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Zajdel, Janusz A

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

(1938-1985) Polish author, one of the three most important figures in Polish science fiction of the post-war era, who partly recognized, partly created and defined, and eventually occupied a literary territory that allowed him, along with some other writers, to create social Dystopias critical of the gross perversions and pathologies of the Polish communist state, and by extension totalitarianism in general, without exposing himself to the closer attention of the authorities and his work to vicious censorship.

He studied nuclear physics at The University of Warsaw and worked as a specialist in radiation protection, writing articles, handbooks of safety regulations, and scripts for educational documentaries. His first Genre SF story was published in Młody Technik in 1961; soon followed by his first collection, Jad mantezji ["The Venom of Mantesia"] (coll 1965). By 1982 he had published four more collections: Przejście przez lustro ["Crossing the Mirror"] (coll 1975), Iluzyt (coll 1976), Feniks ["Phoenix"] (coll 1981) and Ogon diabła ["Devil's Tail"] (coll 1982). The majority of his short fiction as well as his early novels of this period – the Young-Adult Lalande 21185 (1966) and Prawo do powrotu ["The Right to Return"] (1975) – may seem mostly Optimistic towards science and progress, constructive and didactic in the Campbellian manner, dealing with the conquest of space, Alien civilizations, Conceptual Breakthroughs or groundbreaking Inventions that would change the life of a whole civilization, but they frequently showed Zajdel's sensibility to the civilizational perils of Technology when in the hands of irresponsible or malevolent individuals, of social manipulation, and of human behaviour under oppression.

However, a principal shift of paradigm can be observed in his third novel, Cylinder Van Troffa ["Van Troff's Cylinder"] (1980), in which the traditional science-fictional tropes and gadgets (return from a long space voyage, Overpopulation, a time capsule, and Clones) are juxtaposed with sociological observations drawn from life in a communist country. A team of astronomers who return to our solar system after a two-century-long expedition are captured by the seemingly devolved (see Devolution) inhabitants of the Moon, who dwell Underground: Earth itself has become uninhabitable. Zajdel's prose here becomes more allegorical, attempting to single out some degenerating consequences of a depraved social system by means of a future-society camouflage. More importantly, employing established tropes, such as alien Invasion or Colonization of Other Worlds, as a veneer for sociopolitical criticism of totalitarianism became characteristic of all his following works.

Limes inferior [Latin "The Lower Limit"] (1982) remains Zajdel's most popular work and, along with Paradyzja ["Paradisia"] (1983) is believed to be his best. Classic Alien invaders are evoked here as an allegory of the Soviet oppressors; they are a highly developed race who came from the stars and secretly imposed their "ideal" social system with the aid of human collaborators, including key elements of their highly advanced and all-powerful Technology. The society of Argoland, one of Earth's Keep-like metropolises, is divided into classes corresponding to levels of intelligence with class 6 being the lowest, and class 0 the highest. Sneer, the central character of the novel, whose name is derived from the pseudonym of Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg, is a lifter – a person who lives by illegally upgrading other people's classes. In practice, once classified, citizens of Argoland have little chance for social advancement unless they turn to the black market. Many of them decide to do so, as a lower number means a permanent job and an income in yellow points – legal tender consists of electronic points issued in three colours: red, green, and yellow; only with the latter are luxury goods available. This system obviously corresponds to the reality of 1970s Poland, where many products imported from the West were available solely in exclusive chain stores called Pewex, which did not accept the official currency, the Polish złoty, but only dollars (later also other convertible currencies) or their equivalent – issued by the state as banknote-like vouchers. There are many more such references in the novel, comprehensible for more mature readers who still remember that period; for the younger generation of sf fans they may seem merely idiosyncratic components of the apparently Utopian social system, which in time turns out to be an absurd illusion and dystopian nightmare. Zajdel also introduced an interesting and frighteningly prophetic device: the Key, which was a combination of an electronic card that opened room or car doors, a personal ID, a social security data card, a debit card, and also an ingenious instrument of surveillance, as each swipe of one's Key was thoroughly monitored and recorded. For every individual in the society of Argoland the Key is the most fundamental element of everyday life, whose loss brought serious trouble to its owner of both a practical and penal nature. In the end Sneer is invited to join an elite group in power, whose members work clandestinely on diminishing the disastrous impact of the alien control over human society in order to delay the ultimate fate of humanity that the alien race built into their imposed social system. The concluding scene of the novel, evocative of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and poetically ambiguous, reveals, however, that there might exist yet another alien race, willing to help, bringing hope, when all hope is gone.

