Science Fiction Studies

#10 = Volume 3, Part 3 = November 1976

William B. Fischer 

German Theories of Science Fiction: Jean Paul, Kurd Lasswitz, and After

Science fiction is a recent form of literature and an even newer topic of literary criticism. While many excellent interpretations have already been written, there is still no lack of unexamined material or unanswered questions. One of the most fundamental problems of SF criticism concerns the theory and definition of SF—its aesthetics or poetics. At least four major issues are involved: 1) the manner in which the content, methods, and outlook of science interact with the artistic temperament to produce the attitudes and themes of SF; 2) the nature of SF as a literary form; 3) the reciprocal interplay of author, text, and reader in the creation and reception of texts and in the evolution of a concept of genre; 4) the consideration of SF and SF criticism from literary traditions other than modern Anglo-American SF in the formulation of theories about the general nature of SF.

One major body of SF and SF criticism which has been unduly neglected is the one produced by German writers. In this essay I will discuss early German theories of SF, with particular attention to two writers, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825) and Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910), whose work spans a period of over a century. Both participated, as theoreticians and writers of fiction, in the development of German SF. Their ideas and those of other German SF critics deserve a place in the history of SF and can also contribute much to the application of the concepts and methods of literary criticism to the study of SF.      

The prehistory of German SF can be traced at least as far back as the Renaissance and Kepler's Somnium (c. 1610, pbd 1634). None of the few German utopias and imaginary voyages written during the next two centuries, however, are as well known or as important to the history of SF as those written in England, France, and Italy.1 It was only after the middle of the eighteenth century that science even began to become a significant part of German literature. The impact of the Scientific Revolution on world-view and poetic imagery can be detected in some lyric poetry, for example the hymns of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803).2 Many critics have noted the importance of science for Goethe, who was an able student of many sciences, and for the German Romantics, some of whom had formal scientific training.3 The effect of modern cosmology and Newtonian physics on poetic consciousness is also apparent in several poems by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), such as "Keppler" (sic) and "Die scheinheiligen Dichter," both written shortly before 1800. None of these writers, however, can reasonably be considered authors of German SF, nor did they address themselves at any length to the philosophical and aesthetic questions raised by the interaction of science and literature. Even less did they—or for that matter most other German writers of the time—concern themselves in their fiction to any notable degree with technology, the social impact of the Industrial Revolution, or serious utopian thought. Here, as in industrialization and the development of a national state, Germany lagged behind Great Britain, France, and the United States. Perhaps the German literary community was too busy dealing with the issue of German nationalism or investigating the artistic implications of Faust or Wilhelm Meister to devote much thought to science, industrialization, or speculation about what society might be like after Germany finally became a nation. The contrast between German literature and British and American literature of this period, which was so important for the later development of Anglo-American SF, is readily apparent.

1. At the end of the eighteenth century there did appear one major statement about science and literature by a German writer. It is to be found, curiously enough, among the several whimsical prefaces and stories which accompany the novel Leben des Quintus Fixlein (1796) by Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), who is better known by his pseudonym Jean Paul. Jean Paul's relation to German Classicism and Romanticism has been warmly debated, and he is usually placed outside the main current of German literature. His literary excellence and originality, however, are widely acknowledged, and his reputation as an aesthetician is established by his Vorschule der ästhetik (1804).

Jean Paul's discussion of cosmology, fantasy, and literature is couched as the "Dedication to My Foster-sister Philippine" which precedes the delicate, even fey story "Der Mond: eine phantasierende Geschichte."4 Jean Paul, or rather the narrator of the story, begins the "Dedication" by describing the discrepancy between the cosmology of modern science and the older fantastic cosmology whose sentimentality and anthropomorphism, he says, still govern the thoughts of frivolous girls:

In none of my books, my dear foster-sister, have I yet expressed my ridicule about how you girls make so much of the Moon. It is the plaything of your hearts and the nest-egg around which you set the other stars when you hatch fantasies from them.... But one could quarrel about something else, too, namely that you would rather love and look at the dear old Moon and the Man who lives there than get to know them—as is your custom with men who live here below the Moon.... Dearest, there is even the question of whether you yourself still know that the Moon is but a few square miles smaller than Asia. How often I had to drum it into your head before you could retain the fact that on the Moon not only does the day last half a month, but also—something even more worth hearing—the night.... I have it on good authority that you don't even remember what kind of a Moon the Moon has overhead—our Earth is the Moon's Moon, you silly thing, and to whoever is up there it looks no bigger than a wedding-cake. [Werke, 4:50-51]

