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Kurd Laßwitz (usually spelled Lasswitz in non-German texts, 1848-1910) was a German author of fiction and non-fiction books; he is considered "the father of German science-fiction"note . Born in Breslau (now Wroclaw) he got a Ph.D. in physics and then became a teacher of mathematics, physics, philosophy and geography at the Gymnasium Ernestinum in Gotha.

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In 1871 Laßwitz publish his first science-fiction story, Bis zum Nullpunkt des Seins ("To the Zero-Point of Existence"), in the Breslau newspaper Schlesische Zeitung. Like the short stories that followed, it dealt with a multitude of themes, often humorously. However, his tendency to explore philosophical themes in his novels rather than to write pure adventure stories prevented him from becoming as big a commercial success as his contemporary Jules Verne. Laßwitz' most important work is the massive novel Auf zwei Planeten ("On Two Planets", two volumes, 1897, up to 1000 pages depending on the typeface used), which tells the story of what happens when Earth makes contact with a much more advanced civilization from another planet, in this case Mars. It was published a year before H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and tells of a much different kind of alien invasion because Kurd Laßwitz was a great admirer of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and tried to write his Martians as socially and ethically more advanced than late Victorian Europeans.

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In On Two Planets a German balloon expedition to the North Pole discovers a Martian exploration base there, which leads to the opening of contact between the Mars and the governments of Earth. The Martians offer an alliance, but the conditions are such that the nations of Earth, the British Empire in the lead refuse. This leads to a war, which the Martians easily win by wiping out the Royal Navy. However, the establishment of a Martian protectorate over Earth leads to more conflict, and Earth wages a war of liberation from Martian domination. In the end the two planets conclude new peaceful alliance based on mutual respect and non-interference.

In 1902, Laßwitz published a book named Homchen, possibly the Ur-Example of Dinosaur Media. As one can imagine, it's quite heavy on the Science Marches On trope.

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Laßwitz also wrote a number of non-fiction works about science and philosophy, for instance the two-volume Geschichte der Atomistik vom Mittelalter bis Newton ("History of Atomism from the Middle Ages to Newton", 1890). Although frustrated in his desire to become a university professor, he was elected a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 1884. As a writer of fiction he had a major influence, not just in the field of science-fiction, where one of his school students, Hans Dominik, became a prominent, but much inferior writer in the inter-war years. German rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun (who wrote the foreword to a 1969 reprint) were inspired by his books. However, Laßwitz' humanist social views and in particular his pacifist tendencies led to his works being banned after 1933. In continental Europe Laßwitz became known — Auf zwei Planeten was translated into Czech twice before World War I — but in the English-speaking world he remains almost unknown, and his influence is felt mostly indirectly (for instance Hugo Gernsback was an avid reader during his youth in Luxembourg, and Jorge Luis Borges was inspired by Laßwitz' short story Die Universalbibliothek). A satisfactory and complete English edition of Auf zwei Planeten remains to be published, as the 1971 translation Two Planets is based on an abridged edition.

The Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis, German equivalent to the Nebula Award, was instituted and named after the author in 1980.


Tropes

  • Accidental Hero: Homchen stumbles across a colony of mollusks that are threatened by some sea monster. They hide in their shells, and only emerge later to see the monster dead. Naturally, they praise Homchen, despite his objections - in reality, the monster was eaten by a giant shark.
  • Advanced Ancient Acropolis: In the short story Apoikis (1882) the narrator by chance comes to a uncharted island in the South Atlantic which is home to an advanced Greek city-state called Apoikis, which was founded by philosophers who emigrated from Greece after the execution of Socrates. Because they did not go through the Dark Ages and other reverses in the march of civilization, the Apoikians overtook European civilization in fields that interested them, particularly philosophy and the mind (most people who come to their island will be made to forget) and also beyond ancient Greek society (there are no slaves and an Apoikian woman is horrified to hear that in Germany girls are not taught ethics and logic in school). They dispose of futuristic technology, such as submarines and an impenetrable force-field, but are perfectly content to live among themselves and away from the barbarians of the outside world most of the time.
