Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monster Brains Showcases Postwar German Science Fiction Covers

Over at the very cool Monster Brains blog, Aeron Alfrey has a gallery of covers from the old postwar German science fiction publications Utopia (which came out in magazine format and in book format over a number of years in the 1950s and 1960s).

The thought that came to my mind while scanning some of the lurid covers was that there were so many of them that featured stories by American writers. Nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. American SF was at one of its peaks during the postwar period, as was aggressive American promotion of its culture around the world.

But it brings to mind something I heard once about Japanese science fiction, in which there is seldom a story by Japanese writers in which it is the Japanese who are leading a spacecraft or a space mission. It was always a united international effort or it was led by another country.

In Germany, the longest-running science-fiction franchise (and perhaps the longest-running SF franchise anywhere in the world) is the pulp series Perry Rhodan, which is still going strong with magazines and books and multimedia (including an oft-promised new film). There's no way I could summarize in one sentence a series that has run for more than 40 years, but here's the pertinent information: It stars an astronaut from Earth who gets in all sorts of adventures in time and space; that hero, Perry Rhodan, is an American astronaut.

If you looked at German science fiction from before the war, you see a different situation, especially if you go back to the fertile time period before the first world war, where German writers such as Kurd Lasswitz were producing some groundbreaking science fiction, such as Two Planets.

On the other hand, the interwar period is kind of a different and difficult situation, at least in print. If you're up for an at-times-academic book on a fascinating subject, I suggest you check out Peter S. Fisher's Fantasy and Politics: Visions of the Future in the Weimar Republic (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), which shows how much interwar German SF was created to serve horrid racial and political revenge fantasies that make Hitler's eventual crimes seem in the spirit of the moment.

Naturally, I think we're all glad that the interwar nightmares of German science fiction are no more. But I do think we're poorer for losing the brave and humane writing of the Lasswitz generation. I for one get sick of Americans leading every space trip, sick of English-speaking people who look like you see them at Wal-Mart being the same ones establishing space colonies or dealing with aliens. Science fiction is a genre that deals with widening people's experiences and minds, and they should certainly be able to deal with a truly mixed cast of characters, or an SF story from a truly Chinese point of view.

These Utopia covers on Monster Brains are from the decade or two right after World War II. But the situation has not changed dramatically today. Unfortunately. The Germans are poorer for the inability to punch its considerable weight in the SF market. American readers are poorer for not getting other viewpoints. And science fiction as a genre is poorer for not living up to its potential.

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