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Creator / Janusz Zajdel

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Janusz Andrzej Zajdel (15 August 1938 - 19 July 1985) was a Polish Science Fiction writer, mostly interested in how Dystopiae are built and work (or don't).

A physicist in Real Life, his stories are very scientifically accurate, sometimes to the point of plot points like an ancient figurine being covered in californium (Zajdel's specialty was radioactivity and nuclear physics) or Coriolis forces revealing something important (more than once). The annual Polish Sci-Fi fandom award has been named for him, after Zajdel was awarded it posthumously (for the novel Paradyzja).

His only English-translated work, the short story Szczególnie trudny teren (Particularly Difficult Territory) features in Frederik Pohl's Tales from the Planet Earth anthology.


Some tropes found in Zajdel's work:

  • Absurdly Dedicated Worker: All the machinery keeping Earth cities in order in Cylinder van Troffa. The Immortal thinks this is for when the lunarians recolonise. They never do. The Ragnarök Proofing lasts, according to the future archaeologists, for about two hundred years, after which the photovoltaic cells stop working and the winds (stronger on a deforested planet) break them into dust.
  • Alice Allusion: Limes Inferior features, as an important character, a mysterious young woman who calls herself "Alicja" ("Alice"), quotes Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and turns out to be literally from another world.
  • Alien Catnip: The Wyjście z cienia aliens like honey and livid pinkgill mushrooms (poisonous to humans, but the aliens just act kind of drunk after eating them). They come to Earth for the produce in the first place.
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  • Always Male: Zajdel's protagonists. The only exception seems to be Felicitas, a short story that comprises several characters' personal accounts of a certain event they all had a part in (and approached it with different foreknowledge, saw it differently, and ultimately walked away with different experiences) - two of the narrators are women.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Of both Genre Savvy (Paradyzja) and not-my-problem sorts. The Limes Inferior aliens turn any other intelligence they can find into this before it goes space-faring, possibly in fear of competition.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: The Earth in Cylinder van Troffa. Tess thinks it's because of the hopelessness inherent in a Childless Dystopia. The lunarians and Mark's group think this is just the nature of earthlings.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Nope, not here. Even if a character gets it wrong, he's soon corrected by someone who knows better. Except Cylinder van Troffa with the time travel and nearly magical photovoltaics.
    • Invoked by the government of the eponymous space station in Paradyzja: the locals are deliberately taught severely gutted and muddled-up physics so that they couldn't tell whether gravity they experience is centrifugal or not.
  • Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction: Zajdel is one of the premier examples of then so-called sociological fantasy, a Polish take on soft/social Science Fiction. Arguably a Soviet Bloc equivalent of Cyberpunk, this genre used sci-fi trappings to discuss realities of life in societies inspired by Commie Land these writers lived in.
  • Attraction to Outliers: Mentioned in Paradyzja, where his guide tells Rinah that, as a fascinating foreigner, he could have any girl he wanted on Paradyzja, so please give up on Zinnia already, she's trouble. Rinah politely agrees.
  • Beige Prose: Very idea-based, clearly and concisely delivered, with little description. Often, the only things we learn about a character is their age and gender. Sometimes ethnicity. Rinah Devi is stated not to wear a wig or contact lenses, and he's probably not wearing glasses either, and gets Messy Hair from a minor plot point that lasts for the rest of the story. He's in his mid-thirties and of Indian descent. That's the largest amount of physical description a Zajdel's protagonist gets.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: Sets up two False Utopiae:
    • Out in the open in Wyjście z cienia, where the aliens are being officially praised for having solved every problem humanity's ever had, while they actually exploit Earth.
    • In Limes Inferior the aliens are The Unseen and most humans have no idea their alien masters even exist. They did give humanity free energy, but at the cost of implementing their social system.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: You can never know whether or not you're under surveillance in Paradyzja. The locals just tend to assume that they are, hence several odd behaviours designed to confuse the automated systems.
    • In Limes Inferior the Overzeroes have simply realised that whenever someone spends points, the central bank gets the location of the vending machine (actual shops are rare and there's no physical currency - everything is done by electronics). They do employ spies for watching specific people, but generally learn everything they want to know from bank records.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Wyjście z cienia aliens, who think humans are bizarre as anything. Not much of biochemical barriers, though. In the short stories there are weirder ones, such as sentient plants with completely unreliable sensory systems. Unless this was All Just a Dream.
