Arielle Saiber (see picture) is an Associate Professor of Romance Languages at Bowdoin College (her page here). She is also a fan and and an expert of Italian Science Fiction. She recently came to Italy for research, as well as to meet writers and get to know the Italian Fandom. Massimo Mongai interviewed her for our blog.
Massimo Mongai: You spent almost a month in various cities in Italy and done a tour of Italian Fandom. Where have you been, who did you meet? Writers, publishers, enthusiasts?
Arielle Saiber: It was a marvelous journey! My husband, Kavi Montanaro, who is also a science fiction fan, accompanied me to many of the meetings and meals, and he heroically stretched his Italian to new levels of fluency.
The first few days were in VIGEVANO, where I worked with Giuseppe Lippi, editor of Urania at Mondadori: on our anthology, tentatively titled Fantascienza: An Anthology of Italian Science Fiction (1860s-1960s). I am so honored to be working with Giuseppe, who is a veritable encyclopedia of SF and its lore, and an extraordinary reader, writer, and editor. Our anthology is for Wesleyan University Press(and academic press with the best series for scholarly studies on science fiction in the US). Fantascienza will be the first anthology of Italian science fiction in English.
-In Vigevano, Giuseppe organized a dinner out with the excellent writer Dario Tonani, superb translators Laura Serra and Silvia Castoldi, and Mauro Catoni, a.k.a Gort, the collector and creator of the website SF quadrant who generously helped me find tons of material when I was writing the article “The Fiction of Italian Science Fiction” .
-While in the MILANO area, I met with Professor Carlo Pagetti and his graduate student Giulia Iannucci, who just completed a thesis on Italian SF. I also had a magnificent meal organized and co-cooked by Luigi and Marina Petruzzelli. Luigi is doing tireless and exceptional work as editor and publisher of Edizioni della Vigna. At the lunch I had the opportunity to meet the great illustrator Giuseppe Festino and the prodigious collector Dario Vaghi.
-Then on to BOLOGNA, where I had my first lunch with Giovanni De Matteo, one of the founders of the Connettivismo collective and an extraordinary young writer whose work I am following. I will be giving a paper on his writing and Connettivismo at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts in October. The next day I met Valerio Evangelisti for lunch and I was overwhelmed by his graciousness. We spoke for nearly 3 hours straight. My awe for his erudition, talents, vision, and impegno could only but soar. I also had the chance to spend time with the wonderful author Debora Montanari, who has become a dear friend, and Jadel Andreetto (of Kai Zen), who has been doing excellent work in narrative and criticism. And as a bonus, I got to meet Marco Cordero from Genova, who has started a new publishing house called Cordero Editore, and just released his first SF anthology Sognavamo macchine volanti, which invited authors to write short stories in 1960s-SF style. The bolognese Armando Corridore and Ugo Malaguti, of Elara Libri, I would meet at Bellaria a few weeks later.
-On to FIRENZE for the next few weeks. There I was primarily doing research for a book on the conversation between mathematics and literature in the Renaissance, but I had a phenomenal lunch at Teatro del Sale with the sociologist and author Carlo Bordoni, who is also the editor of the superb magazine and blog IF: Insolito e Fantastico), and the amazing and prolific Gian Filippo Pizzo and Walter Catalano. I also got to meet the brilliant Germanist scholar and SF author Professor Alessandro Fambrini for dinner on another occasion.
-Then, on to BELLARIA for Italcon. I met so many people there, it would be impossible to list all of them, and I apologize if someone is reading this who I met and do not mention. I will include a list of names below. A special thanks, however, goes to Gianni Montanari who showered me with books, and regaled me with stories from his past and his years editing Urania.
-a few authors of the Connettivismo collective Giovanni Agnoloni, Sandro Battisti, Giovanni De Matteo, Lukha Kremo (who is also the publisher of Kipple Officina Libraria and Francesco Verso. I had the chance to interview Battisti, De Matteo, Kremo, and Verso about the origins, vision, and production of the Connettivisti.
