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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:

  • Alien Catnip: The Wyjscie 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.
  • 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.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Nope, not here. Even if a character gets it wrong, he's soon corrected by someone who knows better. Except, maybe, Cylinder van Troffa. A bit. See below.
  • 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.
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  • Beige Prose: His is very idea-based, clearly and concisely delivered.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Wyjscie 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!
  • 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: Wyjscie 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.
  • 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 much capable of learning).
  • 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 me count the ways:
  • Enclosed Extraterrestrials: The Wyjscie 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 clothes and shuttles also allows them to pretend they're much more numerous than they really are.
  • 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.
  • Gender Rarity Value: In Cylinder van Troffa, girls are very, very rare, hence - valued. Sandra pretty much asks the protagonist to give her a daughter.
  • 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 Wyjscie 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.
  • Humans Are Flawed: Even when aliens want to crapsack Earth, they don't have to work on it much. Humans are perfectly capable of opressing themselves. But most of them are just human.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: Wyjscie 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.
  • 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.
  • Mega City: Argoland (modeled on Chicago) and Paradyzja.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: 4 to 5.
  • 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.
  • Powers That Be: The actual top brass behind the dystopiae is never seen, nor their motives revealed, to either the characters or the readers.
  • 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.
  • 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 curb human population 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.
  • 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".
  • Tidally Locked Planet: The Wyjscie 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.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: In Wyjscie z cienia, the aliens forget about a total solar eclipse - and, since they need sunlight, this hits them hard.
  • Whole Plot Reference: One of the short stories retells The Bible.

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