How did Germany's dreams (and nightmares) of the future shift over a century or so, including two world wars and the Berlin Wall? A new anthology takes us inside the history of German science fiction.
The Black Mirror & Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction From Germany & Austria (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) samples 25 stories spanning the history of German and Austrian SF. Editor Franz Rottensteiner has made his life's work studying and writing about science fiction. Rottensteiner's insightful, detailed commentary and biographical sketches add to your enjoyment of these stories. His brief but fascinating introduction chronicles the development of the genre and the mutual influence it had on society. Mike Mitchell's excellent translation also deserves special notice. He translates convoluted wordplay and obscure idioms, as well as imagined technical jargon seamlessly, while preserving the native voice of the authors.
Although it could be argued that it all began with the fantastical musings of Kepler about life on the Moon, the real origins of science fiction in Germany spring from the late 18th Century, on the heels of Jules Verne's voyages extraordinaires.
Without a doubt, the chief pioneer of German science fiction is Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910), whose name was given to Germany's most prestigious science fiction prize. Lasswitz combined his extensive knowledge of physics and mathematics with a utopian philosophy influenced by Kant, Schiller, and Gustav Fechner (yeah, I never heard of him either). One of his main themes was technologically and mentally advanced races with a corresponding superior moral sense, quite unlike the übermensch proposed by Nietzsche.
One of my favorite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, cited Lasswitz as the direct inspiration for his "Library of Babel". His speculative technologies may have influenced Hugo Gernsback. He prefigured the sleep-teaching machines and extreme eugenics of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World by over fifty years. In his very first published story, included in The Black Mirror, Lasswitz imagines a global system of bulletin boards that instantly transmit news, entertainment adverts, and personal opinions on strongly-felt topics. Could this be the first depiction of a internet flame war, way back in 1871?
Kurd Lasswitz didn't skimp on the hard sciences either. His most famous novel, 1897's Two Planets (or Auf zwei Planeten,) uses realistic and accurate descriptions of orbital mechanics, with the trajectories and mid-course corrections needed to travel between Earth and Mars. It also contains one of the earliest appearances of an artificial satellite or space station. Reading Two Planets led many young boys to become interested in space travel and rocketry, including Willy Ley, Walter Hohmann and Wernher von Braun who were instrumental in our first forays out of Earth's gravity well.
Despite some of the heavy high-falutin' topics, I found Lasswitz far more accessible to the modern reader than many of his contemporaries like Verne - and his writing is darn funny in places, even. Speaking of which, check out "Jules Verne in Hell: A Letter to the Editor From the Late Writer" by the Austrian Ludwig Hevesi in 1906. This is a hysterical satire, set in the Infernal Reaches, that would not be out of place in a comic book from DC/Vertigo.
One can imagine the disgust and dismay of these early writers as Kaiser Wilhem's policies marched further and further away from the benevolent enlightened utopias of their dreams. World War I plunged Europe into madness, and paper was a valuable commodity for the war effort - certainly not to be wasted on dime-novels, or romanhefte, much less the mewlings of starry-eyed pacifists.
Science fiction returned after the War to End All Wars a changed figure, nursing deep wounds and dark thoughts. Many of the stories from this period concern futuristic wars, often against the French or British, led by heroic scientists and engineers. Rottensteiner's selections from this period are toned down in this aggressive nationalist theme flavor but the zeitgeist is clearly detectable.
When the Nazis came into power, they felt no gratitude to the Hefte SF writers for sharing their visions of power and conquest. Indeed the Third Reich heavily censored or banned the "Schmutz und Schund" (filth and trash) of the pulp novels. The genre tales that were published were mostly concerned with Aryan supermen, the raising of Atlantis, Hollow-Earth theories and similar crap. Few examples of Nazi-era science fiction survived the bombings and fires of the WWII. The editor has opted to leave these out of The Black Mirror.
In fact, there was little or no science fiction for quite some time after the war either. Certainly during reconstruction, people had other things on their minds. But it may be that it took some time for modern German and Austrian culture to find their own unique voices expunged of the warped views that had earlier permeated them.
