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Sunday 20 August 2017

Die Außerirdischen (The Extraterrestrials), Novel 2017, by Doron Rabinovoci, 8* out of 10

With his new novel, Doron Rabinovici presents a by no means flawless, yet very entertaining and witty socio-political satire that can easily be mistaken for science-fiction. In fact "The Extraterrestrials" owes more to Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" and George Orwell's "Animal Farm" than to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games or Stephen King's Running Man.

Sol is co-founder of a hipster online magazine, which specializes in reporting on fast-moving food trends. Sol’s life-partner Astrid curates exhibitions. When, one morning, the radio reports that extraterrestrials have landed, Sol becomes worried and excited. Astrid is sceptical: to her it looks like a remake of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play, which enacted this scenario and spread panic among unsuspecting American listeners who thought they were listening to live news reports. When it appears that benevolent camera-shy beings from another planet have indeed landed on earth, Jupp Bitter, Sol’s boss, and Albert Stern, Sol’s work-colleague,  grab the opportunity to expand the mission of it will become the place where expert-discussions are broadcast live via the internet. The audience will be invited to participate and react live. There is of course no shortage of expert-opinion. At the same time, well known show business personalities organise an event to welcome the new arrivals in a show of intergalactic friendship: “We Are the World”. Albert Stern’s show on has the highest viewing figures. Events however take a more sinister turn when our new discrete, extra-terrestrial friends let it be known that they like the taste of human flesh. Still camera-shy, the extraterrestrials offer to eradicate all war and disease on earth in return for small quantities of human flesh - but only from people who would totally voluntarily offer themselves up for sacrifice. Volunteers would be assured of a painless death would have a place in history as revered heroes. Their families would receive generous life-long pay-outs. The generous offer is accepted. Volunteers will participate in a game-show competition in which the winners would be spared and rewarded while the losers of the high stakes game would eventually end up as dead meat, but entirely painlessly and in the best possible taste. Sol begins to excitedly voice criticism of the new societal developments. Astrid is less open in voicing her opinion. But when their neighbour Elliott asks Sol to use his influence at to help him be selected as a candidate in the upcoming game a chain of events is set in motion that will make what is going on in the world very close and personal.

With his latest novel, Doron Rabinovici (Elsewhere, Hitler’s Jews) Tel Aviv born Viennese author, historian and activist enters a genre that is new to him. “The Extraterrestrials” is his first overtly political allegory and social satire; rather than a work of seemingly futuristic science-fiction, it is very much situated in our present. From his previous books, Rabinovici retains a clear eye for observation for how individuals react to ethical and moral challenges. Few other living German-writing authors can formulate with as much wit, clarity and a sense of irony as Doron Rabinovici. This makes the first two thirds of this novel entertaining and at times very funny socio-political satire. In the last third the story takes a more serious, personal tone. This does not give as much opportunity for the kind of short, insightful and witty formulations at which Rabinovici excels.

On the surface the story of the “The Extraterrestrials” seems to echo science fiction best sellers such as Suzanne Collins Hunger Games and Stephen King’s Running Man. But “The Extraterrestrials” focuses not on the participants of the gladiatorial games but the society in which they take place. That society looks eerily like ours. Indeed, “The Extraterrestrials” chimes with some great works of socio-political satire in world literature: In “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick” written in 1729, Jonathan Swift feigns a practical suggestion to fight famine in Ireland: let hungry parents eat their newborn babies. And there is George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, a satire on Stalinist totalitarianism in which Orwell tried “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. Moreover, one does not have to be catholic for references to eating the body of Christ and “accepting his sacrifice for us” to come to mind rather disturbingly.

Despite all his sense of irony, or perhaps because of it, Rabinovici is also a deeply committed and ultimately optimistic public intellectual and activist, who engages himself personally when he believes that the situation demands it. This may have stood in the way of following a darkly funny plot through to the very black and devastating ending (e.g. George Orwell in “1984”) his latest novel seems to demand.

Nevertheless, with his suspenseful, compelling, witty and readable novel Rabinovici succeeds in entertaining us intelligently. As it contains a lot of short and sharp dialogue, “The Extraterrestrials” is also a very suitable candidate for adaptation to theatre and film.

Readers of this blog, who do not read German, must wait a bit longer for the English translation of “Die Außerirdischen”. It will be worth the wait, though.

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