Science Fiction Studies

#84 = Volume 28, Part 2 = July 2001

Franz Rottensteiner

Recent Writings on German Science Fiction

Science fiction and fantasy are still somewhat neglected fields of study in German-speaking countries, but courses and lectures in sf (and not only utopian studies) are now quite common, and an interest in paraliterary genres is no longer frowned upon as irreconcilable with academic respectability. The surest indication of this is the comprehensive work by Hans-Edwin Friedrich, Science Fiction in der deutschsprachigen Literatur: Ein Referat zur Forschung bis 1993 (SF in German-language Literature: A Report on Scholarship up to 1993, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1995; reviewed in SFS #69, 23:2 [July 1996]: 297-99) in the eminent series "Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur," a ground-breaking survey and annotated bibliography of works on science fiction in German (and international writings on German sf). It not only lists in exhaustive detail the results of German sf research, but can also serve as a guide to future work, since it pinpoints the failings of the research done so far. It is surprising perhaps, given the German tendency for philosophizing, that almost no work has been done to develop an sf theory, aside from some essays in the fifties—collected in the volume Die Formel und die Sinnlichkeit: Bausteine zu einer Poetik im Atomzeitalter (Formula and Sensualism: Elements of a Poetics in the Atomic Age, List Verlag, 1964)—by the writer Heinrich Schirmbeck, who was equally interested in science and aesthetics. It cannot be said that there is anything like a German consensus on sf or that there are German schools of sf criticism; nor are there, outside sf fandom, any critics who have consistently written on sf. There is still no history of German sf in general, let alone a history of sf by a German scholar, and studies in German sf form only a small part of the total critical output. An important step towards a history of German sf was Roland Innerhofer’s thematic study of some dominant motifs in early sf, Deutsche Science Fiction 1870-1914: Rekonstruktion und Analyse der Anfänge einer Gattung (German SF 1870-1914: Reconstruction and Analysis of a Literary Genre, [Böhlau Verlag, 1996]; reviewed in SFS #71, 24:1 [March 1997]: 169-71) that gives excellent coverage of the motifs of terrestrial and interplanetary flight, cataclysm, and communication in the formative years of German sf, while the Weimar years are admirably treated in Peter S. Fisher’s Fantasy and Politics: Visions of the Future in the Weimar Republic (U Wisconsin P, 1991; reviewed in SFS #56, 19:1 [March 1992]:141-44).

Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910), the dominant figure in early German sf, has found a knowledgeable and enthusiastic champion in Rudi Schweikert, who was drawn to Lasswitz by some references in the works of the German literary cult author Arno Schmidt, whose work contains some excursions into sf, most notably the short novel Die Gelehrtenrepublik (1957; translated by Michael Horovitz as The Egghead Republic). After writing several essays on Lasswitz, some of which I published in my own sf almanacs Polaris 8 and 9 (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985), he authored two important long essays: an analysis of Lasswitz’s classic interplanetary novel of 1897, Auf zwei Planeten (translated by Hans H. Rudnick as Two Planets) entitled "Von Martiern und Menschen oder die Welt, durch Vernunft dividiert, geht nicht auf" (Of Martians and Human Beings: or The World Cannot be Divided by Reason without a Remainder) and a biography of Lasswitz with a detailed survey of his opus in "Von geraden und von schiefen Gedanken—Kurd Lasswitz—Gelehrter und Poet dazu" (Of Straight and Crooked Thoughts—Kurd Lasswitz—Scholar and Poet to Boot). These essays, as well as a complete primary and secondary bibliography, were included in the annotated complete reprints of Auf zwei Planeten published by Zweitausendeins in Frankfurt in 1979 and 1984, and they were again revised and reprinted in the commemorative edition of the novel in the acclaimed "High 8000" series of the sf publisher Wilhelm Heyne in 1998.

