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MetaGalaktika #11: A thousand years of Hungarian science fiction, 2009

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by Mariann Benkö and Gábor Takács, translated by Csilla Kleinheincz

The subtitle of MetaGalaktika #11 (Metropolis Media, 2009) seems far-flung as the issue reviews only 200-250 years. The editors of the Hungarian science fiction magazine Galaktika were ambitious enough to show concisely and plainly the birth, development, present, and possible future of Hungarian science fiction. Writing about Hungarian science fiction is both a rewarding and a thankless challenge. On one hand, sources are plenty, there are no translation difficulties, on the other hand it is hard to be objective, especially when writing about the present. The contributors managed to put together an informative and interesting issue that is not drowned in scholarly terms yet  academic in depth.

MetaGalaktika #11 is the newest and, to this day, the latest issue of a series with an impressive past. The editors of Galaktika magazine started publishing an annual collection, MetaGalaktika, in 1978 as a special issue. These were thematic anthologies focusing on the SF literature of a certain nation or a certain author(with Soviet and American themes, for example). There are novels, novelettes and short stories as well as essays. Before the original Galaktika ceased publication in 1995, nine MetaGalaktika issues were published. The collection that was planned as annual originally, became sparse and went into torpor together with the magazine.

After the reboot of Galaktika in 2004, the series was relaunched in 2007. The first issue was the unconventional MetaGalaktika #9.5, because editors experimented with a new structure and published scientific articles by Hungarian specialists, as well as short stories. This was the starting point of the new HiperGalaktika series, that has three issues up to this date and is focused on science. In 2008, a real MetaGalaktika was published, that, inspired by the Beijing Olympics, contained Chinese short stories and essays on China and its SF literature.

In 2009, MetaGalaktika endeavored to introduce another country’s science fiction literature: Hungary’s. This issue aimed to show the history of Hungarian science fiction in its entirety from its beginnings to the present. This meant that editors have picked stories  that did not belong to the genre but their theme was close to it. The issue contains ten short stories, one excerpt from a novel, and nine essays that are arranged according to chronological relevancy. It is interesting to know that the illustrations in the issue are the covers made by Péter Sallai for the Galaktika Fantastic Books (Galaktika Fantasztikus Könyvek) published by Metropolis Media, the publisher of Galaktika magazine. The last pages of the issue try to sum up the themes of Hungarian science fiction with the help of a few examples.

The result is a compilation that is unique. Although there have been theoretical and academic works on science fiction in Hungary, summary volumes were absent.

Each historical period (dualism, first World War and the interwar period, early and late socialism and present)  and subgenre (fantastic voyages, utopias) covered in the issue is represented by an essay and a short story.

The issue begins with the work of Margit S. Sárdi (1947—). She is a professor of literature and a specialist in science fiction. Fifteen years ago she founded an SF literary seminar at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) that launched the careers of several Hungarian sci-fi editors and journalists. Her essay briefly introduces the antique and medieval roots of fantasy and science fiction and provides a detailed overview of the “fantastical voyages” taking place both in space and time. She categorizes antique and medieval literary works based on their theme, cites examples from world literature, and whenever it is possible, from Hungarian literature as well. Her essay is an ambitious academic one, therefore it is rigid in its tone and may be difficult to understand for a reader who is not at home with academic writing, different from the thorough but lighter voice of the other authors in the issue.

The writer Béla Tóth (1857—1907) was interested in exotic adventures and technological novelties. His affinity manifests in his short story, “Journey around the World in 24 hours”, that was obviously influenced by Jules Verne. The protagonist, Dr. Ph. R. Black, wants to travel around the Earth in a giant globe. His antagonist, T. B. Allison, however, wants to impede the endeavour at any cost. As he is a scientist, he finds a devious solution to obstruct Black. The tone of this short story and the  scientific achievements portrayed seem anachronistic to the readers of today. In truth, this story is a scientific comedy, that has no weight but is entertaining. However the view of the author is interesting: he is of the opinion that human nature and scientific jealousy hadn’t changed much in a hundred years between his age and his past, and scientific development doesn’t make people happier.

The second essay, titled “On the great Hungarian dream” is one of the best essays in the issue. The author, József Veres (1982—) was a history student at the Eötvös Loránd University when he wrote this article, and a frequent visitor at the aforementioned SF seminar. His specialty moved him to examine the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867—1914), also called the period of dualism. By analyzing six pieces of fiction, he provides an interesting overview of the relationship between patriotism and science fiction in the 19th century. The essay examines the story of these works and the ideas represented in them. It is important to mention that he tries to place these literary works both in broader, conceptual terms and according to political/historical relevancy, that helps the understanding and enjoyment of the essay even if the reader has less knowledge of history.

