Chapter Seven Ambiguous Utopia – Johanna and Günter Brauns’ Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI
Johanna and Günter Braun developed their own playful and lightly satirical style of science fiction in the seventies and eighties. Originally authors of children’s literature, in the sixties they became increasingly interested in German Romanticism, specifically the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The Brauns were intrigued by his use of the fantastic to reveal, what Todorov terms, “ambiguities of meaning.” These ambiguities become visible in that moment of uncertainty caused by an encounter with a fantastic element in the act of reading (25–6). An imaginary form, the fantastic allowed the Brauns greater opportunities for expression than did the confines of realism. Experimenting with the fairy tale and fable, they incorporated science fiction’s qualities of estrangement, allegory, satire, the uncanny, and the grotesque to warn of structural and environmental dangers present in the contemporary development of the GDR and of industrial societies in general.
This chapter focuses on their novel Unheimliche Erscheinungsformen auf Omega XI (Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI or Omega XI, 1974) as representative of the new style of GDR science fiction. It discusses the influence of German Romanticism on the novel, primarily through the Brauns’ use of the uncanny. The Brauns used this technique, as well as elements of play and of the game to create a critical space. Therein they not only problematized contemporary representations of the “truth” by East German hegemonic ideology, but also proposed a corrective course of action. Selfdescribed as “good communists” in the seventies, the Brauns made use of this critical space not to subvert the existing system, but to change and improve it, so that it might reach the more perfect future outlined by Marxism–Leninism. An unusually bold critique of the growing environmental dangers in the GDR, Omega XI solves this ← 195 | 196 → difficulty with a utopian resolution of class and racial conflict. Yet through the use of a narrative frame, the promising utopia on the planet Omega XI becomes an island just out of reach, when placed in the context of the “reality” of the future Earth home. The evergrowing material and ideal gap of real-existing socialism in the GDR had mitigated earlier utopian hopes of an earthly socialist paradise. In this way, the Brauns began to address the problematic of planning and constructing a concrete utopia, which, in the next chapter, Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller consider to be unattainable.
Johanna and Günter Braun, or “the Brauns” as they are affectionately known as by their fans, are often referred to by members of the science fiction niche as the authors of the highest quality East German contributions to this genre. Both are of the same generation as Eberhardt Del Antonio, but are a few years younger. The Brauns experienced World War II in their teenage years. Born in 1929, Johanna Braun was raised in Magdeburg and later worked as a farm hand, saleswoman, typist, secretary, reporter and editor. Günter Braun was born in 1928 in Wismar and grew up in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). After a brief time in the military, he completed high school in Stendal and went on to work as a drugstore assistant, then as a reporter and editor of a local newspaper, theater critic, and librarian (Suvin, “Playful” 72; Simon and Spittel, “Science-fiction” 112–113). Professional authors since 1955, the couple have written all of their works together at their former residence of many years in Magdeburg. They now make their home in Schwerin.
The Brauns began their work together by writing fiction for children and young adults. They wrote mostly travel literature and adventure stories along the lines of Daniel Defoe and James Fennimore Cooper with a revolutionary bent (Suvin, “Playful” 119). Early titles include Einer sagt nein (Somebody Says No, 1955), José Zorillas Stier (The Bull of José Zorilla, 1955), Tsuko und der Medizinmann ← 196 | 197 → (Tsuko and the Medicine Man, 1956) and Herren der Pampa (Lords of the Pampa, 1957). The Brauns first received recognition for their novels Preussen, Lumpen und Rebellen (Prussians, Bums and Rebels, 1957), Mädchen im Dreieck (Girl in the Triangle, 1961) and Prisoners (Gefangene, 1958). The beginnings of their experiment with satire developed in Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Brotstudenten Ernst Brav (The Strange Adventures of Earnest Upright, Poor Student, 1959) and the experimental forms of Eva und der neue Adam (Eve and the New Adam, 1961–62), which also was the first of several TV plays. Throughout the sixties, the Brauns began to experiment more and more with humor and satire, formulating their own style and voice. During the seventies, in addition to their science fiction, the Brauns continued to publish other fantasy, including Bitterfisch in 1974, as well as a book on love, Fünf Säulen des Eheglücks (Five Pillars of Married Bliss, 1976).
By the late sixties, they began experimenting with science fiction themes. The short story Ein objektiver Engel (An Objective Angel, 1967) focused on issues of technology and humanity, and the anthology Die Nase des Neandertalers (The Neanderthal’s Nose, 1969) contained two science fiction stories. Their first science fiction novel came in 1972 with Der Irrtum des Grossen Zauberers (The Great Magician’s Error).1 A mixture of science fiction and fable, this complex satire of colonialism and technocracy also poked oblique fun at East German bureaucratic authority. Their second science fiction novel, Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI, followed two years later. This novel is a true science fiction novel as opposed to the science fiction/fairy tale The Great Magician’s Error. Omega XI was also the more popular of the two among readers.2 A third, Conviva ludibundus (1978) further developed the Brauns’ notion of playfulness ← 197 | 198 → to absurd abstraction as the name indicates. In addition, a collection of short stories published earlier in the periodical Magazin appeared in 1975 under the name The Mistake Factor (Der Fehlfaktor).
