An Interview With Prof. Sonja Fritzsche (Illinois Wesleyan University) by Cristian Tamas


    Cristian Tamas : You’re an American Professor (Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, Illinois, USA), Ph.D., B.A., M.A. Your research focuses on (East) German literature and film, “Heimat” discourse, ecotopia, and science fiction. Your publications include: The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film, editor (Liverpool University Press, 2014),  Science Fiction Literature in East Germany (Peter Lang, 2006); articles in the German Quarterly, German Politics & Society, German Studies Review, Women in German Yearbook, Film & History, Extrapolation, Utopian Studies and Filmforum.

    Why are you interested by science fiction (Trivialliteratur, as some german literary critics are considering it) and especially by a defunct form, the communist “Wissentschaftlich-fantastische Literatur”  (based on the Soviet theoretical model of the “nauchno-fantasticheskaya literatura” : “With communism having conquered the globe and a new era of international peace, prosperity and cooperation secured…”) from the long time dead G.D.R. ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : I have always enjoyed how certain science fiction enabled me to think about difference and other ways of looking at the world. It is also teaches critical thinking through its aspect as a “thought game”.  For me science fiction is also a type of travel literature, although its destinations are often philosophical or experimental rather than actual locations. I also grew up during the Cold War, particularly the Reagan era, so the East Bloc was the ultimate other and wholly inaccessible. Then when I was 19, the Berlin Wall fell. The next year I studied abroad in Germany and was in Berlin on reunification day (Oct 3 1990). When I was looking for a dissertation topic, it seemed only natural to combine my interest in science fiction and my fascination with this new suddenly accessible Germany that had always been off-limits. It was also at the same time a very utopian/dystopian space. One system had come to an end and another one was beginning. Many Germans were full of hope, but also fear. Studying the science fiction from the GDR helped to gain insight into the country and its people and their alternate dreams and desires beyond “real existing socialism”.

    Cristian Tamas : How do you explain the German Publishing Paradox ? Germany has the biggest publishing market from EU and one of the world’s biggest publishing industry (9 billion euros /12 billion dollars yearly), the biggest EU number of books’ buyers and readers and theoretically should have one the world’s strongest and relevant SF. In fact, as Franz Rottensteiner (introduction to View from Another Shore) and Jakob Schmidt (author of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s monograph “Germany since 1990”) written, “Science fiction in the post-reunification Germany is still dominated by translations of the works of American and British authors”. Why is it so ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : First, there are just more English-language authors writing science fiction. You have to search for German science fiction in the bookstore. The Anglo-American titles are always quickly at hand.  Also, although German science fiction has existed since the 19th century, the genre was biggest in the US and became identified with that country as one of its cultural exports. German science fiction certainly is of equal quality to Anglo-American science fiction. I just think that, like my fascination with the GDR as “exotic” other, the US functions in this way for German science fiction readers and sci fi is one way to access it. For instance, if you look at Andreas Eschbach’s End of Oil, half of this book is a road trip across the US. There is a fascination with the United States in Germany. Well, it is perhaps a love/hate relationship, but Germans dream of the wide-open spaces, the promise of change and possibility, the crazy contradictions of the US. At least this is what I hear when they describe their visits to Florida, New York, Texas, and California. I think the fascination with American sci fi mirrors some of this interest and it attracts a larger reading public beyond the typical science fiction fan. It is also hard to compete with Hollywood, which turns out so many science fiction blockbusters for the world market.


    Cristian Tamas : You had published the remarkable study Science Fiction Literature in East Germany (Peter Lang, 2006), what is your conclusion on this subject? Can good fiction be written in a communist concentration camp? In one of the world’s most controlled totalitarian regimes (perhaps the most spied-on nation in history) from what was called in the free world, “Soviet Occupation Zone” and “Soviet puppet state”? After Christa Wolf’s case, could we ask ourselves how many GDR SF writers were in fact STASI informants (Inoffizieller Mitarbeitern): “When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests. The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people.”)? And how many GDR writers were in fact SED apparatchiks (communist state lackeys) enjoying a good life full of privileges as result of a faustian pact  (“It’s a good profession, to be a writer in our time and in this socialist country!” – Erwin Strittmatter)? Was the communist SF from GDR only totalitarian propaganda, an ideological weapon used in the “struggle against imperialism and western decadence”?

