måndag 5 maj 2014

Jünger and the Craft of Science Fiction

Edit, November 2014: The Australian imprint Manticore Books has published an Ernst Jünger biography that I've written. "Ernst Jünger -- A Portrait" is the name of the book. This post from earlier this year is a chapter of that book. -- Let's talk about science fiction. I've been reading it for over 30 years. And I've written an SF novel, "Antropolis", issued in 2009. Here I take a look at Ernst Jünger and how he excelled in the craft of science fiction. He wasn't your typically genre-conscious SF writer. His books were never labelled "SF". But I'd say that he had an inborn feel for making his futuristic narratives credible.

Jünger isn’t ordinarily considered as an author of science fiction or fantasy. Authors of his calibre don’t need a specific genre as a creative or commercial support. That said it wouldn’t be totally irrelevant to apply a genre specific view of his novels taking place in future settings. Does Jünger have a talent for the craft of science fiction? That’s the subject of this entry, looking at Jünger’s inventiveness as a gadget maker. Then I look at other Jünger works and their meditations over technology and machines.

1. Jünger As An Inventor

Ernst Jünger was a remarkable man. He had a brain of his own. He was a genius of sorts, a man with the ability to amaze his audience. And that quirk is definitely there in his science fiction novels.

It’s like this: science fiction taking place in the future needs speculative settings, it needs inventions and technical gadgets of the one or the other kind. Of course it’s about more than that, you have to have characters enacting a viable plot, but as for technology it has to be explicitly present throughout. You just can’t throw in a simple ”three glass window” and leave it with that. You have to invent things and sprinkle them over the pages, creating a futuristic atmosphere. And Jünger knew this art, employing it in ”Heliopolis”, ”The Glass Bees” and ”Eumeswil” (1949, 1957 and 1977 respectively). His inventing activity in these novels is so prolific that I have to make a survey.

Starting with ”Heliopolis” you find things like:
. The permanent film, both a kind of TV showing moving pictures and a sort of computer showing ”rolling text and numbers”. This last feature home computers were unable to do even in 1980, so this strikes me as kind of prophetic for a novel from 1949.
. The phonophor, a handheld computer functioning as a telephone, passport, ID, ticket and insignia of rank. Additionally it can download music and text from ”the Central Archives”, that is, a kind of internet – not bad a vision being conceived by a layman in 1949. The phonophor was worn in the breast pocket partly visible and the different colours of its shell indictated the wearer’s rank.
. Thermic metal, a mysterious element heating things with its internal heat. It’s an invention of the magical kind, a thing you would like to have without being able to explain it. That’s how many SF authors work, like throwing in soaring cars and space travel faster than light: without being explained in detail they still seem probable and give the tale a futuristic feel.
Additional technical gadgetry of ”Heliopolis” are beam weapons, a metal melting device (”thermic concave mirror”), soaring vessels and then some. Even if the machines in question aren’t central to the plot they embellish it, giving it atmosphere and futuristic ambiance.

Moving on to ”The Glass Bees" we have these selfsame creatures as a symbol of technological marvels. They are an early example of micro- if not nano technology. Miniature insects in this future setting are occupied with cleaning ducts, counting money, handle radioactive material etc, even sucking nectar out of flowers. The latter however was a sign of their limitations since the flowers died after the act.

As intimated Jünger early on was into the achievements of information technology: the principle of internet, to have access to all the collected cultural treasures of mankind in your pocket, is fully realized in the world of ”Heliopolis”. In ”Eumeswil” he developed the concept even further; there, in the Luminary (”das Luminarium”), you could punch in a time and a place on the keyboard and then have it played before you. It was like an advanced, graphic google search; for instance, punching in ”Normandy, dawn, June 6 1944” you would see the allied invasion fleet approaching the sandy beaches in a virtual reality fashion.

Jünger used this library of historical scenes to elaborate on historical presence and the role of the historian, making the novel – ”Eumeswil” – a rich storehouse of historical images and historiographical attitudes. As for conjuring scenes out of history today’s computer technology is able to do that, portraying scenes of historical figures with real-life actors and having the face computer animated. Then, in the ensuing production, you could for example see Rommel as real as IRL walk over a desert battlefield.

