A Dialogue with the Polish Writer Jacek Dukaj by Cristian Tamas

The horror comes from the recognition of underlying truth about human nature. That’s just how our brains work.” – Jacek Dukaj

Cristian Tamas : “Let’s recognize, Poland has never been so rich, safe and free ! Poland is one of Europe’s shining successes. Alone in the European Union, Poland did not suffer a recession after the financial crisis. Its economy has grown by 33% since 2007, compared with 2% for the euro zone.” – The Economist ; But which is the main problem that Poland faces ? The societal fault between traditionalists&ultra-conservatives and progressives, the economic issue (high unemployment, rising food prices, dependence on coal – serious air pollution because of sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, the resulting acid rain causing forest damage – and imported gas), the bureaucracy, the aging population & the very low birth rate & rising divorce rates & depopulation, the emigration that is exacerbating the demographic crisis ?

 Jacek Dukaj : In the short term the economic problems seem the most important. Certainly people experience them most directly, in a way they can easily express in terms of day-to-day needs and cares.

Almost all of these issues have roots in the communist era. We are still paying the cost for being frozen for half a century under the Soviet rule. We are trying to catch up with western Europe socially, economically, technologically, and the tensions arise when people feel this progress is too slow, or that they’ve been sacrificied for the good of majority, or that their aspirations rise faster than the actual standard of living, or that these standards are rising at different rates in different parts of society, or that the globalization forces people to pursue their careers abroad. Surely you witness this firsthand, since these are structural problems, typical for all post-communist Europe.

And they naturally provide fuel for conflicts and tensions much more important in the long term – the cultural war which you called “the societal fault between traditionalists & ultra-conservatives and progressives“. In my opinion it’s more universal and deeper division, cutting through all societies, from the poorest to the richest, and directly tied to technological progress.

The core issue here is the one of identity, and the question we are ultimately confronted with is: “what is human ?”

All other questions – rights for gays, for trangenders, for all minorities, the abortion controversy, the battle for in vitro, the social and economic role of women, the place of religion in secular society, the definition of marriage, legalization of drugs, parental control over children’s education, even current problems with emigration from South: the challenge of transforming the old, homogenic Europe into a multiethnic, multicultural society – all these are just offshots of that fundamental dilemma.

Primary source of tension here is the growing potential of man to create and redefine himself at will, in this way changing and blurring the lines of “humanity”. And because driving force behind this process is science, technology, there is no easy, legal solution, nothing that can be „ordered” by governments, even if we had some global government able to pass universal laws for whole planet. There is no doubt in my mind that the progress of science and, following it, the increase of the potential to redefine man, they will continue without restrain.

Actually I think this process is accelerating and rather sooner than later every culture will arrive at its “breaking point”. For example you can look at the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam as a direct reaction of traditional culture facing this unprecedented freedom of its individual members to live, as they say, “unnaturally”, which means: against the rules defined as nature in their culture. At the same time many people in the West feel oppressed by this very freedom, and desperately seek ways to escape from it, to give up the hardest duty of all: the obligation to make individual life choices. As the number of choices we have to make increases, and they reach the very core of our identity – this allure of external control becomes irresistible.

And that’s the psychological basis for this clash between “traditionalists” and “progressives”.

And I wouldn’t dismiss all of the objections made by people opposing the progress. Are there some limits? or are there none? Is “man” an infinitely plastic, malleable, jello-like entity, a being without properties and essence? or is there something you cannot change, can never give up?

Perfect Imperfection – Jacek Dukaj

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Cristian Tamas : “Since 1990 almost every country in Central and Eastern Europe – with the exception of the communist bantustan of Belarus – has experienced dramatic political, social, cultural and economic transformations. Most observers have viewed these changes through a lens distorted by their own cultural and social situations. Some see „New Europe” as chance to witness capitalism’s victory over communism. An idealized image of democracy emerged in the eastern european societies. However, the ideal and the reality did not match. Many of those who expected a democratic and economic paradise after 1990 were deeply disappointed by the day-to-day reality of the emerging democratic regimes. All eastern-european countries are still facing problems related to consolidating democracy and free market economies.” – Jeffrey K.Johnson ; After 25 years of born-again capitalism, we witness permanent economic crisis and recession, social differentiation, economic polarization and alienation, exploitation and uncertainty, aged and aging european populations everywhere in the east and the west, brain&muscle drain towards west, xenophobia and euroscepticism linked with insecurity, conservatorism and religiosity (verging on bigotry), the specter of the “islamization of Europe”, life as the economic survival of the fittest, desperate struggle to cope with the global turbo-capitalism crazes, social darwinism expressed as the fault between the citizens expectations&possibilities and the cleptocracies’ sole objectives : power & wealth&total control. What is your opinion about the present period and the near future ?