Johanna and Günter Braun were the only science fiction authors to have their works banned in East Germany. This action resulted from their decision to no longer write within the bounds of Parteilichkeit. Since the Prague Spring, the Brauns had begun to question their communist convictions. Wolf Biermann’s expulsion in 1976 contributed to their growing disillusionment with party policy. In a personal interview with the authors in 1999, they remarked that East Germany’s membership in the Warsaw Pact contradicted the SED’s promise of a peaceful, international revolution. Their displeasure only heightened when NATO placed nuclear weapons on West German soil in 1979 in response to the installation of medium-range nuclear missiles by the Soviet Union. In 1979, the Brauns simultaneously left and were asked to leave the German Writers’ Union. Subsequently, they became more active in the peace movement, and continued to voice their concerns through their science fiction. At first they were allowed to publish by East German authorities, but only in the West. For instance, Der Utofant (The Utofant) was licensed by Verlag Das Neue Berlin in 1981 and then sold to Suhrkamp. Suhrkamp also picked up their earlier works as well, including Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI in 1981 and The Great Magician’s Error in 1982. The Brauns soon ceased to write within socialism and became ever more critical of the path that the Soviet Bloc was taking to a communist future. Consequently, the East German licensing bureau ceased to approve any new publications of their books in the East or in the West. However, the Brauns soon drew the attention of the authorities, the secret police in particular, when their books began appearing in the West in the Suhrkamp series “phantastische Bibliothek.” The Brauns explain with some amusement that the authorities never figured out how they were smuggling the manuscripts out of the country. Due to the Christmas rush, not every package could be as carefully sorted and examined as usual. It was at this time that the Brauns would disguise their manuscripts to look like a book, wrap them with other books and address the packages to a secretary at Suhrkamp, notating “b. [c/o] Suhrkamp” underneath her name. None of ← 198 | 199 → these packages was ever confiscated or returned (Personal interview, 1999).
Both Das Kugeltranszendentale Vorhaben (The Plan of the Transcendental Sphere, 1983) and Der x-mal vervielfachte Held (The Hero Who Was Reproduced X Times, 1985), among others, appeared in this manner. The Plan of the Transcendental Sphere comments on the integral connection between authority and language and is set in a society that suffers from language conformism. The Hero Who Was Reproduced X Times includes a short story of the same name, in which the Big Unknown State (Grosses Unbekanntes Staatswesen or GUS) sinks into the ocean. With hindsight, the acronym GUS becomes even more ironic as it is also the same abbreviation as the German acronym for the Confederation of Independent States or CIS (Gemeinschaft Unabhängiger Staaten or GUS). While this science fiction would make an interesting study in itself, I have chosen to analyze a text, which was publishable and readable in East Germany.
The Uncanny as Critical Space
By 1974, GDR science fiction had established its own clichés, in what Jameson has referred to as a generic contract with the reader (Jameson, Political 106). Elements such as the spaceship, distress call, and existence of life on another planet present in Omega XI ceased to play a fantastic role and rather functioned as generic conventions. They were in a sense “heimlich” elements of the story set in a not-too-alien Earth future where space travel is a commonplace event. Such recognizable plot developments signal the comfortable and the known in a genre that is often riddled with the estranged, the unknown and the ambiguous. These familiar elements allow the focal point of the story to be placed on the uncanny manifestations. In the fantastic story, the new and as yet unexplained elements then confront the reader as the strange and the different. What is still absent to the reader is made present in the text. What is known is re-presented (presented again) in a way, which is understandable, yet different enough from previous ← 199 | 200 → knowledge or generic expectations to cause reflection. In this way what appears strange can lead a reader to draw upon and examine known experience in her own reality to understand the other fictitious reality.
As mentioned in the introduction, Johanna and Günter Braun understand their science fiction to be a type of fantastic story in the tradition and experience of E.T.A. Hoffmann. In the western science fiction journal Quarber Merkur, they published an article on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s use of the fantastic in his story “Meister Floh” to disguise a critique of the Prussian justice system under Friedrich Wilhelm III. In the article, the Braun’s attribute the success and the function of Hoffmann’s works to their ability to “mask his misleading of the censors, function as the executor of equalizing justice, represent a utopian signal for the final triumph of good, aid in the escape from a dreary routine, act as a playful-aesthetic stimulant; if possible all of these at the same time” (“E.T.A. Hoffmanns Gespenster” 1). The Brauns envisioned their own purpose in a similar manner and, to a greater or lesser extent, incorporated all of these qualities in their work.