Such familiarity with modern science in a German writer of the late 18th century is noteworthy but not unique. What is remarkable about Jean Paul is that he makes science an important ingredient of his philosophical outlook and his literature as well. The story-teller's flippant remarks about his foster-sister and the mysteries of modern astronomy give way to an earnest assertion that the study of the cosmos revealed by modern science "gives man an exalted heart, and an eye which reaches beyond the Earth, and wings which lift one into the Incommensurable, and a God who is not finite, but rather infinite" (Werke, 4:51). The serious tone is appropriate, for it soon becomes apparent that Jean Paul intends something more than a comment on the lag between modern science and popular consciousness. His observations about the differences between the modern and the old-fashioned cosmologies are the foundation for a statement about the effects of modern science on the world-view, themes, and images of poetry. In a passage which can count as an early attempt to resolve the problem of the "Two Cultures," Jean Paul declares that literature and modern science are not incompatible:

One may have fantasies about everything under the Moon, and about the Moon itself too, as long as one does not take the fantasies for truths—or the shadow-play for a picture-collection—or the picture-collection for a natural-history collection. The astronomer inventories and assesses the sky and misses by only a few pounds; the poet furnishes and enriches the heavens.... The former lays measuring-lines about the Moon, while the latter lays garlands about it—and also about the Earth. [Werke, 4:51]

I would suggest that in this brief passage Jean Paul is offering a program for a new kind of literature much like SF, and that in his conception of the new type of "fantasy" he also touches on issues which have continued to occupy the attention of SF critics and theorists.5 The elliptical syntax and eccentric terminology make it difficult at first to discern the exact meanings of the distinctions between "fantasies" ("Phantasien"), "truths" ("Wahrheiten"), "shadow-play" ("Schattenspiel"), "picture- collection" ("Bilderkabinett"), and "natural-history collection" ("Naturalienkabinett"). But the general purport is evident and the choice of such puzzling imagery in fact contributes to the argument. Jean Paul seems to be examining the differences between imagination (including the creation of fiction) on the one hand, and philosophical truths, historical and biographical facts, and the knowledge furnished by modern science on the other. The key word is "Phantasie," which refers not only to the daydreams of adolescents, but also to the faculty of imagination and its expression in the form of literature. According to Jean Paul the new fantasies and fictions do not claim to be statements of absolute fact ("Wahrheiten") and should not be considered as such; they have other functions and employ other categories of truth and validity than do philosophy, history, and science. Many modern theorists also suggest that a work of SF, despite its emphasis on concrete, realistic description and its use of the past tense and indicative mood, is not a prediction or prophecy but rather a "thought-model" or hypothesis in which author and reader explore future or alternate worlds. The reader, because he enjoys reading fiction and is interested in scientific speculation, temporarily and conditionally accepts the imaginary world as a real place. He then judges the fiction not according to its factual truth as a prediction of the future, but rather its validity and internal consistency as a plausible representation of an imaginary world, including its inhabitants and their culture.

In the next phrase Jean Paul formulates another distinction: the "shadow-play" of fiction is not to be mistaken for a "picture-collection." At the very least he is restating the notion that the new fantasies are not to be viewed as assertions which claim to express absolute truth. It is conceivable that he is also drawing our attention to the idea that the characters in the new kind of fantasy would perhaps have a different nature and function than those in other, more "realistic" fiction. Modern proponents of SF have argued similarly that the use of type characters or the avoidance of abnormal personalities in SF may have a legitimate function as part of the author's effort to make the imaginary world familiar and plausible.

The multiple meanings of "Bilder" make possible still another shift of argument. In a certain sense a work of literature, even though it does not claim to reproduce historical and biographical truth, can indeed be seen as a "Bilderkabinett," a collection of "representations," "images," or "figures." But the "images" of fantasy, even fantasy based on modern science, are not to be viewed as though they were parts of a "natural-history collection." Here, I think, Jean Paul is pointing out the distinction in content and function between science, including the non-fictional scientific text, and what we would call SF. The poet is given a certain license with reality, including scientific facts. He may create imaginary science, and he may use the cosmos of modern science as a background for speculations not immediately justified by present science. But he must also conform to the demands of fiction, which deals with living beings, not just with inanimate objects. To emphasize this difference Jean Paul contrasts the outlook and functions of the scientist and the poet. The astronomer, for example, measures the cosmos, while the practitioner of the new form of literary fantasy, like the writer of SF, speculates imaginatively about science and about life in the cosmos.

Even if the "Dedication" were nothing more than a comment about the impact of science on modern consciousness, it would be an important document for the attempt to trace the interplay of science and literature in the emergence of the type of sensibility which was a prerequisite for the creation of SF. But Jean Paul's remarks on science, imagination, and art, despite their brevity, irony, and eccentric style, make the "Dedication" even more significant for the history of SF. Although there was as yet no real SF to which he might have referred in his speculations about the new "fantasies," his own abilities as a writer and aesthetician, as well as his familiarity with the science of his time enabled him to analyze the impact of science on modern consciousness and to form conjectures about the possible literary expression of such interaction. At the end of the "Dedication," and often during the short stories "Die Mondfinsternis" (The Eclipse of the Moon) and "Der Mond," Jean Paul does indeed return to the old cosmology which had served poetry so well. But in the "Dedication" he anticipated, briefly but provocatively, a number of issues important to SF criticism.

