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Best Non-English Science Fiction Books

Best Non-English Science Fiction Books

For the last century or so, at least since Hugo Gernsback gave the genre a name and a pulpy reputation, the default assumption of most people who write about sf has been that it is primarily an American literature, with occasional asides about British, Australian or Canadian writers. Read any of the major histories of science fiction or the big fat anthologies that are supposed to provide a survey of the entire genre, and you will be hard put to find reference to any work not originally written in English. (That has started to change lately, The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts and The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer both pay genuine attention to non-Anglophone sf, but they are still something of a rarety.)

But the English Language view of science fiction is quite simply wrong. Science fiction is written around the world, in every language and every culture. China publishes more science fiction than America, Africa and South America both have their own traditions of science fiction, in Russia and behind the Iron Curtain science fiction was often the major way of writing critically about the Soviet regime. The problem is not that science fiction isn't a global literature, it is that publishers in America and Britain are often reluctant to cut into their profits by paying for translations, and readers in America and Britain have often been reluctant to read translated work. The problem is, therefore, that we often just don't see what is going on in science fiction in the rest of the world.

We cannot survey the entire world of non-Anglophone sf, but these books offer a taste of works from around the globe that have managed to sneak through the defences and appear in English translations. If nothing else, they hint that

China has a very distinctive literary tradition that can often seem strange to Western readers, and the political situation in the country makes it inward looking, turning its back on the rest of the world; at least, that is the common assumption. So it comes as a massive surprise to read a book that so adeptly handles familiar science fiction tropes, such as the threat of alien invasion; that is as up to date as the latest computer games; that is truly global in its settings and its cast of characters.But in fact The Three-Body Problem does what Western readers demand of any work of science fiction, it opens up wonders, it twists our perceptions, and it keeps us reading because it is so exciting. Yes, there are distinctive characteristics, the Chinese settings are unfamiliar, the social and political organisation are not what we are comfortable with; but we are science fiction readers, and we are supposed to deal with novelties every day in everything we read.Why it's at the top of the listIt won the Hugo Award, the first work in translation ever to do so, and it did so in a year when the Sad and Rabid Puppies were pushing a noxious traditionalist and often racist agenda. Though it has to be said that the translator makes a difference: the sequel, The Dark Forest, with a different translator, is not nearly so distinctive or so readable as the original.

Books in Remembrance Of Earth’s Past Series (0)

Short stories are often a great way for readers to discover new writers, so they are often a key route by which non-Anglophone writers can reach an English readership. Even so, anthologies traditionally sell less well than novels, so an anthology entirely composed of work in translation is a bold venture. For anyone interested in sf from other languages, however, it succeeded dramatically.Science fiction in Europe has a history at least as long as that in Britain, and is as thoroughly embedded within the different cultures, but it is far less well known outside the countries of origin. Because publishers in relatively small countries are more willing to produce work in translation, readers in Sweden or Romania are going to be far more familiar with Anglo-American sf than we are with their work. But here, in this anthology, you will discover stories from France, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, Spain, Greece, Romania, Germany, Portugal, Holland and Denmark. There are fables and satires, hard sf and dystopias, Orwellian nightmares and subtle comedies, time paradoxes and alien visitations. The full range of science fiction is on display.Why it's on the listIn tone and subject matter, European sf is probably as close to Anglo-American sf as you can get without actually writing in English, and given the quality of the work included here, it is criminal that these writers are not better known outside their own countries.
Czech is hardly a widely spoken language, and in the years immediately after the First World War Czechoslovakia had barely gained its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had largely swamped Czech culture to that point. This was not exactly a promising source for a play that became a world-wide phenomenon, and one of the most influential texts in the history of science fiction. But within three years of the first performance of R.U.R. in January 1921, it had been translated into 30 languages, and the new word "robot" had become so familiar that it was already being used in English newspapers of the time. Why it's on the list If you know the word "robot" it is because of this play. It is derived from the Czech word "robota", meaning forced labour, and the robots in the play were biological creations closer to cyborgs than the metal creatures that came to dominate sf. But it was here that robots entered the world's consciousness.

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Karel Ã?apek was a prolific journalist, playwright and critic. As Arthur Miller said: "There was no writer like him...prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humour and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination...he is a joy to read." This unique combination is not just evident in R.U.R., but also in his amazing science fiction novel, War With The Newts. Like R.U.R., this is a story about the way people exploit others, in this case a race of intelligent newts discovered on a remote Pacific island. At first the newts are enslaved by an industrialist, but eventually clashes start, and the newts begin to destroy the landmass in order to create more living room for themselves.