    Sonja Fritzsche : There is no doubt that the GDR was an oppressive state. However to dismiss all SF literature from the GDR as communist propaganda is just as absurd as the idea that all SF literature from the US should be dismissed because it is capitalist propaganda. The science fiction genre has long been used to critique societies of all kinds. It allows authors to displace this critique into another time or onto another planet. Darko Suvin’s oft quoted definition from Metamorphosis of Science Fiction (1979) states that it is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrange­ment and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (8). Through the use of a novum or “new” element the reader is confronted with a different reality and attempts to understand this reality by comparing it with her own. This is the manner in which critique takes place. It explains some of the challenges of publishing early SF in the GDR. Although the authors believed they were creating socialist realist science fiction, the stories inevitably strayed from the party line in their visions of a utopian future. Hence early stories by authors like Eberhardt del’Antonio also included an afterward that explained the perceived “ideological weaknesses” of the vision and brought them into line.

    Cristian Tamas : Why a communist fossil as the former GDR’s SF should be researched and studied? What is the point and what can we learn by it’s study ? Don’t you consider that in a fact a multinational Soviet style SF existed in various languages in the former Communist Bloc?

    Sonja Fritzsche : First, if you are trying to move beyond the past, you cannot just ignore it. You have to work through it to discover and evaluate what it was. Only then can you learn from it and benefit from its mistakes and accomplishments. The study of really all SF, not just in the GDR, gives insight into the culture of that country. The science fiction reveals the predominant concerns and debates of the day. The Soviet Union certainly did try to export its version of socialist realism, but it was taken up differently in each East Bloc country. Each had its own distinct engagement with modernity that shaped cultural traditions. Science fiction also did not come from the Soviet Union, but had already existed independently in a number of the East Bloc countries. The GDR science fiction of the fifties and sixties was already responding not only to existing German sci fi, but also to stories from other developing East Bloc traditions. If you look to the later works from the seventies and the eighties, it also becomes apparent that these authors were in dialogue not only with their fellow East Bloc authors such as Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, but also with western authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin. So the GDR SF discourse was not an isolated one, but one that provides a distinctive mixture of influences from both East and West.

    Cristian Tamas : People were oppressed in the GDR. They weren’t allowed to write what they wanted. In many cases, their lives were ruined. The official canon needs to be reformed to reflect this part of the history. In the GDR, there was an official canon, but there was also another canon that operated underground. Most successful GDR authors, were “critical loyalists,” meaning they were critical of the regime, but remained loyal to communist ideals.”, said Joachim Walther. What do you think, this applies also in the case of GDR’s SF ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : To publish in the GDR, you had to be willing to write within a socialist world, i.e. follow the rules of “real existing socialism”. Otherwise the story would not appear in print. If you wanted to write freely and openly, you could try to smuggle the manuscript out of the country to have it published. This was not always easy, particularly if you had no contacts with western publishers and did not already have a name for yourself.  There might also be repercussions back home if the GDR discovered you had published an unsanctioned story in the West.

    There were two other avenues open to you if you wanted to be an author in the GDR. One was to write and just store your manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer”. Some thought that there would be a lot of “drawer” stories published after the fall of the Wall, but that did not really materialize.  Or you could choose to write within a socialist world and be published. GDR science fiction then allowed the authors to displace critique of the system onto another planet so that the censors would not notice. In the case of one science fiction series at Verlag Das Neue Berlin, the series editor wrote strategic reviews of the books he wanted to support so that they would pass the censor’s inspection. There are several examples, in which the editor actually left some of the most critical parts of a book unmentioned and focused on explaining some lesser potential pitfalls and also the many ways in which the book met the requirements of a socialist book. At the same time, such editors also made sure that their authors wrote out anything that they deemed would make the book unpublishable. Authors also practiced self-censorship.

    Cristian Tamas : East German science fiction enabled its authors to create a subversive space in another time and place. One of the country’s most popular genres, it outlined futures that often went beyond the party’s official version.”  It’s a fact, SF became subversive in some works published in the former communist countries, Lem was subversive, the Strugatsky Brothers were subversive, and many more. How do you explain that those titles escaped the scissors of the communist censorship ? Was SF used by the communist dictatorships as a social safety vent ? Or with the purpose of manipulation and diversion ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : First, I think it is important not to see the GDR as one big, highly organized entity. In reality, it was made up of a lot of individuals who were constantly interpreting policies set by the General Secretary of the Party and its Central Committee as they changed over time. Yes, there was intended manipulation and diversion. I do not wish to downplay the oppression in the GDR and the criminal acts carried out by its government. But there were continual freezes and thaws in policy as well. Nothing was monolithic is nature. People were running the system not machines.