On the surface, Omega XI contains a critique of the West. Representatives from a future, highly advanced, socialist Earth answer the distress call from what turns out to be the “oppressor” class on the distant planet of Omega XI. In detective novel style, the two cosmonauts, Merkur and Elektra, discover the existence of a class system and free the oppressed, resulting in the building of a democratic socialist utopia. However, as Olaf Spittel, a former editor at Verlag Das Neue Berlin, commented, the GDR science fiction author often hid a critique of socialism in a critique of capitalism. Spittel described this as “thrashing the class enemy and meaning the class friend” (“Afterward” 468). By setting Omega XI in a class society of a future time and place, the Brauns were able to disguise their critique of the GDR giving them the ability to propose a reality alternate to the proclaimed existence of “real existing socialism.”
The title of the book, Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI, makes reference to Hoffmann’s use of the uncanny to create a figure that is similar but at the same time strangely different. The uncanny may be a figure or a situation, which provides some new truth about the original in its existence as double. In a now classic reading of ← 200 | 201 → Hoffmann’s Sandmann, Freud describes the uncanny or “unheimlich” as something frightening or unfamiliar, which has in fact been repressed in the unconscious. Through an uncanny experience the repressed is brought out into the light, as a return to the familiar or home or “heimlich” (Freud 24). In this respect, the Brauns created a story that was indeed uncanny in its similarity to the GDR and a divided Germany, and through this doubling made truths visible that were otherwise precluded from a seemingly monosemic public discourse.
There are several uses of the word uncanny in Omega XI. The first refers to the Lumen (the group that sent the distress call) and their representative Valentin Fuks (also known as Sunflower). They are descendants of a community of humans, who were forced to leave Earth at an unspecified time in the past, as they wished to conduct experiments in genetic engineering. The first-person narrator and hero, Merkur Erdeson, connects the Lumen with what he terms the “mistakes of our forefathers.” In his memoirs, Merkur describes how his encounter with the uncanny Lumen brought back the repressed memory of what occurred during humanity’s “bleak past” (8). Just which forefathers he is referring to and what went on in the “bleak past” is never specified, but within the GDR context a distinct parallel can be drawn between the Lumen and Nazi Germany. On the whole, GDR science fiction portrayed genetic engineering as a capitalist/ fascist activity used for the enslavement of its products. Here the Brauns remain within the paradigm of GDR socialist discourse by linking the Lumen to fascism. However, Merkur, a citizen of the future socialist Earth, also identifies the Lumen as uncanny, recalling a darker human quality long thought to be eradicated from the more “perfect” future Earth. Thus, the Lumen do not just fill the role of oppressor, representing the strange or alien West, but are also familiar, acting as a reminder that this tendency is a recurring German or human one, and is possible in a socialist society.
In addition, rather than follow the SED’s explanation of fascism as the product of irrational forces with its seeds in German Romanticism, the Brauns participated in a growing questioning of the legacy of the Enlightenment in the GDR of the early 1970s. The name, Lumen, appropriate for a people who glow in the dark, and their prominent use of the sunflower symbol point to their tie to Enlighten ← 201 | 202 → ment values. The novel portrays such values as having run amok with time, failing to overcome the class system, and leading to consumerism and environmental damage. The Lumen themselves are decadent figures, who have grown grotesquely fat and slothful from a lack of work. Their exclusive focus on reason and scientific expertise proves to be their downfall. By emulating the German Romantic movement’s critique of the Enlightenment, the Brauns simultaneously question the success of their own government’s self-proclaimed continuity with this very tradition, and believe they too have run astray of the initial goal of building a democratic-socialist republic.
The second uncanny encounter occurs with the discovery of the results of the Lumen’s experiments, which have created a biological class structure. Two genetically engineered races resulted: the intelligent Prudenten, a race of scientists, and the robot-like Roburen, brawny homunculi, who die if they do not constantly work. The Lumen on Omega XI suffer from what they call the Modderwind, a cyclical storm that threatens to wipe out all life on the planet. A parody not only of Honecker’s consumerist policies, but also of broader global implication, this “mud wind” is a result of environmental damage caused by a system put into place by the Lumen to meet their material needs. The system spins out of control as the Roburen overproduce out of biological necessity, replacing luxurious houses only hours after they are constructed. As a result, the mud wind blows down from the mountains of garbage slowly taking over the planet.