During the Cold War, little of the science fiction being written in the Soviet Union managed to reach the West. The one exception was the work of the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote getting on for 20 novels between the late 1950 and the late 1980s. Most, though by no means all of these were translated into English, the most prominent of which were Hard to be a God, The Final Circle of Paradise, Snail on the Slope and especially Roadside Picnic.This is the story of a forbidden region in a remote part of the Soviet Union where aliens had briefly landed. What they left behind was probably no more than the garbage we might leave behind after a roadside picnic, but to Earth it represents a glimpse of an impossibly advanced technology. Which is enough to prompt some people to brave both the Soviet guards and the dangers of the alien technology to investigate the Zone.Why it's on the listRoadside Picnic proved to be an incredibly influential work, largely because of the film version, Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky (with a screenplay by the Strugatsky brothers), which has influenced works as varied as M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy and Jeff Vandermeer's Area X trilogy.

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Although the Strugatsky brothers wrote some optimistic, utopian fiction early in their career, most of their best work has a much darker feel to it. Hard to be a God takes observers from a utopian Earth to a medieval world where they find themselves unable to act against the rise of a fascist dictatorship and a militant religion. In The Final Circle of Paradise an investigator arrives in a seaside resort where there have been a series of unexplained deaths. He finds a city totally given over to decadence, but as he explores further he finds that at the root of it all is an electronic component known as a Slug that creates an utterly addictive virtual reality that is more intense than normal reality.
Of all the works of translated science fiction, there can be few rivals for the mass and continuing popularity of Jules Verne's extraordinary voyages. Between 1863 and his death in 1905, he produced well over 50 novels (a further 10 appeared after his death), most of which incorporated some element of science fiction. But the example of Verne is also a warning that the quality of the translation matters.His books were translated into English almost as soon as they were published, but unlike the translations into other languages which presented him as a major contemporary writer, his English translator tended to see him as a writer for children. Thus the standard editions of his books, many of which have remained in print for well over a century, cut out some scenes, added others, and in general made the books simpler than the original. It is only recently that an effort has been made to produce more accurate English translations of the books.Even so, works like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Off on a Comet, Robur the Conqueror and From the Earth to the Moon, with their subterranean worlds, submarines, flying machines and space journeys continue to excite the imagination.Why it's on the list As a representative of Verne's vast and varied output, From the Earth to the Moon along with its sequel Around the Moon, is fascinating. The building of a massive cannon in Florida to shoot three adventurers on an extraordinary journey to circumnavigate the Moon and return to Earth captures everything that most of us read science fiction to find.

Books in Extraordinary Voyages Series (57)

