Introduction to the Japanese edition of Impossible Stories


Tatsumi Takayuki

(Professor of American Literature, Faculty of Letters, Keio University)

Copyright © 2010 Intercom, Ltd. Used with permission.

Zoran Zivkovic—I first encountered the unique works of this totally unknown Yugoslavian author about thirty years ago, when I read the translation of his first-contact short story “Project Lyra” (original publication Sirius, Sept. 1979 issue) by Hiroaki Namizu in the April 1982 issue of SF Magazine from Hayakawa Shobo. The whole world was being swept by an unprecedented SF boom following the release of Star Wars in 1977, and SF fans around the world were excited about the possibilities of first contact, especially by Hollywood’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., for example. Zivkovic’s work, an ironical look at how the long-awaited first contact would be lost due to the political infighting of the superpowers (or, in you will, to human intellectual immaturity), with the United States and the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War, was quite unusual. American and British SF were generally optimistic, with an alien transmission picked up to lead to first contact, ending either with actual contact or a certainty that it would soon occur.

Zivkovic, however, was from Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, and had grown up within the major conflict region of East Europe, where national systems frequently underwent fundamental transformations in a way very unlike the UK or the US. The question of whether human internal political conflict has actually matured to the point it could accept contact with outer space is examined with careful consideration and a very sharp pen, and perfected into a belly-laugh of a comedy through dialog alone.

Years later he wrote “The Puzzle” (first published 2001), a little gem describing how a retired SETI researcher hears a piece of (probably) alien music, and gains an artistic sensitivity. The theme of having made contact with an alien race but being almost unable to understand them or be understood, is generally thought to be the private preserve of Polish author Stanislaw Lem, but Zivkovic brings his own unique humor to his work.

When Zivkovic was first introduced to Japanese readers, Dan Fukami wrote in his commentary on “Project Lyra,” quite naturally, that Zivkovic was a new leader for the Yugoslavian SF world as it entered the Golden Age of the 1970s. Born in 1948, Zivkovic had been attracted by American and British SF from his days at the University of Belgrade, in 1979 taking his master’s with a thesis on “Anthropomorphism and the motif of the first contact in the works of Arthur C Clarke”, followed by his doctorate in 1982 on “The Appearance of Science Fiction as a Genre of Artistic Prose.” He currently teaches creative writing as a professor at the same institution.

While he remains an academic solidly rooted in literary theory, he has also been involved in SF journalism since he became the key assistant of Gavrilo Vuckovic, the famous editor of the annual Andromeda anthology launched in 1976. His understanding of the field was recognized, and he was given full authority to choose American and British SF stories, with excellent results. He later became involved in the editorial team for the SF magazine Sirius, based in Zagreb. In the United States Yugoslavia-born SF critic Darko Suvin, a professor at McGill University in Canada, together with RD Mullen, launched left-wing academic magazine Science Fiction Studies in 1973. In 1979 the magazine redefined the functions of SF within contemporary literature in a piece titled “Metamorphoses of Science Fiction,” leading Zivkovic to pen his own piece researching the history of SF in Yugoslavia, titled “The First Collection of Yugoslav Science-Fiction Stories” (Science-Fiction Studies, #19, Nov. 1979). Zivkovic also translated a large number of books, including Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, published a paper on Clarke’s Childhood’s End (now available online at In short, he is unquestionably responsible for laying the foundation of a history of SF as literature, rather than as an SF researcher.

It is important to note that in the 1970s when Zivkovic appeared on the scene, New Wave SF was at its peak in the US and UK, driven by authors such as JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Thomas M Disch and Samuel Delany, with increasing support for redefining SF as “speculative” rather than “science” fiction. The New Wave movement was appreciated in the 1960s, as society began to condemn the direction of “hardcore” SF, which glorified the American space development program with an optimistic worship of science, technology, and commercial philosophies, instead turning to inner space and modernism in the form of surrealism.

There is no doubting that Zivkovic’s literary talent resonated with this movement. Moorcock, the foremost spokesman of the New Wave SF movement, praised his works enthusiastically; so much so, in fact, that The Library (2002) is dedicated to him. Zivkovic established his own style of speculative fiction, encompassing elements of the incomprehensible, inner space, fantastic literature and surrealism, and has developed them through a series of 18 books from The Fourth Circle (1993) to the most recent The Ghostwriter (2009). Concerning his creative output, the author comments “Japanese readers might get a wrong impression that I am a science fiction writer,” because of the Japanese translation of “Project Lyra” (1982). Today, he explains, he is not an author of traditional SF, but rather a “writer without any prefixes. Just a humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose…” (25 Aug. 2010; private correspondence).