In their distress call, the Lumen refer to dangerous, uncanny manifestations on their planet, which Merkur and Elektra first determine to be the Prudenten and Roburen. To the Lumen, these beings are uncanny in that they created them, literally as their intelligent and laboring alter egos. Rather than representing their irrational or evil twin, as is so often the case in Hoffmann, the Lumen’s previously “unified” existence has been split into three pieces. Without their other “thirds” they cannot survive. This is evident in the physical degradation they experience without thought or labor. Reminiscent of the Eloi and the Morlocks in Wells’ The Time Machine, the Lumen have become naïve, helpless bureaucrats, slowly being consumed by the mud wind brought on by the Prudenten and the Roburen. What had been a population of 57,000 has dwindled to 57 due to excessive ← 202 | 203 → environmental damage (84). However, a comparison with the uncanny ends there, as the Roburen and Prudenten are, with one great exception, not dependent upon the Lumen. Occupiers of the industrial center of the planet, they are merely waiting for the Lumen to leave so that the latter two groups can live on the planet in peace. In a role reversal, the Prudenten and Roburen also call the Lumen the uncanny manifestations on Omega XI, questioning their legitimacy on the planet as non-contributing members of society. In effect, through genetic engineering, the Lumen have made themselves obsolete. They are the creators of the Prudenten and Roburen and are intimately connected to them. Yet the Lumen represent a path, which the Prudenten and Roburen do not want to repeat.
The Brauns present development on Omega XI in a way, which also alluded to the contemporary situation in East and West Germany. Its narrative re-presents the German post-war existence in terms of an alien situation on another planet. A glass wall that was built by the “workers” separates the Lumen from the Roburen and Prudenten. On one side of the wall are the grotesque figures of the Lumen. On the other side are the workers, whose main market is the Lumen. The Prudenten are enslaved by the Lumen, who have genetically designed their laborers to require a daily ingestion of vitamin P. The Lumen control the production of the algae in which this nutrient is found.3 As much as the two sides dislike each other, they are essentially codependent. In the end, it takes an outsider, Merkur, to break through the glass wall and bring everyone back together. Then through mutual cooperation of all three races, the environmental problems cease and the promise of a paradise develops.
However critical of the GDR, Omega XI cannot be seen as a rejection of socialism, but rather as a contribution to a literary and political discourse on how to improve it and the situation of Germany. According to Freud, the uncanny must refer to past experience, as it often does in fantasy. Although the fairy tale expresses the familiar/ home in its use of “once upon a time” and other generic qualities, Jack ← 203 | 204 → Zipes argues that it also can provide an uncanny experience in which “the real return home or recurrence of the uncanny is a move forward to what has been repressed and never fulfilled” (Fairy Tales 176). He reinterprets Freud through Ernst Bloch’s emphasis on the importance of fantasy in the formulation of future goals and utopia. Bloch writes of fantasy: “If it becomes a dreaming ahead, then its cause appears quite differently and excitingly alive. The dim and weakening features, which may be characteristic of mere yearning, disappear; and then yearning can show what it really is able to accomplish” (quoted in Zipes, Fairy Tales 175.) Zipes writes that it is this dream through which society can be changed and a future home created. The uncanny experience like the dream can work in the same manner. Thus the uncanny works not only through that which is repressed in the past, but also can reveal what has not yet been fulfilled.
Science fiction has traditionally been a literature that expresses future visions and dreams. For this reason Zipes’ analysis of the uncanny in the fairy tale equally applies to its presence in science fiction. While the Brauns are critiquing “real-existing socialism,” they do not fail to provide a vision of what they wish this socialism to become. In the final chapter, they describe the hope of the new civilization on Omega XI, one in which all three classes work together for their common survival. The happy end on the planet Omega XI is filled with hope for a new civilization of peaceful coexistence, this time along the democratic socialist model, which Earth representatives Merkur and Elektra provide. Here the Brauns are “dreaming ahead” to their vision of a future GDR. Yet, as I will show in a moment, this dream was also mitigated by the frame, which surrounded it.
As demonstrated in the preceding chapter, the science fiction of the fifties and sixties operated on a historical materialist timeline leading to a Marxist–Leninist utopia. This positive portrayal of utopia remained for the most part a static notion heavily shaped by the hege ← 204 | 205 → monic ideology outlined by the SED. Although Omega XI portrays utopia as possible, it also ultimately depicts an ambiguous representation of the realizability of this same utopia. The hope present at the beginning on Omega XI is contrasted by the less dynamic results on a future Earth. Often labeled as a novel of warning (Kruschel, Spielwelten 104–111), Omega XI’s ambiguity places the assuredness of the SED success into question. In this manner, it stands out among the majority of science fiction published previously.
