Book Review: Franz Rottensteiner’s The Black Mirror & Other Stories

Blending facts and philosophy in a first-ever anthology of two centuries of German and Austrian science fiction writing

Egon Friedell: a striking example of satirical tone emerging in sci-fi | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Egon Friedell

Egon Friedell: a striking example of satirical tone emerging in sci-fi | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Reality Re-imagined: Doomsday, Aliens and Absolute Zero

“If a story of the future is to be believable, it must be related to reality and remain closely connected with experience,” wrote suspense novelist Kurd Lasswitz. “From the events of cultural history and the current state of science, one may draw various conclusions about the future, and in so doing analogy should be used as the natural ally of imagination.” And in that statement, the German-born author became the father of science fiction.

To most of the English speaking world, the history of German science fiction has remained relatively inaccessible. However with the 2008 Wesleyan Press publication of The Black Mirror and Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany and Austria, these hard-to-find stories came finally within reach. This rich compilation faithfully traces the history of the genre in the German-speaking world from its origins in the utopian novels of the turn of the 20th century, through the world wars, and into the current era. Editor Franz Rottensteiner’s dizzying introduction weaves the splintered back story of the emerging German language authors, as they worked in relative isolation from the universe of their English speaking counterparts.

Kurd Lasswitz’ 1871 publication To the Absolute Zero of Existence, in which a lovers quarrel in a society with no personal disagreements leads to tragedy, along with his 1882 utopian short Apoikis, where a traveler discovers descendants of the followers of Socrates living an Atlantian existence on a crystal island, both demonstrate the flexible forms from which the genre has evolved. Early sci-fi writers tended to lean heavily on philosophy, emerging sciences, and the future of war; and while frequently guessing at the reach of future technologies, no imagination, however bold, was able to foresee the true horrors of coming conflicts.

Other selections from this time period range from the hilarious 1906 short story by Austrian author Ludwig Hevesi, Jules Verne in Hell, in which Verne is depicted taking a tour of Dante’s Inferno and finding its methods and machinery dated, to the haunting tale of interplanetary espionage played out in Carl Grunnet’s 1908 story The Martian Spy.

After the First World War, many German science fiction stories took on nationalist overtones, a sub-genre the editor elected to leave out of this collection. The examples from this era that are included reflect the satirical tone that began to emerge. Otto Willi Gail’s The Missing Clockhands: An Implausible Happening from 1929 and the Austrian polymath Egon Friedell’s Is The Earth Inhabitable? from 1931 are striking examples.

What is most notable about this anthology, aside from the rarity of its contents, is the thorough retelling of the almost unknown history of German-language science fiction. Friedell’s short and poignant allegory for cultural misunderstanding Is The Earth Inhabitable? takes on far sadder overtones in the context of the author’s own story. Born as Egon Friedmann in Vienna in 1878, he converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1897 and changed his surname in 1916, living as a wealthy cloth manufacturer and writer and ran in the higher circles of the day. He was a friend of architect Adolf Loos and performed on the cabaret stage, all the while publishing regularly in Karl Kraus’ Die Fackel. He would commit suicide in 1938 jumping from of his apartment window as Nazi Storm Troopers arrived at his door to arrest him. The cold and calculated judgment of extra-terrestrial beings as they note down a short list of reasons why Earth could not possibly support life is a chilling reminder of our own inability to recognize the intricacies of our communal existence.

The Black MirrorAmong other notable insights into the development of the sci-fi genre, the anthology sheds light on the differing lives of authors on either side of the wall. While many authors of science fiction and dime novels struggled to make a living in the Federal Republic of Germany, writers in the German Democratic Republic reaped the benefits of a captive audience while generally avoiding ideologies.

The title story, Erik Simon’s 1983 tale The Black Mirror, is a prime example. In the tale, two extra-terrestrials present the human race with a truly one sided mirror whose reverse side swallows anything it comes in contact with. After explaining the mirror’s potential for space travel and witnessing the frenzy that ensued after earthlings decide to attach a turbine to the dark side, the visitors realized they had made a grave mistake – “Bit by bit,” one comments, “they’ll throw the whole universe into the black empty half.” Is this perhaps an allegory after all? Like all good writing, it works either way.

The able translation by Mike Mitchell sets the tone of this special collection of stories. Spanning over one hundred years of history, this fascinating anthology of abstract fiction truly is, well, out of this world.

The Black Mirror & Other Stories
Edited by Franz Rottensteiner
Translated by Mike Mitchell,
Wesleyan (2008) pp. 424

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