Grossman, Gaiman, and Gogol: Harper Voyager Acquires English Translation of Russian Fantasy Vita Nostra
The words vita nostra, or “our life,” come from an old Latin student anthem “Gaudeamus”: “Vita nostra brevis est, Brevi finietur” or “Our life is brief, It will shortly end…”
In Sergey Dyachenko and Marina Shyrshova-Dyachenko’s fantasy Vita Nostra, described as “The Magicians but set in a rural Russian technical college,” Alexandra (Sasha) Samokhina is forced into a seemingly inconceivable situation: Against her will, she must enter the Institute of Special Technologies. A slightest misstep or failure at school—and the students’ loved ones pay a price. Governed by fear and coercion, Sasha will learn the meaning of the phrase “In the beginning was the word…”
The recipient of eight literary prizes and much critical acclaim in Russia, Vita Nostra has been translated into several languages. Harper Voyager has acquired Julia Hersey’s English translation of the novel, which was named the best novel of the twenty-first century in the sci-fi/fantasy genre at Eurocon-2008. The Magicians author Lev Grossman has described it as “a book that has the potential to become a modern classic of its genre.”
According to the publisher, Vita Nostra is a thrilling journey into the deepest mysteries of existence, a dizzying adventure, an opening into a world that no one has ever described, a world that frightens and attracts readers. The novel combines seemingly incongruous aspects—spectacular adventures and philosophical depth, incredible transformations and psychological accuracy, complexity of ethical issues and mundane details of urban life.
This was a key acquisition for Harper Voyager Executive Editor David Pomerico, who has been building a steadily more diverse literary list for the imprint. “As editors, we’re rarely in a position where an agent is so confident a project is right for you that they say, ‘I haven’t gone out with this to anyone else—I think you’re just the perfect person for this project,’” he said. “So when you hear that—and after you deflate your ego just a touch—you are excited to dive right in. When the Dyachenkos’ Vita Nostra came to me, I was already intrigued by the premise: basically The Magicians, but set in a rural Russian technical college. But when I finally got into the narrative, it was almost as if I was hypnotized, especially when Sergey and Marina’s story were combined with Julia’s incredible translation. There were aspects of Grossman’s novels, but also a bit of Gaiman… and a bit of Gogol. The effect was lyrical and immediate, and I had to know not only what kind of magic they were learning, but how it would change Sasha. And maybe that’s ultimately what drew me in: that the fantasy was couched in something incredibly real, and yet told in a way I’d never quite experienced. I’m hoping that’s what others feel when they read it, too.”
Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov has optioned Vita Nostra, which he describes as “a fantasy so authentic that, having turned its last page, I thought that Marina and Sergey Dyachenko somehow know everything that happened to me during the first year of my adult life. I am so grateful to them for giving me another chance to relive those experiences; with all the means of cinematography at my disposal, I will do my best to convey the magic of those times.”
Vita Nostra will be available in hardcover November 2018 from Harper Voyager.
Today’s guest is a very unique author. Eugene Lukin writes humorous fantasy, which traces its roots to Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In Russian literature, this genre was developed by Gogol, Bulgakov, the Strugatski brothers, and others. Contemporary humorous fantasy in Russia, in our opinion, tends to be uninspired, but Lukin’s work is real literature: a unique combination of humor and psychology, irony and satire. It is topical, timely and poignant, and his style is impeccable. He is a real master of short fiction, which is nowadays almost extinct.
Here is some information about him:
Eugene Yurievich Lukin was born on March 5th of 1950 in Orenburg. He graduated the Volgograd Pedagogical University in 1972, and became a member of the Russian Writer’s Union in 1992. Until 1996, he wrote together with Lubov Lukina. His specialty is poetry and prose, mostly fantasy. He holds countless awards, such as Aelita, The Wanderer, the Bronze Snail, ABS Award and others. In 2015, The European Science Fiction Society (ESFS) gave him the prestigious title of European Grand Master. These days, he lives in Volgograd.
