photo: Mikołaj Starzyński

Bedside table #82. Magdalena Salik: Science fiction allows for imperfections

Magdalena Salik, writer and popular science journalist, talks about, among other things, her greatest literary fascinations, her expectations of science fiction literature, her discovery of Bernhard and Saunders, as well as her work on the novel Płomień (“Flame”), for which she was awarded the 2022 Jerzy Żuławski Literary Award and the Janusz A. Zajdel Award.

What do you write in your notebook?

For example, sentences to be said by one of my characters in the as yet unwritten parts of the book. I'm also writing down the titles of books I'd like to read, though this is unlikely to happen due to lack of time. However, I don't run around with a notebook all the time to jot down pearls of wisdom. It is more of a paper memory prosthesis.

What book titles have made their way into your notebook recently?

I'm reading a lot about the climate crisis right now, so I've written down the names of two British authors and their books that haven't been published in Poland yet. How to Save Our Planet by Mark Maslin and Hothouse Earth by Bill McGuire. On my 'to read' list, I also have Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, and from non-climate stuff, Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen and Mijn lieve gunsteling (“My Dear Favourite”) by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.

Do you read for pleasure, for work, or a combination of the two?

I read for pleasure, with a view to my writing and professional work. These three planes sometimes overlap, but not always.

When reading science fiction books, do you pay attention to errors and inaccuracies, i.e. from different scientific fields? 

No, because the word 'speculative fiction' allows for certain imperfections. Besides, the author may simply make a mistake. Instead, in science fiction, I pay attention to general themes that I don't think make sense, such as the frequently repeated idea assuming that we will all move into computers in the future. A long time ago, when I read about it, I thought there wouldn't be enough energy for it after all. Before I wrote Flame, in which this topic appeared, I tried to calculate whether this would be possible. These calculations were very imperfect, but I later found a similar problem - involving the simulation of the human brain - described on the blog of Dr Jakub Mielczarek, a theoretical physicist from Jagiellonian University. I deduced from his entry that simulating the mind would be quite demanding energetically. So, for us all to move into computers, we would have to find some powerful new energy source beforehand, such as mastering nuclear fusion. From a scientific point of view, this motive is therefore questionable. More similar examples could be found.

What else grabs your attention when reading?

In non-fiction books, I pay attention to the logic of the argument and whether the author started with a thesis for which they tailored the facts, or whether they first gathered and analysed the facts, and only then attempted to develop a thesis. When reading fiction, I give in to an artistic impression; I enjoy the reading, the way the book affects me. What I enjoy most is reading an excellent book, because as you read it, you stop taking it apart - you just read with pleasure and possibly wonder at the end why you thought the piece was so phenomenal.

What books would make it onto your list of excellent works?

The problem is that there are already so many masterpieces on the high school reading list that there are inevitably considerably fewer literary discoveries later on. If I had to name a brilliant book read in the last two years, it would be Thomas Bernhard's Gathering evidence: An Indication of the Cause. Not because it is sad, pessimistic, and dramatic. While reading it, it was the first time I encountered a choice of means - repetitions, recurring sentences, lack of paragraphs - which literally imprison the reader in the narrative, giving them no chance to escape the world created. Bernhard's ability to question and reject what his nationality brings is also amazing to me. He is the penultimate author of whom I have read everything or almost everything that has come out in Poland.

My latest discovery, however, is George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo is the closest thing to The Master and Margarita I have ever come across. It wasn't until I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain that I understood why Lincoln reminded me of Russian literature - Saunders teaches a university class on the analysis of short stories by 19th-century Russian novelists. In turn, I reached for Pastoralia over the summer holidays and, although I'm not keen on short stories, I found this one sensational. In a short text, Saunders manages to outline an entire character with humour and does so subtly, deftly, and with absolute psychological truth. For me, this is a continuation of 19th century thinking about literature. Plus, the opening story of Pastoralia could be speculative fiction if only it was gently reshaped.

Speaking of 19th-century literature, what appeals to you most about it?

I liked the great realist novels until I started to wonder how much realism could be used in contemporary prose and contemporary writing. At a certain point, I came to the conclusion that the concept of the novel as a mirror rambling through the highroad was completely outdated. Which doesn't change the fact that as a reading stage it was important to me. If I had to name the most important title from the 19th century for me, it would be The Brothers Karamazov.

