When researching German science fiction, the diligent academic will notice that there seems to be a large gap of knowledge in both German Studies and Science Fiction Studies about the respective other. Neither field has done much to engage its opposite in finding potential overlap. In his book Beyond Tomorrow, Ingo Cornils explains that „German studies has a blind spot when it comes to speculative literature“ (3) and, as Cornils and I have stated elsewhere „German SF does not register prominently in the history of SF either“ (2). There are several reasons for this unique „double absence“ (Schmeink and Cornils 2) of German SF: from the German literary focus on „Vergangenheitsbewältigung“ (Cornils 3-4), that is, a strong interest in coming to terms with the past, rather than a drive towards exploring the future, to the culturally persistent distinction between serious and entertainment literature that classifies SF as escapist at best and unreadable trash at worst. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of available translations—in terms of primary material, but also in terms of scholarly work dealing with German SF. And lastly, I would argue, German SF’s rather conservative worldbuilding does not help either.
In her book Out of this World, Rachel Cordasco discusses speculative fiction traditions from around the world through the lens of English-language translations. To my mind, it is fair to say that those authors getting a translation are likely the more known, the more successful, and in a way the more representative of a genre. But publishing post-2000, Cordasco only names five authors in German SF: Wolfgang Jeschke, Andreas Eschbach, Frank Schätzing, Dietmar Dath, and Julie Zeh. As Zeh is not an SF-author, but in The Method (2012) merely uses science-fictional elements to write a high literary allegory of medical authoritarianism, a specific image of the successful German SF-author as white, cis-male, middle-aged and (mostly) heterosexual emerges. German SF as a genre, then, has a diversity issue in that parts of its readership and especially the changing reality of German society as diverse and multiethnic are not reflected. As Charlie Jane Anders argues regarding the US, but similarly true for Germany, representation in the genre needs to reflect a more pronounced social and political awarenesses and shifting public discourses on issues of diversity: „science fiction and fantasy [are] finally catching up to reality—the best stories aren’t only the ones told by straight white men.“ The genre, as I will argue, is slowly changing due to a concerted effort by marginalized authors under the heading of „Progressive Phantastik“ (the progressive fantastic).
In the following, I want to use Judith and Christian Vogt’s novel Anarchie Déco (2021) as a prime example of the progressive fantastic and explore its challenging of normative conceptions of gender, language, and genre representation. After a short explanation of what the progressive fantastic constitutes, the article will explore how the authors reimagine speculative fiction as a tool for social change. Anarchie Déco challenges existing social conditions by exploring narrative worlds with diverse and radically changed societies. The novel, I contend, is queer in the way that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued as „spinning outward“ from issues of sex and gender, overlapping and moving across „other identity-constituting, identityfracturing [sic] discourses“ (8). In this sense, Anarchie Déco is a progressive fantastic intervention, an act of queering that reveals how changing perspectives and transgressing normative categories can promote new social values. Following this outward movement, I will first address the novel’s use of gender fluidity and non-heteronormative sexuality, which is linked to the historical period of the liberal 1920s Berlin. But the novel takes it’s queering further, inventively linking magic and science and thereby challenging the heteronormative conventions of science discourses. Lastly, in using the novel’s alternate historical setting to explore how technologies influence social, political, and cultural reality, the novel becomes a queer imaginative intervention that allows for what Lilith Lorraine has called „constructive dreaming […] by cutting the imaginative patterns for better social conditions, more mature systems of government, more advanced biological research“ (quoted in Sharp and Yaszek xxii). In this sense, it exemplifies the power of the progressive fantastic to address the key issue of equality for all in contemporary society.
1. The Progressive Fantastic
Originally coined by Black author James Sullivan in a tweet about his upcoming fantasy novels as „progressive high fantasy“ (cf. Sullivan) and then promoted in genre podcasts (Phantastik-Brunch, Genderswapped), the term „progressive fantastic“ was developed by Sullivan and feminist, non-binary author Judith Vogt in their short manifesto-like call to action „Lasst uns Progressive Phantastik schreiben!“ Sullivan and Vogt write that some conservative traditions stand in the way of the genre’s ability to depict our social reality, even more so of the ability to represent our „dreams, fears, goals and hopes.“ They argue that the progressive fantastic is a way to tackle issues of diversity in all its variability and call on authors to become more progressive not only in their topics, but also in their handling of structure and form. Progressive fantastic texts, they posit, should reflect on (genre) traditions and discard those that are no longer appropriate to a diverse new social reality. They see the need for a progressive fantastic to balance out the dominant forms of traditional genre texts. As Sullivan puts it: The term „literally means to move forward. […] We are taking on traditions in all aspects of our work. We add to what is already there, carry a lot of stuff with us. And it begs the question: why should we burden ourselves with all this stuff that we won’t be needing in the future“ (cit. in Genderswapped). Since the publication of the manifesto, the term of the „progressive fantastic“ has been widely embraced by authors, critics, journalists, and even the publishing industry to describe a new trend in fantastic writing that is promising to radically change the genre by adapting the aesthetic and ideological trends of a diversity of voices and representations which have gained momentum in the Anglophone fantastic into a specifically German context. It will be an important addition to the genre.
