Science Fiction Studies

# 17 = Volume 6, Part 1 = March 1979


Horst Heidtmann

A Survey of Science Fiction in the German Democratic Republic

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), with a population of 17 million, is a small country which, after the Second World War, had to undergo a complete economic reconstruction and transformation, hindered by internal and external difficulties. Between 1945 and 1977 only a small amount of SF was published in GDR: about 350 titles (including translations and classical utopias) in book or serial (Heft) format were printed during that time. Of that total, nearly 160 have been written by GDR authors. SF works account for less than 1% of the fiction titles produced in the GDR. Nevertheless this genre is the fourth most popular with GDR readers - after adventure, suspense, and crime novels. New editions of SF are sold out as soon as they appear in bookstores.               

One can distinguish four periods in the development of East German SF, each of them parallelling social and political developments in the country.                

1. The "GDR foundation period," ca. 1945-1950, can be characterized as a period of antifascist, democratic transformation. The main target of politics still was, besides reconstruction, the unity of Germany. A "cultural revolution" supported by progressive bourgeois artists was supposed to lead to a new humanist and socialist culture. A deep ideological uncertainty and a lack of perspective in the development of society were reflected in the literature of that time. The "literature of entertainment" was looked upon as a relic of bourgeois class rule. But in 1947 a new socialist literature of entertainment began to be demanded, for the tastes instilled in readers before 1945 still prevailed. Until 1950 only a few SF titles were published, mostly translations from the Russian: in 1946 The Tenth Planet by Sergey Belyaev, in 1947 Patent AV by Lazar Lagin. Besides these, "classic" futuristic novels, such as Bellamy's Looking Backward, were also published. In 1949 the first East German SF novel was published, Die goldene Kugel (The Golden Sphere) by the worker-writer Ludwig Turek. Unconscious of any continuity with SF traditions, he described a world of increasing contradictions between socialism and capitalism, in which US imperialists eventually resort to atomic weapons. The conflict is finally resolved by the intervention of more highly developed beings from Venus. The novel was criticized for using extra-terrestrials as peacemakers.                

2. The "period of the Cold War," ca. 1950-1961, was characterized by proliferating conflicts between the capitalist and socialist spheres of influence which affected every aspect of German life. In the GDR, founded as a state in 1949, this was officially the period of transition from capitalism to socialism. Ideologically, the authors had to be partial to the construction of socialism. They also had to become members of the official Writers' Association: otherwise it became difficult to publish. An increasing number of literary works were commissioned by publishing houses or other societal institutions. It was only in 1950 that reviewers began to discuss problems of a specifically socialist SF in greater detail. Nevertheless, a mere 2 to 3 titles a year — and those translations from Russian — were being published by the middle fifties. The model for East German SF was, and still is, Soviet SF (up to the present about 100 book-length translations of Soviet authors have been published in the GDR, and about 30 to 40 titles from other socialist countries, the majority of them by Stanislaw Lem). It was mainly Soviet "invention and discovery" SF, typical of the Stalinist era, which was translated. Partisanship for a socialist or communist development of society was the overriding premise of this kind of SF; yet the specific problems connected with that development were not dealt with. The focus instead was on technical innovations, as in the works of Vladimir Obruchev or Fyodor Kandyba. Utopian or socio-political SF concentrating on a possible development towards communism — Alexey Tolstoy's early novel Aelita and Ivan Efremov's The Andromeda Nebula (the latter first in an abbreviated translation) — was published in GDR only after the process of de-Stalinization had begun, following the 20th Congress of the USSR Communist Party in 1956. From the mid-fifties on, more SF by GDR authors was published — up to 10 titles a year. This was due to the increasing number of novels in booklet or magazine-serial (Heft) format that began to be put out in the GDR as an answer to the flood of West German "trashy literature." Under the aegis of these GDR adventure series, many original or reprinted SF stories were published (specialized SF book series or magazine serials have not been licensed in the GDR up to now). In addition to elements of adventure, some actual social problems were discussed in East German SF of this period but without following Efremov's bolder lead.                

