Reflections from West Germany on the Science-Fiction Market
Translated by William B. Fischer
The criteria observed by the commercial article SF are not, first and foremost, literary. Nor does SF even optimize the possibilities which typify it as a genre. It is more accurate to say that SF is situated within the magnetic field of commercial market principles. SF is a commodity, although admittedly the article which is traded on the market under the label "Science Fiction" all too often speaks against it. The distribution channels for this commodity of SF are the hardcover book, the paperback series, the TV series, the film, the radio play, and the "Heft" series (soft-cover, medium-size pulp magazines with a short novel complete in each issue, e.g. Perry Rhodan).
1. SF on TV. Let me begin with the most market-conscious of these channels of distribution, SF from American TV. "Das Spukschloss im Weltall" (i.e. the Haunted Castle in Space; original title "Catspaw") was one of the seventy-eight episodes of the TV series Raumschiff Enterprise (Star Trek). Not the least factor in the fame the series attained was the character of Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. Spock—he of the pointed ears and mephistophelian eyebrows, the Man in the Satan Suit—is a classic example of affirmative anachronism. But even more offensive is the conception of most female characters in this (and other) series from the Anglo-American scene. On a planet quite distant from Earth the crew of the Enterprise chances upon a version of the European Middle Ages, as seen from a perspective which is typically American: haunted castle with passageways, hall of state, candelabra, dungeons, chains, suits of armor—in short, romantic Old Heidelberg in top-notch form. And in the midst of this Castle of Chills and Thrills—a pin-up model of the American Idea of Woman: the Cat-Woman (who of course occasionally uses a "transmuter" to change herself into a genuine hissing, gleaming-eyed cat). The Woman of Enigmas, demonic, dominating, feared by men—the typical American mom in the form of the chick-fatale with a penchant for strip-tease. Such figures reflect an extremely offensive pattern of affirmation. Since SF is a commodity on the market, not too much of a new and surprisingly innovative nature may be presented. For SF as a commodity has to confirm to existing patterns of thought, desire, and fear. The reason why this confirmation must occur in Anglo-American SF, so obviously and so without exception, can be seen only when one takes into assessment the fact that, in the USA, TV is a sales medium, not an artistic or creative medium. The principle of dramaturgical composition in the American series is not, primarily, the skillful and entertaining presentation of an exciting story; even less does this principle involve using the "formal play" of art to bring up for discussion political and social matters. Rather, the sole structural principle behind such programs is the implantation, every six to eight minutes, of commercials or "adspots" into the fictional plot in the places prepared for this purpose. "The constantly reiterated argument of the spokesmen for the networks, that they just offer what the viewing public want, is thus a complete fabrication. What they offer is what the advertising clients want."1 The preferred consumer target-groups are women between 18 and 45 and men between 50 and 58. Incidentally, NBC considered the Star Trek series so successful that it did not want to forgo further continuations. So more episodes were produced, this time in the form of animated cartoon films of 15 minutes' length. Once again the ZDF (Central German Television Network) has fitted Star Trek into its schedule, starting in March of 1976 in a late-afternoon animated cartoon slot. Such behavior is true to the market principle which says that a consumer demand, once it has been stabilized by a product supply, should if at all possible be serviced with an equivalent product.
If, then, the Anglo-American series, with their exclusive orientation toward market, promotions, and sales, and their images of a Culture of Consumption, are constantly flickering across our TV screens, it is because our own broadcasting institutions, which are by law public and are scarcely commercial in their organization, have abandoned their obligation—and their opportunity—to counter the transatlantic programs by offering program contents which are somehow superior, or somehow more intelligent, or just somehow more entertaining.
An instructive and admittedly isolated example shows how such a situation could come about. In the field of SF there recently occurred a Franco-German cultural agreement, however improbable and astounding that may sound to the ears of SF fans. Partners in the co-production of this didactic SF project were the Bavarian Education Television System and French TV (ORTF), with the support of the French Foreign Ministry. Thirty-nine episodes of a French language course, Les Gammas! Les Gammas!, were produced, with SF as the vehicle. Since September 1974 all the Third Programs (cultural channels) of the ARID (Association of West German Public Broadcasting Institutions) have scheduled this well-liked and successful series in their best time-slots. The basic idea is one of the most common and marketable SF themes: the invasion of extraterrestrial beings and their vicissitudes. The series, whose extremely clever conception took into account both the basic purpose and the target-group, transposed familiar SF motifs and patterns into pictorial events. The target-group consists of children, who get their fun from seeing Odile, Emile, and Adrien magically become large or tiny, and grown-ups as well, who are supposed to enjoy the numerous literary, cultural, topical, and historical allusions. The didactic intention of the series is to teach French, using simple sentences and common vocabulary, or just to refresh French language skills. The adventures of the Gammas, incidentally, are supposed to appear shortly as a comic strip.