For instance, one element, which differentiates Omega XI from other GDR space adventures of its time, is its narrative frame. The frame is set on Earth in an unspecified future. Up until this point, most authors avoided a setting on Earth as it often conflict with the SED’s vision of Earth. The world creation rules of a fictional Earth had to comply with the party’s proclamation of the future, thus greatly limiting the creative freedom for the author(s). To avoid such restrictions, the Earth frame in Omega XI is made up of allusions to a socialist Earth rather than actual descriptions. Only five characters in the novel come from Earth: Merkur, Elektra, Cäsar Brynn, Medea Twin, and Alberna, to whom Merkur only refers. The nature of this future Earth is inferred through the personalities of these characters. The existence of Cäsar Brynn denotes the fatherly authority of a hegemonic ideology. Medea Twin is the party’s maternal figure, whose function is to ensure compatibility between crewmembers on long space flights. The heroes, Elektra and Merkur, represent the mythical, socialist family sent out on a space mission. Left behind, Alberna is the foolish one as her name implies and refuses to accept the rules and regulations governing space flight. Through Cäsar and Medea’s praise of Elektra, in particular, we learn that the society values her high moral sense, exactness, orderliness, objectivity, rationality and reliability (11). In addition, Elektra is a star athlete, who has won three gold medals from the state, and is in general the perfection of the socialist personality.
By focusing on the personal stories of Elektra and Merkur rather than on the political vision of a future socialist society, the Brauns were able to create a narrative frame that was less than perfect. Merkur and Elektra are, in essence, opposites. As stated, Elektra is the logical, methodical type whose vast knowledge enables her to react ← 205 | 206 → quickly and efficiently on Omega XI, once Merkur’s inquisitiveness discovers the truth behind the Lumen’s story. Merkur on the other hand is selected for the mission, as he is the “Master of Improvisation” (11). His creativity, curiosity and general dislike of authority represents the assets, which Cäsar Brynn values for the success of such a mission. Rather than the strength and perfection of the rational, socialist heroine common to many GDR science fiction novels of the past, the logic and creativity present in Elektra and Merkur, respectively, points to the strength and advantages found in a combination and balance of these two qualities.
While the two do become a couple during and throughout the mission to ensure its success, they are by no means united in their service to Earth (or socialism for that matter). Their relationship is a tumultuous one, leading to a civil parting of ways near the end. Elektra is too strong a female figure for the more traditionally inclined Merkur, whose perception and narration of her character is limited to stereotype and cliché. More importantly, the breakup of their relationship and the subsequent ending of Merkur’s relationship with the Prudenten woman, Ludana, marks a deviation from the happy end common to socialist realism. Merkur and Elektra leave the blossoming utopia behind to travel back on uncertain terms together and return to a less-than-perfect Earth. That this is the case is intimated by Merkur’s plans for his future. Where Elektra has a plan of progress and success ahead of her within the Earth institutional structures, Merkur remains the outsider. He has no definite plans or future vision for himself. Rather he tells Elektra that he will first go take a bath and then he will continue his old profession as electrical technician. “I mean, we can only develop so far. There will always be something to repair.” (248). Merkur possesses the quality of the societal drop out. He is the irrational element that provides a necessary but never easy balance to the rational.
Juxtaposed with the utopia on Omega XI, this statement infers an Earth, which has already developed to its full potential. Rather than the continuous linear development of such a society, what is now necessary is a circling back and reexamination of goals and methods for possible repair. The utopia is no longer easily accessible or guaranteed, but must be corrected just as Merkur and Elektra realign the ← 206 | 207 → utopian society that the Lumen had set out to create five generations ago. Where in past GDR science fiction the Earth society presented the teleological model of socialist development, the Brauns choose here to reverse the roles, Omega XI providing the example for changes within Earth society. In doing so, they call for a reassessment of the SED’s cult of progress, suggesting that its policies are leading in the wrong direction. In this manner Omega XI is not a utopian novel in the classic sense, but rather an ambiguous utopia, examining the viability of attaining utopia from the oblique angle that censorship made necessary.
The application for publication of Omega XI stressed its contributions towards the further development of East Germany. In his outside review, Adolf Sckerl praised Omega XI with the following: “We must [...] acknowledge the faltering pace of development in the GDR, and we should be happy with every new work that science fiction [die wissenschaftliche Phantastik] helps us to develop further in content and in form.” (Rev. of Unheimliche 2). Positioning the book in ideological terms of the socialist revolution, he then went on to emphasize its criticism of capitalism’s failings, including the “idiotic and superfluous” production and “self-inflicted” environmental damage (2). In addition, he praised the Brauns for their emphasis on the humanity of Merkur and Elektra, a deviation from the “dry, popular scientific, objective, and prognostic style” of the fifties and sixties in which character development took a back seat to science and technology (1). Although he did acknowledge that the book was slightly critical of the contemporary situation in East Germany, he downplayed these aspects. Vaguely citing “[something] opposing formal action, opposing the obstruction of imagination” he explains this critique away as a “justifiable sideswipe, an additional reading pleasure, without any need for further investigation” (5). Yet herein lay central criticisms of East Germany, which contributed to Sckerl’s previous point regarding the furthering of the socialist revolution in real terms. Whether he read Omega XI in this manner or not, he maintained Parteilichkeit in his review. In his opinion, what needed to be changed were the more banal phrases such as “he was sick of that” and “spoon fed something,” which the Brauns included to emphasize the cheeky quality of Merkur’s narrative (6). From one point of view, ← 207 | 208 → Sckerl is playing precisely what the Brauns term the “false game,” a concept, which I now turn to in an analysis of play and the game in Omega XI.
