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Science Fiction in Croatia

 Aleksandar Žiljak


In Croatian literature, elements of proto-science fiction date as far back as the Renaissance. Probably due to Croatia's turbulent twentieth-century history, its science fiction passed through several distinct phases. 

Birth (1918 - 1945)

The years between two world wars saw the birth and early development of Croatian SF in the modern sense. It is interesting to note that most of the Croatian SF during this period was serialized in newspapers and various magazines. Most of the novels and stories published in the 1920s and 1930s are now hard to find, their authors frequently signing themselves with pen names or initials.

The first Croatian novel with clear SF elements is Crveni ocean (1918 - 19; The red ocean) by Marija Jurić-Zagorka. It is an adventure-romance about a young inventor using his gadgets to fight forces of evil that ends with dreamy anticipation of world proletarian revolution - the titular Red Ocean.

The first Croatian true SF novel was Na Pacifiku 2255 (On the Pacific in 2255) by Milan Šufflay (signed as Eamon O'Leigh), serialized in 1924 and reissued as a book in 1998. It predicts, with uncanny foresight, a new postcapitalist and postcommunist world in which global power shifted to East Asia and the Pacific.

In 1932 Mato Hanžeković published Gospodin čovjek (A man of rank), a utopian story about a small group of people rebuilding civilization destroyed in a new world war. While Sufflay and Hanžeković expressed post - World War I anxieties and should today be read in the context of antimodernism, other writers were influenced by popular fiction.

One of the best known among them is Mladen Horvat with his novel Muri Massanga (1927), a tale of a man capable of materializing his thoughts.

Aldion Degal (most likely a pseudonym of a hitherto unknown writer) published the novel Atomska raketa (1930; The atomic rocket), about an encounter between civilizations from the earth and the moon. It was followed by Zrake smrti (1932 - 33; The death rays) and Smaragdni skarabej (1934 - 35; The emerald scarab).

Another very good novel for its time is Stan Ragers's Majstor Omega osvaja svijet (1940; The Omega Master conquers the world). Stan Rager was a pen name used by Stanko Radovanović and Zvonimir Furtinger, writing in tandem. The novel is a page-turner about a mad scientist in his nuclear-powered submarine, which culminates in atomic bombardment of New York and a showdown on the shores of the Antarctic. The thunder of World War II cannons and bombs echoes in this novel, although the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia (and Croatia) was still some time away (April 1941). 

Coming of Age (1959 - 1965)

Some SF stories by Croatian authors were published even during World War II. The immediate postwar years - with President Tito and the Communist Party ascending to power in Yugoslavia and Croatia - represented a short lull in the continuity of Croatian SF. However, the late 1950s saw a marked increase in translated novels (by American, Russian, and European authors) published by Yugoslav publishers. Such interest in SF coincides with rapid industrialization, consequent urbanization, and widespread education under TitO's rule.

As far as Croatia is concerned, the late 1950s and early 1960s were marked by Mladen Bjažić and Zvonimir Furtinger, writing in tandem. Their first effort was the somewhat episodic Osvajač 2 se ne javlja (1959; The Conqueror 2 does not reply), about an alien expedition - sent by a civilization barely surviving a cosmic catastrophe - visiting Earth in early 1900s. Svemirska nevjesta (1960; The space bride) is about a scientist working on an antigravity device, at the same time coping with his beautiful but very mysterious secretary. In Varamunga - tajanstveni grad (1960; Varamunga: The mysterious city), an intelligent computer, running a fully automated production plant somewhere in Australia, goes berserk and builds killer robots, until stopped by an Interpol agent. In the juvenile Zagonetni stroj profesora Kružica (1960; The mysterious machine of Professor Kružic; reissued in 1970 in a somewhat updated form as Ništa bez Božene / Nothing without Božena), children on summer vacation discover a tornado-inducing device, long abandoned in the cellar of a house they're staying in. Mrtvi se vracaju (1965; The dead return) deals with a matter-replicating machine used on a man accused of murder. Well written, these popular novels incorporated elements of the mystery genre and were spiced with humor and irony. They undoubtedly influenced numerous fans and subsequent writers. Bjažić and Furtinger were the pioneers of modern Croatian SF, introducing many new and fresh ideas.

