“Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man;”
A typical sci-fi hero is a strong man with no family, thus being free to travel across the galaxy and having adventures on a legendary scale. (At least Orson Scott Card suggests this image in his foreword to Speaker for the Dead). A sci-fi hero having a family is quite an exception, but this is not the only unusual aspect of the Hungarian tetralogy Wondertimes (Csodaidők).
Etelka Görgey’s first published novel seems to be a kind of misfit among the local (maybe also the international) representatives of the science fiction genre. Her heroes are all part of an extended family, in fact this Raas family is the real protagonist of the tetralogy. This extended family lives according to strict traditions, having a deep, religious background and is a part of a big group of similar families forming a kind of pseudo-state (or ethnic/religious galactic minority) called the Kaven. (Kaven comes from the English word Covenant.) As the author is a protestant pastor and an expert of Jewish studies it is not surprising that she gives not only a detailed (and realistic) background but also a full history from which the Kaven evolved.
Originally they were an expedition lost in space and their English-speaking, Christian ancestors founded the Kaven, adapting both language and religion to the new, harsh conditions. „You are not alone”, this is their slogan and the strong social (family) bonds enabled them to survive and prosper. Later this lost part of humankind met their spreading brothers from the Earth and some centuries later they even forgot their homeland, the mystic planet Nies (Nies = New Earth in this new version of English. The author gives many texts in this language called Nitan (New Tongue), poems, liturgic texts and prayers, even a vocabulary list. Moreover, these words and texts are not simple “fantasy lines”, but they are linguistically engineered, being a possible later development of present day English.
However, even the best background is dead without good characters and plot. Wondertimes provides both, maybe the characters and their living, complex relationships are the main strength of this novel. (The tetralogy formed its own base of readers, a quite strong and devoted base which was recruited mainly outside of the common science fiction readers. For its readers the big thing is not the future plot or space travel or other sci-fi stuff but the heroes to be loved or hated, to have fears for.) The — compulsory? — science fiction elements are not so emphasized, they simply form the environment where the characters live (and die). Wondertimes — at least in the beginning — gives the impression of a sci-fi that could easily be turned into a fantasy or (alternate) history novel, replacing the planets with continents, the spaceships with ships and so on. Later, as the story develops, Wondertimes becomes a deeper science fiction although could not be called a hard sf. (In my opinion the novel declines when — at the end — the classical science fiction elements overcome the first volume’s character/family centered prose.)
As I said above the main protagonist is the Kaven itself, or the Kaven families’ representative, one of their richest and most influential one, the Raas. The three narrative characters are all from this extended family — all of them having a different (and constantly changing) attitude towards the Kaven.
Judy is an orphan who is later adopted into the Raas family. She is an Outsider who meets the preconceptions and hatred against the Kaven-members first. (They are really strange people with their own food, tradition, clothes, language and a kind of elitist attitude, moreover, many big companies are Kaven-owned, which is also a good basis for the anti-Kaven propaganda in a Galaxy filled with social and economic difficulties.) During the novel Judy is moving across different phases in her connection to the Kaven, from an orphan Outsider she becomes a member of a famous family — and this is just the start.
On the other hand, Yaan, the firstborn son of the present head of the Raas family is a kind of mirror to Judy. He is fed up with the traditions, his anti-social and tyrannical father (a quite two-dimensional villain-character), his pre-planned life, he envies the free and joyful life of the Outsiders — the Outsider world, where you “can be alone”. He leaves his family (and his rank, his fortune, his career as the head of the family and its companies) and starts his odyssey during which he realizes what he had lost.
The third character is Giin, the leader, who should be the head of the Raas family but he had chosen a religious career to be a kind of teacher, judge and statesman (the Kaven has its own legal system and political elite although it lives on the territory of several states in the galaxy.) Like the young Yaan he is also a rebel: he sees the faults and mistakes of the present Kaven and tries to represent those who want changes. It causes a bitter conflict between Giin and the other leaders who like the present status quo and they succeed in removing Giin from his position, destroying the career to which he devoted his whole life (and for which he had given up his right to be the head of his family). However, Giin is unable to be an unimportant and retired person so he soon will be in the middle of big events.
Moreover, the Galaxy is in turmoil and a new political power is rising which has many goals, among them we can find conquering the smaller, independent states and alliances and destroying the Kaven — a big war is brewing and the Raas family’s fate is to be in the frontline, although the members will not always be on the same side.
The Wondertimes tetralogy has many unique features. Not only the female author (still a minority among Hungarian sci-fi writers), the religious elements, the family-oriented plot but the publishing history is also quite interesting. The first two volumes were published by the Animus publishing house (the publisher of the Harry Potter books in Hungary), but it cancelled the project after two books due to unsatisfactory sales. (Although the sales were not worse than other science fiction books on the market, not to mention that these were the first publications of the author.) After the cancellation — and an unsuccessful quest for new publishers — the author and the readers joined their forces: the author asked for subscribers and from this money she (with the help from one of her readers) founded a small publishing company and printed the last two volumes in paperback format (the first two volumes appeared as hardcovers). The original editor, cover designer, etc. all helped in this project so this enterprise is much more than a simple Print-On-Demand business. Having this hardcore reader background and with the help of many good critiques and publicity this unique publishing story reached a happy ending: the author has not become a millionaire from it but the total project had a (not huge, but on the local scale nice) profit. (Hungary is a very small market for sci-fi books so a novel with no deficit in such a short time is quite exceptional).
Maybe this publishing story says nothing about the novel. Literal value and best-selling has no direct contact. However, such stories still prove something about the fiction itself, how it had found its way to the readers’ hearts — and this is always a wonder. A wondertime.
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