Science Fiction Studies

# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978

Robert Plank

From Science Fiction to Life and Death: A Case History

The image of every famous city becomes stereotyped. None perhaps has suffered this fate more ludicrously than Vienna — whipped cream, valse, dead emperors and lively white horses, operettas and Freud.1 It brings almost a sense of relief to learn that in Vienna, as in Elsinore, there also happen "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts ... accidental judgements, casual slaughters ... purposes mistook Fall'n on the inventors' heads."2 Somewhat surprisingly, this intelligence comes to us in connection with an SF novel. As it happens, SF here has sired reality.

1. The true story. Shortly before dawn on June 13, 1973, a truck driver traveling on the South Autobahn near Vienna heard an explosion. When daylight came, the police found a bomb crater and, scattered over a radius of 300 feet, a large number of pieces of human tissue, most of them very small. These, weighing 27 lbs. in all, were identified as the only remains of Richard Dvorak, 25, employee of the City of Vienna, who had last been seen the evening before.

Friends of the victim were questioned; among them, on June 16, Ernst Dostal, an engineer, 22. A polite young man, he at once informed the detectives that he had a permit to carry weapons (required under Austrian law) and that he had a revolver on him. He laid it on the table and took it with him when he left. His statements raised no suspicion; but in checking them it was found that one small item was incorrect. He was summoned again for June 22 and interrogated all morning. As one of the detectives said later, "the whole thing was nothing but a chat." The whole thing was then adjourned for lunch, and Dostal returned at 1 p.m.

One question in this third interrogation evidently made Dostal suddenly aware that he was by now also a suspect (Austrian police procedure does not require that witnesses be informed of their rights). His response was immediate: he pulled two guns and shot the two detectives who interrogated him; in fleeing he wounded two more policemen. Then he jumped out of a window, commandeered a car, and disappeared. Two days later he shot and killed a couple in whose cabin he was hiding. He took various vehicles. His track was again lost.

Shortly after the first shootout the police had gone to his parents' home (where he lived), and found only his mother. The father had left (with hand gun and ammunition). They also inspected a converted old farm house that Ernst Dostal owned in a remote part of the Vienna Woods. They found a hidden room equipped with a chair, chains anchored in the floor with cuffs to close around the neck and legs of a person sitting in the chair, and a whip. The newspapers promptly dubbed it "the torture chamber."

The chase took four days. It was the largest manhunt in Austria since World War II and offered everything the jaded modern taste can demand of such spectator sport:

6/26, 3:43 p.m. The TV team has placed its cameras where the Forces of Law now go into action. The sound engineer maneuvers his equipment into position. Police fires a canister of nerve gas into the house. Seconds later the door flies open. Dostal storms out, rapidly firing.

Ernst Dostal was declared dead in the nearest hospital at 4:55 p.m. A detective boasted that he had fired the fatal shot. The autopsy, however, showed that he died from a bullet that had come from his own gun.

His father was found dead two days later in a hotel room in Lueneburg in Northern Germany. He obviously had shot himself. Next to the body was a local newspaper with the report on his son's death and an envelope the elder Dostal had addressed to his wife. It contained 125,000 Swiss Francs (ca. $50,000) in cash and a note that merely said: "I cannot return. Robert."

It turned out that he had left his home after receiving a phone call (one wonders, from whom?) and tersely telling his wife that as their son had "done something silly," he had quickly to go to Switzerland and get some money. It can be surmised that he chose Lueneburg for sentimental reasons: the family had spent a fine vacation there some years before.

The questions that the police and the press are apt to ask remain for the most part unanswered. How did Richard Dvorak lose his life? Through the explosion? Or was he already dead (as suggested by the fact that his body appears to have been nude)? If the explosion was rigged up to dispose of the body, why and by whom was that done? Had he been murdered or was he the victim of an accident (perhaps at target practice with Ernst Dostal, as his mother seems to think)? Why did Ernst Dostal, in trying to avoid arrest, use such extraordinary brutality? Was his father with him "in the game" — whatever the "game" may have been? Where did the unusually large amount of cash come from, and what was it for? And what was the purpose of the "torture chamber"? Sadistic orgies? Blackmail — to financial or political ends?

The activities of the Dostal circle were not limited to Austria. Richard Dvorak was at the time of his death preparing a trip to Tokyo for a karate contest. Dostal Sr. drew a good income as sales representative of a Swiss screw manufacturing company. Both he and his son collected guns. Was there also a business interest? Did connections run from there to groups that need weapons but can not buy them on the open market — guerillas, terrorists somewhere in the world?

