- Beyond Tomorrow: German Science Fiction and Utopian Thought in the 20th and 21st Centuries by Ingo Cornils
Speculative fiction has been the dark continent of German Studies until very recently. While Germanistik has largely ignored popular genres such as fantasy or Science Fiction (SF) because of their perceived poor aesthetic ‘value’, Anglophone German Studies has been in the grip of the discourse on Vergangenheitsbewältigung and the prevailing memory paradigm. As a result of this foreshortening of the field, the burgeoning domain of speculative fiction has remained largely unexplored. Against this backdrop the publication of Ingo Cornils’s study is to be welcomed: it marks a shift from the Anglophone preoccupation with the outdated discourse on Vergangenheitsbewältigung towards what Cornils aptly calls Zukunftsbewältigung.
The scope of Cornils’s study is astonishing: it deals with 70 novels and 25 films, from Kurd Laßwitz’s Auf zwei Planeten (1897)—the earliest example of German SF—to best-selling author Franz Schätzing’s Die Tyrannei der Schmetterlinge (2018) and Theresa Hannig’s Die Unvollkommenen (2019). The book also covers a wide range of SF films and TV formats, from Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s classics Metropolis and Die Frau im Mond to the 1960s prime-time TV series Raumpatrouille, which, as Cornils convincingly shows, set new standards in set design as its disc-shaped spaceship Orion was inspired by the Bauhaus. While the representation of slick technology in the series signalled the technological modernization of West Germany, the unisex uniforms gestured towards female emancipation. Cornils’s study is at its best when it engages with the popular SF tradition: another prominent example in this vein is Stefan Ruzowitzki and Michael Krummenbacher’s TV series Acht Tage (broadcast in 2019), which imagines an extinction scenario in an entertaining format. The rediscovery of the digitally restored version of Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht (1973) is another highlight: the film explores the political repercussions of the erosion of the difference between simulation and reality long before the invention of the Internet. By analysing both high-brow and popular formats Cornils rightly highlights the malleability of a genre which spans the entire spectrum from the most critical and gloomy dystopias to entertaining and fast-paced plots about the race against the clock. Occasionally Cornils stretches the genre boundaries too elastically—by, for example, including Schnabel’s island utopia Die Insel Felsenburg or Uwe Timm’s novel Ikarien, which tracks the history of eugenics.
Cornils’s book does not pursue a literary-historical exploration of the development of the genre. Rather than systematically exploring the genre’s intrinsic responsiveness to the rapid advance of modernization in Germany after 1871 right up to the end of the Weimar Republic and after the Second World War in the context of Germany’s division, Cornils groups his material into fourteen short chapters that explore themes such as first contact stories, catastrophism, virtual realities, surveillance, space stories, AI, and eternal life, to name but a few. This is understandable, given the richness of futurist scenarios and preoccupations. However, [End Page 142] this prevailing thematic focus flattens the history of the genre. Given the subtitle, the broad-brush discussion of German utopian thought in Part i comes across as too male-centric and rather eclectic: neither literary critic Jost Hermand nor the late FAZ editor Joachim Fest nor the sociologist Harald Welzer is an obvious contributor to the great tradition of utopian thinking from Hegel to Benjamin and Hannah Arendt to Ernst Bloch. Even though Cornils’s book does not do full justice to the socio-philosophical contexts of utopianism or to the contemporary debates on posthumanism and the Anthropocene as central drivers of SF, it does offer a rich survey of the German SF tradition. Its coverage will make it an indispensable reference point and source book for further analyses of an unduly neglected genre.