The second most important author of that time was Angelo Ritig, who wrote in a more mature literary style and was more interested in the psychological development of his characters facing new technologies. In Sasvim neobično buÄ‘enje (1961; Quite an unusual awakening), a philanthropist's brain is transferred into the body of a criminal, resulting in identity problems. Ljubav u neboderu (1965; Love in the skyscraper) describes a mind-reading device and its use in murky banking transactions. 

The Sirius Years (1976 - 1989)

In July 1976 the SF magazine Sirius was started, this being the crucial event in the history of Croatian SF. Published by Zagreb newspaper and magazine publisher Vjesnik, it was initiated by Borivoj Jurković and Damir Mikuličic. Sirius, being a monthly, lasted until December 1989, when it reached issue #163/164. It had a circulation reaching thirty thousand in its heyday and was twice elected (in 1980 and 1984) the best European SF magazine. After Jurković edited Sirius for more than one hundred issues, he was succeeded by Hrvoje Prćić, although Milivoj Pašiček was signed as an editor for some time.

Sirius was modeled after American magazines and published stories mostly by English-speaking, but also Soviet and European (particularly French), authors. Sirius considerably influenced the development of SF in Croatia, offering Croatian writers an opportunity to publish.

Several writers became well known in Sirius. While Branko Belan and Zvonimir Furtinger were the best of those already established, both being in their mid-sixties when Sirius was started, Predrag Raos was certainly the greatest among the young writers. The most prolific Sirius authors were Branko Pihač and Živko Prodanovic, while Neven Antičevic, Radovan Devlic, Darije Đokić, Damir Mikuličic, Slobodan Petrovski, Zdravko Valjak, and many others also deserve mention.

Sirius also revealed the significant presence of women writers such as Vera Ivosić-Santo (a.k.a. Veronika Santo), Vesna Gorše, Biljana Mateljan, Vesna Popović, Tatjana Vranić, and others. Without any doubt, women publishing in Sirius were on average superior writers to their male colleagues, both in style and subjects, particularly when their relatively small outputs are considered.

Although it is really impossible to draw any common denominator from some five hundred Croatian SF stories published in Sirius, some trends are obvious. For instance, it's easy to notice a large number of often postnuclear anti-utopias. This was an obvious comment on the Cold War, as well as the Yugoslav single-party socialist society. (However, socialism in Yugoslavia was much more liberal than in other East European countries, let alone the USSR. Yugoslavia - not a member of the Warsaw Pact - was open to both the West and the East.) Other classic SF subjects were also present, such as space-opera, hard-SF, first contact, time travel, and ESP. On the other hand, some subgenres, such as cyberpunk and alternative histories, were almost completely missing. Due to the editorial orientation toward SF, there was no fantasy or horror in Sirius.

Between 1976 and 1989 - the years now dubbed the Sirius period - some very important SF novels appeared. Predrag Raos published his two-part epic Brodolom kod Thule (Shipwrecked at Thula) in 1979. Almost 850 pages long, it is possibly the best Croatian science fiction novel ever. Describing the disaster striking the first faster-than-light expedition to Alpha Centaury, it's brilliantly written and never boring. Shipwrecked at Thula, Sirius stories, Mnogo vike nizašto (1985; Much ado about nothing, about an expedition to Mars), and Nul effort (1990, about an expedition caught in an intergalactic war) firmly established Predrag Raos as one of the finest Croatian writers.

Other significant novels from the early to mid-1980s include two medical SF novels, Uzbuna na odjelu za rak (Alert at the cancer ward) and Ponocni susret (The midnight encounter) by Neven Orhel, followed by Branko Belan's Utov dnevnik (Ut's diary) and Hrvoje Hitrec's Ur.

The only two Croatian SF movies to date also appeared in this period. The first was Izbavitelj (1977; The rat savior), directed by Krsto Papic and honored at the Trieste SF Film Festival. The second was Dušan Vukotic's SF comedy Posjetioci iz galaksije Arkana (1980; Visitors from the Arkana galaxy). 

