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The Black Mirror cover

Being raised Anglophone in a world that tends to use English as its lingua franca (lingua commercia, lingua pedagogica, and of course not forgetting lingua imperia Americanae) can result in complacency. It'll easily slip a person's mind that there's nothing natural or inevitable about this state of affairs. Worse, books that contrive to get themselves written in languages other than English can acquire the air of poor relations—competitors at a sort of cultural paralympics whilst English-language titles thrash it out at the main Olympics event elsewhere.

As you can probably tell from that opening paragraph, with its apologetic tone and its mannered lapsings into that other, now-superceded lingua franca, Latin, I'm edging towards a mea culpa. That I don't speak German, a state of affairs about which I used to feel blithe indifference, is increasingly, as I grow older, a matter of great shame to me. I ought to be able speak German. I ought to be able to do so in a general sense, as a twenty-first century European; but I ought to be able to do so in a more specialized sense, as somebody interested in the history of science fiction. Because German writers have played a crucial role in the development of that genre.

To prolong the personal note a moment longer: the first blush of my SFnal cultural complacency came off when I wrote a History of Science Fiction. In that study I found myself arguing not only that modern SF begin with a German author—Johannes Kepler's Somnium, written c.1600—but that during the four centuries that intervene between then and now German writers made a wealth of significant contributions to the genre. The considerable profile of German SF, in fact, went a long way towards helping me coalesce my theory as to the broader cultural determinant of the genre: for if, as I claim in that study, SF grows out of the Reformation by splitting quasi-Protestant fantastical imaginings, rooted in the new sciences, from a longer tradition of quasi-Catholic "magical" narratives we nowadays call Fantasy, then we'd expect Germany, as a preeminent Protestant continental nation, to be a major site for the cultural production of SF. And so, I discovered, it has been: Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus (1669); von Voss's future-utopian Novel of the Twenty-First Century (1810); Kurd Lasswitz (especially for the good-as-Wells Auf zwei Planeten, 1897); Carl Grunert; the dime novel sequence The Pirate of the Air; Paul Scheerbart; Fritz Lang; Perry Rhodan; H W Franke; Kraftwerk. My lack of German meant that I could do little more than note most of the titles that manifested this, since few of them have been translated into English.

All of this makes a volume like Mike Mitchell and Franz Rottensteiner's anthology of previously untranslated German SF extraordinarily valuable. Reading it was both pleasurable and educational. I should add that Rottensteiner, who provides an economically expert "Short History of German Science Fiction" by way of introduction to the volume (amazingly there is, as he notes, "to this day no complete history of German SF") has no truck with recondite theories about the genre being born with the Reformation. He takes the mainstream view that SF properly begins with Gernsback. So although he and Mitchell include a few late 19th-century stories in The Black Mirror, the meat of this collection is 20th- and 21st-century.

The introduction begins in mournfully realistic mode:

An American reader, if asked for his or her opinion of German science fiction, most likely would react in one of the following ways . . . (a) they would have no opinion at all, since translated German SF is almost non-existent and thus beyond the threshold of visibility; (b) they would equate all German SF with that interminable series that gives science fiction a bad name, Perry Rhodan (ongoing since 1961); (c) if they were cinephiles, they might link German SF with the heyday of the German film company UFA in the twenties, with Fritz Lang and especially with his film Metropolis (1926); and finally (d) if they had especially long memories, they might recall the role that translated German SF played in the early Gernsback science fiction pulp magazines. (p. xi)

Rottensteiner's a bit hard on poor old Perry, there, I'd say: those novels, whilst they are almost all extruded polystyrene, are often interesting in several ways. But the general thrust here is spot on.

The key question, of course, is: are the stories themselves any good, or is this merely an (in the strict sense) academic exercise? The short answer is: the stories are indeed good. Not all of them, though. The first few (grouped together as "The Pioneers: Science Fiction before World War I") struck me as stiff and dated in a bad way. Wells's near-contemporary Kurd Lasswitz gets praise from critics as a crucial figure in the development of the genre, and he may well deserve that praise: but the two stories of his included here, "To the Absolute Zero of Existence: a Story from 2371" (1871) and "Apoikis" (1882), are both stilted and rather dull. The former is hamstrung by being configured essentially to display various not-brilliant ideas (symphonic compositions using smells rather than sound; days "divided into two halves of ten hours, each with 100 minutes of 100 seconds" and so on); the latter is a dramatically inert utopian sketch. I can well believe that Mitchell's translation is perfectly accurate in capturing a pervasive stiffness of tone:

"What do I owe to this fate, what do I owe to my life," he asked himself, "if it is so unjust towards me, if I am to be powerless at the mercy of blind forces? . . . It will not be in vain, O Nature, that I have overcome your first fundamental law—I have succeeded in liberating some types of matter from the law of gravity. After years of laborious work, I have been able to modify the molecular state of certain chemicals in such a way that— (p. 30)

Yeah, yeah, whatever. The third story, Ludwig Hevesi's trudging fantasia, "Jules Verne in Hell" (1906) is no better: an epistolary Cook's Tour of a satiric Inferno that is very feeble. On the other hand, Paul Scheerbart's "Malvu the Helmsman: a Story of Vesta" (1912) is an absolute delight. It tells the adventures of a thoroughly alien bunch of aliens, living on rafts of weeds on a planet-spanning ocean, steering clear of whirlpools and never seeing the stars because of ubiquitous cloud-cover. The story achieves a sort-of Vancean elegance and estrangement (Vancean avant la lettre, obviously) whilst also embroidering a genuinely touching spiritual progress.

