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Interview with Lars Schmeink, Co-founder and President of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (Association for Research in the Fantastic) by Cristian Tamaș

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Lars Schmeink, Co-founder and President of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (Association for Research in the Fantastic), University of Hamburg, Germany

Cristian Tamaș : Hi, Lars, thank you for accepting this interview and for your time ! Your main research interests are comprising Utopian Literature, Science Fiction, Intermediality, Video Game Studies, American Studies, Distopy, etc. A rather large area of interests, isn’t it ? What are your priorities ?

Lars Schmeink : Actually, American Studies is the field of my ‘official education’ and the African American concentration was my MA thesis, I do not work in this field any longer. Utopia/Dystopia, Science Fiction and the Fantastic are all part of the research that has been driving my PhD thesis and basically has been dominant the last 8 years or so. Intermediality and specifically the video game medium are of interest because I did not want to limit myself to literature as contemporary fantastic goes far beyond this, so my dissertation covers film, tv, literature, video games, art, new media forms etc … so, it kind of goes hand in hand to look at the media as well as the content they transport. For my next project, I will continue along that path of popular culture in diverging media, so both fantastic and intermediality will remain my focus.

Cristian Tamaș : You’re co-founder and President of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (Association for Research in the Fantastic) and you serve both as editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Fantastikforschung (Journal of the Fantastic Research) and as managing editor of the US Science Fiction Research Association‘s Review. How and with whom you started the GFF (Association for Research in the Fantastic) and what are the organization’s objectives ? Is GFF an European Academic Research Association ? How many members from how many countries does GFF has ? Are you cooperating with the University of Liverpool’s Science Fiction Foundation and with the French academic research organizations as CERLI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur les Littératures de l’Imaginaire) ? Or with any other associations and organizations ?

Lars Schmeink : The impulse of organizing the GFF was that my research always drove me to network in the US as that was were the official organizations (IAFA – International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, SFRA Science Fiction Research Association, SUS – Society for Utopian Studies) were based. I was irritated to find that no German organization existed. So I looked around there and found people from University of Salzburg, LMU Munich and other universities who at some point attended the international conferences. My first collaborative partners in this are varied – two professors (Astrid Böger, Hans-Harald Müller) from University of Hamburg helped with the red tape of organizing the inaugural conference. Some colleagues (Martin Klepper, Randi Gunzenhäuser, Jeanne Cortiel) from the German American Studies helped focus the efforts for me, making it clear what needed to be done and how to do it. And then of course my colleagues from the GFF executive committee were an immense help in getting the GFF off the ground – Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, Ingrid Tomkowiak, Peter Seyferth and my wonderful wife Julia.

The GFF is an affiliated organization of both the SFRA and the IAFA. We are in contact with the University of Liverpool, as well as with Eaton Collection (Riverside) and the Merrill Collection (Toronto). The GFF is German-language based, which is one of the reasons that a unified European organization has not been managed so far. CERLI is French-language based, and there are other organizations in Italy or Spain, but again focused on specific languages. We would all need to overcome these barriers and stick our heads together. But so far no one has organized a pow-wow of the big fantastic researchers that are at the moment locally active. Maybe a project for the future.

Cristian Tamaș : Are a you a science fiction fan ? Who are your favourite writers ? Is science fiction just one global literary domain despite the fact it’s written in various languages ?

Lars Schmeink : An emphatic and absolute yes – I am a science fiction fan, but I would not limit it to just literature. It is a global phenomenon but of course each iteration is slightly different. Indian SF is not Russian SF is not American SF. Film SF is not literary SF is not gaming SF … but then again, there are so many connections that it is hard to ignore the similarities. It is a wonderfully broad field of research and of course entertainment. In terms of favorites – I love the writing of Gibson, Cadigan, Stephenson, Dick, Ellison, Kress, Butler, Bacigalupi, Di Filippo, and of course the occasional classics like Heinlein, Bradbury or Asimov. In terms of film: Ridley Scott, Vincenzo Natali, Christopher Nolan and many more  …

Cristian Tamaș : Do you read German science fiction ? If yes, what writers and what texts are you recommending ? In your opinion what is the specificity of the German science fiction ?