  • Alien Invasion: Still an Unbuilt Trope in the 1890s. One could see Auf zwei Planeten as a subversion or a counter-statement to The War of the Worlds if not for the fact that Laßwitz' book was published a year earlier.
  • All Just a Dream: Die Fernschule ("The Long-Distance School") turns out to be just this.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Homchen is rejected by the rest of his kind because his use of fire and rocks is considered Black Magic.
  • America Saves the Day: The war to liberate Earth from the Martian "protectorate" is won by a coalition led and largely financed by the United States.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Apart from Nihilite and Repulsite, there is Stellite, the practically weightless substance of which Martian spaceships in Auf zwei Planeten are built. (In Laßwitz' world gravitation is a wave that spreads at faster-than-light speed and bodies of mass are affected by it by absorbing it; gravitation waves pass through Stellite as light passes through glass, i. e. never 100 per cent.)
  • April Fools' Plot: Der Gehirnspiegel ends as this.
  • Artificial Gravity: In what is probably the Ur-Example, the Martians can create "abaric fields" which allows them to suspend their space station vertically above Earth's North Pole and to move about more easily in Earth's much more powerful gravitational field.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: The main villains of Homchen are killed and eaten by pterosaurs.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: In Auf zwei Planeten.
  • Biological Weapons Solve Everything: In Auf zwei Planeten Oß, the leader of the Antibat (anti-Earthling) faction, wants to retaliate against Earth's rebellion against the Martian "protectorate" by introducing the Martian disease Gragra.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Subverted in Auf zwei Planeten: The Martians' eyes can turn almost entirely black, but that is because they evolved on a planet much further from the Sun than Earth and so their pupils can dilate so much that they cover most of the visible parts of the eyballs.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: At the end of Homchen, the hero is very sad about the fact that, while he is capable of thinking, he cannot make others follow him, and countless generations will pass before truly free and sentient creatures arise.
  • The Chessmaster: Friedrich Ell (the Earth-born son of a Martian and a woman from Earth) secretly sets the events of Auf zwei Planeten in motion when he funds and encourages the polar expedition of Grunthe, Saltner and Torm because he knows that there is a Martian base at the North Pole. When the balloonists stumble upon the Martians, they discover a Martian-German dictionary thoughtfully written by Ell hidden among their equipment. Part of Ell's motivation is that he himself wants to go to Mars, which he regards as his real home even though he has never been there.
  • Chronoscope: The Martians in Auf zwei Planeten have a device called the Retrospektiv which allows them to determine what actually caused an armed incident between a British warship and a Martian vessel. It sends out gravitation rays to retrieve light rays sent off into space from the event in question.
  • Classical Mythology: Parodied in Musen und Weise ("Muses and Sages") and Prinzessin Jaja. Princess Jaja's fairy godmother Disthymos Kräkeleia is actually a goddess and a motherless daughter of Zeus. Only unlike her sister Athena she did not spring from his head, but from a corn on one of his toes; so she is not the goddess of wisdom and important questions, but the goddess of useless questions.
  • Constructed Language: There is not that much of a sampling in the text of Auf zwei Planeten, but one can make some general observations about the Martian language: Most words consist of just one, a few of two syllables, and in some cases there are obvious derivations, such as "Ba" ("Earth") and "Bat" ("Human, Earthling") and "Nu" ("Mars") and "Num" ("Martian, sentient being capable of reason"). For instance, when the balloon gets caught in the abaric field above the North Pole, there is this exchange of messages between the Martian space station and the ground station:
    "E najoh. Ke." ("Attention, malfunction. What happened?")
    "Bate li war. Tak a fil." ("Humans in the abaric field. Turn it off as soon as possible.")
  • Corrosive Weaponry: The Martian airships are protected by being encased in Nihilite, a substance that simply dissolves anything shot at them. This can also be used offensively, e. g. when a Martian ship rams the biggest British battleship. A chemical process is involved, as during the Battle of Portsmouth the Martian airships take breaks to replenish their stocks of Nihilite and Repulsite from supply vessels.