Labyrinths, a collection of ficciones and other short pieces from several of Borges's earlier books, was the first opportunity the mass of English speakers had to encounter the work of this extraordinary Argentinian writer. He was the godfather of what became known as "magic realism", but that would be too narrow a description for the range of things he wrote.These stories include romantic realism and mythic fantasy, by way of a host of stories that can only be called science fiction. These include tales of immortals, the endless regress at the heart of "The Circular Ruins", a fantastic version of the classic detective story in "Death and the Compass", extraordinary cities, infinite libraries, and above all the discovery of a strange parallel reality in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius".Why it's on the list"Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" alone would be enough to guarantee Labyrinths a place on this list, but it is accompanied by a host of other brilliant stories that twist our perceptions of reality.
One of the things that should make fiction in translation so appealing to science fiction readers is that the stories are often built around very different cultures, traditions, and assumptions so that we are immediately immersed in an alien world. In Johanna Sinisalo's novel, which has also been translated as Not Before Sundown, Finnish folklore reveals a world in which trolls are real creatures. The story concerns the relationship between a gay photographer and an injured troll he comes across, but interspersed throughout the book are newspaper articles, jokes and other bits and pieces that build up a detailed picture of this alternate reality.Why it's on the listEven before The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award, Troll: A Love Story won the Tiptree Award, making it the first translated work to win a major sf award.
To illustrate the problems associated with translation, this novel was a major success in its native Poland, but even though there was a very fine translation already in existence by Michael Kandel, it took a ridiculously long time for any publisher to take on the English language version. Ridiculous, because this is the sort of book that would have been a sensation if it had been published first in English.It is set in a world where, every 35 years, everyone must move to a new Land, where their social status (determined by the colour of their hair) and even their name will be different. At first, as we explore this strange world, it seems as though we are reading a Kafkaesque satire on communism. But then it starts to get weirder, because someone is reading a book called Nest of Worlds which describes a world subtly different from the one we are reading about. And within that novel, someone is reading a book called Nest of Worlds which describes a place that is different yet again. Moreover, everyone who reads Nest of Worlds, even if they pick up the exact same copy, reads a different story. The phantasmagoria of worlds nested within worlds is literally breathtaking.Why it's on the listOne of the pleasures of reading work in translation is that it can introduce writers who clearly deserve to be much more widely known than they are; Huberath is one such writer.
We was written in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and though Zamyatin was himself a Bolshevik, the novel expressed his disquiet at the structuring of society that the Soviet Union was planning; it was, therefore, the first novel banned by the Soviet censorship board. As a result, Zamyatin had the manuscript smuggled out of the country, so it was published in an English translation long before it ever saw print in Russia.Set in a police state where everyone is under constant surveillance by the secret police, We tells of an engineer who meets and falls in love with a free spirit whose independence leads him to question everything he has always assumed about the state. But in the end the state proves all powerful and this suggestion of independence is crushed.Why it's on the listAldous Huxley confirmed that We was part of the inspiration that led him to write Brave New World; and George Orwell, who reviewed We on its original publication in the UK, modelled 1984 very closely on Zamyatin's book. But if it had not had such a major influence on subsequent dystopias, We is a powerful work that deserves to be recognised as one of the great novels of the 20th century.
Rosny was the pseudonym of the Belgian writer, Joseph-Henri Boëx, who rivals his near contemporary, H.G. Wells, as one of the founding figures of European science fiction. Or at least, his reputation would have rivalled that of Wells if his work had been more widely translated. But he remains little known among Anglophone sf readers simply because so little of his work is available in English. This collection of three short novels is a good introduction to his work. "The Xipéhuz" is set at the dawn of time when a tribe of primitive humans encounter aliens. "Another World" is set in contemporary Holland, where a mutant child has the ability to see an entire race of other beings that are invisible to other humans. And "The Death of the Earth" is set in a distant future where mankind struggles to survive, only vaguely aware that a new race of mechanical beings is waiting to inherit the world. Why it's on the list Rosny is another writer who deserves to be far better known outside of his native Belgium, and it is only through these rare translations that we can discover this extraordinarily original body of work.