Next Generations (1992 - onward)

The early 1990s, marked by the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, seemed hardly an appropriate time for a new SF magazine. So it was a surprise when, in autumn 1992, a small Zagreb graphic design and publishing company, Bakal, introduced Futura to the newsstands. Basically, Futura was similar to Sirius, as a monthly with similar importance. However, Futura's circulation was much lower. Facing a general drop in living standards in Croatia, it had problems and changed several editors and a publisher. Eventually, it became very irregular, currently (December 2009) standing at issue #130.

In spring 1995 a new and important project was started. The Zagreb SF club SFera issued the first of its story collections, titled Zagreb 2004, initiated and edited by Darko Macan. Zagreb 2004 collected stories by young writers about Zagreb ten years in the future, the primary subject obviously being the war in Croatia, at that moment still unresolved. Although many featured writers had already published, mostly in fanzines and Futura, this collection proved that a new generation had arrived. At the same time, it seemed that the members of the Sirius generation had mostly faded away, at least in their capacity as writers.

Not that nothing was heard from them. Predrag Raos was vehement against President TuÄ‘man's authoritative rule. However, only two of the books he published in the 1990s were true SF: Mayerling and the children's novel Od rata do zvijezda (From the war to the stars). Živko Prodanovic published the novels Tamara (2000) and Smrt među rimskim ruševinama (2003; Death among the ruins of Rome). Damir Mikuličic and Neven Antičevic became publishers.

In the meantime, SFera continued producing its annual collections, timing them to coincide with the annual SFeraKon convention held in Zagreb. Fifteen collections have been published thus far, and the project is ongoing. Because of the careful selection and editing, these collections represent the cutting edge of modern Croatian SF. The stories published in them were on average much better than those in Futura, firmly establishing the new authors.

Interesting comparisons can now be made between present-day stories and those published in Sirius. In the 1990s the approach to various subjects became more modern and diverse. Writers now pay more attention to literary qualities, characters, and plotline. Modern storytelling techniques are employed, and there are even literary experiments. Finally, the 1990s authors introduced Croatian themes, characters and settings. Why the majority of Sirius authors were reluctant to do this, even when appropriate - opting instead for stereotyped American and/or European characters or choosing some neutral settings - remains open to discussion. Whatever the reason, it seems as if the future finally started happening to Croatians in Croatia, and this means further maturing of Croatian SF during the 1990s.

One of the results of the SFera books was the spread of the story-collection bug from Zagreb to Istria, so, starting in 2002, short-short-story collections were promoted at the annual Istrakon conventions held in the small town of Pazin. In the last four years, collections were also prepared for the annual Festival of Fantastic Literature, also held in Pazin.

In 2003 the SFera series was initiated, which - over three years - included story collections by the best of the new generation of Croatian SF authors, spanning the entire spectrum of interests and themes. The featured writers were Tatjana Jambrišak, Igor Lepčin, Darko Macan, and Aleksandar Žiljak in 2003; Zoran Krušvar, Dalibor Perkovic, Zoran Pongrašic, and Zoran Vlahovic in 2004; and, finally, Milena Benini, Goran Konvični, Krešimir Mišak, and Danilo Brozovic in 2005.  

* * *

Compared to Western writers, the individual output of Croatian authors is quite small. The reason is simple: SF writing in Croatia is not commercial. One consequence of this was the almost total lack of true (much less good) SF novels during the 1990s. However, beginning with the new century, this started to change.

In 2002 two SF novels appeared, both including considerable amounts of humor. These were Topli zrak (Hot air) by Davor Slamnig and Ja i Kalisto (Me and Callisto) by Dejan Sorak. They were followed by two very good novels for children, Prsti puni mora (Fingers full of sea) by Igor Lepčin and Pavo protiv Pave (Paul versus Paul) by Darko Macan.

