Attila Nemeth – Putting the Science in Fiction (Vernian Traditions in the 20th Century Hungarian SF) – 2005

Translator, editor and journalist

First publication workshop The Impact of Space on Society: Cultural Aspects, in
collaboration with IAA and Millenaris, Budapest, 2005

First, an apology: because of the time constraints I am concentrating only on a segment of Hungarian SF, writings about space exploration. And now…

“Space: The Final Frontier.” These are not merely the emblematic words of an American TV-series. Their significance runs much deeper. From the earliest times man turned towards the sky with awe. He connected the brightly shining light dots in the night into constellations, later he imagined perfect states and exotic fauna onto the Moon and other celestial bodies. Following the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, the fantastic fables started to fill with science, and a precursor was born to the genre that we today call science-fiction.

In the second half of the 19th Century two great authors turned to that newborn genre, and gave it a popularity that is still very much around. They were Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells. While Wells’ impact was felt primarily in the English speaking world, Verne stormed the whole of Europe.

Jules Verne – who once again comes to the forefront of our thoughts as this year we are commemorating the centenary of his death – married romantic adventure with the science of his times with great ease and style. His novels featured dirigibles, electric submarines, steam-powered machine elephants, gigantic cannons, even means of invisibility. And of course travels in space. The heroes of his From the Earth to the Moon and Hector Servadac leave the Earth behind – the former in a cannon projectile, the latter snatched by a passing comet.

These fantastic adventures captivated the imagination of Hungarian authors at once. Jókai Mór, our greatest writer of the 19th Century, who is sometimes even called the Verne of Hungary, published between 1872 and 1874 an epic work called Novel of the Next Century. It paints a grandiose picture of the 20th Century, in which Hungary becomes a leading power thanks to some ingenious discoveries. The last chapters of the novel – anticipating the end of the world hysteria of the year 2000 – depicts a comet’s journey through the Solar System. Finally it passes Earth without much trouble, giving the gases of its tail to the Moon to form an atmosphere, then stabilizing in an orbit around the Sun as a sister to our planet.

Between Heaven and EarthA Journey to Saturn by Kardos Árpád, from 1886, is clearly inspired by Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, a footnote even mentions his astronomical calculations. In the novel three bored adventurers plan and execute a trip through the Solar System in a gas-filled balloon, meeting a comet, asteroids and the moons of Saturn. The author strives for scientific accuracy, filling the – only 80 pages long – text with numbers.

Makay István’s By Airplane to the Moon (1899) is pretty much what its title implies. On the Moon the heroes find the degenerated survivors of a once great civilization. The author breaks the flow of the story on almost every page with educational passages of biology, geology and of course astronomy.

Dr. Kubb, hero of an anonymously written pulp adventure series takes some excursions into space in 1922. Racing through Space has him whisked from the Earth by a colliding planetoid, then in its sequel, Wonders of the Star World, he and his companions colonize their new home, in six months’ time making a many light years journey among the stars, and eventually returning to Earth. In Travel to the Star Venus, he meets a scientist, who builds with his sponsorship a rocket ship, and together they visit Venus where giant intelligent spiders terrorize the local dwarf men. Of course, the happy ending is inevitable.

The next stop was the red planet. Journey to Mars by Koppány László (1925) is a detailed account of the United Europe’s first Mars expedition. They leave Earth’s atmosphere in the carriage of a balloon filled with hydrogen, and navigate space by cannonshots. The expedition finds intelligent life on Mars, builders of the famous channels.

Sárkány Béla’s Astronauts from 1928 sends its heroes to Mars with the help of an anti-gravity device. The novel interestingly depicts the effects of weightlessness, but once on Mars, the story becomes pure melodrama. The spaceship designing Hungarian geniuses save Martian civilization, altering the trajectory of their falling moon, Phobos, again with the anti-gravity device.

In 1937 Tarján Ferenc, an accomplished technical educator of the time wrote By Atomic Rocket to Mars, a scientific tractation thinly disguised as a novel. It gives lengthy discussions of Earth’s atmosphere, the wonders of astronomy, rocket technology with a nod to Oberth and Goddard, then paints a fairly realistic view of a Moon and a Mars landing. The work is unfortunately almost completely free of any narrative, so it is more of a science textbook than literature.