It seems scarcely possible to sneak around—let alone vault over—the generally unfortunate web of interconnections between the marketing and consumption of SF. Here in West Germany, radio and TV are not a state monopoly, as they are in the countries of the Eastern European bloc, in the Third World countries, and even in some Western European countries as well, like France, Spain, Italy, etc.; nor are they here commercial facilities as in the USA where the big mass-communications systems sell air-time to industry, whose interest consists entirely in promoting its products. Nevertheless, our "publicly controlled" mass media—and this holds true particularly for TV (ARD and ZDF)—seem to be subordinate to the market strictures of those countries they "buy" from. The purchasing practices which have come to determine programming are the result of the daily necessity of filling time-slots. Without hesitation, foreign SF TV series were and still are purchased; and those who produce our own SF series (Alpha-Alpha, Orion, etc.) have not listened to expert advisors, but instead have closely imitated the Anglo-American series. (This is not quite valid for Rainer Erler's Das blaue Palais.) On the one hand our TV broadcasting institutions rivet their gaze on viewer interest and numbers of sets tuned in, which are all too quickly misinterpreted as indexes of actual popularity. On the other hand there is a strong concentration of attention on the possibilities of purchasing such series. From this vicious circle the conclusion is drawn that the viewing public evidently does not want anything else. But perhaps the taste of this audience, at least as regards SF, is not at all as poor as the fare which is usually served up to it and which, for lack of something better, it still supposedly "likes" to watch.
2. Strictures Affecting the SF Market. Observations such as these can easily be extended and amplified. Their unmistakable blatant lesson is that what the term "SF" designates is not so much a literature as a market. SF is a commodity. If the term "SF" does denote a market rather than a literature, then here lie the foundations of its market strictures, and the characteristics and vexations which result from them.
The commodity is, as it were, the key to certain corresponding keyholes. It would be erroneous to exercise one's critical efforts on the individual "key." Instead, one ought to zero in on the market-situation as a whole and analyze it. Thus the individual SF novel, SF film, SF series, etc., is a symptom of very general consumer needs and expectations of the SF reader.
The next point to be considered is that a market is not a free environment.
If one were to judge a commodity only according to the criteria of literary aesthetics, one would start from inexcusably erroneous premises. For example, in asking such questions as whether the author's "message" can be brought home to its target in undistorted form; or whether a work of SF measures up to all linguistic and stylistic requirements, in accord with some cross-cut of Western literary experience; and so on. For a market is indeed not a free environment, but rather an almost forcibly balanced realm of interaction between supply and demand, between production and consumption, whereby it is evident that, originally, supply manipulated demand, and indeed still does manipulate it.
A market is not a free environment; the commodity is a key to corresponding keyholes. SF is made. It is not spawned by geniuses in moments of poetic ecstasy. SF is manipulated. For example: in Germany there has been a market for SF only for about twenty years, about as long, that is, as the Science Fiction Club of Germany (Science Fiction Club Deutschland) has been in existence. This SF market established itself here in the latter half of the 1950s, intensified, and then, with the beginning of the Seventies, expanded into an SF boom. At the beginning of the Fifties there appeared Rauchs Weltraum-Bücher (Rauch's Outer-Space Books), edited by Gotthard Günther (Düsseldorf, Karl Rauch Verlag). The series had to be discontinued, because there was as yet no market for SF in West Germany. So little a market was there for SF that Curt Siodmak's SF thriller Donovan's Brain was published in 1951 by the Nest Verlag as a whodunit, under the title Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), in the hardcover detective-novel series "Krähenbücher," together with Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, etc. Then in 1962 the novel was issued by the Moewig Verlag in the "Terra-Science-Fiction Taschenbüchern" ("Terra SF Paperbacks") series, under the title Donovan's Gehirn. In West Germany, then, there was a detective-novel market prior to the consolidation of the SF market. In 1972 Asimov's novel Lunatico (The Gods Themselves, US 1972) was published in hardcover, at a correspondingly high price, by the Scherz Verlag (Berne and Munich). In keeping with the practices of the publishing market, Asmiov's Lunatico came out two years later in the Hyene Verlag at a considerably more agreeable price. 318 pages hardcover, 318 pages paperback; neither abridged nor cut and pasted together in dubious fashion—something which in West Germany happens all too often, as connoisseurs of SF well know. But Lunatico appeared in the regular series of Heyne novels, not in the SF series. This means that the steady buyers of new Heyne titles in the SF series would have found this novel only by chance. Thus the location of SF is made more difficult for the fan. The reasons: the paperback rights for this newest Asimov were fixed so high that it could be brought out only in the main series, whose first run is set at 50,000 copies, not at 20,000, as is that of the SF series.
