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Polish Sociological SF

Entry updated 2 October 2018. Tagged: Theme.

A term coined in the 1980s in the wake of the proliferation and popularity of novels and short stories employing science-fictional tropes to allegorically depict and critically analyse either pathologies of the Polish communist state or totalitarianism in general. Several writers were involved in initiating the school, yet in the early 1980s, when most of Janusz A Zajdel's novels were published, he became its most prolific and popular writer, and as a result its natural leader.

A stimulating and humorous approach to certain sociopolitical aspects of life in a communist state is to be found in some stories from Dzienniki gwiazdowe (1957; trans by Michael Kandel as The Star Diaries 1976 US) by Stanisław Lem, while his Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie (1961; trans by Michael Kandel and Christine Rose as Memoirs Found in a Bathtub 1973) presented a paranoid Dystopian bureaucratic machine devouring an individual in a totalitarian manner. In Kongres Futurologiczny (1971; trans by Michael Kandel as The Futurological Congress 1974) Lem introduced "chemocracy" – a totalitarian dictatorship wielding control by the mass use of numerous psychotropic substances that power a Utopian simulacrum. Its citizens believe that they live in a world of common happiness and welfare, while in fact they vegetate in Overpopulated poverty. In 1973 Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg published Robot, one of the most complex and visionary novels in Polish sf, which due to its expressive depiction of a society of slaves, totally controlled and mercilessly abused by a mysterious Mechanism, can be recognized as the forerunner of the school, even though it was to a large extent aimed at ontological investigations rather than a sociopolitical analysis.

However, it was not until the late 1970s that writers began to create alternative social systems to allegorize and elucidate the one they were subjected to. In 1979 Wir pamięci ("A Whirl of Memory") by Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński was published – the first volume in a trilogy about Apostesion (Apostezjon), an imaginary totalitarian state. The novel was followed by Rozpad połowiczny ["Partial Disintegration"] (1988), which won the Janusz A Zajdel Award in 1989, and Mord założycielski ["The Founding Murder"] (1989). Also in 1979 Obszar nieciągłości ["The Zone of Discontinuity"] by Andrzej Krzepkowski and Andrzej Wójcik appeared, which expressed many social anxieties and problems of the 1970s, including life under constant threat, the state's contempt for its citizens, and social manipulations of the elite in power. In 1980 Cylinder Van Troffa ["Van Troff's Cylinder"] by Janusz A Zajdel was published, while in 1982 as many as three titles of sf with sociopolitical overtones were brought out: Limes inferior by Janusz A Zajdel, Twarzą ku ziemi ("Face Down") by Maciej Parowski, and Druga jesień ("The Second Autumn") by Wiktor Żwikiewicz. By the mid 1980s this mode of literary expression was certainly the most distinct trend in Polish science fiction, and between 1982 and 1985 more books of sociological sf appeared: Senni zwycięzcy ["Sleepy Victors"] (1983) by Marek Oramus, Wyjście z cienia ["Out of Shade"], Cała prawda o planecie Ksi ["The Whole Truth About Planet Ksi"] (1983) and Paradyzja ["Paradisia"] (1984) by Janusz A Zajdel. Significantly, the establishing of the school coincided with the launch of Fantastyka in late 1982, the first Polish sf magazine, soon to become a natural focal point of the growing Polish sf community.