By no means does the work of Jean Paul begin an essentially continuous tradition of German SF and SF criticism. At most one can distinguish a very minor and often historically discontinuous genre composed of science-oriented fantasies and whimsical pieces which resemble those of Lewis Carroll, Edwin A. Abbott, and C.H. Hinton.6 Nor did any of the few German utopias of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, some of which describe imaginary science and technology, achieve any appreciable currency. The essential stylistic, thematic, and conceptual roots of German SF, like those of Anglo-American SF, are to be found instead in a later period, in technological fiction, the "future-war" story, the modern utopia, the tradition of middle-brow realistic fiction, and the direct confrontation of the author with science and technology in an industrialized society.

2. The real father of German SF was Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910), who wrote a number of short stories, novellas, and novels, including his masterpiece, the two volume novel Auf zwei Planeten (On Two Planets; 1897).7 Lasswitz' personality, professional activity, literary works, and even his ideas about aesthetics show a juxtaposition and sometimes a happy synthesis of the sciences and the traditional humanities. Although he was a trained scientist, his education, like that of most German intellectuals of the time, heavily emphasized the humanistic culture of Goethe's Weimar and of German Idealism. Indeed, it was as a teacher of philosophy as well as mathematics and physics that he spent thirty years at the Gymnasium Ernestinum in Gotha while writing his scientific works, histories of science and philosophy, essays on aesthetics, and SF. Lasswitz was deeply aware of his dual position as a descendant of German Classicism and an inhabitant of a modern world pervaded by science and technology. His confidence in his ability to bridge the gap between Goethe's Weimar and Bismarck's Germany was no doubt strengthened by his knowledge and near-adulation of Goethe and Kant, who had dealt so successfully with science as part of their humanistic lives.     

Several times during his literary career Lasswitz examined the nature of the new kind of literature which he was helping to create. He first expressed his ideas in 1878 in the Preface to his two early novellas, the Bilder aus der Zukunft (Images from the Future; cited below as BZ). In the May 1887 issue of the general-interest liberal journal Nord und Süd he discussed "the poetical and the scientific views of nature" ("Die poetische und die wissenschaftliche Betrachtung der Natur," cited as PWBN). An essay on futurology in philosophy and fiction, "Über Zukunftsträume" (On Dreams About the Future; ZT), forms one chapter of the philosophical work Wirklichkeiten (1899). The two essays "Der tote and der lebendige Mars" (The Dead and the Living Mars; TLM) and "Unser Recht auf Bewohner anderer Welten" (Our Claims on Inhabitants of Other Worlds; URBAW) are Lasswitz' final word on SF. The latter appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung on 16 November 1910, one day before his death; both are included in the posthumous volume Empfundenes und Erkanntes (1919), from which they are cited here. It would be impossible in these few pages to explore the full range and complexity of Lasswitz' thought or even to quote more than a few essential passages. I intend instead to summarize the major steps in his argument and to suggest its relevance to the major issues of modern SF criticism.

Lasswitz' essays on the aesthetics of SF reflect both his cultural heritage and his training in science. In its point of departure, conceptual organization, and terminology his course of reasoning resembles that of the treatises on aesthetics written by Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and, for that matter, Hegel and Schelling, who discuss art from psychological and cultural perspectives before turning to issues of artistic practice. Thus Lasswitz' theory of SF begins with the attempt to show that fiction about science reflects and satisfies basic human needs and is therefore a legitimate form of art. He states that it is human nature to speculate about the future of mankind and of human culture, because man has an intellect and a sense of curiosity, and also because "striving for improvement is the essence of human life" (ZT p 423). To these traditional philosophical notions Lasswitz adds the concepts and methods of modern science. He argues that man's confrontation with nature, especially the cosmos, is the initial impetus and recurring form of conceptualization for the attempt to comprehend human existence (PWBN pp 270-71). Thus science, as the German term "Naturwissenschaft" suggests, is not the mere collection of facts; rather it is intimately related to man's deepest philosophical, emotional, and cultural drives. In fact, as science progresses from superstition to a mature and systematic form of knowledge, it contributes more and more to man's effort to understand himself and his world and to transcend his intellectual and physical limitations. Astronomy, the study of the Universe, is therefore the particular "paragon of the sciences" (PWBN p 271), while technology is the modern expression of man's desire to gain practical mastery over his environment ("die technische Beherrschung der Natur," ZT pp 432, 435).  

