An interview with Jean-Claude Dunyach from Utopiales 2010

Jean-Claude Dunyach

1) What big-picture themes are you most interested in right now? History, climate change, borders—this last one being the theme of the Utopiales this year?

No, not the one of the Utopiales, sorry!  Two themes do interest me these days, and they’re actually quite close to each other: the first is how art can be used as a weapon in the future, or as a way to seduce someone (or at least to communicate), and the second is the connection between death and memory. And sometimes, both themes are intertwined in the same text; considering that these days I find myself writing mainly novellas (which means they’re slightly complicated texts, with multiple layers) it allows me to have several simultaneous angles of attack, and in particular to work on an aesthetic adapted to each text. It’s always a little frustrating, in a short story in particular when it’s very short, to be unable to settle on a specific aesthetic, and that’s something I’m interested in.

2) Do you feel that there are specific themes which are particularly interesting to a lot of writers in French science fiction right now, and if so, what are they?

I think that, in fact, there are some French specificities, because France is one of the countries where science fiction was born; in short, science fiction has existed in France for almost one hundred and fifty years, since Jules Verne, and never stopped being here.

However, we went through lots of phases. First, we inherited a lot from artistic currents like surrealism, for example, or the « nouveau roman », and as a consequence we quite often have texts which slip a little bit. There are examples of people like David Calvo, or others, who do really work on that. And there are relations to the flesh, the body, to sensuality and sensoriality—not the sexuality, I really mean sensoriality—which are probably quite different. French texts are often stuffed with smells, noises, tastes: we are people of the food, the touch, the smell. We’re a country of perfumers, of cooks, and it can be seen in our literature ; therefore, in our science fiction, people work on that sensoriality.

And there are also a few debates (which are maybe a bit Franco-French) dealing with our relation to our information, to the way we handle what’s us (what definites us, or characterizes us), what’s our shell, what’s beyond us—for example, the information attached to us, and the way it’s interfaced with the information of other people. I see that kind of thing in a lot of people’s work these days.

And there is also a last specificity, which maybe has its importance: I see more and more authors, modern authors in particular (people like Xavier Mauméjean, Alain Damasio, Catherine Dufour, Jérôme Noirez), writing in an oratory way. What I mean is that they write with a set of intertwined voices; they’re not trying to develop their own unique voice, recognizable, but they try to adapt a set of simultaneous voices to each text, coexisting. It’s a choir, which almost changes with every text, and though they keep a very strong identity, it gives them a muddled, punk, and extremely energic feeling.

Take someone like Sylvie Lainé, who’s got a pure voice, extremely fluent and personal, like Kate Bush singing a capella, and make a comparison with these oratory authors. With them, you have people performing Orfeu Negro with the Clash backdrop. And this interests me. As a musician, I tend to “listen” to a text when I’m reading.

3) What about themes in Francophone sf outside of France, and in other languages?

Well, I think there are specific themes, for example the future of human beings ; I see that in some short stories I’m reading, here and there. People are wondering what’s the human being of the future. They start with the idea that one can fiddle with things; you can work on the body, either genetically, or by cybernetic association, or by any kind of implant, or by chimera and hybridization. And so they ask: what’s the post-human? And the problem is often dealt with from the point of view of the posthuman.

Sometimes, there are extremely radical texts on that subject; I’ve read “Exhalation”, by Ted Chiang, published in the magazine Bifrost one year ago, which was absolutely admirable. There are also works from the Australian author Greg Egan, hard science texts, dealing a lot with this theme.

But I see that almost everywhere; I know lots of books, too, that explore this idea.

As it’s been more than ten years that this theme is very present in the United States, it’s beginning to be so worn out, in a way, that people are writing post-posthuman; which means they’re already wondering what the narration of a story is, when the characters are no more than posthuman entities, with whom we have but a loose connection.

4) Do you feel that there are themes or stylistic approaches which unify French sf culturally, making it unique to an extent that would be clear in a blind ‘taste test’ of translated work in another language?

As far as I’m concerned, I can tell you that yes—considering that I’ve translated lots of books and been published a lot in the United States (more or less thirty of my short stories have been published in the United States or in England). There, the editors publishing my books and who I’m in touch with tell me that I’m actually a little arty. They say: “You don’t hesitate, from time to time, to come out with a beautiful sentence, when it’s not useful; or to do some sort of camera switch to have a look at a piece of the background which is pretty and seems to be useless, and which takes place just because it creates some sort of aesthetic shock—and that shock, afterwards, leads to some wondering.” People tell me that I work with artistic, impressionist, sensorial touches, where Americans would maybe give priority to the strength of the story, to the narration itself, to the adventures, and where English writers would give priority to the rigour of the experimentation.