Playfulness and the Game
Science fiction itself is often described in terms of play as a “thought game,” an experiment following a rational set of rules designed to answer the question: what if? The genre plays with possibilities: possible futures, pasts, places, and times. The very recognition of science fiction as thought game by SED officials in the sixties and seventies granted it increased support for two reasons: 1) the supposed link between the act of reading science fiction and scientific creativity, which was highly valued in a country that held science and technology to be the key to national success; 2) the publication of studies demonstrating the necessity for relaxation among the work force as a method of increasing productivity. Both of these views were cited by the editor of Uncanny Manifestations on Omega XI, Ekkehard Redlin, in his support of science fiction publications at the Verlag Das Neue Berlin (“utopische Dimension” 166).
On the whole, the concept of play is central to the writings of Johanna and Günter Braun. Their travel adventures provided a safe space for children to experience and learn in a model reality. This playfulness delineated by the rules of the literary game, presented a reality other than that of the world of the reader. Through the narrative game, certain elements of the “real” are amplified, while others are missing, thus creating the potential for subversion in the construction of a playful fantasy (Abrahams 122). Through the art of reading, the reader plays the game and learns in the process.
It was in their children’s literature that the Brauns developed their distinctive narrative voice, which is lightly satirical of contemporary socio-political issues (Suvin, “Playful” 72). In a similar manner, their science fiction also retained this aspect of play. In the sixties, the Brauns were influenced by writers Gerhard Branstner and ← 208 | 209 → Stanislaw Lem, who increasingly incorporated elements of play in their science fiction with circular or timeless adventures often to the point of absurdity.4 Rather than the linear narrative of successful expeditions, which brought about interstellar communist revolutions, these authors poked fun at the seriousness of such literature, as well as the institutions, which supported it. Similar to their use of the uncanny, the Brauns employed playfulness as a means of repositioning truths in an alternate matrix for social-ethical examination.
Lucie Armitt characterizes the essential nature of fantasy and Todorov’s notion of the fantastic as game playing. In her analysis of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Armitt illustrates how its increasing confusion of the boundaries of space and time leads to the separation of “truth” from “its usual partner, authority.” However, rather than signaling a transgression of (and therefore acceptance of) authority through the use of a Bakhtinian analysis of the carnivalesque, Armitt maintains that, through Alice, “authority is foregrounded as having only the power with which we choose to endow it” (159). In the game, outside of the existing power structure, truth becomes “selfgenerating” and “self-legitimating,” thus transferring the agency to create truths to the game’s participants.
Omega XI itself plays with truth in a search for the nature of truth. Firstly, the narrative structure of the story is that of a detective novel investigated by Merkur Erdeson. Merkur’s sole purpose for participating in the mission is his personal curiosity in unraveling the mystery of Omega XI. The cryptic distress call from the Lumens, which cites “uncanny manifestations” as their reason for desperately needing safe passage home to Earth, sets the stage for the rest of the novel as not only a rescue mission, but also the ultimate disclosure of the nature of the strangely described danger. Having discovered the real nature of the society on Omega XI, Merkur teaches the Roburen games, as a method with which they can divert their energy away from production. Elektra and Merkur also plot to liberate the ← 209 | 210 → Prudenten by stealing an algae plant from the Lumens. This leads to a humorous confrontation with the Lumens at the climax of the book, in which they attempt to kidnap Elektra and Merkur. They do so by following the established rules and procedures of what they reverently call a “napping.” To them, it is more important to adhere to aesthetic taste than effectiveness. Comically, Sonnenblume insists on the correct form for their inept actions. He calls for a “napping [...] with a certain cunning and according to the rules of good taste” (230). The failure of the playful, yet very serious, kidnapping and the resultant overturning of the power relations on Omega XI lead to a reassessment of the truths upon which the society is based. All secrets revealed, Elektra and Merkur leave the beginnings of a more egalitarian society behind as they return to Earth.
