Between a Hummer and a Rock: The Bulgarian Science Fiction between the East and the West

I. Ivan Vazov – near-future SF from a century ago

Ivan Vazov (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Vazov) is the father of the modern Bulgarian literature, no less. He was born in 1850, and died in 1921. During the first twenty eight years of his life our country was part
of the Turkish empire. Vazov saw the end of a five century long occupation and the birth of a new independent kingdom of Bulgaria. This was time of enthusiasm and hopes, akin to the first years after the American
Revolution. Everything seems in reach, one just had to extend his hand…
It is no surprising, that he turned to SF as a tool to write about future of his country – his only SciFi story “The Last Day of the Twentieth Century” is a peek in the future. It was written in 1899, and it describes literally one day of the life of the country, hundred years in the future.
Frankly, the story doesn’t match very well with the rest of Vazov’s work.
The characters are two-dimensional, the story is descriptive and schematic. Clearly, it is nothing more than a vehicle for the author’s optimism.
The story was first published in 1912 and it was largely forgotten until recently. It is no surprise – one of the characters is a king, and the future of a socialist country couldn’t include any kings. “The Last Day…” probably had little direct influence on the modern Bulgarian SF, but it captured on of the main feature of a large fraction of the present-day Bulgarian SF – it is strongly connected with our cultural background. This is both a source of strength and a weakness, because it gives the writers an access to a rich national mythology, but it could
make the stories and characters somewhat incomprehensible to the outside readers. Yet, there are exceptions and some of them made their way into the webzine “Oceans of the Mind”
(http://www.trantorpublications.com/oceans.htm), in a issue dedicated to the Eastern European SF writers:
http://www.trantorpublications.com/issue_xviii_–_EEurope.htm

I think we still haven’t got our own Tolkien but the Vazov’s of today often use the Bulgarian mythology and continue the tradition of the Bulgarian folklore storytelling. A good example is “The Assassination”, by
Johan Vladimir: http://www.trantorpublications.com/issue_xviii_–_EEurope.htm#The%20Assassination
Johan Vladimir is the literary pseudonym of the writer and professional journalist Angelina Ilieva. Her personal page (with wonderful illustrations but only in Bulgarian only) can be found at:
http://www.johanvladimir.com/

The Bulgarian SciFi is not limited to intra-cultural fantasy. There are some writers, that try to transcend the national traditions and to write more worldly SciFi… I will introduce some of them in the next installment.

II. Svetoslav Minkov and the diabolic fate of the SF writers who tried their hand at publishing

Svetoslav Minkov was born in 1902. The timely end of the WWI saved him from the military career, his family was preparing for him, and he plunged into literature. It is difficult now to figure out why this successful
librarian (working in the National Library), and even diplomat (working in the Bulgarian consulate in Japan) turned to SciFi, but he is the author of the first Bulgarian SF book – the story collection “Blue chrysanthemum”
(1922) and he is the founder of the first worldwide SciFi publishing house, exclusively devoted to the genre – “Argus” (1922). Indeed, it was created with the sole purpose of printing his own book, but went further
to publish Edgar Alan Poe and the controversial German modernist Hanns Ewers.
The most notable Minkov’s books – to me – are the story collection “The Lady with the X-Ray Eyes” (1934; surprisingly, it was translated in English, and copies from the1965 English edition can still be found at some on-line second-hand booksellers) and the novel “Heart in a Cardboard Box” (1933), written in a collaboration with Konstantin Konstantinov. Both are social grotesques. In the title story of the collection, the lady acquires X-ray eyes only to make a disappointing discovery that many people around lack brains. I guess, most of us know that too, despite having just ordinary eyes but at the time of writing the magic capability of X-rays to peek inside the human body was still a novelty and the desire to take a look inside the human brain has always been in the back of most people’s minds. The “Heart…” is a retelling of the oldest story about an artist in a crisis who has literally lost his heart. It is funny and witty but as the realization of the tragedy slowly sinks in the reader’s mind, the atmosphere darkness.
The diabolical social criticism is a popular topic in the modern Bulgarian SF and I am not talking about the communist-era politically-inspired literature. The social transformation of the East was — and still is —
painful, and the reality provides plenty of background material: from the corrupt government officials to free shootouts between the competing gangster groups. Think living in the “The Godfather” world.
Probably, the most notable modern followers of Svetoslav Minkov are Yantcho Tcholakov (b. 1967) and Aleksander Karapantschev (b. 1951).
Interestingly, they both tried their hands in the publishing business: Tcholakov founded a small publishing house “Ophir”, and Karapantschev is part of the present-day incarnation of the very same “Argus” publisher,
founded by Minkov himself.
Tcholakov’s page (http://yanchocholakov.hit.bg) contains some English, French and Russian translations of his work (i.e.http://yanchocholakov.hit.bg/depopulated.htm). He debuted in the late 1980s but his most notable novel “The History of the Lonely Ranger” appeared in 1995. There are various opinions how to classify this book – from alternate history (or rather biology) to pre-historic heroic western.
It is the tale of a famous fighter, summoned to take part in the siege of… Troy. It wold have been familiar, if the character did not belong to the race of anthropoids (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthropod) rather than humans. The book contains supplementary material including “documentary” images and maps
(http://yanchocholakov.hit.bg/izobrajenia.htm). A plot summary in English can be found at: http://yanchocholakov.hit.bg/rezume.htm
Tcholakov received the “Graviton” award – the highest distinction in the Bulgarian SF – in 1997 for his publishing work.

