Bulletin Oeconomia Humana
Hiver 2013, volume 11, numéro 1
La fantascienza italiana dal 1952 a oggi/ Italian Science Fiction from 1952 to the present
by Domenico Gallo and Valerio Evangelisti, trans. by Sarah Melanie Rolfe
If it is true that Italian science fiction was officially born in 1952 when the first issue of Scienza fantastica, avventure nello spazio, tempo e dimensione appeared in the newsstands, then one may deduce, over sixty years later, that the outcome was not a happy one. With few exceptions, dedicated readers found themselves traversing a desolate, barren land. The works of the few respectable writers, scattered over the decades and published with many difficulties, attracted a limited attention and obtained a quasi-clandestine circulation. Valerio Evangelisti started off on the road to success with the publication of his novel Il mistero dell’inquisitore Eymerich – a work which has gone through ten editions – in installments in Il Venerdì, a weekly supplement of the newspaper La Repubblica. He is perhaps the only writer of science-fiction to attain the status of a professional and to obtain recognition, at least in terms of interest on the part of publishers. His success set in motion a kind of unhoped-for rebirth during the 1990s with a proliferation of novels and anthologies of Italian authors, some of which were even issued by renowned publishers. But the cactus had not lost its thorns. The season was brief and was already drawing to a close by the end of the decade.
In actual fact, Italian writers had published a myriad of novels starting precisely in 1952, the year in which stories selected nationally through a competition among readers first appeared in Scienza fantastica. Other short-lived publications followed suit: Mondi nuovi, quindicinale di avventure nello spazio (1952), Mondi astrali (1955), Galassia (1957), I narratori dell’Alpha Tau (1957), Cronache del futuro (1957), Cosmic (1957), Astroman (1957), Le cronache del futuro (1958), Poker d’assi (1959), I romanzi del futuro (1961), Super fantascienza illustrata (1961) – pure pulp fiction, full of green-skinned aliens, coloured blasts, spaceships and heroines with generous necklines that thrilled the imagination of young readers. These pulp magazines, now almost impossible to find, were in the complete control of Italian writers who, concealed by pseudonyms like Samuel Balmer (Sandro Sandrelli) or J.R. Johannis (Luigi Rapuzzi), wrote adventurous science fiction not particularly worse than that of their American counterparts.
However, the most important Italian science fiction magazine Urania – in fact, a series of novels sold through newsstands founded in 1952 and still in existence today –remained closed to Italian contributions for decades. Though specialized in Anglo-American fiction, it featured a good number of French authors in its first few years. Yet for four decades it refused Italian writers, save a few rare exceptions who published under pseudonyms (such as the aformentioned L.R. Johannis). Only two authors were permitted to sign using their own name: Franco Enna (alias Francesco Cannarozzo), because he was already well known in the field of detective fiction; and Emilio Walesko, perhaps because of the exotic ring of his last name. Not one of these few novels may be considered memorable.
An publication astronautics that also had a fiction section, Oltre il cielo. Missili e razzi (1957-1970), sometimes offered more sophisticated texts among its many popular ones, alternating pseudonyms with real names or even anonymity. The publication is very dear to fandom as it played an important role in its formation. The cultural dimension of the magazine, however, was all but non-existent and Oltre il cielo reinforced the already marginal status of the sector.
Beginning in 1957 and for the decade that followed, the series I romanzi del cosmo would publish some 202 volumes, including works by several Italian writers such as Robert Rainbell (Roberta Rambelli), John Bree (Gianfranco Briatore), Louis Navire (Luigi Naviglio), Hugh Maylon (Ugo Malaguti). Analyzing this enormous body of material, which numbers more than a hundred titles, it would appear that Italian science fiction existed as a phenomenon of imitation of the Anglo-American model, less for the pseudonyms than for its lack of original topics and the sloppiness of its language that is consistent with the very poor published translations.
The problem with Italian language science fiction became clear at the time with the publication of Galaxy (1958-1964), Galassia (1961-1979), and Gamma (1965-1968)– magazines that offered to the Italian public translations of texts from the “sociological period” and the New Wave. Having to compete with works more oriented towards political problems and towards the modalities of conventional literature, Italian authors attempted a difficult mediation between traditional Italian literature and the extreme realism of the Anglo-American science fiction of the 1960s. The realism consisted in the fact that science fiction radicalized some aspects of the present – the most significant at time increasingly distinguished by the mass diffusion of technologies – pushing them to an extreme in a increasingly remote future.
