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Literary Pioneer Herbert W. Franke

Herbert W. Franke, Polaris 6, Suhrkamp 1982

by Prof. em. Dr. Hans Esselborn (University of Cologne), Literary Scholar and Co-Editor of Franke’s Science Fiction Work Edition

Author Herbert W. Franke reading The machine of the future

Franke made his breakthrough to becoming a recognized author in 1960 with his first published literary work, The Green Comet. The story collection appeared in a series with which Goldmann publisherspresented the Anglo-American version of science fiction in Germany for the first time and which subsequently replaced the German futuristic novel in the style of Hans Dominik. From 1961 onwards, his successful novels, in which he continued this new German science fiction, appeared, initially with the traditional subtitle “utopian-technical novel”, and at the latest when they were published by Suhrkamp as a “science fiction novel”. Many texts were translated into numerous languages and also published in what was then the Eastern Bloc, including the GDR (German Democratic Republic).

Two things should be highlighted as Franke’s most important pioneering achievements: firstly, the further development of the static political dystopias of the 20th century from Zamyatin to Orwell and secondly, the introduction of the computer to control society and to simulate reality up to the point of creating your own virtual worlds.

Author Herbert W. Franke reading Leap into nothingness

Due to the change of thepolitical situation, Franke’s seismographic science fiction can, on the one hand, imagine liberation through resistance and, on the other hand, explore the new means of rule. The development of industrial society promotes economic prosperity, and social communication with new media allows for a more subtle political order than through surveillance and terror, namely through pacifying consumption of goods and a calming distraction through entertainment. Total provision and entertainment may seem to make people happy, but in reality it disempowers them. Franke thus takes into account the emergence of the welfare state in West and East in his texts.

For the first time, Franke considers the role of computers in data processing, controlling machines and disseminating opinions and conceives the possibility of technical manipulation of perception through perfect simulation. He describes the functions of virtuality, namely the creation of an illusory world and the problematization of the concept of reality, which Stanislaw Lem discussed alongside him, long before William Gibson’s cyberspace.

In Franke’s novels, the criticism of the static, authoritarian utopia and the depiction of negative social developments, as in the famous dystopias of the 20th century, are combined with utopian perspectives of escape and liberation, so that the one-dimensionality of the utopia or anti-utopia is reflected in the plot is overcome. Franke’s novels cannot be pinned down to one direction, but rather combine features of utopia, anti-utopia, dystopia and heterotopia simply because the dynamics of narrative and not the norm of a society are in the foreground and thus the thrust of the various forms of utopia and its Opposites are put into perspective.

Author Herbert W. Franke reading Attempt of Contact

The early novels in particular are dominated by the theme of political dictatorship, which is controlled by personal (Glass Trap, School for Supermen, Coldnessof Space ) or more often anonymous rulers (Network of Thought, Steel Desert, Job’s Star, Sphinx_2) or by overpowering and infallible giant computers (e.g Omnivac is exercised in Ivory Tower, similar to Zone Zeroand and Ypsilon minus). Inthe glass trap from 1962, in the precarious situation after a nuclear war, ruled a personal military dictatorship, that could only cover up the shortage through drugs. Like the classic utopias, the dictator’s plans aim for a static order. In later novels, order is maintained as an alternative to dictatorship through caring paternalism, as in Orchid Cage, Escape to Marsor, in addition to this, in Ypsilon minus, Zone Zeroand Sphinx_2. In the texts of the 1960s the situation still seems hopeless, so that the only option is to escape. In the 1970s and 1980s, on the other hand, there is resistance from loners or groups as in Death of an ImmortalandCenter of the Milky Wayproviding a chance for liberation. New topics then come to the foreground, namely aliens (Dea Alba, Transpluto, Ivory Tower), ecological catastrophe (End Times, Job’s Star, Cyber City South) or virtuality (Sirius Transit , Center of the Milky Way), whichpreviously formed a central theme, particularly as a means of dictatorship (Network of Thought, Orchid Cage, Glass Trap).

A central topic for Franke is the effects of digitalization. There is practically no text by the author in which the computer as a computing machine or as artificial intelligence does not play a role. Franke describes the diverse possibilities of using computers with their social and psychological consequences. The technology is shown in its ambivalence: from the development of perfected surveillance to synthetic, digitally thinking beings as human antagonists. Franke does not create unchangeable and closed worlds with such scenarios; they can also serve to change if they are used appropriately. This modernization of the means refers to the real development of computers that Franke was able to witness.

Author Herbert W. Franke reading Is it you, Mr.

Franke, for example, on the one hand spread the American version of science fiction in Germany with his editorship, but on the other hand he continued the German tradition of a social and reflective futuristic novel with his works. In doing so, headopted the new features of late 20th century storytelling, the tension through an action-packed plot with moments of crime and spy novels, the focus on an individual main character with whom the reader can identify, and as a tribute to modernity the change of perspectives, which allows the representation and reflection of complex relationships. H.W. Franke thus seismographically transposed the political, social, scientific, and literary developments after World War II into his texts and imaginatively thought them further, thus opening up a new way for German science fiction as a whole to depict possible futures.

Finally, this facet of the author should be noted: Despite all the seriousness and sincerity with which Franke works as a writer, he also mastersthe humorous side, as he proves, among other things, in the story Is it you Mr. Smith.

About the author of this text: Hans Esselborn has published numerous literary studies on the classics of modernity as well as several specialist books on the literary history of science fiction, most recently Order and Contingency. The cybernetic model in the arts. As co-editor of the edition of Herbert W. Franke’s works, he is responsible for a number of commentary literary texts.