented in the book. Firstly, physics within ice works differently. At first it is unintuitive and you really need to wrap your mind around its strange new concepts. Secondly, the book deals with philosophy, logic and history. There are Russian philosophers, described to the main character, while he travels to Siberia, suggesting that something is deeply wrong with their world. The ice and the new “black” physics induced by Tunguska event have “frozen” the history. This is a motif similar to that from P.K. Dick's “Man in the high Castle”.

The land covered by ice, “Winter”, is a world of pure Aristotelean logic as opposed to “Summer”, the land of constant “maybe” and unlimited possibilities, ruled by Kotarbiński's logic. In consequence, the ice changes people living in “Winter”. There is no maybe... Characters are saying the truth or lying. They are good or they are evil, without shades of gray. The catholics now with an absolute conviction that orthodoxes are heretics and vice-versa. “Lód” is also casts interesting light on Polish-Russian relationships. It is true that Poles are dreaming about death of Tsar and freedom for their country. It is also true that Russians despise Poles for their vanity. But “Lód” is not a story about good Poles and evil Russians. Quite on the contrary. It shows noble and selfless Russian military officer and traitorous polish journalists. Piłsudski, father of the nation in the real history, here is a charismatic terrorist, that seems to be no better than Tsar. I think this Poland-Russia aspect of the book was for me one of the most interesting problems discussed in “Lód”.

The last thing I have to mention is a writing style used by the author. “Lód” is written in XIX century polish, now archaic and strange, but ensuring that the reader immerses itself in the world described by the book. I firmly belive that “Lód” is an excellent example, why it would be great if more of the Eastern European Sci-Fi & Fantasy was translated to English. World does not end on the eastern side of Odra river, it just takes on different, fascinating colors.