Archives for posts with tag: Science fiction

This volume, edited by my colleague (and Leverhulme Visiting Professor to Leeds) Dr Lars Schmeink and myself, will be published on 29 May 2022. It will provide readers with an up-to-date overview of the state of German SF in Literature, Film and TV.

New Perspectives of Contemporary German Science Fiction (cover)

In September 2021, I will be presenting a ‘follow-on’ chapter to my book ‘Beyond Tomorrow’ at the Association of German Studies conference in Swansea and (as keynote) at the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung conference:

German SF in the 21st century tends to see the dystopian form as the ideal vehicle to explore the social and psychological consequences of scientific and technological progress. There is no point in denying that the ‘dystopian turn’ reflects the mood of our time, and that the first two decades of the new millennium have given rise to fears and misgivings about increasingly porous boundaries, conceptual paradigm shifts, and persistent global challenges that make our scientific and technological advances feel hollow. At the same time, one may wonder whether the endless depiction of depressing futures in recent SF may not in fact yield diminishing returns in terms of the intended warning function and instead convince its audiences to give up hope altogether. In my talk I will look at recent German SF novels (Thomas von Steinaecker’s Die Verteidigung des Paradieses and Sibylle Berg’s GRM: Brainfuck), to analyze how they establish their dystopian world­view. But I will also be looking at the green shoots of positive visions (Tom Hillenbrand’s Qube, Andreas Brandhorst’s Die Eskalation, Judith and Christian Vogt’s Wasteland, and Andreas Eschbach’s Eines Menschen Flügel). These give us glimpses of “concrete utopias” even as they contemplate the destructive impact of human activity on our planet. I argue that these latter works demonstrate a radical rethinking of the purpose of writing SF in the 21st century, offering a “progressive fantastic”, and a new hope.

and so it begins: I have been given leave in 2018/19 to write this book for Camden House.

Beyond Tomorrow. German Science Fiction and Utopian Thought in the 20th and 21st Century will make a major intervention in German Studies and a significant contribution to debates in Futures Studies and Comparative Literature/Film Studies.

In German literature and film, as well as in German Studies more generally, the key focus and main emphasis since the end of World War II has rightly been Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming to terms with the past]. The argument put forward by scholars, writers and critics is that only by understanding, and working through, the consequences of National Socialism, the Holocaust, the death of millions, the uprooting of entire populations and the destruction of entire cities can we avoid making the same mistakes again. However, there is a risk that such a singular focus on the past bypasses the rapid developments in science and technology (eg AI; genetic engineering) that require a thorough understanding of, and critical engagement with, our new capabilities so that we can make the right choices for their direction and control.

The book demonstrates how writing about possible futures has helped, and continues to help, society to understand, anticipate and cope with the consequences of scientific and technological advances. It combines a discussion of German utopian thought with a survey of the German utopian/dystopian literary and cinematic tradition. Through a close reading of selected examples from around 1900 to the present day that represent key milestones and major artistic achievements, it explores how German writers and film makers respond to the question of how humanity can match its technological advances with a commensurate social, ethical, and moral progress. It examines their visionary responses to global challenges and plots the trajectory of this ongoing inquiry. Whether in utopian anticipation or beneath a dystopian guise, I argue that these works have global relevance and contain valuable strategies for Zukunftsbewältigung [coming to terms with the future]: by imagining inspiring or disturbing futures, they enable us to shape the future.

German Science Fiction is rarely translated into English, nor acknowledged in the Anglophone research literature on utopian and dystopian writing (cp. Gregory Claeys, Dystopia. A Natural History, 2017). Nor is it analysed within its overall context: the last major study in English, William Fischer’s The Empire Strikes Out: Kurd Lasswitz, Hans Dominik and the Development of German Science Fiction was published in 1984 and had a narrow focus on texts from the first half of the 20th century. German Science Fiction tends to reflect specifically ‘German’ concerns stemming from the country’s historical experience which in turn has given rise to specific fears and sensitivities about totalitarian control, the fragility of civil society, and the environment. Precisely because of this sensitivity, German writers’ awareness of the potential consequences of our promethean capabilities means they are particularly able to influence the moral and ethical debates about the direction and implementation of scientific and technological advances. I argue that their works offer vital cognitive and affective strategies that need to be more widely shared to contribute to the transnational debate about the choices we are facing today (cp. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016).