Heinz Vieweg's successful novel Ultrasymet bleibt geheim (Ultrasymet Remains a Secret, 1955) is characteristic of the superficial solving of problems by technological means: German scientists develop a new universal industrial material out of an element discovered in the Sahara, "Ultrasymet," which is better and cheaper than steel. Full-scale industrial use is made possible by further technical inventions, and the shares of capitalist steel trusts plummet to rock-bottom. A significant theme of East German literature of that time, dominant in the so-called "industrial or factory novel," is here used for SF. Also remarkable is the appearance of western agents who try to sabotage the nationalized factories - a very real GDR problem, at least during the reconstruction period, but here handled in oversimplified black-and-white terms. Another novel characteristic of the second period in GDR SF is Atomfeuer über dem Pazifik (Atomic Fire Over the Pacific Ocean, 1955) by Kurt Herwart Ball and Lothar Weise (a duo who wrote several SF novels besides crime and adventure stories). An unscrupulous US trust wants to enter into the nuclear armament business and tries to establish a monopoly by developing a so-called "clean" bomb; an atomic disaster is prevented only with great effort. Such SF, in which Cold War protagonists lead the world to the brink of catastrophe, was presented in a number of other SF thrillers - by H.L. Fahlberg or Günther Krupkat, for example. The latter has written several SF stories and novels and is one of the most productive authors in this genre: his best known novel is Nabou (1968), in which he presents, among other things, von-Däniken-type theories.

After the launching of the first Earth satellites, space travel became a more and more popular subject. The novel Titanus (1959) by Eberhardt del'Antonio deals with a space expedition and adventurous contacts with a highly developed communist civilization on the planet Titanus. Especially remarkable is the continuation of this novel in Heimkehr der Vorfahren (Return of the Forefathers, 1966); this already belongs to the third period of GDR SF. In it, the expedition returns to Earth after 300 years, so that people from different stages of a classless society meet, thus allowing for a more detailed consideration of societal development. None the less, adventurous and exciting depiction of technological evolution is of greater interest to del'Antonio (formerly a technician) than are Efremov-like social prognoses.                

On the whole, GDR SF of the 1950's was restricted to literature. Attempts to produce SF comics, for example in the magazine-serial Mosaik, ceased after a few issues.                

3. A "period of consolidation" spans the years 1961-1971. After what was called the "securing of the state boundaries" (including the building of the Berlin Wall), the GDR solved part of its economic and political problems. Economic prosperity and an increasing self-consciousness were expressed in SF too. The belief was spreading that the socialist countries would overtake the capitalist world in their scientific and economic development in the near future. The technological orientation still dominated SF, but questions of social evolution intruded more frequently, as in works by K.H. Tuschel or, as already mentioned, by del'Antonio.            

In the 1960's, SF became a well-established genre within GDR literature; 5 to 6 titles by GDR writers were published each year, and roughly the same number of translations and reprints of "classical" works. Publication of popular literature was concentrated at the Berlin publishers Neues Leben and Das neue Berlin, which have special editorial departments for SF; the publishing house Volk and Welt often translates SF from other socialist countries; and last but not least the Kinderbuchverlag publishes juvenile SF. First printings of hardcover books reach about 20,000 copies, but a high percentage is reserved for public libraries. Hardcover editions are mainly published in the series "Spannend erzählt", whereas SF paperbacks with a circulation of about 50,000 copies each are mainly published within the series "Kompass" (both put out by Neues Leben). SF in magazine-serial format often appears in "Das neue Abenteuer" series (Das neue Berlin Publ.), an adventure series with an aggregate printing of more than 100,000 copies monthly. A lot of popular titles have been reprinted; successful Lem novels, for example, have gone through more than 10 printings, not counting special reprints for book-clubs. SF novels where elements of adventure and suspense prevail, such as Lem's Astronauts and Martynov's The Heritage of the Phaetons, are greatly preferred by readers. Surveys by smaller lending libraries showed that some of these titles are checked out more than 100 times a year. A regular reading public for SF evolved during this period. That public did not differ much in age and social status from its West German counterpart: male youngsters and adolescents made up the majority of the readers, skilled workers and employees were better represented than intellectuals or academics. In many places there developed in the sixties a privately organized SF fandom, which was at first integrated into the official cultural life but somewhat later disbanded. Although a broad theoretical debate, based on Soviet theoretical models, was taking place about the future literature of socialism, the exclusive reading of SF was considered dangerous for the education of a "socialist personality." The opinion prevailed that SF was a special part of literature, in which scientific and prognostic elements had to be combined with entertainment. It was held, that is, that SF had a close relationship to scientific popularization, and that space travel and far-off planets would not become the main subject of SF. Such demands were theoretically elaborated by, among others, the writer Carlos Rasch, who demanded a description confined to the near future and making use of accepted scientific knowledge. These demands guided his choice of subjects for his novels - such as the building of a seaweed farm on the bed of the Baltic Sea.                

Rasch is the only GDR author who writes exclusively SF. He has so far published more than 20 titles, and is the most popular writer of the genre. His books, obviously influenced by the early Lem, are representative of GDR SF in the sixties. They appeal to a primarily young public, and are reminiscent in their narrative and structure of the prewar German SF by Hans Dominik. His most famous works are Asteroidenjäger (Hunter of Asteroids, 1961) and Krakentang (Polyp's Sea- Weed, 1968).                