The concept of aliens as occupiers was employed again in Zajdel's next novel, a Bildungsroman Wyjście z cienia ["Out of Shade"] (1983). As in Limes inferior all information about alien workings is stringently restricted; officially Proks have come to Earth to protect human society against another allegedly dangerous alien race, the Elgomayans (Elgomajowie); in reality they exploit humanity, feast on human food, and in consequence bring on the collapse of all human Economy and technological regression.

Published in the same year, the first volume of the Planet Ksi sequence, Cała prawda o planecie Ksi ["The Whole Truth about Planet Ksi"] (1983), scrutinizes the mechanism of totalitarian exploitation within the context of colonization. An armada of Spaceships is on the way to the first human colony beyond the Solar System. On the eve of landing a group of terrorists take over control, break communication with Earth, and begin to build a settlement, which soon comes to remind the reader of a communist labour camp, where the colonists slave, while the terrorists live in a secluded bunker in luxury with their private harems. Zajdel planned a sequel to the novel entitled Drugie spojrzenie na planetę Ksi ["Second Look at Planet Ksi"] (2005), but managed to complete only an outline and three chapters before his death in 1985. In early 2011 a competition was announced by superNOWA, the current publisher of Zajdel's work, along with his wife and daughter, for writers to put forward proposals, including some further chapters, for completing the novel based on Zajdel's outline and published chapters; the winner was announced in June 2012.

The last of Zajdel's novels, Paradyzja ["Paradisia"] (1984), depicts a colony on planet Tartar under severe surveillance by an oppressive regime, whose inhabitants are made to believe they live on an orbital Space Station, while in fact they are held captive in a complex of buildings on the surface. There is a blanket ban on any knowledge or instruments, such as the Coriolis effect or watches, that could lead to revealing the truth. Nevertheless, in order to communicate freely the colonists conceive a secret language based on poetic associations and allusions incomprehensible to the surveillance Computers, called Koalang (the neologism is derived from Polish kojarzeniowo-aluzyjny – associative-allusive), an interesting reference and homage to Orwell's Newspeak, but in reverse since for Paradisians it is the language – for Aesopian Fantasy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy – that allows them to convey truth. This reversal may also mark the fundamental difference between Orwell and Zajdel. The overall tone of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is pessimistic as the novel demonstrates that the repressive power will crush any manifestation of thoughtcrime. On the contrary, hope always pervades Zajdel's novels, explicitly expressed in the concluding scene and the last sentence of Limes inferior, as they point out that the ideal totalitarian state is ultimately impracticable because each such structure contains uncontrollable elements, certain peripheral spheres too far away from the regimentation of central planning and surveillance, which in time engender germs of its collapse. Moreover, even the most oppressive social system is not able to turn all its citizens into docile, obedient, and passive slaves as there will always be individuals equipped with the deeply human ability to survive and surmount their own existential conditions, no matter how brutalizing. Zajdel's motto for Limes inferior and, as he admitted in a letter to his readers, his whole life, was the line from Tennyson's "Ulysses": "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world". In 1987 Paradyzja was adopted for and shown by Polish Television Theatre.

