And now another article about faraway lands (at least for us). It was a form of communication, the Internet, that introduced us to the writer of the next article. We met Malgorzata in 1993, on a vacation (Nicki) / business (Richard) trip to Poland, after first enquiring in a Polish-language newsgroup if there were any fans in Warsaw. She's been our friend ever since. Poland is now a great place to visit, but it's not always been that way.
'Science Fiction Under Martial Law' by Malgorzata Wilk; 
  illo by Kurt Erichsen
It was in the night of December 12th, 1981, when my father returned from a business trip to Germany. There was a lot of joy, many questions and unpacking and the like. When we finally went to sleep it was probably after midnight so we slept long the next day, a Sunday. I don't remember much from that day, only that shortly after we woke up our neighbor trundled down the stairs wearing only his pants and crying "War! War!" That was the beginning of the Martial Law in Poland as I remember it. I was 13 years old at that time and actually I remember it rather dimly. But to think that the people who reach adulthood now weren't even born then or were just babies makes me feel somehow very old.

The Martial Law was suspended on 31st December 1982 and finally withdrawn on 22nd July 1983. Some of you may remember the famous picture Chris Niedenthal took of big tanks right in front of the Cinema Moskwa (Moscow) with a big poster advertising the movie Apocalypse Now. Somehow he managed to smuggle the negatives out of Poland and the picture was published in Newsweek. For some people the Martial Law really was an acalypse. We children were rather glad because it meant we would have longer Christmas vacations instead of the ordinary one and a half weeks. But ten thousands of people were arrested and brought to internment camps. Many actors weren't allowed to perform anymore, professors were discharged from universities. The borders were closed, even the cities were surrounded by the military and one had to have a special permission to leave town. Telephone connections were cut off (not that I was bothered overly by it, us not having a telephone at that time), letters opened and censored. And we didn't know what happened to our family outside of Warsaw.

It was a very sad Christmas that year, one spent only among us three, not counting the dog. It was the first one in Poland after our five-year stay in Germany, the first one in a country struck by a very bad economic condition. I still remember what my Christmas present was: a Polish language dictionary, the only sensible book that my parents could buy. It must have cost them much trouble to get it but at that time I couldn't appreciate it. You see, in those difficult days you had to hunt down everything in the shops, irrespective of their kind, be it food, clothing, paper, books etc. The most desired things were sold from under the counter. It paid to know people in various shops and to be nice to them.

illo by Kurt Erichsen But the Martial Law didn't changed my life very much besides not being able to visit my grandmother for Christmas. It was in general very difficult for me to get used to Poland at all after living in Germany for five years. When we left Poland in 1976 it was a comfortable country to live in, even if you had to go hunting for certain things like refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions. But how great one felt, how proud one was after weeks spent in a queue to finally own one. And everyone had work, was reasonably safe, could travel abroad -- and the food was cheap. When we returned in September 1981 to Poland, the Solidarnosc was already a big power. Since 1980 there had been strikes (not that this has changed very much now -- in January this year the anesthetists went on strike) and food and other items on tickets. I really don't know how I managed to survive on only one chocolate bar a month! And mostly it wasn't even chocolate but a chocolate-like product. Oh, and there was also 100 grams of candies every month.

I remember particularly well the fat milk sold in groceries only for children and on special marks. I was too old so we had to wait till the evening before the shops closed and sold the remains of the milk (it wasn't pasteurized nor heat treated, so after one day, or even that same evening, it was sour) to ordinary people. A colleague of my father returned in 1982 from England and he had a boy of about four years. The boy liked milk very much and he took a big swallow from his first glass of milk in Poland. Immediately he put the glass down and asked his older sister with a whiny voice: "Anieszka, why d'you put water in my milk?!"

Paper was scarce, too. But paradoxically those were good times for young science fiction writers. Socialism cherished young writers. Socialism cherished Science Fiction (I've got some obscure Eastern German SF novels that are even more socialist than Russian ones). Publishing houses had a special plan that they had to fulfill and they sought new writers and new forms of expression. Science Fiction that showed a glorious socialist future was highly valued. The production cycle was very long back in those years, even up to three or four years. But despite of that there were always many new writers published. And there were newspapers that published stories, too. Especially prominent here was Mlody Technik (Young Technician), a scientific monthly aimed at teenagers that always featured one SF story. Even such famous writers as Stanislaw Lem or Janusz Zajdel were published there.

