New Fantasy Literature
The area of popular literature commonly termed fantasy literature, which covers science fiction, fantasy and fantasy horror, also has its own unique place in modern Czech literature.
It does not consist exclusively of commercially driven works, as it might at first appear, since texts of outstanding artistic merit can occasionally be found within this literary sphere. The post-revolution changes brought with them the rise of a younger generation of writers who had not published prior to 1989, while a significant number of older writers – with certain exceptions – stopped writing within these genres. Fantasy literature began to increasingly diverge and genre variations began to appear which had previously been unknown in the Czech Republic, not to mention a significant rise in the popularity of fantasy amongst readers, which soon began to push aside the hitherto dominant science fiction. Moreover, the notion of fantasy as a closed literary-communicative circle also became more entrenched. Fans of this type of literature come together in clubs linked to extensive, loosely organised networks within the framework of the so-called “fandom”, organise thematic meetings (“cons”), read specialized magazines, buy books in specialized bookshops published by specialized publishers, and take part in literary competitions with specific genres and themes. Literary criticism aimed exclusively at fantasy literature also exists, albeit at a relatively basic level, and the fandom has its own system of literary prizes in which the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror has long aspired to be the main distributor of prizes. This distinctive subculture character, which occurs on an international scale, can be seen as an exception, and not only within popular literature.
However, at the same time the institutionally closed-off nature of fantasy literature has been contrasted with increasingly articulate attempts by several authors to cross the boundary between popular and “artistic” literature. The basis of the genre remains a strong plot and a pacey linear narrative, the function of which is principally to entertain. Some of these works also contain features of postmodern literature and have a broader intellectual reach. As can be seen from the example of Anglo-American developments, certain artificial tendencies have been latent in fantasy literature over a long period and discussions between the supporters of “commerce” and “art” have continued within the contemporary Czech context.
The 1990s represented the culmination of trends from the pre-November 1989 era and at the same time heralded a new phase in terms of the quality of Czech fantasy literature. A significant growth in the number of authors was noted after 2000 (the number of debuts between 2005 and 2010 was probably greater than the number of first-time books for the whole of the 1990s). Another important characteristic of this period is a clear growth in book production in this area, linked to a more sophisticated approach by (at least some of) the specialized publishers, and in recent years to the stronger presence of fantasy literature in the editorial schedules of some of the larger publishing houses (e.g. Argo and Knižní klub). This process, however, is in contrast to the severely limited number of professional published periodicals for the genre (on the Czech market there are still only two – Ikarie, now XB-1, and Pevnost), whereas there are more and more internet servers aimed at fantasy literature, where the youngest generation can learn their journalistic craft (FantasyPlanet, Fanzine, Fantasya).
Alongside novels and collections of short stories by a single author, anthologies of short stories have an important place within contemporary Czech fantasy literature, the majority of them being aimed at specific segments of a genre or particular themes. We often come across experienced, published authors here, as well as talented younger writers for whom this type of publication is a useful stepping stone to further success.
In comparison to the situation pre-November 1989 and just after the revolution, the importance of the aforementioned fandom has weakened significantly. Lovers of fantasy literature are more likely to be active outwith the official fandom structures. The first decade of the new millennium has seen an increase in cons, and alongside amateur involvement there has been a professionalization of the activities of fans (a good example is Václav Pravda and his Festival Fantazie).
Genres of contemporary fantasy literature
The spectrum of genres within contemporary Czech fantasy literature represents only part of the forms present today in global popular literature. Over the long term, fantasy horror has been a peripheral phenomenon in the Czech Republic, which is demonstrated by the fact that there has been only a single author who focuses exclusively on horror, and only short-term, unsuccessful attempts at publishing a specialized periodical. Rather than being a “pure” form of the genre, we find several combinations with other forms of Czech literature (thriller, romantic adventure). The Czech sense of irony and black humour might be behind the local appeal of splatterpunk, an extremely bloody and violent offshoot of horror, the conventions of which are employed in the works of several successful authors of Czech fantasy (J. Kulhánek, Š. Kopřiva). Even so, horror remains an adjunct to other fantasy genres in the overall interests of authors. With its satirical elements, “Čapek-style” science fiction was dominant in Czech fantasy literature during the 1980s but has definitely been in decline over the past twenty years, and only occasionally do we now see examples by those authors originally connected with it. Readers today tend to prefer a more action orientated form of the genre with a large element of thriller.
