Interview with Jacek Dukaj
Both alternate history and Polish nation are recurring motives in your lifework. Why do you like alternate fiction? Do you think it is important to a science fiction writer to write about his own nation?
I’ve used alternative history in „Xavras Wyzryn” and „Ice”, it’s also a background for two of my short stories. So I guess you can call it a recurring motive, but it’s by no means the main theme of my works.
I don’t think a writer has any obligation to write about this or that, nor do I think a science fiction writer is some special kind of writer. (In one of my novels I’ve put as a half-joke, half-provocation that „the difference between a writer and a science fiction writer is analogous to the difference between an actor and a porn actor” – adding the adjective that should narrow down the term in fact excludes that group from the category).
Certainly SF and fantasy have strong escapist tendencies, so some people may be surprised by literature that uses SF&F conventions to talk about such matters as nationality, patriotism etc. However Polish SF has a long history as a literature dealing with the most serious issues – in the Communist era science fiction in Poland was very popular costume for antitotalitarian dystopias, transplanting the story on some alien planet or into the future was a simple method to slip under the censors’ radar.
So I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. In fact I think it’d be an ideal situation if noone even raised a brow at science fiction novels about Holocaust, the Yugoslav Wars, current politics and so forth.
How would you describe your novel Extensa to someone who hadn't tried your books before?
It’s a story about extreme consequences of transhumanism, but told not from a perspective of those leaving humanity behind - but of those left behind, the people who had chosen not to keep up with progress („the Amish of the future”). And it’s written in the manner most befitting the existential situation they’d found themselves in, but one rarely used in SF: a nostalgic family saga, a subjective and reflective account of man’s life.
Almost all contemporary SF - whatever settings and scientific concepts author shows – is written as a thriller, crime story or some Hollywood adventure, usually aimed in style and psychology at young readers. I just don’t see why SF and fantasy cannot embrace and make use of all literary traditions and styles. „Extensa” was the first story for which I deliberately made this kind of decision: „what literary formula would be the best for ideas I have in mind?”. My earlier stories were really naive in that way; maybe I knew what I was writing, but I had no idea why I was writing the way I wrote. I was like mister Jourdain, not aware what kind of prose I’m spitting out, just sort of „going with the flow”.
Is there a typical work of you? If there is, which one of your works represents the 'typical Jacek Dukaj'?
No, I honestly cannot pigeonhole myself like that. I’m not even sure the label of „science fiction writer” is appropriate anymore. Not that I suddenly stop writing SF, but SF has become just one card in my deck: I can choose this one, I can choose some other. Of course some kind of underlying „SF mentality” probably still will be detectable, no matter what theme and style I’d choose. But there is no single story of mine that would tell a reader what should he expect in my subsequent works. Hell, I don’t know what to expect myself.
Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
I’m afraid it’s not about preference anymore. Lately I find myself simply incapable of writing a short story – almost every project I start eventually becomes a novel. It’s like a curse, I had to stop promising to deliver short stories for anthologies and periodicals, I cannot fit in the deadlines and within the lenght restrictions.
Poland is a traditional Catholic country and one of your short stories is about a Catholic priest. Does the Catholicism influence your writing?
Yeah, I wrote a number of stories with religious themes. They dominated especially in my earlier work (I think you’re referring to „The Cathedral”). I’m not sure if it’s Catholic influence (as opposed to Protestant or Eastern Orthodox one), but indeed I find religion - and, in more broad terms, matters of faith, ethics, eschatology and so forth - important and necessary to include in any description of humanity if such a literature is supposed to strive for some deeper truth.
Western science fiction remains strongly biased in its atheistic rationalism. Religion, if presented at all, usually is reduced there to a „weakness of mind”, some sociological disease from which the more mature societes of the future will cure themselves by means of civilizational progress. From a leftist point of view it seems to be just another kind of patriarchal oppression (like the one shown in „Handmaid’s Tale”). On the other hand there is a tradition of Biblical SF&F allegories (like „Left Behind” series), even more stupid. I’ve been repeatedly accused of cold rationalism, but exactly this rational view of the world and man prompts me to treat religious needs as an irreducible part of human nature, no matter how fantastic the scenography.
Your newest novel 'Science Fiction' seems to be a very hot book with lots of external references. How did the critics like it? Do you plan to write similar complex stories in the future?
„Science fiction” is the title of a story I wrote for the anthology titled „Science fiction”; there could be some confusion. I had promised the publisher (Powergraph) a short story but eventually it grew 250 pages long. So it’s another novel that wasn’t supposed to be a novel.
I’m not aware of your situation in Hungary, but here in Poland nowadays there’re really no professional SF&F critics. There are only readers writing about the books on Internet. Some of these readers are more competent, some – less. Some, in addition to posting long reviews on blogs or in web magazines, publish also in printed press, but on paper there is room only for very short notes about a book, kind of „advice for a customer”. And in fact the most interesting discussions about literature can be found on Internet forums. It’s just hard to sort them out of thousands of empty musings: „I like it because I like it” repeated indefinitely in different wording.
And if I were to assess the reception of „Science fiction” on a basis of that Internet reaction, I’d say it was a normal one: half of the readers hates it, half of the readers loves it. I’m used to it, evidently there’s no middle ground when it comes to my books: either you find them incomprehensible, boring, overthought and overcomplicated, or – for the very same reasons – fascinating and unique.
