Estonian science-fiction

by Raul Sulbi



Estonian science fiction

Raul Sulbi

It is rather difficult to maintain that ‘science fiction’ existed in Estonian writing before 1990, and almost equally difficult to claim that it didn’t. It is all a matter of interpretation; but, in my opinion at least, science fiction means something more than a few occasional SF texts by an established master of mainstream literature, published every few years or so. By the ‘existence of science fiction’, I mean that there are a number of authors who write mostly (or exclusively) SF, and what’s more - they do it purposefully. There should also be publications specialising in science fiction, literary awards, critics and an actively communicating circle of readers. When all these requirements are met, and only then, can we start talking about our own national science fiction. And they have indeed emerged during the last decade, so we can consider the 1990s as the birth period of Estonian genre SF.

SF literature has naturally been published throughout the 20th century. Many well-known mainstream writers (but also second-rate authors) can boast at least a few deviations into the fantastic literature. Works with at least a touch of SF have been written by such prominent (and less prominent) Estonian authors as Juhan Liiv, Matthias Johann Eisen, Friedebert Tuglas, August Gailit, A.H.Tammsaare, Paul Viiding, Vladimir Beekman, Georg Orm, Rein Sepp, Boris Kabur, Karl Ristikivi, August Mälk, Henn-Kaarel Hellat, Eiv Eloon, Ain Särg, Helju Rebane, Teet Kallas, Aimee Beekman, Enn Vetemaa, Mati Unt, Arvo Valton, Rein Põder, Nikolai Baturin, Jaan Kaplinski, Herta Laipaik etc. And the list is certainly not complete. From the point of view of science fiction, most of what these writers have done is slipstream SF, as it is called, as opposed to genre SF. The former category is by no means worse or inferior, it is just that these two simply cannot be measured by the same standard. For one thing, their aspirations differ. However, quite a few literary efforts of the above-mentioned authors can be classified as genre SF.

The distinction between slipstream and genre SF derives from the Anglo-American science fiction that emerged in its modern form in the USA between the two world wars, and that considers its literary ancestors to be the Gothic horror novels, hugely popular in early 19th century Europe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (considered to be the first-ever science fiction novel), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G.Wells, to name the most prominent. In addition to SF employing the traditions and rules of the genre fiction (containing detective stories, science fiction, adventure stories, literature of the Wild West, pirate stories, cloak-and-dagger literature etc.), another kind of SF with somewhat different origin and aims, was also cultivated in the world, and hence the distinction mentioned above. Slipstream SF includes, for example, magical realism, literature with elements of surrealism (but otherwise abiding by the rules of mainstream literature) and all texts presenting the slightest traces of literary fantasy, the unreal, written by mainstream writers who feel no particular affinity with genre SF.

It is also quite certain that the roots of domestic genre SF that emerged in Estonia in the 1990s are not to be found in the earlier Estonian (science fiction) literature; rather, they should be sought in foreign genre SF, mostly Anglo-American.

The earliest signs of genre SF could in a sense be perceived in Eiv Eloon’s (pseudonym) science fiction novel Kaksikliik (Double Species), published in 1981, mostly because this author was one of the first, if not the very first, to publish only science fiction. Her entire work unfortunately consists of nothing else but the above novel and its sequel Double Species 2 (1989). The debut short story Koletis (Monster) by Urmas Alas, one of the most prolific SF writers, appeared in the January 1985 issue of the magazine Pioneer. Alas now has dozens of pure science fiction stories to his name, as well as two novels - an alternate history describing a very different Estonia of the 1990s called Plahvatus (Explosion, 1995) and the near future dystopian novel Komblusvalvur (The Guardian of Propriety, 1996).

The next major debut was Mr Tiit Tarlap’s short story Tänav akna taga (Street Beyond the Window) which appeared in the June 1988 issue of the magazine Noorus (Youth). Urmas Alas’s work constitutes a rather primitive and sterile application of Anglo-American science fiction’s standard methods (there’s no denying the necessity for such work, but a little originality would do no harm either), but it is difficult to highlight any single story. Tiit Tarlap, on the other hand, can easily be called the most significant Estonian science fiction writer of the 1990s. He has serialised the majority of his work in various newspapers. Mention should be made of a rather grim military SF novel Kurjuse tund (An Hour of Wrath, 1994), two stories in a contemporary setting that combine horror, fantasy and science fiction (short novel Vampiirilõks - The Vampire Trap, 1994, and novelette Haldjatants - The Fairy Dance, 1996) and two adventurous space operas (novella Kaduviku paladiinid - Paladins of the Past, 1997, and the novelette Vihkamise suund - The Line of Hatred, 1997, which won the Estonian science fiction Stalker Award in 1998).