-author, editor, publisher, Italcon organizer Armando Corridore of Elara Libri (who kindly hosted me at this conference and also gifted me with many books)
-author, director Luigi Cozzi
-author, critic, editor Gianfranco De Turris (who I would meet again in Rome)
-I went to ROMA twice. On the first occasion, I had the pleasure of having lunch with the excellent scholar, Professor Salvatore Proietti. On the second occasion, I had a lunch with author, critic, and editor Gianfranco De Turris, whose studies on proto-SF have been particularly important to my research, and who gave me many books that I had previously only been able to borrow from libraries and never thought I would be able to own! On this same visit, I had dinner with scholar and critic Umberto Rossi, with whom I am now collaborating on a special issue on Italian SF for the academic journal Science Fiction Studies, the first US academic journal to publish an entire issue devoted to Italian SF. Also on the second visit I had the opportunity to meet the amazing Massimo Mongai (!), with whom I had been corresponding for over a year. In Rudy “Basilico” Turturro fashion, he cooked an exquisite dinner, which was attended by a brain trust of writers: Lanfranco Fabriani, Francesca Garello, Francesco Grasso, and Francesco Troccoli; the tireless SF reader and organizer of the RiLL prize Alberto Panicucci; and the fumettista Marco Scali (I admit to knowing little about comics, but I greatly appreciate what I learned from Scali). Although I did not get to meet, alas, the late Vittorio Curtoni, I have had the honor of corresponding with his wife, Lucia Paretti-Curtoni. It was also a pleasure to have met Riccardo Valla’s son at Italcon.
I would like to convey how grateful I am for the incredible generosity of all the people I met this trip. Everyone gave me copies of their books, or books they-as-publishers had published, or first editions of publications by Galassia, Futuro, etc., or in Festino’s case, prints of his work! I might have the largest collection of fantascienza italiana in North America at this point. A student of mine will be working to catalogue everything this summer, that’s how big it is now
Massimo Mongai (see picture): How is Italian science fiction doing in the opinion of an American fan? Are we in a good or bad situation?
AS: From what I have seen, there are a good number of Italian SF writers and cross-over writers (authors mixing genres, or mainstream authors integrating SF into their work). I have been told, however, that the number of readers of SF in general is way down. I suppose that is not different from the situation in the US. SF-themed films and t.v. are hugely popular, but SF narrative fiction is not being widely read. But back to the writers. The SF scene, albeit small, is quite alive, even if the field has lost a number of luminary writers recently (such as Aldani, Curtoni, Valla). There are publishers publishing SF novels and collections of short stories by Italian authors; a number of rich, vibrant online magazines; active fb groups and blogs; and book awards.
MM: On average, Italian fans of SF are of a certain age. Have you met young people, more-or-less young people, mature people?
AS: I met the whole range, including many young writers, especially those involved in Connettivismo. I’m guessing there are many young SF fans who do not attend Italcon and who are not writers; they may even not be readers, but rather fans of SF films, video games, comics, etc.
MM: Have you met women in Italian Fandom? What do you think about the low participation of women in the world of Italian Fandom?
AS: I did not meet or even see, alas, many women fans at Italcon, and I do not know many Italian women who love reading SF. I only met a few Italian women writers of SF: Debora Montanari, Francesca Garelli, and Silvia Castoldi (also a translator), although I know there are more women writing SF in Italy today (such as Nicoletta Vallorani, Elisabetta Vernier, Milena Debenedetti.). As in the US, on the SF/Fantasy spectrum, more women read, watch, and write fantasy. Interestingly, however, there were quite a few Italian women SF writers—excellent ones at that—at the beginning of genre SF in Italy, such as Lina Gerelli, Gilda Musa, Roberta Rambelli, Anna Rinonapoli, Giovanni Cecchini, and Luce D’Eramo. It would be interesting to do a study comparing the percentage women-to-men of Italian women writing SF in the 1950s-70s with that of Anglophone women writing SF in the same period.
MM: Are there many differences between Italian and American Fandom?
AS: I cannot, unfortunately, say much in response to this question, as I have only attended one Worldcon (August, 2012). The attendees seemed very similar in personality and style to those I saw at Italcon-Sticcon in Bellaria this May, although there were more women present percentage-wise.
MM: Without going into the specific (do not name names, unless you want to!) what do you think of the Italian authors of SF you have read most recently?
AS: I’m reading widely, from the proto-SF years (mid 1800s) through the present, and there are excellent writers from all decades. Now that I am back in the medieval-renaissance saddle and finishing a book project, I only have about 1-1 ½ hours a day for reading SF. Torture! Alas. I am going through the library of Italian SF now filling my shelves and my computer, and reading bit by bit. Yesterday, for example, I read Sergio Turone’s extremely fun and funny short story “Nervi a pezzi” (Gamma, 1966). So, my “recently” is a random potpourri. In a month or so, however, I will be immersing myself exclusively in the fascinating and varied-genre writings of the Connettivisti for the SLSA conference.
MM: What are, if they exist, the uniqueness of Italian Science Fiction?