What is your opinion of Russian literature?

I have had a problem with it for almost a year now. Six months ago, at the end of spring, Polish society reassessed our attitude to Russian literature and to Russian elites. Questions have been raised as to whether we can and should still love Russian literature, and if so, for what? I then read a shocking essay by Oksana Zabuzhko, in which she made it very clear that Russian literature has and always has had some disturbing elements, but until now they have either been overlooked or not considered negative, such as not calling a criminal a criminal and evil evil, the fascination with crime without judging it. Zabuzhko also pointed out that emotionality is often considered more important than rationality in Russian texts. Russian literature is indeed very emotional and does not value following logic. I also became acquainted at that time with Joseph Brodsky’s poem On the Independence of Ukraine - linguistically brilliant, yet vicious and awful at the same time. I used to love Joseph Brodsky and his poems, so this was quite a blow for me.

Quite different from Varlam Shalamov, whom I have always regarded as the best of Russian writers, and his Kolyma Tales as one of the top masterpieces of world literature. Also defendable is a book that is fairly little known in our country, Sergei Liebedev's Oblivion - a sensational novel about the unprocessed Russian memory. The book ends with one of the best poetic images in literature I know. The narrator of Oblivion wants to find out something about his adopted grandfather's past. The clues indicate that to unravel the mystery he must travel to the far north, to the land of the Gulag. The question is, who was his adopted grandfather - executioner or victim? As we read, we realise the importance of calling things as they truly were. When I read this book a few years ago, I thought it spoke about something very important that has yet to happen. That it is a foreshadowing of something yet to be unveiled. I had a similar feeling when I read Andrzej Leder's Prześniona rewolucja (“Sleepwalking the Revolution”).

I wonder what our approach to Russian writers would have been had this war not broken out.

There would not have been the reassessment that followed. Perhaps we would continue to print Zakhar Prilepin. I do feel bad for some of the beautiful phrases from The Monastery, though - they deserve another author. However, there are some Russian names without which it is impossible to speak of literature at all. We will not throw out and burn Dostoevsky's books because he was a Russian nationalist, but it is possible that we will look at his work differently and at what fascinated us in it. 

Perhaps we can look at Dostoevsky's approach to Poles in a different way?

The ending of The Idiot is amusing - the novel ends with the main character not marrying someone from her circle but running away with a Polish patriot to fight for Poland's independence. In the author's opinion, of course, this proves that she has totally lost it and is lost to the world. This is an example of Dostoevsky's thinking about us, but we may mischievously read the finale of The Idiot very differently from what the author intended. Perhaps after the whole row with Myshkin, Aglaya has finally decided to devote herself to a just and righteous cause?

Do you return years later to the excellent novels on your list?

So many new interesting books are being written that I rarely find the time to re-read masterpieces. I don't have revisionist tendencies and, if it wasn't for the war, I wouldn't have thought so much about Russian literature. Sometimes, I return to my childhood reading or leisurely books. I enjoy reading Joe Alex's crime books - they are a good break from reality. I recently re-read Albert Camus' The Stranger by accident. Revisiting this book after twenty years was quite shocking. Previously, I had not noticed that all the reflections in it about the relationship between the individual and society are exclusively about men, and that women are merely figures existing in the background in the story.

Olga Tokarczuk recalls that when she read books in her youth, as a girl she had no one to identify with.

I've never had a problem identifying with the male characters - I wasn't interested in their gender, just what kind of people they were and the adventures they had. Hence, the various tales of wars or journeys were very much my own stories. However, it would have bothered me now, for example, that there are no women in The Mysterious Island. And that none were in the Fellowship of the Ring.

What books are on your list of shame?

I feel that high school, even before the gymnasium reform, instilled the classics of literature well in me. My "area of shame" is actually philosophy, which I was not taught in my high school days. I did indeed have a short philosophy class at university, but without reading the source texts. I lack a certain framework of philosophical knowledge to which I could refer. I continually feel this lack when reading and writing books.

Are there books the reading of which made you desire to write?