  • Centrifugal Gravity: Paradyzja. Or so they have you believe... Start questioning this, and you will learn some very interesting things, then probably get Released to Elsewhere. Yup, the Powers That Be even lie about the physics! Because actually, Paradyzja is lying on the surface of Tartar - it just has no windows, and most "space" travel between the two is done by (enclosed) hovercraft
  • Cloning Blues: The "Sandras" ( clones of the protagonist's Love Interest) in Cylinder van Troffa avert this - most of them just act like Dumb Blondes. The one the protagonist befriended may be an exception, but equally well he might be projecting his wishful thinking onto her.
  • The Con: Wyjście z cienia is basically about slightly Starfish Aliens running one on humanity. We turn out to be pretty gullible... Other groups of alien conmen (conaliens?) also appear in short stories.
  • Con Man: The protagonist of Limes Inferior is a a lifter, i.e. he fakes those intelligence tests for people. He considers himself an artist, and has a good deal of disdain for common thugs.
  • Cold Sleep, Cold Future: The titular Cylinder van Troffa translation  is, for all intents and purposes, a stasis chamber until you figure out how to use it to move back in time. Besides that, the protagonist, along with his astronaut crew, has spent a good while in actual cold sleep, because their journey home has been delayed by a mechanical fault. They arrive back in the middle of the Split, and the protagonist gets to visit both the Police State of the Moon and the Teenage Wasteland cum Childless Dystopia that Earth became after the plan to curb overpopulation went either horribly wrong or horribly right, depending on how you see it.
  • Crapsack World: Where to even begin... Even the most optimistic settings are False Utopias and their inhabitants are more or less aware their society is screwed.
  • Dark Secret: Of varying levels of darkness, painstakingly hidden underneath each of the dystopiae.
  • Defying the Censors: Stuff gets thrown past the (political) censors out of universe. In Paradyzja, however, there is the In-Universe koalang - an ongoing poetry slam of puns, metaphors and Unusual Euphemisms designed to confuse the automated censorship system (which has cameras and microphones hidden throughout the station and is very capable of learning).
  • Deliberate Under-Performance: The lifters in Limes Inferior, whose job it is to pass the intelligence tests for the clients. Most of them pretend to be Class 4 citizens by failing their own evaluation tests, since with a four you're virtually guaranteed not to have to work, and can slip inbetween the cracks of the system, but don't get looked down upon as a moron (too much).
  • Despotism Justifies the Means: Ultimately, that's the worldview of the rulers in Paradyzja. They claim to be in constant danger from Earth, but are actually trading with it, selling minerals and ores and buying mostly electronics to better watch their subjects with.
  • Dramatic Irony: In Paradyzja, Nikor has been sent to Tartar for recording a short SF story. He has no idea what was so subversive about it, and while he never learns, Rinah Devi does: Nikor managed to guess the exact literal truth about Paradyzja, the truth unknown even to those characters who think they know what's going on.
  • Dystopia: Let us count the ways:
  • Dystopia Is Hard: Generally, Zajdel plays his dystopiae straight, but in Limes Inferior the protagonist discovers that the system is not actually running anywhere near as smoothly as everyone's being led to believe. Turns out the system is only being implemented because otherwise the Benevolent Alien Invasion would stop to be "benevolent" and the aliens would make humans take it wholesale. And enjoy it. And since the full version is just so dehumanising, the Overzeroes are sabotaging the effort.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Yetta, the protagonist's Lost Lenore in Cylinder van Troffa played the harp. At least one of the Sandras also does, and she vaguely remembers the lady who taught her and may (or may not) have been Yetta.
  • The Elites Jump Ship: That's how most earthlings view lunarians in Cylinder van Troffa.
  • Enclosed Extraterrestrials: The Wyjście z cienia aliens, for two reasons - one, they need certain wavelenghts of light to live, hence can't go out at night without protection, and two, more importantly, they don't want the Earthlings to see what they really look like and get some bright ideas on how to get rid of them. The uniformity of their suits and shuttles also allows them to pretend they're much more numerous than they really are.