Rather a step back is Barsi Ödön’s The Space Ship from 1944. The target is Mars again, but the approach is different: it’s only a six days’ journey and the planet is full of cities, giant machines and insect-like natives with Earth-conquering plans. Our heroes manage to escape only to find out that the whole adventure was a dream.

After the 2nd world war our country’s political life has changed, the Communist Party became governing power, and – after the Soviet example – quickly grabbed hold of science fiction as an instrument of propaganda. The novels of the era presented bright visions of a perfectly organized future where human resourcefulness knew no bounds. The colonization of space began as much in literature as in reality, only on a larger scale. This was a glorious time for SF, with a publishing boom, birth of a world-renowned magazine (Galaktika) and translations of works by a new generation of writers: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Lem and so on. It meant also a change of guard among Hungarian SF authors.

The first of them to address the theme of space travel was Botond-Bolics György. His Venus trilogy – of which the first volume reached book stores in 1957 – paints an epic view of interplanetary exploration, colonization and first contact with an alien race. The three novels – If the Fog Clears…, A Thousand Years on Venus and Born on an Alien Planet – became very popular amongst young readers, planting in them an interest towards astronomy, geography and a dozen other sciences.

Elek István’s novel Attempt in Space from 1958 is really a cold war spy adventure set a hundred years into the future. It has a fully colonized Moon, prospects of ore mining on Mars and climate control with artificial suns. The story concerns rival world-powers, one of which – of course the Western one – doesn’t even refrain from wiping out a whole colony in order to reach its goal.

The same year brought us Marton Béla’s outlandish adventure novel Prisoners of Ceres, in which the title asteroid skims 23rd Century Earth’s atmosphere, taking with it some air and flying vehicles. The stranded people start to investigate their surroundings and find that some unknown force had changed the planetoid’s orbit and sent it on an elliptic path around the sun which takes it near to Mars, Venus and Earth. This new natural transit method plays a leading role in the sequel, Journey to Venus from 1960. The expedition to our Solar System’s second planet meets a savage, primordial world with raging elements, giant monsters and hostile foliage. They also discover a moon orbiting Venus.

These last two books list an interesting name as scientific advisor: Kulin György. He was a famous astronomer of the post-war era, intent on spreading his knowledge to the public. He wrote numerous educational books on astronomy, and for the sake of reaching an even wider group of readers, produced some interesting science fiction novels as well, in collaboration with Fábián Zoltán.

Their first book, Message from the Eighth Planet from 1966 is a kind of precursor to Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. In the course of a Moon landing Earth astronauts spot a small satellite of alien origin, then find a whole lot of other unknown devices on and below the surface. Investigating strange radio signals, they then go to Mars, meeting the silicon-based aliens themselves, but only years later, via the exchange of televised messages between Earth and the aliens’ home Neptune can real first contact be achieved. Two further novels examine the possibilities of a long ago 5th planet in place of today’s asteroid belt, hybernation, interstellar travel and alien visitors on Earth. These are all extremely readable and informative even on a scientific level.

Lovers’ Planet by Fekete Gyula on the other hand concentrates on the human angle, stating right in the beginning that the inner planets of the Solar System had been terraformed. Since then – it is the 30th century – Earth is the administrative center with the most offices; the Moon is a giant home for the retired (who are older than 200 years); Venus is for lovers and those want to be entertained; Mars for the eccentrics and mentally ill; and finally Mercury for the Earth’s endangered flora and fauna. Fekete, an accomplished figure in mainstream literature, added a new colour onto the palette of science fiction, political satire. His novels were utopias, however they contained dystopian references to the society of his own days.

In 1968 Towards a New Sun by Gács Demeter depicted a future, where our sun begins to cool and the human race must find a new home. Soon it becomes clear that there are not enough spaceships to evacuate the whole planet, so instead they convert Earth itself into a giant starship, and take off toward Tau Ceti.

