by Dimitra Nikolaidou
Supposedly, the Greeks did it first. And then they promptly forgot how to do it, for thousands of years.
The first work of science fiction is assumed to be Lucian’s True History, written in the 2nd century BCE. However, despite the illustrious beginning, a myriad of geopolitical, cultural and historical factors resulted in science fiction being not only neglected, but also unwelcome in Greece in the first half of the 20th century. Thankfully, during the seventies this perception shifted really fast, and the current science fiction scene is not only vibrant and productive but also boasts several transnational successes. The course of Greek science fiction from literary pariah to cultural capital reveals a lot not only about the country, but about the genre itself.
No time for the future
As with most things in Greece, the roots of the story go really, really deep. Following the liberation of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Greek state in 1830, the country’s literary scene was entirely occupied by a single, Herculean task: to establish a Greek identity and define the nation, after a centuries-long occupation. Interestingly, this endeavor was heavily influenced by outside forces: the Philhellenes’ idealized image of Greece; the direct influence of Bavaria, France and England; and finally, the fact that most Greek scholars of that time had studied abroad and had returned immersed in naturalism and romanticism.
The urgency of forging a viable national identity combined with the constant political upheavals, meant that Greek literature was focused only on what was termed “ serious matters,” with rare exceptions made for stories of romance. Escapism definitely was not on the cards, as Greek authors were too busy with mapping the present to indulge in imagining different futures. While the cause was worthwhile, unfortunately this attitude ensured that the Greek literary scene was quickly shaping up to be quite elitist. While the newly emergent genre fiction elicited raised eyebrows in the entire West, its dismissal in Greece carried an added weight: to bother with genre meant you were turning your back to the urgent business of the present.
Things got worse before getting better. After the end of World War II, Greece had the unfortunate honour of being the starting point of the Cold War. The country belonged in the Western sphere of influence, however the heroic role of the Left during the war had made it immensely popular. The Greek Civil War that ensued resulted in wide anti-American sentiments, equally prevalent left, right and center. In this situation, genre fiction was once again viewed as unwanted escapism, but science fiction in particular had it even worse: it was considered emblematic of American imperialist ideals, a tool of propaganda, a Trojan horse of both problematic ideology and of the type of lowbrow culture whose only purpose was to brainwash citizens. Neither the genre’s proletarian roots nor the existence of visionary, progressive authors protected it from these aspersions.
In the 1960s however, as the country had very slowly began to heal from the Civil War, some first attempts were made to begin translating science fiction. Notably, the first three to be translated were not American but Russian, French, British and Polish (K. Volkov, Pierre Bennoit, James Hilton, Edward Forster and Stanislaw Lem). Still, in total, only 12 works of science fiction were translated into Greek in the sixties. The only exception is Jules Verne, whose work was categorized as children’s fiction and thus flew under the radar. Unfortunately, the 1967 military coup that installed a seven year-long junta would freeze even that meager attempt at introducing science fiction in the country.
Beyond the stone age
Thankfully for science fiction and Greece in general, the military Junta fell in 1974, the troublesome monarchy was finally abolished, and political life finally stabilized. Having an interest in genre fiction was suddenly less contentious, and it became evident that there was a huge demand for science fiction in particular. In 1977, anthologies and collections began to appear in bookshops. European and Russian science fiction was popular, though American authors were also translated and anthologized. In just three short years, hundreds of works (anthologies, novels and short stories) found their way to the readers and even the first dedicated magazine titled Nova edited by Angelos Mastorakis (more on him later) made an appearance. By 1980, the political climate was completely stable and the cultural landscape had shifted. There was by now a hunger for imported cultural products, a desire to open up, do away with the past and consume what was new and fresh. There was also a need to go beyond the junta’s obsession with tradition and antiquity. Science fiction fulfilled all those needs – this was, after all, finally a moment to look into the future and imagine what could be.
This is not to say that science fiction has suddenly become mainstream. Both Domna Pastourmatzi and Christos Lazos, a Greek science fiction writer, editor and researcher, mention that gatekeeping was alive and well and genre was still looked down upon and termed para-literature (even though they both leave political implications out of their observations). In particular, Pastourmatzi notes that Kedros, the first publishing house to translate science fiction into Greek, received such backlash in literary circles that the publisher felt obliged to publish an expansive series of classical authors of antiquity, as a peace offering and as a testament to his seriousness.