Lasswitz' knowledge of philosophy enables him to explore the implications of science and technology with particular acuity. Conversely, his scientific training adds new energy and relevance to his philosophical thought. As a Neo-Kantian he thinks of space and time as subjective modes of perception. As a modern scientist he also views space and time as objective, quantifiable concepts. Both space and time are used to measure and describe the physical world, and both can be treated— graphically as well as conceptually—as dimensions. Lasswitz also combines modern science with older concepts of historical and cultural development. To the ancient ideas of eschatological historical progression, cultural development, and the improvement of human nature, he adds the notion of extra-terrestrial life and the theory of evolution. One result is a belief—not without reservations—in the possibility of a "relative improvement of conditions through a gradual process of evolution" (ZT p 425). Another is a concept of the equivalence of travel through space and progression in time. Both ideas are of great importance to SF. The opening paragraphs of URBAW best express Lasswitz' thought:

Ever since science has incontrovertibly made the Earth into a planet and the stars into suns like our own, we cannot lift our gaze to the starry firmament without thinking, along with Giordano Bruno, that even on those inaccessible worlds there may exist living, feeling, thinking creatures. It must seem absolutely nonsensical indeed, that in the infinity of the cosmos our Earth should have remained the only supporter of intelligent beings [Vemunftwesen]. The rational order of the universe [Weltvernunft] demands that there should necessarily even be infinite gradations of intelligent beings inhabiting such worlds. To this idea might be added the profound and inextinguishable longing for better and more fortunate conditions than those which the Earth offers us. Indeed we do dream of a higher civilization [Kultur], but we would also like to come to know it as something more than the hope for a distant future. We tell ourselves that what the future can sometime bring about on Earth must even now, in view of the infiniteness of time and space, have already become a reality somewhere. [URBAW p 163]

Even in his earliest writings, however, Lasswitz was aware that the concepts of philosophy and the content and method of modern science could be combined to produce visions of new worlds and cultures. Although in URBAW Lasswitz' interest was directed to non-terrestrial cultures, in the Bilder aus der Zukunft he described superior terrestrial cultures located in the future. In Auf zwei Planeten Lasswitz incorporated the equivalence of travel through space and progression through time. There he described the confrontation of contemporary terrestrial civilization with a superior alien culture, a conflict whose result is the gradual improvement of humanity.

We may question the validity and relevance of Lasswitz' cultural optimism, his rationalistic psychology, and his use of the concepts and terminology of Idealist philosophy. Nevertheless, these ideas and attitudes, in combination with his extensive knowledge of modern science, enabled him to reach conclusions about science, society, and the function of literature which are much the same as those which form the foundations of modern SF. Lasswitz believed that science and technology had become major determinants of history, society, and individual consciousness. He also shared the conviction that the impact of science on the modern world and its future could be explored in an artistically legitimate form. He even anticipated and explained the preference in SF for future or other worlds as settings, and for astronomy and physics as sources of themes and imaginary scientific content.

In his essays Lasswitz examined with considerable insight the kind of imagination encountered in SF. As an aesthetician and writer he understood the creation of art to be a matter of conception as well as execution. In SF, particularly, both of these processes are often viewed as consciously methodical acts. The writer must construct a detailed and consistent imaginary world which is distinctly different from our own and yet does not directly contradict modern science. He must then use his literary skills to gain our emotional and logical acceptance of that world. It is therefore not surprising to find in SF a concept of imagination which claims to be rational and systematic rather than absolutely unrestrained. There is also a corresponding preference for stylistic techniques which aim to encourage an impression of reality, rather than to create a sense of alienation or to remind the reader of the artificiality of the text.

Lasswitz' ideas about imagination and literary technique in SF are very similar to those of many later critics and writers of SF. In ZT and URBAW he bravely attempts to distinguish SF, which he calls "das wissenschaftliche Märchen" (ZT p. 441), from other fiction, especially fantasy fiction or "das Märchen" ("tale"); the issue is still a subject of considerable debate. Lasswitz suggests that science, viewed as a strict discipline, has neither the capability nor the mission to exceed the bounds of its knowledge in order to speculate freely about the future or other worlds (13Z p. iii, ZT p. 439, URBAW p. 164). If we wish to explore such ideas "we must turn to [the faculty of] imagination [Phantasie]," but such fantasy "need not be unbridled," as it is in fantasy fiction (ZT p. 439). The "bridle," as Lasswtiz repeatedly states, is provided not only by common sense, but even more by the concepts, methods, and standards of science. Like the scientist, the writer of SF, even though he has greater freedom of imagination, thinks in terms of hypotheses, quantifiable factors, and formulas:

Who can answer these questions [about the future]? Science cannot venture to do so, as long as it has not yet found the famous Universal Formula of Laplace, which answers all questions about the past and future and enables us to perceive the mechanism of the Universe in the same manner that this mechanism presents itself to the human intellect in the motion of atoms. And yet there is a magical agency by which we can anticipate this formula and with one fell swoop lift ourselves beyond the reality which slowly works itself out in space and time in accord with [the laws of] mass and energy. This magical agency which enables us to lift the veil of the future is imagination [die Idee]. Fiction [Dichtung] has the privilege of looking into the future. But if that which fiction narrates is really to inspire in us a sense of trust, then fiction must take counsel with reality and conform closely to experience. Many inferences about the future can be drawn from the historical course of civilization [Verlauf der Culturgeschichte] and the present state of science; and analogy offers itself to fantasy as an ally. [BZ pp iii-iv]

The scientific knowledge of a particular time is part of the common interest of humanity.... The picture of the nature of things which we form in this field is an essential element of the total content of the culture and can therefore also become a subject for literary treatment. But fiction gives form to this its raw material by transforming it into a part of the personal experience of fictional characters.

Now in this process fiction is much freer in its use of hypotheses than is science, whose business is to provide the objective knowledge. As long as he does not contradict the scientific knowledge of his time, the writer of fiction may expand the hypothesis in order to further those aims which he considers essential to his function. In science the hypothesis must receive its justification through the ongoing process of experience, while in fiction the hypothesis is justified simply by its psychological utility, i.e. by the effect which it creates by making objects and events vivid and plausible and by transforming them into elements of the reader's active emotional response. [URBAW p 167-68]

Lasswitz' choice of terminology makes it almost superfluous to emphasize once again the similarity of his ideas to those of later writers and critics of SF. The insight with which he outlined the process of "extrapolation" and the use of "analogs," key concepts in SF, is remarkable. His notion of the SF text as the formulation of a "hypothesis" also points the way toward modern theories of SF , which view the imaginary world as neither a pure fantasy nor an absolute prophecy, but rather as a "thought-model" similar to the theoretical models of reality proposed by the natural sciences.     

In his earliest and latest essays Lasswitz also spells out the implications of this "scientific" concept of imagination in terms of literary aesthetics. As in the previous passages, he emphasizes plausibility, probability, and verisimilitude as principles of imagination and goals of literary style:

We have endeavored to relate nothing which cannot stand either as probable or at least as not completely impossible according to present knowledge.... Here the difficulty of artistic representation places a natural rein on fantasy; it is essential to find the proper mean between fantastic fabulation [Fabuliren] and didactic explanation. For that which is alien must be mediated to our understanding through that which is already familiar; this is not always simple to do and necessitates much and varied postulation [vielerlei Voraussetzung]. [BZ pp v-vi]

In the transformation [of speculations about science, the future, etc.] into literary form, the laws of nature and the soul may not be infringed without arousing the objection of the reader and interfering with the effect. For everything that occurs in a novel which is intended seriously as art must be capable of being related to our own experience, i.e. the contemporary view of natural laws and psychology; in short, it must be explainable and plausible. An effect which occurred simply by magic and could not be explained scientifically would be just as unusable poetically as a sudden, psychologically unmotivated transformation of a character.... Our sense of veracity tolerates no postulates which directly and absolutely contradict previous scientific and psychological experience. [URBAW pp 165-66]

As the two passages show, Lasswitz was aware that in SF the plausibility of the imaginary world is suggested and judged in several different ways. The sense of plausibility depends first of all on the creation of a general impression of correspondence between the imaginary world of the fiction and our own world of experience; or, as recent students of Realism express the idea, the fiction attempts to encourage a sense of "sharable experience" by suggesting the verifiability of its content.8 But Lasswitz' notion of plausibility, like that of many if indeed not all writers of SF, also shows the direct influence of science. The scientific method, with its combination of hypothesis, projection, collection of data, and re-evaluation, is considered the model for sound imaginative speculation. The particular natural sciences, which furnish the categories and standards by which the real world is most validly observed and described, are the source of the individual criteria according to which the validity of the imaginary world is asserted and evaluated.

The next logical step in a theory about fiction in which the concept of imagination and standards of plausibility are based on science is the conclusion that science should be an important part of the content of the imaginary world and that such fiction might well look to science for help in creating particular stylistic techniques which would contribute to the impression of plausibility. In his theoretical essays Lasswitz mentions a number of themes and concepts of imaginary science which he considers appropriate and challenging subjects for the new kind of fiction. Among them are extraterrestrial life, space travel, solar energy, anti-gravity, synthetic food, and differences in psychological sensibility in non-terrestrial beings or in new environments (ZT p 442; URBAW and TLM, passim). Many of these ideas are important themes and motifs in later SF. Lasswitz also hints at some of the major structural patterns and stylistic tendencies of SF, for example the preference for exciting plots and heroic characters (ZT pp 435-37, 440-45).   

