Futurological Congress - Contemporary Polish Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Is Poland's place on the speculative fiction scene fact or fantasy? The legacy of Stanisław Lem is brought far into the future, with a number of literary talents making their mark on the world
In the beginning of the nineties the science fiction genre was predominant in the Polish fantasy literature scene. In those days the works of Stanisław Lem and Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński still had a strong resonance among authors. Even though the Janusz A. Zajdel Polish Fandom Awards were most often given to the fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, science fiction novels by such writers as Tomasz Kołodziejczak, Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz or Marek S. Huberath were also eagerly reached for. In those days the specifically Polish genre of clerical fiction, which referred to religious themes, also had a spell of popularity thanks to such authors as Wojciech Szyda and Huberath.
At the beginning of the new century Jacek Dukaj became a new, consistent winner of the Polish Fandom Awards, nudging the author of the Witcher Saga out of the top spot. A change in readers’ tastes was evident. After years of fascination with science fiction, fantasy began to increase in popularity, ringing on more tales of elves, dwarves and magical realms. This was chiefly the result of the energetic actions of the Lublin-based publishing house Fabryka Słów. This company was founded in 2001 and quickly became serious competition for the undisputed leader of the market SuperNOWA.
The Cathedral is the title of a science fiction short story by Jacek Dukaj
Fabryka Słów achieved this by issuing highly entertaining books that quickly became popular with readers. Jacek Piekara wrote a successful cycle of stories about the adventures of the inquisitor Mordimer Madderdin. Andrzej Pilipiuk conquered the bestseller lists with his trademark character, the ever drunk Jakub Wędrowycz. Maja Lidia Kossakowska writes in the style of angel fantasy (archangels Gabriel and Michael are among the protagonists of her stories as is the destructive Daimon Frey) and her husband Jarosław Grzędowski is the author of the cycle Master of the Ice Garden, the first tome of which appeared in 2005.
As was the case with other genres of literature, Polish speculative fiction evolved. However this time the process wasn’t uniform. Each respective author chose his or her own unique paths.
On average fantasy books have considerably larger editions than science fiction or horror publications, following a worldwide trend for catering to the youth market. This group of readers values simplicity and expects literature to be entertaining and relaxing. That is not the case with science fiction and its tendency to challenge the reader.
However stagnation is not an issue considering most writers on the Polish scene today. Only a few authors refrain from changing their creative methods. This field is led by Piekara, who keeps on writing new tomes of the abovementioned cycle of books about the inquisitor Mordimer. The series started out eight years ago with a collection of stories entitled God’s Servant. Apparently readers haven’t become bored with this violent and sensual world in which Christ never died on the cross, but came down instead to kill his foes in a bloodbath. Until now seven books about Mordimer have appeared. It wouldn’t come as a great surprise if another half a dozen were to be written. It’s been a while since the author pushed the story onwards. The latest volumes were simply prequels and spinoffs.
Jacek Komuda's work follow a similar track. He doesn't write in a series and even when he does, they aren’t made up of more than three tomes and the plots of his subsequent stories aren’t linked. The author of The Devil from Łańcut and the Impostor specialises in fantasy and horror books set in 17th century Poland. Admirers of his work value the detailed and unpretentious portrayals of the times and the action-packed storylines filled with spectacular duels. The extremely popular Andrzej Pilipiuk is a different case. While he is associated primarily with humourous stories about Wędrowicz, he doesn’t confine himself to one aesthetic. He is fascinated by Scandinavia as evidenced by the trilogy Norwegian Journal and the six-volume Eye of the Deer. Pilipiuk is also deeply interested in Polish and Russian history. Hence he wrote the collection of stories Red Fever. He is also the author of a vampire-themed trilogy - Cousins, Heiresses and Princesses.