While Alas and Tarlap can be treated of individually, as writers who have not much influenced one another, then the following four authors can be seen as a group in that they came to SF largely via the editor in chief Mario Kivistik of the magazine Põhjanael (North Star). In 1991 Mr Kivistik started publishing the science fiction magazine Mardus (Banshee), mainly concentrated on horror. It is still going strong today. The authors who constantly write for Mardus have certainly, at least to some extent, influenced each other, if only by closely associating with one another. In autumn 1993, Veiko Belials and Veikko Vangonen were the first to make their debut. Although the latter has published relatively little, his work is perhaps deserving of more attention. Most of his horror stories deal with medieval Estonia and are characterised by archaic style and language and a highly suggestive manner of writing. Perhaps the most important of these are the stories Ülestõusjad (The Resurrected, 1994) and Märkmeid viirastuse reisikirjast (Notes from a Spectre’s Travelogue, 1996). In addition to Mardus, Vangonen has also published his work in the literary magazines Looming (Creation) and Vikerkaar (Rainbow).

Veiko Belials is no doubt one of the most prolific of contemporary science fiction writers. The bulk of his work consists of very short (one or two pages) and not very original SF stories, but he has also written longer and more outstanding stories. Belials’s main work is the heroic fantasy novel Ashinari kroonikad (The Chronicles of Ashinar, 1997). Horror stories in the Malcolm McCoy series are also quite remarkable; they are by no means just humble copies produced according to the models of Anglo-American horror literature. Unfortunately, the larger share of Belials’s output consists of mediocre stories or downright failures. He has mostly written horror stories, also fantasy; science fiction has not been his forte.

Marek Simpson’s (pseudonym) debut story Vihmamees (The Rainman) was published in spring 1994. It is no easy task to characterise the work of this prolific writer who has mostly dedicated himself to science fiction. His stories contain some cyberpunk, some typical features of space opera. Recently, however, his work shows signs of deterioration rather than development. Simpson’s most significant stories are Projekt ‘Invasioon’ (Project ‘Invasion’, 1996) and Kõik need üksikud inimesed (All those Lonely People, 1998). In 1999, he and Veiko Belials published together a collage novel Existerion which the domestic SF criticism considers, with amazing agreement, as the greatest failure of home-grown science fiction.

The last to come to science fiction from the circle of authors described above, is Lew R. Berg (pseudonym) whose debut took place in spring 1995. Having published many horror stories, Berg is primarily known as the author of military SF adventures and space operas. The central place in Berg’s work belongs to the cycle of Willard stories, especially Kaos katselaboris (Chaos in the Laboratory, 1996), Polaarjaam (Polar Station, 1996) and Vaimudejõe viirastused (Phantoms of the Ghost River, 1998, Stalker Award 1999). His best space opera is probably the short story Kolm tilka verd (Three Drops of Blood, 1999). Berg is about to publish two books this year, Tants tulle (Dance into the Fire) and Tempel selvas (Temple in the Rainforest).

In addition to the authors who have appeared in Mario Kivistik’s magazines, several writers of the second half of the 1990s managed to secure a place for themselves in Estonian science fiction. Mention should be made of Mart Raudsaar whose first story was published in autumn 1993 in the magazine Noorus. Raudsaar does not write traditional science fiction; several of his texts could rather be classified as urban fantasies where the action, despite the subgenre name, often takes place in rural areas. The central place in Raudsaar’s work belongs to the series about Mark Kuuse, a real estate broker. These have been his most successful efforts. Among his work, the following short stories deserve special consideration: Lõpmatusele ei ole ruumi (There Is No Space for Infinity, 1994), Minu maailm (My Cosmos, 1995), Soolinn (The Swamp City, 1999), Vapiloom (Heraldic Animal, 1999), Kõmuajakirjaniku surm (Death of a Paparazzo, 1999), and a short novel Kuldlaevuke (The Golden Boat, 2000).

The Estonian SF landscape would certainly not be complete without Matt Barker (pseudonym). His first things appeared in autumn 1993 in the magazine Looming. He mostly writes short story length modern horror texts. The emphasis is on the word ‘modern’, because Veiko Belials’s horror stories, for example, suggest that nothing much has changed in this particular literary genre over the last hundred years or so, and the hottest names are still Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. Reading Barker, however, one gets the strong impression that horror literature is evolving also in our day. And by no means less successfully. The relatively ignorant and superficial Estonian criticism of mainstream literature is able to compare Barker only with Stephen King, but his work is in fact much closer to contemporary British horror writers. His most outstanding stories include Lõbustuspark (Amusement Park, 1997), Siis nad usuvad (Then They’ll Believe, 1998), Kuri onu ja väike laps (Bad Uncle and Small Child, 1998) and Haige Kõuts (A Sick Tomcat, 1999). At the 1998 novel competition, Barker’s manuscript Haripunkt (Summit) came 8th, and he has several other novels ready in manuscript form. This year, 2000, has already seen the publication of a collection of Barker’s best short stories, Sarah jalad (Sarah’s Legs).

Estonian original science fiction changed considerably when the electronic SF magazine Algernon made its appearance on the Internet in November 1998. This quickly became the main signpost of domestic science fiction and the place to publish the best work. New authors emerged as well: Indrek Hargla, Siim Veskimees, Karen Orlau, Kristjan Sander, etc. With easy nonchalance, they settled on the highest pinnacle of the Estonian SF Parnassus.

