Worlds and Beings – Romanian Contemporary Science Fiction Stories
Reviewed by Eris Young
Worlds and Beings, published in 2015 by the Romanian Cultural Institute, is a large collection by any standard. Weighing in at 25 authors and even more stories, the book offers a huge range of voices, which might come as a surprise to readers who don’t tend to seek out translated fiction. The anthology is mostly science-fictional, but many of the pieces push the boundaries of the genre, as if to ask why we draw those very boundaries where we do. The diversity of the collection is its greatest strength: an eclectic mix of hard and soft sci-fi, surrealism and magical realism makes Worlds and Beings more like a buffet than a ten-course meal, it is full of treats that can be sampled at the reader’s leisure, and each piece can be appreciated separate from the others.
The range of styles, voices and themes in Worlds and Beings is impressive: some are short and sharp as a captain’s log and others are as friendly and rambling as a yarn spun over a glass of wine. Many of the stories in the collection are set in the Romania of the past, present and future but just as many look outward, towards far-flung universes and ambiguous liminal spaces. Some of the pieces are more thought experiment than story, contemplations on everything from art to technology to historical revisionism, and many have endings playfully lacking in closure, causing the reader to question their own preconceptions about form and plot structure.
There are unifying threads and parallels, of course: Grey-Ray. The Duty by Michael Haulică plays with Western indie popular culture as deftly as Flight Over the Silent Mountain by Dănuț Ungureanu does with modernist art. A particular wry wit permeates many of the pieces, poking fun at everything from Soviet isolationism to serial murder.
At the same time, there is a darkness to a great many of these pieces, a bleakness of outlook that doesn’t just limit itself to one theme or subject matter: A Spanish conquistador desperate for gold is bent on wiping out an indigenous civilisation. Mysterious artefacts are the only traces left of hundreds of stranded, unwilling time travellers. A mysterious compound acts as a detention centre for metahumans whose gifts make them too dangerous to live in society. Many of the protagonists in these stories meet gruesome ends and perhaps even more are faced with existential questions and dilemmas that are just as chilling. None of these stories could be mistaken for escapism.
Several of the pieces in Worlds and Beings stood out particularly to me: Rodica Bretin’s The Bride from the Garden surprised me with its emotional depth and the subtlety with which it draws the relationship between the protagonists and the people they have known. I found the unflinching realism with which Liviu Radu draws his protagonist in El Dorado refreshingly unapologetic. The quotidian unreality of Lucian Ionică’s Among Other Mornings sent a shiver down my spine, and the visceral, even gruesome imagination of All of the Remaining Days, by George Lazăr, stayed with me long after I finished reading.
Worlds and Beings isn’t a perfect collection: overall the book has a slightly rough-and-ready feel to it, and the cover design has a decidedly indie flavour. Both of these factors might put off readers who are used to reading slick, minimalist books with huge marketing budgets, but if I know the market, readers of old pulp sci-fi and crowdfunded or self-published anthologies may be drawn to Worlds and Beings for these very features.
And if Worlds and Beings is a little rough around the edges, this is because it is a pioneering work of art. Never before have this many Romanian science fiction stories been made available to such a wide anglophone audience; even this fact alone should make the collection worth reading. Sci-fi fans have long had their fingers on the pulse of underground publishing, and a sense for the weird-and-wonderful. Many of us have trawled garage sales for obscure eighties paperbacks, or traded longform Star Trek fanfiction scrawled margin-to-margin in school copybooks. This book is for those readers: the readers who are loyal to the genre, and not afraid to get their hands a little dusty.
Slightly more worrying, though, is the fact that of all 25 authors, only four are women and only three were born after 1970. There are a number of reasons why this might be, and I don’t know enough about Romania to make an educated guess. Perhaps girls have been discouraged from writing genre fiction, or chased away (as many female readers of SFF throughout the world have been) by male gatekeepers trying to keep their genre “pure”. Perhaps the author population is ageing because younger people are less likely to get published. Many of the authors are journalists or scientists: perhaps people without degrees or qualifications are less likely to be published as well.
I imagine many of the reasons for the skewed author lineup are the same that have limited the diversity of English-language sci-fi and fantasy until very recently. And in the same way that I see more diverse authors being published in English-language sci-fi in recent years, so too do I have hope that the authorship of future anthologies (and I hope there will be future anthologies) of this kind will also become more diverse as time goes by. If the range featured in just this collection is anything to go on, when that happens the English-speaking world will be taken by storm.