Piekara is the only one of this trio to create classic fantasy set in fictitious, medieval-themed worlds. He isn’t the only Polish author to write such books, but the truth is that if the current tendency doesn’t change, classic post-Tolkien fantasy will become very rare. This doesn’t mean to say that this genre will vanish altogether. Although Feliks W. Kres announced the end of his writing career in 2009, the group of classic fantasy authors was reinforced by the brilliant Robert M. Wenger. His collection of stories entitled Tales from the Meekhan Frontier. North-South won the hearts of readers instantly. The author displayed an unparalleled imagination creating a fascinating world inhabited by full-blooded characters, which he described in a style of his own. In 2010 a continuation entitled East-West appeared and Wenger continues to build his magical worlds.
There are a number of other readers of note within the genre, such as Ewa Białołęcka, author of the Chronicles of the Second Circle and Marcin Mortka, author of the Sword and Flowers trilogy and Ragnarok 1940.
What used to be and what might have been if…
What differentiates the Polish market of speculative literature from foreign ones (for instance in Great Britain) is the popularity of historical fiction. This genre has developed rapidly over the past few years. The reason for this may lie in the turbulent history of Poland, which is more than capable of becoming an interesting background for compelling novels. Aristocratic themes are preferred by many writers, including Komuda, who is called the "new Sienkiewicz", Jacek Piekara (The Diviner), Rafał Dębski (Werecossacks. Wolfish Law) and Konrad T. Lewandowski, who recently published the first tome of his series A Candle for the Devil.
Speculative fiction novels referring to other periods of Polish history have also been successful. The events of Dariusz Domagalski’s Teutonic Cycle take place in medieval times. In he fairy-tale Wroniec Jacek Dukaj describes the first days of martial law in Poland. Lately Andrzej W. Sawicki’s Hope Red like Snow appeared. This book is set in the realities of the January Uprising.
The involvement of the National Culture Centre in the issuing of the books from the series Time Switches. Alternative Histories was an extremely significant event. These ambitious publications are characterized by an unusual approach to Polish history. They are valued not only by speculative fiction fans. Storm. The Escape from Warsaw ‘44 by Maciej Parowski was the first volume of the cycle. The victory of Polish troops over the invading German forces in 1939 is the novel’s starting point. In 2010 the book was distinguished by the jury of the Józef Mackiewicz Literary Award. An animated discussion was provoked by the unusual Eternal Grunwald. Novels from behind the End of Times by Szczepan Twardoch. This author is one of the most interesting writers of the young generation. He tells the story of Poland and Germany like nobody before him. In his book the two nations wage a constant battle and are symbolically conjoined by the figure of the main character, who is both Polish and German.
Although the readership of science fiction is decreasing many interesting books in that genre are still being put out. For instance Jacek Dukaj is considered to be the greatest contemporary Polish speculative fiction writer. He is the author of the collection In the Land of the Infidels. In it he included the story Cathedral, which inspired Tomasz Bagiński to create the Oscar-nominated animated film of the same title. Dukaj’s Ice was close to winning the Nike literary prize in 2008. Although the author likes to experiment, he is still most interested in post-humanism and lately in the increasing role of electronic media. His newest books Line of Resistance and Science Fiction describe the impact modern technologies will have on almost every aspect of human life. However these works oughtn’t be considered futurological. Because of the multitude of factors science fiction authors have ceased to create firm predictions of the future. Nevertheless Dukaj’s visions are fascinating thanks to their complexity. They encompass changes in economy, culture, social relations, language and many other aspects of reality.
What is puzzling is that contrary to the trend of decreasing science fantasy editions Dukaj’s books are selling very well. It seems that in his case the usual weaknesses of science fiction (hermetism, which requires specialist knowledge of the readers) became advantages – Ice, Black Oceans or Other Songs are read not in spite of but because of the fact that they are intellectually demanding books. Jacek Dukaj’s name on the cover implies a challenge for the readers.