 Jacek Dukaj : The progress made by Central and Eastern European countries is undeniable; of course their starting point wasn’t exactly high. Usually the critics take here as a benchmark of success countries of Western Europe (which is unfair, but psychologically understandable) or some imagined “possible alternatives”. Still basically we are operating within the frame of European socio-economical consensus – which is removed as far from “turbocapitalism” of USA and, especially, Asian autocratic economies, as it’s possible.

On this political and economic level the main challenge and danger before Europe and whole world I see in the fundamental incompatibility of democracy and post-material capitalism. By “post-material capitalism” I mean the stage in evolution of free-market economy we’re slowly entering, when the only factor determining your success (which means wealth, which consequently means power) is the creative ability of your mind. Not the resources, not land, not wealth accumulated by your ancestors. When everything material is free, cheap or easily interchangeable, there’s no natural mechanism for balancing inequalities. Physical matter still is kind of a chain-and-ball, slowing us down and tethering to time and space; whereas information deals in infinities. Slightly better technology wins over all other technologies, and its owner immediately reaps all the profits. And so very quickly wealth and power accumulate in the hands of “new aristocrats of intellect”. The careers of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk and the likes foreshadow it quite well.

Notice how hard it is to find language and the ethical ground to deny them this right to feudal rule over “plebs of mind”. Traditional marxist critique of bourgeois and exploitation of labour don’t apply. Global cult of Steve Jobs shows how we instinctively accede to this hierarchy, thus confirming its “objectiveness”. There is something to this saying by Descartes that intellect is the quality most equaly distributed among mankind since none would admit he’s found himself lacking intelligence.

To make matters worse, modern theories of social justice usually follow this logic. Consider Hayek’s critique of John Rawls’ theory of justice. While trying to tie the economic status most closely to individual person’s effort and contribution to society, Rawls deprives us of the last illusion of égalité. In Rawls’ society – exactly as in the future feudalism of the Gates and the Musks – you’re rich because you deserve to be rich, and you’re poor because you deserve to be poor. Old version of capitalism, with all its chaos, loopholes and corruptions, at least allowed us to keep the dignity – you could always say: “I failed not because I’m stupid, lazy, etc., but because I had bad luck“.

The technology makes all the difference. Let’s say you are the greatest genius in mankind’s history, but you are born in a tribe of hunters-gatherers before the neolithic revolution. How much wealth and power could you accumulate? Technology gives the intellect an infinite leverage to conquer and consume material world.

Furthermore democracy itself becomes slave to those possesing means and knowledge how to manipulate it. Democracy is not some metaphysical concept detached from people practicing it and the world in which they practice it. And the behaviour of people, as well as the conditons set for it by their physical environment, can be described, analyzed and exploited in the same way human reason and technological civilization quantify and make use of the rest of nature. The progress in science and practical application of “big data”, which means exactly the power to predict and control behaviour of individuals and societes, is staggering. Even on TV and in tabloid we openly talk about elections and political campaigns in terms of technocratic games played by hired professionals, who mastered techniques of creating one’s public image, influencing emotions of crowd, planting suggestions and associations in our minds. We know about it – and it works all the same. Being aware of laws of chemical reactions won’t make you immune to the sweetness of sugar or intoxicating properties of alcohol.

I don’t see how democracy can survive further accumulation of this knowledge and its application to political process. Picture it thousand times more precise and effective, thanks to intimate knowledge about every citizen’s life and state of mind, amassed in the next generation’s Googles and Facebooks, and by the real-world surveillance devices too ubiquitous and sophisticated to be even noticeable. It’s not that people won’t have the right to vote and choose; but that their voting and choosing, being absolutely free and perfectly adhering to democratic procedures, will nevertheless always result in choices already made by the “aristocrats of mind”.

Capitalism already has proven it can work very well without democracy – Singapore serves as a classic example. And one can ask: why democracy in the first place ? According to what principles, to what undisputable axioms do we rate the systems of government ?

This incompatibility of technology (in the broad sense of “techne“) with democracy is nothing new. In fact ancient Greeks were well aware of the danger. In their times the technology to manipulate the voters was developed and practised by sophists and orators. Hence the idea of Fortune as a last defense against techne: random selection of representatives for public offices and duties. (It was called “sortition”. You can find in museums its relics: blocks of stone, “kleroterions”, used in public lotteries in Athens).

