US SF and Us

US SF and Us

Élisabeth Vonarburg

The question of influences is one of the most lovingly debated in Academia, and rightly so since it can never be concluded once anf for all, and like no other it assembles in one nodal point — the text — everything that constitues literature: authors, readers, their time both past and present, and their place. Speaking here as an author and not as an academic, the only way I can try to describe how my work may or may not have been influenced by Anglo-Saxon SF (I must use that term in order to include all English-speaking writers, the British for instance), is first and foremost to describe where and when I Got Science Fiction, and how.

I was lucky: I got science fiction after the “Golden Age”, i.e. when I was about sixteen, in the middle of the Sixties (1964, to be exact). My literary tastes were well set by then: myths, fairy tales, classic horror & supernatural tales, Hugo, Baudelaire, Camus, Dostoïevsky, (with a smattering of Shakespeare and the English Romantics in the original language). And I had been writing fiction for ar least two years — although not SF: writers, even would-be writers, don’t read just like any other reader… My luck also includes getting SF way before “Star Wars”, and being brought up without a television set in the house (in fact, I didn’t have that before I was 22 and married; that’s emancipation for you; actually, I didn’t get regular visual SF fare before the middle of the Seventies).

But my real lucky break was to discover SF through about thirty issues (not consecutive) of a French magazine called Fiction, bought in bulk at the market one day while on my way to school (that was my year of Philosophy, in France the equivalent of the first year of college). Fiction published mostly translations from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It also had an ecumenical approach: it published SF, fantasy and “fantastique” (horror & supernatural tales). I took the three genres in stride as cousins, not as antithetical genres or genres that should be arranged in a hierarchical manner.

That’s the SF I discovered — not at first the more popular, pulpier (but very French: all original novels, no translations to speak of) SF that was then (and is still) published by the Fleuve Noir Anticipation line. I found instead in one place a multitude of themes, different narrative and writing modes, vastly different authors. The same could be said of the other SF magazine in France at the time, which I also ended up suscribing to, Galaxie, and which, as its name indicates, translated stories from the American Galaxy. Not one but many doors opening for me, into all the possible rooms of that crooked house that is SF…

But the really important factor is that Fiction also published francophone writers on par with Anglo-Saxon writers of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. And they did make the grade! They were Carsac, Versins, Barjavel, Boulle, Henneberg, Renard, Klein, Curval, Sternberg, Demuth, all very well-read writers, all very aware of the French tradition (and of the world’s tradition) of speculative literature (although it wasn’t called thus at the time), as well as aware of Anglo-Saxon SF. When I read them at the same time I read the translations, I didn’t have a sense of difference as much as the sense of a fascinating — and continuous — spectrum of voices, all equally interesting. In short, and contrary perhaps to some of my younger colleagues (and certainly a lot of present readers), I never was made to think or feel that French SF was inferior to Anglo-Saxon SF. The fact is, it felt much better written than Anglo-Saxon SF, since the quality of the translations, then as now, was at best arguable! I had to read Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, Aldiss and Le Guin (among many others) in English to realize they were not only good story-tellers and writers-with-ideas but also fine writers, stylists, poets even; but it took some time, because I had to become more aware of what “fine writing” is in English.

Thus I encountered SF in my own language first, in translation (the way all non-anglophones encounter it). Today, translations from the English swamp 95% of the French market, but it was not yet the case at that time; Anglo-Saxon SF began to be available en masse only at the beginning of the Seventies, when a zillion new SF lines exploded onto the market (that’s how it felt at the time; I’d say a dozen at least). The SF classic novels were translated first, of course, and then came the New Wave, which thematically and stylistically ravaged French SF until disgusted readers turned away from it, a situation from which it is barely beginning to recover today. But I didn’t really care at that time, during the Dark Eighties: my SF tastes were already well set by then. Sturgeon, Simak, Cordwainer Smith, Dick, Ballard, Aldiss, Vance, Zelazny, Heinlein, Herbert, Brunner, Clarke… and the few Merril anthologies I could get my hands on. I had indeed begun to read in English at the end of the Sixties: there were not enough French translations, I couldn’t get my fix! (Of course, once I emigrated to Canada, I went on overdrive and my English SF & F book collection began to take a life of its own…)

Then, at the end of the Sixties, for me as for a lot of authors of my generation, at last Le Guin came. I read The Left Hand of Darkness in translation first, in 1969, I believe (and French is a very gendered thing, which twists that story in interesting/appalling ways). I decided right then and there to keep on writing — and reading — science fiction, toward which I had lately become somewhat lukewarm because I felt, in a nebulous manner, that it wasn’t quite addressing all the issues that interested me, or addressing them in ways that seemed increasingly limited. It was a feeling I’d had more and more often, especially when reading the few stories written by women that I could find either in Fiction or             Galaxie (Russ…) or in the Merril anthologies, and comparing them to the usual SF fare, written by men. Thanks to Le Guin’s novel, that feeling coalesced: I wanted to be — I could be, and it was not only doable but allowed — a female SF writer. I only had to discover “James Tiptree Jr.” (it happened in French, then in English, during the Seventies), and then to learn that “a woman was J. Tiptree Jr.” in 1978, a lasting shock I can still feel reverberating today and that reoriented my whole life, not only as a writer, but as a female human being.

