Monday, 20 September 2010

A Brief History of Fantasy in Sweden and the Future of Swedish Fantasy

Fantasy, science fiction and horror have an interesting history in Sweden. They have clearly interested reading audiences throughout the years, and certain subgenres (mostly of the mainstream variety) of the genres have found their way over here in translation. But for the most part, there has been little to no home-grown writers within these fields making their mark within both the genres and the Swedish language (which is somewhat odd considering the huge mark left by Astrid Lindgren, not to mention a great tradition of folk tales and the like). Also, due to a certain amount of what could probably be described as understandable cowardice on the part of publishers, the genres seem to have been present mostly in their more generic or typical representations; we have had the Eddings, the Jordans, etc, yet little of (for instance) giant Michael Moorcock (despite some brave paperbacks from the role-playing game company Äventyrsspel back in the day). These two factors may, of course, be somewhat related.

Now, there have been those who have made it their business to improve conditions. The aforementioned Äventyrsspel and other role-playing game companies have made attempts at this, but writers like Andreas Roman and Niklas Krog (who should be mentioned in this context) have seemingly always existed in a paperback ghetto, away from regular publishing (and consequently, perhaps, have not had such a strong impact). Even the coming of Järnringen (who while still doubling within the field of role-playing games at least made an effort to publish hard cover books) in 2002 seemed to have little impact on the literary scene in Sweden.

Needless to say, expectations were high late in 2004 when it was announced that some of the people behind the successful book store Science Fiction Bokhandeln (which at the time had one store in Stockholm and one in Göteborg, and have since opened a third store in Malmö, thus covering Sweden's three largest cities) were starting a publishing house in the following year. The result was Förlaget Onsdag, which did publish a bunch of titles (none of which I have read admittedly, although an anthology sits on my shelves) before seemingly just fading away. Many (if not all) of these books showed a very poor understanding of the book as an artefact, sporting less than stellar covers and being littered with poor page layouts, etc, which really had me put down more than one of their books extremely fast (if I even picked it up in the first place).

Around the same time, however, the horror genre took a great leap forward as John Ajvide Lindqvist published his debut novel Låt den rätte komma in (Eng. Let the Right One In), which showed once and for all that it was A) possible to write horror in Swedish, and B) do it extremely well. While admittedly horror has always been the somewhat privileged of the three genres referred to here, I cannot help to think that that gigantic leap did open some eyes as to the possibilities of what else could be achieved in the realms of the fantastic.

The publisher Ersatz, with its focus on German, Eastern European and Russian literature (and a great sense of a book's value as an artefact), opened more doors in 2006 when they began publishing Russian author Nick Perumov's epic fantasy tale The Keeper of the Swords – a series of originally eight books in Russian, planned to be released as twelve books in Swedish (of which seven books have been published thus far). While I have not read Perumov (who incidentally is highly under-represented in English – I could only find Godsdoom: The Book of Hagen in English at Amazon (UK)), I have heard very good things about his epic saga, and also had the pleasure of listening to the man himself at last year's Göteborg Book Fair. Ersatz also decided to publish Dmitry Glukhovsky's (alt. spelling: Dmitrij Gluchovskij) Metro 2033 (also available in English) in 2009, and has as of this year started a fantasy imprint, Coltso, to which they have moved their publishing of both Glukhovsky and Perumov (also including the upcoming publication of the latter's somewhat controversial trilogy Ring of Darkness, which is a free and unauthorised follow up to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings), as well as having added Russian authors Max Frei (a pseudonym for Svetlana Yuryevna Martynchik) and Sergei Lukyanenko (alt. spelling Sergej Lukjanenko), as well as Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski to their roster. Needless to say, this enriches the Swedish fantasy scene (in particular by breaking the seeming stranglehold of Anglo-American influence on the genre in the market place), but it is also obvious that Coltso follows the basic parameters of its mother company and (as such) does not seem a likely candidate to bring forth any home-grown Swedish fantasy, science fiction or horror (the publication of Peter Bergting's The Portent notwithstanding).

Still, Ersatz was not the only Swedish publisher to start a fantasy imprint this year. Kabusa Böcker (another publisher with a great sense of a book's value as an artefact) had the same idea and thus gave birth to Styxx Fantasy, which started out with two titles in May: Danish author Lise Bidstrup's Spiralportens Vogter (Sw. title Spiralportens väktare; Eng. trans. Watcher of the Spiral Gate) and, perhaps most importantly, Swedish author Nene Ormes debut novel Udda verklighet (Eng. trans. Odd Reality, or perhaps, Udda's Reality, depending on how one decides to interpret the title). Ormes' book (which I have reviewed in Swedish) belongs to the genre of urban fantasy, set in Malmö and involves the entrance of the main character, the young woman Udda, into a fantastic reality which is somehow both in our own reality and just beside it (a world full of gifted people – shape-shifters and others). It is a strong book on oh so many levels; not the least of which is the fact that is a debut (more or less, at the very least) of an entire subgenre on the Swedish literary scene. And as such, it has also been a smash hit, staying in the number one spot on Science Fiction Bokhandeln's best-selling list for three months in a row (and quite possibly still counting). If this is the future of true Swedish fantasy, I foresee a very bright future indeed. And I truly hope this fine piece of work gets translated into English as well.

As for Styxx Fantasy, their next outing will be a long overdue Swedish translation of Richard Matheson's classic vampire novel I Am Legend (to be released in October this year with the Swedish title Legend). It might be worth noting that an older translation of this novel was published back in 1975, but that it was reputedly far from a satisfactory translation... to put it mildly.

For anyone interested, it is also worth noting that Kabusa Böcker and its imprint Styxx Fantasy will be present at the Göteborg Book Fair 23–26 September at exhibition stand B06:39 (early copies of Legend will be available to a special Book Fair price, according to their websites). Ormes will be there to sign her book on Saturday 14:00–14:30 and Sunday 12:00–12:30 (with additional opportunities at Science Fiction Bokhandeln's exhibition stand, A02:42, Saturday 15:00–15:30).

For those Book Fair visitors who happen to have a seminar card, I would also like to mention that Ormes will be participating in two mini seminars on the Saturday. The first one, "Kick-ass chick-litt fantasy" (I don't think a translation is necessary), between 11:00–11:20, is organised by Science Fiction Bokhandeln, and here she and Karin Waller (manager of the Malmö store) will be talking about kick-ass chic lit fantasy (as if there was any doubt about that). The second one, between 13:00–13:20, is organised by Styxx Fantasy and will feature a discussion between Ormes and her publisher, Anna Henriksson, on the topic of writing fantasy in Swedish. Both of these seminars will take place in room J2 at the Book Fair.

Maybe I will bump into some of you there. Who knows, eh?

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