Róbert Tábori (1855—1906) was a writer and journalist who published several sci-fi stories. His novel, Life in installments, appeared in Galaktika magazine. His short story in MetaGalaktika #11, “The Law of Maria Teresia the Seventeenth”, provides—not without irony—a strikingly concise image of a world that does not know love. According to the story, in the future most of the problems of humanity have been solved, as a result of feminism as many women work as men do. As a result they neglect their feminine, motherly duties and population becomes stagnant. Therefore, similarly to liability for military service, marriage becomes compulsory, but anomalies appear in the system, like love. The author’s vision of the future did not deviate from the view of his age, the monarchic political system that had been considered perfect at that time, and this diminishes the freshness of the story, as does the theatrical punch line at the end. The idea, the dystopia of feminism and the mildly critical tone make up for that, as it can be considered as an early criticism of alienation from society.

The third essay is again the work of Margit S. Sárdi. Its theme is utopia, providing a definition and categorizing fiction in Hungarian literature based on whether they have the characteristics of science fiction. She introduces many writings that are not widely known, again with academic particularity, and also gives a brief analysis. The tone and understandability of the essay is similar to the previous one.

György Bessenyei (1747—1800) was a writer, poet and one of the most significant figures of the period of Hungarian Enlightenment. His theatrical play, The Tragedy of Ágis, was published in 1772, and it  is considered the starting date of Enlightenment in Hungary. The short story in MetaGalaktika #11, “Der Amerikaner”, is a real curiosity of Hungarian science fiction, not only because it was written two hundred years ago, but because it was first published in German and was translated by Ferenc Kazinczy, the father of Hungarian language reforms. This piece of fiction is extraordinary because both its language and world view are archaic, an unusual feature in Hungarian science fiction. Podocz and his companion, Kazimir get from distant America to a land inhabited only by Turks, who, seeing that they won’t convert to their beliefs, handle them as slaves. At the end of the story, the protagonists escape from their jailers, and, experiencing the goodness of Christian people, choose their faith. The writer builds the conflicts of the story by using  theatrical tools, asking questions and giving answers. Although the story itself is didactic, considering the age it had been written, his disapproval with Turks and Muslims becomes understandable (half of Hungary had been conquered and ruled by Turks for one hundred and fifty years until 1699) and the appraisal of Christianity as the greatest good. If he had set the story in an unknown world, its protest against enslavement would have been stronger.

Péter Simon (1976—) wrote about the relationship between the writer generation of Nyugat (publishing before and during the First World War and in the interwar period) and science fiction. Péter Simon is a student of the science fiction seminar at Eötvös Loránd University and board member of the Hungarian Association of Science Fiction History. The Nyugat periodical was an important milestone of Hungarian literature. It was published between 1908 and 1941, and played an important role in making Hungarian literature up to date with world literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its writers were fueled by the desire for innovation, therefore it is small wonder that many of them were attracted to the themes of science fiction. This part of the period is, however, seldom discussed in the schools and is mostly unknown. Péter Simon discusses the writers of this generation and introduces their science fiction works, with much new information.

Árpád Tóth (1886—1928) was one of the most important poets of his generation. As the introduction in MetaGalaktika #11 says, his poetry was characterized by themes of alienation and longing for peace that were strengthened by the outbreak of the First World War and the lung trouble that tormented him in all his life. His short story, “The Strange Fits of Tom Briggs” examines the war and the survival of man. The protagonist, Tom Briggs, and his travelling companion, Miss Arnstein, are touched by war during a plane flight. The images of waking love and the first destruction of the world mix in their souls, as at the end man and woman, English and German, find each other beside the mementoes of war—in many spaces and many times. The author plays with the Hungarian language expertly, his lyrical images pervade the whole story, and the reader is enchanted.

Emese Csuti’s (1982—) essay on women writers is not easily fitted among the other articles, although it is entertaining and examines an interesting part of the science fiction. Although the statement that the vision of women writers is often different from those of men is veritable, and they usually bring new themes by involving feelings besides science in sci-fi writings, but we, the authors, feel excepting them is not reasonable. Woman writers should be discussed integrated within the history of science fiction, not marginally. Aside from this, the essay is informative and fair, and it avoids the feminine mystique.

