reading Sky City: New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, edited by Carl-Eddy Skovgaard

Another review from Vector, this time from 2012.

Sky City: New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, edited by Carl-Eddy Skovgaard (Science Fiction Cirklen, 2010)

Since 2007, the Science Fiction Cirklen, Denmark’s oldest fan organisation, has published a short story anthology comprising the best entries submitted to its annual short story competition. Carl-Eddy Skovgaard has now drawn on the first two anthologies, published in 2007 and 2008, to create Sky City: New Science Fiction By Danish Authors, a ‘best of the best’ collection, intended to introduce Danish science fiction to an international audience.

Denmark is a small country with a population of 5.5 million people and has a correspondingly small community of active science fiction readers and writers. Niels Dalgaard’s ‘An Extremely Short History of the Danish Science Fiction Short Story’, also included in the collection, suggests that even today in Denmark science fiction leads a semi-underground existence. The Danish publishing industry has a long history of either ignoring science fiction or else preferring to publish those foreign sf novels which appear to be mainstream. Ray Bradbury’s work was widely serialised in Denmark in the 1950s and hugely popular as a result but was not presented as science fiction, while in the 1960s, the most successful science fiction writers were ‘mainstream’ authors who were able to use science fiction tropes as part of a broader process of literary experimentation. Brian W Aldiss and JG Ballard were particular, perhaps inevitable, influences but after this brief flourishing, science fiction once again went underground. Dalgaard’s article suggests that there are few if any Danish sf writers currently working professionally. It has been left to the sf fan community to produce translations of foreign novels that use overtly science-fictional tropes. Likewise, without local professional markets for sf short fiction, fans instead publish their short fiction in their own small magazines.

Given that the Danish literary establishment is apparently so conservative in its tastes, one might expect a fan-based literary scene to be more experimental, more exuberant even, in its approach to writing sf, yet reading Sky City, I was surprised at how old-fashioned most of the stories were. In his preface, Skovgaard is emphatic that he has included stories that “are on the border of what you normally call main stream science fiction” but having worked my way through stories about futuristic cities under threat from out-of-control nanomachines, a time traveller coming back to encourage a researcher to work on time travel, gene engineering, tentative political allegories about physical difference, androids, confrontations with alien creatures and other tropes all too familiar to readers of English language science fiction, I found it difficult to agree. Instead, I felt the stories rested so firmly in the Anglo-American sf mainstream, it was as though the last twenty-five years of sf literature had never happened.

This puts me in a quandary. As an outsider it is easy to sound like a literary imperialist, criticising Danish writers for effectively not being more like English or American writers. At the same time, what might distinctively Danish science fiction look like? If I am to believe this anthology, it is self-consciously backward-looking, heavily influenced by Anglo-American sf, as Skovgaard acknowledges in his introduction. This, so far as it goes, makes some sense: given that the Danish literary establishment ignores popular cultural tropes, to embrace that which the mainstream frowns upon may be considered subversive, even though it will inevitably seem regressive to the foreign reader. However, it seems that this slavish adherence to old-fashioned sf is about as distinctive as Danish sf gets. Skovgaard notes that some stories are set in Denmark but doesn’t pursue the idea any further. For the reader, it is like slipping back through time. I wouldn’t advocate literary globalisation but I am genuinely surprised that these writers aren’t showing more awareness of contemporary Anglo-American sf in their work, particularly when the translation activity carried out by the Science Fiction Cirklen clearly indicates that they are reading it, in English and in Danish.

Instead, we are left with a collection of peculiarly old-fashioned sf stories, many of which simply aren’t that good. Skovgaard observes that they have all been chosen because they “express something” but this is a criterion so weak as to be meaningless. Too many of these stories are poorly thought through, often doing little more than setting up a situation, at which point the story ends; the writers rarely seem to dig more deeply into the idea. Even the more experienced and skilful writers, such as Ellen Miriam Pedersen, seem reluctant to break away from the familiar. ‘Leading, Feeding’ combines alien autopsy with a vaguely New Wave sensibility, and feels daed as a result. Richard Ipsen’s ‘The White Bear’ is a futuristic story of people-trafficking but its science-fictional content is incidental. Patrick Leis’ ‘The Tourist’, while fluently written, rehashes an already weary time-travel motif without significantly improving it. However, most of the other writers appear to have had only a few stories published professionally, and are not working extensively or exclusively in the sf genre. This may in part account for the retro feel of so many of the stories. On top of that, the stories suffer further because the English translations are often stilted and awkward. Some translations have been produced by the authors themselves, some by other authors in the anthology, several by the scholar, Niels Dalgaard, and still others by people whose role in the production of the anthology is otherwise unclear. The translations feel workmanlike but lack editorial polish. As a result, reading these stories is not a comfortable experience.

This anthology is certainly interesting for what it represents in terms of a comparatively small group of writers reaching beyond national boundaries, presenting their brand of science fiction to the world, and it is of course good to know that they do exist. Nonetheless, given the quality of the fiction in Sky City, one wonders how successful such an enterprise will be. Danish science fiction may emerge into the wider world but, if Sky City is representative of Danish sf writers’ work, it suggests they have some way to go in establishing a literary brand that is both distinctively Danish and essential reading abroad.