  • Corrupt Church: The villains of Homchen claim to interpret the words of God. In reality, these are genocidal creatures who demand eggs as tribute and deliberately breed their subjects into Dumb Muscle.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Martians may be peace-loving, but they do wipe out the British Navy with no losses of their own in chapter 41, "The Battle of Portsmouth". However, they take great care to minimize the loss of life on the opposing side.
  • Death Ray: The Martian Telelytenote  ray guns in Auf zwei Planeten can induce a chemical reaction in a target by projecting chemical energy, which enables them e. g. to burn metal. However, in general the Martians try to avoid using them on living beings.
  • Deflector Shields: Or rather destructor shields, as they are not used against ray weapons and could be seen as a cross between a protective shield and a Wave Motion Gun. In Apoikis (1882) Philandros describes what would happen if a European power were to attempt to take the titular island by force:
    "A few minutes would suffice to surround our island with a stream of free aethernote . No solid body can pass through this stream, it would be whirled away, dissolved into atoms. Shells and armoured ships vanish in it like a straw in a flame."
  • Dinosaur Media: Homchen might be the Ur-Example.
  • Distant Finale: By the end of Homchen, the two main characters are dying of old age.
  • Doomsday Device: In Auf zwei Planeten Oß (Oss), the leader of the Antibat (anti-Earthling) party on Mars proposes a device called the "Earth Brake" (Erdbremse) to get rid of the pesky humans on Earth following their successful revolt against the Martian protectorate over the planet. The device would halt Earth's rotation, with the Pacific Ocean ending up permanently exposed to the sun and the most densely populated areas permanently in the dark, with catastrophic results. Happily the construction and implementation of the Earth Brake is prevented by the electoral defeat of the Antibats and the subsequent peace treaty between Mars and Earth.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Homchen dreams of a time when powerful mammals will rule the world. One dream is about them studying his skull.
  • Dumb Dinos: An Enforced Trope in Homchen, where the antagonists encourage the dinosaurs to evolve spinal brains instead of their heads, to keep them as obedient Dumb Muscle. When one dinosaur and one mammal show signs of becoming too smart, they plan to put the dinosaur at the head of an army that will wipe out the mammals and then see to it that he comes to a martyr's death.
  • The Exile: Homchen is exiled after killing a pterosaur.
  • Fairy Tale: Laßwitz describes a number of his stories as "fairy tales" or "modern fairy tales" (the term "science fiction" didn't exist yet), and some of them are satirical pastiches of the genre. In Prinzessin Jaja ("Princess Yesyes") the titular heroine is told by her fairy godmother Disthymos Kräkeleia is set the quest to find a satisfactory answer "the most useless question of all" before she can marry: Do you, Princess Jaja, exist?
  • Feathered Fiend: The antagonists of Homchen seem to be birds of some kind.
  • The Federation: In Auf zwei Planeten, over 3 billion Martians are politically organized in a planet-wide federation of 154 states governed by parliamentary democracy with no leader in sight who is not elected. Meanwhile most of 1890s Earth is ruled by hereditary monarchies of some stripe. During the war to shake off the Martian protectorate, Earth's nations form a secret alliance and the republican United States emerge as the last great hope...
  • Genie in a Lamp: In the short story "Aladdin's Magic Lamp" (Aladins Wunderlampe), people in the present try to make the titular artifact — recently found in the bed of the Tigris — work. Unfortunately the genie cannot do anything they try to order him to do because he is always bound by the laws of man and of science as they are known at the time of a request. It was just Aladdin's dumb luck that in his day they didn't know about the laws of conservation of mass and of energy, for instance, which meant the genie still could provide him with heaps of gold etc.
  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: Kills most of the dinosaurs in Homchen.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: The short story "The Universal Library" (Die Universalbibliothek, 1901) discusses the ins and outs of a library consisting of books of a standard size containing every possible permutation of letters, symbols and spaces. Jorge Luis Borges modeled The Library of Babel directly on it.
  • Grim Up North: The Martians' main base on Earth is an artificial island on the North Pole, which is also the goal of a German polar expedition. When the balloonists first meet the Martians, communication proves difficult as the Martians on the base up until then only had come into contact with a few Inuits.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: One of the first in science-fiction is Friedrich Ell, one of the protagonists of Auf zwei Planeten. He is the son of All, a Martian spaceship captain stranded on Earth after becoming the sole survivor of a group of seven accidentally left behind in Antarctica, and a German governess living with a family in Australia.
