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Enter Der Sandmann: Analyzing the 1817 Sci-Fi Thiller

“Der Sandmann” by E.T.A. Hoffmann: Hidden Father of Science Fiction

the sandman

The man himself, E.T.A. Hoffmann.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story, “Der Sandmann” is a compelling Gothic sci-fi thriller that inspires more theories and speculation than any modern mystery. Published in 1817, “The Sandman” (Der Sandmann in the original German) became one of the most influential and unique early uses of automatons, and using epistolary-style narratives (stories told from a series of letters or journal entries) to create anticipation. Though generally regarded as a pillar of the German Romantic movement, Hoffmann has been referenced as a powerful influence for fiction and science fiction writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, and even filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Still influencing writers today, Hoffmann is gaining the recognition he deserves as the father of science fiction literature, in addition to fantasy and detective literature.

What is “Der Sandmann” about?

Nathanael, the main character of the short story, has been plagued by the nightmarish figure of the Sandman since childhood, and is introduced to the reader through a series of letters to and from his best friend Lothar and his lover, Clara, with the added interjections of an objective narrator.  The story begins with Nathanael recalling the events that led to the traumatic murder of his father by his presumed employer, Coppelius. Coppelius, a grotesque figure, is, in Nathanael’s mind, the Sandman from his nurse’s horrifying tales: a “wicked man who comes to children when they don’t want to go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes; that makes their eyes fill with blood and jump out of their heads.”

In Nathanael’s mind, there is no doubt that the grotesque “hateful, spectral monster” that infected his childhood followed him into his adulthood, lurking out of touch and in the shadows, locked behind his illusions of normality, until the visage of his nightmares incarnate arrives on his very doorstep, but never presumed Coppelius could be something even more sinister.

But wait, a plot twist!

What you aren’t told at the beginning of the story is that Nathanael, and Olimpia, the beautiful (but oddly quiet) daughter of a clockwork mechanical engineer, are automatons. Brought to life by alchemy, clockwork, and a dark power, the two automatons are oblivious to their true nature, until it is revealed in a terrifying, world-changing way.

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Asimov’s First Law of Robotics

The horrors of the Sandman evolve from a nursery tale to a nightmare so invasive it borders on the sublime, though it still belies the true threat. The evil that haunts Nathanael is true evil, the product of a deal made with Satan.

Coppelius as The Devil, Spalanzani as a desperate, but brilliant, inventor

Professor Spalanzani, the master mechanic responsible for Nathanael and Olimpia’s creation, made a wager with the Devil (in the form of Coppelius) in a misguided attempt at creating living perfection, a contradiction in and of itself. Nathanael’s mind is unable to come to grips with this inherent division, the product of being an inanimate thing with the illusion of Being, and turns to the concept of the Sandman in order to put his undefinable innermost fears into a corporeal form, in hopes of being able to understand the sublimity of his delusions, which in part causes his untimely destruction.

Waxing Philosophical with Friedrich Schelling on Der Sandmann

By taking into account German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling’s theory on contradiction being the mechanism that makes existence possible, “Der Sandmann” evolves from a horrific science fiction fairy tale to an even more terrifying commentary on creating a Being forced into existence through non-contradiction. Nathanael violently malfunctions because, as an automaton brought to life by the Devil himself, he is the unstable combination of ephemeral and ethereal, and the inherent contradiction present in humanity is dangerously discordant with the non-contradiction found in eternity.

Der Sandmann and Hal 9000

The battle between humanity and Greater Powers of any kind is an often toyed with science fiction concept, especially in stories that center around the birth of Artificial Intelligence. An example of this is the ominous black obelisk and Hal 9000’s apparent “malfunction” from 2001: A Space Odyssey, (I just watched it for the first time last week, so it’s fresh in my mind) which leads the viewer to question the invisible motives behind the obelisks presence, and what Greater Power (if any) caused Hal to sacrifice his mission and the safety of the crew, in direct disobedience of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and Hal’s internal programming.