The impression arose unavoidably that the three men now dead (Dostal father and son, and Dvorak) had not taken all their secrets to their graves, but that there were many people who knew more than they were willing to tell. As to the authorities, it did not exactly help that the Minister of the Interior not only was a former Nazi (many Austrian politicians were), but that after World War II he apparently had (though perhaps unwittingly) helped some Nazis to flee from prosecution. Hence one hypothesis:

We are entitled to ask whether Austria's Minister of the Interior and his Safety Director do not know what everybody else knows.... that Dostal and one of his victims were Nazis ...that these Nazis have for years maintained camps...and that there they rehearsed the methods of ridding our society of Jews, longhairs, progressives, and other "cancerous growths"-namely with karate, judo, shooting irons, and silent murder. Are we to think the Minister does nothing against Nazis because he was one himself (Party card # 8.595.796)?3

We shall, however, encounter a conclusive argument against this explanation.

The leading Austrian news magazine published a searching study of the case (the main source of my account).4 Conclusion: Richard Dvorak, and to some extent Ernst Dostal, belonged to a circle of friends characterized by particular intimacy. The article does not say outright that they were all homosexuals but gives the impression that it sticks with innuendos for lack of evidence that would stand up in court. These young men were dedicated to martial arts — karate, shooting, handling explosives. They had a secret headquarters in a derelict former air raid shelter of the German Army. Machismo went so far that one of them obtained permission to wrestle with a circus bear. Expectably he did not win, but once he succeeded in throwing the animal with a judo trick.

This sounds like a Nazi cell or at least a group that could easily become one. It is improbable, though, that Ernst Dostal leaned toward the Nazis. His relationship to his father was evidently unusually close, and Robert Dostal could not be a Nazi: he was of illegitimate birth, with a Jewish father. His mother married after Robert's birth, her husband adopted him. In 1942 or 1943 he was sent to the concentration camp Buchenwald and remained to the end of the War. It is not known whether he was punished for having concealed his half-Jewish descent, or whether he did not know of it until then. It is characteristic of those times that his life in either case ran a course in a deeper sense in disregard of the law of cause and effect than his novel. Yes, novel.

2. The SF story. It is only human that everybody responds to the challenge of such a riddle by trotting out his special hobby horse. The investigative journalist tries to ferret out hidden horrors. The politician, in a country like Austria, so preoccupied with "vanquishing the past," looks for the key in the past of a cabinet member. The SF scholar seeks the answer in SF.

Fate happens to smile on him. Robert Dostal was the author of a novel (his only publication), Jagd nach dem Atomgold (Hunt for the Atomic Gold)5 brought out by a publisher specializing in "books for children and youth." It did not create a sensation. Neat and handy (128 pages), the book had enough success to sell out fairly soon, not enough for a second edition. When seven years later the sensation came, there wasn't a copy in any secondhand book store, and very few in libraries.

It is not too rare that somebody who never was a writer before writes after having survived the concentration camp. It is one way of working through the enormity of the experience. It is uncommon, though, that an ex-concentration camp prisoner writes a book like Jagd. For this novel is full of untrammeled joie de vivre, and there is in it nothing about long languishing in prison (short confinements are treated with equanimity) nor anything that could be read as taking a stand for or against Nazism.

The first chapter introduces Fred Toltos who has graduated from the Vienna Technical University and roams the world as an aviator. As early as the fourth page he saves the life of a girl, Sybil Davidson, by bold and skillful maneuvers in the Pacific. It soon transpires that she is the daughter of a multimillionaire: he is, among other things — and that dates the book — president of Lockheed. He rewards Fred by having the grandest plane custom-built for him.

In the second chapter Fred flies to Vienna to visit his parents, then to Belem where he meets and befriends Major Macho of the Brazilian Air Force, and from there (neither he nor the reader knows exactly what for) to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. He is hailed by an old man in a boat, Professor Peter who — that's how things are around Lake Titicaca — has likewise studied in Vienna. On a signal from Peter, an invisible portal opens in the rocky shore, and boat and plane glide into an immense subterranean vault. Peter had converted a concealed Inca temple into a modern laboratory and made tremendous discoveries. Now, however, he is at death's door. He had prayed for a successor, evidently the Lord has heard his prayer. He hurriedly gives Toltos the most vital information, warns him of gold — and dies.

