The beguiling mystery of the unknown

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By Corazon A. Ong

RAISED by parents who love literature, Czech scientist and science fiction (SF) writer Julie Novakova, an only child, grew up in a household surrounded by books. “When I was six years old, I read anything I came across, and it included an atlas of garden plants and a large general encyclopedia. Perhaps that had an influence,” she said by way of explaining why she went into science.

She also remembered looking at the sky, day and night, fascinated by the world beyond our universe. Until now, outer space never ceases to fascinate her. In fact, one of her dreams is to one day join an expedition to the moon and gaze at the earth from up there.

Doubtless precocious, she wrote her first SF at 13, having already written adventure and detective stories. At 17, her first novel, a detective SF, was published. Now 26, she has seven Czech novels to her name as well as one anthology and over 30 short stories. A novel in English is also in progress. In addition, she contributes to online sci-fi magazines like Asimov and Clarkesworld.

Switching from her native Czech to English is no problem to Ms. Novakova, who has been exposed to English as a child. “My parents both speak English and I was reading a lot of books in English as well as watching television series with English subtitles,” she said. While she had eight years of English training in school, she felt there were gaps to fill and reading bridged those gaps.

Given her bilingual skills, it was not surprising that as a college student at the Charles University in Prague, the oldest and biggest university in the Czech Republic, she was able to get part-time jobs like translating, copy editing, and working as a receptionist at the Museum of Mozart in Prague. She loves classical music, Mozart being a favorite. Thus, she takes pride in the fact that Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in Prague and was a frequent visitor to her country.

While she finished an undergraduate course in biology, an M.A. in theoretical and evolutionary biology, and is currently finishing her Ph.D. in the same field, her love for literature remains.

“To me literature and science are tied together,” she said. Proof of which is while that teaching astrobiology at Charles University in Prague, doing translations, publishing scientific papers, attending seminars and conventions, delivering talks on planetary habitability, exoplanet detection, the solar system and the like, she is also into popular science writing.

SF fans are fortunate to have someone like Ms. Novakova in their midst, a scientist and a writer rolled into one. She knows whereof she speaks. Above all, her childlike curiosity about what goes on beyond what we see and what we know has never left her.

“Curiosity” is one of the six key words she wrote in her blog to guide her for 2017. The rest were “reason,” “fact,” “peace,” “exploration,” and “fun.” It looks like the year will not disappoint her.

Despite a hectic schedule – in September alone, for instance, she was in the Philippines for the 38th Manila International Book Fair (MIBF); in Riga, Latvia for the European Planetary Science Congress; and the Geoscience of Planetary Habitability EGU Meeting in Azores, Portugal – she has fun meeting colleagues and SF enthusiasts.

While in the Philippines, she explored Sagada, Vigan, and Palawan, tried some local dishes and fell for our buko (young coconut) and calamansi (a local citrus fruit) while not forgetting her chief mission here which was to help Czech Ambassador Jaroslav Olsa, Jr. in launching Ang Manggagaway at Iba Pang Kathang-Agham at Pantasya Mula sa Gitnang Europa at Pilipinas (The Witches and Other Fantasy and Science Fiction from Central Europe and the Philippines), and Dreams from Beyond, an anthology of Czech speculative fiction, which she edited.

Ms. Novakova disclosed that Mr. Olsa, one of the editors of Ang Manggagaway, is no stranger to SF, having started Ikarie XB, a fantasy magazine, in his country in 1996. He is also an SF anthologist and critic. He plans to introduce more Filipino and other Asian SF writers to the Czech Republic and vice versa. He also wants to translate European SF stories into some local Philippine languages like Ilocano, Cebuano, and Bicolano.

“He is a good bridge between our two countries,” Ms. Novakova said.

Ang Manggagaway is a translation in Filipino of selected SF stories while Dreams from Beyond features 10 of the best Czech SF writers. In her introduction to the book, Ms. Novakova said: “Czech speculative fiction has always extended its dream far beyond our everyday world, peering into the deepest abysses, farthest reaches of the universe, and most distant corners of the mind, be it human, alien, or robotic.” In essence, this is how SF works in general and the reason why it attracts readers. The mystery of the unknown beguiles.

In much the same way, Ms. Novakova is fascinated with the idea of having humans live on another planet, a “second earth,” so to speak. “This will take time,” she said, “considering the vast distances between the solar system.” But she’s upbeat it will become a reality in the long run.

She is also upbeat about life and the world in general despite the threat of terrorism. “Life expectancy has improved and, thanks to science, many diseases have been eradicated. SF, in turn, helps us to envision solutions to some of the world’s major problems, like the risks of pollution, climate change, unclean water, crops full of pesticides and the like.”

While SF cannot predict the future, she believes that without SF, science and technology will lag behind. “SF is an important genre because it inspires people and makes them inquisitive,” she said.

With her timetable almost filled up to the brim with things to do, including finishing her novel this year and attending the Asia-Pacific Science Convention in Beijing in April, 2018, how does she manage it all?

“It is really difficult to find free time for myself but I love what I am doing and that’s the key to my productivity. I want to be active and enrich the world.”