Science Fiction Studies

#33 = Volume 11, Part 2 = July 1984

Fredric Jameson

Science Fiction and the German Democratic Republic

Horst Heidtmann. Utopisch-phantastische Literatur in der DDR: Untersuchungen zur Entwicklung eines unterhaltungsliterarischen Genres von 1945-1979. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1982. 280pp. DM 58.

This thorough and useful little work is, I take it, the first full-length study of the development of SF in the German Democratic Republic (or more precisely, since 1945 in the former Eastern Zone). It therefore serves several distinct functions: first, as an introduction to novels, stories, and writers most of us are still quite unfamiliar with (I assume that my own case is typical; I have only read the work of the Brauns--Günter and Johanna--who stand aesthetically in relation to the rest of East German production as Lem does to the Polish or the Strugatskys to Soviet SF, and who are very fine indeed). In addition, the critical debates in the GDR are carefully documented, with the appropriate side-references to Soviet and to Western developments.

But this brief history can also be read for its general theoretical interest as the account of the dynamics of our genre in something like a closed laboratory environment, limited in both space and time. It is rare enough to have the opportunity to witness absolute beginnings in literary history; nor are those described here absolute, since the people who survived 1945 were formed by all kinds of earlier traditions (in our context, the Karl May of German space adventure was the fascistic work of Hans Dominik, still widely available in libraries and used book stores immediately after the war). Yet the break was a decisive one, more so in the East than in the West, and the problem of beginning again and of creating a whole new literature is here posed more dramatically than in most literary-historical contexts.

But obviously it is the transformation of the social system itself which is the most unique feature of the East German experience, and thereby lends Heidtmann's book its special theoretical interest. It also poses the greatest problems for Western readers and may usefully tell us something about our own prejudices in this area. (I should observe at this point that Heidtmann's approach is refreshingly free of Cold War moralizing, shows a welcome sympathy for the aims and achievements of East German socialism, and offers its criticisms and judgments in a thoughtful fashion which seeks explanation and historical understanding rather than confirmation of the usual preconceptions.)

For the German Democratic Republic (whose economic importance in the East is second only to the USSR and greater than many Western states) probably enjoys the worst press of any of the "socialist" countries (I will not enter the debate around this term, often replaced by Rudolf Bahro's euphemism, "the countries of actually existing socialism"). The "seme" for East Germany in our own political unconscious is probably "bureaucracy" unenlivened by any of the strivings for independence and autonomy we customarily salute in the other countries of the Eastern bloc (even in Romania!). Yet even for its neighbors, one has the feeling that it is with us as it was with the political economists and theoreticians of capitalism in Marx's own time: "They believe that there once was History, but that there isn't any any more." Inflation marks the presence of History in the First World, revolution and counter-revolution in the Third; but it is as though the Second World, despite punctual explosions, were immobile--monolithic and "totalitarian" and as ahistorical as any "oriental despotism" of classical memory. This general attitude towards the East--along with the sheer informational ignorance that tends to accompany  it--is certainly not the best preparation for confronting even the literary histories of such social formations.

What one comes to suspect (and these issues are, as we shall see shortly, central ones in the SF context) is that History may take a different form in the post-revolutionary societies, and that its dynamics are therefore not visible in the same way there as in the West, where History is ultimately governed by the economic cycles of capitalism--its upswings, booms, and crises--cycles whose "long waves" shape the superstructural tendencies of political and cultural history (even though our historians rarely tell those stories from the appropriate economic perspectives). But "socialism" (whatever that ought to be, whatever it "actually" is, and whatever it may become) is surely initially to be characterized as the attempt to construct a society in which the "economic" and market production are no longer "natural" events and rhythms but are subject to planning and human decision-making: this is the famous "primacy of the political" celebrated by everyone from Lenin to Mao Tse Tung, and most paradoxically in evidence in theory in those strange speculative texts in which a Gramsci or a Lukács suggests that the vocation of Marxism is to abolish itself and that the instauration of socialism in fact, if it is to mean anything, must mean the obsolescence of the laws of capitalist value anatomized by Marx himself.