We’ve known him for a long time, and enjoy his prose, poetry, and songs. He is also a talented bard, and is associated with the ginger pirate Barbarossa, the hero of his romantic ballad. As his friends, we can allow ourselves to have this conversation with him the way we did during various cons and festivals: with a glass of cognac in our hands. Plus, the topic of our conversation won’t be fantasy as a whole, but the concept of humor as a phenomenon, if you will, from the point of view of a psychiatrist (keeping in mind Sergey’s first profession).
— Dear Zhenya! You specialize in humor. Evolutionary psychologists think that humor serves as a sort of peacock’s tail to demonstrated good genes to females. What do you think?
The fact that Kozma Prutkov was not an evolutionary psychologist is evident from this phrase: “Don’t joke with women, these jokes are stupid and vulgar.” Besides, the very idea that a sense of humor is somehow connected to one’s genes seems to me highly doubtful. Who has always been the symbol of laughter? The jester. Jesters in Russia used to be called something like “fools,” and they were usually disabled. Even if somehow the jester was a regular fellow, he had to don a ridiculous outfit, make-up, wig, and so on. A strange way to display dominance.
However, it’s not out of the question that society (secretly afraid of laughter) could in this way be paying back the ones who carry it, though that was also often reflected by the witty jester.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a Lexus, or a company, or a bank account, how do you charm a woman if not with humor?
— Sigmund Freud once said that wit is an expression of feelings of hostility towards others that cannot be satisfied otherwise. Does this mean that you are a very hostile person?
Who are these “others?” What are we talking about, society or people individually? The thing is that society, which I hate, consists of people, who I love. That’s the paradox. That’s why when somebody starts speaking on behalf of a group, party, or a community, I begin to feel uneasy. How can one fare without a sense of humor? If you take the universe seriously, you’ll strangle yourself. Nothing but natural selection: galaxies destroy galaxies, people destroy people. In other words, humor is a way of surviving for me. Speaking of Freud, all my life I’ve felt a sort of aversion towards him, until I finally managed to read some of his work. It turns out that he’s a born wordsmith and not just obsessed with sex, and the quote you mentioned is appropriate. Though the word “hostility” doesn’t seem right. I am not hostile towards society, it is hostile towards me. As they say in kindergarten, “They started it.”
— Freud also said that wit and humor are created when the mind attempts to express something that is suppressed or frowned upon by society. How does that sound to you?
Seems a bit simple to me. It would be far more interesting, in my opinion, if my mind was trying to suppress something that I myself frown upon. For example, here I am, writing a novel, and trying to express my current views. But the novel refuses to let me. The characters rebel, the plot winds in different directions. I begin to fight with the disobedient text, and inevitably I fail. Only a couple of years later do I realize that the novel was right, and I was an idiot.How do you like that: the author is scared by his own story, so much that he only dared to write it out in joke format. That’s Freud’s inner censorship in its purest form.
The question, though, was about outer censorship, that is by society and popular opinion. Society, as we all know, is a huge force, especially when armed with sticks and baseball bats. In these cases it’s better to avoid being serious and tell a joke, that’s what I try to do.
— Freud defined three types of humor: jokes, comic humor and impressions. What kinds of humor do you define, and which one is closer to you?
Being a humanitarian, I have a hard time counting to three. Dividing things into two feels more natural to me. So, let’s divide into two. We have the regular kind of humor, just for humor’s sake. Just like tickling one’s feet. And then there’s humor that acts as an instrument. It can be used for learning about oneself and the world. I think it even surpasses logic in effectiveness. Sometimes it goes into the absurd, but logic does as well! Achilles hasn’t caught up to that tortoise yet.
I’m a fantasist. As in, a person who constantly questions declared truths. Declared truths as sacred: if your ancestors said that if a bunch of sticks sinks faster than individual sticks, that means that’s the way it is. So, propagating sacred misconceptions should be done with a smile, not with reverence. Take, for example, the wonderful Asimov story where a cryogenic brain was forced to develop a sense of humor simply to keep its sanity.
Speaking of which, the scalpel with which one tries to slash at the surrounding reality dulls with time and frequent use, and then what comes out is not funny at all. That happened with some of my works, so I suppose I’m not a great comedian.