It might seem natural to conclude that the popularity of sociological sf (for many readers "Sociological" was a euphemism for "Political") stemmed from circumstances, notably the fact that any open criticism of the system was strictly forbidden and ruthlessly censored, while such novels as Zamiatin's We (1924) or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) were blacklisted (the first Polish translation of Orwell's dystopia was published in Paris in 1953, smuggled to Poland and for years available only in underground reprints, while We was published in the underground as late as in 1985). In this context the use of science fiction as a camouflage to point out the corrupting nature of the system, its Economic falsehood and failure, and dehumanizing effects on both the individual and society was a necessary contrivance. Strange as it may seem, for some reason the censors were lenient with it, apparently assuming that Spaceships and Aliens do no harm to law-abiding citizens of a socialist state, or possibly treating this kind of literature as a specific "safety valve" – a modicum of freedom of speech that the authorities allowed the enslaved society, just as they allowed the proliferation of rock music during the same decade. However, it is important to see that censorship was not the only reason behind the growing popularity of this kind of sf among writers and readers. Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński, for instance, openly questions censorship as the sole motivation to create science-fictional worlds to be the vehicles of sociopolitical and economic reflection, arguing that critical writing about the system was possible in the mimetic mode, although authors had to realize that their work would be published only in the underground – Mała apokalipsa (1979; trans by Richard Laure as A Minor Apocalypse 1981) by Tadeusz Konwicki is the epitome. The equally important reason why some writers turned to science fiction was its powerful ability to draw readers' attention to nuances of their social and existential condition by translating them into a vivid tale of other worlds or societies, seemingly distant from their everyday life experience. Janusz A Zajdel as well as some writers gathered around him adopted a literary strategy based on the eventual unmasking of their invented social systems, their sociopolitical manipulations aimed at enslavement and uniformity of their citizens, their viciously repressive character, and the economic stagnation which resulted.

In the mid 1980s younger writers broke into the scene, such as Andrzej Ziemiański and Rafał A Ziemkiewicz. Some stories in Ziemiański's Daimonion (coll 1985) examined psychological effects of live in bondage, while his Wojny urojone ["Imaginary Wars"] (1987) reflected the decadent and pessimistic social mood of that time and depicted yet another twisted social system that resulted in the severe cultural and technological regression of its citizens. Władca szczurów ["Lord of the Rats"] (coll 1987) by Rafał A Ziemkiewicz contained stories dealing with the oppressive nature of power, aggression towards those who rebel against the state, and brainwashing. The final titles of sociological sf of this period appeared in 1990: Bramy strachu ["The Gates of Fear"] by Andrzej Ziemiański and Dzień drogi od Meorii ["A Day Away from Meoria"] by Marek Oramus, perhaps the most formidable novel of the time in its appalling vision of serfdom and exploitation, which can be perceived as the recapitulation of all the explorations and analyses that the school developed during the preceding decade. It has to be emphasized, however, that stories and novels with sociopolitical ambitions have appeared occasionally since then. Rafał A Ziemkiewicz in particular remained faithful to this model of sf, commenting on the sociopolitical changes in Poland and Europe, extrapolating from current economic and political trends visions of their civilizational fate, which were half prediction, half satire, generally rather bleak. In 1991 he published Wybrańcy bogów ["God's Darlings"]; in 1995 a Cyberpunk novel with strong political overtones Pieprzony los kataryniarza ["Damned Fate of an Organ-Grinder"], which won the Janusz A Zajdel Award; in 1996 a collection Czerwone dywany, odmierzany krok ["Red Carpets, A Measured Stride"], and in 1998 Walc stulecia ["Waltz of the Century"], which won him another Zajdel.

It is worth mentioning that, as if in defiance of the trend, but in reaction to the tense political atmosphere of the Cold War era and its anticipated perils, Stanisław Lem published two Ijon Tichy novels in the 1980s: Wizja lokalna ["The Crime Scene Inspection"] (1982) and Pokój na ziemi [1987; trans by Elinor Ford with Michael Kandel as Peace on Earth 1994], both being jocose and perverse political Satires with numerous references to the Cold War itself and some sociopolitical aspects of worlds divided by superpowers; both books scrutinized the human inability to peacefully coexist.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s other, more entertaining modes of genre fiction began to surface, particularly Fantasy, apparently as a reaction to the committed character of the dominating form of science fiction; the main critical objection to it was its less creative and more instrumental use of sf as a mere disguise for sociopolitical explorations, a transmogrification of certain aspects of life in a communist state into a science-fictional reality, repetitiveness, and at times the lack of literary panache. Nevertheless, Polish Sociological SF was arguably the most distinct mode of science fiction in the entire Eastern Bloc: literature being an insightful analysis of the corrupting perversions and absurdity of totalitarianism, shaped by inimical circumstances, by disagreement with the repressive social system, but also by a fascination with the potentialities of science fiction. [KW]

see also: Genre SF; Kingsajz; Poland.

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