In order to show the potential of the progressive fantastic, I am undertaking a close reading of Anarchie Déco as a central text of the ‚movement.‘ Judith Vogt is one of the key writers promoting the ideas of the progressive fantastic, not just in her writing, but also as co-editor of the Queer*Welten fanzine, the first genderqueer magazine for fantastic writing in German, and as co-host of the Genderswapped podcast, specializing in genderqueer critiques of roleplaying games, fantastic writing, and nerd culture in general. In addition, Judith and Christian Vogt have become focal points of activism for progressive politics within the fantastic-writers bubble on social media, leading to Judith being stylized as a „symbol of political work, which makes people feel uncomfortable“ and being blamed for „every criticism and every crisis“ (Schmeink) that erupts within the scene, as the authors state in a recent interview.
Further, Anarchie Déco is not Judith and Christian Vogt’s first novel to tackle heteronormativity and binary gender representation. In fact, their novels Wasteland (2019) and Ace in Space (2020) already make a concerted effort to use non-heteronormative language by, for example, using „female and feminine forms“ as a „subversive practice,“ employing „neologistic formations“ in pronouns, and erasing „banal heteronormativity,“ that is the construction of heterosexuality as normal through everyday use of language, altogether (Motschenbacher 253, 257). But these novels are both set in future worlds, making such adjustments narrative claims on how a potential future might look. For the alternate historical setting of Anarchie Déco, Judith and Christina Vogt had to package their critique of hetero-normativity differently, instead using subtle characterization and descriptions of the setting that move beyond normative gender binarism and what queer linguists Heiko Motschenbacher and Martin Stegu call the „normative yardstick“ of the „binary macro-categories, female and male“ (522). As such, in Anarchie Déco, the authors had to assume a queer position through more nuanced narrative strategies as well as through a unique and radical shift in the use of fantastic elements such as magic, and last but not least, via the potential of alternate history to comment on political and social changes.
2. ‚Dance of Opposites‘: Non-Heteronormative Sexuality and Gender Performance
Anarchie Déco is set in an alternate history of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, specifically in the spring of 1928. It is what Karen Hellekson calls a „nexus story,“ an alternative timeline which changes „a crucial point in history“ (11), creating a different outcome. As discussed below, the focal point is the May 20th election of parliament in the Weimar Republic, which sets up the political conditions for the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. But as Andy Duncan has pointed out, not all changes to the historical timeline need to be grand (such as winning a war), the change portrayed in an alternate history can sometimes be „more playful, focusing on quieter, sometimes puckish alterations” (212). In the alternate history of Anarchie Déco, a new branch of physics is discovered that allows the creation of magical effects through the combination of science and art. This turns out to be neither mere „puckish alteration“ nor full-blown „crucial point of history“ as more a long-lasting paradigmatic shift in our understanding of the world, and the novel explores the personal, social, and political ramifications of such a shift.
The story revolves around a murder investigation and a political conspiracy: While trying to finish her PhD thesis on these new phenomena of science and thus becoming the world-leading expert in the field, Nike Wehner, a young Egyptian-German physicist consults with the police on cases involving what the public soon calls ‚magic.‘ Her biggest case yet, the murder of a communist politician via magical means, leads her and her partner, the Czech artist Sandor Černý, into Berlin’s shadowy nightlife, where gender categories are fluid and rules can be broken, a scene that invites magic as a form of experimentation, just as it experiments with social expectations and the performance of divergent sexualities. The pair discover that magic has left behind both academia and entertainment and has instead become a very real threat to the political order of Germany, where anarchists, communists, loyalists, and fascists struggle for power using magic in their propaganda wars and as a means to realize their goals. The novel centers around the investigation and how the emerging ‚technology of magic‘ becomes entangled with the political struggle over who controls it, the social debate about how it is used, and the personal stakes involved in its assumed structure.
What makes the alternate history so effective for the discussion of a non-heteronormative and genderqueer representation of society, is its science-fictional use of cognitive estrangement, as Hellekson remarks: the „alternate history is persuasively science fictional: it uses history as the moment of what Darko Suvin calls ‚estrangement‘ that is common to all science fiction“ (9). Our understanding of the historical reality is questioned and when reading about 1920s Berlin, we are unsure of which aspects of the portrayed society are accurate and which are estranged by the counterfactual alteration in the narrative. What is key to our science-fictional reading of Anarchie Déco, then, is our mis-recognition of the acceptance of non-heteronormative and genderfluid positions at the time. To highlight that 1920s society was more open and accepting of these positions, the authors use intertextual references to the work of sexologist and gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld in the paratext of the book. For example, they are quoting from his work twice for chapter epigraphs: once for the chapter in which the characters visit a bar which is famous for its gender fluid performances, and which contains the most outspoken dialogue about non-heteronormative sexuality, and once in the climactic chapter on magic performed by characters outside of normative gender labels (more on the relevance of gender for magic use, see below). Further, Hirschfeld’s ‚Zwischenstufen-Theorie’ (theory on gradual expressions of gender and sexuality) is discussed by characters in the book, when trans woman Georgette explains that „maybe ‚female‘, ‚male‘, ‚homosexuality‘ and ‚normal sexuality‘ are not enough to describe humanity“ (AD 280). Recognizing these references as historical, yet contrasting them with contemporary (and often less progressive) discussions of gender and sexuality creates an estranging effect not unlike that of science fiction.