Aleksander Karapantschev is not a overly productive writer and in my view this speaks well of him. Among the Bulgarian SF authors he is probably the one who has worked more than anybody else as an editor and it shows.

My favorite story of his is “In the Unimo Era” (1984) – the title story of his 2002 debut book that brought him an “Eurocon” award. It takes place in a consumer’s paradise when the Unimo machine can create two hundred types of soup but it can not create happiness. This short summary doesn’t make justice to the otherwise engaging story.
“Stapen Croyd” is a poetic dispute with the famous A. C. Clarke story “Silence, please!” The characters of both tales suffer from the excessive “noise” of the world, and they fight it with technological solutions – Clarke has destructive interference, and Karapantschev has the technology to “harvest” the science from one place and release it in another.
However, while Clarke concentrates on the technological solution itself, and to some extent on its effects on the public life, Karapantschev tells the story from the point of view of an old poet who discovers that the
silence has just been harvested out from the last quiet place – the cemetery. The nearly identical story transcends to the level of a personal tragedy.
Unfortunately, only one of his works has been translated abroad. It appeared in the SciFi webzine Phantazm
(http://www.phantazm.net/index.htm). You can read it at:
http://www.phantazm.net/fiction/the_last_story/science_fiction.htm
Karapantschev also received a “Graviton” in 1996 for his work at the new “Argus” publishing house. He won a second “Eurocon” award for editing the Bulgarian SF magazine FEP (“Fantastika, Evristika and Prognostika”) in 1989.
Given their background, it is not surprising that Tcholakov and Karapantschev are considered the best stylists in the modern Bulgarian SF, and they take in the genre a place similar to that of Bradbury in the Western SF.
I said earlier, that the Bulgarian SciFi is not limited to the intra-cultural fantasy. It doesn’t end with the poetic reminiscences either. The next installment will bring us back to the golden age of the Bulgarian Hard SF : 1960-70’s…
http://www.phantazm.net/fiction/science_fiction_in_bulgaria/introduction.htm
Agop Melkonian

III. The Golden Age of the Bulgarian Hard SF

Ivan Efremov Club's meeting room - source: sffportal.net

While the previos tendencies in the Bulgarian SciFi can easily by associated with one or two names, the Hard SF is too broad for that, explaining the lack of personal names in the title of this post.
The American and British Golden Age SciFi trickled through the Bulgarian SF community, despite the ideological and trade obstacles of the Cold War, both via direct translations into Bulgarian and via translations into Russian. Books in Russian and other foreign languages were available in Bulgaria through specialized netwoork of bookstores. Often theese books were more accessible to us than to the Russians themselves — it was typical to see at those boostores in the Bulgarian port cities many Russian sailors, waiting in line for the latest book in the “Internationl SF” series. One way or the other, we became privy to the futuristic insights of Asimov, Clarke, Russel and others, and our own SF writers finally saw the light some time during 1960-70s…
Lyuben Dilov (1927-2008; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyuben_Dilov) was the leader of that pack and he still remains my favorite, after three decades of reading SciFi. He had the misfortune to start working in the
most ideologicaly severe environment, and his earlier books (i.e. “The Atomic Man”, 1958) suffered from the forced ideological consepts. However, later he was able to gradually break free from these artificial boundaries. “The Weight of the Spacesuit” (1969) is a first contact novel written along the traditions of the space opera, and it advocates the idea that with or without a spacesuit, the humans are all too human. “The Icarus’s Road” is also a space opera and a coming of age story of Zenon Balov – a kid brought up on an interstellar spaseship who has trouble finding his place in the static world of the adults that have spent half of their lives aboard. He has to shatter the environment, to open space for himself. The alternative is to walk away and the end of the book is
dubious – Zenon literally walks away into a … black hole, that just might be a window to another intelligence. This novel brought the first “Eurocon” award to Bulgaria, back in 1976. Arkady Strugatsky considered it
one of the five best SF novels written in the East at the time.
Lyuben Dilov also defined his own version of the Fourth Law of the Robotics: “A robot must always establish its identity as a robot” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Laws_of_Robotics). Creating new Laws has become a tradition in the Bulgarian SF.