I wrote my first book at the age of seven, which was a while after I learned to write - it was a story about four tank-men riding horses. The first book I read myself was Podróże Baltazara Gąbki  (“The Abduction Balthazar Sponge”), and my first and greatest childhood love were the works of Alexandre Dumas. In the best - in my opinion - translation by Joanna Guze. To me, the beginning of The Three Musketeers is the model adventure novel. The other thing is that The Vicomte of Bragelonne is no longer readable because it contains almost exclusively dialogue. I have the impression that this novel was possibly written with length in mind, if the author was paid by the column.

Do you have a similar perception of Henryk Sienkiewicz's works?

Some time ago, I started reading the beginning of Potop (“The Deluge”). It was excellent, but I did not continue reading. Not because I think his novels have got old - it's just that the competition is great and there are a lot of books on the shelves.

In Flame, it is said that 'the desire to explore is not intellectual but impulsive'. Why did you choose to explore the themes raised in this book?

Usually, the seed of an idea arises when I come across a thought with which I strongly disagree or a commonly accepted statement that seems wrong to me. It also relates to thoughts that seem to me to have been overlooked, and I get the impression that they are very important. It takes me a very long time to write books. It is therefore important to choose a topic in which I will be interested from the first sentence to the last. That's why I do the twenty-four-hour test at the beginning. If I still think an idea is good after a day, I follow it. With most ideas, however, this is not the case.

With Flame, I began with a structural idea. I thought I would try to write the book in three narratives and see what comes out of it.

What was the process of writing this book like?

After I wrote it in 2017, I sent the novel around the world. No one replied to me, and it ended up in a drawer for two years. In the end, my husband couldn't stand it and said that something should be done about it. We were very fortunate to end up at the Powergraph publishing house, where they liked Flame. Then came the second stage - the editorial stage - when I could focus on getting the details right. I was worried that the book would not find its readers - for SF fans it would be too easy, for non-fantasy readers, on the other hand, too 'fantasy'. Fortunately, I was wrong on both accounts.

Do you write books for yourself, readers, or both?

Previously, I did not have a publisher and therefore wrote books for myself. Now the situation has changed. I also know that readers have somewhat acknowledged me and have certain expectations of me. This is a new situation for me. So I try to combine these two motivations, writing for myself and for readers. Marek Hłasko said in one of my favourite books, Piękni dwudziestoletni (“Beautiful Twentysomethings”), that one should sit down to write with the assumption that it is bound to fail. Only then does it sometimes succeed.

Do you revisit your books?

It's quite a frightening experience and I try not to do it. A year ago, my first books came out as audiobooks and ebooks, and before that I got to have a look at the first volume of Doliny mroku (“The Valleys of Darkness”). Then I remembered that someone had written that this book is not as bad as it seems. Reviewing the first half of this novel a year ago I was devastated, but reading the subsequent chapters I thought to myself - it may be bad, but not utterly terrible. As you can see, there is a deep truth hidden in the reviews that may only come out years later.

Some people read several books at a time. How about you?

I can't manage it. When I start reading several books at once, I abandon them. But I accumulate books. I recently bumped into a friend who had bought Mijn lieve gunsteling (“My Dear Favourite”) and asked him to show it to me. I often check the first page before reading. You shouldn't judge books like this, but when choosing literature to read, I like to glance at the language beforehand.

Douglas Adams said that books are like sharks and ebooks are like dinosaurs - the sharks are older and have survived.

I don't know if this metaphor is still accurate. During the pandemic, many people switched to ebooks. This market is growing all the time and the paper - ebook ratio is getting closer and closer to a 50/50 split. This doesn't mean, of course, that sharks won't survive, just that dinosaurs may be on the increase.

Do you often come across these sorts of scientific metaphors when reading?

My impression is that metaphors using the language of science have not yet entered the culture for good (outside of sci-fi), and if they have, it is on a purely entertaining level, for instance in the “Rick and Morty” series, which is entirely made up of scientific concepts - black holes, space travel and strange weapons appear in it. I don't come across scientific language very often in mainstream literature, and I think it could be used more often. I feel that describing the modern world without referring to the area of metaphors associated with science is incomplete. However, there are now books appearing that are pure science fiction, even though they are not described as such. One of these is Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, in which we have not only the world of the future, but also future relations between people, involving, for example, the raising of children. I am sensing that there will be more books of this type and that they will occupy the great empty field stretching between mainstream literature and science fiction. There is no reason for it to be otherwise.

Interviewer: Michał Hernes

Translated by Justyna Lowe