From here on the stories get better; still a little prone, in some cases, to "as you know, Hans" infodumping but consistently intelligent, ingenious and thought-provoking. The second section, "Between the World Wars," includes Egon Friedell's nicely compact satirical inversion "Is the Earth Inhabited?" (1931) and Hans Dominik's extrapolated space-race future "A Free Flight in 2222" (1934). The third section ("German Science Fiction Comes Into Its Own after World War II") kicks off with three lovely one-page stories by the Austrian Herbert W. Franke—that's a hard form to get right: but these, and especially the second of them, "Thought Control," are excellent. Indeed, they selection includes a half-page story: Ernst Vleck's genuinely poignant reworking of McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang trope, "Say It With Flowers" (1980: having gone to such length to establish that I don't speak German I'm not really the person to note this, but surely "Say It With Flowers" is a pretty free translation of the original German title, "Ein Motor wei Maria"?) Cold war paranoia hangs a little heavily on Carl Amery's "Just One Summer" (original title, the less laconic "Nur einen Sommer gönnt ihr Gewaltigen," 1985), a slightly mannered fable of total surveillance and bureaucracy. But in Horst Pukallus's entertaining "The Age of the Burning Mountains" (1989) Earth suffers the Wellsian catastrophe of passing through a "Cosmic Cloud," such that "all equipment using electromagnetism" is brought to a standstill; with some mixed Wellsian consequences.

There follow three examples of "Science Fiction from the German Democratic Republic" include the collection's title story, Erik Simon's "The Black Mirror" (1983): a sharp and memorable little fable. Humanity makes contact with the aliens "Riddhans" who give us the gift of "an ideal mirror," "a large round disk like an oriental gong," silver on one side and perfectly black on the other. The shiny side reflects everything perfectly ("light, infrared radiation, X-rays, radio waves, elementary particles"); whereas the reverse side an "ideally permeable" surface into which anything can be inserted such that "what goes through ceases to exist." Humanity gets excited at the possibilities: rigging the mirrors as perpetual motions machines for propulsion, using the dark side as garbage disposal. The aliens, meanwhile, seems sanguine: "but by bit they'll throw in the whole universe," notes one. "So what?" returns the other. It's a boiled-down version of the Frankenstein/ Pandora's Box myth so central to the genre, although with a bracing twist of zen—if I had more German I'd know whether "Riddhans" plays with the notion of getting rid of existence in the original the way it does in English.

The book's longest section is "The Current Generation from the 1990s to the Present": eight excellent short stories, from Peter Schattschneider's "A Letter From the Other Side" (1994)—dedicated to Umberto Eco—in which the narrator's loss of access to a future digital world cuts him off completely, to Andreas Eschbach's oblique Death of Grass in miniature, "Mother's Flowers" (2008). Stand-out tales include Michael K Iwoleit's brilliantly thought-provoking "Planck Time" (2004), and the witty alt-historical "Hitler on the Campaign Trail in America" (2004) by Oliver Henkel, in which the Führer meets Al Capone.

Overall, the volume's selection is perhaps a little weighted to the 1980s on the one hand and the last ten years on the other (of 25 stories, 12 fall into one of those two categories; and three of the tales that don't are only a page long). I might have liked a few examples of much earlier stuff, although in that regard my tastes may not be representative of the ideal reader. But apart from that, it's very hard to fault this collection. I can't speak to the accuracy of Mike Mitchell's translation, but I can report that his is a wonderfully varied voice, moving effortlessly from the formal C19th to fluid and dislocated 21st idioms with no sign of strain. The reader gets no sense of a writer imposing his own style on different authors; on the contrary the English is clearly being put at the service of the German. Rottensteiner's invaluable general introduction is cool, comprehensive and informative, although his mini-intros and annotations to the actual stories are sometimes a little over-filled: is there much point in telling us (twice) that Simon's "Black Mirror" story "is a reference to an occult tale by Gustav Meyrink" if that tale isn't part of the collection? Do we really need notes telling us that Hölderlin "was a major German lyric poet," or that "in Germany, as in Europe in general, a raised middle finger is a sign of contempt"? Moreover, the critical discussion sometimes tends to the vague (for instance: saying that Michael Marrak's "stories and novels are very striking in atmosphere and mood" actually tells us very little). But the intros are full of good stuff nonetheless: from the grievous—Egon Friedell, an Austrian Jew who converted to Lutheranism, committed suicide by leaping from a window after the Anchluss in 1938—to the puckish. I liked, for instance, the factoid that Carl Amery is "probably the only author who received a lifetime award from a city that he destroyed (in a book)." Overall: a very worthwhile collection of stories indeed.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
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