Lars Schmeink : German Science Fiction is a bit paradox for me, as we actually had an SF tradition that precedes the Gernsbackian-SF in the US with Kurd Laßwitz at the end of the 19th century. He is far more “futuristic” than Poe for example, who Gernsback quoted in his famous “scientifiction” article. There is a strong tradition especially of what we call “novels of the future” (Zukunftsroman), but it got side-tracked after the war. It was made second-class through categorization and rigorous academic prejudices. So today SF is still fighting this sideline position – but there are some interesting novels from Andreas Eschbach, Wolfgang Jeschke, Frank Schätzing, and some newly found interest through writers such as Markus Heitz. In terms of literary interest, I especially liked the latest Christian Kracht book – an alternate history of a communist empire in Switzerland instead of Russia. (Ich werde hier sein, im Sonnenschein und im Schatten /I will be here, in sunshine and in shadow – Christian Kracht

Cristian Tamaș : Have you heard about the German Publishing Paradox ? Germany is the biggest EU publisher and one of the biggest world publishers but the German fiction (German SF&F included) is not dominant in Europe (Germany has the biggest number of readers and book buyers from Europe, too). Culturally, Europe is dominated by the English language translations, by the English language culture and entertainment. Why is it so ?

Lars Schmeink : Ah, that is actually what I was referring to above. The problem is the calculation of publishing houses. Since it is much cheaper to produce a translation from an English source (of which the publisher already has the rights and has no more ‘work’ to be put into it) than to groom and work with a German writer to bring him/her to international fame, there is no real incentive for publishers. German authors are constantly wary of the fact that they will have be individually responsible for their works to get translated – a burden only few of them can shoulder. Bristish and American publishers are part of the problem – they are unwilling to finance translations and book tours for European authors unless these were massively successful (see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plus American audiences (still the biggest market) are quite unwilling to read outside their comfort zone – anything foreign is suspicious. So it is all a matter of education and a willingness to take risks. Maybe it will get better, when publication on the internet progresses …

Cristian Tamaș : Why do you consider Vincenzo Natali’s film Splice important ?

Lars Schmeink : Generally, because it is a deeply disturbing vision of our own hubris and what genetics is possible in achieving. The key sentence of the film is “what is the worst that could happen” and the reason to play God is that “we can”. Scary on so many levels. Personally though, the film is important because it kind of epitomizes the central theme of my dissertation thesis, which deals with Biopunk Dystopias and the science fictionality of our contemporary society. Splice really drives home the point that we are already posthuman, that genetic engineering is already replacing the human with something else entirely. Amazing film for that.

Cristian Tamaș : You’ve dedicated studies to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Why is that ?

Lars Schmeink : In all cases I am more interested in contemporary culture than in historical approaches or archive work – it is my orientation towards cultural studies and my focus especially on popular culture. All three novels kind of touch upon but are not clearly central to science fiction, they are all fringe-SF if you will. I find this science fictionality of realism very interesting, the dissolution of boundaries, the evaporation of genre. And since in my department it was easier to work on literature, it kind of made sense to me to express by interests in contemporary culture, in transgressions and in science fiction through these novels.

Cristian Tamaș : Shall we fear globalization and the soon-to-come posthuman society ?

Lars Schmeink : Oh, philosophical question. Yes and no. In short, I don’t think that either development is good or bad per say. It is rather a question on how we approach either and how it comes about. Globalization is a powerful movement, but in terms of global capital and liquid modern realities it is scary as hell. If hypercapitalism isn’t stopped, then no one will be safe anymore and corporations will become jurisdictionally untouchable. Globalization in terms of social movements and environmental thinking for example, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing. Let us not just think about global warming in Europe (as we are kind doing right now), but get Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas into the boat as well.