What I do like in short stories—in the Scottish, Irish short stories in particular, or in Interzone, for example—is really this work on setting up an idea, and dealing with it through multiple angles at the same time. One isn’t politically correct or politically incorrect, one is politically complete. This political, sociological side (on the societal or empire scale), is to me an Anglo-saxon thing. It is, already, Welles facing Jules Verne, the society facing a group of characters.

We, French, we’re politically elsewhere—we’re the badly-behaved students in the back of the classroom, looking through the window and hiding an apple in their bag to nibble it when the teacher isn’t watching. That’s really how I feel.

I don’t know if I can recognize a text which is a priori French, but I think we do have a particular flavor. And by the way, as far as translations are concerned, this flavor sometimes turns against us, because in some countries, and I mean in the United States in particular, editors and people in general are telling us: “You’re losing time.” And we explain to them that no, we’re not losing time, we tell things in a different way.

One of my short stories, which has been published in England and is called “Déchiffrer la Trame” (Unravelling the Thread), did very well in England—but on the other hand, in the United States some people told me: “We don’t understand how, in a ten page long text, you can lose five pages killing a mouse in the dark. For us, it’s completely inconceivable. This is not how it must be done.”

It’s their narrative: you want to say this, and you build up a speech tending toward this. You don’t go about it with impressionist touches until, at some point, the meaning of the painting emerges from the whole thing.

When you’re in front of a white canvas and you’re drawing something, you can start with drawing broad lines, saying: there’ll be a tree, a house—the way kids do. This is, in a way, the American writing; after a few lines, you’ll quickly see what it will picture. Whereas a French will maybe tend to starting in a corner, then in another one, with a touch here and there, and you’ll have to wait for the 3/4 of the painting to be done for something to appear suddenly, almost in one touch, in one sentence—something that will make you think: “Oh, now I’ve got everything.” It all reveals itself, you see.

And that’s more or less how we tend to structure our stories. At least, that’s how I see it, but maybe I’m mistaking.

5) Do you find notable differences or commonalities between French and Québécois science fiction?

Not really, no. What’s interesting is that Québec is on a perpendicular path: although it is North American, it isn’t American. They have taken on some of the characteristics of American literature, that is certain, in particular because they are more in contact with the Americans than with us —but the differences are noticeable. They’re lucky that they read work appearing in English and are in touch with what is going on in anglophone sf.  They are ‘on the cutting edge,’ yet maintain their own identity. But we, the French, partially because we rarely read in English (I am an editor and have the opportunity to do this, but still find it difficult) tend to keep to ourselves. We are clearly behind on work coming out of the U.S. There are lots of people here who have never read of Justina Robson or Paolo Bacigalupi, a really interesting writer who is revolutionizing fiction in the short story genre. In France, nobody will hear about him until the year after his work appears in English.

The Québécois, on the other hand, do not have this delay, and so their themes are much closer to what is going on in Anglophone sf. At the same time, they have a way of telling stories that is not American, that is not horribly literary in the French way, but is a flavor of their own. This is extremely interesting. I’m going to say something kind of horrible here, but I think science fiction is the literature of empire, from the viewpoint of those crushed by empire. I find the most interesting authors aren’t British authors, but Scots and Irish authors, and that American authors are sometimes less interesting than exiled ones, like Gibson in Canada, or Norman Spinrad, who’s on the margins. Not to mention Australians, who are something else altogether. It is a literature of the margins and the frontiers, a literature of those neighboring or subjugated to an empire. Because it is so close to the United States, Québec is often under siege, sometimes by the United States, and sometimes by Anglophone Canada, and as a result writers there have developed a style of science fiction that is very, very remarkable.

The work of Trudel and Meynard, for example,  spans the gamut of global science fiction, You have this guy writing  the most stringently realistic hard sf and you have the magician, the lover, the stylist, the humanist. When they work together—I had the chance to publish them under their pseudonym Laurent McAllister—you read certain passages and you say to yourself “There, that, that’s it. Everything is there.” Sometimes the Québécois are capable of putting anything in their work. There are those like Élisabeth Vonarburg, for example, who emigrated there, and is perhaps even more Québécois than the Québécois, who brings a kind of withdrawn and distancing vision, ironic, yet full of urgency.