Nikola Kesarovski (1944-2007; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Kesarovski) defined a Fifth Law: “A robot must always know that it is a robot”, in the appropriately titled sory “The Fift Law” (1983).
Dilov is also popular with a string of short stories. My favorites are: “My Strange Friend the Astronomer” (no surprise here) and “The Whole Truth about the Chimp Topsy”. Now that the author is dead, we will never know if the title of the second story is a sopysticated multilingual intentional wordgame: Topsy sound like the English word “top” and like the Bulgarian word for “ball” (like in goofball). Either way, Topsy, who is launched aboard an US space ship, ends up leading a revolution against the tirany on another world, just by virtue of … behaving like a chimp.
Pavel Vezhinov (1914-1983) was a mainstream author who didn’t stay above SF forays. In “The Doom of ‘Ajax'” (1973) a crew of the starship “Icarus” has to make a major sacrifice, to save a dying extraterestrial civilization. To open a bracket here – the idea that we can sacrifice ourselves better, faster, and cheaper… wait this is from another opera… than enybody else is quentisential in the Slavic cultre (BTW, I think the irony is the only reasonable way a small country with thirteen century long history can look upon itself).
Strictly speaking his best book is not a Hard SF but it is often considered the most notable achievment of the Bulgarian SF, so I will mention it nevertheless: in “The Barier” a down-to-Earth composer runs into a girl that has escaped from a mental institution. She was locked there because she claimed she could fly. Eventually, they fall in love, and to his suprise, the composer discovers that he can fly, too. He is so shaken, he escapes in the countryside, trying to come to grip with his new ability. Broken, the girl commits a suecide. The novel is included in the curriculum of the university-level Bulgarian literature studies. It was filmed in 1979 and there are plans for a remake in Russia.

Many a young authors work along the same veign today, but in my oppinion Nikolay Tellalov is the leading figure in the subgenre. He was born in Bulgaria in 1967, but had the (mis-)fortunte to have lived in two
countries that do not exist anymore – the Soviet Union and East Germany. He is the only Bulgarian SF author who had created a large series of interconnected novels – a four-book multi-genre fantasy/alternate history/space opera cycle “Waking Up a Dragon”. But the work that established him a notable Hard SF writer is “Nano” (2007) – an attempt to describe the undesribable, the Singularity. It is amazing how Tellalov walks the thin line between admiring the powers that the nanotechnology would give the individual, and the dangers that these powers will bring when every one of us has the command of powers on a scale that used to belong to entire countries, no less. Interestingly, “Nano” shares the admiration and the concern with the all-powerful future with another book, written in the distant 1966 – “Four Fantastic Novellas”, by Alexander Gerov (1919-1997). I was surprised that this work could appear at the time because the main character wakes up in the “happy” future, finds it too stale, and attempts to escape further ahead, in an even more distant future.

It is understandable why neither Dilov, nor Vezhinov managed to make the transition accross the borders (except to Russia). The fact that the work of Tellalov is not available in a Western language is worrying. It is
pitty that the Bulgarian Hard SF with all its potential of surpassing the language and culture barriers easier than any other subgenre is still confined (almost) withing the linguistic boundaries of our country.
The personal page of Nikolay Tellalov is located at: http://drakonche.zavinagi.org/1280/index.htm
It contains a few stories in Russian.

IV. Thou shall not be forgotten.

This excursion across the years and names can not last forever. It was never meant to be complete and I am not even going to pretend that it was objective — I was simply telling you about my favorite SF books and
writers from my country. Before I finish, here are a few words about some modern Bulgarian SF writers of interest, at least in my view:

Khristo Poshtakov (b. 1944) is probably the most widely published and translated present-day Bulgarian SF writer. His print runs in Russia reach four digit figures, he has a few books in Spanish, and many stories
in English, Spanish, and French. He won a Eurocon for debut in 1994.
Here are some links to his work:
http://www.trantorpublications.com/issue_xviii_–_EEurope.htm#Ten%20Thousand%20Dollars
http://www.phantazm.net/fiction/the-most-terrible-beast/science-fiction.htm
http://www.mindfirerenew.com/issue4fall05/Khristo.html
I like best his first novel “Adventures in Darville” which tells how some commoners, not much different than the classical little man of Charles Chaplin, fight against evil. Poshtakov is also known for his work
promoting the Bulgarian SF abroad.