Poland has a founded tradition in writing SF; through the 19th century writers wrote supernatural and technical SF, during the interbellum (between WWI and WWII) Aleksander Smolarski wrote his City of Light, one year before Aldous Huxley wrote his Brave New World and a trial of plagiarism followed. The first decade after the WWII was difficult but after that SF was being published. I don't have the publication history of all the publishing houses but Iskry (sparks) was probably the first to start with SF (and the only one where I have all the titles from the beginning till 1985). In 1953 they published two Russian books, a novel and a short story collection.

The following years brought other Russian books and some Polish science fiction, mainly Stanislaw Lem. And there was a final breakthrough -- The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov in 1960 (and one novel by Aleksandr Belajev). Then, in 1963, Islands in the Sky by Arthur C. Clarke was published and a collection of American stories followed in 1966. It was not very much but at least it was chosen literature and one knew what was on the market and could buy all the books that were published (providing one could hunt down the book in the store, which wasn't easy). Every year approximately 10 to 15 SF books were published, or so I seem to remember. An invaluable source of books were second hand book stores.

This May issue of our oldest SF magazine Nowa Fantastyka (New SF) proudly announced that they are 200 issues old! The first issue was published in October 1982, in the middle of the Martial Law, and it was only there that people could say what they had in mind without much censorship, of course disguising it as Science Fiction. In the beginning Nowa Fantastyka was called simply Fantastyka and published by the only official publisher of magazines and newspapers. RSW Prasa Ksiazka Ruch (Publishing Cooperative Press & Books) had a gigantic network of small newsstands with magazines, bus tickets, batteries, pencils and the like. Fantastyka had an enormous circulation of 150,000 copies and it was simply impossible to find a free copy in one of the newsstands -- 'free copy' meaning one not subscribed through the post office (there was a limit of subscriptions for every post office) or semi-subscribed at a local newsstand in the so-called folder. The folders were very popular; you had a folder with your name and address at his newsstand and the keeper knew what kind of magazines and newspapers you always wanted and put them into your folder. But the number of folders in the newsstands was also limited. I never managed to buy a number of Fantastyka until August 1984 when a folder became free in the newsstand at my mother's working place. From that time I received Fantastyka regularly, but five years later everything changed.

In June 1989 the first semi-free elections for the Polish Parliament, the Sejm, were held. The election was only `Semi-free' because 30% of the seats had to go to the Communist Party. And in July 1990 Fantastyka was taken over by a private publisher which changed its name into Nowa (New) Fantastyka. Today, Pruszynski & Spólka (Pruszynski & Company) is the biggest Polish magazine publisher -- a publishing house for books as well as a book club and Internet book shop. During those years I managed to buy all those missing copies of Fantastyka in second hand book stores. I still buy it. Only I don't have the time now to read it!

The first contact I had with Polish fandom was in 1987 when the Seventh National Polish Convention, the Polcon, was organized in Warsaw. Organized fandom has existed in Poland for more than 25 years. I know from hearsay what the fan's life looked like in those days. The first real big convention was in 1985 (after a small and closed con in 1983). Because of the police, our meeting times were restricted till early evening. Warsaw didn't have much luck with clubs, no continuity here. There was an All-Polish SF & F Lovers Club founded in 1976, which was relieved by the Polish SF Lovers Association after five years. This centralistic association didn't last long as well. Other cities like Gdansk or Katowice can look upon almost 20 years of club tradition, but Warsaw clubs are like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, and this year, after 12 years, there will again be a national convention in Warsaw.

illo by Kurt Erichsen There is only one club in Poland, in Olsztyn, that keeps minutes from all the meetings and events from the beginning. It makes fascinating reading. I wish I knew more about those days. I think I missed everything interesting; I wasn't in the underground, I didn't spread underground papers, I didn't even suspect that there was something like an organized fandom. But the stories people have to tell are hilarious. Does any one remember the space program Reagan launched? A ring of satellites that would destroy any incoming missiles, called the Star Wars Program, as opposed to George Lucas' Star Wars (believe me, in Polish there is a slight difference, Wojny Gwiezdne and Gwiezdne Wojny). Shortly after the Martial Law, when an association or society wanted to organize a meeting or a lecture, they had to apply for permission. The Silesian club organized a one-day con/meeting on the Star Wars saga. It's unbelievable, but they were visited by the police and asked why the police hadn't been in formed that there was a conference held about Reagan's Star Wars Program!

