The Strange Horizons interview

Nicholas Seeley had some interesting questions for the Apex Book of World SF Authors on the Strange Horizons website. Here are Zoran Zivkovic’s answers:

N.S.: Do you think speculative fiction reflects a national identity or national preoccupations?

Z.Z.: As far as I know, the term “speculative fiction” is used only in the English language countries. And even in English it is not a literary theory term, but just an invention of the publishing industry. The same is with another publishing industry label: “fantasy.” There is no equivalent for it in other languages either. In this part of the world we use the generic term “fantastika.” It has a very long and fruitful tradition in Europe…

The simplest definition of fantastika is that it is non-realistic, non-mimetic fiction. There are many forms of fantastika. Epic fantastika, mythic fantastika, folklore fantastika, oniric fantastika, fairy tale fantastika and so on—all the way to its twentieth century incarnations: science fantastika (or, as you know it, science fiction) and speculative fantastika (speculative fiction). (The publishing industry label “fantasy” is actually a low-level hybrid of epic fantastika and fairy tale fantastika.)

Among the bards of fantastika from Central and Eastern Europe are certainly E. T. A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Mikhail Bulgakov, Stanislaw Lem—to name just a few.

It is nearly as old as the literacy itself. The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the earliest works of literature and it is full of fantastical elements. It is estimated that almost 75 percent of everything that has been written in the last 5,000 years is one or other form of fantastika. Realistic fiction is of a relatively recent origin and, in a certain sense, its mimetic nature betrays the very essence of the art of prose: inventing something that doesn’t exist. Our ability to imagine, to fantasize, is probably our most fundamental trait that makes us truly unique.

As for my “fantastika,” it doesn’t reflect anything “national.” It is a highly individual discipline . . . The global position of my country or its recent history has absolutely nothing to do with my work. I would have written the same books even if I had lived in Switzerland or among Eskimos.

N.S.: Do you think speculative fiction is the product of one cultural mindset, or is it universal? And what role does it have in communicating across cultures?

Z.Z.: The “fantastika” is maybe our most fundamental intercultural art.

When we write realistic fiction, we are almost always limited to a local area. The non-mimetic nature of fantastika is similar to a sort of lingua franca, Esperanto. No matter what our native language is, we easily understand fantastika although it might be a far stranger land than a realistic locality different from ours. . . .

As I said, by being not local, fantastika is universal. Take [my story] “Compartments” [in the Apex anthology] as an example. No matter where a reader comes from, provided that the concept of a train is within his experience, he doesn’t have to know anything about Serbia to be able to understand—and, hopefully, enjoy—my work.

There are certain natural limitations that are implicit to realistic fiction. Fantastika gives an author the freedom to handle love and death themes unrestrained by realistic human conditions. It opens the gates of a much larger universe. There is again a good example in my opus. Extraordinary situations various characters of my “Impossible Stories” books have to face are simply not possible within a realistic work of fiction. And only in these non-realistic situations was it possible to say something fundamentally new about love and death.