Ice“ – Jacek Dukaj

©Wydawnictwo Literackie

Cristian Tamas : Is Poland “the suffering Christ among nations raising the torch of liberty and independence for themselves and others” ?

 Jacek Dukaj : You are referring to the myth popular in the era of Romanticism, during the time of Poland’s partition. Currently even the most religious and right-wing politicians and pundits don’t take this metaphor seriously and don’t use it in public discourse.

However there is another powerful metaphor: of Poland as “a parrot of nations”, i.e. culture so ridden with complexes and so desperately longing for acceptance from the West, that it parrots every fashion and ideology coming from there. And this metaphor tells more truth about contemporary Poland, I’m afraid.

The messianic myth at least used to empowered us with a kind of egocentric authority to do things none other would do, to be the first, to dare. Now the winning argument in almost every policital debate about possible solutions in economy, demography, culture etc. is: “none did this, so why should we be so stupid to try ?“.

The Cathedral” – Jacek Dukaj

©Wydawnictwo Literackie

Cristian Tamas : Who you will choose between Tadeusz Kościuszko, Maria Skłodowska Curie, Wisława Szymborska, Józef Piłsudski, Bronisław Malinowski, Andrzej Wajda, Alfred Korzybski, Zdzisław Beksiński, Witold Gombrowicz, Czesław Miłosz, Stanisław Lem, Sławomir Mrożek, Lech Wałęsa and Karol Wojtyła ? Who is the most romantic, proud, spirited, and devout ?

Jacek Dukaj : I don’t know, it seems to be a question from RPG game about the history and culture of Poland: Wałęsa has Charisma +20, but Gombrowicz is Immune to Counterattacks, while Lem holds Mental Invicibility 95%, and so forth.

Black Oceans” – Jacek Dukaj

©Wydawnictwo Literackie

Cristian Tamas : Why is the Polish culture universally unknown but with absolutely no justification ?

Jacek Dukaj : Well, I’m not sure any part of the statement implied in this question is true.

I don’t think Polish culture is less known than most of the cultures of countries similar in size and economic power, cursed with equally difficult language. Is Romanian culture more or less unknown (if one can talk at all in degrees here)?

As for the justification – Poland for a long time was a poor periphery of Europe, not able to set any trends in politics, economy and culture. Do you think it’s a coincidence that lingua franca of 21st century is English, and that the global popculture is the popculture of USA ?

Other Songs” – Jacek Dukaj

©Wydawnictwo Literackie

Cristian Tamas : I do think that our perception of reality is fragmentary, and in 20th-century literature, it’s totally normal to not describe reality as something whole and completely transportable and explicable. That’s been accepted in novels. But genre productions always pretend that reality is transportable, which means that it is explicable.” – Michael Haneke ; Is it so ?

Jacek Dukaj : I think he mixed up two issues: the relationship between reality and art as a representation of reality; and the question of “Great Narratives”.

Following Lyotard’s critique of “master narratives”, it became kind of a dogma in humanities in European academia, that the time of “big novels” has passed, and we can only hope for personal, highly subjective and fragmentaric “glimpses of uncertain reality”.

Personally I hold the opposite view. Contemporary world has became “one big instant event”, meaning everything is connected with everything else, we are all influencing one another, everything happens almost simultaneously and there are no “islands of causality”: even North Korea or Cuba take part in the global plays. And precisely because of this tightening network of globalization I state that only great, all-encompasing narratives have the power, explanatory potential – and intellectual depth – to reflect the reality of 21st century, down to the existential situation of a particular person, living in this or that country, at the crossing of these lines of power.

How art relates to reality is another matter altogether. “The Sun rose above the city” – and the Sun didn’t rise above the city, it’s just me who wrote that the Sun rose above the city. How to cross this chasm, how to build a bridge between the real and the unreal? The very nature of art hasn’t changed; it’s us who became more sensitive to this incongruity.

This is also one of the main reasons why written narrative loses its appeal for educated audiences of the West; that’s why genre of Young Adult rises to the level of universal narrative for all ages and ways of life. You have to “become like a child” in order to enter the realm of fiction; you cannot cross this threshold with open eyes of a grown man anymore. Anyway it’s much harder nowadays.