The same goes for a posthuman society. If we think of transhumanism and the elite few buying their way to genetically perfected children or eternal youth while the rest of humanity lives with the consumerist by-products and in effect becomes superfluous workforce because robots can serve better and easier, then something is off and we should all fear it. If on the other hand, we become aware of our relation to animals and the earth as an environment and kind of get over this notion that we are the pinnacle of evolution, then yes – posthuman society is great. I want to be a wolf-machine-human-hybrid – sounds  awesome, doesn’t it?

Cristian Tamaș : Why do you think that some Anglo-American scholars just recently discovered the European literary theories on the Fantastic literature and the primordiality of the European Fantastic Literature ? For example, John Clute borrowed the Slavic term of “Fantastika”(used since the end of the 19th century in the Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian literatures) and proposed it as an umbrella term for the imaginary domain of the literature ! In Slavic literatures, fantastika (фантастика) encompasses science fiction (called “science fantastic”, научная фантастика), fantasy, and other non-realistic genres.

Extremely original and really revolutionary, isn’t it ? In continental Europe, the literary theory established this concept a hundred years ago ! Just an example : the Anglo-Saxon histories of science fiction and fantasy are almost exclusively focusing on UK and US, completely neglecting all euro-continental literatures, including the German one (some persons seemingly never heard of the euro-continental romanticism artistic movement, or the German romantic literature  – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Achim von Arnim, Clemens Brentano, Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert, Adelbert von Chamisso, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué – etc.) ! Is there any differences between “le fantastique littéraire” and “le fantastique populaire” ?

Lars Schmeink : I completely understand the critique, but it is probably not so much a problem of unwillingness but rather a very simple problem of translation. If you want to be aware of a Russian tradition of fantastic literature, in most cases, you will have to be able to read Russian. And since English has kind of maneuvered its way to become the language of humanities and sciences over the course of the last 100 years, most scholars work in their mother tongue and English, if not exclusively in English (because it is their mother tongue). We will need much, much more translational work for any literary scholarship of the fantastic to become international. Both US-centric organizations of the fantastic (International Association for the Fantastic in Arts and Science Fiction Research Association) have made concerted efforts to open themselves worldwide and there is a lot of effort being made to widen the view, but it takes time and lots of work. The GFF was introduced as a German association and because of this I had to fight and defend myself for having half the conference program in English. But not having it in English would exclude any exchange with UK or US scholars. In the ZFF () we introduced two article categories: First, we had translations of important work from other languages brought to German language scholars. But we had trouble finding experts, the right texts, translators willing to work for free etc. … Second, we now have a category called “International Perspectives” in which we introduce foreign fantastic traditions – the first was on Korean Fantasy from the 16th to 19th century, the next will be about contemporary Magical Realism in Spanish.

It is hard work and it will need all of us to help make fantastic literature (and film, games, tv, art …) more available to non-native speakers. But without massive efforts in terms of time and money this will be a project for the long, long haul, and not something we can accomplish tomorrow.

Cristian Tamaș : Do you think that Fantasy and Fantastic Literature is representing the same thing, covering the same themes and tropes ?

Lars Schmeink : Actually, no I don’t. I am not of the German-French-tradition of literary fantastic deriving from structuralism (Todorov, Durst) but rather agree with Clute that all non-mimetic literature is fantastic (or what he calls Fantastika). I would argue that the fantastic is the umbrella term, that mystery, gothic, horror, science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, magic realism and many more are all fantastic in some sense. As such, the literary fantastic of Todorov’s design would be more akin to mystery or gothic to me. Fantasy on the other hand is what Todorov calls marvelous. For me, Fantasy is defined as Attebery argues by the fuzzy set of variables with something like Tolkien in the centre – that is by today, it would be High Fantasy of course. Or as Mendlesohn argues, there are more fuzzy sets and Tolkien is at the centre of the portal-quest fantasy … nonetheless, that is something different than say Kafka or Meyrink.