— Speaking of fantasy, I remember you at some occasion saying that “War and Peace” is the most fantastical thing you’ve read. You seemed to be convinced in it. Do you think everything is fantasy? Is anything real in this world?
Fantasy has a direction called cryptohistory. Events in these works, as far as I understand, remain unchanged, but the underlying causes are different. Tolstoy created a wonderful world where the role of personality in history is reduced to zero. Even if the personality happens to be Napoleon. What, then, in his opinion, moves history? Random combinations of infinite and minor human actions. To confirm this, all one has to do is discard everything they were taught in school and read the book anew. You’ll agree that few are up to the task. A normal reader is contented with peripeteia of the characters, but ignores the author’s thoughts. They’re either too bored to do so, or too afraid.
“Is there anything real in this world?” This happens to be a pretty popular topic nowadays (“you know, it turns out we’re all holograms,” “you know, it turns out we’re all living inside a black hole,” “you know…”) For God’s sake, what does is matter what we consist of and where we live? Even if it’s on the inside of a soap bubble! We live among people and events, we love and suffer. That means that we are real and what surrounds us is real. What we call fantasy is that which we’re not yet used to. With time, though, we’ll get used to them. If we have the time….
— For us, the peak of humor in recent decades is associated with the Strugatsky brothers, with their fantastic story “Monday begins on Saturday,” as well as the paradoxical short stories by Robert Sheckley. You and I were lucky to know these writers personally. Did they influence you? In general, who do you consider to be your teachers? And who would you single out in modern humorous literature?
I’m thankful to the Strugatsky brothers, to Robert Sheckley, and to many others who I’ve read and fallen in love with. All of them are in some way my teachers. Concerning modern authors in this genre… Contemporary satirists inspire fear in me more than laughter. So I stick to the classics. Maybe I’m just getting old.
— Dear Zhenya! You’re a very strange humorist – most of the time we see you sad and somewhat pessimistic. It brings to mind Somerset Maugham’s quote “Kindness is humor’s defense mechanism when faced with the tragic meaninglessness of fate.” Indisputably, you are a very kind person. But how do you perceive fate? What do you expect from life and from the future?
Why would an optimist even need humor? Something seems wrong here. If an optimist starts needing humor, it means something has contaminated his mind. Why else would he need this potent medicine against sadness? This quote from the venerable Somerset Maugham, to be honest, surprised me, and in some ways reminded me of my own motto: “Variety is the key to irrigation!” Something seems off about this phrase. Am I a kind person? In our times, it is hard to really be kind. it is enough to not kill anybody. As for fate, I would gladly accept another fifteen years or so, on the condition that my brain remains intact. Maybe I could even write something.
Dear Zhenya! That you for getting back to us! We’re waiting to hear about your new works and wish you creative successes. We really wish for you to be happy. As Bernard Shaw said, “My jokes consist of me telling people the truth. That is the funniest joke of all.”
We’re looking forward to hearing your truth about us and our world.
based on material from vk/theworldinsideout.
Images inspired by The Scar – courtesy of our VK fan page run by Artem Tsvetkov, theworldinsideout. Perhaps, an idea for a weekly post?
On January 23rd we celebrate Marina’s birthday, with flowers and warm wishes!
May this year be amazing and full of inspiration!
Here comes a new set of illustrations: this time for the 2000 edition of Age of Witches, published by Kalvaria Publishing House in Lvov, Ukraine. The artist is Mikhail Yevshin!
In case you’re not familiar with “Age of Witches”, here’s a link to the page on our website: https://dyachenkowriters.com/age-of-witches-2/
We wish you a wonderful night and an even better year, filled with wonder and adventure!
Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
As the holidays draw near, we wish you a great season and a wonderful year ahead. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
Today our guest is the world-renown director and producer Alexander Rodnyansky!
A winner of a myriad of awards and honors, he has worked on such fantastic projects as West-East, Driver for Vera, Elena, Stalingrad, Leviathan, among numerous others. Many of his films are known in the West, and his work has earned him a Golden Globe and three nominations for Academy Awards, including for Leviathan. He has adapted some of our screenplays into Inhabited Island, and the series The White Guard, which became the film of the year in Russia.