However other writers, equally as skilled as Dukaj, aren’t fortunate enough to enjoy a following on a similar level. The fact that the most important speculative fiction awards are usually granted to science fiction authors might be a certain consolation for them. Accordingly, in 2009 Rafał Kosik received the Jerzy Żuławski Prize for the novel Chameleon. The book also won him the Janusz A. Zajdel Award in a readers’ vote. It was, however, the brilliance of Vertical which confirmed his position as one of the best Polish speculative fiction writers. The author is also known for his bestseller youth series entitled Feliks, Net and Nika. His style is described as "old school" science fiction. His stories are filled with adventures of conquering outer space, colonising Mars and other themes characteristic of the Golden Era of science fiction, which dated from the late thirties to the fifties of the last century. It was then that the genre became widely popular. Kosik takes care not to disregard the scientific accuracy of his books. However he refuses to create so-called hard science fiction, which is focused on concepts and bears a close semblance to fictionalised popular science articles.
He is nevertheless an exception. The majority of science fiction authors try to be up to date with technological developments. Michał Protasiuk is such a writer. In 2012 he received the Jerzy Żuławski Literary Prize for the novel Structure. He specialises in close-range speculative fiction. He describes events that are likely to take place in the future, based on acute observations of the world and research on marketing. Protasiuk is a master at describing the mechanisms governing societies and similarly to Dukaj he addresses the issue of the constantly increasing influence technology has on our lives. He is often compared to William Gibson, author of the celebrated Neuromancer.
Horror fiction is an entirely different case. It is a niche within a niche. The Polish tradition of the genre is rather obscure. The only noteworthy author to write in the style in the past was Stefan Grabiński. Therefore Polish writers imitate foreign classics such as Graham Masterton or Stephen King. Comparisons to the latter are usually part of a marketing scheme - not in the case of Stefan Darda, however. The author of the two-volume Black Pasture (the third tome is under way) and of House in the Clearings is clearly inspired by the American’s works. He portrays eastern Poland in a style which brings to mind King’s descriptions of his home state Maine.
Łukasz Orbitowski automatically jumps out as one of Poland's most well-known horror writers. He is one of the most talented Polish writers. The novels I’m Losing Warmth, Holy Wrocław and He Is Coming are among his works. Until recently he was chiefly associated with descriptions of life in the projects. Readers considered this to be his trademark.
This is not the case with other horror fiction authors. Their books usually remain unnoticed. Only a handful of readers would recognize the names of such writers as Paweł Paliński, Dawid Kain or Łukasz Śmigla. Speculative fiction aficionados are only slowly beginning to appreciate the talents of Jakub Małecki. The author of the recently published novel Reflected is a master at portraying contemporary twenty and thirty year olds. His books are characterized by the use of unusually vivid language and by an abundance of literary references. However this writer is perhaps more popular with regular readers than with speculative fiction fans. Horror fiction works are often created by writers usually associated with other genres of speculative fiction. Jarosław Grzędowicz is the author of the collection The Book of Autumn Daemons, Maja Lidia Kossakowska wrote the four-volume Phantom of the South, Jakub Ćwiek turned a short story into a novel entitled Licking the Blade and Zbigniew Wojnarowski’s collection of historical horror stories Mirage was published in the series of the National Culture Centre in 2011.
Their own way
The most sizable group of authors consists of writers who don’t fall into the abovementioned categories and pursue their own, unique styles. As a result Polish speculative literature, while not as broad as Anglo-Saxon writings of the sort, is widely varied. It is hard to name a genre of speculative fiction found in the West which wouldn’t be represented by works of artists from Poland. Whether or not Polish writers imitate western authors is a separate question. With a few exceptions the answer is no, they don’t.
This is best illustrated by the work of Rafał W. Orkan and Anna Kańtoch. For lack of a more appropriate category, their writings may be classified as New Weird works (a literary trend established by China Miéville, which involves the crossing of genre boundaries). However new terms and genera ought to be invented in order to accurately describe Orkan’s and Kańtoch’s books. Nevertheless it is easier to use existing expressions. Hence the false impression was formed that Polish writers imitate popular American or British trends.