The project is timely, given the recent flurry of dystopian novels in Germany, no longer just by established SF authors but also ‘mainstream’ authors such as Christian Kracht, Karen Duwe, Thomas von Steinaecker, Juli Zeh and Uwe Timm, the recent contributions to Futures Studies by German academics such as Harald Welzer, Lars Schmeink or Hans Esselborn, and the growing research focus in the UK on the challenges of the future (cp. the RCUK Big Ideas for the Future report).

Between Bauhaus and Bügeleisen: The Iconic Style of Raumpatrouille (1966) The German television SF series Raumpatrouille (Space Patrol) has long gained cult status, in German-speaking countries it enjoys a similar popularity as the original Star Trek series which was first broadcast in the same year. Much has been made of Raumpatrouille’s alleged militaristic and xenophobic ideology by critics who saw in it an awkward melange of undigested Prussian and Nazi jingoism and Cold War paranoia. What hasn’t been widely understood (or acknowledged) was that the series sought to subvert authoritarian traditions by means of humour and a positive outlook. In Raumpatrouille’s alternative world in the year 3000, people are still recognisably human. Individualism and conformism continue to be at odds. While nation states have been abolished, strict hierarchies remain in (world) government and the military. Here, individualism is suppressed, even though, and this has been ignored by critics and researchers so far, insubordination saves the day in each episode. Indeed, the series communicated very different messages: a vision of a world where mankind has overcome barriers between genders and between nation states. This concrete Utopia is evoked in the introductory voiceover in each episode, but finds its main expression in the series’ distinctive visual style. This style is futuristic and functional, reflecting a desire amongst the younger generation and the cultural elites to escape the sense of claustrophobia pervading the post-war era and the ‘no experiments’ attitude of the West German government. The use of modern materials in the sets suggests a deliberate break with tradition, and a conscious homage to Bauhaus clarity and transparency. Technology is the means by which unheard-of things are done in this imagined future, be it the ability to live at the bottom of the sea, or the routine task of travelling amongst the stars. Of particular interest in this essay are the innovative solutions the series’ set designers came up with to translate the technological revolution of the 1960s, which in turn heralded a much broader change in mentality, into a future setting. The incorporation of the latest industrial design and technology into an imagined alternative world, just months before the cultural and political revolutions of 1967/68 transformed the world for real, indicates a rare moment of confidence. in: Ricarda Vidal / Ingo Cornils (eds.), Alternative Worlds. Blue-Sky Thinking since 1900, Oxford: Peter Lang 2015, pp.283-302

It’s been twenty years since I completed my PhD thesis on the changes in mood and perception from English Romanticism to English Science Fiction. In the second half of my thesis, I analysed the works of the British Science Fiction writer Richard Cowper (John Middleton Murry jr, 1926-2002). I am surprised that there haven’t been any other studies exploring RC’s rich, intricate and beautifully written novels and short stories. RC was kind enough to congratulate me at the time, writing:

“Seers and Sayers” is a truly handsome production and I feel honoured to have featured in it. […] I especially relished the title which – if memory serves me correctly – was the one I thought up way back in the 60’s and gave to Jimmy Haverill’s book on the Romantics which led to his getting the assistant lectureship at Hampton. Thus, as the phrase has it, does the wheel come full circle…

With the integration of its core themes and narrative strategies into the mainstream, science fiction in its traditional sense appears to have lost its competitive edge and its innovative potential. At the same time, its critical elements have survived in the area of alternative history fictions, notably in German-language literature. This paper analyses three recent examples: Christian Kracht, Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten (2008), Wolfgang Jeschke, Das Cusanus Jahr (2005), and Rob Alef, Das magische Jahr (2008). The objective is to explore how a classical device of fantastic literature is employed to introduce utopian/dystopian elements and challenge the status quo. As a vehicle for subversive cultural criticism, German alternate history fictions prove to be both flexible and relevant.

in: Lars Schmeink / Astrid Böger (eds), Collision of Realities. Establishing Research on the Fantastic in Europe, pp.325-338, Berlin: de Gruyter 2012