Moreover, Judith and Christian Vogt take great care to avoid heteronormative stereotypes in describing their characters outward appearance and instead introduce nuanced and historically grounded gender performances through fashion—with an awareness of the inherent power dynamic that the novel comments upon: „Clothing defines our gender on first glance. […] That has its advantages for me. I disguise myself during the day, and no one would dare question that disguise. And at night, I can express myself more freely through my clothes. At the same time, I am aware that clothing restricts us. Women that wear trousers are deviants“ (AD 346). Consequently, the main characters in the novel thus express their gender through fashion and outward appearance.
While Sandor is clearly described as a cis-gender male and heterosexual, he nonetheless seems highly aware of how his attire produces a perception of him and chooses clothing that pushes beyond stereotypical maleness: „He looked like a Dandy, his jacket was tailored to fit tightly, a light pair of pants highlighting his narrow hips and slim legs“ (AD 105). He is fashionable and comments upon Nike’s rather shabby clothing, that „there is nothing manly about letting yourself go“ (AD 106). In contrast to other male characters in the novel, Sandor is thus shown to be more aware of his gender performance, not conforming to the heteronormative carelessness of other men from his economic bracket, who as Nike puts it „look like they have slept in their pants“ (AD 106). Sandor, by contrast uses his fashion style to generate a very specific reaction based on that deviance: „He was wearing a coat that undoubtedly screamed ‚Artist!‘, which he had not taken off even though it was crowded and warm. […] He was leaning against the bar and was already deep in conversation with two young women, who did not look like they were professionals but who clearly had something in mind for him“ (AD 47).
In contrast to Sandor’s confidence, Nike is struggling with her identity, which she sees as being determined by „boxes,“ connecting the personal and the political, into which she was put: „the biggest boxes – woman and man – […] how she wished she could see people differently, in other categories, young and old maybe … or German and Un-German, a voice inside her head whispered, Aryan and Semitic.“ Nike is born to an Egyptian mother and a German father, who denounced her, and in 1920s Germany experiences how perception of those boxes keeps denying her opportunities. As a reaction to women being seen as inferior, she tries to thwart perception by choosing to perform a non-heteronormative gender: „She was wearing a dark grey suit with a shirt and tie. The dark hair was cut short. She looked back at him with stern eyes“ (AD 41). In her job as a physicist, her femaleness singles her out and the male performance is supposed to smooth over other people’s reaction: „Nike wanted to study and said that no one would take her seriously with long hair“ (AD 105), failing to realize that a queer performance is deemed „ridiculous“ (AD 25) by her colleagues and „no one had taken her seriously with short hair either“ (AD 106). But her gender performance is not just a reaction of resistance to being seen as a woman, it also stems from Nike’s feeling of inadequacy of knowing how to perform normative femininity: „I think, I just don’t know how to be a woman. It’s like someone is expecting me to drive a car, even though I have only ever been a passenger. But others know, everyone else knows. It is like a … big conspiracy, and I am not part of it!“ (AD 346).
But it is Georgette that presents the most pointed gender performance in the novel. The trans woman has to disguise herself during the day, as mentioned above, choosing to pass as a cis-gendered man, Dr. George Kalinin, „a small figure in a dark suit“ (AD 276). At night, though, Georgette is „slender […] her shoulders angular above the strapless, but otherwise plain black dress that fell to her knees. Her similarly raven black hair was sleek and short. […] She peered out of the mysterious smoky clouds of her dark eye shadow“ (AD 52–53). Georgette highlights her androgyny, using it in her performance on stage, wearing a dark leotard under a metallic construction: „The metal rods in her costume surrounded her torso like a corset and did not leave much room for the imagination. Her silhouette was slender, androgynous. And yet, this body was pure fantasy, an unearthly ideal“ (AD 117). Discussing her gender identity with Nike, Georgette claims that being a woman is not something she chooses, but „maybe I have to be“ (AD 280). And while Nike feels like she is forced to be a woman, she realizes that Georgette clearly knows her own identity: „Why do you have to be? Something tells you that you are a woman, but why is there nothing that tells me that I am?“ (AD 280).
