Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sacral Fantastica: Hot New Russian Subgenre

The Russian term "fantastica" includes science fiction (nauchniy fantastica, aka NF), fantasy (fentezi), and horror (uzhas) under its umbrella. For this reason, the subgenres are not separated quite so clearly as they are here. This does have its advantages. Detective fantastica and military fantastica are not separated by the minor detail of their type of settings, even though the intellectual interest in both -- seeing how detectives and soldiers deal with the challenges of a different setting and different rules -- is pretty much the same.

(Over here, Baen Books has made a lot of money by figuring out what kind of fantasy will appeal to the typical reader of Baen science fiction, and vice versa. There's a joke that says Baen fantasy features a beautiful woman in armor with a monster; but Baen science fiction features a beautiful woman in space armor with an exploding spaceship. This isn't so far off.)

So over in Russia, the huge numbers of new Christians are beginning to produce a hot new subgenre called "sacral fantastica". Ivan Moskvin provides a wonderful roundup of this process. Since it's from an actual magazine, I don't want to quote the whole thing. But there are some very good parts:

In the first half of the 90's, the Church was augmented by millions of intellectuals. They said, "It's the fashion." Intellectuals for whom this was only fashion soon turned aside. For others, "fashion" turned into life. The spiritual flowed from the process; considerably more people began to believe than the notorious 91 million. And for the most part, they didn't give a care how the whole world felt about their faith.

In essence, Rus had received a second baptism.

The sea of former atheist/agnostic/godless people started to ponder, which indicates their new state of soul. At all levels of existence. Including the literary one. Here's Chekhov. Here's Sholokhov. And here's Panferov, even. Is God in their texts? Are there angels and demons? Is there even a hint as to the possibility of a miracle? The peace of another world? But faith indicates that all this exists. So what are Chekhov, Sholokhov, Panferov, and the rest? Realists? Not a bit of it. It's one big lie, not realism.

The paradox is in the fact that a believing intellectual is being totally logical when he comes to a conclusion like this: "Angels exist, God exists; Christ suffered on the cross, the saints suffered; demons tempt unfortunate people to this day; and all of us expect judgement in the other world. But we see nothing in 'realistic literature' about all this. That means mystical Christian realism is in opposition to any other kind, whether critical or socialist."

Conclusion number two: "Postmodernism says nothing about this. The formal searching which appeared after postmodernism doesn't say anything about this. So why read all this pap?"

Conclusion number three: "What is out there for us? What can today's fine literature give us?" But he holds his tongue. And now, in this way, a very original intention naturally appears: "Let something fill the empty place!"

The article also points out that Russian fantasy before the Revolution included tons of religious content. But now fantasy itself is a relatively hot young genre in Russia, since science fiction was favored by the USSR and fantasy was relegated to kids' books. He feels that most subgenres of Russian fantasy exist solely because they existed elsewhere. So he regards pagan/esoteric fantasy as yet another example of this imitation, and not as truly Russian. However, he doesn't feel the need to point out the obvious, which is that Christian authors like Tolkien and Lewis have had a massive influence on most Russian fantasy writers and fans. Unfortunately, he also doesn't mention Western religious sf's influence (if any).

Moskvin dates the sacral fantastica movement as beginning with Yelena Khayetskaya's 1997 novel The Obscurantist (Mrakobes). Unexpectedly, her obscure novel was given the Bronze Snail Award by none other than Boris Strugatsky, known for his atheist science fiction. She followed up from 2001 - 2003 with the Languedoc Trilogy: Bertran from the Languedoc, Arnaut the Catalan, and Lady of Toulouse.

Meanwhile, Moskvin is quick to point out that you don't get a literary movement without fans and writer-participants. Fans appeared who called themselves the Bastion, and wanted to support good old-fashioned Russian values. This crew invented the term "sacral fantastica". They began by wanting only Orthodox-based fiction, but gradually decided to go for broader appeal (ie, Jewish mysticism was okay, too, but paganism was Right Out).

In 2000, an anthology called Sacral Fantastica appeared, with stories by Olga Yeliseyeva, Dmitriy Volodikhin, Maria Galina and Natalia Irtenina. They wrote more sacral fantastica after that. Many prominent critics began to support sacral fantastica; Vitaliy Kaplan even wrote the novel Circles in the Void.

