Bulgarian Science Fiction and Fantasy: Boutique Publishing in SFF Fan Clubs. Review of the commemorative book “With the Name of Ivan Efremov”
1. Boutique Publishing
A unique language spoken in a single small country is a blessing and a curse, because it is a core element of the national identity, but it also puts writers and fans in isolation and in a seemingly hopeless uphill battle with the tide of translated fiction. Unfortunately, a small country also implies a limited market, which often makes it impossible to sustain a writing career, especially in genre fiction. This has been the case with most Bulgarian speculative fiction writers, both before and after the political change that occurred in 1989.
This combination of political and economical reasons has created a curious phenomenon—a small scale publishing, often by non-professional individuals or fan societies. Despite the lack of formal literary or marketing education they are usually experts on the speculative genre. Their efforts gave birth to amazing feasts of the printed word.
Usually, these books are either story collections that include the kind of literature the SFF fans would like to read, or simple fanzines. Fiction and non-fiction are often mixed, including fine stories, interviews with favorite writers and even bibliographies.
I will review here one typical book that appeared thanks to the efforts of a major Bulgarian SFF fan club. Not because it is the most notable book or the largest club, but because this is a collection I just finished reading. I beg forgiveness from the SFF authors and promoters that will remain unmentioned.
2. The Club and the Writer
“Ivan Efremov” is a SFF club founded in 1974 in Sofia. It was named after the famous Soviet hard-SF writer Ivan Efremov (1908-1972). He was a paleontologist who made some notable contributions to the studies of the fossilization process. But he was also a thinker on par with Stanislaw Lem, and a humanist on par with Anthon Chekhov. His most notable books became possible only because they coincided with the “warming up” of the Soviet system during the Hruschov era.
Efremov was sidelined during Soviet times for omitting the ideology from his books, and now he is sidelined because it has gone out of fashion to believe in utopias. Yet, the generations of SFF fans from this club retained the name of their patron regardless of the political winds of the day.
It may seem strange today to name a club after a foreign writer, but forty years ago Bulgarian SFF was in its infancy. There were handful of notable books, and only a few writers who went further than propagating the party line in the future. Translations were few, and the Bulgarian fans barely had heard of the “Golden Age” science fiction. Efremov was towering above this bare landscape, and his ideas about moral and biological evolution of the human race didn’t sound hollow. Only some thirty years later we would get our national epic science fiction, the fantasy based on the Bulgarian folklore, and the alternative history that experiments with our own history.
Over the years the club became a notable presence in the cultural life of Sofia (see the club’s meeting room:
It is not surprising that “Ivan Efremov” has helped for publishing of many books.
3. The Book—A “Samuel Pepys Diary” from the Early Days of the Bulgarian Fandom
It spans over 284 pages, hidden behind a blue-black cover symbolizing the darkness of space where the action in many of Efremov’s novels took place. The book was printed in 250 copies, less than the number of pages it contains, and it commemorates the thirty-fifth anniversary of the club, and the centennial anniversary of the writer.
The book is split into three sections. The first is dedicated to the club, and contains a number of essays, where former and current members reminisce over the impact the fandom had on their lives. I myself attended this club in 1988-1994, and I needed all my emotional strength to go through these memories. Most of the club’s founders are no longer with us, and the memories of lost friends were painful. On the other hand it was reassuring to see that most authors were young people. The book also reminded me how in academia, surrounded by students, some elderly professors can get a second breath of life and creativity. The second part is a mini-biography of Efremov. It also includes a few critical articles about his literary heritage. The book ends with translations from Russian of a collection of memories, essays and critiques by Russian writers and fans.
I was reading the contributions thinking how easily humanity can lose memory of past events. This book is an attempt to play Samuel Pepys and to leave a “diary” of the early years of the Bulgarian fandom. Who were those fans, what was the fan life back then—the book offers many answers to these questions. One of the stories that gives some funny insight of the ambitions of those young people tells how they went in the midst of the night to “select” a room for the club in the building of the future community center (a direct translation from Bulgaria would be “cultural center” because it was devoted mostly to cultural activities, i.e. amateur theater, dances, etc), still under construction at the time. A testimony of their confidence is the choice of the main lecture hall—they were sure to fill it up with fans.
The memoirs go further to tell how the club was “smuggled” through the administrative net to receive an official bill of clean ideological faith, how the fans assembled the great club library, how they organized conventions and genre art exhibits, how they published books and fanzines, how they dreamed.