In Anarchie Déco, then, the authors deploy detailed queer characterization to question the established gender binary. I want to claim for the novel, what Veronica Hollinger argues as an effect of queer theory in general, that „heterosexuality comes to acquire a certain exoticism as an object of estrangement and we are invited to consider it, not as natural and universal, but—to a large extent—as both learned behavior and a network of forces embedded in the very fabric of culture“ (24). As I will show, the novel goes further, not just dissolving gender via non-binary performances, but also addressing sexuality as being beyond binarism and normativity. And again, it is prudent to point out that the science-fictionality of this generates from the estranging effect of an unexpectedly progressive and genderqueer reality of 1920’s Berlin, from history becoming estranged itself.
Two scenes in particular demonstrate how sexuality can be seen as a non-essentialist category that allows for more fluidity than the binarism of heterosexual and homosexual. The nightclub Eldorado, as the novel explains, „satisfies the voyeuristic need to see what was often referred to as the ‚third gender‘: gays, lesbians, transvestites,“ it is here that the bourgeoisie can „drink cocktails in places where the borders between male and female disappeared“ (AD 111). In a conversation with Sandor, Nike points out that gender perfomance invites speculations about sexual orientation: „You don’t have to explain anything, you know. The way we are dressed, everyone here probably asks themselves, whether you are gay and I am lesbian. And they can ask themselves that, it just isn’t any of their business“ (AD 113). The nightclub chapter is focalized through Nike, highlighting her conviction that gender and sexuality are private decisions that no one else should comment on. While Sandor is highly motivated to guess everyone’s biological sex („you can hardly tell the difference. I mean, between men and women“; AD 112), Nike argues that he can wonder all he likes, but should keep the question and any speculations to himself, „silently, in your head. How hard can that be to understand?“ (AD 114). In terms of sexual attraction, Nike argues that once you want to „get down with a stranger,“ why would it matter to know beforehand „what’s down their pants“ (AD 113)? In this scene, the novel (through Nike) makes clear that, as Motschenbacher and Stegu have claimed, „sexual identity labels construct people’s identities as clear-cut and enforce an either/or choice“ (526), but that actual sexualities are beyond those categories, that attraction is key, not any biological essentialism.
The novel goes further, though, by portraying non-heteronormative sexuality in an explicit scene between Nike and Georgette, which highlights their own sexualities as beyond the limitations of clear-cut categories. Nike’s sexuality is defined by her experiences with men, her expectations are based on heterosexual intimacy. Interestingly, this shows mainly through (self-)negation: she does not „want to become pregnant again“ (AD 329), she feels she might „look ridiculous“ and describes her desire as „frightening“ (AD 330), and believes that their encounter ends with Georgette coming (AD 332). Moving beyond this heterosexual expectation allows her to realize that she likes being tied up, „even that she wasn’t able to see, she liked“ (AD 332), and that even though she has never had an orgasm with a partner (meaning heterosexual intercourse) and believes that „maybe it just doesn’t work, maybe I can’t do it“ (AD 332), she is able to climax. What is important in the scene, and made explicit several times, is that sexuality needs to be consensual and that Nike has full control over what she desires to do and what she does not want to do.
This is also important to Georgette, whose sexuality is even more clearly beyond any binary category. She explains that she has limits to what she is willing to do in a sexual encounter: „My limit has to do with your gaze and your touch […] So, I don’t want to be touched and I don’t want to be seen“ (AD 329). In the scene her sexuality is not portrayed through any biological essentialism, but instead turns auto-erotic as she „began to touch herself, Nike felt the slow, rhythmic movements“ (AD 330), and Georgette „rubbed herself with her right hand, harder now“ (AD 331) until she „could not hold back anymore, turning to her side and coming with a few intense movements“ (AD 332). The novel’s language in the scene is explicit without ever leaving the characters’ bodies to be evaluated by the reader. Georgette is not to be gazed at and the descriptions refrain from providing detail, as her sexuality defies any ‚clear-cut categories‘ and instead embraces the „considerable intra-category differences“ that the „actual continuum of sexualities“ (Motschenbacher and Stegu 526) allows.
In their presentation of fluid gender performances and non-heteronormative sexualities, Judith and Christian Vogt highlight their queer approach to the text, which allows for the „deconstruction or blurring of two powerful binarisms stabilising each other: female versus male and heterosexual versus homosexual“ (Motschenbacher and Stegu 520). As such, the novel exemplifies the possibility of progressive speculative writing to move beyond heteronormative stereotypes and to explore possible social changes in the politics of everyday life.