For years, we have been good friends and creative partners.
Rodnyansky graduated from the directing division of the Kiev Theatrical Institute under Felix Sobolev, and began his career at the Kiev Science Film studio. It was a peak time for the studio, and they operated on a high level internationally: it was a time of experiments and successes. During this period, Sergey saw for the first time the work of the young Rodnyansky, a short film about the park bridge on the shores of the Dnyepr, Kiev’s main river. The beautiful bridge is called “Lover’s Bridge”, and was built in 1910 by Eugene Paton. Rodnyansky compared Paton’s plans and calculations and found that they hold up well to modern scientific and architectural standards. The film, accompanied by Mozart’s Small Night Serenade, became a mix of science and poetry. It was a hymn to beauty and happiness. Thirty years have passed, but Sergey still remembers the aura of this small film, which turned out to be Alexander Rodnyansky’s first.
Afterwards, we worked happily with the director on several projects, such as the movie Green Card, Stolen Happiness, The White Guard, and the film adaption of Inhabited Island, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. Currently, Rodnyansky lives for art and travels around the planet. We greeted him recently in Los Angeles, where he came from Toronto to represent his latest project, The Duelist. We met on the ocean shore, and conversed about fantasy.
Alexander Rodnyansky is sharp and intuitive, an extraordinary expert on fantasy in all its forms. Nobody has interviewed him about fantasy before, so here’s something exclusive.
Sergey: How do you define fantasy? How do you see it? This one is a tricky question.
Alexander: It doesn’t seem devious to me. Fantasy is nothing more than a convenient platform and space for solving the main issue of literature — and art as a whole — the issue of reflecting key human conflicts and relationships. It places characters in an unusual, extreme and unexpectedly curious situation for the opportunity to tell enthralling human stories. I don’t look at fantasy as a way of somehow predicting the future. That is a curious challenge within itself, but for me it is secondary. I don’t look at fantasy through a futuristic lens. It is a genre of literature that allows us to remove a person from the boundaries of our world, and thus expose their conflicts and interpersonal relationships.
S: Who are your favorites in fantasy? Authors, works?
A: I am quite a literary omnivore, but there are a few authors, very different ones, that I have loved and will love for a long time, starting with those whose work I grew up with. Of course, these are the Strugatsky brothers. I belong to the generation that read the 25-volume collection of fantasy, and one of the tomes was dedicated to the Strugatsky brothers, their Monday starts on Saturday and It’s Hard to Be a God. After that, I read everything they wrote. I have always loved Bradbury, but it is such a romantic, insanely talented and stylistically diverse fantasy, almost a collection of essays. I loved his world of a melancholic future, which really represents the moods of every person in life’s episodes. I always loved gothic fantasy, as in the combination of the gothic novel and elements of an imagined world which we call fantasy. That is why I was a big fan of Martin. Before him, I closely followed Ursula Le Guinn and Sapkovsky. It was always curious to me. Once, the incredible Ilya Erenburg said that he likes paintings that don’t resemble photography, and photography that does not resemble paintings. Similarly, I love fantasy that is nothing like other genres. I love it for its uniqueness, for that which cannot be achieved in other genres, for the combination of polar opposites: made-up universes, genuine and real characters, human relationships. That’s what I like.
S: Very interesting! How do you think that relates to fantasy in film and TV shows? What kinds of new ideas can come up?
A: Fantasy has been victorious on the big screen, because the big screen demands attractions and worlds in which the viewers can immerse themselves. It’s an escapist necessity, the intense desire to run away. The farther, the better, because the viewer does not enjoy the reality around them. So, fantasy does exist in large numbers on the screen, but the issue is the limited amount of stories. It is limited firstly by graphic novels and old comics from an era where the myths and principal characters were first created. Big Hollywood studios prefer not to take risks and to work with something that inspires trust and relation. The only thing they do in a new way is combining different comic characters in one film. Avengers has six heroes, Iron Man has some more, which didn’t exist on paper. There’s not a lot of space for new material, but the demand of a large-scale cinematic event on the big screen is there, so fantasy has some great opportunities.