The early 70’s were age of techno- and other kinds of optimism, not just in the West. The future, the stars, it all looked within reach. The moon landing had just happened, the astronauts were still visiting our celestial neighbor. Arthur Clarke created his famous table with predictions—if not us then our children are supposed to see the contact with the extraterrestrials . . .
Now we know better, of course. The future holds the end of oil, global warming, the rise of the oceans and terrorist attacks. What about technology and space? The Mars sample return mission is just ten years away, the Moon base is barely twenty years away… Strangely, the intervals never shrink. And what is worse, the human spirit has shrunk instead of future timelines
because—as somebody wiser said before me—“there is no prosthesis for the human spirit.”
Both Efremovs—the club and the writer—come from the time when there was no need of prosthesis, and the spirit could overcome even the worst political, ideological or economical barriers. But they are not dead, and this little book, printed in only 250 copies, is a small triumph of the spirit.
4. A Gem of a Story
Hidden among these 284 pages is a short novelette, (“Ticket to Vega”) by Miglena Nikolchina (b. 1955). It first appeared back in 1981 in Modeli-2, the second of four fanzines published by the club. It was reprinted in 1990 in a story collection by the respectable Bulgarian publishing house Hristo G. Danov, and to the best of my knowledge this is its third publication, which testifies that the good stories never die. Currently, the author is a professor of literature at the University of Sofia—the oldest, and in my view the most prestigious university in Bulgaria.
The chances that it will appear in print in English are slim at best, so I will give a few spoilers away here. The story is a flashback, told from the point of view of Nadya, an accomplished lady astronomer who works on stellar evolution. She remembers her childhood, spent in a small sleepy town in the Northern part of the country, on the Danube river. It is a roasting hot summer day when a strange woman arrives. “I come from Vega, but others think I am Anelia, your cousin. It is convenient, so you better call me Anelia, too,” she says. We, and the kid, are left wondering if it is a joke. And so begins the friendship of this ten year old girl and her newly found cousin. Nadya discovers the world, and the reader discovers both the world and the kid—she is curious and inquisitive, and unbelievably for someone so young—she has her feet firmly set on the ground.
Yet the story has a dreamy feeling about it. The heat, the vapor rising above the river, the adult cousin who occasionally drops a comment how the words of humans are rough and hurt her mouth, but it is all worth it because she can live among them—all this breaks the ice between the two. Gradually the woman wins the little girl over. Nadya wants to know what the Vegan language is like, and if there are purple trees on Anelia’s planet. It is a wonderful process to relive together with the child—she sees for the first time the infinite possibilities and the endless variety of the world.
One night, hovering between dream and reality, Nadya sees how three visitors, presumably from Vega, come to warn her cousin that the little being she cares so much about will grow, but at unbearable cost to Anelia herself: “death or degradation,” they say. Anelia is adamant and cuts the conversation short when she realizes that her little friend is awake. Of course, we can never be sure if this conversation truly happened or it was just a dream of a small girl that wants to travel to the stars or at least to become an astronomer.
The story ends abruptly with a tragic accident, although enough hints are dropped along the way: Nadya attempts to swim to the green island in the middle of the river, and she nearly drowns. Anelia manages to save her but collapses. “She is gravely ill,” the women from the neighboring houses say. We never know for sure if her bleeding mouth is due to the rough human words or some disease.
I had read the story before, and I knew the ending. The “people known as Anelia’s parents” come and take her. Nadya grows up to become a scientist, and all her attempts to find her cousin or to contact her relatives fail. Over the years she begins to doubt if Anelia really existed. The reader is left in doubt as well.
“Ticket to Vega” is a poetic story, yet it questions reality in a way reminiscent of the work of
Philip K. Dick. It is a simple story, yet it touches the essence of humanity and humanism.
It was a pleasure to read “With the Name of Ivan Efremov”, and it was a pleasure to write about it. But most of all, it is still a pleasure to be part of fandom (Bulgarian or otherwise). This is a book that inspires one to think positively in times when negativism and catastrophe are becoming a norm. It is a somewhat surprising observation, given the fact that both the writer Efremov and the club named after him come from an age of confrontation of epic proportions. To me it is only an evidence that positivism is always present and to give an example from the speculative fiction genre one doesn’t have to go further than the latest works of Cory Doctorow, Paul McAuley or Paolo Bacigalupi.
I can only regret that the language barrier will most likely leave such talented writers as Miglena Nikolchina and even Ivan Efremov (and many others from small countries) unknown to the world.
(With the Name of Ivan Efremov)
Eds. Yury Ilkov, Alexander Karapanchev
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