Fred continues Peter's work. He also flies to Rio, Vienna, and California, triumphs in aerial combat with the world's most dangerous gang, has his friend Macho destroy their jungle camp, is himself pursued by the US Air Force, manages to have an American submarine sink itself by its own rocket, etc. He once more saves Sybil's life, but lets her seduce him into transmuting lead into gold. This leads the gangsters to his secret installation in Lake Titicaca so that his faithful assistant Paolo finally has no choice but to explode the lab, killing himself and the gangsters, while Fred meanwhile is saved by Macho from some other perils.

The explosion, however, has started a chain reaction. An atomic crater has emerged, it burns and grows, threatening all life on earth. No scientist in the world is capable of halting it. Finally Macho calls Toltos again, and he, by applying Peter's inventions, extinguishes the conflagration. Once again the world is saved.

3. The Character. It's an old story, refurbished by introducing elements of modern reality — Lockheed, or the Austrian atomic research center in Seibersdorf (opened 1960). Gold as the symbol of The Fall is as old as Virgil's auri sacra fames, the lore of alchemy, or the treasure of the Nibelungs. The hero's true motives, though, are rooted in deeper layers of his personality.

To give truth its due, the book makes for thrilling reading. In a sense, it has the power of brainwashing: one exciting episode after the other hits the reader like a powerful water jet — and few drops stick to the skin. Let us examine how the tasty dish has been prepared. All proven ingredients are in it; there is no lack of spices either.

Fred Toltos is the classical hero of such tales: young, superfit (everything about him is super), amiable (but a man of few words), completely fearless, equally endowed with a sense of humor and the power of deep thought, indeed as physically as mentally superior, he overcomes all dangers victoriously. He achieves what nobody else can: without him the world would be lost.

It is also true, though, that without him the dangers to the world would have never arisen. Innocent he is not; but he has been seduced by a daughter of Eve. To let herself be saved by a man, and to lead a man into evil, these are the only ways Sybil affects the action, and she is the only female character who plays a role (Fred's mother is but casually mentioned, and otherwise there isn't a single woman in the novel). We hear of friends united by mortal danger. We hear neither of love nor of sex.

This peculiar view is not alien to SF6 — which Jagd of course is: scientific and technological innovations play the decisive role in the plot. These heroes, supermen though they be both in body and in intellect, never grow up, never want to grow up emotionally. Occasionally the dilemma breaks through into consciousness: marooned in the jungle in an especially precarious situation, Fred yet feels sheltered, for "everything is as he had in his youth read it in books" (p 102).

Also, SF usually pays scant attention to family life. Jagd treats father figures with becoming condescension. Toltos Sr. is a bit ridiculous. Sybil's father, Lockheed and all, becomes totally dependent on Fred. Peter has barely appeared when death, having waited just that long, claims him. All three men love Fred and advance his cause — or would, if he had a cause. The truth is that these masters of science and technology are its servants. Their feats are at bottom pointless.

Napoleon is said to have proclaimed that "politics is fate." The Russian slogan of more than 100 years later "Soviet system + electrification = Communism," is already halfway to the type that has come into fashion since, for whom technology is fate (social, economic, political maneuvers are conceptualized as "human engineering"). In defiance of the "fundamental law of biogenetics," though, historic and individual development seems to run in opposite directions: Thomas Mann can hardly be gainsaid when he asks,

has not the cosmological view of the universe, by comparison with its opposite, the psychological, something puerile about it? As I write I think of Albert Einstein's bright round eyes, like a child's. I cannot help it. Human knowledge, research into human life, has a riper, more mature character than speculations about the Milky Way — with the profoundest respect I say it. Goethe says: "The individual is free to busy himself with whatever attracts and pleasures him, whatever seems to him of worth; but the true study of mankind is man!"7

In the prevailing atmosphere of SF of the time when Dostal wrote, however, pursuits and happiness of men were tied to technology. Fred knows true joy only in the pilot's seat, reverently referred to as "pulpit." Battles are fought with planes, rockets, automatic weapons. The aim is to bring the enemy's machine down. There is no hand-to-hand fighting. Guns are useful for blackmail, but they are not fired. The guiding principle is the exact opposite of Forster's famous motto "Only connect." Distance is everything.