Lasswitz' SF, however, offers a better indication of his notion of the stylistic techniques of SF. While his works are marred by a relative weakness in the representation of character and dialogue, even the early stories in BZ are quite successful as evocations of imaginary worlds in which science and technology are important elements. In the short stories written in the Eighties and Nineties Lasswitz refined his science-fictional techniques, expanded his thematic repertoire, and moved toward a maturer conception of the imaginary world as a "thought-model" interesting in its own right, rather than just as a satirical allegory of our own world. Lasswitz' conceptual powers and literary skills reached their highpoint in his modest best-seller, Auf zwei Planeten, which appeared in the same year as Wells's War of the Worlds. In this lengthy novel Lasswitz employs the archetypal SF idea of "first contact" to explore one of the fundamental themes of literature, the nature of humanity. Imaginary technology, speculation about alien biology, philosophy, character, and plot all play a role in the exposition of the theme. Many stylistic techniques which appear constantly in later SF are to be found in Auf zwei Planeten. Among them are technological neologisms, alien language, documental inserts and pseudo-scientific and pseudo-historical discourses. Throughout the novel Lasswitz uses a measured, transparent, matter-of-fact narrative style calculated to win the reader's acceptance of the imaginary world.

Despite his foresight as an aesthetician and writer, Lasswitz was more conservative in his speculations about the subjects and functions of SF than has been borne out by later SF, although at the time his ideas would have seemed quite visionary. In his theoretical essays he also did little more than suggest the general stylistic characteristics of an SF that was still embryonic. Lasswitz was attempting to distinguish SF clearly from other literature, to establish its artistic legitimacy, and to argue the "scientific" nature of its form of imagination. He therefore concentrated on its more readily ascertainable features and emphasized its realistic and methodical nature. Later writers, better aware of both the possibilities and the supposed limits of their genre, would consciously seek to expand its boundaries and to achieve what had previously been considered unachievable.

3. A number of German writers and critics besides Jean Paul and Lasswitz have contributed to the discussion of science and literature, including SF. Except for the Nazi era, the modern tradition of SF theory and criticism in Germany is fairly continuous, although initially sparse. Until quite recently, however, almost all such discussion took place within larger contexts such as naturalism, realism, utopian thought, or mainstream literature. German SF did not diverge from the literary mainstream nearly as greatly as did Anglo-American SF. Similarly, SF criticism in Germany did not develop into a distinct discipline pursued by a cohesive community of writers and non-academic critics.

Technological consciousness, the theory of evolution, and the scientific outlook played a significant role in the social and aesthetic thought of the German naturalists. A major figure in such discussion was Wilhelm Bölsche (1861-1939), a writer, editor, and popularizer of science. Bölsche wrote a treatise about "the scientific foundations of poetry" (Die naturwissenschaftlichen Grundlagen der Poesie, 1887), as well as some speculative articles which explore themes familiar in later SF. Even more important as a landmark of SF theory and textual interpretation is his enthusiastic essay about Auf zwei Planeten, "Das Märchen des Mars."9 The article does much to clarify the relation of Lasswitz' SF to that of Verne and Wells, to realism, and to the genres of fantasy and Märchen—questions which are by no means resolved yet. Another writer associated with the naturalists and realists was Hans Lindau, who published a biographical and critical essay on Lasswitz, as well as several book reviews.10 He also added a longer (and better) biographical and interpretive introduction to Lasswitz' posthumous volume of essays, poetry, and stories, Empfundenes und Erkanntes (Things Felt and Known; 1919). The publication of Auf zwei Planeten in 1897 inspired a few other reviews in German journals associated with realism, naturalism, and liberalism. Perhaps the most perceptive of these are "Ein Robinson des Weltraums" (A Robinson Crusoe of Outer Space) by Fritz Engel (Zeitgeist: Beiblatt zum Berliner Tageblatt, 1897, No. 49; excerpted in Das Magazin für Litteratur, 18 December 1897) and "Weltphantasien" (Space Fantasies) by M. Kronenberg (Die Nation, 31 December 1898).11

At least three major essays exploring SF from quite different perspectives appeared during the years of the Weimar Republic: Das naturwissenschaftliche Märchen (The Scientific Tale; 1919) by Anton Lampa; "Weltraumschiffahrt, ein poetischer Traum und ein technisches Problem der Zeit" (Space Travel: a Poetic Dream and a Contemporary Technical Problem) by Karl Debus (Hochland, July 1927); and "Die phantastische Literatur. Eine literarästhetische Untersuchung" (The Literature of Fantasy: a Literary-Aesthetic Investigation) by Hans-Joachim Flechtner (Zeitschrift für ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 24[1930]: 37-47). To these studies one might add Hans Dominik's observations on SF in his autobiography, Vom Schraubstock zum Schreibtisch (From the Workbench to the Writing-Desk; 1942). While Dominik's remarks scarcely constitute a systematic and profound analysis, they offer important indications of the internationality of his SF.