Another observation: It is on occasion the practice of German critics of highbrow literature, as well as the marxist critics or those from fandom, to accuse writers of SF stories, novels, or films of having done something in a manner which is thus and such, i.e., capitalist, fascist, marxist, or just poor. It is particularly fashionable to apply the "fascism argument" to Anglo-American SF. One just stuffs everything into the Perry Rhodan pigeonhole, and then thinks that by doing so one has said something exact; thus Michael Pehlke and Norbert Lingfeld in their attack on Anglo-American SF, Roboter und Gartenlaube: Ideologie und Unterhaltung in der Science-Fiction-Literatur (Munich; Hanser, 1970). But it is not by way of an exact analysis of market structure that they arrive at their argument that English-language SF is fascist; instead, they behave as though the SF works at hand were exclusively the affair of the writer-producer. They overlook the affirmative reinforcement function which commodity possesses in a market once it has been determined by the syndrome of supply and demand. It is a widespread but erroneous practice to call the heroes of SF facistoid: in fact the Nazis or fascists employed overdrawn hero-figures for reasons of communications strategy similar to those which motivate the use of such figures in "popular literature," particularly in the offensive body of SFwhich is peopled by a whole gang of Cosmic Soldiers of Fortune.
The interrelationships are far more constrained and controlled than is explained by the "fascism" argument. Because the commodity, like a key, fits very generally into keyholes, one cannot from a market situation jump merely to a critique of the producer. What ought to be subjected to critical analysis is the interrelationship between production and consumption, i.e., the market itself; for mass literature, of which SF is also a part, obviously satisfies the broadest of consumer needs.
Next consideration. Because a market is not a free environment, and because commodities are like keys which fit into keyholes, a market can be an indicator. I will deal with this matter in the conclusion, where the fetishistic nature of the commodity is discussed.
A further consideration. The distribution systems, as channels of communication, determine the contents of communication. The individual communications systems (paperback, the "Heft-" magazine series, TV series, radio play) are permeable, each according to its structure, only to certain definite communication contents. Moreover, the individual systems of distribution shape the form and content of the communication which such channels let pass.
3. Single-file, Parade-style: the Series and the Hero as Commercial Articles. For the producers of SF series, whether "Heft'-magazine or TV series, there exists the production strictures of continuing the series, once the market has been opened up. The same holds true for paperback production. Once a paperback-production is "running" on the market, this or that much per month has to be turned out, or else the production-process becomes unremunerative. The production-apparatus—paper supply, printing, binding, retailing, etc., etc.—must constantly be used and fed.
This means that publishing houses, TV production companies, etc., are subject to the market stricture of constantly having to get the printed, broadcast, or paperback onto the market. It is not so much the content, then, but rather the printed or broadcast series as a whole which is produced. The market dilemma which this brings about is that, if the series is more "important" than what happens in the individual segments, then it becomes less and less a matter of content and theme and more and more a matter of producing with an eye to the printed or broadcast series which always has to keep "running" on the market. Content, then, necessarily becomes weaker and weaker, more and more stereotyped; more and more progeny comes marching off the production line in single file. But thereby the content, which is becoming weaker and weaker, works to the disadvantage of the market-effectiveness of the printed or broadcast series as a whole.
Something which producers see only with difficulty is that, in the final analysis, the market-effectiveness of a series depends on the quality of its themes and story-elements. "In obedience to its basic principles, SF accentuates what is inane and de-emphasizes what is of value, until the two meet mid-way, on the level of an unconsequentiality which says nothing."2 Cliches and stereotypical set-pieces, always the same utterly imbecilic pseudo-paradises and totally ridiculous visions of horror—in short, single-file parade-style processions of whatever will "go." But there is clearly an enforced nature to these single-file processions. The strictures behind it are, first, of a commercial and, second, of a contentual kind. And the stricture which determines content is a consequence of the commercial stricture.The first "single-file" stricture, the commercial one, is the preservation of the series once it has been introduced, or of the paperback production once it has gained its market. This matter has already been discussed above. The pivotal element is the re-purchasability of a commodity.