Science is correspondingly overrated. Fred sums up the moral of the story as he sees it: "The ignorant man who tries to grasp the secrets of nature will be mercilessly destroyed" (104). Ignorance, however, is partly a matter of race: Fred's assistant, who sacrifices his life, is an Indian. The gangsters, who of course also have to die, are styled "mestizos." Psychologists have long noted, with regret, that people who through their life experiences should be free of racial prejudices, sometimes are not. It can hardly be coincidence that this emerges more clearly in imaginative works of the type of Jagd. This spirit was not alien to the SF of those days either.8

In its overt ideology the novel is free of such blemishes: it never tires of preaching peace on Earth and goodwill to men. There is less clarity as to how these lofty aims are to be approached; but certainly not through political action. People in public life are "power-hungry men, excited by political instincts" (27). Fred despises politics so intensely that he neither reads the papers nor listens to the radio. The saving of the world gets delayed because he is unaware of the atomic fires at Lake Titicaca, though the whole world is up in arms about it. And he breaks the rules of international air traffic with the merry nonchalance of a James Bond.

4. Life Paralleling Literature. Our basic material is now assembled: the case of Ernst Dostal and the synopsis and critique of his father's book. We can proceed to examine how one relates to the other, how SF was lived.

This is my aim. I am not trying to "diagnose" the dead young man or to develop a comprehensive picture of his character. I do attempt to show that the course of his life followed the pattern of Jagd; though not, presumably, by intent. Young men normally tend to emulate their fathers, but this striving is rarely without ambivalence, there are countervailing forces, often very strong ones. In Ernst Dostal's case, the interplay of drives led to the deviant form of his orienting himself by his father's fiction.

It is hard to imagine any reader, at least any adult reader, who would believe that things happen in reality as they are depicted in Jagd. This novel is clearly not a model of life as it is. But it could be a model of life to be lived.

Ernst Dostal was sixteen when his father's book was published. By his twenty-third year he was enmeshed in a net of relationships of a sort he would have developed if he had consciously planned to emulate the hero of the novel. While we are not sufficiently informed about his life to draw all parallels sharply, some are quite clear, and we know enough to reconstruct others.

One striking detail is that characters in the novel repeatedly lose contact with each other and restore it (only connect!) by broadcasting radio signals or inserting ads in papers of various countries ("Joe calls Fred," 110). In real life, Robert Dostal gave his fugitive son a date through an ad. By an irony that could be from a play by Shakespeare or Schiller it was this very ad that put the police back on Ernst's track and led to his death. — But the more general parallels are much more significant.

The most "manly" activity of the Dostal group was martial arts. They were the bond that held it together. Through them they hoped to become capable of heroic deeds à la Fred Toltos. If it does not appear that there was a specific enemy, a target of the martial arts, we might remember that Toltos did not campaign against a predetermined foe either. He hoped to find enemies, and so he did.

The hero does not have to observe laws in his quest; neither would it enter his mind to seek help or protection from the organized power of society — that is for weaklings. Let society seek help and protection from him. The hero is a law unto himself. Those who defy it are destroyed. This happens to Fred's enemies. It is not known what Richard Dvorak had done, but it is fair to assume that he did not transgress a law so much as the will of those who eventually only left 27 lbs. of his body.

Such great deeds are hatched in small hideouts, be they Inca temples or Wehrmacht bunkers, where the boy scout-type play becomes horridly serious. Females would be superfluous, indeed an embarassment. In Dostal's circle there were none. The father's love for his son was strong, in fact overly strong. We can not be sure to what degree it was reciprocated, but we know that the young man whom the police considered a "mother's darling" was in truth father's darling. His friends relate that he often talked of his father with respect. They do not recall that he ever even mentioned his mother. She was an outsider in her own family. When father and son wanted to talk with each other, she was asked to leave the room.

Ernst's appearance was anything but impressive. It is reported that he lacked coordination. He "stuttered with his limbs." Those around him used to fear that he would stumble over his own feet. How indispensable technology can be! In handling tools, vehicles, weapons, he was a wizard.

He may have drifted into an acute crisis towards the end. An application written by him is preserved: the handwriting looks so glaringly disturbed that it is hard to imagine him habitually writing like that.

It has often been asked what effect books like Jagd have on their readers, especially young readers (they are, of course, mostly read by young males). In most cases probably a very minor one. In Dostal's case, where unique circumstances made the effect much stronger than it usually is and enable us to trace it, we have no reason to assume that its direction was different. Jagd is nothing but the embodiment of the type of daydream that is widespread and in adolescence, at least among males, endemic. Few, though, make books of their daydreams. And authors of different books draw not only on their daydreams but also on different sources.

