Erik Simon on Alfred Leman’s “Two Episodes”

It’s pretty rare to see science fiction from Germany much less from the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany). Today we’re featuring a weird scifi story called “Two Episodes” from GDR writer Alfred Leman (1925 – 2015). This story combines two episodes from Leman’s second short story collection, Der unsichtbare Dispatcher. We asked translator Erik Simon, a German science fiction writer and editor in his own right, about Alfred Leman, Leman’s work, and science fiction in Germany.

Weird Fiction Review: What was Leman’s life like before he became a writer?

Erik Simon: Leman was born in 1925 in Nordhausen and spent his whole life in Thuringia, except a short time around the end of World War II when he was first as a soldier and then as a POW. After returning from an American/British prison camp, he became a teacher, later he studied biology and chemistry in Jena where he spent the whole rest of his life, and earned a diploma (then the German equivalent to a MSc) and a doctor’s degree in biology. He then worked in the Research Department of Carl Zeiss Jena, a rather important optics company, till 1985 when he was allowed to retire for reasons of fragile health. So he never was a full-time writer.

WFR: Can you give us an overview of Leman’s work as an author? What sort of works did Leman write?

ES: His first two books, co-written with two collegues, were scientific textbooks on botanics, still in use at the Universities today. All his fiction is strictly SF: two story collections (1973, 1980), two novels (1986, 1991), and a number of stories published in anthologies which would make up at least one more collection. The first story collection, The Gift from the Transsolarian Guestswritten together with Hans Taubert, one of Leman’s collaborators on the textbooks, was very important for the development of SF in the German Democratic Republic – it was, in fact, the first SF story collection of any quality, and it was international quality right from the start. All the following books and stories were written by Leman alone, without much change in themes, quality, or style. The second collection, The Invisible Dispatcher, contains what I consider Leman’s best story (rather a novellette), „The Revision“; SF criticism in the GDR generally shared this opinion.

Most of Leman’s SF (not all) is centered around two themes: encounters with alien life forms (not necessarily intelligent) or with their traces, and life in a highly computerized and automated near-future world that has become so complex that for the individual, it is almost stochastic and unpredictable except in tems of probability. (No cyberpunk, though.) There is a slight shift from the first theme that dominates in the story collections towards the second theme that becomes more prominent in the novels and the later stories. Biological complexity appears in several of the early stories, but with centering on social complexity rather, the novels themselves grew more complex. The first novel, Black Flowers on Barnard 3, combines not only both themes but also novel and short stories: An interstellar spaceship dumps a group of astronauts together with tons of equipment on the third planet of Barnard’s star simply too loose weight. The people must not explore the planet, their only task is to sit in their camp and wait till the ship will come along on its way back and take them aboard again. Against their will they get into trouble – namely, into contact with the planet’s intelligent aboriginals who are quite different from people not only biologically but even more so psychically. Inserted into this main novel plot are several episodes that might be stand-alone short stories as well, each telling a story from the former life of one of the astronauts, displaying rather different themes of their own but also adding to the protagonist’s character as it shows itself in the main plot.

WFR: How does “Two Episodes” fit in with his oeuvre both historically and thematically?

ES: It appeared in Leman’s second story collection, and it fits in well in both respects except for its form, a kind of stream of consciousness all in one paragraph. Especially the second episode is a kind of highly condensed Leman story. There is a third such miniature in the collection which, at least thematically, in fact can be considered a condensed version of the title story in The Gift from the Transsolarian Guests. All other Leman stories are written in a more traditional style, but in the same very quiet, unexcited tone, only hinting at certain facts and at the protagonists’ thoughts and reasons.

WFR: Have other works by Leman been translated into English or is “Two Episodes” a first?

ES: No translations into English, at least not to my knowledge. Quite a lot of his stories were reprinted in (West) German anthologies in the seventies and eighties (a few even appeared there for the first time), and translated in Eastern (including Eastern Central) Europe.

WFR: In “Two Episodes,” Leman mentions Stanisław Lem and Kurt Vonnegut. What authors influenced or may have influenced Leman’s work?

