European Cultural Exchange

Danish Science Fiction Between 2004 and 2007

Janus Andersen looks at Denmark's SF publishing scene.

Denmark is a small country - we have about 5.5 million inhabitants, marking of course an upper limit to the number of writers. And an ever lower limit to the number of science fiction writers; as a matter of fact we have only on self-confessed SF-writer who makes his living writing. There are, however, a number of people writing mostly in the fantastic genres and others making brief visits (with varying results). Of course, Danish is also a very small language - very few people outside of Denmark speak Danish, and very few titles are translated and sold in the rest of the world. Which is sad - because despite the relatively low number of writers, Danish science fiction does sport some very worthy examples of the genre.

In this article I will try to give a view of Danish science fiction - that is mostly SF written by Danes. I will be looking at the last four years' worth of the principal novels and anthologies in various publishing categories with a few words describing the books. But first and foremost I would like to spotlight those authors that (in my opinion) are deserving of interest, also outside the borders of our little country.

As I've already noted, the Danish market isn't that large - marking it hard to sell "pure" science fiction. This places a lot of Danish SF in a near realistic mode, making it a matter of interpretation whether the speculative elements are actually such - pushing the borders of genre definition. But it also means that this sort of borderline SF is what Danish writers do best. They may sometimes be hard to find for the SF reader, but once found the payoff is often very good. On the other hand, if we look at "pure" SF - the kind that mainstream readers recognize as SF - the number put out by the larger publishers within the last four year can be counted on two hands. Later in this article, I'll take a look at small press and vanity publishing.

To kick things off, two of those books that should hold equal interest for SF and non-SF readers alike are Peter Adolphsen's Brummstein [Humming Rock] (2004) and Machine [Machine] (2006).

Brummstein follows a piece of rock through the 20 century while Machine follows a tiny piece of matter in its transformations from the Big Bang till now. Both of them tell the stories taking places around their focal points - but to be honest, only Brummstein actually contains a speculative element (a rock humming with the sound of thousands of years of earthquakes eccoing through the Alps). Actually, Brummstein is also an example of a book almost reaching the perfect illusion - I still find it hard to pinpoint where the fiction starts and where historical reality ends; it may all be fictitious, But I for one am not certain (although I don't believe in the humming stone, the brummstein). Both Brummstein and Machine are brilliant books, but most importantly: if you consider them literary machines, their common engine is science. For they are told through science, the natural laws, the great connections. They may or may not be science fiction, but they are truly science fiction. And as a bonus for the SF reader: the person who finds the piece of humming rock in Brummstein is actually looking for the hollow earth, inspired by Bulwer-Lytton's early SF, The Coming Race.

Machine will be published in England and USA in April 2008. Adolphsen has also published two collection of very short stories and a piece of literary engineering - containing one million stories in 10 pages. His two novels (or novellas) clearly aren't "ordinary" literature, even though they are written mostly in a realistic mode. But a large percentage of Danish science fiction takes place in a world that is clearly recognizable as our own here and now.

A couple of examples are Ellen Garne's DreamInducer [DreamInducer] (2006) (which can be read as SF or not SF, depending on your interpretation of the book), Peter Dreyer's Inkaens Fjerde Mulighed [The Inca's Fourth Possibility] (2006) (mostly action/adventure in the Andes Mountains), Bo Torstensen's near future thriller about terrorists and Klaus Kjøller's political satires. Ordinary readers are going to look at you funny if you tell them that by reading one of these novels they've actually sampled science fiction genre.

Another example of a book that successfully blurs out the borders between what's real and what's speculation is Søren Toft's Den Elektriske nattergal [The Electrical Nightingale] (2006), a modern retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about the nightingale.

In it, a young man find a beautiful artificial nightingale which he brings home to his girlfriend who is an engineer. She repairs the bird and disappears soon after, hunting the secrets of that beautiful piece of technology. Like Adolphsen, Toft reaches for the perfect illusion - the technology is believable and the story takes place not in the future but in recent history, during a storm that hit Denmark in the late nineties. This allows Tofts to speak directly to a mainstream audience while doing exactly what SF does so well - talking about mankind and our relationship with our environment, in this case technology. It's a good story where the speculative element manages to knock reality just a little off kilter.