  • Fantastic Caste System: Downplayed Trope in Limes Inferior, where the castes are assigned according to the results of intelligence testing. There's (officially) seven of them, from 6 (lowest) to 0 (brainy). The protagonist, Sneer, makes his living by cheating the system, since a lot of people want perks that come from being a class or two better than their actual level.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Usually averted - unless the story is explicitly comedic, most of your space journey will be spent in a hibernation chamber. Nothing beyong the orbit of Mars is nearly close enough for a weekend trip.
  • Freaky Friday Sabotage: Szczególnie trudny teren features two guys beset by (different) Body Snatcher aliens. One of them copes by being The Alcoholic, the other outsmarts both aliens and gets himself arrested for a good measure.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: In Cylinder van Troffa, the Earth has been covered with photovoltaic cells that use sunlight thirty times as efficiently as photosynthesis. The energy is used to make artificial food, among other things.
  • Future Slang: The Earthlings in Cylinder van Troffa use swearwords that sound sweary, but are completely made up. The protagonist has no real problem learning it.
  • Gainax Ending: The one in Limes Inferior does make sense (as wishful thinking, at least), when you consider what the whole thing symbolises, and there are several vague hints beforehand, but for a first-time reader Alicja turning up out of the blue, pretty much admitting she's an alien, but not of the kind that's oppressing Earth, then taking humanity someplace safe is quite a surprise.
  • Gender Rarity Value: In Cylinder van Troffa, girls, because of the messing up with genes that cemented the Split. Sandra pretty much asks the protagonist to give her a daughter.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Zajdel's works are rife with fairly obvious socio-political commentary for then contemporary Poland. It just happened that political censorship was far more lenient toward such things when they happened in science fiction, for whatever reason. And even more importantly, his stories are much more than just political commentary, using it as a backdrop for the actual events, rather than an end in itself. This created Applicability which in turn allowed the stories to age rather well, unlike most Polish sci-fi literature of the era.
  • Gone Horribly Right: In Paradyzja, Nikor needs to give Rinah some information under the nose of the censorship system, so he hides it in a couple of poems and pretends to be a slightly self-obsessed poet. Rinah gets the hint, the computers don't. However, since the sector poet spot is vacant, the computer registers Nikor for a new job. Now he's going to have to come up with new, original poems every month.
  • Hive Mind: The Wyjście z cienia aliens are basically sentient anthills. They need certain wavelenghts of light to stay coherent and sentient, though, which is why they never get out during the night.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Alicja poses as one to get close to Sneer, including letting him crash in her room.
  • Humans Are Flawed: Even when aliens want to crapsack Earth, they don't have to work on it much. Humans are perfectly capable of oppressing themselves. But most of them are just human.
  • Humanity's Wake: The filian archaeologists come to Earth over a thousand years after humanity's extinction in Cylinder van Troffa. Then again, they're descended from Earth colonists.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: Wyjście z cienia and Limes Inferior, the former remaining inscrutable to the human characters in the book, but we get a one-chapter peek into their ways of thinking. The short stories also feature Human Aliens, mostly dictated by Rule of Funny.
  • Insufferable Genius: Since the society in Limes Inferior is build around intelligence tests, the high rated people look down on the dumb majority. Thing is, most of the "upper" classes cheated on their tests, using people like the protagonist for help, so actually they are often dumb yokels nowhere near their official intelligence rating. When the Powers That Be need an actual genius, they seek among lifters.
  • Immortals Fear Death: Eiwurms don't really fear it, it's just so weird and alien to them they have trouble seeing Humans Through Alien Eyes and interpreting those strange, mortal creatures. At least one of the short stories also has immortal aliens who discover Earth and are horrified to learn sentients there are not immortal. And it might be contagious...
  • Killer Rabbit: An only slightly Mad Scientist creates a literal Killer Rabbit more or less by accident in one of the short stories. He was selectively breeding for ability to withstand radiation...
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The Zeroes in Limes Inferior, not to mention Ones and Twos, most of whom are "lifted" (i.e. had their intelligence tests faked). Also happens in short stories - Played for Drama in Wszechwiedzący (The All-knowing), where a human working as a glorified data server suddenly discovers that what he knows is a speck compared to humanity's knowledge.
  • Life Imitates Art: A completely flat device functioning as: an underground ticket, credit card, ID, door key... Smartphone? Nope, it's a Key from Limes Inferior.