Most readers distinguish very well between their reading and reality. They do not consider acting out their fantasies in real life. Where they do, where a book like Jagd becomes a model for living, the result is inevitable: the attempt to enact the daydreams runs up against the wall of reality. Toltos had been able to save the world; Ernst Dostal could achieve nothing but the loss of a number of lives, including his own. The pre-ordained end is death from the would-be hero's own hand: that of the son caught in the trap, of the father seeing his illusions annihilated; in one case or the other, or both, perhaps not without some memory of the sacrificial death of the faithful and doomed Paolo.

5. More General Viewpoints. The observation of the individual case contributes traits to the profile of a type that does not fit smoothly into an established diagnostic category. This is just what makes it important, for it may help us to understand an otherwise puzzling character type which under the given historic conditions can be of significance for society. Dostal and his friends may or may not have been international terrorists; but studying them exposes the soil from which terrorism grows.

We have recently had an exemplary warning: the man who in New Rochelle, N.Y., killed five other men, then himself.9 The similarities between Frederick W. Cowan and Ernst Dostal are striking, though the differences are equally evident. Both were expert shooters and avid collectors of weapons. Cowan proclaimed his Nazi sympathies, which Dostal presumably nurtured privately (it would not have been advisable in Austria to flaunt them). Both lived with their parents, shunned women, and cultivated the company of young males. Cowan attained to physical prowess that Dostal merely desired. The murderous end was the same.

Works like Jagd may be called trash, but evaluative criticism is not relevant here. Literature plays its role in the formation of human characters and fates, and this sort of literature probably more so than other types. It is at the same time a characteristic product of its author's fantasy and the trellis on which the reader's fantasy climbs. The psychological study of the elder Dostal's novel thus opens a possibility, which we do not have in other situations, to see his behavior and, more importantly, his son's behavior (as well as perhaps the behavior of his son's friends) from an otherwise inaccessible angle.

Prescientific psychology operated with two explanatory principles, causality and teleology. As psychology became a science, explanation through causality, the vis a tergo, the force pushing from behind, became the dominant mode. Yet the force pulling from some point ahead is not entirely absent. It is the old simile of the stick and the carrot. The instinctual drives that beat man into action have been there even before his personality has been formed. The carrot he has to supply himself.

Psychoanalysis has recognized its role through the concept of the "ego ideal." One important contribution of Alfred Adler's "individual psychology" has been his concept of the "life style." To psychopathologists, it was predominantly a heuristic device to understand neurosis; but it can also be used for a manifesto of the autonomous self in its defiance of the establishment. So the Russian dissident Vladimir Voinovich: "Every human being has an aim in life in his own sphere, which means that he has something to devote himself to and to which he can sacrifice himself sincerely."10

It is not implied here that the aim is worth the sacrifice or would so appear to others. Ernst Dostal displayed even more forceful defiance, and while his aim may have been nebulous and might have appeared ghastly if clearer, it was his aim, and to it he sacrificed, "sincerely," his own life and the lives of many others.

The unique feature of the case — the father writing a novel, the son living it — enables us to trace the development of the ego ideal, the life style, to its origins. Like Housman's heaven and earth, they can be said to ail from the prime foundation. The discrepancy between reality and what the book presented as though it were a viable course of life doomed the ego ideal to being false, the life style to becoming a style of killing and dying.


1. Note deleted; editor's error.

2. Hamlet, last scene.

3. Die oesterreichische Nation 11/73.

4. Profil 7/73.

5. Munich: Bardtenschlager, 1966. Cited in the following as Jagd.

6. Joanna Russ, "The Image of Women in SF," in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon (US 1972).

7. Thomas Mann, "Voyage with Don Quixote," in his Essays of Three Decades (US 1947), p. 443.

8. Robert Plank, "Names and Roles of Characters in SF," Names 9(9/61).

9. Reported in the newspapers of 2/15/77 and in papers and magazines for subsequent days.

10. Quoted from Theodor Solotaroff, "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Pvt. Ivan Chonkin," New York Times Book Review 1/23/77:6.



Discussing the murder spree of the son of a Viennese SF writer, Robert Dostal (author of one YA novel, Jagd nacht dem Atomgold [1966]), this essay examines the plot of the novel for clues to the motivation and context of this real-life mystery. Most readers distinguish very well between their reading and reality. They do not consider acting out their fantasies in real life. When they do, when a book like Jagd becomes a model for living, the result is inevitable: the attempt to enact the daydreams runs up against the wall of reality.

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