The Utopiales convention: an interview of Sylvie Lainé

Sylvie Lainé
photo credit: Pierre Le Gallo

During the Utopiales, Sylvie Lainé nicely agreed to answer our questions for the Portal. Science fiction author, she writes short stories and received several prestigious awards for her work : she got the Prix Rosny l’Aîné several times, and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2007. Actusf published three collections of her short stories so far : Le miroir aux Eperluettes (2007), Espaces insécables (2008) and Marouflages (2009). We’d like to thank her here for the warm interest she showed for the Portal: all useful informations are available on her website.

1) What big-picture themes are you most interested in right now? History, climate change, frontiers— this last one being the theme of the Utopiales this year?

You mean themes in the sense of science fiction themes? Because honestly what interests me the most when I write is to tell stories about people facing societies which are organized on different principles, people who have different choices to make in their lives than the choices we must think about in our own society. Now the setting is the pretext that makes the society slightly different; as far as I’m concerned, I’m interested by the people, people who are just like us but have to ask themselves different questions, people who have different references and priorities because culturally, they live in a different place.

It doesn’t matter if the world is different because of a climate change, because we have mastered artificial intelligences or because we altered animals with genetic engineering, but the world is slightly different and therefore we can deal with old subjects and questions viewed from new angles.

2) Do you feel that there are specific themes which are particularly interesting to a lot of writers in French science fiction right now, and if so, what are they?

Well there is alternate history, which is a trend that appears to be particularly significant in France to me—I don’t think there are lots of alternate history fiction in other countries, at least I don’t know of much.

Now, specific themes . . . I might be about to say something stupid, but I have the feeling that we’re particularly interested in what is organic, physical. American writers also do this, but in France sometimes we try to imagine physical relationships with fundamentally different creatures . . .

3) What about themes in Francophone sf outside of France, and in other languages?

We have no overall view of the literature outside of France, apart from literature coming from the USA or England, which are the countries we know best. For Spanish literature, for example, we know a few authors, but I don’t think we really have an overall view.

However, authors in the United States have worked much more with the concept of singularity; there aren’t many French authors who have gotten interested in that concept, in the post-human . . . Apart from that, I can’t tell.

4) Do you feel that there are themes or stylistic approaches which unify French sf culturally, making it unique to an extent that would be clear in a blind “taste test” of translated work in another language?

I’m convinced that the answer is no. I’m convinced that style is a little inner music that everyone carries, and that it’s related to no culture nor language. It’s like a matter of musical sensibility; some people love reggae or rap or classical music, and I don’t think there is a French music, no. At least I never perceived it as homogenous.

5) What thematic or stylistic commonalities do you see between French sf in France and in Québec as of this era? What striking differences do you see?

Well, there are authors from Québec that I love, but they often have a foothold or at least a toehold in France, like some special relationship. When I read Élisabeth Vonarburg, I don’t have the feeling I’m reading someone coming from another culture, but to a large extent she is still all French, even if she’s been living in Québec for a very long time.

In Canada there is an interest in Europe, which extends to European literature. I’ve always had the feeling that, at least as far as literature is concerned, Canada has always feared being flooded, crushed or overwhelmed by American literature, and that the promotion of European literature, in particular French literature, is sort of a defense against this invasion. I only know Francophone authors in Canada, specifically in genre literature, so it’s a small family. I’ve had the pleasure of being the French guest of the Congrès Boréal in Québec with Ted Chiang: the theme was the short story. So I saw my pals from Alire and Solaris there as well, etc.

6) Is there any panel item you have seen over the course of the convention that has made you particularly thoughtful or inspired your interest? Why?

There was the dominant theme, which was the question of the frontier. I’ve been involved in panels where the matter was dealt with from the angle of the social network, about building walls – which aren’t themes discussed very often at conventions, so they were very interesting. I didn’t attend all the panels, but I have the feeling that there was a good mix between scientists and authors, which lead to interesting results.

This morning a panel really got my interest: it was about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and a psychiatrist involved in this panel made strikingly relevant remarks: what he said really complemented the writer’s comments. The panel was a great success.

7) Do you think that after the first step which would be to complete a story, the second to publish it, the third to get the acknowledgement of the milieu, there would be now a last step which would be to get published in English?

Of course yes, it’s the next step. But its nature is a bit different, because we are in a paradoxical situation which to me creates a huge problem on the grounds of principle. I’ve been published in Czech, Polish and Greek, and each time I talked with publishers who came here to do their shopping, and who asked me if they could publish one of my stories and then who bore the translation.

As far as the Anglo-Saxon market is concerned, the situation is radically different, which means that you have to bear the cost of the translation in order to propose your manuscript. If I do this, it feels like self-publishing. One has to invest in translation at one’s own expense, which is unreasonable. The Anglo-Saxon publishers will never read a story in French; and it’s not part of their policy to have French readers, it doesn’t interest them. They have enough production in their own territory, and they’re not very curious about what’s being done elsewhere.

It’s a choice: if you want to be published in the US these days, you have to pay for your own translation first—then you’ll see what comes of it. It’s the only country that works like this, and to me, agreeing to this principle means being in an inferior position. I’d like us to be able to convince the Anglo-Saxon market of the interest of employing a few French readers. But it’s not just about French writers: neither do they read Finnish nor Turkish nor Spanish.

A few authors manage to emerge thanks to their success with the media: Bernard Werber is translated in lots of languages. But it’s most likely his publisher who made an investment in the translation.


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