Thursday, 21 May 2020

фANTASTIKA: Almanac for Bulgarian Speculative Fiction

Edition: Terra Fantasia (Association of Bulgarian SF & F Writers and Artists), 2020
Review number: 1520

This is an extensive collection, a showcase of Bulgarian science fiction and fantasy, including both writing (translated into English) and art. I have never read any Bulgarian speculative fiction (at least, not knowingly), and so I'm approaching this with interest and am hoping to be impressed. I've written a mini-review of each story, and at the end I've added some general thoughts about the anthology as a whole.

The first section in the anthology contains stories which are considered to be straightforwardly science fiction.

The Last Interview of Adam Sousbe, by Lyuben Dilov (short story)
This story positions itself as a journalistic interview of a proponent of male rights in 2980, which has been proclaimed the "Year of Man" - the final interview before Adam Sousbe is murdered. The idea that gender inequality might be reversed in the future is not unique, of course, and it can be hard to tell whether a story on this theme is intended to highlight continued unequal treatment of women or to suggest that feminism has gone too far already. It is very much a John W. Campbell story, complete with the feeling of slight discomfort at the politics (though here I am less sure of the intention than I would be with Campbell's). I couldn't see a date for this piece, but the "about the author" paragraph places him in the 1970s, and it is certainly a story which wouldn't be at all out of place in any collection of short science fiction from that decade.

Beating the Air, by Velko Miloev (short story)
What would happen if people could choose to become a wind? This brilliant story takes this strange question and runs with it. The point of view character is a "wind inspector", checking up on someone who has taken that option, who is conversing with a wind that is tired of paid work producing picturesque effects for a poet. Reading this whimsical story is one of my fiction highlights of my 2020 science fiction reading, and it deserves to be widely known.

It's Only Fair, Botkin, by Khristo Poshtakov (short story)
There is still something of a tendency in science fiction to depict space exploration as a glorious adventure. In this story, it is a tedious job, and one which doesn't reflect well on the explorers. The story is a thinly veiled attack on the attitudes of Earthly colonialists on the native peoples they encountered; fairly predictable, and less interesting to me than the depiction of what it's like to be doing a dull job in space at the start of the story. Worth reading, but less good than the stories which precede it.

In the Beginning Was the Subway, by Lyubomir P. Nikolov (short story)
The beginning of this story is a bit incoherent, but by the second page it resolves into a tale of a ghost arranging for a young man to receive a mysterious device, though which esoteric scientific information is imparted to him over a period of weeks. It's a weirdly utopian tale, which in tone reminded me of Olaf Stapledon, with an old fashioned, didactic tone. Interesting, but not a story which appealed to me.

Three Tales of a Very Windy Town, by Lyubomir P. Nikolov (short story)
"Up on the cliffs by a rough sea, there falteringly existed a town" is a great start to a story. It sets the whimsical tone of an amusing tale, which is essentially three tall stories about the wind. Together with Beating the Air, it suggests that Bulgarian writers may have something of an obsession with the wind! It is very unusual in an anthology with several authors to have two stories in a row from the same author (especially as they are not among the shortest stories); if I had to pick, I would choose this one to keep - it is both more inventive and more enjoyable to read.

Virgil and the Water, by Svetoslav Nikolov (short story)
Another strange story, of the Roman poet Virgil, who in this version oversees the whole of the history of the Roman Empire, and is obsessed with plumbing. From the note following the story, it appears that this is likely to be the most well known story from this collection to Western readers. It's engagingly written, but to me suffers (in a slightly bizarre way) from one of the major problems facing science fiction authors: finding a good way to give the reader all the information s/he needs in order to be able to understand the story. Because of the way this story works, the infodumps here are not about interplanetary trade relations, or the foibles of faster than light travel, but concern Roman history. In some ways, this is brought to life by the insertion of Virgil as narrator into the centre of events, but I suspect that there will be many readers whose interests don't extend to a summary the events of six centuries in a few pages.

How I Saved the World, Or, The Best Job by Valentin D. Ivanov (short story)
Training to be a hero is not fun in a (minimally described) post-apocalyptic world. Obsolete equipment and vehicles do not have the expected glamour. But just wait until you find out what the job actually entails.... Humorous story with some neat physics in the twist. A short, but excellent story.

