Geographic accidents: the Gregor Man trilogy by Péter Zsoldos

Bogi Takács is a reviewer and linguist in Hungary.

One of the most important works of Hungarian science fiction has never been translated to English; it’s been translated to German, but the German editions are long out of print. The Gregor Man trilogy by Péter Zsoldos changed the way entire Hungarian generations saw science fiction and fantasy. I’ll try to summarize the plot in a nutshell (this means spoilers!) and explain exactly what the series has to offer the present-day reader.

The first volume in the trilogy, The Viking Returns (A Viking visszatér, 1963), starts with a rather conventional setup – Gregor Man, an astronaut, is marooned on an alien planet where the local sentient species is humanoid, but it has not yet built a technological civilization. This allows for plenty of stone age fantasy adventuring, though Zsoldos’ approach is markedly more realistic than that of his contemporaries. The fluid storytelling keeps the reader riveted – it’s hard to believe The Viking Returns was the author’s first novel, and it’s aged surprisingly well despite having been written over half a century ago. The plot is, however, not particularly original.

At the end of the first volume, Gregor Man finally manages to reunite with his fellow space travelers. The meat of the trilogy is in the lengthy second novel, Distant Fire (Távoli tűz, 1969). Gregor Man realizes that the planet is home to not one sentient species, but two. While he was trying to stay alive in the wilderness, his comrades have managed to locate the second species on the coast and proceeded to join their bronze-age civilization. After a few twists, the protagonist ends up leading the coastal city of Avana.

At first, Gregor Man sets out to achieve his goal with all the naivety that can be expected of a science fiction hero from the 1960s. He thinks every problem can be solved with “superior” technology, he tries to become an embodiment of the enlightened ruler trope, and so on. In his new role, he is more reminiscent of a colonial governor than a marooned astronaut (to the extent that I was ready to put down the book in frustration!).

Then the first cracks appear in the facade. At first, Gregor Man finds himself battling the stubbornness of his own city council. He is quite ready to think of them as savages (more colonialist overtones!), and their plan indeed goes wrong, but the failure is caused by a factor Gregor Man himself could not foresee in all his enlightened rulerdom. Then he continues to be mercilessly pommeled by the author – it turns out that all his effort was for little gain, as he simply happened to be on the wrong side of the ocean. On the other side, a large invading army of a more advanced civilization is massing to rule over the world. The Christian allusions are quite obvious – their proselytizing religion compels them to spread their faith across the globe. Gregor Man is forced to realize that this time he is on the short end of the stick.

The much later written third volume, The Last Temptation (Azutolsó kísértés, 1988), is more of a farewell to loyal fans than anything. Gregor Man is offered a way out by another spacefaring species (to further underscore the point that even though he is a special individual, he is not the center of the universe), but he turns down the offer.

In a sense, the entire concept of the trilogy is really Hungarian – Hungarian history is rich in foreign invasions, and the invaders were often there to stay for extended periods of time. In Hungarian literature, Hungarian-ness is often considered an accident of birth that condemns one to peripheral and at times outright oppressed status, and this outsider stance is quite prevalent even in speculative fiction. (I learned the word “periphery” from a Hungarian children’s SF novel where the characters lamented living on the Moon, far from the Earthly center!)

The parallel with colonialism is not exact, but it is one that’s often made by Hungarians themselves, so maybe it’s not much of a surprise that a work that primarily tackled issues of colonialism in a SF setting resonated especially strongly with Hungarian readers, and that its impact is still felt. (Today there is an SF organization named after the city of Avana and the major Hungarian SF award is named after Péter Zsoldos.)

Even in Hungary, the outsider approach is usually not combined with the common tropes of the independent self-made-man hero – almost always a white male – who spreads the ideals of their culture, so prevalent both in American-influenced and Soviet-influenced genre fiction, and present in Hungary as well. Gregor Man fits the template to a T – he is even called “Man”, in English! –, except he is constantly forced to face the limits imposed on him by an accident of geographic location, and ultimately he’s unable to overcome them: Avana is destroyed and his journals are found by archeologists, descendants of the invaders.

What makes the trilogy especially interesting for an English-speaking audience is that for completely different reasons, postcolonialist discourse has recently become especially important in present-day English-language SF. The Gregor Man trilogy is not perfect – for one, the perspective of the protagonist is still that of the colonizer, not that of the colonized. But the series offers a quite peculiar approach, keeping the focus on the usual “American” science fiction hero, but mercilessly making him fail and fail again, in all senses of the word. To a Hungarian reader, this is inevitable; to a Western reader, possibly less so, and thus the subversion could potentially be even more effective. Provided the series was ever translated to English…

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