As for television, I’m afraid things are more complicated, strangely enough. Except, perhaps, the genres of fantasy that allow for extremely realistic characters and the circumstances they are in. That is, it could be anywhere as long as the characters are convincing, inspire understanding, because the nature of taking in television is more documentary, it is like a window to the neighbor’s yard or their living room. However, because the audience is not sure that what is going on at the neighbors’ obeys the laws of nature, one can tell stories of any kind, including fantasy. The number of shows that have been created and revered recently goes to show that fantasy is enjoying a great period both for TV and film. For example, the recent show Stranger Things, as well as Game of Thrones. Basically, everything that is popular in modern television, with a few exceptions, is fantasy, or at least requires a colossal element of an imagined reality — what is called today “augmented reality”.
S: What about video games? Could they be art?
A: Games became art a long time ago, because they have several areas, in which an artist can express themself. First of all, a hand-made, new visual universe that represents a huge amount of work from designers, that has no precedent in the past. It also reflects the efforts of writers that create the numerous stories that lay the groundwork for the game. But the key advantage of games as opposed to traditional genres is the interactive element, as in the opportunity for the player to influence the course of events and feel like a character. In this sense, I enjoy primarily immersive world games as opposed to the popular shooters. I like Assassin’s Creed only because it was created by about 500 artists, rendering each detail of the world. For example, one the the Assassin’s Creed games is set in the world of Rome and Florence at the beginning of the 16th century, perfectly detailed with streets, houses, alleys, bridges and so on. The reconstruction of reality is reminiscent of a time machine, and the same goes for other such games.
I’m not an avid player, I don’t have time to play “tanks” and most other games, but I do notice them and own a company that works in games. The company is fairly successful, and I have the opportunity to see what is popular and what is not. Of course, today’s games are nothing more than stepping stones. There will be one, two or three steps more where other genres will start including an interactive element. I don’t know when it will happen, but it will in the relatively near future. How one feels about games, including myself, is not relevant. It is the natural evolution in what we call the classic way to tell a story, immersing players into a worlds with the possibility to live out the story.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
Today we have the pleasure to introduce a new section – Living Room Conversations! The first visitor is our old friend Andrzej Sapkowski!
Not that he needs introduction, but: a classic of not only polish literature, but of world literature, Sapkowski is known by millions of people. The Polish fantasy writer and publicist has authored the Witcher series, as well as many critical literature essays and short stories. His books have been translated to numerous languages around the world.
We love pan (Mr.) Andrzej as a writer, and a person. Attached are some photos from the many times we’ve had the fortune to meet him at Kiev-area events. We first met him in 2005 during the “portal” convention, where Andrzej Sapkowski and Robert Sheckley were guests of honor. We, Marina and Sergey, were honorary Presidents of the “Portal” international fantasy writers association, which hosted this event in Kiev.
By a wonderful twist of fate, Sergey celebrated his 60th birthday on the 14th of April, the final day of festivities, and our friends combined the party with the traditional closing banquet for the convention. As a result, a magical jubilee was created with much merrymaking, humour, games, and congratulations. Andrzej Sapkowski was one of the guests of the unforgettable evening.
We remember pan Andrzej as a witty, insightful, and friendly person. He was especially popular among young women, who melted with the charm of his prose. However, let’s move on to the present day and get to the questions.
Recently, Sergey wrote a letter to pan Andrzej; here are some excerpts :
Personally, I am very angry with you. I’m thinking of suing you. Marina and I have deadlines looming, but it so happens that for her birthday in January we bought a Ps4 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt video game. Marina had already played the first two Witcher games and was very impressed with them. They are her favourite game franchise. My wife is a person of great self-control, and usually she can control the time she spends on video games. I was indifferent to video games, sticking to simple shooters or strategy games. Knowing myself to be easily addicted, I resisted the temptation for as long as I could. But here…. for several months in a row I played Wild Hunt, and then the DLCs “Hearts of Stone” and the recent “Blood and Wine”. I play it and I forget about time and space. Waking up in the morning, my first thought isn’t to kiss my wife or pet my cat, or even have breakfast, but to visit my good friend Geralt! It so happens that my ending to the Wild Hunt was tragic, and I was heartbroken. I still have the scar on my heart. At the same time I had to master the controller with its unwieldy joysticks, and try to decipher the English language. Several months! Who’s going to write the screenplays?