Deflation, by Valentin D. Ivanov (short story)
Illegal astronomy?! This very short story is about an undercover investigation into illegal astronomy, and right from the beginning I was hooked: why is the use of telescopes banned? Unusual for these stories, Deflation is set into the USA, in may ways still the spiritual home of modern science fiction (and, indeed, a lot of modern astronomy). Not quite as good as How I Saved the World, but Deflation also has a good reveal of the physics involved at the end.

Dragonflies and Planets, by Aleksandar Karapanchev (short story)
Even shorter, this two page story is a beautiful lyrical prose poem about the exploration of distant worlds. Dragonflies and Planets is a distillation of the sense of wonder which lies at the heart of science fiction.

The Empty Room, by Aleksandar Karapanchev (short story)
Karapanchev's second story is also short and poetic, about the seasons and death and renewal, but is less successful than Dragonflies and Planets. However, the intention is to chill rather than enchant, and it certainly does that.

The Most Terrible Beast, by Khristo Poshtakov
This amusing story is the space exploration equivalent of tall fishing stories in a bar - swapping tales of the most hair-raising beasts encountered on newly discovered planets, each one topping the last with larger, more fearsome and dangerous creatures. Here, it's accompanied by some fun but seemingly unrelated cartoons, perhaps the most unusual of all the art in the book.

Father, by Ivaylo G. Ivanov (short story)
A son has a lot of questions when the police question him because his father, dead for many years, appears to have left his fingerprints at a robbery scene. This is a story which has an emotional punch, though the twist at the end is unlikely to take any reader by surprise.

10-9, by Nikolay Tellalov (synopsis and extract from a novel)
As the title suggests, the topic is purportedly nanotechnology (a nanometer is 10-9 metres), though in the extract itself, there is not a great deal of nanotechnology to be seen. I found this tale confusing, especially the time shifts within the extract (which starts, "Thirty-two years earlier") - the synopsis doesn't give sufficient temporal anchors to make it possible to work out where the different times fit within the synopsis. The writing itself is good, but I don't think the presentation of this story is helpful to it.

To Wake a Dragon Girl, by Nikolay Tellalov (synopsis and extract from a novel)
Tellalov's talents as a writer are much better served by this story. It's a love story, and also, in a sense, a tale of an alien encounter. One of my favourites from the anthology.

Sun Untouchable, by Nikolay Tellalov (synopsis and extract from a novel)
A third excerpt from a longer Tellalov story; even though it is just a part of the whole, it is one of the longest contributions included in the anthology. This tale has illustrations by the author (where elsewhere the art included in the collection is just that, with no connection to the literary content). Of all the art in the book, I least liked these illustrations. And this story failed to grab me; To Wake a Dragon Girl is easily the best of the three Tellalov tales.

Love in the Time of Con Crud, by Elena Pavlova (short story)
Finally, a story by a female author - I was beginning to wonder if science fiction in Bulgaria is a completely masculine phenomenon! A story where the epigraph is one of my favourite silly physics jokes is sure to be good... It's a time travel story set in 2017 and the 2030s, and one of especial relevance now, as it's about attempting to derail and epidemic which leads to a permanent drop in the quality of life around the globe: "Helsinki 2017 takes pride in its pure water. Helsinki 2030 doesn't have that luxury." It's unintentionally chilling to read that line, published in 2019, in May 2020 - if we don't get things right, now, then what will life be like in 13, 15 years time?

The Assassination, by Johan Vladimir (short story)
This story begins the second section, classifying its stories as fantasy and magic realism. The title is simply a description of the subject of this lengthy story, about the planning for an assassination. The science fiction elements are provided by the central character, the assassin, who has visions of long-past events, other deaths and executions, and by the zmeys, the mysterious guardians of a utopian world order. This is hugely ambitious and complex for a short story, and is mostly successful, provided that the required level of concentration is granted by the reader. The "about the author" note reveals that Johan Vladimir is the second woman author here, writing under a pseudonym.