However, as is evident from the numbers, among the public science fiction was in high demand; furthermore, Greek authors were also finally engaging with the genre. Makis Panorios, the beloved journalist Freddy Germanos and George Balanos began penning science fiction. Balanos was also a driving force behind Aurora, a pulp publishing house that literally popularized the genre by creating series of mass market paperbacks that were sold not only in bookshops, but also in Greece’s numerous kiosks. The low quality of Aurora paperbacks helped them fly under the critics’ radar, and like that they introduced speculative fiction to a wider public. In the nineties, fans of the genre began finding each other (helped by the emerging World Wide Web). More fanzines came out; publishers imitated Aurora’s success and introduced even more authors to the public. There was still a preference for the classics, and the genre was now dominated by male, white and western authors, but the full spectrum of science fiction was slowly finding its way towards the Greek market.
Perhaps the most important step forward though came with the publication of the weekly magazine Ennea as a supplement in the mainstream Eleftherotypia newspaper, with Angelos Mastorakis as the editor. Ennea was focused on comics. However, it included one short story in each issue written either by a foreign or a Greek author. Its success helped the genre get mainstream recognition.
In 1998, ALEF or the Athens Club of Science Fiction was established (Angelos Mastorakis being once again one of the founding members). Dedicated publishing houses and bookshops sprang and clubs convened. Short term fanzines started to circulate. The future was there.
The turn of the century brought with it the acceptance of speculative fiction into the mainstream. The advent of the Internet, the popularity of adult gaming and the Lord of the Rings movies meant that fantasy and science fiction were no longer nerdy hobbies for secluded weirdos. ALEF and the Greek Tolkien society (2002), both well organized groups with international contacts, as well as the online literary workshop sff.gr (2003), finally allowed Greek speculative fans to congregate, organize screenings and conferences, and attend workshops together. Despite the difficulties inherent in all small markets, a literary scene was developing fast.
Interestingly, while Greek fantasy was essentially colonized by Anglo-Saxon tropes, clichés and conventions, science fiction proved to be a different case: the scene had a distinct voice from the start. Greek authors were more likely to avoid themes of space exploration, cyber revolutions and grand adventures. Their work mostly focused on the invasion of technology in our everyday life, fear of authoritarianism and surveillance, isolation and alienation. Given the history of the country and the lingering trauma, this was to be expected. Pessimism and dystopia were more likely protagonists than the hope for a bright new world which was to be found in so much early works of science fiction written abroad. The fact that Greece was not on the cutting edge of technological revolutions, but was still importing innovations, also meant that authors were more likely to choose these themes over wonder and utopia.
Authors had another reason to be pessimistic: Publishers considered the investment in Greek author a financial risk, plus the stigma of para-literature had not completely subsided. Still, Ennea, ALEF’s anthologies and Aurora paperbacks were likely outlets for short stories, some minor publishing houses did trust Greek authors, and more literary-minded creators could approach mainstream or arthouse publishers – as long as their work could still be read as an allegory. All in all, the publishing landscape was rough. The 2010 financial crisis however brought with it vanity presses and self-publishing houses. While these outlets could not guarantee quality, they at least provided further opportunities for publication and allowed more people than before to enter the budding scene.
As an alternative to these options, Greek authors also turned their gaze abroad. The Internet had made international markets much more approachable. Publication abroad promised better financial compensation and additionally, carried a certain status which in turn helped the authors be recognized back in Greece. This turn towards foreign markets was assisted by ALEF’s outward gaze, and the work of the Tales of the Wyrd workshop which translates Greek speculative fiction into English. Both institutions actively try to export authors’ work.
But turning towards foreign markets would prove to go beyond offering authors some much needed motivation. It would cause shifts in the Greek science fiction scene.
Writing in a foreign language is not only a matter of fluency. One has to recognize the trends and movements, align as much as possible with a different culture and safeguard what makes their own culture unique. One area were that need became very obvious was sociocultural issues. The Greek speculative scene was never regressive; rather the opposite. Although the political conversations have subsided significantly since the early 80s, the scene’s majority has always aligned with progressive ideas and certainly did not tolerate extremists. Still, as the Anglo-Saxon market became ultra-focused on facing the problematic aspects of speculative fiction, and rooting out misogyny, homophobia and colonial narratives, Greek authors hoping to publish abroad found they had to take this conversation into account in their own work. As a result, speculative fiction (including of course science fiction) now finds itself in the vanguard of progressiveness – a rather ironic turn considering the accusations it had to face for decades. The downside of course is that the more authors take their cues from US culture wars in the hopes of publishing in the English-speaking market, the more they conform to a norm dictated elsewhere, ironically confirming the overblown fears that SF would be a US-driven Trojan horse. In truth, Greek SF is at its best when it opens up to the world while remaining true to its own character – but what is that character exactly?