Recent years have finally seen the appearance, particularly among younger authors, of military sci-fi, which has also been very commercially successful abroad. But the most widespread creative field in today’s Czech fantasy literature is to be found in so-called heroic fantasy, which has a very dynamic plot with a prominent hero-warrior main character, the traditional prototype of which is represented in an Anglo-Saxon context by Howard Conan. The contemporary approach, which is also usual in the Czech context, adds more realistic features to the protagonist‘s character, which brings him closer to the heroes of modern thrillers. This type of action fantasy fiction sits alongside another of the readers‘ favourites, historical fantasy literature, which develops attractive adventure stories against a more or less sophisticated backdrop from the past (a representative overview of this genre can be found in the short-story anthologies Písně temných věků – 2005, and Memento mori – 2009). There are surprisingly few readers in this country who are interested in the Tolkein-style epic fantasy, which works with a detailed description of a fictional world and is complex in its narrative design. The Czech mentality would appear to be suited to a less bombastic approach and the occurrence of humour and parody within fantasy is more frequent. Other contemporary forms are also developing, such as urban fantasy (see, e.g., the collection Pod kočičími hlavami, 2007) and fantasy for younger readers, which is often close to the genre of modern short stories. Other authors attempt an experimental approach based on unusual techniques or the use of less common motifs (such as oriental). Manifestly artificial areas of the genre, primarily represented abroad by the “new weird”, have still to appear in Czech fantasy literature. The generations of Czech fantasy writers over the past twenty years have been characterized both by change and in some cases by the parallel work of several diverse generations of writers. The oldest in terms of age and “length of service” are linked by the authors’ debuts and also sometimes first peaks in the era before 1989. At the forefront of this group, enjoying classic status, are Jaroslav Velinský and Ondřej Neff.
Authors of contemporary fantasy literature
Jaroslav Velinský (1932). A doyen of Czech fantasy literature and of popular literature in general. Two of his books in particular are amongst the most important works of Czech fantasy literature: the dystopian Engerlingové(1995), describing the fortunes of a community of the old guard from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy hiding underground at the Czech border, and the magical-realist Dzwille (1996), a dream-like story about the search for a lost land and lost loves. In many ways, in their literary and intellectual level they are comparable with the best works from serious literature.
Ondřej Neff (1945). He likes to link his prose works in cycles - one very popular series of stories takes place on the Moon in the near future and there is also the trilogy Milénium (1992–1995) with its theme of the unexpected consequences of a change in the calendar. His novels are also worthy of note, especially the post-catastrophe Tma (1998, revised version 2003), in which Neff constructs a vision of a world where electricity suddenly ceases to exist as a physical phenomenon, and attempts to anticipate the social and political fallout from such an event. Recently he has also been exploring in his works ideas from the literary inheritance of Ludvík Souček.
František Novotný (1944) also belongs to the “classic generation”. Alongside his well-received short stories there is the author’s cycle of novels Valhala (1994–2007), in which he merges real and alternative histories of the First and Second World War with Germanic mythology in an unusually inventive way. With its large-scale composition and plot developments it is akin to the best works of foreign fantasy literature, whilst its “historical irony” gives it a distinctively Czech feel. Although younger than those previously mentioned, due to the duration of his literary activities and the influence he has had on some younger writers, Jiří W. Procházka (1959) belongs alongside the authors mentioned above. His works are rooted in the tradition of technical sci-fi and its more recent phase (cyberpunk), as well as adventure action fantasy. His texts are interwoven with a dense network of various references and allusions, which demonstrate the aforementioned influence of postmodernism. Procházka is also a driving force behind the adventure series project Agent JFK, on the pages of which we come across experienced artists and talented beginners.
The core group of Czech fantasy literature, being the most numerous and having the greatest number of published works, remains the “middle generation”, i.e. those novelists who entered the scene at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, and in some cases in the mid-1990s. We can also add to this generation some other established authors and debutants, albeit somewhat younger in age. This generation obviously represents such an extensive and heterogeneous whole that it is necessary to divide it into several separate subgroups.
The first of these might be termed the “Czech action school”, the representatives of which are strongly influenced by comics and action films and in part also by the works of J.W. Procházka. The undeniable leader of this group is Jiří Kulhánek.
Jiří Kulhánek (1967). Practically the only true bestseller in Czech fantasy literature, who due to his popularity with readers and commercial success can be compared with the greatest stars of artistic literature. All of his works, from his debut Vládci strachu (1995) up to his latest novel Vyhlídka na věčnost (2011), are distinguished by a brisk pace, naturalistic detail in the descriptions of violence, a considerable dose of irony and black humour, and especially by an unfettered talent for storytelling, which has won the author great acclaim and a host of imitators.