Post-war Italian culture, of both the right and the left, was characterized by an open diffidence towards science and technology. As Michela Nacci observed in Tecnica e cultura della crisi (Loescher, Torino, 1982) and in L’antiamericanismo in Italia negli anni Trenta (Bollati, Borighieri, Torino, 1989), nostalgia for the rural condition persisted among many Italian intellectuals, along with the fear of a decline in values caused by mass society.
With the exception of Italo Calvino, Italian literature was unable to grasp the changes wrought by modernity upon society and identity. Science fiction authors, who were probably eager for official literary recognition, thus abandoned the adventure novels that best suited them and that boasted a glorious but poorly esteemed tradition, to struggle with the perennial crisis of the post-war intellectual. It is perhaps from this contradiction that a true Italian science fiction was born, a marginal and sad literature, closed in on itself and sandwiched between the Anglo-American model and the narrative bureaucracy of Moravia, Parise and Bevilacqua. In the sole historical volume dedicated to Italian science fiction, Le frontiere dell’ignoto (Nord, Milan, 1977), Vittorio Curtoni describes with great attention these years that many defined as heroic. Italian authors published with their real names, seeking to present themselves to the public alongside Dick, Delaney, Zelazny, Disch, Malzberg, Moorcock – but the comparison is atrocious.
The most interesting publishing initiative was Interplanet (1962-65), a series of seven volumes that gather together the most sophisticated authors of the period. Courageously, Primo Levi, Ennio Flaiano, Tommaso Landolfi had their works featured side by side those of Lino Aldani and Renato Pestriniero, the only two decidedly science fiction authors of any literary depth. Not by chance, Lino Aldani would thendirect Futuro, a magazine dedicated exclusively to Italian authors.
Lino Aldani and his writing represent the difficulties and the contradictions of an entire generation. The novel Quando le radici (La Tribuna, Piacenza, 1977) embodies the anti-technological and catastrophist vision of critical Marxism. Technological society separates the individual from his or her identity, alienating the individual by thwarting any possibility of liberation. Rural existence, though realistically destined to extinction, is represented in opposition to this alienating society as a memory and a refuge – an interpretation that recalls Pasolini.
Aldani’s novels assume the moralistic dimension of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: they admonish, warn, and reveal, but they retreat within a political laceration, the nostalgia for an epoch that the manifestations of mass society had not yet permeated.
Renato Pestriniero, a Venetian whose work is characterized by subtle and careful style, eludes the conflict that looming over the Italian society of the 1960s that seemed to paralyze Aldani, Vittorio Catani and the whole of national science fiction. Rather, he turned his attention towards the fantastic, the only element that could be recovered from official literature. Pestriniero drew from images of folklore and Venetian history, avoiding the topic of technology and science, or at least not addressing it directly, and increasingly reducing its presence in science fiction.
In April of 1976, the most interesting science fiction magazine after Gamma and Futuro hit the stands: Robot directed by Vittorio Curtoni. Robot embodied the political enthusiasms that pervaded society in those years. Against the backdrop of a high-level Anglo-American fiction, Curtoni, the author of the novel Dove stiamo volando (Galassia 174), published some of the most interesting, ambiguous and questionable examples of Italian science fiction: Lino Aldani’s “Visita al padre” (Robot 8) and “Screziato di rosso” (Robot speciale 4); Gianluigi Pilu’s “Otto significa per sempre?” (Robot 12); Vittorio Catani’s “Il pianeta dell’entropia” (Robot 22); and, Morena Medri’s “In morte di Aina” (Robot 19). If one adds to this La sindrome lunare e altre storie (Robot speciale 6), an anthology of stories by Curtoni himself, it becamoes clear that it was a fairly small group of authors that appropriated the peculiar traits of contemporary Anglo-American science fiction and focused its stories on linguistic and political interests as well as on the definition of identity.
The season was brief, or, to paraphrase a book dedicated to the end of the 1970s, it was Una sparatoria tranquilla (Odradek, Rome, 1977) – a tranquil shootout. After Robot, as after the guerrilla warfare of `77, Italian science-fiction became permeated by an absurd atmosphere of suspicion. “Penitents” multiplied and literary standardization washed over that boisterous environment of enthusiasts, writers, critics, publishers, and illustrators called “fandom.” The end of Robot, which reached 40 issues, but was clinically dead by issue 28/29, is marked by Vittorio Curtoni’s embittered farewell, and, paraphrasing the tragic events of the political movements of the time, Italian science fiction was forced underground.