Part of the re-purchasability, part of the ever-continuing consumption of a series is the overdrawn characterization of the Hero into the Super-hero. The widespread and well-known error of criticism aimed at such overdrawn characterization of hero-figures is the fascism argument. What ought to be asked is, Why is the series hero fitted out with such overdrawn characteristics? Furthermore, why do the plot-situations resemble each other and vary so little, and why are they always so overdrawn and overstretched in their details? Because re-purchasability differs in the commodity of SF from the exactly identical quality, exactly identical design, and exactly identical packaging guaranteed in brassieres, brass polish, and brake linings, just to name a few alliterating examples. So that it will be consumed, the new episode of a series must differ from the previous episodes of the series—a little, but not too much of course. Otherwise it is obviously not worthwhile to buy the next episode; one could just re-consume the one from the previous week. This, however, would mean the end of a market-situation, for the market must constantly be supplied anew. Therefore, the new episodes of a series must simultaneously resemble as well as differ from each other. How and in what they resemble and differ from each other—those are already considerations of market strategy, i.e., "single-file" strictures, which have their effect on the texts. The Hero must be overdrawn, so that he will remain recognizable as this particular Hero, and he must demonstrate his heroic nature, as this particular hero, in situations which always resemble each other. His characterization, then, must without variation guarantee his behavior.
In order for the individual episodes to differ from each other, there can be no fiddling around with the Hero. Instead, the plot situations must be made to stand off from each other by means of gimmicky overdrawing and exaggeration. Every SF fan knows how well or poorly this turns out. Constant repurchasability, the stability of the market, raises a dilemma for "popular literature" and for SF. The same story cannot be sold week after week, since the previous week's story, unlike a brassiere or a brake lining, has not been "used up." Thus we get continuations; "single-file, parade-style." The Super-hero is a market stabilizer; he guarantees continuity. The overdone gimmicks taken from the bag of tricks of a synthetic adventure-factory ensure the phony enticement to purchase the new episode. In brief, from the perspective of informational aesthetics, in "popular literature" the hero performs the function of an amplifier; in terms of communications theory, he acts as a source of affirmative identification; from the viewpoint of market tactics the Hero serves as a guarantee of repurchasability.
A further characteristic feature of the "single-file" stricture is that the packaging or cover of the SF magazine and SF paperback act as a signal to the consumer that what he is being offered is already familiar to him from previous reading. The outfit and make-up of the commercial article SF have been neglected so far by observers and critics of SF.3
4. Genuine Development of Materials vs. Cut-and-Paste Alteration. As far as I can see, in West Germany it is only in the domain of the radio-play that anyone cultivates an active dramaturgy based on genuine development. By this I mean that, from the outline-stage to the time when the text is ready for production, there is consultation with the author about matters of basic conception, the feasibility of realizing what is imagined, and presentation tactics. Here there is more concern for logical consistency and narrative economy, and less concern for the cut-and-paste alteration of a manuscript to create openings for the implantation of commercials, as is the standard practice in the US. Most publishers of paperback SF have to accept short stories and novels in the manner in which they are submitted. At most, some tightening-up and "tidying-up" can be done here and there during translation, but nothing which has to do with basic outline, narrative sequence, or internal consistency can be altered.
