Julien Wacquez is a PhD student in sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. His research focuses on the manner in which science fiction authors lean on scientific knowledge already established to shape their stories, and also on the way these stories pose problems that are expected to be solved through scientific activity. More broadly, Julien wants to explore how ideas and concepts can switch from a fictional context to a scientific one. He had a fellowship at the Musée du quai Branly (2014-2015) and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University (2015-2016). Julien has worked for the French online magazine Angle Mort since 2012 as a slush reader, and as editorial director since 2014. With other writers, critics, translators, social scientists and artists, he founded the new collective Angle Mort in 2016 and launched the American magazine Blind Spot.
Rachel Cordasco: Please tell us about how Angle Mort got started and when you started thinking about branching off with Blind Spot.
Julien Wacquez: Angle Mort was founded in 2010 by a bunch of French writers, translators, and editors; among them: Laurent Queyssi, Sébastien Cevey, and David Queffélec. They were inspired by American magazines such as Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. They thought: “Why in France are there no online magazines for science fiction, while in America they are so successful?” And over the course of several years, they did a great job, translating British or American authors into French and publishing new or established French writers. The magazine has been a huge success among critics and was nominated several times for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, one of the most famous French science fiction prizes. At that time, the line of Angle Mort was led by their fascination for new technologies: “Science fiction forecasted the nuclear bomb. Science fiction forecasted the internet. Science fiction forecasted a world ruled by big corporations. All right, but science fiction missed something. While it is still telling stories about those old topics, smartphones appeared, tablets appeared, social networks appeared. And nobody had seen these new way of interacting with each other coming in our everyday life. We need a science fiction able to describe a future that fits with our present world, not a dreamed future for old fans of old science fiction.”
I joined the team in 2012 as a slush reader. I was just a fan of old science fiction at that time, you know, reading mainly old American classics (Asimov, Bradbury, Dick, Heinlein, and many others). Laurent and Sébastien taught me how to read contemporary science fiction. They taught me how and why to reject/accept new submissions. I’d say that they completely changed my perception of the genre. I owe them a lot.
Then, in 2014, they decided to quit Angle Mort. Their day job didn’t permit them to work on the magazine as they would have liked. They needed money to live. And the people who work for Angle Mort always have been volunteers; only contributors get paid (authors & translators). So they quit the magazine and said: “That would be a pity for the magazine to stop here. If one wants to work on it, one can feel free to do it.” That’s how I became director of the magazine. But I didn’t want to work on it alone. I always wanted to gather people around me, to create a collective of artists, writers and scientists that helps me to keep learning things. I conceive of my activity as editor in the same way I conceive of my activity as a science fiction writer or as a social scientist; if I publish stories, write fiction, or do scientific research, it’s for changing myself and thinking differently than before. And I like the idea of being surrounded by people with whom I can improve myself and my thoughts.
Between 2014 and 2016, I gathered a new crew that now forms the online publishing collective Angle Mort.
I came up with the idea for Blind Spot over a beer with my main collaborator, René-Marc Dolhen, who is a reviewer and the founder of a database of bibliographic information of all science fiction and fantasy fiction published in French (www.noosfere.org). Yeah, I remember it was in 2015, we were drinking a beer at Le Bar à Mines, it was warm and sunny outside and we decided to go out, Avenue Ledru-Rollin in Paris, to finish our pint, and we were like: “ok, with this magazine, we publish American writers, because everybody in France reads American science fiction, sometimes even more than the French ones! That would be great if, for once, French writers were read by American people. The trade would be more ‘symmetric’ between our traditions.” It was just an idea for a few months, but nothing more than an idea, because, you know, nobody in France has enough money to take the risk. Then, when I moved to Boston the following fall to spend a year at Harvard University, I was reading a lot of American science fiction. First to identify new writers to translate into French. But then, I told myself, let’s do it! Let’s found a new American magazine to promote French science fiction! And then we worked together over the next few months and we made it!
RC: What kinds of issues/concerns/questions do you think that a conversation between French and American science fiction can address?
JW: Answering this question is harder than one might think because though I read a lot of British and American science fiction, I read it as a French reader, not as an English one. What French readers perceive in English science fiction surely is different than what English readers perceive.
Science fiction is about how our environment shapes us- our thoughts, our behavior, our beliefs, right? In every science fiction story the author needs to create a whole universe with its own rules, social organizations, technologies, even new laws of physics, and so on; and to see what kinds of characters can exist in these external conditions. However, I perceive American science fiction from a French standpoint and I’d say-but I might be wrong; I am willing to talk about it with everyone who wants to-American science fiction is often about the fate of individuals. In an extraordinary world, there are strong and weak individuals fighting to keep their freedom, their comfort, to keep their way of life or just to survive. French science fiction is all about the same, but rather than exploring the point of view of some individuals, with their relatives, their family, their friends, allies and enemies, and how they are trying to make a difference, French science fiction explores how we are dependent on things larger than ourselves. How exactly does the society in which we’re born shape us? I’d say French science fiction is more from the point of view of these structures-the whole society with its culture, norms and values, social classes, capitalism, the State, and so on-that are acting on us and through us. In English SF, characters are enacting their own beliefs, defending the values they want to save, and all values come from them. In French SF, values are already there, in the structures of the implemented world, and characters are “just” subjects that are reproducing these values, but they are reproducing them imperfectly, because they are not perfect embodiments of the structures of their world; these structures are contradictory, ambiguous, inconsistent.
