Jul 31, 2005

Fantasy and sf in Poland, Part 1

Due to popular request (well, a request), here is the overview of sf and fantasy literature in Poland.

Stanisław Lem is perhaps the most famous of Polish sf authors. He has written some great books and imagined concepts like nanotechnology (prominent in his "Invincible" book) or virtual reality. I remember "Futurological congress" as the first book raising the question 'what is reality. It is quite similar to Dick's Ubik in this regard. Nonetheless my favourite Lem's book is "Fiasco" ("Failure"), a story of a an attempted contact between two space faring civilisations. It raises Drake's equation's question of "why are we alone in the universe", and is a nice description of a failed contact - no happy end here. "Golem XIV" is another one of my favourite, raising the question of what happens when AI becames sentient and eventually, more sentient then human - here Lem raises the issue of technological singularity. The book is written in a form of combined Golem thoughts print-outs and comments of suprvising scientists. Then there is "Lord's voice" - which is quite similiar to Sagan's Contact. Oh, and lets not forget the entire book ("Fictional vaccum") composed of nothing else but reviews of fictonal books :) Last, but not least, there is a fairly large series of what I call 'stories'. Those are books and antholgies whose heroes are either robots or the cosmonaut Ijon Tichy, and all are a cross between a child's bedtime story, a parody of something, and...well, it is difficult to describe. See wiki's entry on The Cyberiad for some more info and a specific example. I am not a great fan of those series of his works, but I know many who would disagree. It is a shame in his late years Lem have stopped writing books and instead writes newspapers essays against technological progress and prophetising civilisation destruction. A consensus among sf fans in Poland helds it that old age has finally cought up with him (he is 84 now...) and made him a little, well, senile...sad, to see such a great writer tumble. On the bright side, many of his works have been translated into English (and Czech and many other languages), so you can just go Amazon, grab some of Lem's Golden Age books and see how good a writer he once was for yourself :)

Now, Janusz Zajdel. He is much less known outside Poland, a shame - the Zajdel Award, the biggest Polish sf Prize (think Nebula) was not named after him by an accident. Majority of his books - all of them, now that I come to think of this - were 'distopias'. Wiki sais it as well as I could: His novels created the core of Polish social fiction and dystopias. In them, he envisions totalitarian states and collapsed societies. His heroes are desperately trying to find sense in world around them, sometimes (like in Cylinder van Troffa) they are outsiders from a different time or place, trying to adapt to the new environment. However, the main idea that is visible to any reader is to force the readership to compare their gloomy, hopeless sitation to what may happen in space environment if we transfer totalitarian ideas and habits into space worlds. Red Space Republics or Space Labour Camps, or both. See his article there for info on his specific books like Paradisia. If I were to compare him to some known Western author, I think Dick would be the closest. Perhaps it is good to think that Zajdel = Dick - drugs + communist regime experience. Or in other words, Dick had visions of living in utopias and distopias, and Zajdel lived in one.

That ends the pre-1989 section of Polish sf. There are a few more names I could mention, but the are definetly not famous, and quite forgotten even today. Well, ok, I will add one more: Snerg-Wiśniewski. I have yet to read his classic, the "Robot". But one book of his I have read I will remeber forever: "Według Łotra" ("According to the Bandit"). It is a story of a Messiah in dystopia, told by one of the two bandits who would be crucified with him, eventually turning into an Ubik-like questioning of what is real and what is not. If one likes Dick and Zajdel, then Snerg is another must read.

Sapkowski, now, Sapkowski is definetly a post-1989 success story... Without a doubt, he greated a great fanstay series. "Wiedźmin" - 'witcher', 'hexer' (word invented by Sapkowski) is a story of a superhuman fighter, Geralt. Sounds boring? Well...a cynical and intelligent superhuman figher, who belongs to the cast of monster-killers. Once essential to the survival of the humans in this word, he and the few remaining members of his caste are feared and hated by everybody, treated like scum - well, scum that can kill. Add to it a great world - a New World, where humans nearly drove other races (elves, dwarfs) to the extinction, the world were realpolitik and money rule the day, and where the 'dark empire' of Nilfgaard is preparing to conquest the small kingdoms of the north, brining progress, order and technology no matter wheter the 'northern barbarians' want it or not. And, if case you are wondering, Geralt doesn't give a XXX about big politics and such. However, it apprers some powerful people want to make him their pawn...well, the story is written beautifuly, the characters are great, the background world is amazing... In addition, Sapkowski can make one laugh - especially in the early Wiedzmin side-stories/mini novels, which are not so dark as the series that follows it. And yes, the story has ended after 5 books - Sapkowski wisely (IMHO) decided that enough is enough and attempting to turn his idea into 20+ series would kill it, so he envisioned a good end and ended the story where he wanted it.There is a RPG based on this world, a movie and a tv series (both of which unfortunately were done by total idiots who thought they could write better stories then Sapkowski and cut him out of the loop, with predictable results resulting in what I think is the worst fantasy movie ever (seriously, even TROMA couldn't have done it 'better'), and a computer game in-making. All in all, this is a great fantasy, one of the best I have read. I would call it at least as good as GRRMartins or Glen Cooks works, and much better then your average run-of-the-mill fantasy. I think he was translated into Czech, wasn't he, Martin?

Next time, I will tell you more about few other great Polish writers...

Jul 28, 2005

The Tolkien you don't know

Some months ago I wrote a post expressing my amazement on why almost none of the rich and great non-English literature was translated into English. I won't repeat myself, instead, I have some good news: where official publishing houses fear (?) to tred, fans step in, bringing you some high quality unofficial translations.