The most important book on sf for the general reader in recent years was probably Zeitgeist und Zeitmaschine: Science Fiction und Geschichte (Zeitgeist and Time Machine: Science Fiction and History, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1986) by Michael Salewski, a professor of medieval and modern history. That there are important points of similarity between the historical novel and sf has been long recognized, but it is not so much its understanding of history or the way that many sf writers have given the future a framework in "future histories" that interests Salewski. In fact, he thinks little of these histories; sf interests him as material for the historian since it illuminates our time—it is for him as much a document of the twentieth century as are news-papers or other records. Morever, his central claim is that "Science Fiction is the contemporary expression of historical self-awareness" (18; "Science Fiction ist der zeitgemäße Ausdruck historischen Selbstverständnisses"). Here it must be said that Salewski’s conclusions are often rather sweeping and overly generalizing, spirited but polemical, and while the general gist of his argument is convincing, there are some puzzling errors in details. For example, he seems to think that "terraforming" and "world-building" in sf are the same, that Heinlein is a writer of space opera, and that the Rudolf Martin (1867-?) who is mentioned in H.G. Wells’s The War in the Air (1908) as the author of the 1906 (correctly: 1907) Berlin-Bagdad: Das deutsche Weltreich im Zeitalter der Luftschiffahrt 1910-1931 (Berlin-Baghdad: The German World Empire in the Age of Aeronautics) and the inventor of the slogan "Germany’s future is in the air," is an invention of Wells himself. In fact Rudolf Martin, a Prussian official, was an author of several aeronautical tracts and fictions, in which he urged armament in the air and ran afoul of official policies that favored maritime expansion. But the book is a stimulating discussion of sf, with the central thesis that sf is the expression of a historical understanding beyond historicism, an image not of an old but a new world, one created by the ultimate homo faber, the scientist.

Much work on sf is still written and published by fans, and many of these undertakings are semi-professional endeavors by sf insiders, especially in the field of reference works and bibliographies. While of limited critical value, they nevertheless serve as invaluable sources for later work. One publisher specializing in secondary works on sf and fantasy (and mysteries, adventure fiction, and children’s literature) is Corian-Verlag Heinrich Wimmer in Meitingen. Foremost among its many loose-leaf binder encyclopedias is the Bibliographisches Lexikon der utopisch-phantastischen Literatur (Bibliographical Encyclopedia of Utopian and Fantastic Literature), edited by Joachim Körber, a well-known translator of Stephen King. Since November 1984, sixty-three installments have appeared, covering hundreds of writers. These contain brief critical profiles and biographies of varying quality and often enormous bibliographies, listing all appearances of the writer in the German language. A disadvantage of these bibliographies is that they don’t indicate which works of a given writer may be counted as fantastic and which may not, and, until recently, they also didn’t give the page numbers of books. In some cases the bibliographies of unimportant writers who had written only a handful of relevant stories ran to dozens of pages. The critical coverage of American or British writers is usually better in the standard English-language encyclopedias. But this encyclopedia also contains information on German and other writers not covered or merely glossed over in the English-language reference works, information that is not easily found elsewhere.

Notable among the many contributors to this work is Robert N. Bloch, a well-known German collector and bibliographer who did much original re-search on little known German writers such as Bodo Wildberg, H.W. Zahn, K.H. Strobl, Ludwig Anton, Otto Soyka, E. Adlersfeld-Ballestrem, and others. Bloch’s work might be compared to that of Everett F. Bleiler in favoring a no-nonsense approach, concentrating on hard and exact information without going into fancy interpretations. Of somewhat lesser value is the Werkführer durch die utopisch-phantastische Literatur (Reference Guide to Individual Works of Utopian-fantastic Literature) edited by Michael Koseler and myself (thirty-two installments since February 1989), which provides analyses and criticism of books in the fantastic genres. Again, many of the entries will offer little that is new to English-language readers, but covered are also many original German and other European works. Another part-time work covers fantastic films: Enzyklopädie des phantastischen Films (Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film, fifty-seven installments since May 1986).

Corian also publishes a series of "Studies in Fantastic Literature" (eleven volumes so far), mostly PhD theses. The latest was Bernhard Kempen’s Abenteuer in Gondwanaland und Neandertal (1994) on "prehistoric motifs in literature and other media," covering J.-H. Rosny Aîné, Jean M. Auel, and a host of others in literature, comics, and film. Corian’s other publications are mostly horror film books, the most interesting among which is a study of the films of David Cronenberg: Almut Oetjen & Holger Wacker’s Organic Horror (1993). A detailed and incisive study of two of the most important sf films of the Weimar republic is to be found in Guntram Geser’s Fritz Lang: Metropolis und Die Frau im Mond (1927 and 1929, respectively), subtitled "Future film and future techniques in the stabilization period of the Weimar Republic" (1995). The book offers detailed analyses of important scenes in these films, their symbolism, the relationships among the characters, and the plot structure. These analyses are partly oriented toward Siegfried Kracauer’s film criticism—not to his retrospective From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton UP, 1947), however, but to his earlier film criticism for the Frankfurter Zeitung from 1921-33. The book investigates the role of technology in Germany after the defeat in WWI, when revanchist feelings ran high, but also has interesting things to say about the technique of the silent movie. Corian has also published a book on Star Trek aimed at fans—H. Michael Schlegel’s Zug zu den Sternen (Wagon Train to the Stars, 1998)—and a collection of interviews with American sf writers, Albrecht Fritzsche’s Die Welten der Science Fiction (The Worlds of SF, 1998).