The Coin (Part One of Aurelion: Eternal Balance), by "Lights amidst Shadows" (synopsis and extract from a novel)
Any story by a large collaborative group of young authors is an unusual beast, and this is in fact a synopsis of and an extract from a novel, first of a trilogy for young readers. It is a story about a clash between science and magic, the coin of the title proving to be the key to preserving the latter. The extract consists of the prologue and the first two chapters from the novel - starting as one of the main characters has just had his pocket picked, losing the coin. The extract makes me want to read the whole trilogy despite being considerably older than the target audience - and I would not have guessed either that the tale was written by a group, nor that they were "children and young people" (as the note at the end puts it). It stands alongside the rest of the anthology with ease.

They Don't Believe in Fairy Tales, by Martin Petkov (synopsis and extract from a novel)
In this case, the "synopsis" is a summary of a discussion of the nature of law and the breaking of laws, and a link between this and children no longer believing in fairy tales. I'm quite glad to have this discussion in a shortened version - what there is appears to be just enough to provide the setting for the story, while letting the reader get to the action in only a page and a half. In the end, though, the extract doesn't really work, not being long enough to do more than give a vague idea of what the novella might be like - the ideas are clearly interesting, but not how they are worked through.

I, Sinner Ivan by Nikolay Svetlev (synopsis and extract from a novel)
Another extract, a story based on the life of Ivan Rilski, a tenth century hermit who became the patron saint of Bulgaria. It is a fantasy weaved around the basic biography of the saint, portraying him in this extract as a strange child, half in the mundane world, half in a spiritual one where the Christian God and pagan deities are close by and where he can command strange powers. Without the rest of the story, I found it quite hard to follow what was going on - it's clearly an unusual story told an a strange way, but it was not immediately comprehensible.

Mina, the Spells, and the White Vial, by Vesela Flambulari (synopsis and extract from a novel)
This story is for children, and to me seems unlikely to appeal to older readers; this is perhaps to do with the tone, which is very much in the face of the reader. It's a novel about a school for gifted children, gifted in the artistic sense, though this is a world with magic in it too. The extract didn't to me give much feeling for whether the novel would be more rewarding; it is taken from early parts of the book, before the main part of the plot starts up, it seems.

Orpheus Descends Into Hell, by Georgi Malinov (synopsis and extract from a novel)
An alternative universe, in which the Bulgarians conquered Constantinople and rule the known world, at the end of the fifteenth century when this story is set. Strange things are happening across the empire, though. Again, the extract is rather unsatisfying; I think I would much rather have read one of Malinov's short stories, a complete work.

The Dragon and the Orange Juice, by Genoveva Detelinova (short story)
A humorous short story about wizards trying to control a dragon. Vlad is different to the other wizards, as can be seen from the results of his trying to explain mobile phones to his raven familiar. He is convinced he's going to die soon, so his major preoccupation is to amend his bucket list so he can get it done and to hone his "famous last words"; the last thing he wants is the dragon, the national icon, to be misbehaving. This is very silly and quite funny, even in translation, which often flattens humour.

Journey to Akkad, by Val Todorov (extract)
This story marks the beginning of the third section of this compilation, which is made up of avant garde science fiction. Journey to Akkad is (as might be expected from the avant garde label) a strange story, poetic stream of consciousness, describing a journey through the land of the dead. It has good illustrations by Plamen Atanasov. Interesting and enjoyable to read, though remaining baffling.

The Book, by Val Todorov (extract)
The Book is a second extract from the same source as Journey to Akkad. It's a lot shorter than Journey to Akkad, and is much the same in style, tone, and quality.

The Thing Gone with The Birds, by Val Todorov (short story)
This is like a more surreal version of the Kafka's famous story Metamorphosis. Rather than a cockroach, Mr S. turns into a balloon... Another interesting but weird story, a lot more fun than the other two.

The Film-thin Bound, by Kalin M. Nemov (short story)
Shades of Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on, I must go on" immediately sprang to my mind reading the first paragraphs of this story, which almost literally repeats this, at least in the English translation. In two pages, it moves from death, mourning and despair, to a new love, and a heroic salvation. It doesn't to my mind quite work; it would take a top class literary master to manage such a change in that short a space, and the initial desperate sadness is much better portrayed than the ending, which as a result approaches glibness. Interesting, and a gallant attempt to be great.

