It’s a challenge to count the ways in which this book is an absolute success. As a collection of international literature its breadth is exceptional, for it goes beyond the familiar selections of French, Spanish, and German writing as it forays into more exotic sci-fi literary traditions. As a showcase of works in translation, its stories formidably balance instantly readable English with the flavors of their original languages. As a testament to the sci-fi genre, it’s second to none: these 16 works explore an impressive array of traditional sci-fi tropes and create unique, beautiful works with each of them. Perhaps most importantly, as an anthology of intelligent—and yes, literary—fiction, it is a stellar collection of truly excellent and diverse prose.
James and Kathryn Morrow set out to compile an introductory teaser to the great big world of sci-fi beyond our narrow borders—a world which, thanks to the prejudices of the American publishing industry against translated works, we rarely get to see. Even more impressive is how current the writing is; several stories were first published only last year, a marvel considering how long translations normally take to filter through the international cracks, especially for short stories. This book does far more than tease: it’ll make you wish you paid better attention in high school French. And learned Russian. And Romanian. And pretty much every other language represented in this book so you can read more stories like the ones you’ll find in this collection.
There are ways in which sci-fi is the perfect forum for a collection of international fiction. As sci-fi stories involve either the future or a reality a step away from our own, authors are free to write about experiences in a truly universal context, because rather than being tied to some regional setting—as all other stories must be—these are set in a world entirely of the author’s imagining. There’s no particularly strong reason for any of these stories to remain bound to their country of origin; they are equally at home in all our collective fantasies. This collection is an important step in creating a new truly international literature, a literature of a future that will affect us all, whether we like it or not. The SFWA European Hall of Fame is more than an excellent anthology; it’s a call for sci-fi to grow up into something entirely new—and go beyond borders doing it.
It’s true that not every story in this collection is an out-of-this world success; like every anthology, this is a bit of a grab bag. The ones that are—namely, most of them—more than make up for the slumps, employing everything from classic psychological realism to Ionesco-esque ultra-modernist absurdity to the most cutting-edge postmodernism. We enter worlds of playful fables and deadpan realism, primal myths and deeply disturbing nightmares. But no matter what the style or concept, all these stories are absolutely believable and highly economical, perhaps their most-shared and best-used characteristic. In tiny spaces they sculpt entire worlds and enact whole dramas within them without wasting a word. A reader’s only disappointment may be a stymied wish to see the author go further and create even more. Even the stories that feel somewhat lacking possess a thoroughly and artfully executed concept, worlds which demand our attention and tantalize our curiosity.
But these pieces are far more than conceptual speculations. Many have impressive literary qualities, both intellectual and evocative. “Yoo Retoont Sneogg. Ay Noo,” a post-apocalyptic story about a society where the line between rights-holding individuals and biological commodities is paper-thin, still gives me chills and warms my heart—more than a week after reading it—for its delicate balance of a wretched dystopia, hard-hitting relevant questions, and delightfully peculiar characters. The beautifully tragic prose-poems “Separations,” “A Birch Tree, A White Fox,” and “Wonders of the Universe,” share as much with painting and music as they do with printed word. The fierce energy found in the carnivalesque “Some Earthlings’ Adventures on Outrerria” and the quintessentially forceful masterpiece “Sepultura” stir the most primordial emotions—laughter and fury—through carefully crafted artistry. Each of these stories is a self-contained portrait of human experience, remaining true to the maverick spirit of sci-fi while also appealing to our most basic literary desires: the need to be moved and to understand the life of another.
For all this talk of universality, it’d be criminal not to mention the cultural diversity present in these stories. On the most basic level, most of them have a certain “European” feel to them, a generalization I feel much more comfortable making because the Morrows make it first. Their intention was not to create a representative work of contemporary European sci-fi, but to show its unique continental flavor. While not entirely foreign to American readers, there is a noticeable difference from the bulk of what we’re used to reading. But delve deeper and you’ll find more nuance; a few examples, to follow, may suffice.
The Russians, like us, have a relatively optimistic view of the powers of technology which, as the Morrows explain, comes from the Soviet obsession with mechanization. And yet the two authors in this volume do more to evoke fables and classically Russian poetry than Soviet optimism, doing well to depict the complexities and paradoxes of Russia’s literature. In the other post-communist countries represented, namely Romania and Poland, sci-fi became the literature of subversion as a way to slip beneath censors’ eyes, and the positively zany stories included have plenty of well-hidden barbs. As for the French stories…well, they’re as delightfully and sensually French as Baudelaire and coq au vin.
Lastly, it’s worth commenting that The SFWA European Hall of Fame, besides all this literary hype, is simply good, charming reading. Its microcosms of emotions and ideas make for the most satisfying form of reading: thoughtful portrayals of genuine human experience. This isn’t just a book for sci-fi fans foreign fiction devotees, but for anyone who likes reading engrossing stories. After having fallen love with this collection for all the aforementioned reasons, it gives me the most pleasure to say that at its earnest core it is as joyful to read as it is vital to American—and international—literature.