Q&A with Jacek Dukaj
A discussion of the crisis of science fiction, deglobalization and the centre-periphery model applied to literature outside of the Anglosphere.
Jacek Dukaj is a Polish science fiction and fantasy writer. He has received numerous literary prizes including the European Union Prize for Literature and Janusz A. Zajdel Award. He was a guest at PesText.
Reviews of your books in Hungary often praise your work for its literary merit. Do you think that the arbitrary division between literary fiction and genre fiction is justified?
That’s an issue worthy of a thick volume of essays.
We should start with definitions. What is „literary fiction”, what is „genre fiction”, and are we talking here about divisions in the world of academia, or in the „real” world (of showbusiness, marketing, social media etc.)? For in the latter it doesn’t really matter what is the content of given book; only the public image of its author matters.
Secondly, not all genres were born equal. If you happened to write a crime novel, a thriller or a romance, you won’t be branded permanently „a thriller writer”; you’re just „a writer”. But having written SF, you’re „a SF writer”. I can think of only one similar case of an adjective that, instead of narrowing down a term, excludes from it. It’s „a porn actor”. „Porn actors” do not constitute a subset of all actors; they are non-actors; they form a category of their own. It’s almost the same with „SF writers”, „fantasy writers” etc.
And because the established image of an author matters so much more than what he or she actually writes, we have here two separate career paths to consider: a writer that first wrote non-SF books and only then started writing SF; and a writer that became known by writing SF. When the first one publishes SF novels, they’re not SF – they’re literary fiction (I can present here a long list of names, starting with Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro). When the second one publishes exactly the same books, they are genre literature.
And what are the definitions of „genre” invoked by professional critics? Usually they refer to certain formulas of plot and to stereotypical characters. Thing is, those definitions are blind to ontological differences: between worlds based on the principles the same as our world is based on; and the worlds based on different principles. (If this difference can be bridged in a finite number of rational, logical steps, we are talking about science fiction. If it can’t be bridged this way, it’s fantasy).
For you can tell a story with formulaic plot and unoriginal characters taking place in our world, as well as taking place in some fictional world. These aspects (STORYTELLING and WORLD) are uncorrelated. There is no logical link between the degree of realism and the quality and originality of storytelling. But we’ve been conditioned so deeply by the rules of mass market and popculture, that it takes real effort to go against the grain.
Writers are victims of this conditioning too. I think only in this way the division can be justified as non-arbitrary: by statistical analysis of the choices made by authors. There’s no law of narration forcing you to make a story taking place in the future a thriller or a YA romance. But if authors are willingly putting themselves in genre boxes, who am I to argue with them?
The most recently translated work from you is The Old Axolotl. This book is unique in a lot of ways. What inspired you to write it, and why did you released it only in e-book form initially?
Lately I find I need some additional push to complete a story – to write for publication, not just for my own satisfaction. In this case it was the literary project and PR campaign of Allegro (sort of Polish eBay). You could say they had commissioned „The Old Axolotl”. They didn’t set any limits for a theme or style (I wouldn’t have agreed to such a deal). But it was an opportunity to explore new features of electronic books (as they appeared to us back then).
I’m always up for pioneer projects. If something looks very risky or impossibly hard, my first reaction is to try and do it.
The book was adapted by Netflix, but the series Into the Night only used the premise of the story. How do you feel about this adaptation?
I wonder if “adaptation” is the right word. It would be more fair to say that Into the Night was based on the same idea as the one which gave birth to The Old Axolotl. The story, the characters – they are all different. Jason George, the showrunner of Into the Night, is the sole author of the screenplay.
I’m happy people seem to like it. It’s rather small budget production, yet it became much more popular globally than other non-English series of similar budget. Into the Night punches above its weight, so to speak.
The Old Axolotl leans heavily into Japanese-style aesthetics and also subverts cyberpunk tropes. Do you think of science fiction as a mostly global phenomenon, or do you think it should reflect local traditions and realities?
Both. There’s no such thing as global culture; so far, there are only globalized aspects of local cultures. Yet because we are used to total domination of Anglo-Saxon (mostly American) culture, we tend to think in terms of global universals.
But it is changing now. The world is deglobalizing. Even Hollywood popculture is forced to compromise, to open up – so far, they’re mostly budging under Chinese pressure, to gain access to huge Chinese market. But the trend has just started. Look at Netflix’s repertoire: non-English shows are now a big part of it, and getting bigger with every year.
