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Interview: Andrej Kokoulin, and story translator Alex Shvartsman, on “The Slave”

Questions for the author, Andrej Kokoulin (translated by Alex Shvartsman):

Andrej KokoulinWhat was the inspiration for “The Slave,” or what prompted you to write it?

There are several Russian-language platforms online that host science fiction writing contests open to all. I won some and lost some of those. This time around, the declared theme was “Opponents.” I didn’t want to explore some cliched theme of opposition, based in antipathy, competition, revenge, or circumstance. Instead, I came up with the move where the opposition between master and slave came to be almost by accident. It was the protagonist’s transformation that seemed important to me.


Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

No, this tale is rather far removed from my personal experience. However, I find the possibility of manipulation, whether of one individual or of the masses, interesting.


What was the most difficult aspect of “The Slave” to write, and what was the most fun?

The most difficult part was the ending. In my opinion, it couldn’t be overly tragic, but also couldn’t feel out of place within the internal logic of the story. The protagonist had to be faced with a difficult choice, in the end. The most fun part was the discussion on the forum following the contest where the subject of whether the story contains a speculative element was passionately argued. Some folks didn’t find anything unusual in the method of enslaving someone by merely placing some spittle onto their forehead. Perhaps they’re used to such a thing happening all around them?


Why do you write?

It seems as though I have something to say. I want to share whatever-it-is collect in my head with others. Occasionally there are worthwhile things in there, among the debris.


Questions for Shvartsman as translator:

Alex ShvartsmanTell us a bit about “The Slave.”

This is a memorable story that exists somewhere on the intersection of psychological horror and magical realism. I thought it was rather unique and would work well for English speaking audiences as well as the original Russian audience, and was thrilled that Charlie and the rest of the F&SF team ultimately agreed.


Can you tell us about the FantLab contest and how this story won it?

FantLab is among the largest (if not the largest) Russian SF/F fandom websites. It contains Wiki-style information about authors, translators, and works of fiction, as well as a very active forum. One of the many things they do is host themed science fiction contests where a number of editors, critics, and prominent writers judge the final selections. I was asked to provide the theme and was one of the judges in late 2017, and when “The Slave” came across my desk it was a clear winner in my eyes. Even though the speculative element in the story is a bit subdued, it was the most compelling of the bunch — and other judges, ranking the stories independently, agreed.


What can you tell us about the author, Andrej Kokoulin?

Andrej is the author of the novel The Northern Lot and has had short stories published in some of the most prestigious Russian magazines, such as Esli and Mir Fantastiki. This is his first English language publication but I hope that more of his work will eventually be available to the anglophone readers.


What can you tell us about the state of the Russian sf scene, and if it is any different from American sf?

SF/F (or fantastika as it’s called in Russian) fandom is vibrant in Russia and former Soviet republics. Much of the popular genre fiction published there is reminiscent of the golden age American and British SF — many staple books from that era have been translated and some authors like Robert Sheckley or Clifford Simak, for example, are better-known to Russian SF fans than they are to their American counterparts at this point. However, the younger generation of authors are exploring themes and styles of writing that diverge from the classics, often resulting in fascinating and somewhat experimental pieces. Although short fiction scene is not as well-supported with a variety of pro venues (at any given time there are only a couple serious paying ‘zines in Russian) this doesn’t stop talented authors from writing at this length and sharing their stories online, often via a series of contests similar to the one Andrej has won.


How often do you translate Russian sf into English, and how does translation work influence your own work as an author?

Every once in a while I read a story I find fascinating, and when that happens I consider whether this story would work in translation. If so, I reach out to the author and ask if I may translate that piece. To date, nearly a dozen such translations have been published in various pro zines and anthologies. Literary translation involves a combination of writing and editorial skills, and it most certainly helps me keep those writing muscles exercised regularly, but also it’s a great way to share stories with fellow anglophone fans who wouldn’t have been able to enjoy them otherwise. I especially seek out stories that are a little different, that probably wouldn’t have or maybe even couldn’t have been written in English.


Eridani's CrownWhat are you working on now?

My primary focus at the moment is the launch of my debut novel, Eridani’s Crown. This epic fantasy standalone novel launches on October 22, 2019 and is already available for preorder (hint, hint!) I’m also working on more translations whenever I can; in addition to F&SF, I’ve had translations published in Samovar, Amazing Stories, and Future SF this summer.


“The Slave” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

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Weightless Books (non-Kindle):

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Amazon UK (Kindle edition):

Andrej Kokoulin’s FantLab page: 

Alex Shvartsman’s website:


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