I see another interesting phenomenon related to this change. I noticed that the visual novels – TV series made for adult audiences, for cable networks like HBO and Netflix – are able to overcome much of this resistance. The same plot, with the same characters, set in the same world – when delivered in written fiction, is hard to stomach, seems too artificial to engage us fully, with heart and mind. But watch it as a 13-hour televion drama – and you don’t have this problem. You cannot resist it, you discuss it with your friends, analize in essays; you BELIEVE in it.

Genre here is far less important than the medium itself: literature or visual narrative.

But speaking about “genre productions”. Haneke probably referred to cinema.

The Crowe” – Jacek Dukaj

©Wydawnictwo Literackie

Cristian Tamas : “The model I’ve chosen would be closer to the picture of a neuron or a star: a massive center of global culture and separate clusters of local cultures connected to the center by dendrites or plasma jets. These clusters have no connection between one another – except the one going through the center. Our cluster of SF-F literature consists of Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Czech Republic. Relations here are not symmetrical: Polish-Czech translations happen both ways, but we translate much more from Russian language than into Russian.

What goes on in other clusters, we only get to know when a certain book, certain author succeeds in the center: in the American/English market. For nowadays the pressure of global culture is just too enormous. It’s like standing under the waterfall and trying to spit upstream – that’s the appropriate image of cultural exchange between any given cluster and the center, I think.” – you declared to SF Signal’s Mind Meld International.

The image is vivid and clear, is the European speculative fiction just “a separate cluster of local clusters connected to the massive center of global culture by dendrites or plasma jets” ? Is the European popular culture derivative to the anglo-saxon, subservient, subordinate and servile to it ? Or the European pop culture is just an appendix of the AngloSFere ?

Jacek Dukaj : Yes, yes, yes.

With this minor amendment that “European” here means continental Europe.

And we are not even aware how deeply we’ve been conditioned. We internalized the global (American) popculture so completely, so intimately, that it is impossible even to think about culture in different terms. Can you imagine 21st century popculture which wouldn’t be English-based, American-dreamt? I mean even if you switch the repertoire of figures, symbols, plots for its equivalent derived from Slavic mythology (it’s been done, usually with comically bad results), the framework of popculture, the sense of what is „pop” and what isn’t – it would remain essentially English-American.

One could argue that in this sense the very phenomenon of popculture is intrinsically American. But where exactly should we draw a line between the treats specific for particular culture – and these universal for any kind of art appealing to masses in democratic societes of 21st century? For example modern novel owes much also to 18th and 19th century French literature. And the first science fiction novel was written in Arabic, in 13th century (by Ibn al-Nafis).

Anyway it isn’t the issue of literature alone, nor limited to popular culture. The same goes on in academia, it was already institutionalized there. How the quality of your work as a scholar is measured? You have to be published and quoted in respected periodicals, and all of them happen to be issued in English. In hard sciences none even bothers writing papers in native language; from the beginning all science is done in English.

Now imagine studies of Polish literature (or Romanian theatre, or Serbian poetry) but done entirely in English. And this is the most probable variant of the future.

In the end there are only two possible outcomes:

1. There are no academic studies of Polish literature.

2. Polish literature is an English literature written by people born in Poland.

Jacek Dukaj, The Old Axolotl (cover)

Cristian Tamas : “In the last years, there has been a fundamental shift in the constraints faced by artists who are free politically but have fewer resources and the main constraint is economical, based on what the public will buy. Theater and movies have a special potency in Polish society. People tend to see their own life and history as filled with drama and romance, and they love theater. Attending a performance, whether a play, a movie, a concert or ballet, is an important social activity, and people tend to see it as a serious and edifying experience rather than mere entertainment”. So, what if the status, if any, of the Polish Fantastyka (speculative fiction) ? Is it “an important social activity” ?

Jacek Dukaj : I don’t think theatre and cinema play more special role in Poland than in other European countries. Certainly I don’t see going to theatre or ballet nowadays as „an important social acitivity”.

I’m not sure what you mean by “fantastyka”. The segment of commercial culture associated with SF-F aesthetics? The network of fans, especially these meeting at SF-F conventions? The monthly “Fantastyka” (now “Nowa Fantastyka”)?

The fundamental shift mentioned in the quote is a direct result of the transition from communism to capitalism. One way or another, you have to find money for these artistic endeavours. In case of literature the cost of production of the text itself usually comes down to bills covering the author’s cost of living; whereas movies can be extremely expensive to make. So either you take money from public, and then you are servant to its taste, sensivity, expectations, or from some sponsors, and then you must take into account their motivations and goals, political or other.

