Publishing Ursula K. le Guin in East Germany

By Fritzsche, Sonja | Extrapolation, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Publishing Ursula K. le Guin in East Germany


Fritzsche, Sonja, Extrapolation


Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were two of the few American science fiction novels published in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Le Guin shares this distinction with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (2) Like all literature that appeared in East Germany, Le Guin's titles passed through an elaborate approval process before they appeared in the science fiction publishing house: Verlag Das Neue Berlin (DNB). The Left Hand of Darkness came out in 1978 under the title Winterplanet. The Dispossessed was published in 1987, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as Planet der Habenichtse (literally, planet of those with nothing).

At first, it may come as a surprise that these particular authors made it past a censor that enforced the prevailing ideology of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party (SED). Many outside of the former GDR assume publishing policy was determined from the top down. This belief certainly has its basis in truth. Within the country's Ministry of Culture, publishing decisions were made in accordance with the official literary policy of Socialist Realism. Originally adapted in the fifties from Stalinist Russia, this politically driven construct envisioned all literature to be an educational tool with which to model the future envisioned by the SED. All East German authors were required to demonstrate their Parteilichkeit, or dedication to the party, through their portrayal of this totalizing, dogmatic "reality."

At the same time, GDR cultural policy was constantly evolving to meet the needs of the current economic and political situation. By the seventies, seen in the growth and variety of East German science fiction publications at the time, officials within the Ministry of Culture did allow limited literary experimentation. Carol Anne Costabile-Heming writes, "concepts such as 'socialist realism' and 'critical' changed over time, often in response to the kinds of texts that writers were submitting for publication." Consequently, "[n]egotiation constantly occurred as the borders of censorship were regularly redefined" (57). Erik Simon, former editor for science fiction from socialist countries at DNB, concurs with this statement. "Certain things were entirely impossible, some were clearly OK, but most could be made possible if some-one really wanted it, and the time was right, and that someone knew how to do it" (E-mail 2). Editor Michael Szameit confirmed this practice in an interview in 1999.

To an extent, the primary agents of science fiction policy were the genre's editors and authors who constantly navigated the boundaries of a programmatic literary policy. This phenomenon is apparent particularly in the appearance of works by Ursula K. Le Guin, an author from the "capitalist West." Today, it is possible to document the narrative strategies used by editors at DNB to gain censor approval. The following pages first outline the prevailing science fiction policy in the GDR in the sixties and seventies. This contextual information highlights the manner in which cultural officials believed West German television and the availability of illegal Western science fiction literature challenged East German interests. The GDR also had an elaborate publication approval process. An in-depth look at these archival documents, which became available after the fall of the Berlin Wall, makes it possible to access the editorial voices responsible for the Ursula Le Guin novels. My analysis focuses on the editor, not as an obedient instrument of the state, but as the active participant in the publication process, who understood and exploited the gaps and fissures of a repressive literary system.

A quote from the editor's abstract of The Dispossessed presented to the East German censorship board provides a good introduction to the country's governing political paradigm. The abstract describes the book as the following:

    The juxtaposition of a capitalist societal system with that of a
  socialist anarchic utopia disguised as an alien civilization. 

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