Friday, June 27, 2014

I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends


Dwight Decker is what some call an “independent scholar.” In science fiction fan circles, he might be called a “sercon” (serious constructive) fan.

Whatever one calls him, he’s the kind of researcher we need more of, in a time when a lot of academic sf criticism has bogged down in pretentious jargon and ideological cant and slant. I’m reminded of David Barton, who relies on selective quotations, specious logic and confirmation bias to “prove” that Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were fundamentalists who believed in a Christian state. Academics also tend to privilege secondary sources over primary texts, resulting in tiresomely Talmudic commentaries on commentaries on commentaries that lose sight of the original subjects.

I’m an independent scholar myself, presently working on an update of my history of science fiction, Imagination and Evolution. I&E, as another independent scholar Harvey Satty (an authority on Olaf Stapledon) dubbed it, originally appeared in four volumes from Greenwood Press between 1987 and 1994. A lot has happened in sf since then, but a lot has likewise happened in sf research – thanks to Project Gutenberg and other online e-book sources, print-on-demand editions of proto-sf works of all sorts, and translations of a good deal of classic sf never before available in English, I can get a better impression of how the genre has evolved from its earliest years into today’s global phenomenon.

But I couldn’t manage without the help of other independent scholars, and Dwight is truly a prime example. He’s my expert on early science fiction in German, Danish and other languages that has not been translated, let alone studied. He has previously translated comic books and Perry Rhodan space operas, and has done a lot of business translation. He is presently working on a CreateSpace book centering on a translation of Eberhard Christian Kindermann’s Speedy Voyage of an Air Ship to the Upper World (1744), an obscure but historically important German story about a trip to Mars – well, actually a supposed moon of Mars that Kindermann thought he had just discovered (With help from a friend, Dwight himself discovered that on the date the German astronomer claimed to have observed the moon, which he described as rather fuzzy, Mars was right next to the Crab Nebula! There'll be more about the self-absorbed Kindermann in the new book.).

Five years ago, he broke entirely new ground in translating Vilhelm Bergsøe’s “Flying Fish ‘Prometheus’” (1870), a Danish work so much like today’s steampunk that he was able to sell it the next year to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology Steampunk II (2010). In 2009, for The New York Review of Science Fiction, he wrote the first account of Julius von Voss’ Ini (1810), a major German sf novel that had fallen into obscurity but has since been republished. More recently, although few realize it yet, he has revolutionized the history of sf by discovering connections between two other German works, A.K. Ruh’s Garlands Around the Urns of the Future (1800) and Volume III of Heinrich Zschokke’s The Black Brothers (1795). Garlands appears to be the very first true sf novel set in the future, but it was clearly influenced by Zschokke’s work, which in turn was a variation of the futuristic utopia invented by Louis Sebastien Mercier with L’An 2440 (1771) – The Black Brothers III is still mostly lecture and philosophizing, but has elements of storytelling.

One language Dwight doesn’t know is Polish, but he has helped me a great deal with the Lunar trilogy of Jerzy Zulawski – On the Silver Globe (1903), The Conqueror (1910) and Old Earth (1911). That’s because the trilogy has been translated into German, and while it may not seem legitimate to translate from a translation, Ursula K. Le Guin has done that with the Spanish translation of Squaring the Circle, a collection of fantastic stories by Romanian author Gheorghe Sasarma. Zulawski may have been influenced by German writer Kurd Lasswitz, author of Two Planets (1897). Like Two Planets, the lunar trilogy is very philosophical – the humans who survive a trip to the Moon in the first volume migrate to the far side, where they find a hostile native civilization but also carry the evils of their own past with them, as the eldest among them realizes:

I left the room and contemplated for a long time the terrible irony of human existence that had followed us from the Earth to the Moon. I thought of O’Tamor, that poor old dreamer! As he had pictured it in his imagination, the children of Thomas and Martha, protected from the bad influences of earthly civilization, would grow up here on the Moon as an ideal kind of humanity, without the afflictions and without the differences that had been the source of all the eternal misery of mankind on Earth! I look at these children and it seems to me that the noble old dreamer O’Tamor left out of consideration the fact that the descendants of mankind would inevitably be the offspring of human beings and carry deep within them the seeds from which spring all the abominations of the earthly races. And isn’t the most terrible irony that Man takes his worst enemy deep inside himself along with him even to the stars? It’s a good thing that Tom doesn’t have a brother. So the age of war between brothers and slavery won’t dawn right away, and we will perhaps be dead by then and won’t have to witness it

In the second volume, another Earthman arrives hundreds of years later to find himself hailed as their liberator and redeemer according to a religion created by the daughter of one of the original settlers. But he meets an ironic fate, and becomes the center of a new cycle of legends. In the third volume, two lunar human make it to Earth and get involved in political intrigue. I don’t want to get bogged down in all the details here, but before I read Dwight’s summaries and excerpts, I had nothing to rely on but secondary sources – which offered a confusing and even misleading account of the events of the trology and their true meaning.

Dwight had already helped me with translations of some of Lasswitz’ essays, and he has done the same with some commentaries on sf by the French writer J.H. Rosny ainé. He knows his languages. But even more crucially, he knows enough about science fiction to tell what’s really important and what isn’t in an unfamiliar work, and to focus on the truly significant aspects.

When Dwight Decker writes about science fiction, he tells it straight.