By the middle of this century, Northern Europe is a nuclear wasteland, with economic and political consequences that threaten the whole of human civilisation. In Italy, a young woman is recruited by an institute trying to find the only possible solution to all the world's woes, in the past. She is transported into the Middle Ages, only to find that she is in danger of changing the entirety of human history.Why it's on the listBeautifully written, vividly told, this novel is a brilliant example of what science fiction is capable of achieving in other cultures.
Like China, Japan has one of the liveliest science fiction scenes in the world, and one of the least known in the West. Very few Japanese science fiction writers have seen their work translated into English (though the related field of manga has been much more successful in that respect). Before his early death at the age of 34, Project Itoh (the pen name of Satoshi Ito), was not only one of the top award-winning sf writers in Japan, he was one of the few whose work had appeared in English.Harmony is possibly his most successful work, set in a post-apocalyptic future that has become a utopia thanks to the medical benefits of nanotechnology. But not everyone is happy with this perfect, ordered existence, and three girls try to commit suicide in protest. They fail, but thirteen years later two of the girls reunite to investigate the terrible truth underlying their perfect world.Why it's on the listHarmony received a special citation from the Philip K. Dick Award when it first appeared in America.
One of the few modern science fiction writers whose work has been consistently translated into English has been Stanislaw Lem. In fact, his work has been so successful in English that he is recognised as one of the great genre writers (at one point it was claimed that he was the most widely read science fiction writer in the world).His work was richly varied, including satires, comedies, reviews of non-existent books, straight forward space adventures and more. But his most persistent themes concerned the nature of intelligence, and the impossibility of communication with a truly alien being. This was at the heart of his most famous novel, Solaris, in which scientists studying the ocean world of Solaris are themselves being studied and manipulated by the sentient ocean.Why it's on the listNever afraid of controversy, Lem always insisted that American science fiction (with the exception of Philip K. Dick) was poorly written and poorly constructed. But the original translation of Solaris wasn't up to the standard of the translations of his later works, so it was only when a revised translation appeared that the quality of his own work was apparent.
In a small village at the point where the Dutch, Belgian and German borders meet, a strange doctor arrives with three even stranger children. Slowly, as we come to understand what is going on, we realise that the beautifully clear and simple prose is actually telling a very complex story. A story about cloning and the ethics of experimenting on humans; a story in which God is evil and Jesus is good; a story in which the ability to do good depends on what we perceive good to be. The result is a searing examination of the conflict between science and religion, in which the more one tries to do good the greater the horror.Why it's on the listThe novel won numerous awards in Europe, and the translation is about as good as you could get, and yet the novel barely registered in the English-speaking world. This is a prime and sad example of the resistance of English readers to read work in translation.
Over the last few years a distinct strand of alternate history writing has appeared in which a woman lives and relives her life multiple times during the twentieth century. Leading examples of this type of story include Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and My Real Children by Jo Walton, but one of the most telling variations is this novel by Jenny Erpenbeck.Moving between the key locations of Eastern European history, from Poland to Vienna, from Moscow to Berlin, it follows one woman who lives and dies several times. Each reincarnation illuminates the way that politics and history have shaped lives during the terrors of the twentieth century.Why it's on the listSometimes writing from within a culture, as in this case writing from within the experience of life in Eastern Europe, tells us more than any outside voice could possibly do. Which is why we need to be able to read this story in translation.
Sometimes translation can rescue a book from oblivion. In this instance, Gaspar was a not particularly successful novelist and playwright in the latter years of the 19th century, his work largely forgotten now even in his native Spain. But in this one curious novel, he has staked a place in the history of science fiction. In 1887, eight years before H.G. Wells produced The Time Machine and one year before Wells's first experiment with the idea in The Chronic Argonauts, Gaspar wrote about a device for travelling through time. Wells clearly knew nothing of Gaspar's work (it was not translated into English until 2013), but this is probably the first time machine in literary history. This novel has none of the depth or subtlety of Wells's work, instead Gaspar was clearly aiming for a colourful romantic adventure after the manner of Jules Verne's extraordinary voyages, with comic interludes and big set-piece scenes from history. Why it's on the list Thanks to the rescue work performed by this translation, this novel has claimed a dubious but significant place in the history of science fiction.