Asked the Soldier, "Who Called Me?", by Yancho Cholakov (short story)
This story starts with affecting emotion, as did The Film-thin Bound (is there something about Bulgarian avant garde fiction which makes it easy to convey emotion), and goes on to deal with a topic which perhaps now seems difficult to discuss in a way which it might not have done a few months ago: the way that travellers can bring disease which may be fatal to those who have no immunity. Perhaps the most interesting story in the anthology, though in places the translation doesn't seem quite as good as many of the other stories here.

The Story of the Lonely Ranger, by Yancho Cholakov (synopsis and extract from a novel)
The synopsis of this work is almost more a description of the methods used in it rather than the plot - it's more a multimedia dossier than a novel, containing "pseudo-documentary" photos, drawings, and musical notes". The plot sounds rather Moorcockian, as "the huge figure of the Lonely Ranger is set against the dying mankind" - and hopefully the work offers an interesting depiction of the nature of heroism/villainy and the end of civilisation for the current era. Unfortunately, the excerpt - a half page of thirteen rather sentences reading like a scene from a gory pulp monster movie - is far too short to make a sensible assessment.

A Small Step, by Màri (short story)
Three actors are hired to pretend to be astronauts as NASA fakes the first moon landing. A fun story with twists even though short - I'm not sure why it's considered to be avant garde.

Impossibly Blue, by Zdravka Evtimova (short story)
A story about writing stories, a story about life, writer's block, and the neurotic thoughts that pass through most people's minds - maybe especially writers - from time to time. And it is fantastic.

Wrong, by Zdravka Evtimova (short story)
Another story about writing from Evtimova, this time about translating a work that is disliked, until a meeting with a mysterious stranger. Also good, it is pretty similar to Impossibly Blue.

The Matrix: Resolutions, by Atanas P. Slavov (short story)
This is Matrix fan fiction - it's basically an imagined conversation with the films' central character Neo. Possibly reactions to the story will depend on what the reader thinks of the films, personally I can take or leave them, and the same is very much true for the story.

The Keresztury TVirs, by Ivan Popox (fictionalised book review)
This article starts the final section, entitled "Futurum", a section title which is very unclear (and perhaps deliberately so). The Keresztury TVirs purports to be a review of a banned book describing computer viruses which affect cable TV transmissions, allowing editing of the picture and audio. It discusses their use by radical political factions as well as pranks and commercial advertising. Interesting and thought provoking - as science fiction should be!

Mindster, by Valentin D. Ivanov (short story)
Valentin D. Ivanov already has two stories earlier on in this anthology. This is rather more straightforwardly science fiction than The Keresztury TVirs, suggesting that the meaning of Futurum is simply near future science fiction. That is, assuming that the central concept is in fact a possibility: the story is about moving beyond file sharing online to mind sharing. Interesting, and a fitting conclusion to the anthology.

Overall thoughts

I was sent this anthology as an ebook with a request to let the compilers know if there was anything which was significantly less good than the rest, something which should be dropped. It's a big anthology, and the stories do not all appeal equally - but this is true of every anthology, and there is nothing which stands out as much poorer than the other stories. On the other hand, there were several stories which I enjoyed a great deal, including one I would pick as among the best things I've read this year in any genre.

On the negative side, I was not entirely convinced by the structure of the anthology. In a multi-author compilation, it is unusual to feature authors multiple times. This is done repeatedly here, and is more obvious because most of the multiple contributions are clustered together. This has the unfortunate consequence that it makes it seem as though there are not enough good science fiction and fantasy writers to fill the anthology with unique contributions: I hope this is not the case, and that there are plenty of other writers who could have been included. The biggest problem with the content of the anthology is the number of excerpts from longer works. They are clearly meant to give a flavour of the novel they come from, but in some cases, the extract is too short, or the accompanying synopsis doesn't quite give enough context to make for satisfying reading, which is a pity.

Like any other local science fiction community around the world, Bulgaria's is still influenced by the US, but this collection shows that there is local flavour there too, and a good deal of talent. I hope that the release of this ebook raises the profile of Bulgarian writers around the world - there are several I will seek out, given the chance (and, I'm afraid, the translations, as I speak no Bulgarian).

My overall rating: 8/10.