One of the best SF novels of this period is Der Damm gegen das Eis (Dam Against the Ice, 1964), by the children's writer Herbert Friedrich. It describes a near-future dam across the Bering Sea, and belongs to the tradition of Bernhard Kellermann's famous Tunnel.               

The first recognition, at the end of the third period, of the existence of American SF was a landmark. In 1969, the anthology Raumschiff Ahoi! (Ahoy Spaceship), with contributions by the best known US writers — Asimov, Heinlein, etc. — was published. Since that time individual stories of several US authors have been anthologized and novels by Ray Bradbury and Thomas McGrath have been translated. With the recognition of the genre new media were opened to SF as well: several plays were performed, mostly in front of young spectators, SF radio-dramas adapted from stories were broadcast more often; stories by Rasch and Lem were scripted for movies. However, in GDR SF films such as the recent Im Staub der Sterne (In the Star Dust, 1976), the social aspects of SF are downplayed in favor of technological gimmickry even more than they are in SF literature. Nor do the special effects meet American or Japanese standards. In form these films remind one of the earliest American attempts. The judgements of the East German film reviewers were uniformly either critical or wholly negative. TV has so far transmitted only a few foreign SF films and no SF series (though a special SF series has been in preparation since 1976).                

4. A "period of liberalization" has been evident in the political and economic sphere since the early 1970's, following Walter Ulbricht's resignation in 1971. SF has partaken of the wider possibilities in art and literature. It has begun leaving the "entertainment ghetto" and looking for new topics and means of expression. The work of an author like Gerhard Branstner deals with philosophical problems in ironical and cunningly metaphorical guise. Die Reise zum Stern der Beschwingten (Journey to the Planet of the Merry People, 1968), probably his best novel, was the harbinger of this fourth period (the book was reprinted several times in the 70's). In it, Earthlings from the present journey through a future universe, in the tradition of Gulliver's Travels. Even if in Branstner's later works his inclination to ironical philosophizing has become something of an end in itself, the fact that he has entirely dispensed with technology is still remarkable.                

GDR SF to date, however, culminates in the work of Günter and Johanna Braun. After writing a few SF stories for the periodical Magazin, they published in 1972 their first SF novel Der Irrtum des grossen Zauberers (The Error of the Great Magician). It focuses on the relationship of man and machine: the governing "magician" of an imaginary country of the future, controlled by machines and computers, wants to replace unreliable man with machine. The norms and taboos of the computerized world are challenged by the questioning and doubting young protagonist, Oliver Input. In addition to its parabolic admonition against a thoughtless faith in machines, the novel extols the value of independent thinking. The Brauns' mode of narration is unpathetic, amusing, with a tendency to irony and self-irony. They harken back to formal and stylistic elements of German Romanticism in the tradition of Jean Paul or E.T.A. Hoffmann in order to achieve atmospheric richness. Their second novel, Unheimliche Erscheinungsformen auf Omega XI (Weird Manifestations on Omega XI, 1974), is an imaginative description of the consumer society on the planet Omega XI; by hyperbole, they reveal the grotesque character of this society. In their collection of stories Der Fehlfaktor (The Error Factor, 1975) the satirical element dominates: comical future situations are used as thought-experiments in order to warn against misguided development.                

Problems of GDR society — e.g. urbanization or pollution — are extrapolated by other authors too. Karl-Heinz Tuschel's Das Rätsel Sigma (The Puzzle of Sigma, 1974), dealing with an environmental catastrophe in the GDR of 1996, remains in the technocratic tradition of the sixties. Contrary to Tuschel, other authors develop a mode of narration stressing adventure. One of the most fascinating and imaginative novels of GDR SF, Die Ohnmacht der Allmächtigen (The Impotence of the Omnipotents), by Heiner Rank, was published in 1974. With a great feeling for fantastic detail, the author depicts a strange world of perfect pleasure. Social invariability and symptoms of decadence on this planet are overcome in adventure-filled episodes, and the whole amounts to a parable on the importance of work for human self-realization. A humanistic narration and understanding for little human weaknesses are remarkable too for Wolfgang Kellner's story Der Rückfall (The Reversion, 1974): in a communist society of the future in which all material needs can be easily satisfied, a citizen slowly arouses public attention by extraordinary desires, such as a car with antlers and badger-dog-legs. After a long and difficult psychological and detective investigation, a member of the Committee for Solving Difficult Cases explains the case as a return to behavior from a time when the dignity of a man was valued according to his material possessions, and not his spiritual and ethical values. Kellner here satirizes the middle-class materialism which, in the economically consolidated society of the GDR, has become a motive force for a great part of the population.                