After 1933 the forced adaptation of literary criticism to Nazi party goals, the suppression of most German SF, and the termination of openly-conducted rocket research in Germany brought about an almost complete cessation of SF and SF criticism in Germany, although Dominik's SF novels continued to be published in mass editions because of their escape value and fascist ideology.12 The post-war years have seen a modest rebirth of SF in Germany, as well as an impressive amount of SF criticism which Franz Rottensteiner reviewed recently in this journal (SFS 1[1975]:279-84).     

For all its variety and occasional historical discontinuity, German SF criticism, both older and more recent, exhibits a number of persistent characteristics which are already apparent in Lasswitz and even in Jean Paul. In effect the German critics combine the strengths (and sometimes the weaknesses) of the two traditional schools of Anglo-American SF critics, the academic scholars and the "indigenous" community of writers, editors, fans, and critics. For the most part the German critics evidence a solid foundation in aesthetic theory and critical methods, an interest in philosophical and ideological discussion, a thorough knowledge of mainstream literature, and an impressive familiarity with both German and non-German SF. Each of these virtues, however, has its corresponding vice. One occasionally encounters a certain inflexibility of aesthetic concepts and terminology, a lack of attention to German SF, an insistence on associating or even confusing modern SF with other literary traditions whose importance to the development of SF may well be small, or a tendency to over-emphasize the political or philosophical implications of SF. These traits may well have to do with certain factors in the German intellectual tradition, as well as the lack of a clearly-defined native body of SF and readership community distinct from mainstream literature. Despite—or perhaps because of—such differences in background and critical orientation German discussions of SF offer much valuable material to the student of SF. Jean Paul's provocative and remarkably prescient remarks on the new "fantasy" have a definite historical value and can also still contribute to our understanding of the fundamental relation between science and fiction. Even as early as the turn of the century, Lasswitz was able to explore the idea of SF with the special insights of a trained and experienced scientist, philosopher, and writer. The better recent studies, too, can compete with those written anywhere. In my own work with SF, including German SF, I have found such studies invaluable in the interpretation of primary texts and in the evolution of a descriptive definition suitable for SF in general and for German SF as a form of literature which, for all its differences from Anglo-American SF, exhibits many of the same philosophical attitudes, scientific themes, and stylistic techniques.


All translations are my own. Where necessary I have sacrificed smoothness to achieve a closely literal rendition, since many of the texts are not readily available. For several reasons I have chosen to translate both "Phantasie" (in some instances) and the very difficult "Idee" as "imagination," even though the customary German word for "imagination" is "Einbildungskraft." I feel this translation is justified by the particular connotations of "Phantasie," as artistic imagination and the actual product of such imagination, and by the special meanings of "imagination" and "imaginary" in SF. The context in which Lasswitz uses "Idee" (BZ page iii) makes it clear that he means the process of imagination rather than "idea," "concept," "notion," etc. I have also translated "naturwissenschaft(lich)" and "wissenschaft(lich)" interchangeably as "science/scientific" (in the texts cited here there is no indication that the writers intend the latter to mean either "knowledge in general" or "scholarly learning"), and "Märchen" simply as "tale" rather than as the "folktale" or "fairy tale" into which it is often rendered when referring to Grimm's stories and similar texts.     

1. Specialized bibliographies of early German utopias and imaginary voyages include Heinz Bingenheimer, Transgalaxis: Katalog der deutschsprachigen utopisch-phantastischen Literatur aus fünf Jahrhunderten (1460-1960) (Friedrichsdorf/Taunus 1959), and Carl von Klinckowstroem, "Liftfahrten in der Literatur," Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde 3(1912): 250-64.  

2. Cf Robert Ulshöfer, "Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock: 'Die Frühlingsfeier,"' in Die deutsche Lyrik, ed. Benno von Wiese (Düsseldorf 1957), 1:168-84.  

3. For example: Alex Gode-von Aesch, Natural Science in German Romanticism (US 1941); Rolf Denker, "Luftfahrt auf montgolfierische Art in Goethes Dichten und Denken," Jahrbuch der Goethe-Gesellschaft 26(1964):181-98; Fritz Usinger, Tellurische und planetarische Dichtung (Mainz 1964); Willy Hartner, "Goethe and the Natural Sciences," in Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays (US 1968), pp 145-60.