Cristian Tamaș : Is an European Science Fiction existing or it’s just a theoretical concept ? Could European Science Fiction be defined, does’it has a specificity and it’s own originality ? Could be promoted worldwide ?

I think there is no ONE European SF, but many … and as with SF itself it is hard to define in terms of necessary elements. But think of Verne and Wells – both are European and both are central to SF in general. So is Shelley with Frankenstein. Today the question of national literatures is kind of obsolete, so I think that the idea of a specifically European SF is not so important as is the idea that SF is inter- or transnational and that it is possible to write SF from a non-American ex-centric position. SF can be used to ignite changes, to transform a culture – for that the non-American perspective is important. But it would be more radical to think of Bosnian SF than of British SF – so it is more a matter of privileged positions, not nationalities.

Cristian Tamaș : What European speculative fiction writers do you recommend ?

Lars Schmeink : In terms of literature, I am not widely read outside US/UK and partially Germany – so my recommendations would again privilege dominant writers. But in terms of film/tv I was thrilled to see a Finnish series such as Nymphs, the French series Les Revenants, British series Misfits. Or Spanish films such as REC or El Orfanato, the European-Israeli co-production The Congress or even the European-led video game adaptation series Resident Evil.

Cristian Tamaș : Should the SF scholars mingle with the fans, writers and editors at the SF&F Conventions and Festivals ? Or just restrain themselves to their conferences, symposia and colloquiums ?  Should the scholars be more active on the public scene ? What is and what could be the social role and the social responsibility of the scholar ?

Lars Schmeink : Well, it is a bit two-fold. On the one hand, academia has been too secluded and should definitely venture out into the world of fandom. At the GFF we have from the beginning stressed our goal to get fans as well as producers (authors and the like) to the table as well, because we all want the same thing – that SF / Fantastic is recognized as a relevant cultural phenomenon. And especially as fan studies becomes such an important part of SF research and fan communities become ever more professional.

On the other hand, fans and scholars do have a different approach to the topics and it can be disappointing to fans to see how ‘irreverent’ some scholarship is. The ‘scientific’ view of the matter does not need a fan-nish glee for the subject, it does not need the personal involvement. Sometimes scholarly work from scholars that are also fans, would do good to be less involved, less enthusiastic about their subjects. But that is a risk in any field where fandom is a great part of the research.

Cristian Tamaș : What are your actual and next projects ?                    

Lars Schmeink : I am currently working on a grant proposal for a large media reception project which is attempting to address the changing cultural attitudes towards the fantastic and to find empirical evidence of an enhancing value placed on the fantastic. If all goes well, this will be my work for the next two to four years. Other than that I am working on smaller projects in science fiction – some articles and my website www.virtual-sf.com.

Cristian Tamaș : Kindly address a few words to EUROPA SF’s readers ! Thank you !

Lars Schmeink : As fans of SF, I would like to invite you to remember the origin of SF, its interest in science and the scientific method as well as its always present interaction between fans and producers. Fans of SF have always been part of a large community – which by now includes scholars as well. When you meet them (or I should say us), please invite us in, visit us at academic conferences, and let us all enmesh the different communities that practice the love of SF. Let’s discuss, let’s do research, let’s write new and wonderful stories. Thanks.

© Cristian Tamas & Lars Schmeink

 

Lars Schmeink was born in Hamburg, 1975. He is Lecturer at the University of Hamburg (Germany), Institute of English and American Studies.

 www.larsschmeink.de 

 www.virtual-sf.com

Previous article„Fantastic Games. Ludic Imaginary Spaces and Their Socio-Cultural Impact”, 5th Annual Conference of the Association for Research in the Fantastic, Klagenfurt, Austria : 11th-14th of September 2014
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