I don’t really see the way around it. Even the most carefully designed institution has some preferences and hidden agendas: coming from personal preferences of people working there, or reflecting the inherent logic of the institution. (For example a foundation financing production of movies with money earned from productions co-funded before would „subconsciously” choose more commercial projects. Foundation getting money from the state on the basis of the critical assesment of its efforts would closely follow fads and trends in critics’ circles. Etc., etc.).

The best we can hope for is the diversification of these sources of funding, so that an artist would always have some freedom of choice, wouldn’t be backed into a corner by monopoly. And in this respect capitalism seems a “safer” environment for an artist than a model of state-sponsored culture.

Cristian Tamas : Would you agree with the definition of Józef Borzyszkowski, “The Polish culture is a community of people of one language, one religion, at the same time tolerant, loving liberty, ready for limitless self-denial and sacrifices, committed above all to the value of honor, having their particular mission in the history of the neighboring group of nations, and accumulating in their culture many unique elements, attractive for the others.” ? 

Jacek Dukaj : One shouldn’t look in stereotypes for the reliable description of reality. They tell us more about those holding onto them; about their perception of reality, their image of themselves, their complexes and ideals. In the Borzyszkowski’s case I would put it into the last category.

Anyway in this kind of international contest of stereotypes I think we are ahead by the virtue of irony. The most common stereotypes of Poles in Poland are the self-deprecating ones; in some perverted way we take pride in our failures and vices. Anarchy, fatalism, puissance, bumptious idealism – that’d be a mental characteristic of Pole if you were to take seriously headlines in Polish press.

Córka łupieżcy” (The Plunderer’s Daughter) (2002, reprint 2009); short novel in anthology “Wizje Alternatywne 4″ (Alternative Visions 4), Solaris 2002

Cristian Tamas : “I am proud to be born a Pole, proud that I have been nourished with values and ideals that so often seem to be impractical, but that still allow you to hold your head high and to look straight into the stars. I thanked God that he did not let me be born in some welfare state and that he did not let me avoid bitter and sometimes tragic experiences. Those who did not have these experiences are somehow unidimensional. They lack depth. They do not have any experience of tragedy. Without this ultimate experience of what the human condition does mean you are not able to understand who is man. I thanked God that he did not allow me to be born in the American culture that is so buoyant and so optimistic, but at the same time so shallow. Culture means values. I thanked God that I was not born into the American, but into the Polish system of values. And I often wondered which of Polish values are the most precious and which of them have a universal character.” – Henryk Skolimowski ; Do you agree ? To know something about the polish culture is to be able to pronounce “W Szczebrzeszynie chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie” and to endure the “Żubrówka Bruderszaft” ? “A good Polish cook is one who can make gourmet soup from the rusty nail” ?

I think I covered this already, answering previous question.

“Science Fiction” (in the anthology “Science Fiction”, 2011, Powergraph)


Cristian Tamas : “The High Altitude Dream’s Collapse, here’s one of many syntagms as touching as partial that the Eastern European political&economic transition can be globally labelled. The science fiction having the distant future or the distant cosmos as framework no longer interests the majority of authors or readers.”, said Cristian Tudor Popescu, a relevant romanian SF writer and journalist. Why so few polish speculative fiction writers are still interested by science fiction, the distant future and the distant space? What could be the reason ?

Jacek Dukaj : I don’t understand first sentence in the quote.

You don’t just get interested in science fiction and, having written dozen other (“mainstream”) books, suddenly start writing SF. That’s extremely rare. Rather you are „born into SF”, you are infected by SF as if by a virus. Or, as I like to say, you have “SF mentality”. Meaning that even if you don’t write books classified and sold in bookstores as SF, nevertheless they „read as SF”. SF is a point view, not the scenography. So for example I think J. M. Coetzee is a SF author, Ian McEwan is SF author, Michel Houellebecq is a SF author, Vladimir Nabokov was a SF author. And obviously Pynchon and Saramago. Conversely, Margaret Atwood lacks the SF mentality, despite having written a number of books “objectively” belonging to SF.

Distant future or distant cosmos never interested the majority of authors or readers. What we are experiencing now has more to do with overall exhaustion of western culture. There is a kind of wall in collective imagination, holding us back from constructing believable alternatives to current course of civilization. And in politics, in philosophy, in economic sciences we hear the same complains: there is no imaginable alternative for the ruling paradigm. So when thinking about the future one can only magnify the present, make it more comfortable, running more smoothly, put into it some new gadgets or new fashions. Basically this is the curse of Fukuyama’s “end of history”. Although Fukuyama himself retracted this prediction (precisely because his failure to recognize the impact of technology), and we are not thinking in terms of Hegelian philosophy of history – the feeling is the same: as if the nature itself pushed us down this path. And one doesn’t negotiate with physics, one cannot bend the mathematics to one’s will.