It would be just if you wrote a couple episodes for me, to somehow compensate for the damage. All in all, I would like to file a public complaint.
Online, I found contradicting reports on your attitude on video games. I understand these questions might pester you, but allow me to ask:
– How do you feel about The Witcher 3?
– How do you feel about video games in general?
and, if you’d allow, another question:
-What, good or bad, can you remember about Marina and Sergey Dyachenko?
And so, pan Sapkowski replied to us:
Marina and Sergey!
Forgive me for not responding right away, I’m very busy these days. Here are your questions:
– How do you feel about The Witcher 3?
Generally, I feel positive. Otherwise I would not have given them permission to use my work. I can’t say much about the game itself, since I haven’t played it and probably won’t. Computer games don’t really interest me. Time flies, and if I am to waste it, I know of better ways.
The Witcher 3 is known for its high quality, especially in the graphics department.
Sadly, though, the game brings some disappointment as well. There’s the opinion – likely held by the game creators themselves – that the video game is what made me famous in the West, and that’s simply not true. The premiere of the game happened in late October of 2007, but the contracts to publish my first books were signed ten years before that in German, six years in Spanish, five years in French, three years in Portuguese, and one year in English. Perhaps the game did help me somewhat, but it hurt me as well. Many publishers use the graphics as cover art. That is why many readers believed the game to be original, and I, Sapkowski, was writing books after the game. Serious fantasy fans don’t buy these books and then insult them. Currently I am fighting this and I don’t give permission to use the images from the game as cover art for my books.
– How do you feel about video games in general? Are they ever going to replace literature?
I’ve already answered this, somewhat: games do not interest me, and there are much better ways to entertain yourself: fishing, cooking, reading, writing… However, I have nothing against people who play games and enjoy them. I understand why the market is so large and how well it’s going to develop in the future. Can video games replace literature? What a thought! At first, I wanted to roar in protest – nowhere, no way, under no circumstances! But I thought about it, and I don’t know. Who can know?
– One more question, if you don’t mind. What good and bad things can you remember about Marina and Sergey Dyachenko?
Marina and Sergey! Do you know what I remember about our meeting in Kiev? How many friends you have. I’m jealous to this day. I’d like to have that many friends too. I do not have that same aura of friendliness and magnetism as you do. You are together, and all is well with you. I congratulate you heartily.
14 July 2016
Before, in 2012, in his interview in the magazine Eurogamer, before The Wild Hunt came out, Andrzej said:
“The book itself is the point of origin, the result of the unique and unmistakable talent of the author. Carry that over into the virtual world? Impossible.”
“If you compare books and their adaptations into other areas, only the former (the books) are capable of telling an actual story.”
As we can see, pan Andrzej has not changed his views. But let me disagree with many of them. We are sure that The Witcher games, especially Wild Hunt and its extensions, have become the number one game in the world not jsut because of its outstanding graphics. The catch is that the game is based on genius novels. It has what separates Sapkowski’s prose from the rest – vivid characters, unpredictable narrative, juicy details, and his characteristic ironic humour. The tangled twists of the storyline don’t feel forced; they flow from the psychologically accurate character relationships.
Until recently, we ourselves were certain that video games were nothing more than entertainment. But Wild Hunt and its extensions, contrary to what their inspiration might think, are a new form of art: the merging of literature, film and games. It rises above other games like a mountain above empty plains. It is out future. It’s like being at the premiere screening of “train arriving at a station” by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. There were films afterwards that were written sloppily, naively, and cheap, but after some time it created film as we know today.
Thank you for that, pan Andrzej.
What do you think, dear readers?
Marina and Sergey