Also, technology makes it easier. This year studios got the tools (software, developed first by Disney) to produce movies and TV shows in every language version at once, with actors seemingly speaking as natives, while in fact they’ve been morphed digitally by AI, a la „deep fakes”.
If science fiction wants to be something more than a play with popculture cliches, it has to reflect actual civilizational changes. It has to „think for itself”, subverting and discarding old assumptions and conventions.
In Hungarian SFF there is a perceptible shift: there are less and less sci-fi works, and there are more and more fantasy. Which genre is more popular in Poland?
Fot the last ten years or so I haven’t been reading much SF & F. You shouldn’t treat my take on it as anything else than a subjective impression.
One of the reasons I don’t find contemporary fiction interesting is precisely this general shift, which started already in 1990s: a shift from SF to fantasy. In Poland we could clearly see how popularity of Sapkowski eclipses Lem’s.
But it’s a global phenomenon. Perhaps it was felt more strongly here, in post-Communist countries, as we weren’t so exposed to American culture before 1990. Hence the impression of a sudden tsunami of fantasy coming at us over the fallen Berlin Wall.
Another reason I’m out of it, it’s the change the whole medium of written word undergoes: it moves rapidly toward qualities and values of audiovisual storytelling. Again, it’s a global phenomenon, and universal across all types of literature (even non-fiction). Increasingly, those books are met with success, which can be experienced as „TV series on paper”.
But if they don’t possess purely literary qualities, why shouldn’t I rather watch the TV series? Thus the hierarchies of values in culture turn around: no longer cinema and TV aspires to be like literature; it’s literature that chases the tail of audiovisual storytelling.
How does this affect sci-fi?
For SF in particular it was a real killing blow. A distinctive quality of serious SF was always the focus on ideas, be they theories of physics, theories of information and mathematics, or language and human mind. These are things that must be put into words. They can be discussed, explained on paper – but cannot be SHOWN. (Take a look at the border cases – Nolan’s Tenet or Villeneuve’s Arrival – to get the sense of the limits of this and that medium).
Yet another problem here is something I call “atrophy of the future”. Obviously, SF doesn’t have to be about future. But this lack of new visions and a tendency to rely on old cliches is spreading like a brain disease. Fukuyama with “The End of History” gave our era a name. Seems there’s no future and no past; we’re living in a kind of ahistoric limbo, filled with dead echoes of previous generations’ imagination - creations once alive and relevant, now merely used as props, just because they happen to be cool and trendy this season.
What steps into this void? Youtube and podcast conversations with thinkers, scientists, economists. No new SF vision of the future can now compete with prophesies of Yuval Harari. No speculative fiction is half a mindfuck the Lex Fridman’s interview with Joscha Bach proved to be.
In the last decade, the English-speaking world discovered afrofuturism and Chinese SF. Do you think it’s time for the Anglo-Saxon publishing to discover European speculative fiction?
If there is such a thing! I’m afraid we’ve been already thouroughly Americanized.
Think about the mechanisms behind export and import of cultural products. Who sets the criteria? The Center: New York, London, LA. What is „good”, what has value in art? That what people at the Center deem valuable. We, at the Periphery, are merely subjects to the changes of values happening there, in the Center. When the US experience racial tensions, their sensitivity changes and suddenly there’s value in „afrofuturism”. When the US acknowledge the economical power of China, suddenly they appreciate Chinese culture and submit American cultural products to Chinese censors.
One cannot see being approved by the Center as an ultimate success, and at the same time remain a true voice of a peripheral culture. Yet what do we do? We serve to the Center visions from the Periphery prearranged for THEIR tastes and THEIR values. It’s all a form of (subconscious) guessing game: „how can I write about Poland so that an English reader would think it’s a good novel about Poland?”
Four book of yours (Extensa, Inne pieśni, Córka łupieżcy, The Old Axolotl) were published in Hungary. Which one do you recommend Hungarian readers to grab if they want to start reading Jacek Dukaj, and why?
Inne pieśni (Other Songs). I think it’s the best of these four; but, more importantly, readers themselves usually choose this one to introduce their friends to my writing.
Az interjú magyar verziója az Azonnali.hu-n olvasható.