In a popular and semi-professional vein are also the books of the Munich small-press Thomas Tilsner. These include a book on Philip K. Dick by the most vociferous of German Dick fans, Uwe Anton (Philip K. Dick: Entropie und Hoffnung [Entropy and Hope,1993]) and a collection of German essays on H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Andreas Kasprzak: H.P. Lovecraft: Von Monstren und Mythen (HPL: Of Monsters and Myths, 1997). Outstanding among them is the contribution by Marcus Frenschkowski, a Protestant professor of theology with an astonishing range of erudition who happens to be an enthusiast of weird fiction in general and Lovecraft in particular (and who has also written on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology for various theological reference works).

Besides books aimed at fantasy fans, the Erste Deutsche Fantasy Club e.V. in Passau (P.0. Box 1371, D-94003 Passau) also publishes some serious scholarship. Of special note are two books dealing with the sf of the late German Democratic Republic, both written after the end of that state. Karsten Kruschel’s Spielwelten zwischen Wunschbild und Warnbild: Eutopisches und Dystopisches in der Sf-Literatur der DDR der achtziger Jahre (Playful Worlds Ranging from Images of Desire to Warnings: Eutopia and Dystopia in the SF Literature of the German Democratic Republic in the Eighties, 1995) is the revised publication of a PhD thesis presented in Leipzig in 1992, while Vorgriff auf das Lichte Morgen: Studien in DDR-SF (Anticipating the Bright Tomorrow: Studies in the SF of the German Democratic Republic, 1995) by Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller, a husband-wife team who were among the foremost sf writers in the GDR, is a thorough retrospective on the history, themes, changing political conditions, and censorship of GDR sf, as well as a testimony to the ability of good writers to undermine the idyllic picture of the Communist future to which writers were forced to adhere. This publication also contains a bibliography of GDR sf by Hans-Peter Neumann. This primary (regrettably, writings on GDR sf are not listed) bibliography also appeared, lavishly illustrated and revised, as a separate publication: Die Bibliographie der DDR-Science Fiction (Bibliography of GDR SF, Edition Avalon, 1996).

GDR sf is also an important subject in the "Schriftenreihe und Materialien der Phantastischen Bibliothek Wetzlar" (Publication Series and Materials of the Fantastic Library in Wetzlar, Förderkreis Phantastik in Wetzlar e.V., Phantastische Bibliothek, Postbox 2120, D-35573 Wetzlar). The "Fantastic Library" in Wetzlar is what the SF Foundation in Liverpool is for England or the Eaton Collection in Riverside, California is for the US: it collects all German publications principally in the fields of sf, utopias, fantasy, horror, and fairy tales (some 100,000 volumes), publishes some fantasy and fairy tales, and has the aforementioned series of nonfiction, in which twenty-two volumes have appeared so far. Most of these deal with fantastic literature, but three also have sf themes: Thomas Le Blanc (who is the "inventor" of the Fantastic Library of Wetzlar, and the driving force behind it) has a collection of five rather journalistic pieces written for newspapers and magazines, collectively entitled Roboter und Zeitmaschinen (Robots and Time Machines, 1993), about robots, genetic engineering, time travel, paranormal talents, and the history of the future. In Warnung vor dem übermächtigen Staat (Warning against the Overwhelming State, 1995), Stefanie Zech sounds a warning against the omnipotent state and "the destruction of language and literature" in Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). The best of the lot is Annette Breitenfeld’s Die Begegnung mit außerirdischen Lebensformen (Encounters with Alien Life Forms, 1994), studies in the sf literature of the GDR, a PhD thesis presented in 1988 to the Pedagogic University of Magdeburg while the GDR was still in existence. It presents the view of the then ruling GDR scholarship, stressing especially the class conflicts presented in GDR sf, either projected into the future or, Däniken-like, into the past, when alien visitors came to earth, as in novels by Günther Krupkat, Wolf[gang] Weitbrecht, or Carlos Rasch.

