Nietzsche on science fiction

Adam Roberts @ 15-07-2009

The Adam Roberts Project

The excitement in the academic community at the discovery of four new Nietzsche notebooks has percolated, to some extent, into the general culture; and a palpable thrill has echoed through the SF community with the news that one of these notebooks contains Nietzsche’s thoughts on the—then—new genre of science fiction: Einleitende Studie, Also Sprach Zukunftsromane. The Adam Roberts Project, in conjunction with Futurismic Publishing Incorporated, is proud to be the first to reprint a selection of these Nietzschean apothegms; the full edition will be published later this year, in a dual-language edition, by Unwahrscheinlicheraben Buchbindung. (The following translations are by S. Keindeutsch, and are used by kind persmission.)

74. To write ‘knowledge-fiction’ [Wissenschaftroman] is the highest aim, so high that even the English have a name for it: scientific-roman.1 In this their Wells are deep, and the water is drawn all the way from the earth up to the stars. But if you set out to write such a Science-roman, be sure it is a Sein-roman not a Scham-roman [a Being-novel not a Shame- or Modesty- novel].

75. The Will-to-power will take us to Mars. Der Wille zur Marz!

76. David Hume [Essays Moral, Political, Literary (1741-2) Essay XV, ‘The Epicurean’]: ‘Art may make a suit of clothes; but nature must produce a man.’ It seems that the new artform, Science Fiction, has spent the nineteenth-century splendidly contradicting the second part of Hume’s little assertion. What it needs to do, in the twentieth, is the harder task: to contradict the first part.

77. Man is a handling animal before he is a pondering animal. An art of machines and technology, of handling and tinkering, is prior to an art of contemplation. Philosophy ought to learn this lesson!

78. Tragedy is the art that parses death. We are fascinated with tragedy because we are all going to die. By the same token, death is never in our present, it is always in our future. In other words, tragedy is the art of the future. The English have a name for the art of the future; they call it Scientific Fiction. This mode of writing is the new Tragedy; its very name blends the Apollonian and the Dionysiac! The other day I read a little book by an Englishwoman called Frankenstein, and the mythos of that fable is: to bring life into the world is also to bring death. Few ‘ordinary’ works of literature possess such wisdom! Another Englishman writes of a Time Traveller who possesses a greater freedom to act upon his will than any other man, for he can travel along the roads of time as easily as my Zarathrustra can tread the roads of space. And this Time Traveler learns the most profound lesson, that absolute freedom leads inevitably to the terminal beach. Hegel himself can present no finer example of the tragic dialectic!

79. I have been inspired to write a scientific-roman by reading certain English writers. But what Po [sic] and Wells lack is an understanding of the absurd tragedy of knowledge is at the heart of their galactic fables. This shall be my contribution to the new genre: Our scene is laid in a remote corner of the universe, upon which stage cosmic forces have poured out innumerable glittering solar systems. Here the reader shall be introduced to a certain star, and its planets, and its inhabitants—clever animals. What makes these beings remarkable is their inventiveness: for (as my novel shall make plain) they invent not only the technological means for self-sustenance, and not only the usual variety of instruments of war and destruction, but they go one step further: they invent knowledge. This was the pinnacle of their most mendacious ‘world history’ — and yet, in cosmic terms, it lasted only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. I have gone so far as to determine how this fable shall end: ‘all their knowledge perished as they did themselves; nay, the very concept of knowledge passed away. For of all that myriad and filigree-spun structure, there is only one solid datum, only one cornerstone of ‘knowledge’ that has the power to endure, and it is this: that knowledge itself is a shadow. How aimless and arbitrary the human intellect appears in nature! There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened.

80. I will give up reading reviews of scientific-romanen in the journals; for they cannot contain their excitement at the pristine ideas contained in the novel, and must ruin it with their dirt [Schmutz]. Such reviewers are nothing but thieves [Räuber], and rob me of my spoils. As in old days they should be branded: ‘despoiler of science fiction novels’

81. The art of the machine, Maschinenkunstwerk, has always been at the heart of human culture—for what is a sword but a machine for killing, a plough or a sheepfold but a machine for generating food, a woman but a machine for making infants? And what other modes of poetry have ever existed but the epics of war, the pastoral georgics, the lyrics of love? Science fiction understands this; and what is more, understands the true reason the machine deserves its place at the heart of literature. Only in machines is purity possible in the relationship between cause and effect. Purity, economy, the reach for wisdom. A new desire, an aesthetic of purity, of precision, of expressive relationship setting in motion the mathematical mechanisms of our spirit; a spectacle and a cosmology. In the coming century, there will be no room for any other kind of art.

82. We hide in caves from fear; we walk upon the surface of the earth as do cattle, from habit. But into the air, and—finer still—into the airless space above the sky: only in that realm can fear and habit be discarded!

83. The French have a writer named Verne, whose name is the French word for varnish [Glasur]. What jokes words play on us! For he lays his glaze so thickly over the rough clay of technology that the pot loses definition. I await the day that a writer will arise who can give us science unvarnished with romantic entanglements and gentleman-adventurers!

84. Many writers have written about travels through space. And now an English author has written of his travels through time. The next stage cannot be long in coming: an author capable of writing a tale of travel through Being itself—

85. Only the future can redeem us; only an art predicated upon the future can show us how.

1 In English in the original. N. presumably means ‘scientific romance’

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4 Responses to “Nietzsche on science fiction”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Superb. You’ve got his tone down perfectly : the haughty rejection of what has come before, the childish and contemptuous mockery of others and the desire to provoke and posture far outstripping actual argument resulting in writing that soon becomes a series of loosely strung-together slogans.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Jonathan, you’d better not be mocking Nietzsche if you’re planning to have a running column here… 😉

  3. meika says:

    i love it

  4. Jonathan M says:

    Why does everyone always think I’m taking the piss whenever I pay someone a compliment? I have a great deal of time for Nietzsche precisely because of the methods he uses!