It wasn't until the early 1960s that German science fiction began to flourish again. The book includes three fascinating pieces by Herbert W. Franke, from his 1960 collection of ultra-short stories, The Green Comet. These brief thought experiments pack a powerful punch, despite appearing rather spare and abstract. Franke was a prolific author, non-fiction science writer and early pioneer of computer graphics as art. He championed a view of science fiction as a literature of ideas, firmly based on a rigorous understanding of scientific principles, and he continues to be a major figure in the genre today.
There is a growing trend in stories about environmental concerns starting from this time. Carl Amery was a mainstream writer who wrote often in science fiction with themes of allohistory, time travel and ecological disasters. The witty and imaginative Amery was a Catholic who was deeply critical of the Church, and a founding member of the Green Party in Germany. I would really like to see some of his novels translated into English.
Meanwhile in East Germany, science fiction was developing very differently. At first, authors in the German Democratic Republic were expected to write with themes extolling the glorious socialist revolution. But by the 1960s there wasn't much pressure for them to adhere to Communist ideology, so they were free to explore new ideas and grow artistically. Being in a smaller and closed market, authors in the GDR were also able to enjoy a higher standard of living than many their colleagues in the West. Herr Rottensteiner feels that by the 1970s science fiction in the East was far superior to West German efforts.
From the three examples he provides, I have to agree. There is a more exuberant and sometimes playful feel with far more convincing characterizations with a strange mythical quality. It's a bit like my love for Corwainer Smith - there's a strangeness and difference I know I like but have a difficult time explaining. We have Johanna & Günter Braun with their satirical travelogue of a odd nation called Parsimonia. Erik Simon wrote "The Black Mirror," from which this collection gets its name. It is a reinterpretation of a story by Gustav Meyrink who wrote The Golem back in 1915. Then there is "The Eye That Never Sleeps" by another married couple, Angela & Karlheinz Steinmüller, that blends mythological imagery into a poisoned post-apocalyptic Latin American setting that parallels the Cyberpunk stories of the 80s. Very cool.
And now a few words on the Perry Rhodan series. These bewilderingly successful pulp novels began in 1961 and have continued to this day nearing 2,000 issues including spin-offs with over a billion copies sold worldwide. Many important authors have contributed to the vast Rhodanverse including some represented in The Black Mirror. The Perry Rhodan stories are incredibly trashy, but the same has been said of Star Trek or Doctor Who.
The anthology closes out with eight mostly strong stories from more recent years. I especially liked "Project 38 or The Game of Small Causes" by Thorsten Küper, about an anarchist hacker who manipulates world events through digital media and social networks, and Oliver Henkel's very clever allohistory "Hitler on the Campaign Trail in America" that shows once again how the world can change from a chance encounter and a few choice words. Also of note is the ultimate cosmological screw-up in "Planck Time" by Michael K. Iwolet and the simple yet powerful little tale "Mother's Flowers" by Andreas Eschbach.
Science Fiction in Germany and Austria has never been ever as popular as Fantasy or Horror, but there is a growing trend for the genre and some authors like Andreas Eschbach are now quite successful writing solely in the field. Eschbach's novel The Carpet Makers was published in English by Tor in 2005. The synopsis sounds very intriguing, and I'll be picking it up despite the enthusiastic recommendation by Orson Scott Card. Much of the writing in all these stories can be dense and philosophical, and took a fair amount of concentration on my part. There is great attention to scientific accuracy - with a few glaring exceptions. I also found more attention to societies as a whole rather than individuals, who are rarely warm and cuddly. The portrayals of characters are at their strongest when concerned with the interior lives of the protagonists. I hate to fall into stereotypes, but it is all very...Germanic, and that's not a bad thing. There is some really intelligent and entertaining reading The Black Mirror. It may not be a must have for every reader but should be on the shelves of any serious school or public library
This smart and very informative science fiction anthology could be looked upon as reflections of Germany and Austria themselves. Two proud nations with brilliant intellectual achievements, always reminded of the dark and ugly faces in their past but scrying into the depths of The Black Mirror to find the future for us all.
The Black Mirror via Amazon
For those of you looking for more information, Franz Rottensteiner has a review of other books about the German perspective on science fiction here.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to Die Erdbewohner as Christopher Hsiang.
We've got a whole planet of books out there, enjoy!
Special thanks to Jörg Westermann for sharing some of his thoughts on growing up German.