AS: Excellent question! This is a topic I am exploring, and trying to do so without falling into generalizations, reductions, and stereotypes. I speak a little about this in my article “The Fiction of Italian Science Fiction,” and will be talking more about it in the Introduction I will be writing with Giuseppe Lippi for the anthology. The special issue of Science Fiction Studies Umberto Rossi and I are editing will also address this to some degree. One thing I can say is that historically, Italian SF (the best Italian SF, I would argue) has leaned toward sociological, psychological, and philosophical SF more than “hard” SF. Early Italian SF also had a large dose of “fantastical” elements, as well as references to canonical authors, history, and the arts (whether this was due to the natural inclination of these authors, or to a desire to be accepted by the literary mainstream is up for debate). Much of the recent Italian SF has moved with the trend (both thematic and stylistic) in Anglophone SF, but also continues to be rich with history and the humanities, uchronia, and the fantastic. One thing happening in Italy that I see little of elsewhere are the writing collectives that have formed in the past decade or so (Wu Ming, Kai Zen, Connettivismo, etc.), many of which are writing SF of various sorts. Another inclination I am seeing in current Italian SF, as is happening around the globe, is toward slipstream, fusion, cross-over, new weird SF.
MM: What kind of SF and authors do you like, in general? How did you start to be interested in SF and in Italian SF in particular?
AS: A difficult question to answer! As many readers of SF do, I like a range of styles and themes. But if I were to isolate a few preferred elements, I would say that I appreciate SF that grapples with philosophical questions—large unanswerable ones, and specific socio-economic-political-environmental ones that are urgent and require concerted thought by all. I love SF that imagines new technologies and interesting gadgets—“nova” (as Delany calls them). I love reading about alien life in alien worlds. I love comic SF (Adams and Mongai, for example!). I always appreciate SF that inspires compassion. I love anything that blows-my-mind (which doesn’t happen as often as it should). I have a particular interest in SF that explores constructed languages (like Mieville does in Embassytown), brain functions (like De Matteo’s Sezione 2), or uses unusual or nonlinear structures (like Sandrelli’s La passeggiata di Patty). I lose patience, on the other hand, with long battle scenes, excessive violence / cruelty / sex, and… bad writing (of course!).
MM: What are you thoughts about Italy in general today?
AS: Also a hard question to answer. I know the immense challenges Italy is facing with respect to unemployment, an uncertain governing body, mind-boggling bureaucracy, the euro, and many other issues, major and minor. Yet history has shown how Italy has, again and again, been able to surmount its crises and survive. The country continues to be worshipped by tourists, artists, scholars, innovators, and others, and I believe its mass appeal, together with Italian creativity and brilliance, will help carry it through these difficult times. A mere “surface” observation: I saw some cities worse off than a few years ago (dirtier and worn-down-looking), but I saw others notably improved. I heard many people speak of not getting paid for the work they are doing (as their bosses weren’t getting paid, and entire companies weren’t getting paid, and so on), but I also saw young people thinking about ways to develop new avenues for work: collaborative, collective thinking and building. I heard politically left-leaning and right-leaning people concerned about the same issues and posing similar solutions.
MM: Are you working on any other projecst that relate to Italy? Why did you go to the Vatican Library? I’ve heard it is a bad place…MM: Are you working on any other projecst that relate to Italy? Why did you go to the Vatican Library? I’ve heard it is a bad place…
AS: I’m working on a book about the intersections between mathematics and literature in Italy between 1450s and 1650s. A great deal of research has been done on mathematics and art in the Renaissance, math and music in the Renaissance, math and Architecture in the Renaissance, but very little on math and literature. I limited my focus to five authors (Leon Battista Alberti, Luca Pacioli, Niccolò Tartaglia, Bernardino Baldi, and Giambattista Della Porta), and one work from each that exemplifies a particularly interesting case of the math-lit conversation. The final chapter of the book (an epilogue, actually) presents current findings in neuroscience regarding where mathematical thinking (calculation, for example) and literary thinking (metaphor, for example) overlap in brain functions. My undergraduate degree (laurea) was in Cognitive Science and Philosophy, and I have never stopped being interested in brain research. In effect, much of my work on medieval and Renaissance literature is linked to scientific and mathematical topics. It’s no surprise, then, that Italian SF is now among my projects! Regarding the Biblioteca Vaticana: it’s one of the most wonderful libraries in which I have ever worked. It has it all: an incredible patrimony, efficiency, beauty, kind librarians, and a café built into an ancient fountain.
MM: Usually Americans visiting Italy get fat, did it happen to you too?
AS: Yes and no. Yes, because I went pasta-crazy as I always do when in Italy; and no, because I walked so much more than I do when in the US. It was a zero-sum game for me, as it usually is.