Also, they have the marvelous review Solaris, which provides them a shared space to work and reflect. They’re lucky to have that. Although we in France have more venues in which to work together, we don’t have the joiner mentality, the impulse to work collaboratively as a community. I think that the Québécois have developed a unique literature particular to themselves, and I like it very much.

6) Do you think that if the first step is to finish a story, the second is to get it published, and the third if to get it known, the fourth step might be to get it published in English?

Well, I’m going to cause a fuss saying this, but it seems clear that statistically, I am the French science fiction author most published in the United States or the Anglophone world, and this is because I am the richest. I pay for translations, and I have a remarkable translator, Sheryl Curtis. Although she often works pro bono, as a labor of love, she is also (and rightly so) motivated by the need to pay her bills. Because she is a talented translator, my writing gets published. But I don’t recover my outlay before years pass; I must wait three or four years for a story to earn enough money to refund the price of a translation; I don’t really earn any money otherwise. Now, as two of my collections have already been published, and they are released as ebooks, that costs me nothing but allows us to do more, as I can recoup costs more quickly. And I’m less worried about doing that.

Yet at the same time, I ask myself: if I’m going to have a space opera translated by Sheryl Curtis for the Anglophone market, why not just publish it as an ebook myself, and skip the step of looking for a publisher? I’ve submitted tons of manuscripts in the standard form—one hundred and fifty thousand words along with a plot outline—and even if the book is finished, has won awards, etc., in general the publishers’ response is “This is great; when can we see the rest?” And I say, “When I have the contract, I will pay for translation.” And they respond “No, I can’t give you a contract based on the first hundred and fifty thousand words, I need the whole thing. So now you spend ten thousand dollars on a translation, and later I will give you twenty. Or maybe not. It’s your investment.”

They have no one to read a book for them in French, no one.

Then, if you tell them, “Ok, if you like it, can you translate it?” they’ll say that they don’t know of any translators. There are translators, but they focus on legal rather than literary work, and who could blame them, as no one hires them to? The market share of translated foreign language books published in the United States is something like two percent. One must consider the numbers. It is a closed market.

7) And what’s the market share of translated works in francophone publishing?

The market share of translated works in the francophone publishing world is more like fifty percent, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less. But if you think about it, an average francophone reader, who reads fifty books a year (and that’s impressive) is someone who has read works originally published in half a dozen languages over the course of that year without noticing—English, Swedish (if they like thrillers), Italian, Japanese . . .  I read a truly enormous amount, and this includes work in twenty or thirty languages; without any particular effort, I read work from all of the European countries. That’s not just thrillers, either; you’ve got the Danes, Swedish, Norwegians, Finns, the Italians with people like Camilleri, the Germans—not to mention the English, the Scots, the Irish . . . but that is normal for us. Literature has rather a global scale. In the United States, for the last three generations, they’ve read American books written for Americans, by Americans, who haven’t read anything other than American stories.

I have a problem as an editor when I want to translate stories. When I worked for Bragelonne in acquisitions, I simply could not accept certain kinds of sf novels because they took place in a world in which there was one continent, called ‘America’, and a number of uninteresting islands called “Europe”, “Africa”, or “Asia” peopled by uncivilized tribes. And when aliens arrive, they naturally land in New York, Washington, or Atlanta—and sometimes there’s a Mexican, if they want something exotic. And you can’t publish that in France because people will say “So what? There’s nothing for me in that world, so why should I read about it?”

The Canadians, on the other hand, write space operas with Russian, Indian, or Chinese protagonists, set in a joyous melting pot where the entire world speaks a syncretic pidgin that hardly has any relationship with English. Their approach is different.

In this context, trying to get published in English is a wishful fantasy. The only real advantage is that there are lots of allophone editors who will be able to read you if you do so, because they read in English, but not in French. This is the case in the Nordic countries as well as in Japan and China . . . When one has a story included in Year’s Best SF, one has a good chance to see that story translated in dozens of countries. And this is truly marvelous!

translated by Annaïg Houesnard and Val Grimm


Jean-Claude Dunyach, born in 1957, has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and supercomputing. He works for Airbus in Toulouse (south of France).
He has been writing science fiction since the beginning of the 1980s, and has already published seven novels and eight collections of short stories, garnering the French Science-Fiction award in 1983, four Rosny Ainé Award in 1992 (2), 1998 and 2008, as well as the “Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire” in 1998 and Prix Ozone in 1997. He also writes lyrics for several French singers, which served as an inspiration for one of his novels about a rock and roll singer in a trashed future, touring in Antarctica with a zombie philharmonic orchestra . . .


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