In 2003 the best Croatian SF novel in more than a decade was published. It was Sablja (The sabre) by Ivan Gavran. A superbly written space opera about a group of post-apocalyptic Earth pilots flying their F-86 Sabre jet fighters in a galactic air combat tournament, Sablja is also a sharp comment on the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Gavran's latest novel is Božja jednadžba (The god equation).

Another excellent novel from 2003 was Christkind by Boris Dežulovic. In 2004 a popular three-part epic, Araton, by Oliver Franic was published - combining, in the tradition of E. R. Burroughs, SF with sword-wielding adventure. In 2005 Dalibor Perkovic published a military SF novel, Sva krv čovječanstva (All the blood of mankind).

Predrag Raos returned with his first major novel in years, Vertikala (2006; The vertical), dealing with moral dilemmas faced by the designer of an orbital spacecraft-launch system. The Vertical was followed by two story collections and a fantasy novel Let Nancija Konratata (2007; The flight of Nancio Konratat).

In 2006 Veselin Gatalo published Geto (The ghetto), an action-packed allegorical vision of a future Bosnia and Herzegovina. Danilo Brozovic caused quite a furor with his 2007 political cyberpunk novel Bojno polje Istra (Battlefield Istria), about the Istrian war of independence from Croatia. Two SF serials were also initiated in the past few years, one being Zoran Vlahovic's cyberpunk-noir Strijelac (The shooter), and the other is Lovina (The prey), created by T. H. Knight (a pen name) and Marin Medic, combining vampires and cyberpunk. Three SF novels by newcomers stirred quite an interest: Pobjednik (2008; The winner) by Tamoya Sanshal (a pseudonym), Xavia by Damir Hoyka and Strašni (The horrible) by Rade Jarak, both from 2009. There were also several important story collections in the past few years, notably those by Marina Jadrejčic, Veronika Santo, Vesna Popovic, Irena Rašeta, and Darko Macan.

As far as other speculative fiction genres are considered, fantasy is represented by several very bad novels that don't even deserve mentioning. Two notable exceptions are the juvenile Čudesna krljušt (1995; The miraculous scale) by Zvjezdana Odobašic, and fantasy spoofs by Vanja Spirin.

The horror scene is somewhat more lively, with the most prolific author being Viktoria Faust (a pen name). Beside numerous horror and SF stories, her novels include U anđeoskom liku zvijeri (2000; In the angelic image of the beast), Neizgovorena priča (2005; The untold story), Nasmrt preplašen (2005; Scared to death), Anastasia, and Solarne mačke (2009; Solar cats).

Denis Peričic collected his horror stories in Krvavo (2004; The bloody). In 2006 Boris Peric drew a lot of attention with his novel Vampir (The vampire), inspired by alleged actual events. Zoran Krušvar's novel Izvršitelji nauma gospodnjeg (2007; The executioners of the Lord's intention) developed into a multimedia project, involving heavy-metal bands and video artists. Darko Macan ventured into juvenile horror with his novels Dlakovuk (2007; The hairwolf) and Jadnorog (2008; The poorhorn). 

Comics and Art

The tradition of SF comics in Croatia dates back to the mid-1930s. The first Croatian SF comic was Gost iz svemira (1935; The guest from outer space) by Božidar Rašic and Leontije Bjelski, followed by Krešimir Kovačic's and Andrija Maurovic's Ljubavnica s Marsa (The mistress from Mars) and Podzemna carica (The underground empress). During the 1950s and 1960s, the best SF-comics authors were brothers Norbert and Walter Neugebauer. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the best new authors were Radovan Devlic, Igor Kordej, Goran Delic, and Krešimir Zimonic.

During the 1990s, the situation with comics in Croatia was poor indeed. No magazine lasted for any period of time. Things have recently improved, however. Croatian comic artists have a long tradition of working for foreign publishers. This continued in the 1990s with the breakthrough on the American market, mostly in the franchise universe and superhero series by Dark Horse, Marvel, Antarctic Press, and DC. The best-known writer in this field is Darko Macan, while the art was produced by the late Edvin Biukovic, Igor Kordej, Goran Parlov, Esad T. Ribic, Goran Sudžuka, Milan Trenc, and Danijel Žeželj.