In reality they follow their own respective paths. Rafał W. Orkan’s books are melting pots, in which the author mixes magic with technology and horror. Not only does he sculpt in inanimate matter, he also conjures bizarre bodies of monsters and hybrids and invents numerous neologisms. On the other hand Kańtoch in her novel Prelunar Beings. Tome I "spices up" science fiction with a bit of extraordinariness characteristic of fantasy. The book won the Janusz A. Zajdel Award in 2010 and was distinguished by the jury of the Jerzy Żuławski Prize.
That’s not all
Krzysztof Piskorski, who started out as a classic fantasy writer, is presently associated chiefly with the steampunk trend, which is growing increasingly popular in the USA and Great Britain. This style refers to the aesthetic of Victorian England (although this is not always the case, the author of Splinter sets his books in the Napoleonic era) and above all to the Age of Steam. On the other hand the events portrayed in Katarzyna Berenika Miszczuk’s books take place in Poland. She creates works in the paranormal romance genre, which became popular thanks to the Twilight series written by Stephanie Meyer. Another author worth mentioning is Joanna Skalska, who debuted in 2010 with her novel Emeranta. This book is maintained in the style of magical realism. Recently the first Polish conceptual speculative novel was published. Paweł Matuszek’s book entitled Stone Moth not only puts forth an interesting plot but also an original form - font styles, letter sizes and illustrations are among the employed means of expression. A more traditional approach is demonstrated by the highly popular Jakub Ćwiek. Apart from being the author of the abovementioned horror novel he is also the creator of the cycle Liar, which is set in the realities of the American Civil War. On the other hand the action of his Blacklegs’ Offensive takes place during the II World War. In this book magicians help the allied forces in winning the conflict.
The stories of two other writers, while undoubtedly maintained in the fantasy style, are so unique that they can’t simply be classified as post-Tolkien tales about heroes. Maciej Guzek is one such author. His novel Third World and collection of stories Rabbit Warren are set in a reality, in which a portal leading to magical realms is discovered in Poland. This event results in the rapid economic growth of the country. The writer portrays Poland as an international superpower, which is seldom encountered in speculative fiction. However his prose is also distinctive because of its approach to fantasy. Guzek writes with a deep consciousness of Tolkien’s and his successors’ literary legacy (Third World is a reportage from a journey to one of the magical worlds and ought to be considered a homage to Ryszard Kapuściński).
Another notable author of this sort is Wit Szostak, also an admirer of Tolkien’s works. In his first novel, the fairy-tale Winds of the Dragon Mountains, he blended fantasy with folk culture (Szostak devotes much of his attention to music). The writer remained faithful to this method when he created his later works, the most noteworthy of which are Jagged Ridges, Babblings of a Toad and Spinning until the End of the World. However his literary style eventually evolved. In 2010 Szostak published the novel Sheaves, which merges fantasy and magical realism. The book won the Jerzy Żuławski Prize in 2011. The same year Dumanowski appeared, a novel in many ways a continuation of Sheaves.
There was a time when science fiction was predominant in the Polish market of speculative fiction, eventually losing out to fantasy. At present neither fraction may claim victory over the other. One might therefore say that after years of changes Polish speculative literature has finally matured. Polish writers, similarly to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, search for their own niches. Even if they write in an established genre they try to add something of their own to it. Thanks to this, the lack of a characteristic quality has become the distinctive feature of Polish speculative literature, which is a highly desirable scenario.
Representatives of Polish speculative fiction shouldn’t be wary of comparisons to foreign prose of the genre. The books written in Poland hold their own, as imaginative and complex as the best of the west.
Author: Marcin Zwierzchowski, grudzień 2011. Translated by Marek Kępa, June 2012.