    • Limes Inferior also features a system in which there are three sorts of currency (or points): red that everyone is paid just for existing (you can live using them only, but it's pretty bland), green you get for your intelligence level, yellow you get for working (these can buy the nice stuff). In Real Life, there are projects to pay people for just living. Note that in the novel, this doesn't change squat about human nature - it's set in the criminal circles, the protagonist is a crook and nowhere near the meanest guy around.
    • And Paradyzja features a point system for assessing the citizens' "worth". If your score falls too low, you're temporarily reassigned to the mines on the planet of Tartar, which Paradyzja is orbiting around.
  • The Lost Lenore: The Immortal in Cylinder van Troffa is searching for his girlfriend, who promised to wait for him in the titular device. He never finds her (on page). He does find a clone of her, which is a source of quite some confusion.
  • Mechanistic Alien Culture: The Limes Inferior aliens, probably. That's how they present themselves, at least. And they're trying to make every other civilisation into this, claiming it's the optimal way to live.
  • Mega City: Argoland (modeled on Chicago) and Paradyzja. The cities in Cylinder van Troffa are swollen and only partly populated postapocalyptic slums.
  • Messy Hair: Everyone (except Zinnia Vett, somehow) on the Paradyzja station, since normal, useable combs are illegal there - they only have big-tooth ones that do absolutely nothing. Rinah, whose comb is taken off him at the customs, is kind of uncomfortable with this hair-don't. The ban on combs is because they could be used to get rid of miniature surveillance drones that anchor in people's hair.
  • No Ending: Cała prawda o planecie Ksi ends with the protagonist discovering the titular truth and discussing with his men what they should do about it. They make tentative plans, but that's it. Zajdel had planned a part two, Drugie spojrzenie na planetę Ksi, but unfortunately, the cancer claimed him while he was writing it. It got finished in 2014 by Marcin Kowalczyk.
  • No Name Given: Cylinder van Troffa has a Framing Device of future archaeologists finding and translating the protagonist's diary, found in the ruins. Since he hasn't written his name down, they (and we) never learn it. One of the archaeologists names him "the Immortal". This is Foreshadowing - there should have been some records of his mission, but he figured out how to go back in time and erased them.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Commander Sloth in Cała prawda o planecie Ksi is adressed by his subordinates simply as "commander", and by his friends as Sloth. We never learn his name. We do learn Sneer's real name in Limes Inferior - Adi Cherryson - but he, being a crook, never uses it (the police do).
  • Our Time Machine Is Different: In Cylinder van Troffa the titular device works by manipulating Earth's gravitational field to slow down time. It's intended as an experiment, and used as a stasis chamber, until the protagonist figures out how to use it for real time travel.
  • Population Control: The lunarians in Cylinder van Troffa, since they can't afford to feed too many or "unproductive" people. They have child licensing and mandatory euthanasia.
  • Post-Scarcity Economy: Cylinder van Troffa, where humanity has perfected photovoltaics almost to a magical degree, and Limes Inferior thanks to a Benevolent Alien Invasion.
  • Powered by a Black Hole: Van Troff's cylinder, ish. It works by aligning "gravitational lenses" in order to focus Earth's gravitational field into a black-hole-like singularity. That causes Time Dilation, so the cylinders contents experience slowed time (a hundred years outside is about eight minutes inside). Van Troff theorises that antigravity (and time travel into the past) can be achieved with it.
  • Powers That Be: The actual top brass behind the dystopiae is never seen, nor their motives revealed, to either the characters or the readers.
  • Resourceful Rodent: In Cylinder van Troffa, rats (lots of rats) live alongside the earthlings, using the tech like food dispensers and the underground. It appears that they inherit the Earth, but die out soon after humans, because they can't fend for themselves anymore and the machines break down.
  • Satire: Several of the short stories mock the living daylights out of various aspects of the system. Example - a society of Human Aliens trying to give themselves photosynthesis - some grow green and get a lot of perks for it, but greenness is really paint, and each of the "greens" figured it out themselves and thinks they're the only one for whom the greenifying treatment didn't work.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: In the xenofiction part of Wyjście z cienia we learn the aliens call themselves "eiworms"translation , segments of their body "akfurms"translation , and a dangerous beast that used to live on their planet - "aundamat"translation . They are Insectoid Aliens, except an individual eiworm is not a single organism, but a Hive Mind of akfurms. Basically, sentient anthills.
