Laßwitz, Kurd

Tagged: Author

(1848-1910) German Kantean philosopher, historian of science, author and short-story author; the German form of his surname, Laßwitz, is usually rendered in English as Lasswitz. He began to publish work of interest with "Bis zum Nullpunkt des Seins" ["To the Zero Point of Existence"] (21-24 May 1871 Schlesische Zeitung); along with a second sf novella, this depiction of life in 2371 was assembled as Bilder aus der Zukunft: Zwei Erzählungen aus dem vierundzwanzigsten und neununddreißigsten Jahrhundert ["Images of the Future: Two Stories from the Twenty-fourth and the Thirty-Ninth Centuries"] (coll 1878). As the first major sf writer in German, Laßwitz holds a similar place in Germany to that of H G Wells in the UK and Jules Verne in France. He taught philosophy for many years at the Gymnasium Ernestinum in Gotha, and it is symptomatic of nineteenth-century German intellectual culture that he irradiated his fiction with theoretical speculation; there is no Laßwitz fiction without a lesson. In "German Theories of Science Fiction" (November 1976 Science Fiction Studies) William B Fischer claims on his behalf that many of his ideas directly prefigure later critics' use of terms like "extrapolation" (see Prediction) and "analogue", and translates as follows from Laßwitz's introduction to Bilder aus der Zukunft: "Many inferences about the future can be drawn from the historical course of civilization and the present state of science; and analogy offers itself to fantasy as an ally." The seriousness of Laßwitz's didactic impulse can be seen in the strong emphasis he places in his fiction on establishing a plausible imaginary world whose hypothetical nature will be governed, and given verisimilitude, by the resemblance to scientific method evident in its realization (see Thought Experiment).

Unsurprisingly, the stories that embody these overriding concerns tend to be more effective as broad technological and scientific canvases than as studies in character. The tales collected in Bilder aus der Zukunft read consequently almost like illustrated tours of various "superior terrestrial cultures located in the future". (A short story from this volume was published in The Overland Monthly in 1890 as "Pictures of the Future".) Further short stories are collected in Seifenblasen: moderne Märchen ["Soap Bubbles: Modern Tales"] (coll 1890), two stories from this volume appearing (trans Willy Ley 1953 and 1955) in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Nie und Immer ["Never, Ever"] (coll 1902), the second of its two stories – which features an intelligent marsupial (see Prehistoric SF) – later being published as Homchen: Ein Tiermärchen aus der Oberen Kriede ["Humanoid"] (1908); two sf novels, Aspira: Der Roman einer Wolke (1905) and Sternentau: Die Pflanze vom Neptunsmond ["Star Dew"] (1909), have not been translated into English.

Laßwitz's major work is his long sf novel, Auf zwei Planeten (1897; cut 1948; cut again 1969; trans Hans J Rudnick, much cut, as Two Planets 1971), in which a team of explorers approach in the North Pole in a Balloon, where they discover a clement enclave, only to find their balloon pulled by an invisible Ray upwards to a Martian Space Station, where they enter negotiations for mutual trade and benefit. But when two of them are sent back to Earth by Airship, they are attacked by a British battleship, and War breaks out. After a doomed defiance of the Martians, Earth is put under a benign protectorate, and humans gradually begin a process of self-improvement at the same time that the Martians on Earth become decadent. Ultimately mankind rebels, equality between the two planets is established, and Earth seems destined to a Utopian future. The book incorporates much technological speculation, including details about life on Mars, based on the theories of Percival Lowell, about possible alien forms of Biology (see Xenobiology), and about the nature of mankind, actual and potential. It was deeply influential upon at least two generations of German youth, as the epigraph to the 1969 edition by Wernher von Braun attests; and E F Bleiler has speculated that it was important in shaping Hugo Gernsback's "technologically based liberalism".

In 1981, the ongoing Kurd Laßwitz Preis ["Kurd Laßwitz Award"] (see Awards) was established to honour, in a fashion meant to reflect the Hugo, the best German sf published during the previous year. [JC]

see also: History of SF; Invasion.

Carl Theodor Viktor Kurd Laßwitz

born Breslau, Germany: 20 April 1848

died Gotha, Germany: 17 October 1910

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