In 2014, when Alexander Dan first started looking for a publisher for the sci-fi/fantasy novel that he’d worked on for the past four years, the response was somewhat disheartening. “I couldn’t figure out why the manuscript kept getting rejected,” he reminisces. “I mean, was I crazy in thinking that it was any good, or was it just that it was a fantasy novel intended for adult readers?” Granted, at the time there were few titles on the Icelandic market that matched his novel—a tale of revolution that incorporates Icelandic contemporary culture, history and folklore to create a twisted version of Reykjavík, fuelled by industrialised magic and populated by humans, interdimensional exiles, otherworldly creatures, psychoactive graffiti and demonic familiars.
A rejection based on genre
Alexander was adamant about not seeing all his work come to nothing and so decided on the uncertain route of self-publishing. His limited print sold out and the book received favourable reviews, but still, the young author was haunted by the whole affair.
“I didn’t feel like a writer,” he admits. “I felt completely rejected and lost. This was the thing I’d wanted to write most of all and yet I was told it had no place in the publishing landscape—not because it was bad but because of its very nature. So how could I go on? Wouldn’t the next project be rejected for the same reasons? Why even bother?”
From zero-expectations to a two-book contract
In a half-hearted attempt to regain his confidence, Alexander set about translating an extract from the novel into English for an open submission call by science-fiction publishing giant Gollancz.
“I had zero expectations when I sent it off,” he says. “For a while, it was just a nice daydream, wondering if they’d ever get in touch, but I soon forgot all about it. When I got an email nearly one and a half years later, I was stupefied.” He laughs. “They wanted to see the rest of the manuscript, so I still didn’t get my hopes up too much—the boost in confidence I got was plenty already. A few months after that I received an offer for not just the novel but the sequel too—which I thought I’d never get the chance to work on. It’s crazy! None of this was supposed to happen, it was only supposed to be a daydream.”
A loss of language
The novel is currently undergoing editing at Gollancz and is set to be released in early 2019 under the title ‘The Shadows of the Short Days.’ Despite his joy at finding a publisher of this size and repute, Alexander still admits to being frustrated at having to reach outside his own language to find acceptance.
“It’s very important for me to write in Icelandic,” he says. “This book could not have come about in any other language. While writing it, I relied on the Icelandic language for world building and used it to create new words. It brought a proximity of reality and history to the setting. There is already considerable readership for fantastical fiction in Iceland, but these readers are starved for content in Icelandic.”
“I honestly don’t get this dismissive stance towards science fiction & fantasy in Icelandic,” he continues. “It’s not a niche thing to be into anymore. It’s mainstream, and the weird and the fantastical are a huge part of human storytelling. Both are invaluable tools for writers, especially in the bizarre new times that we’re living through today. And look at LoveStar! [a 2002 best-seller by Icelandic author Andri Snær.] It’s pure sci-fi and was even nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. It was devoured by Icelandic readers, and still resonates today. Yet we don’t call Andri Snær a sci-fi writer.”
Scandi-SFF and Nordic Noir
Still, Alexander has high hopes for the future of Icelandic sci-fi and fantasy, pointing to the huge upsurge in the form which has taken place in Sweden and Finland in recent years.
“It’s already creating buzz in other language territories,” he explains. “People are talking about Scandinavian SFF as if it’s the next big thing after Nordic Noir. There is a strong grassroots movement in Iceland, and there are now several published Icelandic writers working in fantasy—such as Hildur Knútsdóttir and Emil Hjörvar Petersen. This year there will be two SFF conventions in Reykjavík: Icecon—a literary SFF convention with Naomi Novik and Terry Brooks as the guests of honour—and Midgard—an SFF convention that crosses into fields such as roleplaying and cosplay. Fandom in Iceland is finally coming together and creating its own space. So it’s not a question of whether Icelandic fantasy fiction will become a thing, it’s a question of who will tap into that resource first: the local Icelandic publishers, or publishers abroad.”