Reading and collecting Science Fiction Books in the GDR – A personal view

Fall 2003 (Vol. IV, No. 3) Table of Contents

Beljajew’s The Tenth Planet (Der Zehnte Planet), 1947

I was born in 1969 and grew up in the GDR until its end in 1989. The seventies and eighties were a nicer time in this country than it had been in the time before. Some things were missed; we couldn’t travel to capitalist countries (with the exception of if you were over 55/60 or to special events for family members). The economy wasn’t very powerful but most people lived well, there was no unemployment, and you couldn’t fall deeper than to a certain social level.

Reading books was very important here and the government supported it with lots of money for libraries and schools. Of course, not for all kinds of literature. At school we read books by authors from the Soviet Union, like Scholochow, Tolstoi or Gaidar, and writers from the GDR. Aside from that, of course, classics like Goethe, Heine and Shakespeare. Our education was funded and solid–tests in the nineties showed its advantage over those of many other countries. And if you have only two TV channels to watch (GDR 1 and GDR 2) plus a few more from the western part of Germany FRG (officially not allowed but not suppressed any longer then) it is understandable that people read a lot.

Ludwig Turek’s The Golden Bowl (Die Goldene Kugel), 1949

I started reading very early and went by bicycle to the library each week. Soon I concentrated on Science Fiction and from 1980, I started to collect it. Science Fiction wasn’t called that in the GDR at the beginning. First, books were published by the Soviet Military Administration shortly after the end of World War Two. They were cheap paperbacks with stories by mostly Russian writers, for instance Beljajew and his The Tenth Planet . With the founding of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist part of Germany in 1949, the first GDR-SF-book soon followed. It was The Golden Bowl – A short novel about nuclear power and space ships, by Ludwig Turek. This and others in the following time dealt with some main themes. One was a kind of production novel: some (GDR or Soviet) engineers do an epoch-making invention, spies from capitalist countries (US or FRG) try to steal it but are arrested by the police after a hard fight. Or the revolution export: astronauts (here they were called cosmonauts) from a mostly communist earth travel to a far away planet and find a feudalist or capitalist society. They help the working class to overcome their circumstances (of course with some victims) and everybody is happy. That sounds simplistic and stupid but some writers (like Eberhardt del’ Antonio) packed all this in exciting action and so these books are readable still today.

Eberhardt del’ Antonio’s Titanus, 1959

Then topics spread: aliens visiting earth (no invasions, all problems were only misunderstandings; there was the thesis: if a society is progressive enough to space-travel, they have to be communist), interpersonal problems in extreme situations, and some authors started to use satire and irony. And further, some writers like Heiner Rank or Johanna and Günter Braun wrote very cleverly about problems in our own country under the veil of SF. If these would have been novels happening in present time, they never would have passed the censorship but they were published as being SF. Even the high-literature-authors sometimes used the instruments of SF for their own purposes, like Christa Wolf.

Baegemuehl’s Das Weltraumschiff, 1952

Another part of published SF was those of other socialist countries, mainly the Soviet Union. And that was it! We had the Strugazkijs, Ivan Jefremow, Kir Bulytschow, and these are highlights that show what this kind of literature can reach at its best. Else there were new editions of classic authors like H. G. Wells, Alexej Tolstoi and many others. With H. P. Lovecraft, Stefan Grabinski and others even some horror was published, but no modern splatter or anything like that; we had a very low crime rate and supernatural things were not in accord with our materialistic view of the world. And there was nearly no fantasy (with the exception of children’s literature), especially no sword and sorcery.

Rank’s Die Ohnmacht der Allmachtigen, 1973

The last part was very small; it contained books by capitalist authors like Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury. Our currency, the Mark, was not freely convertible into the Deutsche Mark of the FRG or the US-Dollars, so everything that needed foreign exchanges was in low number and hard to get. We called such books under the counterbecause they were not displayed in the bookshops–you had to know a bookseller to get a copy.

Oh yes, about the name. In the beginning the genre was calledscientific-fantastic or utopian; in the fifties sometimes they were even sold as detective stories . But in the early eighties everything became less accurate and we said SF, too.

Strugazki’s Picknick am Wegesrand, 1976

The books in the GDR were made very carefully. Paper was expensive and so every story was read by editors and subject specialists again and again; they worked with the author to improve the result. Often they were nicely illustrated. SF was loved by the people and nearly every book sold within hours. Some had editions of some hundred thousands, today Germany publishers are happy if they can sell some thousands.

Then, after the revolution that started in Leipzig in 1989 (I had the luck to take part and see this historic event) the great mystery happened. The SF-readers vanished. Thousands of readers didn’t like the new kind with space operas, BEMs and soldiers in space. Today, even large SF-publishers like Heyne are in their biggest crisis ever. Tie-in novels like Star Trek or Star Wars don’t sell that much now; years ago they were the big business and helped to bring out other non-bestselling titles. Fantasy and children books sell well because of the success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. A few small presses try to survive with that, but they don’t become rich at it.

Jefremow’s das Madchen aus dem all

GDR-Science Fiction became soon a great area for book collectors. It is a closed territory and with the publishing of a (nearly) complete bibliography by Hans-Peter Neumann (more than 1000 pages!) everybody can see what books he still is missing. The prices went up and some titles are extremely rare, especially for books printed in other socialist countries but in the German language (if one has for instance Aderca’s Underwater Cities, hold it or send it to me. ;-); it is worth as much as Sauron’s ring). The only problem is they used cheap paper that started browning before the books even were sold. I have the luck to live near Leipzig, where a company named Zentrum für Bestandserhalt is specialised in a kind of book therapy that takes all acid out of the paper. It isn’t very cheap but I have more joy when I look at my books.

A last few words about the SF-fandom. Every organization outside the government’s influence was unwanted. So in the seventies, the Stanislaw Lem-Club in Dresden was dissolved. Later things became easier and for instance in Leipzig the Circle of Friends of SF was founded, of which I’ve been a member since 1990. We often have authors from all over the world as our guests, so from the USA: Thomas M. Disch, George R. R. Martin, Tim Powers, Michael Bishop, Charles Sheffield, Nancy Kress and many more, and from the UK, Russia and other countries, too. We published some books, the best known isLightyear 7, a final book in a series and a kind of conclusion to the GDR-SF. We collaberated with editor Erik Simon on the Kurd Lasswitz Award for that (a kind of German Nebula).

H. L. Fahlberg’s Betatom, 1957
Hans-Peter Neumann’s Bibliographie der Science Fiction in der DDR
Lichtjahr 7

Dirk Berger

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