  • Hollywood Evolution: Homchen has it as a major theme that evolution's direction can be apparently forced without breeding.
  • Human Aliens: Laßwitz' Martians look very much like humans (and can interbreed with them), the main difference is that they are attuned to the lower gravity of their home planet and have much larger eyes, which evolved because of Mars' greater distance from the sun.
  • Human Mom, Non-Human Dad: In Auf zwei Planeten Friedrich Ell is the son of All, a Martian spaceship captain stranded on Earth, and a German governess working in Australia. Ell was raised by both parents on Earth, but became a full orphan just before turning 21 (All never found a way to return to Mars). In the course of the novel another human/Martian couple is formed, consisting of German scientist Josef Saltner and the fair La, but the book ends before the two can seriously start to think about having children (which would be the complementary inversion).
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: Ca. 1890 Laßwitz wrote the long short story Aus dem Tagebuch einer Ameise ("From the Diary of an Ant") in which one of the leaders of an antheap chronicles the efforts — including scientific expeditions — to explore those strange human beings, which apparently are the most advanced of the uncouth boned beasts, and tries to make sense of weird human concepts like "love" and "liberty". Auf zwei Planeten obviously contains quite a few observations about the Bate (Earthlings) by Num (Martian) characters.
  • Insistent Terminology: The geography of Mars is called areography; because "geography" is derived from Gaia or Ge, the name of the Greek goddess of Earth, so its equivalent for the planet Mars is of course derived from Ares, the Greek name of the god of war and the planet named after him.
  • Interspecies Romance: Between scientist Josef Saltner and the Martian La in Auf zwei Planeten.
  • The Maiden Name Debate: In the 1871 short story Bis zum Nullpunkt des Seins, which is set in the year 2371, gender equality has resulted in a formalized system: Everybody has two (hyphenated) surnames, one inherited from the mother, the other from the father. When they marry, women drop the paternal name and men the maternal one and replace it with the surname of their spouse.
  • Mars: In Auf zwei Planeten Mars (Nu to the Martians) is the densely populated home of a highly advanced civilization capable of interplanetary travel and building various gadgets described on this page.
  • Mind Reading: The short story Der Gehirnspiegel ("The Brain-Mirror", or, more scientifically "The Cerebroscope") published in the 1902 anthology Traumkristalle describes an optical device that makes it possible to project mental images from the brain onto a screen or wall.
  • Mysterious Antarctica: In Auf zwei Planeten the Martians conducted several expeditions to the South Pole during the 19th century. One of their spaceships crash-landed there, its sole survivor All made his way to Australia. Somewhat embarrassingly for Laßwitz (who among other things taught geography at school), he also mentions an encounter with polar bears during an earlier Martian expedition to Antarctica.
  • Plant Aliens: In Auf zwei Planeten (1897), one of the first things Josef Saltner sees on the Martian base on the North Pole is a Ro-Wa, a lily-like Martian flower that "dances" sinuously and chirps like a bird. In Laßwitz' short story Die entflohene Blume ("The Escapee Flower", 1910) there is another Martian flower called Dukchen, which is even capable of intelligent thought and to communicate with its owner, the Martial girl Ha. It is normally sedentary, but in spring the blossoms take flight to take root elsewhere. Sentient plants were quite a running theme for Laßwitz, who was influenced by the natural philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner. Other examples are Schlangenmoos ("Serpent Moss") and Sternentau, die Pflanze vom Neptunmond ("Star-Dew, the Plant from Neptune's Moon", 1909).
  • Prophetic Name: In the novella Bis zum Nullpunkt des Seins (1871) people involved with "odor concerts" have "smelly" and "nosy" names. The "heroine" is called Aromasia Duftemann-Ozodes, the inventor of the ododion or "odor-piano" was an Italian called Naso Odorato, and some famous odor composers named are called Stinkerling, Schnüffler and Riechmann. Aromasia's boyfriend is called Oxygen Warm-Blasius, a weather-maker (Blasius is reminiscent of the verb blasen "to blow") and his rival is the poet Magnet Reimert-Oberton (Reimer means "rhymer", Oberton "overtone").