3. ‚Universal Magic‘: Queering Representations of Science
Anarchie Déco’s queer approach is not just manifest in the historically estranged representation of gender and sexuality, but extends further. As Ann Weinstone has pointed out, queering can take „a plethora of strategies ranging from the mixing of genres to shifts in traditional modes of address to grammatical and syntactic experiments“ (43). I thus want to highlight the similar strategies described by queer theory and what Sullivan and Vogt have claimed as the ‚progressive fantastic’—that is, moving beyond traditions, subverting expectations, and transforming structures and forms in which to explore literary worlds. For Wendy G. Pearson, queer represents a „radical and subversive“ position, whose „very slipperyness“ and „tendency towards instability“ („Alien“ 3) are key to its potential for provoking change. The progressive fantastic claims a similar subversion and instability, as Sullivan and Vogt point out: „we need to […] let go of the entrenched and constantly reproduced,“ as these images and stereotypes are hooked into our cultural memory and „block us, limit us, sometimes even hurt us.“
One aspect in which the novel enacts such a subversive and slippery queering is in its reimagining of magic, not as defined by the narrative traditions of fantasy but as a technology bound by scientific thinking. Blurring the boundaries of urban fantasy and science fiction, Anarchie Déco repositions magic not as a supernatural force, „a reservoir of power […] usually in some between-world, which can be tapped, or stored by some individuals,“ who are commonly assumed to take „inborn talent to work magic“ (Jones 616), but as a scientific phenomenon inherent in our world that combines „art and science“ (AD 12). This new physics discipline is described as working in the conjunction of polar opposites: „Dual magic—an interplay of art and science, man and woman“ (AD 14). When being studied at the university, within the (male-dominated) academic system of science, the binary hierarchy is deemed essential to the working of magic, two people of opposite sex and from the two disciplines are necessary for the experiments. As the young physics student Erika describes it, during a performance with artist Emil, the „dualism of wave and particle in physics has been established. But what about other dualisms? Man and woman! Arts and sciences! How does it all fit together? Are they two sides of the same coin?“ (AD 56). Here, we can see how Judith and Christian Vogt reverse the expected gender dynamics by making both physicists, Nike and Erika, female while their artistic companions are male, thus subverting the stereotypical gendered reading of the two professions.
The novel describes the rigid system of academic and scientific research in gendered and private terms, connecting the professional to aspects of familial life. This is most iconically expressed in Nike’s ‚Doktorvater‘ Prof. Pfeiffer and her two mentors Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg all leaving the risk of presenting the new field at a conference to Nike, as the „scientific reputation of a woman was easier to risk than that of a man. A woman could, after failing at a career, always enter the safe harbor of marriage instead“ (AD 10). Similarly, when talking about the magical experiments, there is constant mention of a „harmony“ of the two partners and Nike expresses her wariness by thinking of this in terms of „an arranged marriage“ (AD 50). Sandor picks up on the similarity as well, when he describes Nike as his „partner. My magical partner. Almost sounds like a marriage, doesn’t it?“, while Nike is afraid of exactly that because „nothing makes a woman more invisible than a husband“ (AD 204). In describing magic by using familial terminology, the novel exposes the underlying hierarchical thinking of the academic system, emphasizing that science as an institutionalized practice is deeply heteronormative.
But Anarchie Déco does not simply accept the heteronormative structure of magic/science, instead opting for a queering that moves across these hierarchies. For one, as Sandor ponders, magic as much as any other science can be decoupled from the hierarchical institutions that gatekeep them: „What would happen if magic gave those people opportunities who had nothing so far? Maybe through magic they had nothing to lose—but their chains?“ (AD 201). Aside from the Marxist connection (more on the political below), this is a comment on access to knowledge, which is deeply ingrained in heteronormative structures. The novel highlights Nike’s struggle for acceptance within the field of physics as much as the acceptance of magic as an academic field itself. These hierarchical structures and categories are limitations of potential that a queer intervention can break open.
Significantly, in the novel, this queer intervention comes in the form of Georgette and her theory of „universal magic“ (AD 384), which does not build on the binarisms of female/male and art/science but instead runs ‚across‘ them, a queer movement „recurrent, eddying, troublant, [… and] multiply transitive“ (Sedgwick viii). In a recurrent reference to her own personal life, Georgette’s theory is based on the question of how ‚clear-cut‘ gender categories really are (or ought to be). Nike explains the idea that magic can be created when a specific condition is found, which the „dominant model of explanation“ (AD 278) calculates via the two axis of ‚male/female‘ and ‚science/art.‘ Instead of needing both axes to calculate the convergence point, Georgette asks Nike to „climb the fence“ (AD 279) and think beyond the limiting categories, in the image calculating the magical midpoint via a different method, moving across the quadrant from the edge of the circle, not via the axes. It is the gender axis that is the arbitrary position, as Georgette explains:
„What am I?“
„A … woman?“
„How do you know?“
Nike did not reply.
„Come on, tell me,“ Georgette said almost teasingly.