However, as in the detective novel, the appeal of Omega XI is not only the discovery of the truth near the end, but also the pleasure in the process of reaching that point. In the book, two different methods of investigation are embodied in the characters of Elektra and Merkur. The heroine, Elektra, is a rational commander, whose nononsense approach has led her to decoration by party authorities and much career success. Merkur, on the other hand, is jaunty, meddlesome and given to drinking, yet inquisitive and playful in his manner and actions. In many ways, Elektra is the party mother to Merkur’s rebel son. However, here the Halbstarke or Hippie retains the upper hand. Merkur relies on his intuition as his guide, and is quick to criticize Elektra’s systematic analysis of events as the proper way to attain the truth. He teases her seemingly blind acceptance of bureaucratic procedure, which she perceives to be her moral duty. The novel portrays her efforts to use the journey to Omega XI constructively rather than for relaxation: “You always want to do what is easy for you and fun. But, do something once in a while that is not fun. That would be a real accomplishment.” (53). Yet her failure to question a reality outside of that which is presented to her ultimately undermines Elektra’s rational method, as she too easily accepts the Lumen’s explanation for the uncanny manifestations on their planet. Although her immense knowledge enables the ultimate success of the mission, it is Merkur’s skepticism and lust for adventure, which eventually lead to the discovery of the hidden Prudenten and Roburen. ← 210 | 211 →
The very juxtaposition of those two characters highlights the ambiguity of accepted or established truths. As William Walker has remarked, it is Merkur’s “apparent lack of seriousness” that “derives from his view that all existence is paradoxical, dualistic, dialectical and contradictory” (144). A comedic exchange with Elektra results when she discovers that neither she nor Merkur is registered with the Lumen authorities as guests, and, therefore, do not officially exist. Merkur replies: “Yes, we must exist and also not exist. We must be registered and unregistered, signed out and signed in. That always has to change. Otherwise life is not possible” (Omega XI 121). His answer signals the questioning of the very basic of truths, personal existence. In this example, Elektra assumes such existence is tied to objective institutional authority rather than to subjective agency. Yet Merkur’s natural disrespect for such power undermines its existence and not his. This very observation serves a similar function to Armitt’s analysis of Alice. Rather than accepting the power of the authorities to determine a person’s being by their recorded existence in a database, Merkur’s remark represents a position outside of the apparent dichotomy. Instead of reinforcing this ostensible truth by rebelling against it, he supersedes bureaucratic power by dismissing its importance. In this way, Merkur’s playful gestures demonstrate a process of reflecting upon established truths to be learned in the thought game that is Omega XI.
This scene thematizes a premise of Omega XI: the existence of and life within two separate truths or realities – the truths of the public sphere and of the private sphere. The book addresses this topic in a number of ways. First, it looks at the notion of historical truth, contrasting the official historical narrative of a fictional Earth with the voice of one of the history makers. A transition of information from the private to the public sphere, Omega XI itself takes the form of an unauthorized memoir by Merkur Erdeson of his expedition to the planet Omega XI. Much like the function of the uncanny, the premise of the book is one of revealed secrets. Hearing Merkur’s somewhat sensationalist claims for the first time it would appear that his intentions in writing his account are rather individualistic and ostentatious. Yet, precisely the opposite is true. Set on a communist future Earth, Merkur complains of the state-produced, “slipshod educational tapes” ← 211 | 212 → or the “somewhat decently made encyclopedia cassettes,” which emphasize the heroic deeds of the expedition to Omega XI. In part a satire of the static, superhuman, socialist personalities that dominated East German science fiction into the seventies, Merkur’s individual “true-to-life” account of his space expedition emphasizes the subjecttive. His account represents a subversion of the state’s power as author of historical truth, placing it into question through the suggestion of the existence of another truth or reality. A method to explore the notion of the “real,” Merkur’s individual voice moves the marginal and the private to the center of this history.
Yet another exploration of the existence of two or more truths or realities lies is Merkur’s concept of the Falschspiel or “false game.” This game refers to the existence of separate truth matrices or rules that define public and private realities. For instance, Merkur acknowledges that the state history was written according to the rules of the public sphere. “It will be embarrassing for the encyclopedias to all become concrete, because history, as it really took place, violates good encyclopedic taste” (Omega XI 129). Here, taste designates the ideology of those in power, who write the encyclopedic history. The notion of false refers to the necessity of the player to create an alternate or false identity on the public level of the game. Merkur illustrates this when relating his interview with Cäsar Brynn – Professor with the Bureau for World Security, Department of Historical Insight (“Weltsicherheitsbehörde, Abteilung Historischer Einsicht”). Brynn must approve Merkur’s participation in the expedition as “no one may go up into space without historical insight” (Brauns, Omega XI 6). At the beginning, Merkur tried to tell Cäsar his personal truth. He wanted to participate in the expedition for adventure’s sake and to discover the nature of the uncanny manifestations on the distant planet. After realizing that this would get him grounded, Merkur comments in his memoirs that he then answered in the expected terms and thoughts, recalling his false identity. Merkur “stammered something about morals and world security” and then passed (Brauns, Omega XI 7). By playing the false game, Merkur succeeds.