But I was not reading these writers, male or female, as American (or Anglo-Saxon) writers. I was reading them as science fiction writers. I had to come to Quebec, much closer to the States, to begin understanding how American science fiction (and I mean US SF, here) could be… well, American. For a long time a child of the Sixties, a “citizen of the world”, a closet utopian, I kept wanting to see SF as a “transnational literature”. And even now I believe that science fiction, in which the scientific imagination always plays a non negligible role, partially transcends cultural barriers, like science – and not merely because it is first and foremost an American product today, with the americanization of the world well on its way. But I could say that at the beginning, when I was in France and even during my first years in Quebec, my understanding of Anglo-Saxon SF was, culturally, mostly a misunderstanding. Even now, however, I am very suspicious of “cultural specificity” approaches. Who’s the judge of that? From what hypothetically privileged standpoint? For instance, what is the “cultural specificity” of a French woman born and raised in France of a semi-Asian mother and transplanted for more than twenty years now in Quebec, Canada — far away from cosmopolitan Montreal?

If I wonder about the influence of Anglo-Saxon SF on my own work, I first and foremost realize that, like all non-anglophone SF writers, I write both with and against that SF. Of course each generation everywhere writes both with & against that which preceded and that which surrounds it, but non-anglophones SF writers have a more ambiguous, more ambivalent take on this; it goes deeper, it is more serious, the stakes (our own sense of identity…) are higher: not only do we write with & against a whole corpus of texts (our own French SF tradition receding farther and farther away with time and not being adequately revitalized by younger generations of writers), but also with & against a whole culture — history, ideologies, fantasms, places — that is not our native culture. What about the cubed identity problems of francophone Quebecois SF writers, for instance, raised on Anglo-Saxon SF fare through translations (coming from France) and original texts (and the onslaught of American TV)?

I have described elsewhere the dilemma of a writer who is translated in English and welcome with a certain measure of good will by the anglophone SF institution. Why? Is it because she writes “like an American”, as some of her compatriots hasten to say, making her a transfuge, or worse, a traitor? Or is she benefiting from a passing fad for exotism, in which case what exactly does constitute her “exotic specificity”? Is it her “Frenchism”, and what is “Frenchism” for anglophone North-American readers, for instance? Last but not least, the hypothesis most sweet to the ego and thus the most suspicious, is she “just good”? But what does that mean? “Good” in whose eyes, for doing what, in relation to what? I for one have become extremely cautious toward that adjective bandied so blithely by some, as in: “There is no male and female writing, only good writing”, or: “There is no female and male SF, only good SF” — “There is no Anglo-Saxon and not-Anglo-Saxon writers, only good writers” ? I wonder. And if I wonder about how my stories are read by Anglo-Saxon readers, my first hypothesis, in all honesty, must be that they are just as misunderstood as I did the Anglo-Saxon stories I was reading when I was a teenager. And why not? It didn’t keep me from loving these stories! But the question remains: how then did they influence me, really?

It is quite difficult for me to evaluate the influence of Anglo-Saxon SF on my writing. In everything else, it’s much easier to spread the blame… My initial love of the genre and my desire to write stories taking place in that frame of reference came from a whole spectrum of texts written by anglophones, francophones… and others (German, Swedish, Polish — Lem! — Romanian, Russian…). Yes, female American writers helped consolidate that desire to write SF (Moore, Merril, Russ, Le Guin, Tiptree), but other women, French ones, also inspired and encouraged me a lot (Christine Renard, for instance, a writer who died during the Seventies). The ideas and images of SF, now… Their modulations are linked to time and place, yes, but they really are deep fantasies belonging to the collective human imagination, be it the dream of flight, the thirst for immortality or all the variations on the theme of The Powerful Thingie. But as to writing per se, I really believe I am not influenced by any SF writer. I never tried to imitate any, that’s for sure. If anything, I am trying, even now, to wean myself from my first loves, Hugolian verbal inflation for instance! Narratively, I love the exploded, mosaic-like Future History à la Cordwainer Smith and the rigorous building of luxuriant worlds and societies à la Herbert — but I read Greek myths, Proust and Joyce before Smith or Herbert, that’s where I learn to build my stories. I love shifting realities à la Dick, but I read Nerval, the French fantasists and the Surrealists way before Phil…

Readers and reviewers play the thematic similarities game, that’s normal and fair. But that they, either francophones reading my stories in French or anglophones reading them in translation (although I always work closely with my translators, even translate myself sometimes), are able to determine a stylistic influence of Anglo-Saxon writers on my own writing, I have some difficulty believing that. Besides, and notwithstanding what I said earlier about “specificity”, that which is called “style”, rhythms, sounds, sentence building and such, is somewhat different in both English and French — in both cultures. And I deeply believe in the fundamental originality and uniqueness of each writer’s voice in her or his own language (which in itself is a profoundly French thing to say, I think, since being able to write in somebody’s else style is not considered a thing to strive for in my culture since the Eighteenth century, whereas it is considered a talent in Anglo-Saxon writers). What that unique voice becomes in translation is another matter, of an entirely different order. In this as in everything concerning the question of influences, the author’s point of view is merely one among many. She can provide a certain amount of information, as I tried to do here, but when you come down to it, the texts are the only relevant data.

Copyright © 2001 by Élisabeth Vonarburg