Lola Réz Kosáry (1892—1984) was a writer and translator. Her first poems were protests against the war, later she became known for her young adult novels and translations (she translated the works of Agatha Christie and Margaret Mitchell). The Diary of Kampa Daria is a novel by her, and MetaGalaktika #11 introduces an excerpt. The protagonist, Kampa Daria, is the representative of humans on the distant planet of Taluna , where Daria finds a dystopic society of sentient insects, portrayed with stereotypical male characteristics: they are aggressive and wild. Human society is constrained to a handful of islands, ruled by an old woman. The chapter included contains the development of their society and their beliefs. In the face of initial difficulties, their utopistic world becomes the beacon of peace and love, thanks to the solid and strict morals of the ruling Granny Amir. This portrayal, which leaves out many characteristics of human nature and neglects conflicts, is the weakness of the novel and makes it hard to believe. The didactic tone is typical for the period, but makes the novel hard to digest for later generations.

Attila Csordás (1980—) was a student at the science fiction seminar of Margit S. Sárdi and is currently the marketing manager of Galaktika magazine. The topic of his essay is  Hungarian science fiction between 1950 and 1970. He emphasizes that writers of this period strove to write with scientific accuracy, and their aim was to popularize science in a broader sense. However, he fails to examine the role of communism, and mentions it only when analyzing  individual works. The topic is obviously simpler without considering the political aspect but we think it cannot be neglected. The style of the essay is easy and entertaining. At the end,  in relation to Galaktika magazine, Attila Csordás mentions current achievements as well.

György Kulin (1905—1989) astronomer was one of the handful of Hungarian science fiction writers in the fifties and sixties who, according to the trend of his age, put emphasis on the popularization of science—sometimes at the expense of literary merit. “The Inventor” is his only short story: its protagonist creates a machine that shows people’s thoughts. He demonstrates this in front of a high ranking clerk, whose relationship to a wanted criminal becomes known. To hide this, the clerk offers to buy the invention but the scientist doesn’t want to sell it. The central theme of the short story is the responsibility of scientists, as the inventor wants to use his machine for the benefit of humanity and insists on it, gaining higher ground both morally and intellectually, when he manages to escape thanks to his wit. The moral of the story is that the human soul doesn’t develop at the same rate as science. Although this short story is pleasing, the situation and the plot are familiar and became clichés in the past decades, therefore the story does not have the same effect as when it was written.

Dalma Pogány (1987—) gives an overview of the Galaktika‘s previous incarnation and the short fiction of its writers, examining the varied themes. Her essay is clear and tries to give a detailed overview by describing the story of the writers and their works, but fails to give a review of the Hungarian and international importance of Galaktika. The essay may be interesting for those who are not familiar with significant authors of this period, but doesn’t contain new information for older readers.

Béla Kasztovszky (1942—) is a patriarch of Hungarian science fiction who began his writing career in the seventies, and publishes short stories even today. His fiction is characterized by lyrical tone, his focus is on human character and personal conflicts. His story, “The Elevator”, was written in the seventies. Unfortunately this can be felt, and not only because characters use forms of address used in the communist system, for which the author apologizes in a short foreword. The fragmented story takes place at a science fiction convention where many things happen, one of these is the lecture on Dénes Kocka physicist and writer. Time-travellers appear and it turns out Dénes Kocka is not who he seems to be. The reader, however, needs to be very perceptive in order to be able to understand the story. The author’s evocative phrases, that he uses so superbly in several of his short stories published in the eighties, here weigh down his prose. The constant changes in the point of view, the side-episodes, intrusions of the author and the broken thoughts muddle the story. Its great weakness is that it doesn’t feel whole and its meaning is not clear  to everyone.

András Huszár (1984—) is a student of the SF seminar at Eötvös Loránd University, with many published essays. Currently he works as a translator, his latest translation was Hyperion by Dan Simmons. His essay on the science fiction of the nineties is one of the outstanding writings in MetaGalaktika #11. He analyzes the period via short stories, novelettes and novels. His summary of the period is fair, he introduces many authors, and his chosen method of analysis piqued our interest about the nineties and the examined works. An entertaining and interesting essay that deserves a longer exposition.