As a rule, the Danes prefer their fictitious worlds recognizable. Some writers stick to this, while others use it merely as a starting point - their stories start out in present day Denmark but soon veer off. A couple of examples are Peter Høeg (of Miss Smilla's Sense of Snow fame) with Den Stille Pige [The Quiet Girl] (2006) but mostly Niels-Ole Rasmussen who - with two books so far - has turned both the well known and the alien upside down. His debut, Kongen af ragnarok [The King of Ragnarok] (2005), mixed tabloid news, ecological catastrophe and Nordic mythology, showing what happens when the fimbul winter hits Denmark. The protagonist is straight out of the headlines: the crown prince himself.

All of these books are sold a mainstream literature in Denmark - I saw fear in Niels-Ole Rasmussen' publisher's eyes when I mentioned science fiction. This shows the dilemma that the genre stands in here. Novels both literary and popular have adopted the genre's ideas and techniques and used them - with mixed results. But science fiction - what mainstream readers recognize as science fiction - is still looked down upon. The genre is still what is mentioned when people are asked what they don't read, even though they've just praised an SF novel. This has the unfortunate effect that SF is available on the Danish market - but good "recognizable" SF novels are in short supply (a number of translated novels are published but more about that later). What's worse is: very often the quality isn't such that they can compete with others forms of literature.

I have a kind of theory that this has to do with the size of the country. USA is large, and American writers can create science fiction with scope - Denmark is small and when we try to write large, it often becomes a bad copy of American writing or very narrow in its view. But there are exceptions, of course, and those are the ones that are worth talking about.

One example is Niels Brunse, translator of among other things Shakespeare and the author of a few novels with fantastical elements. His latest novels, Havmanden [The Merman] (2005), is a time travel story in which a Dane is transported to England in 1647. A large part of this story is a well written historical novel where the protagonist, John Wilt, is introduced to this new society and suffers massive culture chock - but just when you think that this is all there is to it, Brunse stops to examine just why Wilt was thrown through time, and then he starts turning everything upside down. Science fiction readers are, I believe, some of the hardest people to surprise, but Brunse makes it seem so easy. Havmanden may be a bit too heavy now and then, but it also has the scope and the willingness to look at things with fresh eyes that makes the best SF worth reading.

The historical aspect can also be found in Christian Haun's latest novel, Hans Broges Bakker [Hans Broge's Hills] (2007) - Haun has written several books with fantastic or speculative elements, but this one is the only one so far that is clearly science fiction - not only is it well written SF, but it is also SF with a clear Danish flair. Hans Broges Bakker is an alternate history, taking place in the 1970s after the Nazis won the war. It's a well known trope, made fresh because Haun keeps his focus on Denmark, making Danish literature a large part of the story. There is scope here (a plot to remake reality), but it does not become ridiculous as often happens.

Haun manages to write books that get good critical reviews, while he clearly possesses a working knowledge of the genre (and isn't afraid to admit so in interviews), putting him among the few professional Danish writers who can flaunt this combination of skills. Alongside him (taken from the list at the end of the article) I only think I can place Grete Roulund, Svend Åge Madsen and Erwin Neutzsky-Wulff. All three of these are unique writers who have carved out their own niches in Danish literature.

Grete Roulund died a few years ago - which is just plain sad. If I had to pick one Danish writer who I thought had the potential to sell internationally, it would probably be Roulund. She mostly wrote horror and science fiction, but always stories that took place in the parts of the human psyche you really don't want to visit, often with a claustrophobic sense of impending doom. For me, she's on of those writers that it's hard to say anything about other than repeating "Read her books!" again and again.

A few of Svend Åge Madsen's novels have been translated into English. He has tried his hand at a number of different genres and has written a number of books that intertwine and link to each other in an intricate labyrinth of stories - his latest foray into speculative fiction is a mixture of alternate history and dystopia in a world where every one's life is watched over by a stranger; and where every one in turn watches somebody else. He is probably one of the most imaginative of Danish writers.

Madsen is considered a very approachable writer - meaning that a lot of different people read his works. That is probably not the case with Erwin Neutzsky-Wullf, the formerly mentioned "self-confessed SF-writer". Both of them are quite unique, but where Madsen writes for a lot of people, Wulff has a smaller, but firm and very dedicated fan base - both of them write novels that are tied together in one way or another. But Madsen's novels are tied together by the actions or people in them, Wulff's are centred on the writer's philosophy.

Vanity Press / Small Press
Over the last few years, the Danes have started discovering vanity press, and a number of publisher have come into being or have switched to this kind of publishing - along with some tiny publishers. It is of course a way for new writers to get their stuff out, practising their skills and so forth - but it's also a way for at lot of crap to end up on the market. For Denmark it has mostly meant a number of books that clearly show the fears and undertows of society.

