Exploration Log 1: Sonja Fritzsche’s “Publishing Ursula K. Le Guin in East Germany” (2006)

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).

Final Thoughts

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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37 thoughts on “Exploration Log 1: Sonja Fritzsche’s “Publishing Ursula K. Le Guin in East Germany” (2006)

  1. Well, that was absolutely fascinating – thanks! I couldn’t have imagined the DDR allowing LeGuin to be published so it was really interesting to learn how the relevant hoops were jumped through… I’d really like to read the Extrapolation article but not sure I have the time and energy to pursue it. I did have a sub briefly in a previous existence, but long ago.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the rundown. It’s a fascinating article that would reward a reader with a bit more knowledge on the actual two novels that form the focus of discussion — unfortunately, I read The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed in my late late teens.

      The article isn’t super long.

  2. While I personally hope twitter does completely crash and burn, I actually don’t think it will. But good for you for future proofing. even if you guess wrong, having more posts on your blog is only going to help 🙂

    • Emm… I’m not going to get into it much but as someone who generally gains between 80-300 followers a month to be at -18 for the last month is a substantial datapoint. Having the state of twitter in constant flux is profoundly off-putting to engagement, etc. So yeah, I don’t doubt we’ll hit a point of no return.

    • Also, for the legions of artists, freelancers, small businesses who rely on social media (and Twitter in particular), I can’t imagine what they are going through as the forum that has done so much for niche genre implodes… So yeah, I’m not wishing for it to “crash and burn” despite my personal hatred for the right-wing man baby burning his 44 billion dollar purchase room by room just because he can.

  3. I try to imagine how dangerous it must have been to be a player in those intellectual debates about the social and political value of a novel. I’ve read similar accounts of archaeological theory in the East Block. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit I would have probably focused on fieldwork, and I would have kept my abundant theorizing to myself.

    • I agree. I suspect there’s a reason that Bradbury was published before Le Guin!

      I couldn’t get into all the details but the editors had to carefully play the game. Karin Baier, the primary editor trying to get The Dispossessed published in 1986, simply states that the novel “fits into the East German ideological project” and leaves ALL the thorny issues of the novel (and its often critical take on a variety of governmental systems) to external review.

      • No doubt they struggled. Lev (Leo) Klein, probably the leading Soviet archaeologist, and a bold theorist, was in and out of favour (and jail), depending on the changing theoretical interpretations at the top. With those kinds of examples before them, many would have turned down the opportunity.

  4. It seems that science fiction was respected more in the GDR more than in the USA or Britain, where it wasn’t taken so seriously and viewed by many as simple, innocuous entertainment, not just because it was viewed as “subversive” literature. In a way, it parallels the way science fiction was viewed in France, where it was also received with more glowing eyes than the two English speaking nations, except it that it was accepted for it’s more liberal attitude.

    I know that in the 1960s, “Galaxy” magazine published lists of authors who were for and against the Vietnam war, in response to a plea by it’s editors for the end of the conflict. It appears obvious that the SF of the more liberal authors who were opposed to the war, would not have been welcomed in the GDR, because it revealed their anti communist views. I think Ray Bradbury espoused more simple American views in his SF than Ursula LeGuin, although both of them were against the conflict.

    • “It seems that science fiction was respected more in the GDR more than in the USA or Britain” — I’d be very wary of making any general conclusions like that from a short summary of an article on only one aspect of the GDR’s SF scene. Part of the defense of Ursula K. Le Guin was the traditional she’s “not just science fiction” but also good literature schtick (and of course embodying some elements of the GDR’s ideology).

      I suspect more of the debates about the nature of genre and its acceptability can be found in the monograph I posted a link to. I might read it in the near future but I can’t promise anything.

      Yes, that spread in Galaxy is an absolutely fascinating look at the general political positions of that historical moment. I wish Galaxy published a follow-up a few years later after My Lai or the later massive escalations of the conflict.

      • I just don’t think they would have imposed such severe sanctions upon their SF if they hadn’t viewed it as serious, I don’t know. Yes, Ursula LeGuin’s SF was good literature, but so was Ray Bradbury.

    • Richard Fahey: *It seems that science fiction was respected more in the GDR more than in … Britain, where it wasn’t taken so seriously and viewed by many as simple, innocuous entertainment, not just because it was viewed as “subversive” literature. *

      In Britain, where Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells: “You are, for me … the most interesting ‘literary man’ of your generation — in fact, the only interesting one”?

      In Britain, where Orwell wrote: “Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation. How much influence any mere writer has, and especially a ‘popular’ writer whose work takes effect quickly, is questionable, but I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much. The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.”?

      In Britain, where Aldous Huxley publised BRAVE NEW WORLD in 1932? In Britain, where even Kipling wrote some science fiction?

      As JB advises, I really wouldn’t try to paint other cultural histories — with so broad and sweeping a brush

  5. Pingback: Not The Friday Five: The Boring Title Edition – Peat Long's Blog

  6. Russian science fiction has a long, independent tradition. A good study of its roots —

    WE MODERN PEOPLE: SCIENCE FICTION AND THE MAKING OF RUSSIAN M0DERNITY
    by Anindita Banerjee

    This study focuses on pre-Soviet SF and Federov and the Cosmists to a very large extent ,and ends with Zamyatin’s WE.