„Well, because you say so. And how you are!“
„And are you also how I am? Why are we both women?“ (AD 279)
The dialogue reveals the social construction, not the biological essentialism of the gender axis in the magical equation. Georgette fulfills as much the conditions for being a woman as Nike does, though neither is fully female according to societal norms and ‚clear-cut‘ labels. Similarly, with Sandor, Georgette argues that „I have seen more manly men than you. And to be honest, I think I have seen more manly women than you“ (AD 281). Both Sandor and Nike, then, do not comply to the categories that magic use is supposed to work on. But the queer and troubling movements of Georgette’s magic go further, as she explains: „the gender axis which you are thinking along is a limitation. To unite science and magic is a potentiation. When science and magic find each other, something comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts“ (AD 282). Georgette’s theory is a queer theory, reflecting the novel’s own approach at queering the traditions of magic and science for its readers. In this, Anarchie Déco is drawing on the queer potential of speculative writing (i.e., art/magic/science) itself, as Pearson has pointed out: „Reading sf queerly, we queer it as much as we are queered by it. As readers, we become different through the act of reading, of opening ourselves to the flow of possibilities, of new ideas, of new bodies. And it is on the body—whether human body, alien body, virtual body, body politic, body of work, body of writing—that queer exerts its greatest effects“ („Towards“ 73). In the novel, this queer theory exerts its power on the body of its main characters, for example, when Nike realizes her own magic potential:
Burning, pain, heat, and force rolled over her, penetrated her skin and bone and hair, too much, too much, too much! Nike let go, made herself do it […] She began to dance. […] But Nike wasn’t there anymore, turned into a being of sparks, lightning, and fire, who did not hesitate for a second. With the lightning-fast power of her thoughts she moved the concentrated might of the electrons against the monsters around her. (AD 450)
Sandor’s queer transformation is similarly physically linked to his body via his hand, which has been magically transformed into marble. „The hand is a piece of art,“ he realizes, but it is art that is in him, is him: „But his hand belonged to him. He did not become Renée’s artwork. He owned this hand, and this hand owned him“ (AD 453–54) Through his body, the queer magic takes hold: „His hand in the floor was creating a reality that he controlled with his mind“ (AD 454). In the end, an eddying motion connects both Nike and Sandor with each other, flowing back to the harmony they sought in enacting magic together, now each able to do so on their own: „the tower no longer separated them, but had opened an axis between them. Between Sandor and Nike. Between art and science. Between Nike’s universal magic and Sandor’s universal magic“ (AD 455). In the end, harmony between the two is not hierarchically determined, not a prerequisite to enact magic, but something they transition into because each has found their own identity: „they searched for each other, not because they needed to, but because they wanted to“ (AD 456).
In reimagining how magic and science relate to each other, the novel not only questions the traditional motives of both fantasy and science fiction, blurring the genres and queering our reading experience, it also highlights the use of magic as a science as an example of queer theory itself, pushing readers across boundaries of clear-cut categories and refuting the binarism inherent in depictions of institutionalized science.
4. ‚Germania‘ or ‚Utopia‘? Technology, Politics and Social Change
In linking magic and science, the novel highlights magic as a form of technology, which is intimately connected to issues of personal identity as much as it is to public life, as Andrew Feenberg has argued: „What human beings are and will become is decided in the shape of our tools no less than in the action of statesmen and political movements. The design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences“ (3, italics in original). According to Feenberg, technology shapes social interactions, reflecting social values, and is a deeply political, „ambivalent process of development suspended between different possibilities“, which needs to be fought over: „a social battlefield“ (15). Feenberg differentiates two common positions regarding the relation of technology and society. First, „instrumental theory […] treats technology as subservient to values established in other social spheres (e.g., politics or culture)“ (5). That is, essentially „technologies are ‚tools‘“ (5), neutral and ready to be used according to the values of public or hegemonic discourse. Second, „substantive theory“ (5) argues that technology itself is cultural and promotes specific attitudes and values, that is, the substantive position argues that „technology constitutes a new cultural system that restructures the entire social world as an object of control“ (6-7). Consequently, technologies are either value-neutral tools that are used by politics to push their ideological agenda or are themselves political and ideological in that they shape social and cultural value systems, overriding what existed before.
Feenberg rejects both in favor of a „critical theory,“ a middle ground which allows for critical reflection of the „technical codes“ (15) and ideologies that are embedded in the design of a technology and then ultimately decides on which path to go based on politics: „there can be at least two different modern civilizations based on different paths of technical development. […] Technologies corresponding to different civilizations thus coexist uneasily within our society. We can already sense the larger stakes implicit in the technical choice“ (15). How we make use of a new technology is thus a relevant political choice and, I would argue, the ideally suited material for science fiction, which according to Sherryl Vint is „a cultural mode that struggles with the implications of discoveries in science and technology for human social lives and philosophical conceptions“ (4).
That magic becomes a technology is the crucial change that Hellekson defines for an alternate history „nexus story“ (11). Judith and Christian Vogt are acutely aware of the social potential for change that such a paradigm shift brings with it and thus realize the genre’s potential to speculate about „the past’s link to the present, the present’s link to the future, and the role of individuals in the history-making process“ (Hellekson 10). In situating the new technology and its impact in a politically controversial and conflict-laden time, the authors emphasize how past, present, and future are as deeply interconnected, as technology, politics and individual decisions are.
