David Jenkins presents: _ФантАstika: Almanac of Bulgarian Speculative Fiction_

All Aboard the Almanac

by Dr. David Jenkins

Growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the fifties and sixties of the prior millennium, I was an avid reader for pleasure (though not so avid when it came to homework assignments). I faithfully followed the exploits of Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett, high-school superstars who accomplished marvelous feats on the baseball diamond and American football field, on basketball and tennis courts. I kept close company with Bomba, Boy of the Jungle, who not only survived but thrived on hair-raising adventures somewhere deep in the Congo.

But not all of my fantasies were earthbound. Another of my pulp fiction heroes, Tom Swift, Boy Wonder, had a rocket ship he had designed built himself. From one novel to the next, Tom’s inventions rivalled those of Jules Verne. Like Captain Nemo, Tom also had his own submarine. There was Mr. Peabody on the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show, who went Tom and Captain Nemo one better. Mr. Peabody, who was an amazingly intelligent and maddeningly pedantic dog, had a time machine. With his somewhat dense human sidekick, a boy about my age named Sherman, Mr. Peabody visited many admirable and notorious figures through the ages with just the twist of a dial. Like Sherman, I was happy to go along for the ride. Whether traveling back to the past or back to the future, Mr. Peabody rocked, rolled, and ruled. He ranked right up there with Dexter and his laboratory.

Years later, I gladly signed on to the crew of the Starship Enterprise to serve under Captain Kirk and go where no one had gone before. When Kirk relinquished his command of the Enterprise bridge, I quickly reenlisted under Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Later, I dutifully followed Picard to the X-Mansion when he was reinvented with the help of Stan Lee as Professor Xavier. With classmates like the mutants Wolverine, Storm, Pyro, Psylocke, Mystique, Rogue, Jubilee, and Beast, even Muggles would dutifully do their Harry Potter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry homework.

And while we’re on the subject of superheroes, how can we ignore the entire Marvel Universe, Superman and Batman and Robin, Supergirl and Batwoman and Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern and Spiderman, and all of the indomitable Avengers? Okay, as it turns out they were more than a little domitable after <SPOILER>Thanos got hold of the Infinity Stones and reduced lifeforms in the universe by half. But like the Terminator, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Black Widow, the Hulk, Thor, and Jeremy Renner will all be back. Oh, yes they will, I believe they will. And with a vengeance!</SPOILER>

Then there’s the Dark Side – and not just the darkness inhabited by Darth Vader and Darth Sidius. What about a world where human life is just sham and a pretense, where human life-forms are no more than rechargeable orga-batteries for a pandemic dark-side Tesla-Factory Purgatory controlled by artificial intelligence and the impervious machine world, with murderous muscle flexed by more Mr. Smiths than even Neo could imagine? What about the Matrix? That is no excellent adventure, Bill and Ted. Dark, yes, but also a gargantuan parable. Neo the Chosen One, the One, jacked up and jacked in, Oedipus at Colonus and Christ on the Cross. Thanks to Neo’s ultimate soul sacrifice, Here Comes the Sun, little darlings, and a new day dawns. But how in virtual reality could a slacker hacker like Neo save the human race? Even the Oracle admits she doesn’t have the answer to that one. But like Morpheus, and like all the rest of us, she believes. Because faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Which brings us to the project at hand – a collocation of Bulgarian visionaries collectively known as the Terra Fantasia Association of SF&F Writers and Artists. This broadband of brothers and sisters has assembled an anthology or almanac for the ages, spanning not only ages but also a hefty chunk of the space-time continuum and the chronosynclastic infundibulum (see Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan). The creative collective’s tales and illustrations stretch from irresistible good vibes illuminating and energizing a subway system to sentient, poetic winds turned street sweepers and lovelorn hats blowing in the wind, extends from butterflies tippling by rippling streams to… infinity and beyond. Even know-it-all Mr. Peabody would be gob-smacked to learn that Virgil was not only a great Roman poet and an ecologist aghast at all the deadly lead in the Roman water supply, but was also <SPOILER>“a self-tuning bio-robot,” at least as we get to know him (it) in Svetoslav Nikolov’s “Virgil and the Water.”</SPOILER>

