March 05, 2009


The Black Mirror & Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany & Austria. Edited by Franz Rottensteiner. Translated by Mike Mitchell. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.

     Although this outstanding book is part of the Wesleyan University Press “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series, a great deal of it is not early at all: of the 25 stories here, only eight predate World War Two, and four were written in the 21st century. But these tales will be terra incognita to most SF readers, because Germany and Austria have been, surprisingly, backwaters of the science-fiction field.

     This does not seem logical. The vaunted German prowess in scientific endeavors, including Germany’s development of the first successful rockets (admittedly under the Nazis and for purposes of war), would seem to indicate a culture where science fiction would flourish. But the field largely traces its modern roots to England (H.G. Wells) and France (Jules Verne), and even those who would push its origins back further – say, to Jonathan Swift’s tale of Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa – would be unlikely to find them in Germany. It is not entirely clear why this should be so (an “engineering” rather than “speculative” cultural mentality, perhaps?), and Franz Rottensteiner’s introduction to The Black Mirror makes no attempt to explore the question, instead tracing German SF’s early days and showing how the authors in the present volume fit into the flow. But Rottensteiner’s “Short History of Science Fiction in German” does do an excellent job of naming many of the authors who have used the SF form and showing how they influenced each other.

     It is the stories themselves, though, that make this book so special. This is one of those rare anthologies in which the relatively lower quality of some stories is quite deliberate: Rottensteiner says he did not try to select “‘the best,’ but [rather] a collection of texts and writers important for the development of the genre in the German language.” Still, if some tales are turgid or unconvincing, and others are derivative (of Wells and Verne, among others), most are quite intriguing, showing speculative explorations different from those attempted by SF writers in other languages. There is a considerable amount of purely philosophical thinking in some of these stories. The title tale, written by Erik Simon in 1983 in what was then East Germany, involves realized abstractions and ideally permeable mathematical surfaces. A much earlier story, “Malvu the Helmsman” (by Paul Scheerbart; 1912), starts with elements of Swiftian fantasy in its conception of a race in which all individuals have different types and numbers of limbs and different means of locomotion – and then, when the title character loses all limbs at the same time, becomes an exercise in philosophically reimagining how the race should live.

     There is more than a touch of surrealism in Scheerbart’s tale, and more than a touch as well in “Jules Verne in Hell” (Ludwig Hevesi; 1906), which fascinatingly and humorously imagines the French SF author attempting to understand how Hell works and then to convince its rulers to use more modern methods to achieve their aims.

     A number of the stories here are short-shorts, and while they do not rise to the level of Fredric Brown, the most consistently excellent creator of such tidbits, they are mostly excellent. Some examples: “Is the Earth Inhabited?” (Egon Friedell; 1931) explains why, from an alien point of view, no one could possibly live on our planet; “Thought Control” (Herbert W. Franke; 1961) shows a captive human outthinking a machine that can read his thoughts; “Say It with Flowers” (Ernst Vlcek; 1980) has a pithy and rather elegant anti-war message. There are plenty of longer stories, too, and some of the newest tales in the book are packed with particularly ingenious ideas: “Project 38 or the Game of Small Causes” (Thorsten Küper; 2003) features a protagonist who manipulates pictures, then news, then events themselves – until he inconveniently discovers that he has a conscience; “Hitler on the Campaign Trail in America” (Oliver Henkel; 2004) is an alternative-history tale featuring the Führer meeting with Al Capone, who proposes turning an old cruise ship into a “floating pleasure dome” with security provided by Hitler’s Brownshirts – a plan neatly foiled by Hitler’s translator, who has his own agenda, through some ingenious reworking of words.

     Speaking of translation: Mike Mitchell’s English versions of all these stories are as unstilted as can be, with the result that the writers’ many styles – which range from the pedestrian to the genuinely clever – come through quite clearly. As a book of stories, a book of ideas and a book of literary history, The Black Mirror & Other Stories is a pleasure, and a highly welcome discovery in the SF genre.

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