I don’t think „Science fiction” is more complex than some of my previous works. But of course I am the worst possible judge of that. Certainly the structure of the story is not a simple one, it’s a kind of infinite loop woven from three different narratives, each one told „from within” the one above. I think readers have most difficulty with the second narrative, which is presented in the form of chapters „torn out” from the SF novel written by the character (a SF writer from near future) in the first narrative. Because this novel of his has the usual „density” of my novels, I imagine giving a reader only a few passages to decipher the whole world and language I invented there can make it a hard nut to crack.
I’m not sure what you mean by „external references” though.
The Cathedral was adapted to an animated short film. How did this project start? Are you satisfied with the result?
Tomek Baginski was looking for a suitable material to make his first proper animated movie. Since he had read some of my stories before and found them being compatible with his imagination, he asked me for a help to develop a concept for the animation already restricted by severe technical and financial limitations (basically he was set to make this movie all by himself). I send him about a dozen of finished and unfinished stories, one of them was „The Cathedral”. We discussed this for months by e-mail, and in the end Tomek has made rather a variation, an impression based on my story than a simple adaptation. But I think that he captured perfectly what was the most important there: the atmosphere, the emotion and the aesthetics of „The Cathedral”.
You are considered widely as the new Stanislaw Lem. Which is your favorite Lem novel and why?
There are some similarities in mine and Lem’s writing: visible adherence to rational principles, fondness for language plays etc. But this comparison is mostly a PR gimmick: in order to sell a product you have to put an attractive label on it, and „the next Lem” is indeed a catchy phrase. In fantasy every season we hear about „new Tolkien”; it’s the same mechanism.
If I had to choose favorites among Lem’s books... „The Investigation” - because it was the first of his novels I had read. „His Master’s Voice” - because it’s probably the most intelligent and mature literary work in whole SF genre. „Solaris” or „Fiasco” – because they show most of Lem’s talent in classic SF setting.
Several people dream of becoming novelists. What made you want to be a professional novelist, and what were the difficulties you encountered making acareer for yourself as a writer?
I don’t think a responsible person can seriously plan on becoming „a professional novelist” if he or she is writing in language other than English. Usually it just happens: one day you realize there is a possibility of continuing what you’ve been doing anyway, but in a slightly more organized and profitable manner, and later in hindsight you can point to that moment as a treshold of professionalism. I’ve been writing and getting published for years before I wrote first book as a full-time writer („Other Songs” in 2003).
In other words: you have to be a writer – and a fairly succesful one - before you can bet on making a career as a writer.
I don’t know if the same holds true in Hungary, but in Poland with every passing year it is harder and harder for new writers to „get through”, to make a name for themselves. The publishing industry went into a surviving mode. Some people put a blame on the e-book revolution and the rising of VAT rate for books, but I think it has more to do with the overall cultural shift we’re experiencing now. Literature is being „pushed out” from its traditional role by other forms of art and entertainment, especially TV series and computer games.
How can we imagine your one week?
It really depends if I’m between the books or deeply immersed in one, having passed „the point of no return” in writing process.
In the first case there’s no universal pattern, most of my time is spent on reading and writing anyway, usually I’m into lots of different stuff simultaneously. Also I find myself committing disturbingly long hours for various mind-numbing tasks which writers in the West, I imagine, delegate to agents and other paid professionals.
But if I’m already committed to the project, with a clear deadline before me, it’s almost like a different lifestyle: writing 4-5 hours a day, usually in the evenings, then rewriting it and editing for an hour or two in the morning next day, then going back to research material, and then in the evening writing again, and so on, day after day, no excuses, no weekends, no holidays, there is certain autistic obsession to it, I don’t really have a room in my head for much more than what I’m writing about.
But for a person looking from outside there’s nothing exciting about it. If I were to shoot „Making of the book”, it’d be the most boring movie ever: a guy sits and thinks.
What is your opinion about the e-reading?
We’re all e-readers. It was years ago when I crossed the line and started reading more text from screen than from paper. Although I admit I still prefer to read certain kind of literature from paper. For example, when editing a novel there are kinds of stylistic errors which I find very hard to spot on the screen; I have to print the text out.
The real question here is about the profitable model for publishing industry after e-books replace paper books. Is there one at all? Is it the same for English speaking countries and for the countries of „niche languages” like Poland and Hungary? How would it change relations between a publisher, an author and a reader? Is there a link between the device on which you read and the literature you prefer to read? Can literature compete with other forms of entertainment available on the same device? Are these new electronic media changing the very way we read and think, the way our imagination works? You can find neurological data supporting such a thesis. (I wrote an essay about it some time ago).
Do you do any special scientific research to write a scifi story or you prefer inventing the scientific background yourself?
Pardon my nerdiness, but how exactly a person can „invent the scientific background”? Even if a writer sets to create a completely new branch of science, he has to be very well educated in at least one field of real science and have some grip on philosophy of science (basic methodology and history of science by Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and the like). Greg Egan here comes to mind.
In hard science fiction research is a necessity. Actually everything starts with research; you could say that research is a way of life, because you wouldn’t get ideas for stories in the first place if you haven’t been reading continuously about new discoveries and the whole culture-technological progress going on beyond the horizon of your private life.
And it’s not a work, it’s not something „you have to do”. Either you’re interested in it and you’d be doing it anyway, or you are not. You can’t fake an obsession, at least not in art.
What will be the next work of you?
I plan to start working on a new book in the fall, but I haven’t decided yet which project to develop. I have five quite extensively researched and thought-out concepts, ranging from quasi-historical „magical realism” set on a fictional continent to a maritime SF played out through whole Milky Way. Before I’ll jump into it I have to be sure the project continues to fascinate me enough for at least a year – I cannot write with a cold heart just because something looks like a safe bet. I guess I’m not a professional writer after all...