This brief flash of new wave continued to resist and to develop in fanzines. Initially, they were cyclostyled in party, trade union or church offices. Then, with the advent of personal computers, graphically decorous fanzines offered Italian authors to a reading public of a few hundred people. Freed from editors and from the need for economic return on the part of publishing houses, a radical, outrageous science fiction developed, one for which official literature was to be violated, derided, subsumed, and desired, like a body to love. It was a time of politically irreducible writers capable of describing the reality of those years only through the heavy metaphors of science fiction: Daniele Ganapini, Gianluigi Pilu, Daniele Brolli, Claudio Asciuti, Domenico Gallo, and later on, Franco Ricciardiello, Roberto Sturm, Danilo Santoni. They wrote in Lucifero, Intercom, The dark side, Un’ambigua utopia, blending science fiction with comic book characters, media icons (like Ballard), rock music, poètes maudis, French and American crime fiction, basic research and strategic studies. An example for all is “Art Decade” (Un’ambigua utopia 7) by Claudio Asciuti.
Simultaneously, mass standardization spread. “However, the bottom was reached with a clearly right-wing production, stories in which the invincible legions of blackshirts crushed the Red Horde, in which a future pope rallied the faithful against communists. Pure trash”[V. Evangelisti, Il manifesto 27/8/97) Evangelisti is not harsh enough… Many authors paid publication costs to see their horrors printed. These are the years of fantasy, of heroic fantasy, of horror and of magic. It was a purely ideological phenomenon, not a literary expression, perfectly legible in the context of the notion of “technicalized myth” (mito tecnicizzato) introduced by Furio Jesi.
Redemption came slowly, with the winners of the literary awards from publishers Nord and Urania. The quality of these works is inconsistent, ranging from the weightiness of Vittorio Catani’s Gli universi di Moras (Urania 1120) to other extreme naivete of other novels. At least until the publication of Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitore by Valerio Evangelisti, winner of the 1993 Urania Award. In the wake of the decidedly unexpected publishing success of the Eymerich series, it seemed that Italian science fiction itself was slowly rising again. Works by Italian authors proliferated in every series. Luca Masali matched Evangelisti’s sales records with his I biplani di D’Annunzio (1996). Other writers emerged or reaffirmed themselves (Franco Ricciardiello, Nicoletta Vallorani, Claudio Asciuti, etc.). The climax of the “happy season” was perhaps reached with the anthology Tutti i denti del mostro sono perfetti (1997) edited by Evangelisti and re-printed many times. In the volume, science fiction authors (Brolli, Forte, Masali, Vallorani, etc.) were paired for the first time, on a plane of absolute parity, with a few of the leading names of young, un-labeled Italian literature. But the process was quickly interrupted. Between 2000 and 2004, the magazines that had flourished in the `90s or shortly there after – such Daniele Brolli’s Isaac Asimov SF Magazine, Fanucci’s Solaria, Evangelisti’s Carmilla and others – had already disappeared or were in a state of crisis. Others, like Vittorio Cutoni’s reborn Robot, were about to join the publications of Ugo Malaguti sold through the mail and thus outside the normal book market. These included Nova SF and the interesting Futuro Europa, which were co-directed by Aldani. The circulation of Urania itself dropped to a few million and for the first time had difficulties in reaching the newsstands.
The global crisis in science fiction touched Italy as well. And, like all crises, it had more serious consequences on the peninsula than elsewhere, due to structural weaknesses that had never been corrected, from the narrowing of the publishing markets to the poverty of cultural planning.
The present situation is not hopeless, however. If printed magazines remain scarce, online publications are resisting well, such as: the historical Intercom, which is consecrated to literary criticism of science fiction; the twin publications Delos and Corriere della Fantascienza, which are of a predominantly informative nature; and Carmilla On Line, that unites fantastical fiction and political criticism. On the other hand, today there are numerous Italian writers that produce science fiction without affixing the label to their work (for instance, Tommaso Pincio, Wu Ming 5, etc.), while authors born in the environment of science fiction are readily accepted in series of general fiction (Evangelisti, Masali, etc.). It is possible that the crisis was in actual fact a crisis of the “ghetto” of genre that gave Italian science fiction a second life in a new form – one more culturally evolved. It is possible. The years that follow will confirm or deny the assertion.