Meanwhile, "neo-Gothic" fantasy which used certain sacral fantastica tropes, but was not primarily interested in religion, began to come out. Lukyanenko's Night Watch is the best example of this, and its success has produced many imitators. However, like Lukyanenko, many of the imitators have also gone on to write sacral fantastica.

At the same time, sacral fantastica began to turn into a marketing category, and the Sacral Fantastica anthology became an annual. The well-known fantasy writer Daliya Truskinovskaya wrote the Christian near future apocalyptic novel Make Way for God's Wrath (2003), which won the Ivan Kalita Award. Other notable sacral fantastica novels included: Victor Tochinov, Tsar of the Living (2003); Natalia Irtenina, The Labyrinth's Call (2004); and Vsevoloda Glukhovtseva and Andrey Samoilov, God of Twilight (2003). (It won't surprise any member of any fandom that it was exactly at the point when the subgenre's name became well known that people started arguing for brand new names for it, like "theocentric literature". Yeah, whatever, folks.)

Moskvin concludes that sacral fantastica "is still a very young cub. What kind of critter it will grow up to be, only God knows."

There's another informative sacral fantastica article on the same site, by C.I. Chuprinin. This article points out that the Bastion was founded by none other than Dmitriy Volodikhin. They quote him as basically saying, "Being a reactionary and a religious fanatic is a good thing. Being a progressive and an atheist is a bad thing."

Works named include: Vadim Nazarov, Circles on the Water (guardian angels); Vitaliy Kaplan, Circles in the Void (parallel universes and Christian teachings); Olga Yeliseyeva, Falcon on the Wrist (ancient gods); Maria Galina, A Lid for Abaddon (Jewish mysticism); Nataliya Mazova, Amber Name; Petr Amnuel, All Is Permitted; and Dmitriy Volodikhin, Tonight's Noon, To Kill a Peacemaker, and Children of the Panther.

So it looks like there's some very interesting stuff out there. I was also very amused to learn that Yelena Khayetskaya wrote the Russian novelization of that Crusade movie, Kingdom of Heaven. Anything she did to that tripe had to have been an improvement.

UPDATE: Thanks for the link, Amy! I'd like to extend a warm welcome to anyone visiting here for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Feel free to look around; you might also be interested in my post below on Sor Juana de la Cruz.


  • At 1:27 PM, Blogger Kevin J. Jones said…

    I was fortunate enough to take a contemporary Russian lit course (in translation) in Fall of 2002. Victor Pelevin's work, like "Buddha's Little Finger" would make an interesting addition to any study of Russian fantastical or magical realist novels. Pelevin is an odd bird, claiming that postmodernism jibes with Buddhism, and this makes for an amazing novel.

    I also read a work by a Russian feminist that was quite mystical and mythological, though not quite Christian--more out of Joseph Campbell, I think. I'd wager the more Christian stuff isn't so easily translated into English as that which appeals more to academics. Too bad my Russian is so poor.

  • At 8:49 AM, Blogger Banshee said…

    Kevin --
    Yeah, I need to get hold of Pelevin. He seems to be extremely influential. Russians must really like that kind of stuff; Harukami is a Russian bestseller. But there was a jab in that article which I didn't translate, about how Russians wrote magical realism because they could feel like they were "at least as good as the Latin Americans". (The writer just doesn't like magical realism, I think.)

    Idahojeri --
    American SF/F publishers just don't seem very interested in publishing foreign stuff right now (unless it's manga!). The midlist has already shrunk, and they already have minimal time to edit. Now, there is at least one small press that puts out Russian sf in translation. However, I'm not clear how good their translations are; and to the best of my knowledge, they haven't been publishing anything particularly religious or sacral. Try Googling Fossicker Books or Capricorn Publishing (their printer and distributor).

    Everyone --
    I know my translations stink, btw, and I keep trying to fix them before I post them. But stuff looks so much better at midnight or eight in the morning when you've just been reading Russian for hours, than it does when you have rest and revert to being a native speaker of English.

    Translators need editors. They need 'em bad.

  • At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I followed the link from Amy Welborn's blog. I then posted it to the Christian Fandom list. You and some of your readers might be interested in Christian Fandom I was at the organizational meeting at the 1982 Worldcon and there have always been a number of Catholic in the group. I published the temporarily suspended Christian fanzine RADIO FREE THULCANDRA on behalf of it.


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