The scientifico-technical type of SF was developed further in a volume of outstanding stories by the molecular biologists Alfred Leman and Hans Taubert, Das Gastgeschenk der Transsolaren (The Hospitable Gift of the Transsolars, 1973). Problems in scientific research and contacts with non-human forms of life are vividly and credibly described from a humanistic point of view. Thus, the title-story shows the encounter with aliens, described as BEMs of exactly that kind which inspired a horror of the unknown in the US 1950's SF. However, these slimy bug-eyed monsters are trustworthy and sympathetic, and have a deeply humanistic conduct.               

Inspired by greater possibilities of the genre demonstrated by Branstner, the Brauns, and others, some of the most distinguished GDR authors in recent years have also made excursions to SF. In 1973 Anna Seghers published Sonderbare Begegnungen (Strange Encounters), three stories which to a various extent use utopian and fantastic elements in the treatment of human and philosophical problems. In "Sagen von Ausserirdischen" ("Tales of Extraterrestrials"), for instance, extraterrestrials land and face war and misery on our planet. This part of human life seems strange to them. On the other hand, they are fascinated by the creative power of man, by his ability to create works of art, to form beautiful things. Anna Seghers warns against the increasing dehumanization of life through war and destruction and through a one-sided emphasis on technology and utilitarianism. She believes that people can realize beauty in their lives and demands a meaningful unity of art and science.                

Stories by seven of the best-known GDR authors are collected in the anthology Blitz aus heiterm Himmel (Bolt from the Blue, 1975), initiated and edited by Edith Anderson. Starting from the idea of sex-change, the male contributors were supposed to describe what happened to their male protagonists when they became females, and the female contributors what happened to their female protagonists when they became males. Most remarkable among their efforts is the story by Christa Wolf, "Selbstversuch - Traktat zu einem Protokoll" (Experiment with oneself - Statement to a Protocol," first published in 1973). In 1992, a young female scientist tests a newly developed medicine for changing gender. Gradually, she undergoes a psychic transformation: first she (he) considers her- (him-)self a spy in the male world, but she cancels the experiment and returns to her female gender when she discovers how far the "male" has become removed from his roots, from the "human." Problems of emancipation and societal roles, still acute in the GDR too, are exposed with biting irony in this excellent story.                

The authors of the 1970's prefer shorter literary forms, as evidenced by the anthology Begegnung im Licht (Encounter in the Light, 1976), which comprises the best stories of the younger generation. The influence of the American SF short-story can often be detected in their taut narratives. This is the case with Die ersten Zeitreisen (The First Time-Travels, 1977). humoristic variations, grotesqueries, and paradoxes dealing with time-travel, by the young authors Reinhard Heinrich and Erik Simon. Anglo-American patterns are obvious too in Gert Prokop's detective stories, set in the 21st century, Wer stiehlt schon Unterschenkel? (Who Likes To Steal Shin-Bones, 1977): star-detective Timothy Tuckle and his archaic computer Napoleon solve fantastic crimes in the world of American monopoly capitalism. The younger writers have in common a tendency towards playful amusement without explicit political emphasis.

Sociologically, the SF genre has been better appreciated in this last period than hitherto. A special SF department of the Writers' Association organizes workshops for authors of fiction, scientists, sociologists, etc. Similar cooperation with SF authors was initiated by the publishing houses specializing in SF. Moreover, there is a growing readiness for theoretical discussion in periodicals and at some universities. The opinion is slowly gaining ground that SF is an integral part of national literature, sharing the strengths and weaknesses of other literature, and that its only function can be the author's partisan refraction of social reality. Critics trying to define its specific character occasionally quote Theodore Sturgeon's statement that SF is "built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content" (as quoted in James Blish's The Issue at Hand, US 1964).                

5. Thus, the development of SF in the GDR shows on the whole a significant increase in literary quality. The production of novels in magazine-serial (Heft) format has been strongly reduced, owing both to a shortage of paper and to its tradition of relatively lower literary quality. For in East Germany this genre cannot be consigned to the category of "trivial literature"; the flood of trivialization which inundates the genre in the western world is absent in the GDR because of different socio-economical structures. Literature is primarily supposed to perform an ideological and educational function, not to yield profits as a commodity. Yet the entertainment function prevails in most SF from the GDR. This could be explained by the fact that some of its social structures are analogous to those in other industrial nations. In particular, working conditions in the GDR are reminiscent of the organization of human work in capitalist countries: the workers’ reality is determined by monotony, stress, and lack of self-determination; an increase in worker efficiency is more important than the humanization of working conditions. Therefore the literature of entertainment in the GDR — including SF — still has functions somewhat similar to those in the capitalist world: it excludes consideration of the real and acute problems existing in the world of the reader, and offers instead compensatory gratification as a substitute for an imaginative discussion of those problems. Nonetheless, as opposed to "western" SF, not only does the description of a better future dominate GDR SF, but also the reader is called upon to contribute to the construction of this future.


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