If you look only at the scenography of SF, at the aesthetics of it – you’ll find plenty of movies, games, novels set in one or another “retro future”, in some alternative world of cyberpunk or in galactic empires of future none believes in. However they have much more in common with fantasy sagas than with SF. (Ever noticed how in classic fantasy there is no progress?) This kind of endless recycling of past aesthetics and childhood dreams is another sure sign of culture’s exhaustion.

What can break through this “wall of impossibility”? Only the driving force of science, technology, just as Fukuyama finally admitted in “Our Posthuman Future”. The problem is the future currently described by science, namely the coming of Technological Singularity, also rises a barrier no human imagination can pierce through. By its very definition, Technological Singularity makes it impossible to extrapolate further. You’d have to become post-Singularity intellect yourself to be able to think like it (or even to think about its thinking). The closest science fiction got in description of post-human intelligence exponentially gaining power and racing past Technological Singularity – was “Golem XIV” by Stanisław Lem.

So is there coming back to “true science fiction”, as we remember it from our youth? Or is this sentiment precisely the reason why science fiction cannot progress and seems only to repeat itself?

Personally I would go in a direction of “cultural fiction” – not to soften the scientific aspect of SF (I’m quite an orthodox here), but yo build upon following argument:

Scientific adventures remain fascinating as long as there is clearly presented drama, tension, a suspens; and not merely at the level of plot, but in the science itself. The best of “old science fiction” stories took advantage of this double dramaturgy: protagonist’s actions allow some scientific of technological (or worldview) breakthrough, which in turn open new plotlines, which lead to even greater breakthrough, and so on. Thus the best climax is usually some kind of simultaneous revelation: about protagonist’s situation and about the nature of the world or the reality itself. Now in the shadow of Technological Singularity and past the point-of-no-return in transhumanism there’s little or nothing left to reveal. Basically we take for granted the ultimate power of creation and control in the physical realm. Eternal life? Production of new universes? God-like intelligence? Black holes as large as galaxies, galaxies as brains, brains as uncollapsed quantum waves – we yawn and reach for another pint of beer. So if we can do anything, the tension and the satisfaction from overcoming the resistance can only be found in the significance ascribed by human mind to these banal recombinations of physical matter. And this is just another definition of culture.

Król Bólu” (King of Pain) (2010) – Jacek Dukaj

Cristian Tamas : “More than in the scientific discovery itself, Polish science fiction was interested in the invention’s effect on society. Narrative and plot are used to present certain political and social views.” – Tomasz Kołodziejczak. Was this a specific feature of Polish science fiction ?

Jacek Dukaj : That’s a tricky question, because I would rather present a case that such a thing as “Polish science fiction” doesn’t exist.

For two reasons: one, that too small a number of books written by Polish authors and fitting the classic definition of science fiction was published in last years to suggest existence of robust literary movement; two, that even when you find such books, most probably they would belong to English-American SF which just happened to be written in Polish.

Kołodziejczak’s assessment certainly would be true if applied to SF of the 70s, the 80s, even the 90s. He was probably talking about so-called “sociological fiction”, which was very strong, innovative and culturally important movement in Polish SF in the 70s and the 80s, and gave birth to quite a few really brilliant novels (by Zajdel or Wnuk-Lipiński). Then it evolved into more straight-forward political fiction, written almost exclusively from right-wing perspective (like novels by Rafał Ziemkiewicz or Kołodziejczak himself, some of them also really good).

Xavras Wyżryn and Other National Fictions (2004, reprint 2009) – Jacek Dukaj

Cristian Tamas : Is the polish speculative fiction syncronized with the polish mainstream and the polish culture, sharing the same characteristics – mythology, symbolism, social and political issues – or is just subserviently following the anglo-saxon commercial and escapist trends (fantasy, steampunk, weird, slipstream, young adults dystopies, etc.) ?

Jack Dukaj : If we were to treat such large-scale trends as fantasy as a form of cultural imperialism (something alien, to fight off), then we could safely say that not only SF-F, but 99% of all culture produced in Poland is not a Polish culture.