There are stories about video movies showings organized by clubs where people were reading the dialogues live and funny translations happened. It's difficult to translate them into English, Polish being so different. In the Return of the Jedi there is I believe a scene where Luke tells Leia: "You've got that power too!" The lector listened very intently to the English original and translated: "Ty tez masz ta pale!" where this word pale sounds just like power but in Polish it means that Luke implied Leia has also a male sexual organ. Now imagine this happening in a room full of young men! I wish I had been there!

My memories from club meetings from 1987 on seem like ancient history now so much has changed. We were meeting every week in a small community club in the outskirts of Warsaw. A friend told me that they stayed after such a meeting for a small party at their friends and tried to find their way back home in the middle of the night. And Ursynów, where all this happened, is a big blocks suburb of Warsaw. They were wandering around deserted streets for what seemed like hours without finding a bus stop. Finally they saw a lonely bus driving down the street; they stopped it, climbed into it, grabbed the driver by his collar and asked with desperation in their voice: "Mister, are you going to Warsaw!?"

illo by Kurt Erichsen I liked our weekly meetings very much; we were talking about books we've read, especially bitching about the bad translations, watching video movies, and commenting on the show. The climax of those meetings was when Krysia and Slawek came, dragging big heavy parcels of books with them. Krysia worked in a bookstore and was naturally very well informed of forthcoming books. She took orders from all our members for specific titles and as soon as they were finally published she brought them to the club. And so every club meeting was like an unexpected present; you never knew what books she would have with her. Publishers always lagged behind their publishing schedule.

Another prominent figure of that time (and of this time as well) was Lech Olczak. In real life the chief of an obstetrics ward, he was mainly known because of his good contacts with the underground press. Mind you, only that branch of it that printed translations of American SF in gigantic print runs of a 100 copies! I remember reading these versions of McCaffrey's Dragonsinger, Dickson's The Dragon and the George, and Sheckley's Cemetery World, and numerous other books that I don't remember the titles of anymore. The print quality of them was horrible, with lots of typos, mimeographed, on paper slightly resembling (in color and texture) toilet paper, from a text written on a typewriter (who would think of computers then, when all you could do with them was play Pac-man or paint fractals) and simply stapled together. They were horribly expensive compared to the official books. I heard that someone has gone to jail because of publishing these books illegally -- not because they violated any copyrights, but because they were publishing something not authorized by the Party.

After a special issue of Mimosa {{ed. note: issue 15 }} with articles about food only, I sent a Letter of Comment that was published in the next issue. I remembered how those early cons looked like what we did about eating. The majority of Polish fandom is students or pupils. Me, being 30, means that I'm a dinosaur. But the age structure in Polish fandom hasn't changed very much. As students or pupils, we had not much money to spare for conventions. We slept in youth hostels and brought as much food with us as we could -- bread, butter, cheese, Chinese instant soups, etc. My first two conventions, in 1987 and 1988, consisted mostly of watching video movies and occasionally meeting people. I've just looked through my con booklets and I really can't find any other meetings with writers or critical panels about translations or history, or any other topics connected (or not) with Science Fiction. This is something, which must have changed after the fall of communism. People aren't interested anymore in watching video movies. They want to meet other people, they want to meet their favorite authors, they want to have some background information.

Times have changed, the Martial Law is only a dim memory to most people. The Cinema Moskwa isn't there any longer, it was torn down to make room for a modern multiplex theatre with lots of little show rooms for a maximum of 60 people, and shopping galleries. I miss the Moskwa Cinema, the feeling of excitement when I rushed into the big auditorium for over 1000 people, just as I miss those communist days when life was easy, with no rat race, a safe (small) income and job from 8 till 4, when everybody still had time for reading SF.

All illustrations by Kurt Erichsen

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