And while it is all too easy these days to imagine a human future shorn of flora and fauna and reduced to cyphers in a dystopian megalopolis, who could guess that the unbearable alternative, at least for two of the grizzled survivors of climate apocalypse, would be the prospect of a three-day virtual vacation in a sweet sylvan retreat? (Spoiler alert: what they dread is not the Arcadian virtual reality. It is the prospect of three hellish days away from their bleak apartment. How will they manage without a regular cupful of the liquid-sky soma that keeps them high in their home sweet soma-homa?) Ah, Alexander Karapanchev, we weep for your addicted, terminally conflicted homunculi.

According to Valentin Ivanov in “How I Saved the World, or the Best Job,” for the über-rich there are other options. They can sign on for a cosmic über-lift Virgin Galactica style, destination an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Once they reach their destination, they can look forward to long, tedious hours, days, and months black-washing the ominous rock, the better to aid the techies who determined to alter the hurtling Hammer’s course and, in thirty years or so, save humankind. It seems that even that far from the sphere of our sorrow, there is plenty of хамалска работа. “Whatever you do, don’t ever call your foreman Tom Sawyer. Even behind his back. Even with the radio off. He has ways of hearing you and he gets very upset. The man just thinks that painting fences is the best job ever.”

In Khristo Poshtakov’s “The Most Terrible Beast,” life beyond Earth’s orbit is red in tooth and claw; it is brutal, nasty, and short. The Cosmos is where you encounter, for starters, creatures that are “part chameleon, part horned frog and part scorpion,” with tongues some twenty meters long and mouths “so big they could easily swallow a whole man.” Thus saith Captain Ivashkevic as he bellies up to the space-bar, Hans Solo style. But as Captain Furimoto replies, puffing on his pipeful of intoxicating gas, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a giantocyplex on the planet Crypt. “Listen carefully, rookie, this is the most hideous creature in the galaxy. It weighs about a hundred tons, devours whatever crosses its path, smells disgusting, burps every five steps, and the sound of that is like a thunder striking. Its brain is the size of a pin, and if it has nothing left to eat, it attacks its own kind. That’s why we found just about a hundred specimens on the planet, raging with hunger. It goes without saying that the armor of those beasts is made up of something like ceramic plates which make even laser weapons useless, or that their teeth look like steel pillars.”

As the intrepid Furimoto recalls, taking another puff, the only remedy for these extraterrestrial pests is a small thermonuclear device served up as an appetizer. “The dumb thing just wolfed it down. In short, we rid the universe of one huge stinker.” Now there’s a tale from the crypt, or at least from the planet Crypt.

But Captain Bradley isn’t impressed. “It’s quite another story killing a plasma medusa, as we did once on Jupiter III. Imagine a pale mass as big as a city, pierced by millions of electric discharges each sec, waving around a million tentacles. Such a beauty cares about one thing only: how to turn everything in its track into energy. This plasma terror swims inside the dense atmosphere of the planet and assimilates anything and everything—from smaller medusas, storm clouds and hailstorms with stones the size of six-story buildings to the midgets roaming around the yellowish gas mixture of that sky. Its main job, after all, is reducing matter to atoms.”