  • Seeker Archetype: Most of the protagonists of Zajdel's novels are guys who stumble upon a secret and decide to learn more:
    • Tim Warnel in Wyjście z cienia is a teenager who discovers he's not living in a simple, easily understood world,
    • Sneer in Limes Inferior is a Con Artist who's been exploiting the system for years without questioning it, but now finds himself compelled to,
    • Commander Sloth in Cała prawda o planecie Ksi is an official investigator sent to find out what happened on the titular planet,
    • Rinah Devi is a writer researching the titular space station for a book in Paradyzja,
    • The Immortal in Cylinder van Troffa is searching for a person, not information, but since he's doing it on a Bad Future, completely changed Earth and is an astronaut by profession, he still discovers a lot of things.
  • Shout-Out: In Paradyzja there is a character named Nikor Orley Huxwell.
  • Sleeper Starship: Is a standard mode of interstellar travel, be it for colonisation, pre-colonisation exploration, trade or research. In Cała prawda o planecie Ksi the protagonist, who, as a space pilot, spends most of his time hibernated muses on the psychological and moral effects of living "a fragmented life".
  • The Social Darwinist: The Split in Cylinder van Troffa was caused by an attempt to keep down overpopulation by releasing into the drinking water a chemical agent that would turn people infertile, then only giving the antidote to those "genetically most worthy". But it turned out some people, mostly those with a set of traits completely opposite to the "most worthy" were immune. So the top brass released another chemical agent that stopped female babies from developing, after they packed their bags and went to Moon colonies to wait the Earthlings out. Hence, two hundred years later, Earth is a Future Primitive Childless Dystopia where disaffected males roam aimlessly and break stuff, while the Moon quickly degenerated into a Police State with tight Population Control in which "retirement" means getting Released to Elsewhere for being old. Fast forward two hundred years and humans are extinct. Filians, the people descended from a pre-Split space colony are doing some archeaology in the ruins.
  • Stock Star Systems: The eiwurms claim to come from Proxima Centauri, so humans call them "the Prox". Even the few humans who have figured out this cover story doesn't hold water. We never learn where they're really from.
  • Super-Sargasso Sea: One short shory entitled "Ogon diabła" (The Devil's Tail) involves a researcher who discovers a dimension where lost items go to. And its inhabitants. The title itself is derived from a Polish folk saying which refers to lost items as "covered by the Devil with his tail".
  • Teenage Wasteland: Earth in Cylinder van Troffa. The young band together to terrorise the old not because they lack anything, or even because they hate them for being born into a hopeless world, but because they hate to be reminded of their inherent, meaningless death.
  • Tidally Locked Planet: The Wyjście z cienia aliens come from one of these, specifically, from the sunny hemisphere. They physically cannot survive in darkness, which is why they haven't properly explored the dark part of their planet, and there are voices in their society that they should do that before going out into space, sort of like with us and the oceans.
  • Time Dilation: When appropiate. Van Troff's cylinder technically works on it.
  • Tomato Surprise: Dziwny nieznany świat is a classic example. The astronauts turn out to be tiny aliens and the strange new world they discovered is a dirty glass in a scientist's lab.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: In Wyjście z cienia, the aliens forget about a total solar eclipse - and, since they need sunlight, this hits them hard.
  • Wasteland Elder: Cylinder van Troffa has Tess, the old man who tries to inspire some hope in the dying earthlings. There's also Mark and Cyril (and their four friends), who maintain the image, but only work for their own comfort, selling things ( and cloned girls) that earthlings want for things they can't make.
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future: Limes Inferior has a three-stage credit system: red, green and yellow. Everyone by default gets the same amount of red points just for the fact they are alive, but those only allow to buy basic, low-quality goods. Green are given depending on your intelligence class rating. The most valuable ones, yellow, come from your pay-grade, which in turn is tied to your class rating. Since only yellow points have any actual value and allow to access luxury goods, people use variety of tricks to change their class and thus employment prospects. The whole system is a fantastic take on ration stamps and foreign currency systems that were in heavy use in communist-era Poland.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: One of the short stories retells The Bible.
  • Written by the Winners: Paradyzja explores the concept even further: the government doesn't stop at history, it falsifies physics.