We have to draw a line somewhere and admit that external influences also play vital role in necessary and healthy process of continous reshaping and revaluating what it means to be a Pole (or a Romanian). The challenge is to find right balance between these changes and the changes coming from within: natural growth and evolution of every culture.

As it is now, it’s pointless to distinguish here between SF-F and “mainstream”, since “mainstream” also slavishly follows global trends (tabloid-like biographies, self-help books, crime novels with historic or social background etc.).

W kraju niewiernych” (In the Land of Unbelievers) (2000, reprint 2008) – Jacek Dukaj

Cristian Tamas : “You can easily see many anglophone bestsellers or even less known books translated into other languages but it doesn’t work very often the other way. Therefore, readers from non-anglophone countries are more likely to know both anglophone and their native sf/f books.

Also, the anglophone authors and publishers (supported by the Hollywood machine) work very much as the literary trend-setters. These trends spread all over the world resulting in flood of second-hand-George-R-R-Martins, Terry-Pratchett-impostors or Neil-Gaiman-wannabes.

So again — fresh, original ideas included in non-anglophone books don’t have many opportunities to become known in countries dominated by English language.

Perhaps it has something to do with a phenomenon which I call “Mamoń-syndrome”, named from a character in Polish comedy Rejs. Close minded and lazy engineer Mamoń used to say “I like the songs that I’ve already heard”.

I think the same syndrome causes anglophone viewers to ignore many great foreign movies and wait for their Hollywood remakes, well-suited for their habits. I wonder if the same thing may happen with the best non-anglophone novels – rather than publish translated originals, publishing houses could hire the popular authors to write the remakes, filtered through anglophone culture and ribbed for readers’ pleasure. I hope, it won’t happen, but who knows? Back to the subject: I think, anglophone readers are simply devoid of fresh and unfiltered ideas flowing from other cultures and marked by foreign ways of thinking….“, said Jerzy Rzymowski, editor of the Polish Nowa Fantastyka SF magazine. What do you think ?

Jacek Dukaj : Yes, the machine of global popculture appears to work like this when seen from the outside.

However there is another possible explanation: these trends, formulas, habits weren’t imprinted in our brains because global hegemony happens to belong to USA, and this is a form of extended colonization, perfidiously forcing us to „be more like our oppressor”.

No. Americans just have DISCOVERED what really works in popculture, what kind of plots, narratives, aesthetics best fit Homo sapiens’s psyche – and the only thing working there behind the curtains is this devoid of any loyalties and sentiments.

How do you argue against the maximalization of consumer’s satisfaction, against the true feeling of pleasure, of satisfaction? Do you remember “A Brave New World” by Huxley? The horror of his vision is not in the deceit and totalitarian coercion. The horror comes from the recognition of underlying truth about human nature. That’s just how our brains work. This is the coldly efficient mechanism of capitalism.

Cristian Tamas : “So we have the same trends, the same bestsellers, the same niches – and in SF-F, firmly rooted in pop-culture  – it’s even more evident. Our local versions can differ in scenery and historical references…” ? Isn’it the accurate portrait of the cultural colonization of Europe with the anglo mass-produced subcultural consumeristic products, pulp sci-fi and fantasy included ?

Jacek Dukaj : Yeah, this guy got it right. 

Cristian Tamas : Thank you, Jacek, for your sincere and relevant answers ! Thank you very much for your time and solicitude !

© Cristian Tamas & Jacek Dukaj

Jacek Dukaj (born 1974 in Tarnów, Poland) is considered Poland’s best living science fiction writer and one of Poland’s most interesting contemporary prose writers, whose books are always eagerly anticipated events.

Dukaj earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński), the University of Krakow founded in 1364 .

He is the author of “Black Oceans”, „Extensa”, „Other Songs”, „Perfect Imperfection”, „Xavras Wyżryn and Other National Fictions” and „Ice”, and the brains behind the „PL +50. Future Histories anthology”. After the huge success of his novel „Ice”, which won the European Literary Award, the prestigious Kościelscy Award and was nominated for the Nike (the most prestigious literary award in Poland), Jacek Dukaj published widely acclaimed grim fantasy novel „The Crowe”. – Wydawnictwo Literackie (The Literary Publishing House, Krakow, Poland).

He has been nominated a number of times for the esteemed Janusz Zajdel Award, winning it four times: for “Czarne oceany” (Black Oceans) in 2002, “Inne pieśni” (Other Songs) in 2003, “Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość” (A Perfect Imperfection) in 2004 and “Lód” (Ice) in 2007.