Renée Markova, the novel’s main villain, an architect and real estate developer, compares magic to electricity and how it is being delivered even to „the last corner of Pomerania and Saxony“ (AD 235). She sees magic as changing from being a destructive, natural force to being harnessed for „never known comfort“ (AD 235). She points out that electricity had allowed „a single woman to do what used to be done by a whole household staff“ (AD 236), thus showing her awareness of the social impact, though ironically erasing any intersectional critique of class and gender through her own privilege—she herself still keeps staff for her comfort. She dreams of the „basic substance of buildings“ that could „participate in the work,“ conjuring up an automated workforce (but magical instead of machines), while „we are living in abundance and freedom“ (AD 236).
Sandor’s reaction to this magically animated techno-utopia is to question who gets to participate („All of us? Even those that used to work at the assembly lines?“; AD 236). On the surface, Renée seems to agree—„there are things that have to be granted to all the people out there, as soon as they are available“—but with the caveat that she only wants to placate the people, and pacify them with trinkets: „Give the people a tidbit that makes them happy. The perspective of getting a factory golem. And then, behind closed doors, the government can work on the really big possibilities…“ (AD 237). As one of the power brokers of the Weimar Republic and an architect, she sees the biggest potential of the technology in its impact on the way that people live, the effects similar to electricity in reaching into the everyday lives of all. To her the larger stakes are obvious, and they belong under control of people with a far-reaching vision (like her).
Anarchie Déco thus explores not just the potential of magic as a technology, but also how „innovations have been changing material and social worlds“ (Vint 4), that is, how the design and the use of magic become political categories. Importantly then, the novel uses its alternate historical setting during the Weimar Republic and the growing fascist threat to democracy as a backdrop to discuss just how a new technology influences given social structures. As mentioned, the novel takes place in 1928 right before the May 20th elections, and thus foregrounds the political upheaval and social issues of the time.
On the one hand, there is the struggle of left (both communists and anarchists) and right (the National Socialists), which escalates to outright street conflict, as the Nazis discover the ability to use magic for their own purposes. They magically attack a group of anarchists, with Sandor among them, using both the physical force of a projected imperial eagle crashing into the meeting and the psychological force to shock their victims into a stupor by blasting them with Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (AD 145). Sandor is able to identify the attacker as „a brown shirt with a swastika brassard – SA!“ (AD 146). He immediately realizes the political impact of magic in the hands of the Nazis: „The facts were clear: The Nazis had two magicians. Two more than the anarchists. Two more than the communists. Two more than the Republic“ (AD 155). Later in the story, Sandor decides—along the lines of Feenberg’s critical theory—to open up a different path to a different society via the use of magic as technology. He understands that in order for magic not to become an instrument of oppression, it needs to be in the hands of as many people as possible. In keeping with his anarchist politics, he hands out the secrets to performing magic by printing a pamphlet and distributing it to the people. He argues: „This new form of power is something that all of us can master. The only thing we need is knowledge about the right method. The government, the police, the sciences, they all are learning these methods, but no one thinks of you – and that is why magic is just going to become a new means to separate the powerful from the powerless“ (AD 304).
On the other hand, the new technology of magic is not just being used to keep power under control of the more extreme political factions. The political establishment soon realizes the potential of magic for political purposes and tries to influence its distribution, as a group of centrist nationalist politicians makes clear to Nike: „Think of the enemies of democracy. […] Or the French! These people cannot be allowed to master this new technology before we do. […] It is all about keeping harm from the German people, you understand“ (AD 163). Nike realizes that in the wrong hands, in those of nationalist politicians for example, magic would be seen as a weapon, one that could be used circumvent the restrictions of the Treaty of Versaille, which bans Germany from having a military. This would make it possible „to seek revenge on the Entente powers“ (AD 216), i.e. magic could be used to start a new war against France and Britain. In the novel, the politicians take up the ‚instrumental theory‘ that magic is a tool, its use determined by those who wield it.
Renée Markova follows the ‚substantive theory‘ that the existence of magic will will „shap[e] the whole of social life“ (Feenberg 7), that it will come to determine political realities no matter what. Instead of fearing the ideological shift, Renée seeks to actively shape the technology’s impact. She realizes that magic will inevitably make Berlin „a magical city“ (AD 443), but sees the possibility to shape who can benefit from the changes-to-come. She uses politics to feed her egomania, favoring the Nazis by aligning her magical techno-utopia with their vision of Germania, a monumental capitol for the thousand-year Third Reich: „if we truly want to build for eternity, we need to change all aspects of life. Start completely anew, with a new movement and a new Germany“ (AD 444). And she has harnessed magic and amplified it through her tower, in order to „make some room. And to create an atmosphere of fear, where we will be able to realize our vision“ (AD 444). Rénee sees magic in similar terms as electricity, shaping a new and modernized society, which to her necessitates the complete renewal of society. For this, she is willing to wipe the slate clean and remove the old social structures, which means destroying the slums of the working-class poor to make way for her vision of a magical city of grandeur.