Books in Honor Harrington Series (16)

Ludvig Holberg was a Norwegian philosopher and playwright whose only novel this was. A utopian satire that poked fun at a lot of contemporary issues, it would have created an uproar in Norway at the time, so Holberg published the book in Germany and in Latin, and in the process became the most widely acclaimed Scandinavian writer before Hans Christian Andersen and Henrik Ibsen a century later.One of the major works about another world in the interior of the Earth, the story follows the adventures of the title character who falls through a hole in the Earth's crust and ends up on another planet inside the earth where he encounters sentient trees and a strange utopian society where, among other curiosities, women are equal to men. He also visits a land on the inside of the Earth's crust ruled by intelligent monkeys.Why it's on the listHolberg's story of Niels Klim was a major influence on later books by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne among others, so it has a very important place in the history of science fiction throughout Europe..
Adolfo Bioy Casares was the lifelong friend and occasional collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges, but he was also a considerable writer of fantastic literature in his own right, and nothing quite matches the strange, haunting quality of The Invention of Morel. A fugitive reaches a deserted island, where he plans to hide out. But then he finds there are other people on the island, dressed in party clothes and wandering about in deep conversation, and none of them seems to even notice the fugitive. They are there again the next day, in the same clothes, in the same places, having the same conversations, and they remain unaware of the fugitive. He starts to fall in love with one of the women, but he can't get her to even look at him. Then he discovers strange technology hidden in an isolated building.Why it's on the listThe name of Morel was intended as a reference to H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau, but though Bioy Casares clearly echoes some of the creepy themes of that novel, he also takes it in a wholly original direction with the introduction of something resembling holograms, and with the effect of that technology on the original person.
Mercier was a dramatist and essayist, who was also a member of the Convention at the time of the French Revolution, and on the eve of the Revolution he poured his views on what was wrong with French society into his one utopian novel, which was so successful it went through some 25 different editions after it was first published in 1770. It's the story of a man of the time who suddenly finds himself in the Paris of 2440, and discovers a world with no monks, no beggars, no standing armies, no slaves, no taxes, and none of the things that Mercier thought were immoral and bad for society such as coffee, tea and tobacco. Instead there are hospitals whose procedures are based on science, there's a fair system of justice, and the people are better fed, better clad and happier. Why it's on the list This was one of the earliest glimpses of the future in the history of science fiction, and set the tone for a host of utopian future fictions that appeared over the next century or more.
One of the problems with having to rely on translation to the whole other world of science fiction out there, is that it can be terribly hit and miss. For instance, Kurd Lasswitz is one of the seminal figures in German sf, lending his name to the premier German science fiction award. He occupies roughly the same position in German sf as his younger contemporary, H.G. Wells, does in English language sf. And yet Lasswitz has not been well served by translation.His best novel, Auf Zwei Planeten, was published in 1897, a year before The War of the Worlds which it echoes in interesting ways. The Martians are an older civilisation, but they are running out of food. Their journey to Earth is made in spaceships powered by anti-gravity devices, but they follow realistic trajectories with mid-course corrections that clearly fed into the imaginations of early readers like Wernher von Braun. It is clearly a major work of science fiction that deserves to be at least as well known as Wells's novel. Yet it was not translated into English until 1971, and even then the translation is incomplete.Why it's on the listTwo Planets isn't on the list because of the quality of the translation, but because this is an example of how important translation is in our knowledge of science fiction.
Zoran Zivkovic is both writer and translator (he has translated several works of science fiction into Serbian, as well as translating his own fiction into English) so he is far better placed than many non-Anglophone writers. Even so, his often weird and inventive works have tended to appear from small presses and in short print runs, so they are not always as readily available as we might like. This was his first novel, and it's an excellent introduction to the wild and free-wheeling imagination that marks all of his work. Four very different stories intertwine: there's the painter of frescoes in a medieval monastery; a computer programmer who creates a female AI; Sherlock Holmes receives a mysterious message, but this is not quite the Sherlock Holmes we recognise; and a lone figure must cross a barren airless desert on an alien world in order to reach a strange circle. With other vignettes and anecdotes intruding into the narrative, taking us from Buddhist temples to the edge of a black hole, this is intellectually engaging science fiction of a very high order. Why it's on the list Without translation, we'd be very unlikely to encounter literature from a country like Serbia, small and war-torn as it was at the time this novel was being written; which means we would be so much the poorer.
Silvina Ocampo was the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares and friend of Jorge Luis Borges, so it is easy to anticipate what sort of fiction she wrote. But as this retrospective collection taken from her entire career shows, she brought a very distinctive and individual style to the weird and wonderful stories she told. Many of them seem to be straight forwardly realist, until you come upon a subtle distortion that changes everything. We meet young girls who want to be dolls, or girls who foresee the future, hauntings and sudden acts of cruelty, and one story narrated by someone who turns out not to exist.Why it's on the listThe stories of Silvina Ocampo are highly rated in her native Argentina, but little known in the English speaking world, which is why translations can be so important.
The blurb that accompanies this novel compares it to Huxley and Orwell, but the work it most closely resembles is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. In a clean, well-ordered, peaceful and happy future, men and women who have reached a certain age, unmarried, childless and without work, check into the Second Reserve Bank Unit. Here they live out their life in comfort and security, all their needs are catered for, and they are surrounded by companionable people just like themselves. The only cost is that their body parts are harvested for more productive members of society. Then two of the inmates fall in love, and what had seemed comforting and even pleasureable is suddenly revealed to be monstrous. Why it's on the list The Unit was first published in Sweden in 2006, not long after Ishiguro's novel appeared in Britain, so it is interesting to see how, even without a common language, science fictional ideas resonate across national borders.
Fantasy and science fiction have at least as long and honourable tradition in Russian fiction as they do throughout Western Europe (and longer than they do in America), and this survey of Russian f&sf indicates how integral the fantastic is to Russian literature. After all, there are stories here by Pushkin, Turgenev, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Lermontov and many others who count as giants of world literature. The older pieces are quaint by modern standards, and there are no stories by living writers which means that the resurgence of Russian science fiction since the fall of the Soviet Union isn't represented, but as an introduction to an often surprising form of science fiction this selection is excellent.Why it's on the listTo be honest, the critical paraphernalia around each of the stories tends to be lumbering and clumsy, but read it for the stories alone and you'll want to know much much more about a branch of sf we've barely been aware of in the West.
There are echoes of both Holmqvist's The Unit and Project Itoh's Harmony in this novel by one of Germany's leading young writers. Derived from an earlier play by Zeh, The Method is set in a future "health dictatorship" where strict laws are enforced to ensure that everyone is as healthy as possible. When one man commits suicide to protest against the system, his sister slowly comes to question the METHOD, and eventually becomes a rebel in her own right.Why it's on the listJuli Zeh's work is highly praised in Germany, so it is fortunate that we have a translation that is alive to the subtleties and strengths of her writing.
It is worth remembering that early science fiction was not necessarily written in English. For example, Utopia, which has a good claim to be one of the progenitors of science fiction (and utopias of various stripes remain a very significant part of science fiction even today) was written by an Englishman, but he wrote it in Latin and it was first published in Utrecht. More himself subsequently produced an English language version of the second part of the book, but it would be some decades before the entire work was translated. In fact it was written in Latin so that it could be read right across Europe, and it was translated into other languages before it could be read in English.