Many of Zajdel's novels and stories have been translated, mainly into the languages of the former Eastern Bloc countries (Belarusian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Russian, Slovene, also Finnish and Esperanto), but only one story appeared in the West: "Wyjątkowo trudny teren", written for Frederik Pohl and trans by Wiktor Bukato as "Particularly Difficult Territory", was first published in English in Tales from the Planet Earth (anth 1986) edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull before it reached his Polish readers. The anthology was partly dedicated to the memory of Janusz A Zajdel.

Even though Zajdel's work was occasionally accused of too simplistically translating elements of communist reality into science-fictional worlds and lacking the sophisticated literariness of Stanisław Lem, its impact on Polish sf was enormous, especially during the 1980s, when science fiction was gaining nationwide popularity and many writers decided to follow his model of sf, which soon resulted in the emergence of a literary phenomenon known as Polish Sociological SF. Soon after his premature death in 1985 the Polish Fandom Award, then called Sfinks, was renamed as the Janusz A Zajdel Award. His popularity has never decreased, and his books are still in print and widely read. [KW]

see also: Golden Age of SF; Politics; Sociology.

Janusz Andrzej Zajdel

born Warsaw, Poland: 15 August 1938

died Warsaw, Poland: 19 July 1985



Planet Ksi

individual titles

  • Lalande 21185 (Warsaw, Poland: Nasza Księgarnia, 1966) [pb/Teresa Wilbik]
  • Prawo do powrotu ["The Right to Return"] (Warsaw, Poland: Nasza Księgarnia, 1975) [pb/Andrzej Bieńkowski]
  • Cylinder Van Troffa ["Van Troff's Cylinder"] (Warsaw, Poland: Czytelnik, 1980) [pb/Władysław Bryczyński]
  • Limes inferior [Latin "The Lower Limit"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1982) [pb/Kazimierz Hałajkiewicz]
  • Wyjście z cienia ["Out of Shade"] (Warsaw, Poland: Czytelnik, 1983) [pb/Jan Bokiewicz]
  • Paradyzja ["Paradisia"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1984) [pb/Kazimierz Hałajkiewicz]

collections and stories

  • Jad mantezji ["The Venom of Mantesia"] (Warsaw, Poland: Nasza Księgarnia, 1965) [coll: pb/Mateusz Gawryś]
  • Przejście przez lustro ["Crossing the Mirror"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1975) [coll: pb/Kazimierz Hałajkiewicz]
  • Iluzyt (Warsaw, Poland: Nasza Księgarnia, 1976) [coll: pb/Antoni Chodorowski]
  • Feniks ["Phoenix"] (Warsaw, Poland: Nasza Księgarnia, 1981) [coll: pb/Antoni Boratyński]
  • Ogon diabła ["Devil's Tale"] (Warsaw, Poland: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1982) [pb/Waldemar Andrzejewski]
  • "Wyjątkowo trudny teren" trans by Wiktor Bukato as "Particularly Difficult Territory" in Tales from the Planet Earth (New York: St Martin's Press, 1986) edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull [anth: hb/Manny Paul]
  • Dokąd jedzie ten tramwaj? ["Where Is That Tram Going?"] (Warsaw, Poland: Książka i Wiedza, 1988) [coll: selected stories from earlier collections: pb/Andrzej Brzezicki, Beata Włodarczyk]
  • Wyższe racje ["Greater Reasons"] (Poznań, Poland: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1988) [coll: selected stories from earlier collections: pb/Józef Petruk]
  • List pożegnalny ["A Farewell Letter"] (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Alfa, 1989) [coll: selected stories from earlier collections, also contains outlines of incomplete and unwritten novels, an essay on Zajdel by Maciej Parowski, and complete bibliography by Jadwiga Zajdel: pb/Jacek Tofil]
  • Relacja z pierwszej ręki ["A First-Hand Account"] (Warsaw, Poland: superNOWA, 2010) [coll: selected stories from earlier collections: pb/Tomasz Maroński]


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