    From the Amazon blurbs –

    “The basis of this book is an original and tremendously engaging idea–that science fiction served as a crucial model for national literature in Russia. It made Russian modernity possible. Banerjee treats science fiction not as a genre but as a mode of apprehending the world.”
    –Stephanie Sandler, Harvard University

    “Making the compelling connection between mass-scale revolutionary technological projects, such as the Trans-Siberian railroad, and the avant-garde campaigns to transform the Russian/Soviet imagination, Banerjee demonstrates how the techno-political and science-fictional imaginations are entwined in the modernization process.”
    -Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., author of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

    • Sounds like a fascinating study! Check out the history of East German SF I link at the bottom of the article if you haven’t already. It’s free! (and from a great academic publisher — Peter Lang).

  7. The idea of an exploration blog is great one. I am keen to see what else you dish up. And I am particularly keen to read more of your thoughts on SF on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

    Regarding the protracted processes that “foreign” SF underwent in its translation into the GDR, something similar happened with local authors too. Here, I am thinking of SF writers in the Soviet Union as opposed to the GDR, though one presumes the processes were not that dissimilar.

    For instance, I recommend the afterward written by Boris Strugatsky to the more recent translations of his and his brother Arkady’s ‘Hard to Be a God’ and ‘Roadside Picnic’. Both works encountered, variously, the ire and cutting tools of Soviet censors. Even that titan of Soviet SF, Ivan Yefremov, would encounter fairly brutal censorship, albeit somewhat confusing for the censors, when he followed up his seminal Soviet SF novel ‘Andromeda’ with a thinly veiled critique of “really existing socialism’ in ‘Hour of the Bull’ (sadly, untranslated). I detail some of the this in a post I wrote years ago, here:

    https://ofantyphayes.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/review-of-andromeda-a-space-age-tale/

    • Thank you for the kind words. Many more cool ideas in the works. As with everything I do for the site, it’ll be whatever I feel like writing about in that moment!

      Yeah, one of the handful of Strugatsky works I’ve read was The Ugly Swans, which also received the ire of the censors.

      I’ll check out the post. It seems familiar…. I might have read it 4 or so years ago!

  8. I have a couple of East German published SFF books, courtesy of my great-aunt Metel who lived near Leipzig, but they’re all East German or East European works. I never had an East German edition of Le Guin or any other western SFF writer, unless you count an illustrated edition of The Hobbit.

    It’s no secret, though, that western SF books were smuggled or otherwise got into East Germany, because while unapproved books or cassette tapes could be seized at the border, people managed to smuggle in stuff anyway. The annual Leipzig Book Fair was another gateway for western works into East Germany, because there were western exhibitors and apparently attendants who specialised in stealing western books that were in high demand. One guy who later wrote a memoir about it even complained that “those western publishers all had books about dying forests that no one wanted, but not Solzhenitsyn who was high demand.”

    The late East German SF authors Carlos Rasch supposed had a collection of western SF books which he occasionally let selected people borrow.

    • Thank you for the interesting tidbits. And all the book smuggling (as I point out in the summary) was one reason, among others including Western SF TV that could be picked up in East Germany, “approved” western authors were eventually published. The Stanislaw Lem Fan Club I mention had their massive stash of western SF busted by authorities.

  9. A question regarding your comment that “The Dispossessed‘s Shevek was incorporated in the East German national myth”. You note that it was in the “external review” that “Shevek is interpreted as a “communist revolutionary” in the role of the “resistant fighter” that harkens back to the East German national myth of resistance t “past anti-fascist heroes” (482).” What I am wondering is whether or not Sonja Fritzsche has any details of this take on Shevek being incorporated into the way The Dispossessed was marketed in the GDR, or if it was only restricted to the external review (which I take it was not for public consumption at the time). I only ask this because from my memory, Shevek was an ambiguous figure in The Dispossessed, both committed to the anarchist culture of Annares while chaffing somewhat at it limits. Indeed, the fact that The Dispossessed was accepted for publication in the GDR for me counts against it, considering that the Stalinists of the GDR ultimately came to the conclusion that Le Guin’s vision of an anarchist revolution was perceived as non-threatening to their regime!

    • I think it was limited to the external review. I’m going to go ahead and email you the article. I can’t remember enough about the character from when I read the novel when I was 18 or so to remember that many specifics about him. She also talks about an “intro” to The Left Hand of Darkness from the UUSR that contained more details about Le Guin’s work that circulating earlier in the GDR — and discussed lots of her novels that weren’t even unavailable in the GDR.

  10. This is fascinating…it’s been a while for me, too, since I read these two novels. The thing that strikes me with Le Guin, overall, is that her societies (mostly) read more as questions than warnings or prescriptions, and I wonder if that had anything to do with her acceptance.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Let me know if you want me to email the article to you. It’s not super long and would give a better impression than my hackneyed summary of why her work has the possibility of acceptability.

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