In Other Worlds
Friendly Martians, artificial intelligence hunting down criminals and a Bolshevik revolution in Switzerland: ten science fiction novels written in German that you need to know about.
By Sascha Mamczak
Germany has a great science fiction tradition that goes back a long way: Der Traum (Somnium or The Dream; 1634) by astronomer Johannes Kepler was the first story ever to substantiate space travel in science, E.T.A. Hoffmann imagined the first artificial humans in Der Sandmann (The Sandman; 1816), and Fritz Lang was the first to bring the sci-fi film to an artistic level with Metropolis (1927). Nevertheless in this country we have always struggled a little with science fiction (SF), which was primarily because the twelve years of Nazi rule interrupted this line of tradition in the 1930s. In the post-war era it was almost exclusively American science fiction that was popular in Germany. Attempts were made to emulate this at the start of the 1960s with the Perry Rhodan magazine series. Perry Rhodan is still published today, but of course German language science fiction has far more to offer.
Kurd Lasswitz: Auf zwei Planeten (1897)
Two Planets is the story of the first encounter with Martians and was published at almost the same time as H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but with a completely different impetus: for Lasswitz it was all about peace and reconciliation between the two planets. A timeless classic from the “father of modern German science fiction”: Germany’s most important SF prize is named after Kurd Lasswitz as well.
Arno Schmidt: Die Gelehrtenrepublik (1957)
Before he started shuffling his notes for his magnum opus, Zettel’s Dream, Arno Schmidt wrote The Egghead Republic, this crazy post-apocalyptic grotesque work in which Europe has become uninhabitable after a nuclear war, and selected intellectuals are permitted to run their own little world on a floating island in the Pacific – at which they fail.
Wolfgang Jeschke: Der letzte Tag der Schöpfung (1981)
In The Last Day of Creation, Wolfgang Jeschke – long-standing editor of the Heyne Verlag science fiction series and himself a multiple award-winning SF author – sends his heroes five million years into the past, where they have to fight for the energy sources of the present day. A book that puts you on shaky ground in every sense. One of the best time travel novels of all time.
Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller: Andymon (1982)
This is one of the most significant SF novels to come out of the fallen East Germany – and proof of how subversive science fiction can seem as a utopia: in fact the new worlds built by children brought up by a spaceship do not follow a party agenda, they obey the rules of reality – even if it is the reality of another planet.
Carl Amery: Das Geheimnis der Krypta (1990)
Carl Amery was the most Bavarian of all German sci-fi authors, but he didn’t write provincial novels, quite the opposite: it would hardly be possible to cram any more of the world between the covers of a book. The Secret of the Crypt is a parable of progress delusion that is simply bursting with knowledge and wisdom. If Umberto Eco had written SF, it might have been something like this book.
Andreas Eschbach: Die Haarteppichknüpfer (1995)
He has good reason to laugh: Andreas Eschbach’s books regularly crop up on the bestseller lists. His SF novel “Die Haarteppichknüpfer” (The Carpet Makers) at any rate is one that everybody should read. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Uwe Zucchi So far Germany has not produced a national SF champion – like Isaac Asimov in the USA for instance – but should anyone be required for this role, then Andreas Eschbach would be my candidate. The Carpet Makers was his first novel: an adventure on a distant planet that’s so far away and then isn’t after all – with a punchline that only someone like Eschbach could come up with.
Christian Kracht: Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten (2008)
An important sci-fi motif but one that is rarely used in German-language literature is the alternative world – in other words a present or future scenario resulting from a changed past. In Kracht’s novel I’ll be Here in Sunshine and in Shadow, the Bolshevik Revolution does not happen in Russia but in Switzerland – with truly grotesque consequences for the world.
Dietmar Dath: Pulsarnacht (2012)
What if ... one day everything was different? In Pulsar Night, sci-fi is presented as a cosmic and political thought experiment, and nobody could write that with such an intellectual vitality as Dietmar Dath. The Frankfurter Allgemeine journalist churns out novels and non-fiction works like a production line, but each of his stories sparkles and glitters in its very own unique way.
Tom Hillenbrand: Drohnenland (2014)
Why Drone State is marketed as a crime novel and not as science fiction is a puzzle to which only the publisher can reveal the answer. Fair enough, there’s a murder – but the rest of the novel is pure science fiction, because in the Europe of the near future, artificial intelligence is used to hunt down criminals. The only problem is that this artificial intelligence can be manipulated.
Sibylle Berg: GRM – Brainfuck (2020)
The future: a social, political and intellectual scene of devastation. We’ve become accustomed to describing such a scenario as dystopian. But Sibylle Berg doesn’t make things that straightforward, because some things in the world just have to be broken to make space for something new and better. This work is disturbing and touching in equal measure – it’s German science fiction on speed. Author Sybille Berg (centre) and actor Katja Riemann (right) read aloud from Sybille Berg’s novel “GRM – Brainfuck” during the “re:publica” digital conference. Moderator Nora Wohlfeil is shown on the left. | Photo (detail): ©picture alliance/dpa/Soeren Stache