The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Between Two Planets (1897)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Between Two Planets (original: Auf Zwei Planeten) was written by Kurd Laßwitz. Laßwitz (1848-1910) was a professor of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He was steadily productive as a scholar and writer, turning out a number of works of both non-fiction and fiction. He is remembered today for being one of Germany’s earliest science fiction authors and for Between Two Planets.
Between Two Planets is about First Contact between Martians and humans during the 1890s. A balloon expedition attempting to reach the North Pole for the first time discovers a previously-unknown island exactly at the Pole. The island is an advance base for a Martian expedition to Earth. The explorer-scientists in the balloon are forced down when their balloon is caught in the “abaric field” of variable artificial gravity which the Martian ships use to commute from their Polar base to their orbital station located above the Pole. The Martians rescue the humans. The scientists learn the Martians' language and something of their advanced technology, but the Martians treat the humans with polite condescension and even as pets and laboratory specimens. Although the Martians seem to be superior to humans ethically, culturally, and technologically, when the scientists express a desire to leave the Martians insist that the humans stay with them. The Martians do have a strong ethical code, and although they are willing to keep the humans as prisoners the Martians are incapable, at first, of forcing humans to act against their will. But the Martians are not completely altruistic. They are interested in exploiting Earth’s energy resources, and they think so well of themselves and their species as a whole that they gradually become convinced of their own superiority to humans. This means that the Martians can treat the humans as being unprotected by Martian ethics. Combined with an impulsive belligerence and a breakdown of communications on both sides, this leads to a battle between the Martians and a British warship, which the Martians easily win due to their superior weaponry.
The Martians summon the leader of their forces, along with the backer of the expedition, Ell, and one of the human explorers, back to Mars. Tensions between the two civilizations grow, with Martian condescension becoming more marked and both human hatred of the Martians and Martian contempt for the humans becoming exacerbated. Ell, who is half-Martian, begins a romantic relationship with a Martian woman. Other nations declare war on the remnants of the British Empire, and the Martians use this as an excuse to justify their declaration of a protectorate over the Earth. Human resistance to the Martians’ actions proves short and futile. The Martians' occupation is initially benign, and they pacify only the belligerent European states, but as time passes the Martians become increasingly arrogant and oppressive, carrying out their forced educational programs of economics and ethics. The Martians begin using the methods of the police state, including brainwashing and behavior modification from facilities that are simultaneously laboratories, schools, and prisons. The Martian occupation becomes a tyranny, and Ell, seeing his mistake, begins assisting a pro-human faction on Mars. In America a secret resistance is formed, using improvements in Martian technology as well as a change in intellectual and moral will brought about by contact with the Martians. Before the suspicious Martians bring their full military against Earth, the rebels attack, seizing both the polar base and the orbital station. An armistice is agreed upon, with the Martians agreeing to leave Earth as long as the only contact humans make with them is through light-beam messages. Technical problems hinder communications between the two worlds, and war is on the verge of breaking out again, with human and Martian spaceships jockeying for position in Earth's stratosphere, when Ell and the leader of the Earth meet in space to finalize negotiations. Ell dies from the strain, but the peace treaty is signed, and one of the original explorer-scientists marries one of the Martians.
Though never a bestseller, Between Two Planets was popular in Germany and Europe in the early years of the twentieth century, and in Germany up until the advent of the Nazis. “It was deeply influential upon at least two generations of German youth, as the epigraph to the 1969 edition by Wernher von Braun attests.”1 Moreover, Between Two Planets in all likelihood played a significant role in the upbringing of one of science fiction’s founding parents. Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) founded Amazing Stories (1926-2005), the first American pulp magazine dedicated to science fiction.2 “Hugo Gernsback would have been saturated in Laßwitz’s work, and Gernsback’s theoretical position of technologically based liberalism and many of his little scientific crochets resemble ideas in Laßwitz’s work.”3 It can be argued that Between Two Planets, because of its influence on both German and American science fiction during the genre’s formational years in both countries, should be counted as one of the genre’s foundational texts.
But in translation Between Two Planets suffers from aging more than most nineteenth-century English-language science fiction novels. The style of Between Two Planets is dated and stiff, the dialogue stilted and non-naturalistic, and the narration is generally wooden. (The translation may be to blame—and it should be noted, in defense of Laßwitz, that the only English-language translation of Between Two Planets, the one done in 1971 by Hans J. Rudnick, lacks around 40% of the text of the German original).4 However, the novel’s ideas are still interesting, and Laßwitz goes against convention by allowing the Martians to conquer Earth and establish what could develop into a utopia. As well, Laßwitz’s Martians, while not as legitimately alien as, for example, J.-H. Rosny’s Xipéhuz (see: “The Shapes”), are neither angelic beings nor wicked creatures, as was often the case in late-Victorian science fiction (see: A Voice From Another World and The Triumphs of Women, among others).
Between Two Planets is of significant historical importance. There are aspects of the novel which modern readers will find notable. But too much of the novel is poor, whether the result of a shoddy translation or because Laßwitz lacked the talent to write better. To say, as William B. Fischer did, that “Auf Zwei Planeten¼does not suffer in comparison to the contemporaneous works of H.G. Wells”5 is simply a case of fannish myopia.
Print: Kurd Lasswitz and Hans H. Rudnick, Between Two Planets. New York: Popular Library, 1978.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100599935 (in German; there is no English translation of Between Two Planets available online).
For Further Research
William B. Fischer, The Empire Strikes Out: Kurd Lasswitz, Hans Dominik, and the Development of German Science Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984.
1 John Clute, “Laßwitz, Kurd,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Feb. 11, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/lasswitz_kurd
2 The received wisdom in the science fiction world is that Amazing Stories is the first American magazine dedicated to science fiction. This is untrue, as Gernsback himself would have admitted. Gernsback moved from Germany to the United States in 1904, already a science fiction fan. (He became interested in sf as a child when he read reading a German translation of the work of astronomer Percival Lowell [1855-1916]). “Gernsback, after moving to the United States, would have seen two ongoing SF dime novels, Frank Reade Weekly (96 issues, 1902-1906) [see: The Frank Reade Adventures] and Motor Stories (32 issues, 1909).” Jess Nevins, “Pulp Science Fiction,” in Rob Latham, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 96. The idea that Amazing Stories blazed a new path in magazine publishing is simply untrue.
3 Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Early Years, 422.
4 Clute, “Laßwitz, Kurd.”
5 William B. Fischer, The Empire Strikes Out: Kurd Lasswitz, Hans Dominik, and the Development of German Science Fiction (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984), 9.