First things first: this book has an incredibly off-putting title with much attendant baggage. However John Clute has already expended considerable pixels banging on about this issue in his review for Sci Fi Weekly and really it is tangential to the merits of the book's content. I will therefore confine myself to saying that the anthology's actual aim—to publish in translation non-English language European SF stories from the last twenty years or so—is laudable. (Europe is, of course, an imaginary place that means different things to different people but here it is given the standard "Continental" gloss and is assumed to spread from Portugal to Russia. Poor old Iceland.) This project has clearly been a labour of love for the Morrows and they are to be applauded for embarking on the project, but for the time being I will rather rudely ignore James Morrow's lengthy and chewy introduction and get straight into the stories themselves.
Johanna Sinisalo is the probably the contributor most visible to Anglosphere readers thanks to her Tiptree Award-winning novel Troll: A Love Story (also known as Not Before Sundown in, er, Europe). Her story, "Baby Doll," is a sort of satire on the hyper-sexualisation of prepubescent children. It is true that there is a bizarre disjunction in modern Western society between paedophile hysteria and the marketing of overtly sexual products—perhaps most infamously pole dancing kits—to nine year olds. However Sinisalo's near future of universally accepted breast implanted child models is too over the top to bite. This is a shame because there is much that is painfully plausible about the story, such as the way the children normalise their situation. There is a particularly good scene in which an underage boy pressures a very underage girl into having sex:
"Then what's your problem? Aren't you on the pill?"
Lulu hesitates. "Well, not exactly." Her voice is all raspy and apologetic, the way it gets when she's embarrassed. "I haven't quite got mine yet."
"My ... periods."
"Bingo! Then there is no need to mess with rubbers!" (p. 116)
This is all too horribly believable, but the fact that the framing society is not means the reader struggles to engage. In a story that concludes with the gang rape of the protagonist's older sister (aged eleven), such a lack of emotional investment is fatally undermining.
If Sinisalo's story has problems at least it is interesting, new, and ambitious. The same cannot be said of the opening story. Jean-Claude Dunyach's "Separations" follows a well-worn SF short story template: a poetically manifested alien intrusion into the human world becomes a cause for introspection on the part of the protagonists. To prove just how well worn this format is, Elena Arsenieva comes along immediately afterwards with a rather better version of it. This sense of familiarity is a recurring theme throughout the book.
I have not read any of the stories in their original language. (More importantly the Morrows have not read the majority of these stories in their original language either. This is another thing Clute bangs on about, and he is well worth reading on the subject.) Despite this position of ignorance I still feel I must say something about the fact this is all translated fiction. I used to work in a literary agency that specialised in selling the English language rights of German novels, and in the course of this job I came across some bloody awful attempts at transliteralisation. There is none of that here, although there is the odd flicker of a knowledge gap.
Humour is perhaps the hardest thing to translate, something particularly apparent in Lucien Merisca's "Some Earthlings' Adventures On Outrerria." It is an enjoyably insane farce set on a planet obsessed with bicycles and bowel movements, but it also feels as if the English reader is getting only half the story. I do not blame translator Cezar Ionescu for this, but for the first time in the anthology there seems to be a cultural and linguistic barrier. In contrast another humorous story, "A Night On The Edge Of The Empire" by Joao Barreiros, benefits from a lovely translation by Luis Rodrigues. It displays an instinctive grasp of English that must surely capture the essence of Barreiros's original words. Unfortunately the story ends rather abruptly, virtually as soon as it has begun, which just goes to show that no matter how good the translator is the author is still responsible for the story. The collection as a whole tends towards the slight and the insubstantial, a point exemplified by the next story, Joelle Wintrebert's "Transfusion." It is a seven-page story that you can read as either the literal possession of a woman by an alien intelligence (Morrow's view) or a not very edifying portrait of a mental breakdown (my view). Either way it presents the reader with little in the way of sustenance.
I said at the beginning of this review that the aim of the anthology was laudable. Why exactly is this though? It seems self-evident that exposure to under-represented literature is a good thing. There is a whole world—or, in this case, (almost) a whole continent—of speculative fiction out there that Anglosphere readers never get to experience. However, on the evidence of this collection it isn't really any different to that which we are already experiencing. The stories collected here could be from any issue of Interzone, Europe's most important SF magazine. Perhaps it was naive to expect otherwise.
More problematically not only could the stories be from any issue of Interzone, they could be from a single issue, which is a significant problem for a book subtitled "Sixteen Contemporary Science Fiction Classics from the Continent." These are not classic stories. They represent the same sort of quality mix to be found in any of the major magazines: the odd good but not great story, quite a lot of middling "read once and discard stories", a couple of interesting failures and a couple of absolute stinkers. This is not a unique problem: the many annual "Best Of" anthologies suffer from the same affliction.
We could probably dismiss the talk of a "hall of fame" of "classics" as marketing bumf except for the interstitial text. Morrow prefaces each story with a rather long "introduction." The scare quotes are because these introductions are a blend of claims for the significance of the author, a potted history of their national SF tradition and contextualisation and endorsement of the story itself. His own voice is strong here and it is perhaps too strong for an editor. It is one thing to tacitly accept that an editor believes the stories they have selected are the best available but you don't really want him leaning over your shoulder telling you this whilst you are reading. The fact that Morrow is so fulsome in his praise only emphasises the fact the anthology isn't of obviously superior quality. Like the various "Best Ofs," The SFWA European Hall Of Fame is worth reading but it doesn't exactly do what it says on the tin. It isn't a compendium of modern classics and it isn't going to open your eyes to a new world of literature. It might pass the time on a flight between Athens and Helsinki, though.
Editor's Note: After this review was published, James and Kathryn Morrow sent us the following response.
As the editors of The SFWA European Hall of Fame, we appreciated Martin Lewis’s alternately sympathetic and dismayed coverage of our attempt to bring some worthy Continental SF to an Anglophone readership. Permit us to add several points of clarification.
First of all, we dislike the title as much as Mr. Lewis does. We always wanted to call the book Eurofantastique: Sixteen Contemporary Science Fiction Stories from the Continent. Alas, Tor Books insisted on the existing title as a non-negotiable condition for publishing the anthology. Perhaps we should have walked away from the deal at that point, but then the thing would probably not exist at all, as there were no other offers.
Second, we must disagree with Lewis that John Clute’s
After bemoaning our presumed methodology at length, Clute had sufficient space left over to identify only three selections by title, saying almost nothing about their content. Lewis does rather better, citing and commenting on six works. For the record, there are sixteen stories and novelettes in The SFWA European Hall of Fame, and we hope that, despite the critical potshots the book has sustained, curious readers will take a chance on what Lewis accurately calls "a labour of love."
James and Kathryn Morrow
Martin Lewis is a European but not, you know, one of those Europeans.