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Czech and Slovak SF

Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: International.

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In Czechoslovakia there are two main groups, the Czechs and the Slovaks, speaking different languages. Sf is written in both.

The history of Czech sf begins in the nineteenth century, with the first true sf work probably being Zivot na Měsíci ["Life on the Moon"] (1881) by Karel Pleskač. Also of interest are some of the works of the famous mainstream author Svatopluk Čech; for example, Hanuman (1884; trans W W Strickland 1894), depicting a civil war between two factions of apes (see Apes as Human), and Pravý výlet pana Broučka do Měsíce ["The True Trip of Mr Brouček to the Moon"] (1888). Another important ancestral figure was Jakub Arbes, who wrote a series of romanetos (short novels) on fantastic themes, including Newtonuv mozek (1877; trans Josef Jiri Kral as "Newton's Brain" 1892 Poet-Lore; in Clever Tales, anth 1897, ed Charlotte Porter and Helen A Clarke), which prefigures the theme of Time Travel.

The first author to write sf systematically was Karel Hloucha, author of seven novels and story collections, including Zakletá země ["Enchanted Country"] (1910) and Slunečční vůz ["The Solar Waggon"] (1921). Aliens that can take the shape of human beings play an important role in Metod Suchdolský's novel Rusové na Martu ["Russians on Mars"] (1907).

In 1920, the first sf book by Karel Čapek was published: the play R.U.R. (1920; trans 1923) introduced the word Robot into the genre. The 1920s and 1930s were rich in sf novels; each year several titles appeared, with a variety of themes from technological inventions to the political and social aspects of future societies. Among the writers active in this period were Tomáš; Hrubý, Jiří Haussmann, Marie Grubhofferová, J M Troska (the pseudonym of Jan Matzal) and others. Troska was the most influential, especially with his Space Opera trilogy Zápas s nebem ["Struggle With the Skies"] (1940-1941). At the opposite pole stood Jan Weiss with his dreamlike mainstream sf novel Dům o 1000 patrech (1929; trans Alexandra Büchler as The House of a Thousand Floors 2014).

After World War Two (and especially after the communist coup in 1948) the production of Czech sf decreased, and those few, mainly juvenile works which were published described a more "realistic" Near Future. František Běhounek, a well known scientist, wrote seven Hard-SF novels about the apotheosis of science in a communist future, examples being Akce L ["Operation L"] (1956) and Robinsoni vesmíru ["The Space Family Robinson"] (1958).

The leading figure of the 1960s, and the symbol of the rebirth of sf, was Josef Nesvadba, whose work is well known also in the English-speaking world. Perhaps the most popular writer of this period, however, was Ludvík Souček (1926-1978), author of nine witty sf-adventure novels and a few story collections, often with elements of the detective story. The first and most popular were the trilogy Cesta slepých ptáků ["Voyage of the Blind Birds"] (1964) and the collection Bratři černé planety ["Brethren of the Black Planet"] (coll 1969); his last novel, Blázni z Hepteridy ["The Madmen from Hepteris"] (1980), was published posthumously. Two Dystopias by mainstream writers are of interest: Jirí Mařek's Blazený věk ["Cheerful Era"] (1967) and Čestmír Vejdělek's Návrat z Ráje ["Return from Paradise"] (1961). The latter is a complex novel of high literary standard describing the inhabitants of a computer-ruled society who are unaware of their status as slaves. Other interesting writers of the period were Josef Koenigsmark, Václav Kajdoš; and Ivan Foustka.

After the heightened activity of the 1960s, the so-called "normalization" of Czech culture following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact countries in 1968 meant that there was another decrease in Czech sf in the first half of the 1970s. At the end of that decade, however, a new wave of writers appeared. The most significant authors of short fiction are Jaroslav Veis (1946-    ), Zdeněk Volný and Ondřej Neff (1945-    ); each has published several books. Veis's Pandořina skříňka ["Pandora's Box"] (coll 1979) is very widely admired. Neff, after the success of his first collection, Vejce naruby ["An Inside-Out Egg"] (coll 1985), turned to novels: his Měsíc mého zivota ["The Moon of My Life"] (1988), set in a colony of Moon-miners, is among the best Czech sf. Another fine book from the period, from the usually mainstream writer (although he has also produced four sf novels) Vladimír Páral, is the dystopian Země zen ["The Country of Women"] (1987). The most important publications for this generation of sf writers were the twin anthologies Lidé ze souhvězdí Lva ["People from the Constellation of Leo"] (anth 1983) and Zelezo přichází z hvězd ["Iron Comes from the Stars"] (anth 1983), both edited by Vojtěch Kantor.

The establishment in 1982 of the Karel Čapek Award for the best sf work by new authors encouraged the arrival of a still younger generation of writers – Josef Pecinovský, František Novotný, Eduard Martin and Jan Hlavička are the most significant. Although they have published collections, this group's work primarily attained popularity through anthologies: Nàvrat na planetu Zemi ["Return to Planet Earth"] (anth 1985) and Stalo se zítra ["It Happened Tomorrow"] (anth 1985), both edited by Ivo Zelezný.

A few sf works have been written by Czech authors in exile, an example being Maso ["Meat"] (coll 1981), a collection of two novellas by Martin Harníček. Another author in exile, Luděk Pešek, is published in German and sometimes in English, although he writes in Czech. One novel by Ivo Duka (pseudonym of Ivo Ducháček and Helena Koldová) was published in English: Martin and His Friend from Outer Space (1955). Pavel Kohout, who left Czechoslovakia in 1968, later published an sf novel (see his entry for its long title).

