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SF from Benelux you should be reading

By / December 6, 2017 / no comments

Our leisurely tour around the world of science fiction brings us to the Low Countries, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands (though, apart from being the birthplace of Hugo Gernsback, Luxembourg doesn’t really feature in this story). The old name for the region, “The Low Countries”, and the more recent name, “Benelux”, both suggest that this is an area united either geographically or politically. In fact it is quite a divided region, religiously (between the mostly Protestant north and the mostly Catholic south), linguistically (between the French-speaking Walloons, and the Dutch and Flemish speakers), and of course politically into three distinct countries. These divisions often show up in the literature from the region.

Fiction from the French-speaking part of Belgium tends to absorbed into the literature of France. This isn’t just a phenomenon in science fiction: we tend to forget that Georges Simenon was Belgian, or that Asterix was a Franco-Belgian comic. The most famous, and the best, of the science fiction writers from French-speaking Belgium was J.-H. Rosny aine, the pseudonym of Joseph Henri Honore Boex. He began his career collaborating with his younger brother, Seraphin Justin Francois Boex, using the pen name J.-H. Rosny (their most famous collaboration is probably the prehistoric adventure, The Quest for Fire). When the brothers went their separate ways, Joseph Henri  wrote as Rosny aine, Rosny the Elder. He was a near contemporary of H.G. Wells, and is often seen as a potential rival to Wells and Jules Verne in the history of science fiction, a position that might have been more assured if we hadn’t had to wait until after his death before his work was translated into English. He wrote a series of short but complex novels, three of the best of which are collected in Three Science Fiction Novellas, which consists of “Les Xipehuz” in which primitive man encounters non-organic aliens, “Another World” in which a mutant superman becomes aware of other beings sharing the world with us but unseen by humanity, and “The Death of the Earth” in which the last humans give way to a new metal-based life form.

Writers from the Dutch and Flemish regions tend to be less well known, because these are languages that don’t often get translated into English. Indeed, if you want to discover Dutch or Flemish sf, your best bet is to keep an eye out for their occasional appearance in anthologies. Thus you’ll find the Dutch writer, W.J. Maryson in The SFWA European Hall of Fame edited by James and Kathryn Morrow, or the Belgian writer Eddy C. Bertin in The Science Fiction Century edited by David G. Hartwell.

The writers who are more likely to be translated are those recognised for their mainstream work, but mainstream writers from Holland and Belgium seem quite ready to use elements of the fantastic in their work. One of the best examples is Stefan Brijs, whose The Angel Maker, set precisely and significantly at a point where three countries meet, is a disturbing tale of cloning and reproduction, that starts with mystery and keeps drifting towards horror and back.

The noted Dutch poet, travel writer and novelist, Cees Nooteboom, uses less overtly science fictional elements in his work, but there fantastic elements such as the woman with wings who appears in Lost Paradise, or the man who goes to sleep in one city and wakes in a different city in The Following Story. While Harry Mulisch’s novel, The Discovery of Heaven, which has been voted the best book in the Dutch language, is the story of three lives that are affected by an angel charged with returning to heaven the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.


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