Q&A with Alex Shvartsman
Author and Editor talks about the international Science Fiction scene
When I started thinking about the idea of creating this Medium publication and its accompanying email newsletter (which you should definitely sign up for), I had two audiences in mind: people who were fans of intelligent science fiction, and people who aspire to write intelligent science fiction (with myself neatly situated at the overlap of that Venn diagram).
So connecting with someone like Alex Shvartsman was high on my priority list. He’s both an accomplished author and editor of a wide variety of SF genres, and is launching a new venture that highlights the work authors from outside the US. You can find out more about his various works and projects on his website.
The Adjacent Possible: Tell me about Future, the new magazine you’re involved with. What was the impetus for starting it, what should readers expect and how can authors be involved?
Alex Shvartsman: For as long as science fiction has been seen as a unique genre, it has remained a staple Western export. As a kid growing up in the Soviet Union, translations from English and French nurtured my love of SF and turned me into a lifelong fan. I’m not alone — many other creatives around the world grew up on the steady diet of Asimov, Clarke, and other Western authors.
The opposite, however, has not generally been true. Anglophone science fiction fans were rarely exposed to works written in other languages, save for a tiny handful of classics that represent but the very tip of a huge iceberg.
There has been a lot of progress made in addressing this imbalance in recent years. Ken Liu’s translations of Chinese SF/F as well as Neil Clarke’s trailblazing work in publishing and popularizing such fiction paved the way for a renaissance of international fiction. Two Chinese translations won Hugo awards in the last couple of years. Editors of major SF publications are actively seeking translated work. Most importantly, readers are more amenable than ever to sampling fiction from perspectives different than the ones they’d been accustomed to.
Future SF is my attempt to take another step toward the true globalization of the genre. The magazine is a collaboration between two companies: Future Affairs Administration in China and my own UFO Publishing. Our goal is to dedicate at least half of each issue to fiction that is either translated into English from another language or written by authors from the countries where English isn’t the primary spoken language.
Our goal is to dedicate at least half of each issue to fiction that is either translated into English from another language or written by authors from the countries where English isn’t the primary spoken language.
At this time we’re still sorting out some legal and funding issues inherent in creating such a cross-border enterprise, but we will eventually be opening to submissions. We will begin with open submissions for the above mentioned translations and international fiction while I’ll solicit a handful of English-language stories from headliners. The goal is to eventually open to public submissions for everyone.
When a new magazine launches it is often difficult to gauge exactly what it is they’re looking for. Future SF offers an “issue 0” of reprint stories, which is free to read online at future-sf.com. It should provide a good sample for both readers and potential contributors in terms of what they can expect from the magazine once it launches. [Ed. Note — Some great stories in this issue 0. I particularly liked e^h.]
Fiction is our top priority in the short term. Once we find our footing, we will be looking to expand to non-fiction, interviews, reviews, etc.
The AP: You translate stories as well, often Eastern European writers. What differences do you see between US-based science fiction and those from other parts of the world?
AS: I translate fiction from the Russian language, which has allowed me to work with writers from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus so far. It started out with me geeking out about some great stories and wanting to share them with my non-Russian-speaking friends. These days, I try to read at least a few stories in Russian every month and when I find something I especially like, I reach out to the author and see if they’d be interested in having their story translated. Over time I’ve developed friendships with some of the authors and they send me stories to read when they have something they think I’d like.
One of the greatest differences between American/English and Russian fiction is the pacing. Most modern American literature is heavily influenced by Hemingway. He basically redefined how modern fiction is written in English. In other parts of the world, his influence is not felt quite to the same degree.
Since I deal primarily with short stories, perhaps the most notable difference to me is how the story openings are handled. In most genre fiction baby writers are taught to open with a hook and maybe even in medias res. Russian stories don’t tend to dunk you into the action: they slowly immerse the reader in the setting of the story. Sometimes too slowly for American editors, who want the story to start sooner. But publishing work from another culture often means seeking stories that are written under a different set of writing and cultural traditions. Readers have been quite receptive to trying something different, and fortunately we’re seeing more and more editors follow suit.
The AP: What’s your viewpoint on the science fiction landscape right now in terms of written fiction? What trends do you see, both in terms of content and the content creators?
AS: Genre historians often refer to the pulp era of 1920s and 1930s as the Golden Age of science fiction but truly, we’re living in that golden age now. For both short fiction and novels there are more outlets than ever and more ways to discover the exact sort of book you’d like to read than ever. And because the internet provides the means to connect reader and writer, it is now possible to create fiction with less-than-broad appeal.
Take Andy Weir’s The Martian for example. He had trouble finding a traditional publisher for the book and in the ages past it may have never been published. Certainly, a man-vs-environment book like that where every problem is solved through science would not have become a bestseller. But in the modern fiction landscape, Weir was able to find and connect with an enthusiastic audience.
For both short fiction and novels there are more outlets than ever and more ways to discover the exact sort of book you’d like to read than ever.
The proliferation of short fiction outlets — both online magazines and anthologies — also allows for writers to experiment and tell the kinds of stories that may not have fit into the handful of traditional print outlets. Readers can more easily find publications that cater to their specific tastes and writers can tell the stories they’re passionate about with a slightly greater chance of their story finding its way past the curators and to the eager readers.
Those curators, of course, are still important. With an avalanche of books and short fiction out there, no one can possibly read it all. Discriminate readers will rely on editors and publishing houses they recognize to ensure quality. This is why traditional publishing isn’t going away any time soon, no matter what some of the more passionate proponents of self-publishing would have you believe.
The AP: 100 years ago, if you wrote a story about a spaceship going to Mars, you were pretty much making it up out of whole cloth. Much of today’s science fiction can be rooted in real science. How have the advances of science changed science fiction?
AS: I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the premise of the question. There’s plenty of demand out there for stories about green-skinned martians, time travel, and space battles that look like World War 1 outtakes (latest Star Wars film, anyone?) Hard SF has been more affected; even so, it’s not so different from how things were before and real science is going to outpace and outdate stories — especially near future SF — just like it has in the past.
As a writer I look to the latest scientific advances as story prompts. I try to extrapolate the social and political changes the new technologies might bring. For example, the current issue of Analog includes a story I co-wrote with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro. We tackle the much-covered issue of self-driving cars, but instead of focusing on the advent and ethics of this emerging technology as so many others have done, we look a bit further and write about the policy shift when human-driven cars may no longer be welcome on public roads and a man in the middle of the legal battle to outlaw such vehicles.
The AP: As an author and editor, your work ranges from space opera to Cthulhuian mythos to the humorous. How does your approach differ, or does it, when working in these different sub-genres?
AS: Regardless of sub-genre, a good short story must be gripping, original, and have something to say beyond moving the characters around like so many chess pieces on a board. The something can be the snarky social commentary of a humor story, an examination of the impact of latest technologies, or a character’s growth as they cope with the events of the plot. The main difference, to me, is picking out the right voice suitable to each tale. But beyond that, the approach doesn’t vary by genre as much as one might suspect.
I’m of the opinion that a writer should work on whatever they’re passionate about and not worry so much about which genres and topics are popular that day. Those trends shift rapidly, but real passion behind a story will stand out to editors and readers alike.