ES: From the second collection on (and possibly earlier) the influence of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky can be felt. The possible influence of Anglo-American SF on Leman must have been quite limited for the simple reason that very few of it appeared in the German Democratic Republic before the mid-seventies, original books from the West were not sold in the GDR, and for most of the time their import was simply prohibited. In their condensed form, the Two Episodes may be influenced by stories from Herbert W. Franke’s collection The Green Comet; a few of them appeared in the GDR in 1974, and 16 more in 1978. They cannot possibly have influenced the stories in the first collection, but in fact that collection by Leman & Taubert did for SF in the GDR what Franke’s stories had done about ten years ealier for the SF of (West) Germany and Austria: they established a paragon of stories full of the sense of wonder.

There are similarities between Leman’s SF and some stories by Bradbury (the kind we have in The Illustrated Man) or, say, by Le Guin (stories only, not her novels). In the case of Bradbury, there may have been some influence as well, while Le Guin was published too late in the GDR to influence Leman.

A clear but very limited influence can be traced in the title story of the second collection: „The Invisible Dispatcher“ is, as Leman himself stated in a postscript to the story, a SF version of „The Invisible Japanese“ by Graham Greene: the plot is quite exactly the same, with a rather strange alien life form appearing instead of the Japanese tourists, and going completely unnoticed by the protagonist who all the time boasts beeing such a great observer.

WFR: I’m interested to know more about German speculative fiction. Who were Leman’s contemporaries? How does German scifi/fantasy works differ from American/British ones (if at all)? 

ES: First of all I must say that I am more interested in short stories than in novels, so I tend to see things from that point of few. Second, SF in the German language consists of four parts: pre-war, SF in the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria till 1990 (the two forming a single marked) opposed to SF in the GDR, and SF in Germany and Austria since 1990. The four sections show different features, a common feature is that German SF (and later, fantasy) was and is much more oriented towards novels instead of short stories. There never was any fully professional SF magazine in the German language (except for several short-lived attempts).

Post-war German SF has been shaped more or less according to patterns of Anglo-American SF. This is, to some extend, true even for the SF in the GDR, where the influence was indirect and came later, namely, via Russian SF which, in turn, was influenced by a large number of American/British SF published in the Soviet Union in the sixties and early seventies. (Mainly the classical big names: Asimov Bradbury Clarke Simak Sheckley … Wells, of course, and a few less typical names like Vonnegut.) SF in the German language preserved, though, some more typical traits of European literature, including (sometimes) a less straight narrative, which in the best case results in more complexity, and in the worst, in a boring attitude of teaching morals. With a lot of “normal” stories in between, i.e. those in the tradition of Anglo-American magazine SF.

The most specific feature of GDR SF (in its best specimina only) was the existence of a specific type of reader: Life under censorship (sometimes rather liberal, sometimes rigid and entirely illogical) teaches the reader to read carefully, to look for hints, for meanings behind the surface of the narrative. It also increased interest in a kind of literature like SF which in fact very seldom criticised the official politics and ideology but quite often told of things far away from the official propaganda. SF in the GDR was a branch of literature not much respected, not much controlled by the state, not much important, and extremely popular with the readers.

German fantasy is quite different. Some of it simply apes the standards (Sword & Sorcery, etc.), and usually doesn’t do it well, but a few writers like Cornelia Funke have written some interesting things indeed. I am not qualified to discuss this in much detail, though.

WFR: Are there other notable German authors that may be of interest to speculative fiction fans?

ES: Sure, but this is a wide field, and a complex question. Have a look at the anthology The Black Mirror (ed. by Franz Rottensteiner, Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2008), this is the best overview to start with, but of course you cannot cover such a large field in one volume. For GDR SF the book’s main blind spot is Leman; other notable GDR writers not covered there are Gert Prokop and Bernd Ulbrich. For the period from 1990 on, important authors missing in that anthology include Karsten Kruschel and Heidrun Jänchen, both of the next generation after my own. Especially Heidrun was an incredibly good writer of SF short stories, but she seems to have fallen silent two years ago, probably disappointed by the fact that for about 15 years, no big publishing house has ever printed any new German SF short stories, so the entire field is limited now to semi-pro magazines and small press. Very small press, alas.

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