The cut-and-paste preparation of narrative material takes place, if need be, when the text which has been provided is in the process of being adapted for filming. Little matter whether the item in question is Harrison's Rollerball (US film 1975), Dneprov's Island of the Crabs (German TV film), or even Rainer Werner Fassbinder's production Die Welt am Draht (1973) of Daniel F. Galouye's Simulacron-3 (US publ 1964). In the first instance the original American text was trumped up, in a hopelessly anachronistic way, into the tale of the brilliant "star player" in a superperfect but impotent futuristic society. The Soviet satire on hyper-industrialization and an armaments effort which creates its own absurd end was distorted into a Social-Darwinistic scuffle between giant corporations and the military, in which the effect of the metallic robot-crabs was cute rather than menacing. And in Fassbinder's hands the "puppet-world" of an alternate reality superior to our own deteriorated into art-nouveau-type mirror-backgrounds and affairs with the lithe, doe-eyed representatives of the Fairer Sex.One of the offensive aspects of the SF scene, especially as concerns its market-interconnections, is that the people on the production-end, i.e., the publishers, TV networks, etc., obviously place more value on retaining a stable of marketing-experts rather than consultants with a knowledge of science or the genre of SF. Obviously there is among the makers of SF something like a license which is tacitly taken for granted: the grossest von Däniken-type baloney can be concocted without qualms—just as long as it is made to fit the market. 5. The SF-Market as an Indicator. If it is true that SF is a commodity primarily and literature only secondarily, then it is according to the principles of the market, the criteria of production and consumption, and not otherwise, that SF ought first to be judged. A commodity would thus be the key which fits precisely into those keyholes made for it. Thus Marx's explanation at the conclusion of the first chapter of the first book of his Capital, one of the most interesting and capital chapters in the Capital, entitled "The Fetishism of Commodity and its Secret." There Marx discusses the notion of the commodity as it is separated out from the production process (which is characterized by alienation) and placed on the market. He remarks that this commodity makes possible conclusions more extensive than is usually assumed: conclusions about the condition of the society which has brought forth the commodity and thanks to which condition the commodity will then be consumed by the society, and also about the condition of the people who produce the commodity. The commodity has set off on its own, and is now something more and something different than the mere product of a labor process. It permits, according to Marx, inferences about the latent social situation within which this particular commodity has emerged. Commodities become fetishes, and as such have reinforcement, feed-back, and decoder functions. A market is not a free environment, but it is an indicator.
Entertainment in general, "mass literature," and thus SF also, can be a signal that the general consumption and reading appetite favors unproblematic fare, i.e., the pattern of closed plot-sequences, of unambiguous characters, of heroes and other figures who would never be encountered in everyday life. Stereotyped situations, stereotypes in general, and abbreviated forms seem to be preferred; thus every form of entertainment and all "mass literature" is unrealistic and, if you will, ideological. For every story, every film must begin and end. In political reality, in social reality, in psycho-biographical reality everything "goes on." Nothing ends. The juice in which "popular literature" stews and at which so many turn up their noses, obviously tastes just fine to many more people than those who turn up their noses would like to admit. One cannot ignore the fact that "mass literature"—and therefore SF, too—optimally satisfies the general need for diversion, a sense of orientation, and reinforcement.
Why, at a certain moment, are certain commodities more in demand than others? Why do certain works of SF optimally meet manifestly latent needs of the purchasing public? What is to be concluded from market successes, analogous to the successes of certain "hit" songs? Planned and controlled literary production systems, as they occur today in centrally controlled forms of society, forgo this "seismograph" or fetish, and from this we can infer things—but what? From the marketability of certain commodities—e.g., SF—a certain latent way of thinking can be inferred, a need for literature which offers escapism and evasion, for technological fairy-tales, for actualizations of fears and desires in the "As-If" Realm of popular entertainment. Politicians ought to read SF, for SF creates public opinion—exactly what the politicians always like so much to do themselves. Even considering all the objections I have raised here, the politicians could find out from the most successful SF stories and novels, films, radio plays, and TV series what latent state of consciousness their voters have at a given time. They would be able to find out, for example, that the anxieties and apprehensions of mankind today are not directed so much toward a conflict between the major powers on Earth, but instead toward a challenge put to humanity in a sense far more profound and far-reaching than any challenge heretofore.
SF at the present time is obviously a singular and grandiose collection of fetishes of a technological-industrial world which knows no other way of coming to grips with the evident dilemma of symbol and machine, of subconsciousness and perfection, of nightmares and patterns of happiness, than the range of goods provided by this very SF, in which the future is put up for sale as ideologically distorted adventure, rather than being put up for discussion as an exercise in thought.
1. Wieland Schulz-Keil. "Bonanza ist überall. Entstehung und Organisation des US-Fernseh-Imperiums" (Bonanza Everywhere: The Origin and Organization of the American TV Imperium"), Die Zeit, 28 Nov 1975.
2. Stanislaw Lem, "Science Fiction: Ein hoffnungslosser Fall—mit Ausnahmen" ("Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—with Exceptions"), in Polaris 1, ed. Franz Rottensteiner (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1973), p 41.
3. Cf Dieter Hasselblatt, "Grüne Männchen vom Mars. Science Fiction für Leser und Macher" (Little Green Men from Mars: Science Fiction for Readers and Makers") (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1974), pp 122ff., and idem, "Science Fiction ist eine Ware" ("Science Fiction is a Commodity"), in Akzente #1(1974):86ff.
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