New York Review Books
Copyright 1957 - translation from German 1960
209 pages - Introduction by Bruce Sterling
Book read in January 2001
Rating: 6/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Science fiction is often perceived as almost exclusively an English language phenomenon. You can count on one hand the widely influential authors whose works were originally published in another language. (Jules Verne, Karel Capek, Stanislaw Lem, and maybe the Strugatski brothers are the only ones coming to mind right now.)
But I wonder to what extent this perception is self-fulfilling. Most of the works of writers highly regarded in their own countries, such as Frenchmen Gérard Klein and Philippe Curval and German Herbert Franke, have never even been translated into English, for lack of interest. Judging from what gets translated into English, one might suppose that the only science fiction ever written in German is the interminable Perry Rhodan series.
New York Review Books has thus done us a service by bringing back into print The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, a respected German writer who has never received the attention he merits in the United States. (And kudos to NYRB for identifying the book on the cover as science fiction, notwithstanding its literary tone.)Jünger (1895-1998) was a highly decorated and repeatedly wounded soldier in World War I. This experience inspired his novel, The Storm of Steel, which was publicly lauded by Hitler. His subsequent body of work included three novels properly classified as science fiction, even if the SF elements are understated. On the Marble Cliffs (1939) is an allegory of the destruction of a civilized nation that suggests Jünger did not reciprocate Hitler's admiration. Heliopolis (1949) is a utopian novel that has yet to be translated into English. Jünger's final foray into SF was The Glass Bees, published in German in 1957 and translated in 1960 by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer.
The story of The Glass Bees is deceptively simple. The narrator, Captain Richard, is a veteran of at least two wars, now disgraced for political reasons - although Jünger is purposefully vague about time and place, the narrator's background roughly parallels Jünger's own - and so down on his luck he is forced to beg for work from an old military acquaintance. The acquaintance is able to put him in line for a job, but hints that the work may involve ethically dubious conduct. Swallowing his pride, Richard prepares himself for an interview with his prospective employer, Zapparoni. Zapparoni has achieved fabulous success and wealth through the development of miniaturized robots for industry and for household chores, and lifelike robots that have come to dominate the entertainment industry. In his interview, Richard is allowed to observe Zapparoni's latest creation, the eponymous glass bees, and is presented with a moral dilemma.
In many respects, this novel was well ahead of its time. Jünger's description of Zapparoni's miniaturized robots prefigures current speculations of nanotechnology. While the implicit parallel between Zapparoni's glass bees and the working class is arguably less topical today, much of Jünger's other social commentary remains very relevant. How many in 1957 had already thought to worry that "the outermost part of the earth's atmosphere [was] in danger" from post-war industry? Jünger's wry comment that public discussion of morality seems to coincide with higher murder rates hits also close to home today, as does the theme of society's shoddy treatment of veterans.
In other ways, Jünger's tale is decidedly old-fashioned. For example, the narrator is a former cavalryman who repeatedly bemoans the disappearance of horses from the modern world. Perhaps this is a metaphor for society's dizzying rush to replace the old with the new, but by 1957 Jünger could have selected a metaphor more relevant to most of his audience.
Even so, a modern reader can certainly identify with Captain Richard's fundamental conflict. How can he deal with his own self-doubts and feelings of alienation in the coldly logical, regimented society that has grown up around him? (Like many people today, Richard has developed a sense of contempt for the scientific view of the world. He is an avid astrologist and mocks people who "descend from the monkey.") How can he preserve his basic humanity and sense of decency in a world that has moved on to bigger things?
Captain Richard's conflict is fascinating, but presented in a narrative so halting and introspective it is difficult for the reader to feel involved in it. Captain Richard arrives for his fateful interview in Chapter Three, is ushered into Zapparoni's library in Chapter Four; Zapparoni enters the room in Chapter Seven, says hello in Chapter Eight; Richard answers in Chapter Nine, and by this point we are halfway through the novel and the story has yet to begin in earnest (that occurs in Chapter Twelve when the glass bees appear). All of this is conveyed in fairly dense prose interspersed with numerous flashbacks, digressions, and philosophical musings.It's actually not as dull as I'm making it sound. Jünger includes enough insightful thoughts to hold the reader's interest. But his interesting ideas could have carried more impact if he had framed them in a more involving story, or at least provided more scenery from his future society, rather than enclosing most of the narrative in a single garden.
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|Copyright © 2001 Aaron Hughes|