The following year Lengyel Péter’s The Second Planet of Ogg created a new style, sort of anticipating Star Wars and its slogan: „A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” with its approach. The action of the novel plays out on alien planets with alien heroes and spaceships that travel almost at the speed of light. Humanity’s role is only a footnote in a great galactic war.

Tamkó Sirató Károly, a noted poet wrote his one and only science fiction Three Islands in Space in 1969. This is an eccentric book of gargantuan proportions, seemingly about man’s conquest of space. The text is full of linguistic ingenuity, and is really about the ridiculousness of the struggle for power by various factions.

The beginning of the seventies brought a change in the role of space exploration in SF literature. As more and more probes and satellites explored our Solar System, and man set foot on the Moon for real, the fictional adventures were pushed out into interstellar space. There, writers had greater freedom with technical gadgets and natural surroundings – sometimes even with the laws of physics.

They also turned more and more to the human side in their stories. Like Zsoldos Péter. His The Mission from 1971 is the story of a doomed expedition. Because of a malfunction an interstellar ship’s crew dies but the last of them, with the help of the board computer, reprograms the brains of some primitive natives of a faraway planet, implanting in them the mission to get back to Earth.

Environmental issues came to the foreground, too, as in Fehér Klára’s Oxygenia in 1974. In this work a shipwrecked Earth astronaut gets caught on the title planet, where the ruling elite has all of the luxuries but keeps the population in the thrall of toxic gases, rationing the oxygen needed for breathing.

Darázs Endre, in his 1975 Iron Moon once again returns to classic SF with a starship and brave astronauts who face the monsters of Venus and the mysterious tenth planet, but the following year’s Lords of the Galaxy by Kaszás István is a full blown space opera that summarizes millennia of future history, presenting whole armadas, space battles and a cunning game of racial survival among the stars, while toying with the idea that life on Earth was created artificially by allmighty aliens.

Nemere István, the most productive writer in the history of Hungarian science fiction, stepped on the stage in 1977 with an ingenious pitch: presenting the dubious fate of an interstellar expedition as a crime story, in the form of a series of case files. This novel, The Triton Murders ignited a literary carreer that now spans hundreds of books and even more short stories.

After the political changes starting with the 1980s scientific education took a backseat in favour of adventures. The most important authors of this period were Nemere, Lõrincz L. László and Gáspár András. They understood a new desire on behalf of the readers, the desire to escape. Escape into faraway worlds without the burden of heavy ideals, criticism and education. The shiny spaceships, the laser guns and all the visual splendor of the movies of the era, especially Star Wars and its subsequent imitations, bred an insatiable hunger for this kind of escapist space adventure, and the authors were quick to respond with an avalanche of light SF books and stories. Since then a next generation of writers grew up and using mostly English pseudonyms flooded the shelves with this new kind of science fiction – or should we call it space fantasy? I would like to mention Szélesi Sándor and Fonyódi Tibor among them who created their own shared world galaxy filled with big guns and beautiful women. In these works space serves only as a backdrop to epic sagas that recount the rise and fall of giant galactic empires.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events that most people today need nothing but fast, monstruous entertainment. The propagation of science or scientific accuracy requires committed writers and publishers and of course an open mind from readers.

Luckily, things are moving in the right direction. I myself was working to this end during my eight years as a small press publisher, then as an editor of the short-lived but fondly remembered Átjáró magazine. And now continuing this at the helm of the newly reborn Galaktika, which in the meantime grown from a purely literary magazine into the home of scientific education as well. We try to grasp our readers’ interest with thematically linked stories and articles centering on one scientific problem at a time. And we encourage our home-grown authors to use science for the advantage of their writings, not just as a mere gimmick to play with.

I think we stand at the dawn of a new era of Hungarian SF, that is truer to the Vernian traditions than anything in the last decades of the 20th century. And if we can show an example for the new generation of future writers, this genre can once again merge science and fiction to take its readers… where no man has gone before.

© Attila NEMETH & Leonardo/Olats, mars 2005 / republished 2023