The (Marxist) historian's problem is then this: how to write concrete and "totalizing" histories about developments in the East without simply falling back on an older kind of purely political history. Does the substitution of a planned economy imply some new kind of economic dynamic, or does it simply refer us back to the "primacy of the political" in another sense, namely that of party decisions and the various projects, experiments, and dilemmas of the planners? In this last event, what we will have, on the level of ideology, will be the familiar anti-Marxist move away from economic analysis to that of political structures (most notably bureaucracies and Stalinism itself, now understood as a matter of sheer power and its various "lusts"); while on the level of history writing and periodization we will inevitably confront an essentially cyclical pattern told in terms of an alternating "liberalization" and "repression. " Heidtmann's own account does not altogether escape this temptation:

A virtually cyclical pattern can be attributed to the development of cultural politics and literary life in the GDR: the party makes demands on writers which they have difficulty in meeting in their individual works; these demands are exaggerated by apologists of the regime and questioned by the opponents, both in literary creation itself and in public debate. The party then relativizes its thinking, becomes more tolerant; writers exploit this new freedom in order to raise the level of critical discussion, something to which official literary politics reacts with new restrictions and by narrowing the framework of working conditions. (p. 25)

The point is, however, that each moment of the "cycle" has new historical content and meaning: the model is then weakened and discredited by the movement across it of a very different and on-going, more linear history, something which the evolution of the states of Eastern Europe today, and in particular since the 1960s, makes quite unavoidable.

But Heidtmann gives us that perspective too, and it is far from being the least useful part of his work. He sees the development of the GDR in four distinct stages: the first is the inaugural phase of the nascent state (the GDR is founded, as a response to the currency reform in the Western occupation zones, in 1949). This is a period still marked by the alliance of nominal left parties and dominated by the anti-fascist and democratic cultural movements developed in exile during the Nazi period. There is not yet, in this phase, the sense that the division of Germany will be a permanent one, and that the former Eastern Zone will need to invent its own cultural as well as political and ideological structures.

The second phase, from 1950 on, is of course that of the Cold War at its most intense: it is characterized by an incalculable loss of qualified people (mostly professional) and energies to the West, and by the development of a seige-mentality (with all its well-known paranoid traits), as well as by the extremely difficult problems of reconstructing the economy in such conditions. (The most significant literary-political event of those years is the Bitterfeld Conference of 1959, in which questions of cultural production are debated theoretically.)

In these two phases, the fate of SF is subsumed under the larger question of "entertainment literature" generally; and while the positions taken are crude and puritanical, the issue is not itself without interest. For the party theoreticians, "entertainment literature" is suspect on two grounds. First of all, it is historically associated with commodification--a literature of "smut and sensation," produced for profit and pandering to all the worst instincts (this is a kind of low-level party version of Adorno's Culture Industry). For Germans, clearly enough, the surviving impulses of such a "tradition" are fully as much tainted by Nazism as by capitalism, while its continuation in West Germany then becomes drawn into the forcefield of American mass culture, with equally unacceptable results. Meanwhile-- and, as it were, a priori--the larger question arises whether, in a socialism from which exploitation is (or will shortly be) eliminated, distraction and amusement will really be necessary any longer. It is a vicious circle: if they are--if people are so exhausted by their work and so depressed by their immediate environment and situation that they need "distraction"--then virtually by definition exploitation has not ended and they cannot be considered to be living under "socialism. " Nor is this some idle theoretical matter' since in the new system people will have to decide whether to produce such books and what form they are to take: market supply and demand mechanics are not available as a substitute for these conscious political choices. Meanwhile (and this marks the difference between the situation in the GDR and that in the Soviet Union, say), this is all a new and immediate problem that must be theorized afresh: just as the market is not available here, so also there do not exist some 30 years of revolutionary or post-revolutionary cultural "traditions" to which this or that position might be able to appeal. The "solution" then makes the worst of both worlds: "entertainment" is grudgingly allowed (based mostly on older German paradigms, such as those of Dominik), but "uplifting" propaganda content is injected (in the form, e.g., of imperialist vs. progressive struggles in outer space).

