International Herald Tribune


Science fiction sales - the post-Soviet generation

Technology & Media International Herald Tribune


Sunday, October 29, 2006

BERLIN: In 1963, George Anania published "Constellations from the Waters," the first of 10 science fiction novels that established him and his co-author, Romulus Barbulescu, as pioneers of the genre in Romania.

Back then, Anania and Barbulescu drew their inspiration from Russian writers like Ivan Efremov and the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, or the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who wrote of parallel universes, distant fiefdoms and extraterrestrial class struggles. In a world where criticizing current society was forbidden, alternative reality was good metaphor, and even better, safe.

Most of the time, that is. In the 1980s, the government of Nicolae Ceausescu took control of Anania and Barbulescu's growing circle of fan clubs to monitor discussions on utopian societies and social justice. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authors competed for attention as books from Western science fiction writers like Robert Sheckley, Harry Harrison and Philip K. Dick flooded the East European market.

But 42 years after his first novel, Anania, now 65, and Barbulescu, 82, are back at it - putting the finishing touches on "The Struggle With The Angel," the last book in what has so far been a best-selling trilogy about life in a world of robots.

Even as Romania is set to join the European Union next year, Anania said life in the country was getting weirder, and Romanian science fiction is in demand again.

"After the Soviet Union collapsed, science fiction's popularity faded a bit in Romania," Anania said during an interview. "But even with all the freedom now, we are still not in control of our destinies. Big money, not government, rules everything. The leaders are distant. We are still not our own masters."

Publishing experts say such feelings are having an effect on the market. They say that science fiction is making a comeback in Eastern Europe and Russia as the post-Soviet cycle of boom, bust and boom again feeds into the disenchantment, struggle, paranoia and fragile reserves of hope along the neo-capitalist frontier.

"The Russian science fiction market has been growing very quickly," said Stefan Baumgarth, assistant editor at Kubon & Sagner Verlag, a publisher of Russian books based in Munich. "After the Berlin Wall fell, the market in Russia consolidated and is now coming back strong."

Sales of science fiction novels in Russia surged 30 percent in 2005 to $156.2 million from $120.2 million in 2004, according to Knizhny Biznes, a Russian publishing industry journal. Science fiction accounted for 8.7 percent of Russian book sales last year, behind conventional fiction, children's books, mysteries, philosophy/religion and school textbooks.

Since the first post-Soviet Russian private publishing house was founded in 1989, the industry has continued to grow. Publishers like AST, Eksmo and Terra are releasing 80 to 100 new science fiction/fantasy books each month, according to the business newspaper Delovoi Petersburg. Sales of Russian science fiction novels are up 35 percent this year at Ruslania Books, an online seller of Russian literature based in Helsinki.

"The Russian soul has to believe in something," said Andreas Agopov, who is half Russian and a part owner of Ruslania. "Since they can't believe in the Soviet system anymore and some don't believe in God, they have to believe in something. Women believe in health, magical things. Men read books about space."

For most of the 20th century, Russians had been avid science fiction readers, said Birgit Menzel, a professor of Slavic cultural studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Early innovators included the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who in 1903 wrote about orbiting space stations, and Alexei Tolstoy, whose 1923 book "Aelita" focused on a Communist colonization of Mars.

Major works during the Cold War included the 1957 space novel "Andromeda Nebula" by Efremov, and the 25 novels of the Strugatskys, brothers from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) who wrote about utopian societies, often in a veiled critique of Soviet society and culture.

The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who made a film of Lem's novel "Solaris" in 1972, filmed the Strugatsky novel "Roadside Picnic" as "Stalker" in 1979.

"The Strugatskys became the absolute model for post-Stalinist utopian literature, and their books were popular reading for a broad segment of the intelligentsia," Menzel said. "Science fiction was the only genre under Socialist Realism where unfiltered discussion of utopia could take place."

In 1988, near the end of his life, Arkady Strugatsky met Peter Fleischmann, a director from what was then West Germany, to produce a film version of the Strugatskys' best-known novel, "Hard to Be a God," published in 1964. The German-Russian co-production was one of the first tentative signs of perestroika, the openness policy of the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Fleischmann, working with a mostly Soviet crew, filmed the movie in a studio in Kiev and on location on the Crimean peninsula and in the desert region of Tajikistan.

"Hard to Be a God" follows a government agent, Rumata, who is sent to the distant planet Arkanar in the 30th century to observe a medieval society where residents are oppressed by a small ruling class. Confronted by the murderous consequences of the injustice he witnesses, Rumata breaks strict orders not to get involved and ends up leading the revolution.

Fleischmann, now executive director of the European Film Center at the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, near Berlin, said that Arkady Strugatsky, a committed Communist, told him the novel was an allegory for the predicament of the Cold War-era Soviet citizen.

At its premiere in Munich in 1989, German critics attacked the movie for its violence, which by current standards would be considered restrained.

"Arkady sparred with the journalists at the news conference, defending the film," Fleischmann said during an interview. "He was a big, powerful man who was in poor health but fought for his film to be seen by a wider audience. At one point, he shouted at the reporters: 'I've taken my 12-year-old grandson to the film and even he wasn't scared!'"

Although Arkady Strugatsky died two years later, in 1991, the brothers' literary legacy continues to influence East European writers like Barbulescu and Anania, who are finishing the trilogy they began with "Doando," or "Life Without Life."

The last installment, Anania said, focuses again on a society populated by people who seem to be human but are actually robots, although they do not know it. "They are instruments of a creator who has programmed them to take their planet to a different place, but they don't know the destination," he said.

Their book will compete with other literary heirs to the Strugatskys, including Vyacheslav Rybakov, who collaborated with Boris Strugatsky on screenplays in the 1980s, and Sergey Lukyanenko, a former Russian psychotherapist whose novel "Dnevnoy Dozor," or "Day Watch," completes a trilogy about the final conflict between good and evil played out in present-day Moscow.

Lukyanenko's trilogy has so far sold more than three million copies outside Russia. In 2004, the book was made into a Russian film - considered at the time to be the biggest post-Soviet blockbuster ever. Last spring, the film made its debut with subtitles - as did an English version of its precursor "Night Watch" - in the United States.