    The editorial process I outlined in the previous answer sheds light on how some very critical books escaped the censors. Remember that many of the censors were apparatchiks and had very little ability in literary analysis. In addition, they were looking for fairly narrowly defined transgressions that also were continually changing depending on the political climate.  The fifties and sixties were very repressive when it came to literary policy. In the early seventies, the new premier Erich Honecker shifted resources towards the production of a greater variety of consumer goods, in an effort to improve the quality of life in the GDR. More books were published. There was less scrutiny in some areas. Science fiction as not taken seriously, so it was looked at even less carefully.

    At the same time, the so-called “niche society” developed. It allowed individuals to maintain a socialist public persona, but gave them greater freedom within their closest circle of friends. This “niche” might be a group of individuals interested in a particular hobby. The public/private dichotomy did allow citizens to blow off steam with trusted friends. Certainly science fiction also functioned in this way. Readers were able to read-between-the-lines and gain the satisfaction that they recognized the critique of a particular minister or system aspect in the portrayal of planet X. Then they could discuss it with their friends.

    Cristian Tamas : Did you know that American science fiction (and western European) was banned in the communist eastern European countries between 1947-1962/1963? For example in Romania, the first translated two American SF stories (and the only American SF texts up to 1963 when Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published in Romania), were translated from …russian (!) and published in 1958 in the Collection of the SF Stories (Colecţia Povestirilor Ştiinţifico-Fantastice, issue no.82/1958): Philip K. Dick (Foster, You’re Dead) and Robert Heinlein’s  Long Watch: both stories were picked up illegally by the Soviet tabloids Ogoniok, the largest circulation Soviet weekly (1,500,000) and Znanie Sila in 1958. “PKD’s bibliographer (Levack) notes that the author’s complimentary copy was destroyed by the U.S. Post Office as Communist propaganda.” Were the communists afraid of the western popular culture during the first phase of their dictatorships?

    Sonja Fritzsche : Yes, there were similar stories in the GDR. I think the Party certainly considered American science fiction to be capitalist and a bad influence.

    It was felt that capitalist science fiction contained the wrong morals and would not help to create the “New Socialist Person”. Remember that the communist movements in Eastern Europe, under the guidance of the Soviet Union, were trying to create a new utopian society that was to be populated by a new and improved person of the future. (I do not need to tell Romanian readers this!! Many of you experienced it first hand!!) This goal could only be accomplished through reeducation of the masses in the values of the new way of life. A capitalist book would only continue to spread false teachings. This was especially the case with children’s and youth literature.

    Cristian Tamas : Did Erik Simon borrow in 1983 the title Der Schwarze Spiegel from Arno Schmidt’s 1951 story, Schwarze Spiegel ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : You would have to ask him.

    Cristian Tamas : Entertainment vs ideology? Mercantilism & consumerism vs. communist governmental status (and state control & state censorship)? Private initiative vs. state monopoly? The West German SF vs. the former GDR SF ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : Having studied GDR science fiction literature, I would disagreed with the notion that all literature was “propaganda” or “in the state’s interest”.  What is important to remember is that no society produces a singular type of literature with such a singularity of meaning as the word propaganda implies, whether communist or capitalist. Artists always find ways around a system regardless of what that system might be. Of course, not all authors who live within capitalism or communism are willing to think outside of the system in which they live or are able to. But there are always authors who have or will. Remember that science fiction, as a literature of the fantastic, is an “openly interrogative space” (Lucie Armitt), not one of the closed totality of ideology.
    In my research of the editorial process of Verlag Neues Leben and Verlag das Neue Berlin in East Germany, I found evidence that select editors were gaming the system. 
    Certainly, the editor acted on behalf of the state in a state-owned or party-owned press. However, I discovered that certain editors had written publication recommendations with an eye to getting them past the censors. Such recommendations played up the “Parteilichkeit” (party-line compliance) of the work, and often left unmentioned seemly obvious critical aspects. It is highly unlikely that such editors missed the metaphorical meaning in these texts. Rather, they wanted the books to be published and manipulated the bureaucracy of publication to this end.
    Certainly, many authors behind the Wall practiced self-censorship in that they knew they could not write outside of a socialist world view and be published in East Germany. But compare this with the practice of “writing what will sell” in today’s market.  Authors in the latter system do have more of a choice as to what to write, but will they make enough money doing it?  This matters more to some than others and shapes the literature we have today.

    Book cover

    Edited by Sonja Fritzsche,  the collection contains fourteen chapters written by specialists from around the world. Film traditions represented include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus a chapter on digital shorts.