The most prominent author coming to Estonian science fiction via Algernon is certainly Indrek Hargla (pseudonym) who can also be called the greatest hope with which domestic science fiction faces the new century. His debut was in December 1998, but the first important text was published in February 1999 - novella Gondvana lapsed (The Children of Gondwana). Other major works include short novels Uskmatuse hind (The Price of Disbelief) and Excelsuse konkistadoorid (The Conquistadors of Excelsus, Stalker Award 2000) and the short story Nad tulevad täna öösel (They Will Come Tonight, 2000). A class of its own is Hargla’s series depicting the activities of Mieczislaw Grpowski, an exorcist of Polish origin and member of the world-wide League of Exorcists, an organisation that is older than Christianity. The series includes short stories like Kliendi soov (The Client’s Wish, 1999) and Spitzbergeni nokturn (Spitzbergen’s Nocturne, Stalker Award 2000); novelettes Kindel linn (The Steadfast City, 1999) and Eeben (2000) and a novella Pan Grpowski jõulud (Pan Grpowski’s Christmas, 1999).

The Grpowski series is a tasteful and brilliant amalgam of modern horror literature, fantasy and science fiction. Hargla’s best individual works, mentioned above, are equally variegated, abounding in detail, elaborate and professional. He is able to describe elegantly ethno-flavoured horror in South Estonian primeval forests, while the next moment depicting the breathtakingly chilling evil in the catacombs of the Vatican and then in no time at all, the reader will find himself on a distant ice planet where the first contact with an intelligent alien race is turning into a bloody conflict. Indrek Hargla’s writing has the power to make an impact, it makes you think, provokes contradictory feelings, offers an almost perfect joy of a read. Readers seem to be of the same opinion, because Hargla is popular and also perhaps the first domestic SF author whose relations with readers can be characterised by the word popular. At the last Estonian National Science Fiction Convention (meeting of SF writers, editors, translators, critics, and fans) Estcon 2000, he received two Stalker Awards, and the winner is chosen by the readers. Hargla’s victory was overwhelming.

Besides Hargla, the most significant Algernon horror author is Karen Orlau (pseudonym) who published her first work in December 1999. Orlau can be regarded as the main (and probably the only) writer of renewed gothic horror in Estonia, her chief paragon being obviously Anne Rice. Karen Orlau’s principal texts are short stories Oraakli surm (Death of the Oracle, 1998, Stalker Award 1999), Elisale (To Elisa, 1998), Brother Judas (Vend Juudas, 1999) and Kohtumine Emaga (Rendezvous with Mother, 1999). The latter is a direct homage to Anne Rice.

The most outstanding SF writer after Hargla who published his first works in Algernon, is Siim Veskimees (pseudonym). The first story appeared in autumn 1999. His best stories, the novelettes Kõiksuse hääl (Voice of the Universe, 1999) and Kuu Ordu (The Lunar Order, 2000), remain in the area of space adventure. Veskimees’s stylish and dashing space operas, spiced with original humour, are unique in Estonian science fiction also because he is almost the only writer who dares and is prepared to include certain ideological thoughts and a political manifesto in his work. He can be regarded as the first writer of libertarian SF in Estonia.

A highly original and taboo-shattering horror can be expected of Andrei Golikov (pseudonym) whose debut piece appeared in Algernon in May 2000. He attracted attention with his short story Sild üle vaevavete (Bridge over Troubled Water, 2000) that seems to be the first time in Estonian science fiction that anyone tackles sex, and at a rather perverse angle at that.

Mart Raudsaar has recently started publishing in Algernon as well. Another, rather fascinating, author, Freyja Ek (pseudonym) whose debut work appeared in the early 1990s, has also returned to science fiction via Algernon. His story Lennake, kotkad! (Eagles, Fly!, 2000) is simultaneously a banter and a nostalgic homage to communist Soviet SF. Another story, Manga (2000), is a most professionally executed example of cyberpunk. Its tense and dynamic plot gathers space according to the best traditions of cyberpunk in Japan.

Attempting to characterise Estonian science fiction in a more general manner, it is striking that alongside the fully professional SF, a lot of more primitive, unoriginal and mediocre fantastic fiction has also been produced. This is probably a sign of the relative youth and fragility of Estonian SF traditions. It can nevertheless be stated that science fiction has finally found its footing and has no intention of vanishing. There are authors, critics, readers, publishers, editors, translators and active fans who take science fiction very seriously. There is an umbrella organisation; there are wide possibilities to communicate, magazines, the book publishers’ SF series, the annual meeting and awards which are all proof of the genre’s vitality.

Every beginning is naturally difficult, so the uncertainty and wavering standards in the original science fiction texts are perfectly normal phenomena. The last few years give us cause to claim that the period of adolescence is soon over and the Golden Age of Estonian science fiction is about to begin.