James Lovegrove reviews four international SF novels for the Financial Times

British author James Lovegrove reviews four international novels this week for the Financial Times:

  • The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz RRP£18.99, 266 pages
  • Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky, translated by Natasha Randall, Gollancz RRP£14.99, 458 pages
  • Loups-Garous, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, translated by Anne Ishii, Haika Soru RRP£9.99, 458 pages
  • Escher’s Loops, by Zoran Zivkovic, translated by Alice Copple-Tosic, PS Publishing RRP£20, 330 pages

In the future, international divisions and rivalries will be a thing of the past. Or so science fiction often predicts. The bridge of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, for instance, is a commendably multiracial place (and not all of those races are from Earth, either); and there are any number of SF novels that prophesy a world government, a kind of super UN with legislative powers.

In publishing terms, however, science fiction is not quite so freely cross-cultural. Rights for English-language SF novels are frequently sold abroad in non-English-speaking territories, but the traffic is mostly one-way. Rare is the foreign-language SF novel that is imported into an anglophone country, against the prevailing current.

One reason for this is translation costs, which take a chunk out of what may already be slender profit margins. But there is also, perhaps, an inherent conservatism in the core readership. By and large, anglophone SF aficionados know what they like and like what they know. An appetite exists for experimental and esoteric SF but the preferred fare is meat-and-potatoes stuff: future war, alien encounters, and the galaxy-spanning melodrama known as space opera. Since there are plenty of anglophone authors who supply demand, why look elsewhere?

Even when non-anglophone books would seem to cater for anglophone tastes, they seldom cross borders. The Perry Rhodan series of novels, begun in 1961 and still going to this day, is a German phenomenon. These spacefaring adventures, starring the eponymous American astronaut and written by diverse hands, appear on a weekly basis, and the total number of individual volumes published so far stands at a whopping 2,500. Many were reprinted in the US during the 1960s but since then English-language publication has been sporadic at best. For all the seemingly universal appeal of the books’ subject matter and the vast amount of ancillary material (comics, fan sites, audio plays, etc) that has accreted around them, they’ve failed to find much appreciation among anglophone audiences.

The four novels under consideration here are drawn from diverse corners of the non-anglophone world. The choice has been somewhat constrained by virtue of the fact that the range of material available is so limited. Does this furnish proof of an unconscious chauvinism in the home market? And what can non-anglophone SF tell us about the state of the genre in general? – continue reading.


One thought on “James Lovegrove reviews four international SF novels for the Financial Times

  1. Oh, wow. The Financial Times? That’s a pretty cool review gig, way to go!

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with the review, though: the reviewer seems to have come at the novels with a very definite set of expectations of what a non-Anglophone novel should be, which looks like it stood in the way of his enjoyment.
    (for instance, I’d be very suprised if all Finn novels were full of snow and melancholy–just as most French novels fail to feature sophistication and good food…)

    And I really, really wish people would stop listing “no budget for translation” (or its variant, “good translations are expensive”) as the reason why there isn’t any SF translated towards English. Every publishing house in the world has a substantial translation department that is an acknowledged part of the budget. Every publishing house–except for the Anglophone ones, of course…

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