    From the dinosaur myth that became Godzilla to Brazilian science fiction comedy, from China’s Death Ray to Kenya’s Pumzi, this book will broaden the horizons of scholars and students of Science Fiction.

    Cristian Tamas : Did you notice from the West German literary/cultural establishment a high brow attitude concerning the Amerikanische Populärkultur ? Is interesting to assess that in all western european countries after 1950 such elitist statements were made ! Popular success vs elites’ refusal and denial, what does it mean ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : This judgment had already begun even earlier with the “Schund- and Schmutzliteratur” debates in the Weimar Republic. Such so-called “trivial literature” was thought to be of bad quality of even dangerous. Many stories were deemed to be a particular threat to children and young adults who were targeted readers. It was though that such stories might lead to hooliganism, rowdiness, etc. You can call it whatever term is currently in use to describe young people who are not in line with the wishes of their elders.  After World War II, the influence of the Frankfurt School, particularly the essay on the Culture Industry by Horkheimer and Adorno, contributed to the rejection of any type of “trivial literature” or “entertainment literature” in the West. Leftist German intellectuals saw American popular culture to be capitalist and corrupt. Conservative German intellectuals rejected the same culture out of chauvinism.

    Cristian Tamas : Is the Perry Rhodan “pulp phenomenon” (as you know, Perry Rhodan, the fictional hero, is an American, a U.S. Space Force Major ! ), a mark and a syndrome of infantilism and escapism ? Are the SF&F fans generally suffering from the “Puer Aeternus” syndrome ? No offense intended ! 🙂

    Sonja Fritzsche : I think it is always easy to simply dismiss something that you do not understand or that seems strange. What is more interesting is to study why Perry Rhodan is so popular and is the longest running science fiction series in the world. Otherwise the interests of a large group of people are just ignored without further scrutiny or understanding. There is certainly much more going on here than meets the eye of an outsider.

    Cristian Tamas : How do you assess the German science fiction at the European and World level ? Is it popular, is it relevant ? Should it be better known ? Why ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : German science fiction suffers from a lack of translation into English and other languages. I would not be surprised if more German science fiction had been translated into Slavic languages and perhaps French than into other languages. The book The Swarm (Der Schwarm, 2004) by Franz Schätzing shows how popular German science fiction could be if only it could reach a wider language market. This book has been translated into eighteen languages and Hollywood is in the process of making a film due out in 2015. Also look at the staying power of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Think of how many films after it have created Metropolis-like sets. Stories by Herbert Franke, Wolfgang Jeschke, Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller, Johanna and Günter Braun, and others certainly hold a candle to Anglo-American science fiction. German has long been a country where science and technology are dominant. A country such as this is going to have a significant science fiction tradition.

    The Black Mirror and Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany and Austria (Early Classics of Science Fiction), by Franz Rottensteiner (Editor), Mike Mitchell (Translator) ; Wesleyan University Press, 2008

    Cristian Tamas : What is the German science fiction’s specificity, and performances (if any)? Why should a non-germanophone read German SF? Why should an European read American SF?

    Sonja Fritzsche : I would turn the question around. Why shouldn’t they read German and European science fiction? Reading books from other countries allows the reader insight into these cultures and their current debates and anxieties.  In the process, the reader learns about her own self and society by comparing those with the science fiction of other countries. I would think that the science fiction reading public is generally one that is looking for the cognitive stimulation of the “thought game” that science fiction provides. Foreign science fiction only heightens this thought game and brings with it new discoveries and insights that are not available in the science fiction of the country that the reader is from.

    Why German-language science fiction? These central European countries have long and rich cultural traditions and histories. Their literature has a lot to share with the rest of the world. The science fiction is no different.

    “On Two Planets”  (1897) – Kurd Lasswitz

    Cristian Tamas : Do you consider German SF as a founding member of the World SF, together with the British, French and American SFs ?

    Sonja Fritzsche : Absolutely. I would even include E.T.A. Hoffmann’s proto-science fiction story Der Sandmann in this category, since the “doll” is a proto-robot. Kurd Lasswitz wrote in the late 19th century and is considered to be the “father” of German science fiction. But Berta von Suttner also wrote a utopian novel during this time. Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou certainly contributed a lot to early science fiction film history.

    Cristian Tamas : Do you think that the European SF (and the European popular culture) suffers from an inferiority complex in face of the anglo SF and is desperate for the angloSFere’s validation? Should European SF emancipate itself from “the yoke of the American hegemonic consumer culture” ? 🙂

    Sonja Fritzsche : I think that European science fiction writers write good science fiction. That is all that is important. If an author knows she is writing at her best using her own ideas that is all that should matter. If an author chooses to write a story that is in dialogue with American stories that is fine. What is important is that the author writes with her own voice and not the voices of other authors. All authors, whether Anglo-American or German, struggle to find their own voice and style. Only some are able to successfully do this. They are the authors that stand out no matter how successful they are on the open market.