The third phase of GDR history dates from the building in 1961 of the Berlin Wall, which effectively puts an end to the most immediate internal problems and allows economic and social development to be continued on a more stable basis. Heidtmann logically marks the end of this "moment of consolidation" with the replacement of the Ulbricht leadership with that of Honecker in 1971 (inaugurating the fourth, or "liberalization," phase, which continues today). But it should be noted that these developments are contemporaneous with the overall thaw in East-West relations, as well as with the more general world-wide cultural transformations of the 1960s. If at this point, East German SF writers begin to find new and suggestive formal freedoms in Lem's early work (which began in the mid'50s), and to draw on the much broader and more generous status of SF in the Soviet Union (at least since Yefremov's Andromeda in 1956), it should also be noted that the early years of the 1960s also mark a tremendous paradigm shift in Western and particularly American SF--the waning of the older "Golden Age" paradigms and the emergence of novelists like Dick and the Anglo-American New Wave. I point this out because--given the peculiar double-standard according to which, as I have already observed, we tend to fantasize East European history--the temptation subsists to think of the East Germans as in some sense "catching up" to the rest of us, to think in terms of cycles of repression and liberalization, rather than of a world-wide transformation which has profoundly modified all of the mass cultural genres and their languages. (It should also be noted that Sputnik [1957] will now lend a unique legitimation to the struggle for recognition of SF as a genre in the socialist countries.)

The central chapters of Heidtmann's book--after a thorough review of the most interesting novels and stories in the genre from 1945 to 1979--deal with the nature of the view of the future from the GDR, with the evolution and characteristics of the narrative features of this literature, and finally with the relationship between the development of East German SF and the influence of Ernst Bloch's Utopian thought (Bloch taught at Leipzig from 1948 until his retirement in 1961 to the West, a move he was always concerned to distinguish from emigration and dissidence). None of these chapters is in any way conclusive, as indeed they could not be, without the present volume as a point of departure.

The insufficiencies of the formal chapter, in particular, are at least partly the mark of a more general dilemma that all literary history must confront: the difficulty of co-ordinating structural analyses based on individual texts with some more long-range narrative of formal change and evolution, the question of whether forms have their own history about which some story can be told. In this regard, Heidtmann takes note, among other things, of the frequency of a protagonist collective, in the place of more individualistic Western heroes; and he shrewdly remarks of problems of utopian characterization which are by no means exclusive to the GDR: "Utopian prose implies the representation of a transformed future human nature, which in practice tends to involve extreme idealization. This is particularly the case in works which juxtapose the 'older' human nature with the 'newer' (p. 130). Complaints about the lack of stylistic quality or innovation are gradually dissolved by the increasing formal experimentation of the more recent novels, and especially an increase in first-person narrative which benefits from the more general breakup of formal "high-literary" language in both Germanies in the '60s and '70s and its replacement by what one critic has aptly termed "blue-jeans prose. " The chapter omits typological considerations (probably because an extensive typology of SF narratives was already used to organize the earlier, historical survey of the works); but it underscores the emergence in recent years (in mainstream GDR literature as well as in SF) of the grotesque as a mode of mingling ideal and reality (a mode whose legitimation derives from Soviet and Russian fantastic literature as well as from the German Romantic tradition).

The general "view" of the future in these narratives is not a great deal more unexpected than these formal observations. In spite of an official emphasis on work, the labor processes of the future do not receive a great deal of literary attention in these fictions; social arrangements remain predictably centralized and hierarchical, in spite of a remarkable absence of representations of some future Communist Party (in contrast with the role of the party in mainstream works [cf. p. 118]). As in the west (until the New Wave), there is a heavy emphasis on future science and technology, with a corresponding imbalance on the cultural side:

People in the socialism of the future live together in ways that are assuredly cultivated and humane, but only rarely pursue cultural interests or activities. The ever greater wealth of free time serves principally for greater personal education or for creative work of an essentially scientific or technical kind. It is only rarely that anyone here wanders into movie theaters of the future. The future of the arts is generally not mentioned at all, or only in the most banal way: 'Never before had such great works been created by artists.' (pp. 123-24)

The chapter on Bloch documents a debate of the greatest significance in the socialist world in general, namely the tension between Engels' critique of Utopian Socialism (endorsed by Lenin and Stalin) and Bloch's project for a Utopian Marxism--that is, a new Utopianism in which a "scientific" analysis of the nature of transition, the means of implementation, in short the necessity of revolution, is now included. (A similar debate has re-emerged in the very different context of English socialism, in Perry Anderson's Arguments within English Marxism, wherein E.P. Thompson's great biography of William Morris, and in particular Morris's own political activity and his insistence on the revolutionary nature of the "transition" in News from Nowhere, is turned against the biographer himself.) Bloch's work was dramatically and officially celebrated in the GDR in 1955, with the publication of a 70th anniversary Festschrift, following which a host of predictable and negative public criticisms of Bloch's general philosophy were expressed. Such debates and denunciations should be understood, however, in the context of a specifically East European socialist "public sphere," in which public or official critique can just as easily be read as the sign of the increasing influentiality of the views in question. At any rate, it is Heidtmann's contention that Bloch's utopian philosophy continued to make its way long after the departure of the philosopher himself, and in particular, that it knew a fortunate historical conjuncture with developing SF at the moment when the latter both needed and was ready for its lessons.