Yet, this is not the only example. In a conversation with his superior officer, Elektra Eulenn, Merkur admits that he manipulated his test scores, changing the rules, in order to come on the mission. As ← 212 | 213 → the text represents Merkur’s point of view, at first Elektra is portrayed in terms of the ideology of the public sphere, as she is effectively a party member and a stranger to him. A signal that this official relationship transforms into a more intimate one, Merkur broaches the topic of falsified testing to Elektra. Yet ever cognizant of the aspect of “play” present in what Merkur perceived to be the game of public and private, Merkur comments that while he “had told the truth for a little while [about his test scores], believing that it would shock Elektra [...]. It was time, to return to” what he calls the “false game” (Brauns Omega XI 28). After having admitted for a time that he was not the skillful hero his scores showed him to be, he again hid behind the official persona, his second, heroic existence in the reality of the public sphere.
I have emphasized this false game in terms of public and private sphere, rather than in terms of hegemonic ideology and marginal ideologies, for reasons of placing it within the context of the GDR. For the most part, interaction in the party-controlled public sphere adhered to the communication codes set out by Marxist–Leninist ideology. The private sphere functioned as an outlet for individual opinions and frustrations, which was tacitly tolerated by officials to a limited degree as a requirement for the maintenance of public order. (A result of this phenomenon was the so-called niche society, which developed in East Germany, particularly in the seventies and eighties.) Indirectly, Omega XI describes the interaction of these two spheres in its false game.
Yet another aspect of the false game present in Omega XI is the manipulation of the truth surrounding material goods. Rather than the existence of two truths, this rearranging represented the transference of truth through the use of code words. On the alternate Earth of Omega XI, radish juice is required on all space missions after its consumption supposedly saved a spaceship in a past crisis. The sheer ludicrousness of the mandatory drinking of a beverage such as radish juice parodies the institution that established such a regulation. At the same time, since this institution is not one to question its methods, many captains have taken to substituting the radish juice with alcohol, a drink not likely to be consumed by the health-conscious socialist personality. In the future Earth reality, this practice has become so ← 213 | 214 → widespread that radish juice has become a code word for whisky. An “old boys club” gesture, with which the more staid heroine Elektra is unfamiliar, this substitution of the signified is another strategy of the false game. Once again one of the many cracks and fissures in the existing power structure, it represents the self-generation and selflegitimization of a truth as described by Armitt.
In their future Earth, the Brauns also demonstrate what happens to those who do not play the game or recognize this structural difference between one truth and another. Merkur’s ex-girlfriend on Earth, Alberna, continually asks questions, answering one with another. “Why?” is an undesirable response, since it calls the enforced or hegemonic truth and the power that lies behind it into question. Thus Alberna never passes her exams and is unable to go up into space, like 95% of all Earthlings of her time, who have learned to play the false game like Merkur. Her name comes from the German word albern, meaning stupid or foolish. The novel thus passes judgment on the ineffectiveness of the outsider, who is excluded from society. In terms of the novel, if change is to occur within the system, the game must be played effectively from the inside. The real societal dropout remains silly and disenfranchised.
Through the end of the seventies, the Brauns continued to play the false game by intertwining a genuine critique of capitalism with one of Marxism–Leninism in its contemporary form. Employing a genre of the fantastic, they created a critical narrative space in which they could more freely address current concerns in East Germany.
Most remarkable in Omega XI is the ambiguity of the text present in a genre, which up to the seventies had been dominated primarily by the clear-cut Marxist–Leninist presentation of the future. Rather than a weakness caused by censorship, this ambiguity problematized a much broader issue, which supersedes the historical context of East Germany. Namely, it foregrounded the recognition ← 214 | 215 → that notions of the truth and reality are never as clear as they might appear. Rather, it is important to continuously question through such exercises as science fiction’s thought game in order to see the “real” more clearly. Those readers who looked for the critical space presented by the Brauns found a satire of bureaucracy, political figures, and day-to-day life, which helped them to comprehend and relativize their own situation. This was indeed one of the goals of the authors. Merkur addresses the reader at one point, advising her to
never confuse the game with reality. In the game, you are the creator, who controls everything. In reality, you must conform, but through practice, you have become able to see through this reality (Brauns Omega XI 19).
The game is the “reading process.” However, in a manner similar to E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Brauns hoped to employ this game, in order to circumvent the censor and give the reader an opportunity to see a reality other than that provided by the hegemonic discourse of the SED. ← 215 | 216 → ← 216 | 217 →
1 Here I have adopted Darko Suvin’s translation of this title, see “Playful” 73. I also adopted his translations of the Brauns’ publications in the fifties and sixties.
2 This observation is based on my discussions with a number of East German science fiction fans as well as former editor and author Erik Simon (Personal interview, 1997). The Brauns were never as popular as the Steinmüllers, del’Antonio or Alexander Kröger as their works were less accessible to a more general readership.
3 The Italian names of the Roburen increase the ambiguity of the text through their allusion to the increasing number of guest workers in West Germany in the seventies.
4 Branstner’s Der Sternenkavalier and Lem’s Star Diaries are excellent examples. Russian authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky also experimented with play in the context of the fairy tale and science fiction. The Brauns’ Der Irrtum des grossen Zauberers did so as well.