Here you can read part of the famous (at least in Eastern Europe) 'The Last Ringbearer' by Russian writer, Kiril Yeskov, a great Tolkien inspired book. We all know the story of Middleearth, of brave hobbits voyage and of the struggle alliance of men, elves and dwarfs against the evil empire of Mordor...right? But have you ever heard the phrase: "History is written by the victors"? What if the Tolkien story is just that, a cover up for the much different truth?

And here you can find links to another fantasy, this time a Japanese trilogy - Legend of Twelve Kingdoms (Junni Kokki).. Anime is fairly popular, but few people know that it is often based on novels. Usually, the proverb that 'a good novel makes a bad movie' is true. But apparently it does not hold true for Japan - they seem to make great anime based on great novels. Shame they are not translated.

Hope you like what you find. If so, why not lobby your publishing house to translate the books?

Say, Martin, if you are reading this, could you tell me about some native Czech and Slovakian writers?

Jul 26, 2005

World Wind vs Google Earth

Time to correct a few details from the last post. At present, the coverage offered via virtual globe software is not real time (it may be over a year old!) and not 'military grade' - i.e. at best, you can see a car, but not a person (1 pixel = 15 meters). On the bright side, it is still cool :) Now, for comparison of two of the most popular softs: World Wind and Google Earth (and yes, this time I have installed them and seen them myself :>).

Keeping it short: World Wind offers several types of maps, but kills the CPU (official bug promised to be fixed in some future release), has no hiqh quality coverage other then USA and eats drive space like mad. Google Earth is much smaller, faster and hdd-friendly, and offers some HQ maps of non-USA places, although they seem mostly limited to Western Europe. Both softs could do with better user interface and debugging. For example, World Wind can either show all names (city, dostricts, streets, etc.) or not at all. Google Earth has quite a few filters, but seems to have problems displaying important things like cities name, and its search function seems to work badly with non-US cities (actually, my searches for Katowice and Cracow/Kraków were directed to some strange places in US). There are quite a few other bugs: World Wind maps don't work well with axis change, creating terrible artifacts that seem to recreate themselves even after image refresh, and Google Earth interface can freeze sometimes. All things considered, all of the above seem more like a beta versions then any final release - but they are still mighty cool. I was unable to find my house in Katowice (Poland), but I could find my quarter and I am pretty certain I recongized some larger landmarks like the naerby airfield, lake or scyskraper. US coverage is beautiful, and you can find individual houses (hotels, universitites) easily - after half an hour learning the controls, I found both the university I will do my PhD (University of Pittsburgh) and hotel I will be staying for the few days looking for the appartment.

Here's hoping that high quality coverage for rest of the world will be availalble soon, and that real time super high quality coverage will not take more then few years. Anyway, I highly recommend downloading the above software and taking a look. If I had to chose, I'd say go with Google Earth first - it is smaller, faster and more user friendly. If you like it, give World Wind a try as well. Expect to lose a few hours either way :)

PS. Mars/Moon and other maps in making...

Jul 24, 2005

The world on your screen

Interesting. NASA created the 'World Wind' soft, free to download, that provides high resolution satellte scans of the entire world (screenshots). If you leave in US, you should have no problems finding your home. I will see if it will prove useful in finding me an appartment :) Which also reminds me of the 'privacy scare' some people are fond of: the malicious government is watching us from above! Bah. Now, everybody can be a Big Brother... there is nowhere to run :) Hopefully, some privacy freaks will now dig a dungeon and stop bothering the rest of us :)

Jul 22, 2005

Review of the Sarmatian Review

It is always a nice suprise to find an academic publication that is easily accessible through the web, and doesn't hide its publications behind some expensive scheme, usually out of reach of a normal student's budget. This is the case of the Sarmatian Review, a small (quaterly) but good quality publication dedicated to Central and Eastern Europe.

The web design is very simple, one can say 'primitive' (the covers are terrible), but it is functional. No javascript, no flash, no large graphics - just access to the articles, with a simple but functional search tool. One thing I'd like to see is some kind of comment/forum for discussion of various articles, but I am not suprised an academic publication is slow to adapt such 'public discussion' tools, but I hope it will happen soon. After all, the strenght of the Internet is not only that it allows such specialised sites to adress worldwide public, but that it allows easy two-way communication.

All things considered, I am pleasantly suprised whith quality free content of this site, especially considering how much troubles (and/or money/time) one has to go through to access most academic journals. Even with my economic MA I have much trouble understanding why they are so expensive. Sure, there is litte demand for them, but by putting such prohibitive prices in place, they are off-limits to most studends and casual readers. Perhaps its my wiki/open source POV, but I think it would be much more useful for everybody if all academic publications were free and easy to access, just ike the Sarmatian Review.

Jul 20, 2005

Looks like fun

I won't have time to play it myself, but perhaps one of you readers will and tell me if it was worth it: AdventureQuest - looks like a new generation of MUDs - that what I call progress :) Enjoy!

Jul 19, 2005

Some reading: 2 FAs to look at

Polish September Campaign just got featured on Wiki's Main Page, and History of Poland (1945-1989) is my newest and longest (so far) feature-quality article. Perhaps you will find them interesting.

Jul 7, 2005

Spam Poison

Nifty. Just follow the link below to learn how to kill the spam spiders.

And good riddance, spammer-d00des :)
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