Once again, this is my view on English science fiction and on French science fiction; pick another reader or editor, and you’ll probably find another view on both of them. At least, what I said is true for me now. And I am willing to talk about that with people who may change my mind.
What I am sure of is that French and American science fiction have a lot in common, but there are slight differences between them; these differences are themselves the result of the differences in our culture, our language, our perception of the world, and our future. That’s why I think it’s worth it to share French science fiction with English readers and English science fiction with French readers; that might help us to think differently about our present and to shape another future than the one we are currently preparing, which is really scary.
RC: In your press release for Blind Spot, you write that “French science fiction is rich from finding new ways to describe human experiences and contradictions, the weight of structures upon our lives, and the role of collective entities on our destiny.” Could you tell us about a few French sci-fi writers whom you see embodying this vision?
JW: First of all, you have to know that Blind Spot Magazine and our collective do not represent the whole French science fiction tradition. We just have a specific perspective on it. If it was other people editing this magazine, the texts would have most likely been different. It means that French science fiction is very diverse.
Now, our collective is interested in stories that are very close to the characters, that are able to describe their everyday lives. We do not like stories about the end of the world and very strong heroes who are going to save us all or destroy everything on their way. We like stories that make us feel like we can relate to the characters, characters that are embedded in complicated circumstances-as we all are for real-and stories that use just few science fiction elements but that explore the consequences of these elements on the capabilities of characters.
We think that there are a lot of good French writers working within that trend. When we wrote these lines that you quoted, we were thinking of a few books that we consider real masterpieces of French science fiction:
Yama Loka Terminus, written by Léo Henry & Jacques Mucchielli. A collection of short stories set in an imaginary city in the USSR, called Yirminadingrad. Each story describes the everyday life of an inhabitant and his relationships with his relatives. Yirminadingrad is a place in which the fear, hope, and memories are entangled or materialized in real life,aAnd how all of these are shaped by the city itself, its history, and its institutions. These stories are very strong, and a sort of political discourse passes through them, but the message that the reader can get from them remains in his own interpretation of them. Yama Loka Terminus is well-written, and you can really feel close to Yirminadingrad’s inhabitants. If we get enough money to publish Blind Spot 2, we will probably translate one of these stories. And hopefully, an American editor will like it and translate the whole collection.
Cleer, written by L.L. Kloetzer. A story about a big international company, called Cleer, seen from the point of view of 2 new employees that were eager to join it, like a consecration of their career. Throughout the novel, we don’t really know if Cleer actually exists; we just follow these two employees doing their jobs, having different careers and different opportunities, but we never learn the purpose of this company or its goal, beyond controlling its employees. It’s a psychological novel about pressure at work in a capitalist society; characters are doing things for their boss, but they don’t really know what they are doing or why they are doing it, and their strong desire to join the company in the beginning of the story changes into an investigation to understand what Cleer is or even if it really exists. Cleer is like a dream, a fantasy that helps you to find the greatest career; it is also something with no signification, but your own quest for individual success.
I could make an infinite list, so I am going to stop here. Be sure that the writers that I mentioned also have a lot of different works published, in different subgenres.
RC: What kinds of concerns/questions does French science fiction in general repeatedly raise?
JW: Again, I cannot talk for the whole of French science fiction, only what I perceive in it, what I like in it. Someone else may answer differently.
There are all kinds of science fiction in France: space opera, cyberpunk, anticipation, post-apoc, post-cyberpunk, and so on. The big difference with American science fiction would be that there are almost no writers of hard science, although people in the French field of science fiction read a lot of hard science. French writers are more inspired by social sciences, like history, sociology, anthropology, epistemology sometimes, and of course philosophy. That’s why you’ll find a lot of stories about characters’ everyday lives, showing how it is hard to live in technologically advanced societies. I’d say that there’s a lot of activism in these stories, often anti-capitalist, denouncing social domination, and showing how our lives depend on little things. And this is sometimes dark, but not always; there is hope in this literature; it’s about how to keep those little things that makes us alive, how to re-invent them. That’s typically the kind of texts that we are looking for in Blind Spot and Angle Mort.
RC: What else would you like us to know about these two magazines?
JW: If I work on these magazines, it’s because I want to find new ways of telling true stories, new ways of expressing things that we cannot yet express. I want to work with people who are able to find words that describe situations in which we usually remain silent because we don’t how to talk about them. I think that this is the beauty and the purpose of science fiction in literature, in all kinds of art, and in scientific activity- shaping the language of our future, giving a form to the narratives of our future. I don’t know if I will find them, but I am trying and I am happy that I am not trying alone, but that there are a lot of people working on these magazines with me. And we are willing to get to know other people and to work with them if they share the very same aim: writers, artists, scientists, everybody!
Thanks so much for the interview, Julien! We look forward to many issues of both magazines.