In Italian dictionaries, fantascienza is defined as: a fusion of science and fantasy that is used in novels, movies, children’s magazine, etc. to narrate imaginary adventures set in space.
This gap between definitions, this lexical detail – out of which comes the prefix “fanta” before the word “science” – for many years pigeonholed this literary genre with the status of children’s fiction and then relegated it to a cult and underground genre.
Italy, up until the end of World War II, was a rural country ruled by an aristocracy and a bourgeoisie. Italian literature was produced almost exclusively by and for the cultured ruling class and was usually oriented towards introspective fiction or realism (verismo and realismo). The avant-garde literary movements struggling to subvert the values overturned the canons by kick starting scapigliate and futurist revolutions and reactions. Nevertheless, poetic, aesthetic and critical upheavals were concerned mostly with stylistic issues and were the sole preserve of intellectual elites: from Bohemian writer circles to nobles bored with romance novels.
Meanwhile, the so-called adventure fiction, crime fiction and Victorian Gothic began to arrive and continued to arrive from abroad. Snubbed by the literary salons and later banned by the fascist regime, these kinds of fiction were, though, very much appreciated by the “people.” At the turn of the century (XIX – XX), the feuilleton, the swashbuckling adventure, action and fantasy fiction such as that by the French authors Dumas and Verne; and English authors like Stevenson and Conan Doyle found an Italian author in Emilio Salgari’s prolific books, which would be defined today as best sellers.
Salgari’s novels had a horizontal and popular level of diffusion. His famous adventures were built for a very wide audience of the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes. Among the various cycles he set in remote and exotic places (including the American West), in 1907 Salgari wrote Le Meraviglie del 2000, a text that meets all the requirements of the OED’s sci-fi definition; but before him, thirteen years before to be exact, the composer Giacomo Puccini, known worldwide, had worked on something that had the scent of Science Fiction (even if he was frequently referred to as a “verismo” composer) with a romanza for voice and piano entitled Avanti, Urania!.
After the country’s reconstruction in the post-fascist regime and WWII period, thanks to the Marshall Plan, Italy became an industrial power and the Italian Communist Party became the largest communist party in the western world. Postwar literature began to recount the horrors of war and the partisan resistance, preferring, as did cinema, a (neo)realist approach that left very little room for other kinds of fictions.
The progressive politicization of the literary salons and the new cultural elite decreed the ultimate death of fantascienza. The only science fiction “allowed” was of the foreign kind, which was, however, still considered a genre for children until in 1961, that is, when Mondadori (the largest publishing house in Italy) brought out the collection Urania dedicated to Sci-fi from 1952. This series set forth the passage between protofantascienza and fantascienza, and was entrusted to a pair of writers, Fruttero and Lucentini. They, however, did very little to discover, promote and spread sci-fi novels written by Italian authors.
After the economic boom of the sixties; with the escalation of the Cold War, the growing fear of nuclear war and a gloomy future, the period of terrorism known as the Years of Lead, the “victory” of existentialism over idealism, up until then the leading philosophical school in Italy, Italian literature found a way to express issues related to the Kafkian uncanny or the Freudian Unheimlich, through what Cvetan Todorov had defined as the purely fantastic, but in the Italian case with very few concessions to Science Fiction, as in the case of the Dino Buzzati, known worldwide, who with the short novel Il Grande Ritratto (1960), used the scientific element as a way to talk about an existential dilemma.
The increasing political tensions and the rift between right and left also had a great impact on the world of letters and had the effect of politicizing literature. Most left wing intellectuals and writers were tied to a materialistic view of history and the world and so rejected a priori all non socially oriented fiction, especially fantastic fiction, but in doing so they gradually left it in the hands of right-wing intellectuals who read and criticized the fantastic genre, fantasy, horror, gothic, sci-fi, etc. in a conservative way.
The Italian word for science fiction, as we have seen, is fantascienza, containing the fanta prefix. Sci-fi was then merged into fantasy, a genre that, more than any other in the Seventies, seemed to be attributable to the radical right, exempli gratia: the work of J.R.R. Tolkien was considered in Italy as the reference fiction for neo-Fascism and neo-Nazism. Some radical right wing intellectuals and critics such as Gianfranco de Turris since then have worked on the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction offering a political reading of the genre that considers the poetic works of foreign and Italian authors in a theoretical framework related to the movement of political belonging.
Like a snake biting its own tail, left wing criticism has also branded science fiction as right-wing, never trying to reflect on the poetics and aesthetics of the sci-fi and Fantasy phenomenon notwithstanding the fact that it thus delivered the whole literary genre to right-wing criticism.
Between the Seventies and the Nineties, though, a handful of Italian writers have dealt with science fiction in spite of the political considerations of its critics; but very often their works were derivative: novels over which hung the influence of the great Anglo-Saxon sci-fi tradition/school.
We must await the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the arrival of the middle and late Nineties, the dissolution of ideals and the disappearance of Italy’s biggest political parties, the spread of information technology, a growing familiarity with foreign languages and the consequent ability to read books from abroad, globalization, cyberpunk fiction and the emergence of a generation that grew up with Japanese sci-fi anime, to separate fantascienza permanently from the “suspicion” that it was a reactionary kind of literature (a very strange phenomenon indeed). It was only with the arrival on Urania’s pages of Valerio Evangelisti and the saga of his inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich (1994 – 2010), that Italian science fiction began to find its way and its own poetics, aesthetics and critical vision, free from the constraints of traditional politics, leading to what we might call the Italian new wave of sci-fi. (A path similar to the one of Italian noir and crime novels, but much smaller).
From Evangelisti on, many writers have gone in search of a sci-fi that eschews the duty to be sci-fi, a literary genre able to chart an unexplored course, an Italian way to sci-fi (exportable and, in some case, successfully exported): an old new kind of fiction that in some ways is far from the canons of the genre established abroad, but able to manipulate them and reread them, somewhere between popular literature and intellectual twists and turns. There is a thread, rather knotted, a never straight fil rouge, which binds together, albeit loosely, these authors, Evangelisti first, to Emilio Salgari, to his poetics and his way of thinking and working on popular fiction. This is a thread that still today causes sci-fi to be viewed with suspicion, but which new generations of readers and writers are learning to ignore.
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- The Italian (Milky) way to science fiction 1 (kaizenology.wordpress.com)