SF art is not particularly developed in Croatia. Several artists created quite an enviable amount of artwork on the Sirius covers, the best being Miroslav Sinovčic, Vjekoslav Ivezic, and Igor Kordej. Among the artists producing in some quantity in the 1990s and later were Igor Kordej, Esad T. Ribic, and the author of this text. Karlo Galeta and Robert Drozd monopolized the Futura covers for several years with their 3D computer-art. Željko Pahek also returned to the Croatian art scene, working mostly in Serbia before the war. He is famous for his SF-art, but also for his hilarious comics, spoofing almost every known SF cliché.

F Is for Fandom

Organized fandom in Croatia dates back to 1976, when the SF club SFera was founded in Zagreb. More clubs followed. As usual, they are involved in convention organizing and publishing fanzines, the oldest being SFera's own Parsek, started in 1977. Parsek reached issue #110 in December 2009, thus being the longest-running fanzine in Croatia.

Perhaps the true phenomenon of Croatian fandom is the convention. At this moment, Croatia has annual conventions in Zagreb, Pazin, Opatija, Rijeka, and Osijek. To these, one must add the Jules Verne's Days and Festival of Fantastic Literature, both held annually in Pazin.

SFeraKon in Zagreb is the oldest convention, dating back to 1977. It is organized by the SFera club and attracts up to a thousand visitors. Annual SFera Awards are given for the best SF achievements. In the last decade, SFeraKon boasts an enviable list of foreign guests of honor, thus continuing the good international relationships maintained during the 1970s and 1980s.

Istrakon in Pazin is the second-largest Croatian SF convention, now running for ten consecutive years. Essekon in Osijek also has some tradition, while Liburnikon in Opatija and Rikon in Rijeka are rapidly establishing themselves as popular events.

The spread of the Internet provided a further impetus to the growth of Croatian fandom. Besides the usual fandom forum communication, the Internet scene supports new aspiring writers through online magazines (most notably, NOSF), online literary workshops, and blog stories, thus alleviating the present lack of a regular (semi-)professional magazine. 

Fast Forward into the Future

Science fiction is becoming accepted as part of Croatian popular culture. A process of thorough evaluation of its development is now underway. The first major step was Ad Astra, an anthology of Croatian SF stories from 1976 to 2006. This 640-page book was edited by Tomislav Šakić and Aleksandar Žiljak and published in April 2006, after two years of work. It contains forty stories by the most important Croatian SF writers as well as historical texts, biographic notes, and a bibliography of the Croatian SF story in the aforementioned thirty-year period.

Another problem addressed by Šakić and Žiljak is the lack of an SF magazine publishing Croatian authors. Thus, in November 2007 the first issue of UBIQ was introduced to the public. UBIQ - with issue 6 scheduled for April 2010 - is a 260-page biannual literary magazine devoted to Croatian writers. It also publishes theoretical and bibliographical texts. Although small-press and state-sponsored, UBIQ finally drew the attention of the so-called mainstream and academic circles to SF. Also opened to fantasy and horror, this magazine attracted numerous new writers, as well as those already established since the 1990s. But it also inspired some Sirius-period writers to reactivate, thus spanning three decades of Croatian science fiction. Hopefully this project will grow and serve as a firm anchor-point for further growth of Croatian speculative fiction in its broadest sense.



Aleksandar Žiljak (b. 1963, Zagreb) earned a master of computer sciences degree from the Electrotechnical Faculty in Zagreb. However, he makes his living as a freelance illustrating artist, doing primarily wildlife art. He has been writing SF/F/H stories since 1991. Some of them were collected in the book
Slijepe ptice (2003; Blind birds). He wrote a popular-science book, Cryptozoology: The World of Mysterious Animals, using the pseudonym Karl S. McEwan. He publishes worldwide. He is also a science-fiction editor. Žiljak won six SFERA Awards: three for stories, two for science-fiction art, and one - with Tomislav Šakić - for editing the Ad Astra anthology.

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