Bulgarian Science Fiction Between the East and the West – III. The Golden Age of Bulgarian Hard SF by Valentin Ivanov

This article originally appeared in Valentin Ivanov’s bilingual blog.

While the previous trends in Bulgarian SF can easily by associated with one or two names, hard SF is too broad for that, explaining the lack of personal names in the title of this post.

American and British Golden Age SF trickled through the Bulgarian SciFi 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 a specialized network of bookstores. Often these books were more accessible to us than to the Russians themselves — it was typical to see at those bookstores in Bulgarian sea ports 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 appeared on-staage some time during the 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 SF. He had the misfortune to start working in the most ideologically severe environment, and his earlier books (i.e. “The Atomic Man”, 1958) suffered from enforced ideological concepts. 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 space opera, and advocating the idea that with or without a spacesuit, humans are all too human. “Icarus’s Road” is also a space opera and the 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 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 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 story “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 an international sophisticated multilingual pun : Topsy sounds like the English word “top” and like the Bulgarian word for “ball” (like in goofball). Either way, Topsy, who is launched aboard a US space ship, ends up leading a revolution against the tyranny on another world, just by virtue of … behaving like a chimp.

Pavel Vezhinov (1914-1983) was a mainstream author who didn’t shy away from SF forays. In “The Doom of ‘Ajax'” (1973), a crew of the ‘Ajax’ spaceship has to make a major sacrifice, to save a dying extraterrestrial civilization. Let me open a bracket here – the idea that we can sacrifice ourselves better, faster, and cheaper – wait, this is from another opera – than anybody else is quintessential in Slavic culture. (BTW, I think irony is the only reasonable way a small country with a thirteen-century-long history can look upon itself.)

Strictly speaking, his best book is not hard SF, but it is often considered the most notable achievement of Bulgarian SF, so I will mention it nevertheless: in “The Barrier”, 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 surprise, the composer discovers that he can fly, too. He is so shaken that he escapes to the countryside, trying to come to grips with his new ability. Broken, the girl commits a suicide. The novel is included in the curriculum of 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 vein today, but in my opinion Nikolay Tellalov is the leading figure in the subgenre. He was born in Bulgaria in 1967, but had the (mis-)fortunte to live in two countries that do not exist any more – the Soviet Union and East Germany. He is the only Bulgarian SF author who has created a large series of interconnected novels – a seven-book multi-genre alternative history/space opera cycle “Waking Up a Dragon”. But the work that established him as a notable hard SF writer is “10-9” (also known as “Nano”, 2007) – an attempt to describe the indescribable, the Singularity. It is amazing how Tellalov walks the thin line between admiring the powers that nanotechnology would give the individual, and the dangers these powers will bring when each and everyone of us has control of powers on a scale that used to belong to entire countries, no less. Interestingly, “10-9” shares the admiration and concern for 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, into an even more distant future.

It is understandable why neither Dilov nor Vezhinov managed to make the transition across 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 Bulgarian hard SF with all its potential of surpassing the language and culture barriers easier than any other subgenre is still confined (mostly) within 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 and some illustrations.

* * *

This “Bulgarian SF 101” is limited by time and space, so instead of continuing with detailed presentations of other writers, I will just dump in the last instalment a bunch of links presenting work that should not be omitted, in my opinion…

Valentin was born in Bulgaria in 1967. He is a professional astronomer, working at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Valentin has published in his native country a fantasy collection based on Bulgarian folklore, written with Kiril Dobrev in 2006. His first English language stories, “How I Saved the World” and “Unstable atmospheric circulation”, appeared in 2009.


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