Sf written in Slovak does not have as continuous a tradition, and there are noticeably fewer works. Sf featuring social comment and adventure was published in the 1930s and 1940s by Peter Suchanský, Dezo S Turčan and Jàn Kresànek-Ladčan. After World War Two the production of Slovak sf was sporadic and its nature naive, as in Luna 2 neodpovedà ["Luna 2 Doesn't Answer"] (1958), one of the three sf novels written by Jàn Bajla. Only one author from the 1960s stands out: Jozef Tallo, whose collection is Vlasy Bereniky ["The Hair of Berenice"] (coll 1962). Many more writers emerged in the 1980s: Alta Vàsovà, Jàn Fekete, Jozef Repko and others; they write mainly juvenile fiction. The most successful may be the Post-Holocaust novel Po ["After"] (1979) by Vàsovà and three juvenile novels by Jozef Zarnay, including Kolumbovia zo zàkladne Ganymedes ["Columbuses from Ganymede Space Station"] (1983).

More than 50 sf films have been made in Czechoslovakia, the first of them in the early 1920s. The earliest of real interest are adaptations of works by Karel Čapek; they are Bílà nemoc ["The White Plague"] (1937; vt Skeleton on Horseback) directed by Hugo Haas, about a terminal Pandemic; and Krakatit (1948), directed by Otakar Vàvra. From the mid-1950s to 1970, several sf films with animation and live action combined, based loosely on novels by Jules Verne and using original drawings from French editions of his books, were made by director and animator Karel Zeman: Cesta do pravěku (1955; vt Journey to the Beginning of Time), Vynález Zkázy (1958; vt Weapons of Destruction), Baron Pràšil (1961; vt Baron Münchhausen), Ukradenà vzducholod' (1967; vt The Stolen Airship) and Na koměte (1970; vt On the Comet). Completely animated films include The Cybernetic Grandma (1962; original title Kybernetická babička); the short films of Václav Mergl (whom see) from 1964 to the 1990s; and the Czech/French coproduction La Planète Sauvage (1973; vt Fantastic Planet).

The tradition of Czech sf comedies was launched by Oldřich Lipský with a comedy set in "the 5th century after Sputnik": Muz z prvního století ["Man from the First Century"] (1961; vt Man in Outer Space). Lipský's other sf films include: a Time-Travel comedy, Zabil jsem Einsteina, pánové! (1969; vt I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen!); a Parody of pre-World War Two pulp detective fiction involving Nick Carter and a carnivorous plant, perhaps his best film, Adéla ještě nevečeřelá (1977; vt Adele Hasn't Eaten Yet); a Jules Verne adaptation, Tajemství hradu v Karpatech ["Mystery of the Carpathian Castle"] (1981); and Srdečný pozdrav ze Zeměkoule ["Cordial Greetings from Earth"] (1982). Miloš Macourek has had a hand in several good sf comedies, notably Kdo Chce Zabít Jessii (1965; vt Who Would Kill Jessie?) and Coz takhle dat si špenàt (1976; vt What Would You Say to Some Spinach?), and also cowrote the screenplay of Zítra Vstanu a Opařím Se Čajem (1977; vt Tomorrow I'll Wake up and Scald Myself with Tea), one of a number of Czech sf films, several of them comedies, based on Josef Nesvadba's stories and novels. Another of these, sharing the Time Travel theme, is I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (1970; original title Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove).

Not many Czech films are "serious" sf, or even straight sf, but those that are include: A Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955; original title Cesta do pravěku; vt Journey to Prehistory), an educational trip to the distant past including the era of Dinosaurs; the space opera Ikarie XB-1 (1963; vt Voyage to the End of the Universe); the Post-Holocaust story Konec Srpna V Hotelu Ozón (1966; vt The End of August at the Hotel Ozone); a film about a visit from deep space, Akce Bororo ["Operation Bororo"] (1972), directed by Otakar Fuka; a children's film about First Contact with Aliens, Odysseus a hvězdy ["Odysseus and the Stars"] (1974), directed by Ludvík Ráza; a free adaptation of Čapek's Krakatit (1924), Temné Slunce (1980; vt The Black Sun); and, from Slovakia, ecological space sf in Tretí Šarkan ["The Third Dragon"] (1985), directed by Peter Hledík.

In Theatre, the Absurdist SF Satires of Václav Havel (whom see) drew considerable overseas attention and have been translated into other languages. Sf dramas are quite frequent on Czech Television, especially for children. One of the better serials has been Návštěvníci ["The Visitors"] (1984), in which an expedition from 2484 CE, when Earth is endangered by a Comet, returns to 1984 to seek help; this production was directed by Jindřich Polák.

Sf is very popular in Czechoslovakia. It has a wide readership, and print-runs of books by well known authors have been up to 100,000; however, the worsening economic situation in the early 1990s is likely to change that figure dramatically for the worse. On the positive side, a monthly sf magazine, Ikarie, was launched in June 1990 under the editorship of Ondřej Neff, who has also edited, with Jaroslav Olša jr, «Encyklopedie science fiction» ["Encyclopedia of Science Fiction"] (1992). [IA/JO]

see also: SF Music.

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