A budding scene
To answer we need to see who are the authors making up the Greek science fiction squad. I will share some names whose work is easy to find even outside Greece, though my list won’t do justice to the number of authors who are producing quality work. Michalis Manolios whose award-winning short story “Aethra” was translated in different languages marked the beginning. Another author with staying power is Kostas Charitos, whose work has recently appeared in Future Fiction Digest. Christine Lucas is the most prolific among Greek speculative fiction authors. Her work is published in pro magazines including F&SF and Nightmare. Natalia Theodoridou, who won the World Fantasy Award, and Eugenia Triantafyllou, twice nominated for a Nebula, are among the most well known Greek authors abroad. The work of Elena Castroianni, Victor Pseftakis, Atalanti Evripidou, Antony Paschos and myself have also appeared in pro magazines. Other acclaimed authors include Hephaestion Christopoulos, Abraham Kawa and Vasso Christou. As an addendum, I would note that most of these authors are also members of ALEF, whose workshops and anthologies are perhaps the best starting point for anyone who wants to be acquainted with Greek science fiction – in particular the anthology Nova Hellas, already translated in English, Italian and Japanese.
Of course, there is also a cadre of science fiction writers who publish with mainstream houses and are not heavily involved with the scene (neither have they published in English), but whose work is of course part of the canon, including Ioannis Makropoulos and Yannis Adamis. These authors are more likely to be celebrated in literary circles, thus breaking down the remaining taboos on the genre. George Balanos and Makis Panorios continue producing work and have a loyal fanbase. Finally, one could round up their overview of science fiction by looking at comic books – Abraham Kawa, Ilias Kyriazis and Steve Stivaktis immediately come to mind.
Can one detect a common trend in the works of these authors and creators? To answer that I will have to abandon the bird’s eye view and offer a subjective observation. Despite the scene’s small size, the resulting work is truly diverse in terms of themes, style and even sub-genre. As noted before, even if Greece discovered science fiction relatively late, authors made it their own almost immediately, eschewing the “homage” phase which often results in derivative works. As a result, the work of each author is a completely different experience. However, some trends are obvious.
Greek science fiction for the most part continues to focus more on what can go wrong with science rather than what can go right. The fear of societal collapse tends to be evident in many of the most acclaimed Greek SF works. Currently, environmental catastrophe has been added to the evils of unchecked capitalism and together they represent the genre’s main villain. Authoritarianism is often a lurking danger in Greek science fiction worldbuilding, never to be forgotten or dismissed. Later works focused heavily on the refugee and financial crises; interestingly, science fiction writers were quick to include refugees as protagonists and also quick to cast racists, financiers, marketing managers and authority figures as favourite villains.
Of course the country’s bloody history could easily explain this trend, but then again what European country had it easy? Another factor is probably the 19th century literary dictate, mentioned in the beginning of the article, commanding authros to focus on “serious matters” only. It is hard to get rid of the idea that fiction is not worth it unless it’s making an observation or solving a problem. For authors who have struggled to be taken seriously despite their talent because of the genre they chose to write in, straying from the dictate can be even harder. And thus, Greek science fiction continues to be focused on mostly grim futures: the darker the narrative, the more likely it is to be critically acclaimed.
Equally interesting though is another trend I keep noticing: while science fiction writers over 35 favor hard dystopias and cynical protagonists, and always showcase their darkest elements, younger authors are rejecting the cynicism and turning towards more hopeful universes (still dystopian of course!) were solidarity and the fight against systemic injustices is presented as the only solution to the future’s problems. The downcast view of the future seems to give way to a different way of imagining.
Both strands of science fiction though, have one thing in common: the underlying hope that no matter how harsh the conditions, how hopeless the fight and how awful the world, there’s no surrendering and no giving up; there will always be another day, and perseverance is the name of the game. This will to keep fighting despite all odds has characterized Greek fans, authors and works of science fiction alike. With recognition of their work increasing year by year, it seems that Greek SF has been prophetic all along.
Dr. Dimitra Nikolaidou is researching the relationships between Role-playing games and speculative literature at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her papers have been published in various academic journals and volumes. She has worked in publishing for two decades and is also the co-founder of Tales of the Wyrd, a workshop which teaches, translates and promotes Greek speculative fiction. Her own fiction can be found in magazines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Andromeda Spaceways, Metaphorosis etc, as well as in various anthologies.