  • Repulsor Beam: In Auf zwei Planeten, Repulsite cannons project a kind of cone-shaped particle beam which functions like a Iron Man's repulsor rays, but on a larger scale. They can be used e. g. to stop projectiles shot at yourself or to create artificial tidal waves.
  • The Right of a Superior Species: In Auf zwei Planeten a deep split evolves in Martian politics over the question of how to treat the Bate (inhabitants of the planet Ba, or Earth). The faction led by Oß (known in-story as the Antibat party), which for a time gains the ascendanscy, is convinced that the Bate are basically incapable of what the Nume (Martians) consider rational thought and civilized behaviour and that therefore they are perfectly justified to rule and economically exploit them. When a rebellion on Earth throws off the Martian "protectorate", Oß seriously thinks of methods to retaliate by stopping the rotation of the Earth and introducing the Martian disease Gragra; but when these morally abhorrent genocidal plans and his behind-the-scene machinations become known to the Martian public he is resoundingly defeated in the crucial election (over 312 million votes to ca. 40 million) and a peace treaty between the two planets is concluded.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Laßwitz lived during the "heroic age" of polar expeditions, so it probably is no coincidence that Auf zwei Planeten opens with a German balloon expedition to the North Pole discovering that the Martians arrived there before them. The expedition in fact bears a disturbing resemblance to S. A. Andrée's expedition, which ended with the death of all three participants in 1897, the year the book was published.
  • Rule of Seven: Subverted in the humorously didactic short story "Muses and Sages" — here the nine Muses invite the Seven Sages of Greece for tea, but in the end 22 sages show up. Every single one of them can point to an authority from classical literature that includes him among the seven.
  • Smell-o-Rama: In the novella Bis zum Nullpunkt des Seins (1871) people in the 24th century attend "odor concerts"; the main instrument used for these, the ododion or "odor-piano" was invented in 2094.
  • Space Station: The Martians in Auf zwei Planeten have a circular space station (diameter: 320 metres) above Earth. It is not in orbit, but suspended in space above the North Pole, where they installed an anti-gravity device on their base on an artificial island.
  • Spider Tank: Or more correctly, Insect Car. In the short story Die entflohene Blume ("The Escapee Flower", 1910) the Martian girl Ha and her brother Hei reach a remote desert valley by using a six-legged Kletter-Auto ("climbing-car") which by the use of suction-devices in its feet can even climb up sheer cliffs "like a wasp".
  • Stock Dinosaurs: Homchen plays it quite straight for an Unbuilt Trope; there is the Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Atlantosaurus, Iguanodon, and some large predator called "Great Lizard" (translated to Russian as Megalosaurus and definitely not a Tyrannosaurus - the species wasn't named until three years after the book was published).
  • Talking Animal: Everyone talks in Homchen; mammals, dinos, bees, mollusks...
  • Technology Uplift: Briefly alluded to as a Noodle Incident: Friedrich Ell mentions that his father All, stranded on Earth after his spaceship crash-landed in Antarctica, eventually reached Australia, where he became wealthy as an "inventor" by recreating bits of Martian technology. Later of course the contact with the Martians results in a general technology uplift to Earth.
  • Theme Naming: All Martian names are monosyllabic. Friedrich Ell's father was called All and his uncle Ill is one of the leaders of Mars.
  • Video Phone: An early example occurs in the short story Die Fernschule ("The Long-Distance School"), which was published as part of the anthology Traumkristalle ("Dream Crystals") in 1902. Given that Laßwitz was a school teacher, it is perhaps not surprising that in this story, set in 1999, the video phone or Fernlehrapparat ("Long-Distance Teaching Device") is used for teaching.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: In Auf zwei Planeten the Martians' airships, while looking a bit like Zeppelins and, at least in their earlier models, sharing their vulnerability to storms, are not gas-filled aircraft, but largely built of the almost weightless Stellite and they make use of the Martian Artificial Gravity technology. Also, thanks to being encased in Nihilite, they are pretty much invulnerable.

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