An important source for information on sf is Das Science-Fiction-Jahr (The SF Year), "a yearbook for sf readers," now in its fifteenth year. It is published by Heyne, the leading German sf publisher and edited by Wolfgang Jeschke, their sf editor and an important writer of sf. These fat volumes (each one has grown to some 900 pages) features surveys of German, American, and British sf by Hermann Urbanek (purely statistical in nature, without any criticism); interviews with sf authors; surveys of films, radio dramas, and computer games (many of them translations from English language publications); and lots of reviews of current books. Of note were original essays on the renaissance of utopia in Russian sf after perestroika by Uwe-Michael Witt (#13, 1998) and Heiko Fiedler on the campus novel in sf (#14, 1999), which concentrates on Gregory Benford’s Timescape (1980) and C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945).

The most-discussed sf writer in Germany is still Stanislaw Lem. Bernd Flessner’s Weltprothesen und Prothesen-welten (World Prostheses and Pros-thesis Worlds, Peter Lang, 1991), "on the technical prognoses of Arno Schmidt and Stanislaw Lem," compares the work of Arno Schmidt, a contemporary German author with some sf leanings, and Stanislaw Lem, based on Flessner’s notion that both authors deal with the history and possible history of man on the basis of the history of technology. During the last few years Bernd Gräfrath, a professor of philosophy in Essen, has become Lem’s principal champion in Germany, and a sort of court philosopher. Aside from various essays, one in English—"Taking Science Fiction Seriously: A Bibliographic Introduction to Stanislaw Lem’s Philosophy of Technology" (in Research in Philosophy and Technology 15 [1995]: 271-285)—he has written three books that deal in an enthusiastic manner largely with Lem. His first such work was Ketzer, Dilettanten und Genies: Grenzgänger der Philosophie (Heretics, Amateurs and Geniuses: Borderline Cases in Philosophy, Junius Verlag, 1993), a book dealing with outsiders in philosophy, screwballs and cranks who were not accepted into the usual academic fold. This book gives brief portraits of various thinkers (including Winston Churchill), but deals extensively with five: Karl Julius Weber, Ewald Gerhard Seeliger (a writer who also wrote some satirical sf), the chess-player Emanuel Lasker, Samuel Butler, and Stanislaw Lem, who, Gräfrath feels, "will be as famous in a hundred years as Schopenhauer is today" (n.p.), and whom he considers one of the important philosophers of the twentieth century, in his nonfiction as well as his fiction. Gräfrath concentrates on Solaris (1961), Fiasco (1986), and The Cyberiad (1965), but discusses also the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972).

Specifically dealing with "Golem XIV" (in Imaginary Magnitude [1984]), the super-computer that looks down on mankind and lectures us on evolution, is a small paperback, Lem's ‘Golem’: Parerga und Paralipomena (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1996)—the title refers to a well-known title by Schopenhauer. Artificial intelligence, evolution and culture, consciousnesses greater than man, the silentium universi, are some of the topics touched upon by Gräfrath in short, inconclusive chapters. Much the same ground of creating other beings and changing the world by super-technologies that make the boundaries between the natural and the artificial disappear is covered again in Es fällt nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (Hard to be a God, C.H. Beck, 1998), "Ethics for the Creator of Worlds from Leibniz to Lem." It would appear that Lem is the crowning thinker in a ladder leading from Leibniz, David Hume, Diderot, Schopenhauer, and Mainländer, to Lem. The title of the book suggests the Strugatskys’s Hard to be a God (1964), but they actually warrant only a brief footnote, while Karel Čapek is at least given an epilogue.

Whereas Gräfrath’s books try to establish Lem’s importance as a philosopher, Zygmunt Tæcza’s Das Wortspiel in der übersetzung (Word play in Translation, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1997; "Linguistische Arbeiten" #367) is a highly complex linguistic study of "Stanislaw Lem’s word play as a subject of interlingual transfer." This book begins with a survey of the literature on wordplay, then proceeds to a statistical survey of Lem’s neologisms as to types, genesis, and distribution. The main part examines the adequacy of German translations of Lem’s neologisms and also offers a comparison of translation in the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. Tæcza distinguishes between "adaptation" (a direct translation), "imitation" (an analogical construction available in the target language), "creation" (the translator invents his own wordplay), and "dislocation" (a wordplay is invented in another place). The American Lem translations by Michael Kandel, by the way, rely to a higher degree on dislocation and creation than the German translations. The book also contains Lem’s comments on his German translations; he believes something is lost in translation, but it should be said that, in Germany, Lem has "authorized" the poorest available translations, and whenever he had a hand in choosing translators it had a detrimental effect. One translator refused to have her translation authorized, feeling this to be a dubious honor, precisely for that reason.

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