It seems ironic, then, that to make room for this modernist technological vision, Renée is making use of the symbols of the old world. Her magic animates statues all over the city, controlling them to destroy Berlin’s poor and run-down Mietskasernen (literally: renter’s barracks). Aside from the caryatids, sculptures of females that literally support and uphold Berlin’s Renaissance architecture, most of the city’s statues are monuments to the German Empire, such as „Queen Luise and her husband Friedrich Wilhelm III,“ as well as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (AD 449). One might read the destruction of the city by representatives of the German Empire as a subtle narrative comment on the continued influence of the Kaiserreich on the Weimar Republic’s political landscape and how the Nazis were able to instrumentalize the country’s remaining imperial sentiments in their vision of a Third Reich and Germania.
Ultimately, it is a reflection of the novel’s queer approach that magic is not simply set in conjunction with science, but becomes a technology that is used for political means. In relating magic to the politics of the time, by setting the conflict around ideas of housing and city planning, the Vogts are able to draw on the wide-ranging consequences of technology, to reimagine the fantastic as a tool for social change. The novel’s magic is used for social engineering: Renée’s vision wants to eliminate the existing and neglected social housing, claiming the city for the rich and powerful alone. The „social battlefield“ (Feenberg 15) of the technology is literalized in the novel, as Nike and Sandor battle against Renée in the final sections of the book. As I have shown, the fight is part of the novel’s queered message, as Nike and Sandor use universal magic, while Renée and her husband rely on the hierarchical and categorically distinct dual magic. Similarly, the political struggle is queered through magic use, as both Sandor and Nike see magic as providing the opportunity for equality, transgressing categories of power, while Renée represents the idea of magic controlled via authoritarianism, a clear instrument for hierarchies of power.
Anarchie Déco is an excellent example of queering the fantastic, challenging gender categories and heteronormative language. It uses its alternate history and the turning of magic into a science to estrange and queer genre representations, while at the same time commenting on the political and social impact of technology. It is especially through the alternative historical setting around the 1928 elections that the novel shows how technologies are relevant to political debates. History sees this election as a pivotal failure for the social state to manifest its promises, instead leading to a weak parliament and the rise of non-parliamentary oppositions in Kampfbünden (‚fighting companies‘). After the elections, the majority won by the Social Democrats (SPD), who campaigned on a platform of social reform instead of costly military spending, had to give in to the smaller but powerful centrist People’s Party (DVP) and agreed to the construction of several Panzerschiffe (armored ships). This open break with their campaign destroyed all trust in effective government and eroded the Republic so much that the extreme positions of the Nazis could thrive in the following years, especially when after the global economic crisis of the Great Depression hit after 1929.
In Anarchie Déco, the use of magic replaces the historical debate about spending for the Panzerschiffe and becomes the dominant election topic. The threat, as much as the promise, of magic takes over the public debate after the murder of a communist politician via magical means. At the end of the novel, after the destruction of parts of the city by giant living statues, the election is held under the new technological paradigm with a new „Magic Party having cropped up like a shiny new mushroom just one and a half weeks before the election. They [i.e. the Magic Party] promised to test the public for magical affinity, to finance magical education measures, and to make magic accessible to all“ (AD 470). The election result is slightly different to historical record, as the novel points out two major differences: (1) that the Magic Party became forth-strongest party, thus possibly becoming partners for a coalition going forward, and (2) that the Nazis received „roughly five percent“ (AD 472), which is a far better result than the 2.6% they received historically. Magic, then, has changed a pivotal moment in history. The Nazis’ embrace of magic, a technology leading to a paradigmatic shift in social and political relations, for nationalist purposes and their simultaneous propaganda strategy to stoke fears of a Jewish conspiracy of sinister magic use („Jewish Golem Kills in Berlin?“; AD 179) are shown to have worked on the unwitting public. The direct impact of magic on the citizens of Germany have changed the election outcome and thus generated a different historical path. Any future moving forward will have to incorporate positions on the power of magic as technology. The novel thus shows how the „technical codes“ (Feenberg 15) of magic, the inherent ideologies of how it is designed and used, shape different possibilities for society to develop, to either use magic for control and hierarchical power or to allow it to equal the playing field, socially and politically.
Anarchie Déco is a prime example of the progressive fantastic. It is queer in the way that Sedgwick has argued as „spinning outward“ from issues of sex and gender, moving across a variety of „identity-constituting, identityfracturing [sic] discourses […] to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state“ (8). In this sense, Anarchie Déco is a progressive fantastic intervention, an act of queering that reveals how changing perspectives and transgressing normative categories can promote new social values and, as Lorraine has argued, can impact „the imaginative patterns for better social conditions“ (quoted in Yaszek and Sharp xxii). In its conception of alternate history, the novel is pointing towards our current technological present. Taking on a queer perspective, Judith and Christian Vogt suggest that shifting our understanding of technologies and seeing their social and political impact generates a lasting effect on our social reality.
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