2. Machine Dreams

The symbol of today’s information technology (computers, internet), someone has suggested, is the net, maybe seen as a spider’s web with concentrical circles connected by spokes, thus having everything in contact with everything else. This kind of summarizes our age, this is how we live: there’s no single centre, any point in the net having the potential to be the centre.

This is our age. But the previous age, what symbol summing it up was there? – I’d say the machine was the archetype of the bygone era. The past 100-200 years had the machine as its leading hieroglyph. And as for science fiction, the subject of this chapter, the SF I grew up with had a wealth of machines: space ships, soaring cars and robots, even whole cityscapes of mighty machines. Everything you did could be done better by machines, that was the gist.

This epoch is now ending. Now we live in subtler times, venturing out in conceptual landscapes instead of tangible ones, moving towards brainbuilding instead of bodybuilding. The computer is now a bigger status symbol than the car. However, dwelling for a moment in the land of machines we soon encounter Jünger himself there. He always had a keen eye for machines, like these lines in ”Feuer und Blut” (”Fire and Blood”) from 1925:
The machine is beautiful. And it has to be beautiful for the lover of life in all its fullness and violence. (...) Haven’t we noticed that when seeing a bullet train flashing through the landscape, race drivers heading for the straight after the banked curve; when metal birds have circled over our cities and when in large glass-covered halls we’ve been standing between crank shafts and shining flywheels, with the mercury pillars of the manometers rising and falling and the red pointers of the instruments on the wall trembling – haven’t we noticed that in all these actions there must be an abundance of life, of luxury, of a will of totally transforming life into power.
This machine poetry is reminscent of Thea von Harbou in her novel ”Metropolis”, which surfaced at the same time. However she was more of a sceptic, seeming to have an aversion against the world of machines while Jünger, here at least, embraced it.

3. Technical Encounters

As we recently saw the Jünger of the 20’s was romancing the shapes and forms of the machine world. But he soon changed his attitude, becoming more of a sceptic. When in France 1940 he sees some tank wrecks he clearly is a stranger: ”I crept inside them and as always I have to admit that I don’t feel at ease inside these creations smelling of oil, petrol and rubber.” [the War Diary, May 29, 1940]

So then, the author of ”Der Arbeiter”, envisioning a totally industrialized world, doesn’t like machines...? Maybe his techno-romance, as long it lasted, was more of the theoretical kind. He wasn’t a hands-on practical man. In the First World War he preferred bayonet and sabre, only grudgingly accepting the more technical weapons of handgrenades and machine guns. Mines for its part he avoided. And as for cars he never learned to drive, as far as I’m informed.

You could say: the young Jünger loved machines and what they represented but then the love abated. But he could still write technologically credible science fiction, well into the post war years. ”Eumeswil” for instance appeared in 1977 when he was over 80.

And speaking of his personal distaste for machines and his love of ”natural” technology there was one old artifact he came to adore: the hour glass, dedicating a whole book to them (”Das Sanduhrbuch”, 1954). In his war diary we find these lines on the subject:
This object [= the hour glass] suits me well when the presence of mechanical things becomes unbearable, especially during conversations, reading sessions, meditations and studies, whose length you don’t want to measure to the minute – instead letting the sand in a little glass pour out. The hourglass time is another one, connected to life: no peals are heard here, no hand is moving. It’s time that flows, passes, runs off – untightened, unrhythmisized time. [Paris, February 16, 1944]


Jünger was a complex man. You could find a lot of complaining in his late diary of how modern technology has destroyed the earth. At the same time he liked watching TV, he liked to travel by jet to distant countries and he acknowledged the complexity and heroism of the Apollo project, putting a man on the moon.

He gave us his visions of technology in his novels "Heliopolis", "The Glass Bees" and "Eumeswil". He knew how to create a futuristic feel but his works seem to transcend the SF genre. Jünger was a genre of his own.

Bibliographical note: as for the novels mentioned in this essay "Heliopolis" hasn't been translated into English. But the other two can be listed thus:

. The Glass Bees (Gläserne Bienen, 1957. Noonday Press, New York 1960)
. Eumeswil (Eumeswil, 1977. Marsilio Publishers, 1994)

As you can see I have no information about where Marsilio Publishers are based. Does any one know? England or the US?

Ernst Jünger -- A Portrait
Jünger the Pious
Swedish Mystique
Svensson: The Middle Zone (short story)
Svensson: The New Improved Sun (poem)
The Marsilio English edition of "Eumeswil" from 1994

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