There is no denying that the Zivkovic who spearheaded SF studies through the ‘80s seems quite different than the Zivkovic whose first book, The Fourth Circle, was translated into English in 1993 to establish him as the frontrunner in super-genre literature that includes SF elements (what Bruce Sterling calls “slipstream literature”), going on to win the World Fantasy Award with The Library in 2003, and serve as GOH for the World Fantasy Convention in fall 2009.

Over that period the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, created during World War II, gradually collapsed, becoming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, and throughout the ‘90s the region was wracked by discord, often along ethnic lines. Zivkovic and his family shrank from the “cleansing” policy of Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia. In spite of lacking electricity thanks to NATO strikes and fuel because of UN economic sanctions, he continued to write. The missile strike on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade narrowly missed his own home, and no doubt a non-fiction telling of the tale would be dynamic indeed. The harsher reality became, however, the more Zivkovic probed into an even deeper reality through the power of universal fantasy, avoiding traditional, provincial realism. War and economic sanctions proved the fatal blow to the development of Yugoslavian SF that Zivkovic himself had edited and published, but at the same time may have been responsible for freeing him from the restrictions of genre SF to explore new realms of fantastic literature. (For additional information on Yugoslavian SF at that time, refer to the World SF Report (SF Magazine, April 1992 and Sept. 1993 issues), which features interviews by the above-mentioned Hiroaki Namizu with Bruno Ogorelec and Zivkovic himself.

As critic Dan Hartland comments, “Eastern European literature has a long history of rejecting consensus reality, of preferring the stories of the people to the imposed truth of the elite.” (“The Works of Zoran Zivkovic,” Vector May/June 2006 issue.) The meta-SF interest in SETI visible in “Project Lyra” in the 80s was cleverly built into “The Puzzle” following the tumultuous war years, in a classic fantastic novel structure that is a strategic result of Eastern European fantasy.

And so the masterpieces in this volume portray a fantasy beyond fantasy.

The initial story, “The Teashop” (from Twelve Collections and the Teashop, 2005), starts with Miss Greta, who decides to order a tea made of stories from a teashop while waiting for her train. What comes is not only tea, but a story as well, with the waiter, the woman at the register, and other customers in the shop coming to her table to weave a detailed and fantastic story encompassing a former executioner, a former head nurse, and the widow of a professor. The story is born within yet another story, the framework.

The following story, “The Fire” (from Seven Touches of Music, 2001) begins with Martha awakening from a dream in which she sees musicians gathering at a temple-like building, perhaps in Greece, and playing strangely destructive music that destroys the building with raging fire. Later she goes to her own workplace, a library, and on the PC monitor sees images of the Great Library of Alexandria. It burns in the same way as in her dream, and the fire spreads to her own computer monitor… she thought she had awoken from her dream, but finds that her reality melts with dream into a nightmare.

“Hole in the Wall” (from Steps through the Mist, 2003) is last. A young woman named Katarina gains precognition and a suicidal impulse after a severe traffic accident, and meets her psychiatrist Dr. Alexander. She describes “an infinite number of thin strands that seem to be made of frosted glass,” and explains that “Each of them is a future.” She claims to be able to select the one strand that will come to be, explaining the logic behind her belief in detail, and eventually planning suicide.

Zivkovic’s works do not deal with a single story, a single dream, or a single future. All is intertwined in hierarchies, with vectors stretching out in an infinitude of directions. Its complexity is far greater than, say, the movie “Inception,” because once you open a Zivkovic story and peer inside, you are trapped in a “Chinese box” of meta-literature far deeper that you could have expected from its length. Compared at times to Kafka, Borges and Calvino, he is know as an author who can apply not only speculation, but also what critic Robert E Scholes refers to as “fabulation,” the creation of fables for the post-modern era.

From this realization, then, the second tale in The Library, where new volumes of the “World Literature” series are delivered without ever having been ordered, is fascinating as it defines the core of Zivkovic’s literature. The protagonist wonders how many books will be stuffed into his mailbox, or how many hundred books, resigning himself to the latter estimate. The reason is simple: The series is, after all, world literature, and no matter how thin the paper it is printed on, it would unquestionably be enormous. He begins to prepare himself for the worst case.

It is yet unclear how the Japanese readership will receive this collection of stories by global author Zivkovic, but I guarantee that even if he were to write the most horrifying, fantastic nightmare ever, it would still read with unmatched sweetness.