Sándor Szélesi (1969—) is one of the most successful Hungarian science fiction and fantasy authors, who writes mostly space operas and adventures. His short story, “One Step Towards Eternity” won the prestigious Péter Zsoldos Hungarian Science Fiction Award  the year after its publication. The protagonist of this story, unlike in his previous action-packed novels where protagonists tended to be kick-ass heroes, is Noah Maguire who commits suicide at the beginning of the story. However, in the future he lives in, everyone is immortal and can be recreated, and even Noah had lived for many centuries. The conflict is that he is fed up with eternity and tries to find death. In the short story, the author goes through the options and finds a strange solution to his problem. The personal aspect of immortality is interesting and Sándor Szélesi tells the story entertainingly. Unfortunately the plot uses clichés and the ending is sentimental and not really founded. Even so, the style and the intimacy between reader and protagonist make this story a good read.

Attila Németh (1967—) has a long past in Hungarian science fiction. He started as a journalist for the “old” Galaktika magazine, and after it folded, founded a publishing house, later a magazine. Currently he is the editor of the Galaktika magazine. He chose the most difficult task, endeavoring to give a summary of the last ten years where time cannot give objectivity. Therefore he doesn’t try to do it, his essay is rather an introduction than an analysis, describing authors and their works without examining them. He also gives a summary of science fiction life and publishing, although his partiality for Galaktika can be felt. The flaw of this essay is neglecting the online science fiction sites, that are, after all, the future, and play a significant role in discovering new talents and are the forums of Hungarian science fiction circles.

Zoltán László (1977—) is the most promising author in the new generation of Hungarian science fiction writers. His novels and short stories are experimental, mixing different science fiction themes. His short story, “Parallels to the Infinity” mixes alternative histories and parallel universes with spy stories. In the world that extends the dualist system of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy at the turn of the 19th-20th century, the protagonist, Aurel Geron is tormented by fever dreams and visions. He is responsible for organizing the meeting between European monarchs in Budapest. Mysterious events suggest that Geron, unknown even to him, wants to disrupt the meeting. The schizophrenic situation provides opportunity for a short investigation and psychological conflict. Zoltán László creates a believable world with a few hints and words and writes in a compelling style. The punch line may be a bit weak but on the whole, the story is good.

József Antal (1967—) writer won the Péter Zsoldos Award with his first novel. He is an interesting figure in the Hungarian science fiction literature and his writings lead to many debates. His short story, “Reading Room” is about the strange relationship between humanity and an alien race. It turns out that the aliens uplifted hundreds of races to serve as libraries. The short story is basically a telepathic dialogue about this system between an alien and the president of the world. The author plays with the idea and tries to give a logical and extensive explanation, but it is far from complete and the story suddenly ends. The punchline is unable to serve its purpose and several questions remain unanswered. This story is interesting as a thought experiment and shows good humor in places, but it makes a slim story.

Mihály T. Kovács (1967—) works as a scientific contributor to Galaktika magazine, and his short stories are also characterized by the scientific style, just like his short story in MetaGalaktika #11, the “Kazinczy-Machine”. The author was in a tight situation as he wrote on commission and had to include Ferenc Kazinczy and his ideology. He managed the task well. In the short story, the author explains some basic theories of linguistics as well as some biblical and cultural information. However this makes the story similar to a textbook. According to the story a Hungarian university establishes a linguistic research center with EU subsidies and the researchers try to find the language from which all languages stem with the help of the Kazinczy-machine. The short story has no real plot and besides the small and incongruous punch line it is merely a dialogue about the scientific topics. The author basically wrote a scientific article, masquerading as a short story that has no literary merits besides the interesting facts on linguistics.

The unevenness of its contents notwithstanding, MetaGalaktika #11 is a compact, great issue. It is a good grounding for those new to Hungarian science fiction, because it gives a overview of its history and many significant authors are mentioned in the issue. Most of the essays give good suggestions for where to start reading. Those who are familiar with Hungarian science fiction can enjoy the curiosities that were previously unknown to them, and perhaps reread with nostalgia the old books on their shelves by the mentioned authors.

MetaGalaktika #11
Publisher: Metropolis Media
Year of publication: 2009

Benkö Mariann was born in 1985, Orosháza, Hungary. As a teenager she wanted to be a journalist and in the end graduated from the faculty of Law at the University of Szeged in 2008. Presently she works as a PhD aspirant in Szeged. Her romance with science fiction started in 1997 with the Star Wars movies and bloomed when she read Dune by Frank Herbert six years later. She reads science fiction avidly and writes her opinion occasionally in her blog or short reviews.

Takács Gábor was born in 1987 and specialized in religious studies and journalism. He has studied science fiction theory for a couple of years now, his essays have been published both online and in print (most recently on Philip K. Dick). He is interested in world SF and fantastic art.

February 23, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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