In Kulhánek’s shadow are a subgroup of “tough men”, particularly the members of a loose grouping called Rigor Mortis. The short stories of Jiří Pavlovský (1968) tend to border on parodies of the action genre, while his contemporary Štěpán Kopřiva (1971) to a certain extent subscribes to the “Kulhánek“ model with his novels Zabíjení (2004) and Asfalt (2009). We could simplistically characterize the other subgroups of the middle generation as “prolific, heterogeneous and consistently popular.” These authors form the core of the aforementioned generation and the central pillar of contemporary Czech fantasy literature.
Leonard Medek (1962). In terms of style he is the greatest traditionalist in Czech fantasy literature, clearly inspired by the adventure books of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (see, e.g., Dobrodruh, 2004, Libyjská suita, 2008), but he does not shrink from other genres, as is demonstrated by his two-volume Verne-style fantasy voyage Runeround (1999) and Archimagos (2000) and the large “Celtic” fantasy novel Stín modrého býka (2001, co-author F. Vrbenská).
Among the other important authors are Jaroslav Mostecký (1963) who mainly writes historical fantasy but occasionally makes forays into sci-fi (Archivář, 2004) or the less-frequented horror genre (Čára hrůzy, 1998), while elements of action sci-fi and fantasy are combined in the works of Vladimír Šlechta (1960). Naturally, women also have their place here and stylistically the best Czech fantasy writers include Františka Vrbenská (1952) and the very productive Jana Rečková (1956). The younger section of this generation consists of well-established authors who already have a loyal readership when competing with their older colleagues.
Miroslav Žamboch (1972). His stories, which are very popular with readers, contain elements of sci-fi, fantasy and detective fiction of the “hard school” variety and tend to be based on the lives of tough, solitary men fighting in a merciless environment (Poslední bere vše, 1999, Seržant, 2002, Bez slitování, 2003, Drsný spasitel, 2009, etc.).
Juraj Červenák (1974). Although a Slovak, he publishes his books in Czech with Czech publishers. His main area is historical fantasy, within which he prefers to utilise the setting of the Early Middle Ages and motifs from Slavonic mythology (the series Černokněžník, 2003–2006 and Bohatýr, 2006–2008), while recently his interest has focused on historical adventure novels set during the wars against the Turks (the cycle Dobrodružství kapitána Báthoryho, from 2009).
Nor should we forget the diverse and heterogeneous grouping of solitary writers who are difficult to categorize or are the sole representatives of a genre in this country. The traditional epic fantasy, which for a surprisingly long time was ignored by Czech writers, has been represented since the start of the 1990s by Veronika Válková (1970), publishing under the pseudonym of Adam Andres. Although largely peripheral in the Czech context, the favourite foreign sub-genre of so-called military sci-fi (tough action military stories set in space) is represented by Robert Fabian (1969), and traditional technological sci-fi by Richard Šusta (1956). The sole Czech writer of horror prose is Svatopluk Doseděl (1968). Singular individuals include Pavel Houser (1972), whose work is reminiscent of J. L. Borges and Ladislav Klíma, and Jan Poláček (1957), who has reached a high point with his current remarkable “Fuks” novel Spěšný vlak Ch.24.12 (2010). Among the younger generation of Czech fantasy are authors who debuted or became known to a wider circle of readers in the first decade of the 21st century. Some of them have quickly joined the genre’s elite.
Petra Neomillnerová (1970). A writer of commercially successful prose, she places her psychologically delineated main characters and excellent dialogue within a harshly realistic fantasy full of sex and violence.
Pavel Renčín (1977). At the forefront of urban fantasy, recognised for his wealth of imagination and sensitive linguistic touch. The highlight of his work so far has been the trilogy Městské války (2008–2011). The youngest generation of authors is often (though not exclusively) recruited from fantasy literary competitions, which for years have been a breeding ground for new talent.
Contemporary Czech Fantasy Literature in Translation
Contemporary Czech fantasy literature only seldom appears in foreign translation. There are close contacts between Czech authors and publishers and their Polish colleagues, and so it is no surprise that the largest number of translated Czech works appear in Poland (particularly with the publishers Fabryka Słów). In some cases (O. Neff, J. W. Procházka) texts by Czech authors have found their way into European collections of fantasy literature (e.g.Síň slávy evropské SF). A successful breakthrough into the Anglosphere is almost unheard of – up until now this has only been achieved by the first part of J. Kulhánek’s novel Noční klub (2008) in the USA (The Night Club: Part One) and a short story by J. Červenák in the legendary American magazine Weird Tales.
Antonín K. K. Kudláč
(Translated by Graeme Dibble)