4. All references are to Jean Paul, Werke, ed. Norbert Miller (München 1962).

5. In its thought and language the passage is reminiscent of the famous "golden world" passage near the beginning of Sidney's Apology for Poetry (1595); I would not consider a direct textual influence impossible. Despite the modern nature of his subject, Jean Paul, in his notion of aesthetics, clearly belongs to the classical tradition. In his view of art as mimesis he inclines toward Aristotle rather than Plato. Certainly the images of "garlands" and ornamentation in the passage quoted suggest the Platonic idea that art is removed from reality. But Jean Paul does not see art, including the new fantasies, as a misrepresentation or even a mere embellishment of reality; rather, art expresses a deeper, or at least another kind of truth. Jean Paul's discussion of the place of art between absolute philosophical truth and concretely observed fact reminds one very much of Aristotle's idea that the realm of art is located between the abstract ideals of philosophy and the individual, often imperfect actualities of biography and history.    

6. Abbott, Flatland (1884); Hinton, A New Era of Thought (1888), Scientific Romances (first series, 1886, second series, 1902). The major German writers of such proto- or quasi-SF, besides Jean Paul, are Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887), and Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915).     

7. The short stories, some of which appeared in Nord und Süd, are collected in the volumes Seifenblasen (1890) and Nie und Nimmer (1902). Willy Ley translated three of the stories as "When the Devil Took the Professor," "Alladin's Lamp," and "Psychotomy" in the January 1953, May 1953, and July 1955 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. There is an abridged version of Auf zwei Planeten in English: Two Planets, tr. Hans Rudnik, with Afterword by Mark R. Hillegas (US 1971).     

8. I owe the term "sharable experience" and much of my understanding of realism to an unpublished essay, "Realism as Communication," by Prof. Peter Demetz. The association of Lasswitz, the writer of SF, with literary realism and naturalism, is not inappropriate, for he was in close contact with the German and foreign members of both schools, as is indicated by his long association with the journal Nord und Süd and with the publishing house of Emil Felber.

9. The various articles appeared over a number of years in the Neue Deutsche Rundschau and were reprinted in volumes of essays: "Das Märchen des Mars" in Vom Bazillus zum Affenmenschen (1909), "Luftstadt" in Auf dem Menschenstern (1900), and "Ob Naturforschung und Dichtung sich schaden?" (Whether Science and Poetry are Mutually Injurious) in Weltblick (1904).

10. "Kurd Lasswitz und seine modernen Märchen," Nord und Süd, September 1903, pp 315-33. See also Lindau's review of Lasswitz' Nie und Nimmer in the same issue, pp, 413-14, and his eulogy of Lasswitz in Kantstudien 16, vii(1911):1-4.    

11. Otherwise the scant secondary material on Lasswitz includes a eulogy by Otto Jauker in the Deutsche Rundschau für Geographie 33,vi(1911):279-80; a survey of Lasswitz' fiction and essays by Raimund Pissin in Die Nation, 3 Dec 1904, pp 153-54; an essay by Edwin M.J. Kretzmann, "German Technological Utopias of the Pre-War Period," Annals of Science, Oct 1938, pp 417-30; Mark Hillegas's essay on Wells, Lasswitz, and Orson Welles, "Martians and Mythmakers: 1877-1938," in Challenges in American Culture, ed. Ray B. Browne et al. (US 1970), pp 150-77; two articles by Franz Rottensteiner, "Kurd Lasswitz, a German Pioneer of Science Fiction," in SF: The Other Side of Realism, ed. Thomas D. Clareson (US 1971), pp 289-306, and "Ordnungsliebend im Weltraum: Kurd Lasswitz," in Polaris 1, ed. Rottensteiner (1973); and Klaus Günther Just, "Ueber Kurd Lasswitz," in Aspekte der Zukunft (Bern 1972), pp 32-65, which subsumes two earlier essays on Lasswitz.

12.One might well speculate that Golden-Age Anglo-American SF profited from Germany's loss. In effect it was left to Anglo-American writers to explore the implications of modern physics and the German rocket research of the twenties and thirties. In doing so they had the assistance of German emigrés like Willy Ley, an admirer of Lasswitz, who under other circumstances might well have contributed as a writer and critic to a Golden Age of German SF.


German writers have produced a major, though neglected, body of SF and SF criticism. This essay discusses early German theories of SF, with particular attention to Leben des Quintus Fixlein and Vorshule der ästhetik by "Jean Paul" (Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763-1825) and a later novelist and historian of science often called the Father of German SF: Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910), author of Auf zwei Planeten (1897) and numerous essays, influenced by Goethe and Kant, on the aesthetics of SF. Jean Paul wrote science-oriented fantasies and whimsical pieces, while Lasswitz (a historian of science and teacher of mathematics, philosophy and physics at the Gymnasium Ernestinum at Gotha) was more oriented to new scientific discoveries. But both participated (as theoreticians and as fiction writers) in the development of German SF, and their ideas deserve a place in the history of SF and the methodology of SF criticism. For the most part, the German critics exhibit a solid foundation in aesthetic theory, an interest in philosophical and ideological discussion, a thorough knowledge of mainstream literature, and an impressive familiarity both with German and non-German SF.

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