    Cristian Tamas : Was the best germanophone SF written by non-SF writers as Bernhard Kellermann,  Alfred Döblin, Franz Werfel, Hermann Hesse, Ernst Jünger, Hermann Kasack, Walter Jens, Arno Schmidt, Christa Wolf, Juli Zeh, etc. ? Those above mentioned being the equivalent of, let’s say, of the major french writers as Marcel Proust, André Gide,  François Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Jean-Marie Le Clézio, etc., being authors of SF…

    Sonja Fritzsche : Certainly the German authors who “dabbled” in the science fiction genre have made some excellent contributions. I would also include Christa Wolf (Selbstversuch) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Welt am Draht) in this list. However, there are some equally compelling stories by other German-language authors, some of whom I have mentioned above already. Other names of interest include Gudrun Pausenwang, Barbara Slawig, Erik Simon, Alexander Kröger, Andreas Eschbach, and many others. Juli Zeh’s writing is compelling for its feminist message, but not for its contribution to the science fiction genre. The recent film Transit (2010) by Damir Lukacevic is adaptation of a short story by Spanish author Elia Barceló.

    Cristian Tamas : What German /US SF titles do you recommend to our readers?

    Sonja Fritzsche :  I am not sure what is available. Of the more recent stories that I haven’t mentioned above, you might check out Andreas Eschbach’s Die Haarteppichknüpfer (The Carpet Makers, 1995) and his anthology Eine Trillion Euro (One Billion Euros, 2004).  From the East, Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller’s Andymon and Der Traummeister (The Dream Master) are a must as well as Johanna Braun and Günter Braun’s Conviva Ludibundus and Das kugeltranszendentale Vorhaben.

    Gerd Prokop wrote some great comic science fiction-detective novels, although they might seem a bit dated now. Der schweigende Stern (1959) is a fun film from the GDR and Roland Emmerich’s Das Arche Noah Prinzip (1984) was his first film and not to be missed.

    Johanna & Gunter Braun : Conviva Ludibundus (Playfull Guest, 1978)The Great Magician’s Error (1972), The Transcendental Sphere Project (1983)

    Cristian Tamas : Kindly address a few words to the EUROPA SF readers! Thank you very much!

    Sonja Fritzsche : I am so glad to know about EUROPA SF and greetings to you all! What a great place to look for information on quality science fiction! I look forward to reading this Website in the future and to hearing your recommendations for good reading as well. I cannot always keep up with the most recent publications all the way over here in the United States and I welcome suggestions for good reading and well as film viewing.

    © Cristian Tamas & Sonja Fritzsche

    Sonja Fritzsche is Chair and Professor of German and Eastern European Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, Illinois, USA.

    Ph.D. in Germanic Studies, University of Minnesota; M.A. in Modern European History, University of California – Los Angeles; B.A., Indiana University.

    Prof.Fritzsche’s research focuses on (East) German literature and film, Heimat discourse, ecotopia, and science fiction.

    She is the editor of the new book series World Science Fiction Studies with Peter Lang.

    Her publications include: The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film , editor (Liverpool University Press, 2014),  Science Fiction Literature in East Germany (Peter Lang, 2006); articles in the German Quarterly, German Politics & Society, German Studies Review, Women in German Yearbook, Film & History, Extrapolation, Utopian Studies and Filmforum.  She has received grants from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and Fulbright, among others.

    She currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) and also as the Vice-President of the Southern Association of American Teachers of German (AATG). She is also on the editorial advisory boards of Extrapolation and the Brazilian science fiction journal Zanzalá.

    At Illinois Wesleyan University since 2001, Prof.Fritzsche teaches all levels of German language as well as upper division courses in 20th and 21st century German literature and film, German for Human Rights, and German Business Culture. She also regularly teaches courses in English on German and Russian utopia/science fiction, Central European Women’s writing, and German cinema. Finally, she always enjoys teaching the first year writing seminar on various topics including Intro to Science Fiction, Green Literature, Feminist Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Film. She regularly serves as the Illinois Wesleyan University’s Coordinator for Russian and Eastern European Studies (REES) concentration in International Studies. She is currently the LRC Coordinator.

    Prof.Sonja Fritzsche on German Science Fiction :


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