Heidtmann's historical survey documents a significant move, over these 30 years, from more familiar paradigms of the SF adventure tale--'simple space flight,' 'class struggle in the cosmos,' and 'astronautics and archeology'" (this last involving traces of ancient alien visits, etc. [pp. 65ff.])--to the more complex literary possibilities of what he calls the utopian parable or fable, a kind of text whose possibilities, as Robert C. Elliott taught us, include satire as well as visionary impulses. Two interesting features of recent GDR work demand special attention: the emergence of a feminist SF, very different from our own (pp. 91ff.), in which mainstream writers like Christa Wolf have also been active; and an increasing preoccupation with the role and function of intellectuals and in particular writers in a socialist framework (pp. 100ff.). Meanwhile, despite what I have already said rather abstractly about the "economic," it is clear that SF production in the East European countries is as subject to material conditions as it is anywhere else; and here too Heidtmann's book is most instructive, including information about publishers, about fan clubs (they began in 1972 and are on a higher level than the equivalent West German "Perry Rhodan" clubs or the American conventions), and about readership (it comprises a far greater percentage of intellectuals than in the West generally).

But the fundamental point Heidtmann seeks to make about SF in the GDR, in contrast to the West, remains a concrete aspect of the reading experience despite the vague and impoverished vocabulary we seem to have to use for such matters: namely that SF in the GDR has an optimistic vision of the future, or what would be termed in the East a progressive humanism. This can most adequately be demonstrated by reference to one of the great cruxes, one of the most revealing of SF themes, namely the portrayal of alien life-forms and of "first contact." In the GDR, as everywhere in the East, a new tradition was inaugurated by Yefremov's "reply" to Murray Leinster's well-known "First Contact" (1945) in his counter-narrative, "Cor Serpentis" (1964): the western version manifests a characteristic and virtually omnipresent "paranoid" suspicion of the hostility, bellicosity, and imminent menace of the Alien in general (a topos which largely transcends the limited years of the "official" Cold War period). In Yefremov, however, as in East European SF generally, the Alien is more likely to be benign and full of fraternal good-will (without lapsing into that other Western motif, the super-intelligence who will solve all of our problems); Yefremov's story, translated in one of Asimov's collections of Soviet SF, also involves an ingenious solution to Leinster's ominous strategic first-strike dilemma. The peaceful "exchange" of East-West narrative paradigms is of the greatest interest, and deserves more attention in our SF courses. Meanwhile, Heidtmann's concluding comparison, largely and appropriately limited to SF of both Germanies, is instructive. Suggesting that "the prognosis for GDR utopian-fantastic literature is a positive one" (p. 166), he observes that "the development of SF in the two Germanies is so different, that at least in this area convergence theory remains quite unsubstantiated" (p. 165). And surely, for those of us for whom SF--apart from the literary merits of individual texts--has great value as a cultural symptom, as one privileged way of taking the temperature of a social system at a particular historical moment, such an observation is very enlightening indeed, and confirms the increasingly widespread feeling that the GDR has achieved legitimacy and nationhood and is following an autonomous path of development in which it will have many new things to offer us (including SF of a new and distinctive sort).

Finally, however, the effectiveness of a history of this kind must be measured by our own curiosity (and frustration): one arrives at the extensive bibliographies which complete the book with the appropriate impatience and the keen desire to read a whole series of authors whose names (save those of the Brauns) are virtually unknown to us: Gerhard Branster, Günter Kunert, Irmtraud Morgner, Frank Töppe, Karl-Heinz Tuschel, Herbert Ziergiebel, simply to mention a few in passing. My own university library, however, some 20 years younger than the GDR itself, possesses not a single one of these texts, nor any of the excellent anthologies of SF stories published in the East. It is appropriate to conclude by earnestly and publicly calling for a serious effort of English-language translation at least as ambitious as Seabury's translations of Lem or Macmillan's of Soviet SF (which now includes virtually all the Strugatskys' very important novels). The historical irony of such a demand returns us, however, to our starting point, namely the "difference" between East and West, since the market system (and very specifically, SF commercial publishing in the US) seems notoriously incapable of meeting significant cultural needs of this kind.

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