I devour a massive quantity of scholarship on science fiction (authors, culture, fandom, etc.) and history topics that intersect with my SF interests. Some weeks I spend more time reading historical fanzine debates and magazine articles than fiction. I thought that I would share some of what I’ve found most transfixing with you all! In the past I’ve tweeted the most intriguing bits I’ve come across (Michael Moorcock burning John Brunner novels for example) but with the impending implosion of the platform I thought it best to post more on my site which is on track for a banner year.
Thus, I inaugurate the first in what I hope are many future Exploration Logs! Some posts will be a brief survey of the various SF-related non-fiction I’ve read. Other posts, I hope, will be a jumping off point for my own research. In this instance, I’ll share the elements of an article that resonated with me.
Today I’ll cover an absolutely transfixing piece by Sonja Fritzsche on how two Ursula K. Le Guin novels went through an “elaborate approval process” before appearing print in Communist East Germany (GDR). Read more to learn more about the Stanislaw Lem Club’s stash of illegal western SF and how The Dispossessed‘s Shevek was incorporated in the East German national myth!
Sonja Fritzsche’s article “Publishing Ursula K. Le Guin in East Germany” appeared in Extrapolation, vol. 47, Iss. 3 (Winter 2006). As I could not find a copy online, I requested it through my university’s Interlibrary Loan system. If you’re desperate to get your hands on a copy, reach out!
“Publishing Ursula K. Le Guin in East Germany” reveals three fascinating intersecting threads–1) the mechanisms of the censorship program according to the “official literary policy of Socialist Realism,” 2) status of genre within the GDR and 3) how Le Guin’s complex takes were interpreted and rationalized in order to see print for the growing number of East German SF fans in the 70s and 80s.
First, what western SF novels even hit the shelves?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s two Hugo-winning novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) appeared in print in the GDR in 1978 and 1987 respectively. Le Guin’s works joined a small handful of SF novels and collections published in the Communist State: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaghterhouse 5 (1969) in 1976, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950) in 1982, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) in 1974, The Illustrated Man (1951) in 1977, The Martian Chronicles (1950) in 1981, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) in 1978, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) in 1978, and H. G. Well’ the Time Machine (1898) in 1975 (484).
Why was western SF published in the GDR in the 1970s and 80s?
All East German authors were “required to demonstrate their […] dedication to the party” by portraying “Socialist Realism” (471). Over the course of the 1970s, officials within the Ministry of Culture increasingly allowed limited literary experimentation and responded to growing popularity of SF. Thus editors and authors constantly “navigated the boundaries” of official literary policy (472) including publishing approved Western SF authors. Fritzsche charts the growing popularity of science fiction within the GDR that spurned the stated to attempt to control what could not be stopped. Relatives and friends secreted hand-typed copies of PKD and Asimov novels from Western Germany (473). Western TV proved even more influential. East Germans–with illegal antennae–could tune in to West German programming including The Avengers (1961-1969) and Star Trek (1966-1969) (473).
Fritzsche describes the impact of a 1973 investigation of the Stanislaw Lem Club at the Technical University in Dresden. Investigators discovered an array of illegal Western science fiction literature (474). An emergency meeting of cultural officials was convened to discuss science fiction! The conclusion: it was impossible to effectively “proscribe the availability of all Western science fiction due to the continual access to western media” (475). Instead, readers were to be “guided in their interpretation of approved examples” (475). The authors selected were “sufficiently socialist in tone” despite “the limitations of their bourgeois society” (476).
What was the approval process?
Fritzsche lays out the following steps to extensive publication approval procedure: “The application consisted of a recommendation from the editor in charge, as well as at least one external review by a literary critic, academic, or additional editor. In the case of science fiction, both the editorial recommendation and the external review evaluated the manuscript according to its ideological appropriateness and its overall literary quality” (476-477). The Office of Publishing and book Sales, Section on Fine Literature approved or denied the application.
How was Le Guin interpreted?
It’s been a long long time since I’ve read Le Guin’s two best known novels. The Left Hand of Darkness remains my single favorite Le Guin work. I’m only going to summarize the broad points of the GDR’s interpretation of her work that resulted in their publication as I do not remember the finer plot points of both novels.
According to the approval application for The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai “possessed isolated characteristics” the approved “communist super scientist dedicated to the pursuit of scientific socialism and willing to sacrifice” their life for their cause (478). Neither of the works reviewers dwelted on the “depravity of the leaders on Winter” but emphasized the qualities important to the “model socialist personality among the other inhabitants” (479). Also, the lack of “matriarchy, patriarchy or concept of propter” on Winter can be linked to Friedrick Engel’s view that the emancipation of women is important in the establishment of communism (479).
There’s a reason The Left Hand of Darkness saw print in 1978 nine years before The Dispossessed in 1987! The latter required massive external review by an English Professor to justify the “novel’s ambivalent portrayal of Communism” (477). Fritzsche suggests that the novel could not have been printed in the 70s due to its “outright problematization of the social stagnation on Anarres” that paralleled actual criticism of the East German economy (484).The external review emphasized the problems in the bourgeois society of A-Io and dodges the communist dictatorship on Thu altogether! In addition, Shevek is interpreted as a “communist revolutionary” in the role of the “resistant fighter” that harkens back to the East German national myth of “past anti-fascist heroes” (482).
There’s so much to like in this article. I found all the details of fan culture’s illegal collections fascinating. Fritzsche provides a clear map to evolving historical context of the 70s and 80s that fostered the growing popularity of science fiction and the government’s attempts to control the ideological interpretation of Western SF in the face of the flood of illicit media that could not be stopped. I wish I had read both novels a more recently to completely understand how Le Guin’s complex and critical works were packaged as acceptable if a bit bourgeois.
I look forward to tracking down more of Fritzsche’s scholarship including her monograph Science Fiction Literature in East Germany (2006) which is available for free.
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