His nominations for the Nike Literary Award (2008), for Polityka Passports in 2004 and 2008 and for the Kościelski Award which he received in 2008 show that the merit of his work transcends a narrowly defined genre.


Cristian Tamas

Cristian Tamaș is a romanian editor, essayist, translator and SF fan active within the speculative fiction domain since the beginning of the 80s. 

 He is a founding member of the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society (SRSFF = Societatea Română de Science Fiction&Fantasy, www.srsff.ro/) since January 2009,  he’s a member of the jury of the SRSFF Ion Hobana Awards (http://www.srsff.ro/premiile-srsff/), 
he coordinates ProspectArt (http://www.srsff.ro/cenaclul-prospectart/), the SRSFF’s SF club relaunched in April 2009 in Bucharest (Romania), the yearly Ion Hobana Colloquium (http://www.srsff.ro/colocviile-ion-hobana/), Fantastica, the online SFF magazine of SRSFF ( http://fantastica.ro/) and EUROPA SF, the pan-european portal dedicated to the support and promotion of the European speculative fiction (www.scifiportal.eu).
Fantastica http://fantastica.ro/), a non-profit online magazine is dedicated to the promotion and support for the romanian SFF and the European SFF (special dossiers dedicated to France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria), the international SFF : Brazil, India and in the future Poland, Portugal, Ireland, Finland, etc..
He is a member of the International Speculative Fiction site and magazine.
He is co-editor with Roberto Mendes of ‘The Anthology of the European SF”, co-editor of „Bella Proxima”, a trilingual croatian SF anthology (english-croatian-romanian), together with Antuza Genescu and Aleksandar Žiljak (Eagle Publishing House, Bucharest, 2012), editor of the SRSFF yearly short stories collections “Alte Tarmuri” (Other Shores), “Pangaia” and “Bing Bing Larissa“.
He had interviewed the SF writers David Brin, Cat Rambo, Jason Sanford, Nina Allan, Gérard Klein, Ugo Bellagamba (french SF author awarded with Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire & Prix Rosny ), Francesco Verso (italian SF writer and editor), the polish writer Jacek Dukajthe dutch writers and editors Jan J.B. Kuipers, Mike Jansen, Floris Kleijne and Roelof Goudriaanthe peruvian-finnish writer Tanja Tynjala, the czech writers Julie Nováková and Lucie Lukačovičováthe greek SF writers Michalis ManoliosPanagiotis Koustas, Kostas Voulazeris and Kostas Paradias,  Alexandre Babeanu (Prix Solaris awarded canadian SF author), J.S. Bangs (american writer), Heather Anastasiu (american fantasy writer), the scholars Prof.Dr.George Slusser (University of California in Riverside), Prof. Rachel Haywood Ferreira (University of Iowa), Prof. M.Elizabeth Ginway (University of Florida), Prof. Arielle Saiber (Bowdoin College, USA; research focus : italian science fiction), Prof.Sonja Fritzsche (Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, Illinois, USA; research focus : german science fiction)Gloria McMillan, research associate (Ph.D. in English at the University of Arizona, USA), Lars Schmeink, Co-founder and President of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (Association for Research in the Fantastic, Hamburg, Germany), Prof. Dr. Domna Pastourmatzi (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece), Mariano Martín Rodríguez (SF scholar, Spain), Prof.Maria-Ana Tupan (University of Bucharest, Romania), the austrian writer Nina Horvath, the italian writer Debora Montanari, the croatian writer Mihaela Marija Perković, the hungarian writer Judit Lörinczy, the bulgarian SF writer and astronomer Valentin Ivanovthe European Science Fiction Society’s Boardthe romanian SF&F writers Marian Truță, Cristian Mihail Teodorescu, Dănuț Ungureanu, Liviu Radu, Sebastian A.Corn, Silviu Genescu, George Lazăr, Dan Doboș, Antuza Genescu, Cosmin Perța, Feri Balin, Diana Alzner, Aurel Cărășel, the romanian editor Mugur Cornilă, the romanian SF translators Mihai Dan PavelescuLaura BocanciosAdina Barvinschi, the romanian film critic Andrei Crețulescu.
He wrote articles and essays on the British science fiction (“Rule Britannia”, serialized in Nautilus, romanian online SF magazine), French science fiction, German science fiction, Spanish science fiction, Italian science fiction, Czech science fiction, Latin-American science fiction (focus on Brazilian SFF), Greek science fiction, Croatian science fiction, Bulgarian science fiction, and the speculative fiction from India.

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