And even worse than the Planet Eater is the Galaxy Destroyer, immune to all attempts to eradicate it. As Ivashkevic recalls, “the first sign of imminent doom was the appearance of an odd green light seemingly coming from nowhere. As it gradually turned violet, the stars in the galaxy exploded and created a cosmic fiery hell.” <SPOILER>As the cosmo-barflies brood over their potions of intoxicating gas, the expanse around them gradually turns an infernal greenish-violet. And that, boys and girls, is End of Story. No greeting the dawn here. Just hop in a rocket and get the hell out of there! But alas, poor Yorick, there’s nowhere left to go. An infinite jest.</SPOILER>

Our fathers, who art in heaven, in cemeteries, on expeditions to the Congo’s inner station, sweeping chimneys, selling cars, installing mini-blinds… We are exhorted to love our fathers and mothers – and for that matter, our neighbors and enemies. David, the Mecha-Boy replicant repository of all human being after our race has been extinguished, was programmed to love his mother forever, beyond all human bounds. Instead of retiring her, Decker chose to take his chances with another replicant, the ravishing Rachel, who may or may not have dreamed of electric sheep; we’ll never know. In Ivaylo Ivanov’s “Father”, a story told by his son who spent his childhood years in an incubator, Oliver loved his deceased father Simon, though Oliver’s memories of the man are scattered and sketchy at best. Is Dear Old Dad really dead? Or is he just playing dead, the better to live a life of crime? Even the private detectives that Oliver engages refuse to tell him the truth. Though Simon’s death certificate declares him dead as of May 29, 2081, the truth is that <SPOILER>Dad has donated his entire body to his son, to live as long and to prosper as much as time and tide allows. We can almost hear the echoes of Oliver’s silent prayer “in sector nine, row five, in front of the small copper plaque.” “Father, author and finisher of my genetic code and my innate predispositions, I honor your memory as I stand before you, since I am you, through and through, my soul in the body that you have given me.” For the rest of his life, whenever Oliver looks into a mirror he will look into his father’s eyes.</SPOILER>

While my interest in the writing and visual artistry on display in the embarrassment of riches that is the Terra-Fantasia Almanac knows no earthly bounds, for the purposes of this thumbnail review or reader’s response, I have limited myself to these few comments on tales from the almanac’s first section, Science Fiction. It goes without saying that the rest of the anthology, filed under the headings Fantasy and Magical Realism and Futurum, is equally worthy of praise and richly rewards close attention.

In passing, note that I employ the alternative rubric anthology, since when I think of an almanac, as an American I can’t help but recall the always-practical farmers’ almanacs, preeminent among them Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, with its weather and crop reports, its home remedies and helpful hints about farm animals and farm equipment, always generously sprinkled with epigrams, aphorisms, and apothegms such as “Early to Bed and Early to Rise / Makes a Man Healthy, Wealthy and Wise,” or the one pasted above the locker room entrance that I passed beneath every time I suited up for football practice or football games at my high school in Salt Lake City, as I (vainly) sought to live up to the heroics of my prepubescent sports heroes: “No Pain, No Gain.” I was never quite sure what that meant. Optimistically, it could be interpreted as “make the effort and you will succeed,” or conversely, “if you don’t make the effort, you will fail.” But what if it is just a nano-statement of fact, or an injunction? “There is no point in making an effort, since it won’t do you any good.” Which in turn reminds me of a tee-shirt my father gave me (лека му пръст): “No Guts No Glory.” Is that to be interpreted as “Be brave and gain praise?” Or is it a bleak statement of fact: “Cowards are worthless.” If I wear that tee-shirt, am I advertising myself as a worthless coward?

But I digress. Whether we call it an anthology or an almanac, this collection is the result of who knows how many hours, days, months, and years of painstaking creative effort – including the Herculean task of translating the genius of Bulgarian into the genius of English (I use the word ‘genius’ here in the somewhat abstruse sense of ‘informing spirit’). After taking so much pain, I can only hope that the Association will reap substantial gain. And in all humility (since like Bill and Ted, I’m not worthy), I offer my heartiest congratulations and many thanks for the many excellent adventures. I can only applaud the collective’s collective efforts.

Docent-Doctor David Jenkins
Fulbright Professor of American Literature, Plovdiv University
Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, The University of Texas at Austin
M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry and Translation), Columbia University

You can read our subsequent discussion with David here.

And, more importantly ;), you can request the preview version of ФантАstika: Almanac of Bulgarian Speculative Fiction here.

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