Literarily, we have not seen any trailblazers in the SF genre. A couple of very young writers have started out with space opera series that show improvement but also room for more. But otherwise the message is back in science fiction, and the message is: fear.

Fear of the EU and control and surveillance in book like Louis Lawaetz' Euromania [Euromania] (2005) and Benny Adriansen's Europolis 2022 [Europolis 2022] (2006). But first and foremost - and there are obvious links to the Muhammad caricature crisis - fear of immigrants and radical Muslims. This can be seen in a number of books that mainly read like very long, quite racist rants from the letter pages of the worst of the tabloids.

Books like Pauvre Nye Verden [Poor New World] (2006), Terror i Danmark [Terror in Denmark] (2007), De Onde Kræfter [The Evil Forces] (2006) and Skulptørens Verden [The Sculptor's World] (2007) - the list at the end of the article will show you what they're about, and the quality is at about the same level as the stories: they're bloody awful. The only positive thing at all is that they get no PR in the media, they simply go unnoticed. Ignoring fanzines and suchlike, I've only seen one review, positive even - and that was of Pauvre nye verden in the membership magazine for Den Danske Forening, a right extremist union. The review is more about the realism of the plot (evil Muslims taking over Denmark) than about the literary value of the book (of which it has none, I can reveal).

Probably the closest thing to a good vanity/small press publication (ignoring publications by fans or fan organizations) is Patrick Leis' Pax Immortalis [Pax Immortalis] (2006), a mixture of science fiction and zombie horror - well written and well produced.

Children's and Young Adult Fiction
Science fiction written for the younger readers has actually been in a positive phase recently - speaking of quality if not of quantity. Most interestingly it is the Danish teachers that have been the cause, either as publishers or writers.

People like Sally Altschuler and Hanna Vinzent have a past as schoolteachers and have written quite competent SF (Altschuler is also one the few Danish writers who have understood how to use the inernet for tying together his novellas over several websites). But most importantly, Dansklærerforeningen (The Danish Teachers Association) has published several science fiction novels which combine a high level of quality and an immediate sense of fun. They publish other genres as well but seem to do well with both shorter and longer SF titles, such as Virus [Virus] (2006), "Hvis.du.ser.noget.sig.noget" [] (2007) and "Den skjulte by" [The Hidden City] (2006).

Translations and Fan Publications
I have lumped these two under the same heading for the simple reason that the single most important source for translations of science fiction (once again: the kind identified by the mainstream audience as science fiction) is fandom, to be more precise, Denmark's oldest SF association: Science Fiction Cirklen.

Literary SF does okay in Denmark, as I've noted - simply by not being SF. This means that almost all of the SF translated into Danish is of this kind, at least when sold by the large publishers. I've only listed the most noteworthy translations, and you'll find people like Philip Roth, Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Chabon dominating. Within the last few years the exceptions from the rule have been a few media related efforts (Star Wars, HGttG and a anthology of Philip K. Dick short stories that have been turned into films) and Klim's translation of Dave Wolverton.

Apart from that the core area of the genre - the kind of SF that I and many like me grew up with and which turned me into a fan - is almost exclusive being seen to by fandom; and here I mean both translations of American-style science fiction and the cultivation of the short story. Stephen Baxter, John Varley, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan - big names that have only been published in Danish due to the work being done by fandom. SFC has also published Lige under Overfladen [Right Beneath the Surface] (2007), and Flemming RP Rasch's one-man publisher Cirkler [Circles] (2007), both of them anthologies that prove that Danish writers can produce good science fiction outside the fanzines. At the same time they are two very different books and show a scope within the relatively small publication that it is refreshing to behold.

All in all, I am optimistic - if you are wearing the right kind of glasses, things are looking okay for Danish SF. We will never be able to produce a vast and diverse jungle of works, but I do believe we have managed to create a undergrowth with the potential to if not prosper, at least grow and stay alive. And it may be a small market but al lot of the stuff that makes its way into it pretty good - we are nowhere near the 90% crap. So when people grab a Danish science fiction novel, their chances of finding something good are... well, good. We only need to tell them that what they are reading is science fiction - and there is a lot more of it.

Janus Andersen

Janus Andersen is a librarian living in Denmark. He is an avid reader of all the fantastic genres, but with a strong affinity for science fiction; he is the editor of Denmark's oldest SF fan society clubzine and runs a couple of online zines at and He can be reached at janus [at] fanzine [dot] dk.

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