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Some Remarks on Current German Science Fiction

by Michael K. Iwoleit

German science fiction has had a rough ride of it since the boom time of the early eighties, when at one time no less than seven sf paperback and two sf hardcover serials were published in Germany, and Heyne Science Fiction was known as one of the largest sf publishers in the world. Unsurprisingly, most of the books published around this hey-day period were by Anglo-American writers, but this didn’t prevent German publishers from showcasing a remarkably rich and diverse selection of science fiction from all over the world. Even German language science fiction – which has rarely enjoyed commercial success and traditionally suffers from a lack of readership – went through a short-time boom.

One of the trail-blazers of the time was the extraordinarily talented young writer Rainer Zubeil – aka Thomas Ziegler from Cologne – who acted as a kind of primer for the development of a new movement in German science fiction. Ziegler’s work, which was predominantly set in a new or alternative future Germany, fore-grounded characterisation, political commentary and stylistic experimentation, marrying these with a preference for satire and irony (including ironic self-reflections on the business of sf writing). Writers such as Ronald M. Hahn, Horst Pukallus, Reinmar Cunis and Thomas Mielke were among the most prominent representatives of this trend.

Sadly, it is generally accepted that few of the German SF novels published during these boom years stands the test of time. Only a handful of its writers are still active today, and several have died (Thomas Ziegler/Rainer Zubeil died at the depressingly young age of 48).

Around 1984 German science fiction publishing suffered a major setback. One by one, science fiction book serials were discontinued, and Bastei and Heyne were the only SF publishers who could boast a solid economical base, albeit a much lower average circulation. Publishing opportunities for German science fiction writers diminished steadily, and publishers tended to focus on multi-volume works which guaranteed – or were thought to guarantee – a devoted readership. Ironically, after decades where German fantasy fiction was regarded as an appendage of science fiction, it now leads the speculative fiction market, followed by horror. In fact, these days, sf is more and more regarded as an appendage to fantasy, and the decline of German science fiction publishing has lasted until today.

Since the eighties, only one German sf writer can lay claim to true commercial success (although whether he can actually be regarded as a sf writer in the strictest sense of the term is in dispute.) Andreas Eschbach (occasionally characterised as „the German Michael Crichton“) is remarkable for his steady production of novels that – starting with his inventive space opera Der Haarteppichknüpfer (also published in the USA) – regularly hit the bestseller lists. The sf content of his novels, however, is diminishing with each new book and he should probably be categorised as a thriller writer with a preference for near future settings. No other German sf writer has come close to his success, not even Marcus Hammerschmitt, probably the most gifted German sf writer since Thomas Ziegler/Rainer Zubeil. Hammerschmitt’s manifold talents are displayed in his first story collection Der Glasmensch. His mastery of language, his inventiveness, his skilful characterisations – especially in the depiction of group dynamics, which has become his trade mark – have put him in a league of his own. The third leading German sf writer of the recent decade – although far less prolific than Eschbach and Hammerschmitt – is Michael Marrak, also a gifted illustrator and cover artist. He is arguably the best of a group of German language writers who work in a border area somewhere between science fiction, horror and fantasy (some parallels can be drawn to the New Weird in current British sf and fantasy). This interesting group of authors includes Andreas Gruber, Frank W. Haubold, Malte S. Sembten and Michael Siefener, but Marrak is unique for his strong visual imagination and the originality of his settings.

With the exception of a few writers who managed to place original science fiction novels or serials with major publishers (for example, Andreas Brandhorst’s large-scale space operas published by Heyne), German science fiction as a whole is retreating into small publishing projects and semipro magazines, most of which rarely reach circulations of more than 500 copies. Many writers have become small publishers themselves, utilising the new possibilities of cheap book-on-demand production and digital print to maintain an independent German sf production. Currently, an average of 200 new stories by German writers is published each year. A major part of these publications can be found in anthologies, writer collections and magazines, and while most are of negligible quality, a small circle of ten to fifteen writers have emerged who promise a vital, creative and versatile future for German science fiction.

One of the pioneers of German sf, the writer, editor, translator and illustrator Helmuth W. Mommers, has become a mentor of sorts for this young scene. In 2002, after a thirty-year career as a businessman, he celebrated his comeback, and soon became the major supporter of sf story writing in Germany. With Ronald M. Hahn and myself, he founded the sf magazine Nova which is almost exclusively devoted to publishing current German sf (it is currently edited by myself, Ronald M. Hahn and Frank Hebben). In 2004 Helmuth Mommers started his anthology series Visionen with the explicit goal to reach a larger audience. Although almost all major German sf writers contributed stories, this interesting and high-quality publication didn’t sell enough copies and was discontinued in 2007. Several other publishing opportunities vanished, too, but this didn’t prevent the top German sf writers from continuing to produce a remarkable and steady stream of stories. Notable authors include Thorsten Küper and the young, highly talented Frank Hebben, who were both influenced by cyberpunk fiction – each one in his own way – and created their own kind of fast-paced, near future thrillers. And thanks to the talents of scientist Heidrun Jänchen, German science fiction finally got what it had been missing for so long: a modern, ambitious female sf writer with fine storytelling abilities and a solid foundation of sound scientific ideas. Other promising female sf writers have followed in her wake, among them Karla Schmidt, Nadine Boos and Gabriele Behrend. With Armin Rösler, author of several entertaining space adventures, Jänchen is the editor of Wurdack Science Fiction, a small publication that has recently emerged as one of the main sources of current German sf. If I may mention my own contribution to this whole development, it is possible that I have set a certain trend toward longer tales in German sf. Starting with my post-apocalyptic novella Wege ins Licht in 2002, all of my novellas have earned some critical acclaim and may have inspired other writers to tackle novellas and short novels themselves.

The lack of commercial success necessary for sf writers to earn a living from their writing is still the major problem marring current German science fiction writing. However, despite this setback, the work the top writers are producing has surpassed that of the boom in the eighties, so the indications are that there is still a promising future for German sf.

Anyone interested in the history and current developments of German sf is urged to read the historical anthology The Black Mirror, edited by Franz Rottensteiner and published by Weslayan University Press. It is a well-commented and documented collection of stories in English translation from nearly a century of German and Austrian science fiction.

First published in Spanish translation at
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Iwoleit

Michael K. Iwoleit was born in Düsseldorf in 1962 and now lives in Wuppertal. Since the mid Eighties he is active as writer, translator, critic, and editor mostly in the science fiction field. He is co-founder and co-editor of the German sf magazine Nova and founder and editor of InterNova. His fiction has appeared in translation in Croatia, Poland, Italy, England, and USA. He is especially known for his novellas for which he won the German Science Fiction Award three times and the Kurd Laßwitz Award once.



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