Last but not least, I would like to point at two promising young writers, that are among the best (but not last!) hopes to bring the Bulgarian SF above the beyond the limitations of the language and culture. They are both called Ivaylo Ivanov, and one can only distinguish them from their middle initials.

Ivaylo G. Ivanov was born in 1971 in Varna. He is a professional lawyer. His story “Father” made its way into the fanzines “Oceans of the Mind” (in English), “AXXON” (in Spanish), and “Lunatique” (in French):
http://www.trantorpublications.com/issue_xviii_–_EEurope.htm#Father
http://axxon.com.ar/rev/172/c-172cuento5.htm
http://www.eons.fr//main.php?lang=fr&rubrique=Catalogue&idlivre=92

Ivaylo P. Ivanov was born in 1973 in Sofia. He is a professional economist. Unfortunately, he has not been published aboard but some of his stories are exceptionally original and intense. My favorite is “I dreamt
of a human face” (2005). It describes and artificial ecosystem, created by the survivors of a space ship wreck. They were forced to use the only biomaterial they had – themselves, and as a result, all living beings in
their new world, from herbivores to predators descend from men and have preserved enough humanity to be aware of who they were and what they have become. The ending is cautiously optimistic – it doesn’t matter if you look like a human, what makes a difference is if you behave like one. I can go on: Agop Melkonian, Petar Kadzhilov, Lyubomir Nikolov… and I am sure I have missed names and stories worth telling you about but I will stop here.

Finally, we do have our Forrest Ackermans, too. Perhaps, the most distinguished ones are Atanas P. Slavov, Yuri Ilkov and Kalin Nenov. Slavov was the editor of the first specialized Slavonic science fiction and fantasy magazine “Orphia”. The first and (alas) only issue was present at the 1990 Worldcon in the Hague, and won the Carel award. An image of the front cover can be viewed here:
http://bgf.zavinagi.org/upload/7/72/Orphia.jpg
Ilkov is the editor and publisher of the longest-running (since 1999) Bulgarian SF fanzin “Tera Fantastika”
http://bgf.zavinagi.org/index.php/%D0%9A%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%BA%D0%B0:Tera_fant_all.jpg;
Slavov and Nenov are the creators of  the Human Library Foundation (in Bulgarian: http://choveshkata.net/) aimed at popularization and publishing of quality literature, specifically SF. You may have noticed that Nenov
is the translator of many of the stories that I pointed at – translation and popularization of the Bulgarian SF abroad is one of the goals of this organization.
Some additional general articles, related to the Bulgarian Science
Fiction:
Another take at the history of the Bulgarian SF, by the SF writer Khristo Poshtakov, was published in Phantazm:
http://www.phantazm.net/fiction/science_fiction_in_bulgaria/introduction.htm

A more specific article, about the Bulgarian SciFi life in 2006, by Rossie Decheva is available here:
http://www.concatenation.org/europe/sfbulgaria2006.html
It contains a number of relevant links.

An article about the Eurocon 2004, held in Bulgaria by Jim Walker:
http://www.concatenation.org/conrev/eurocon04.html
The late Robert Sheckley was one of the guests of honour.

Many other resources, such as webzines, discussion forums and websites of various Bulgarian SF societies and clubs were skipped conscientiously because they are mostly in Bulgarian, and therefore out of the scope of this review.
I hope my presentation of the Bulgarian Science Fiction has been interesting and that it might prompt you to follow some of these links.

About Valentin Ivanov 7 Articles
Valentin D. Ivanov was born in Bulgaria in 1967. He received an M.S. in Physics with specialization in Astronomy from the University of Sofia in 1992, a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2001, and he has been working for the European Southern Observatory ever since. Valentin has a broad area of research interests — from extrasolar planets to obscured Milky Way clusters and active galaxies. He is married, with two children. Valentin began to write science fiction and fantasy in high school. He has published in his native country a collection of fantasy stories based on Bulgarian folklore, written in collaboration with Kiril Dobrev. His personal home-page can be found at: http://www.sc.eso.org/~vivanov/ and his blog (written in both Bulgarian and English) at: http://valio98.blog.bg/

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