A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Asimov’s Second Law of Robotics

At the dawning of the 19th century, humanity’s technological advancements led to a surge of science fiction writing as artists attempt to grasp at what the future might hold. Clockwork people, or automatons, were a commonly occurring theme. The concept of bestowing sentience to a machine (often created without human empathy) was, and still is, a dream as much as it was a nightmare.

Science Fiction Rule #1,337: Do NOT try to play God! It never ends well.

Many times, such as in Olimpia’s case in “Der Sandmann,” the creator plays God in a fruitless search to create living perfection. At the beginning of “Der Sandmann,” the reader naturally assumes the main character is a human being, as most are. However, E.T.A. Hoffmann slips in hints as to Nathanael’s true nature that generally don’t warrant a second glance on a first read. When he is discovered spying on Coppelius and his father, Coppelius grabs him and cries, “Let’s examine the mechanism of his hands and feet, and put them back in various sockets.” In the same scene, Coppelius makes a begrudging reference to “the Old Man,” whom the reader may deduce is Professor Spalanzani, the mechanist who created the automaton Olimpia.

the sandman

A German cover of “Der Sandmann” by E.T.A Hoffmann.

Professor Spalanzani, a master clockmaker and brilliant scientist, built Nathanael as part of a hinted-at wager with Coppelius, and entrusted the responsibility of raising the automaton to Coppelius’s assistant, Nathanael’s “father.” Coppelius’s nighttime visits to Nathanael’s home were never fully explained, but the reader would normally assume they were conducting some sort of alchemical experiments after the explosion took place, but, after discovering the true state of Nathanael’s being, one might believe that it was during these nights that Coppelius “upgraded” Nathanael, to give him the appearance of aging normally.

However, Coppelius’s delight in the misfortune and misery of others can no longer be limited to a “character flaw,” after the murder of Nathanael’s father, and the merciless battery of Professor Spalanzani during which he cries, “Get out– Satan!”

Circling back on the whole “Satan” thing in Der Sandmann:

“Our father behaved towards him as though Coppelius were a higher being whose foibles must be endured and who had to be kept in a good mood at whatever cost.” Coppelius calls the children ‘beasts’, but again and again, he proves himself to be The Beast. He is described physically as beyond monstrous, and it is repeatedly implied that he possesses some sort of otherworldly power. In the very beginning of the story, he alchemically creates an explosion that kills and horrifically maims Nathanael’s father, “burnt black and hideously contorted,” though two days later he appears “as mild and gentle as [he] had been during his life.”

These events simply cannot be explained away by any sort of logic or reason, and when combined with Coppelius’s implied ability to change his visage and form (he appears to grow into a “gigantic figure” at the very end of the story) reason concedes to what must be some sort of unholy marriage between ethically questionable science and the Devils dark magic.

“Der Sandmann” is a story written in the white space between the lines, chock full of allusions and minute hints, in order to blur the line between what the characters think and what the narrator presents, in order to keep the reader tumbling down the rabbit hole of uncertainty. One such hint toward Hoffmann’s true meaning is the etymology behind the name Coppelius, whose root is said to mean, “enamel eyes” and Coppola, which in Italian means, “eye sockets.” Knowing this, it is foolhardy to think that Hoffmann would include any minuscule piece of information in his short story that didn’t have a deeper meaning behind it.


Mary Shelley created the science fiction genre with her magnum opus, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, towards the end of the Romantic Movement

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley knew what she was doing. I mean, how classy is a semi-colon in your books title? Before we dive into her tragic story, let me paint you a word picture of what led up to the Haunted Summer [Read More]


That being said, when Spalanzani references a “wager” he made with a demonic and monstrous man he refers to as “Satan,” it becomes difficult to ignore the cultural significance of making a deal with the Devil, a concept that was popularized in the late 1700’s by writers such as Goethe and the Brothers Grimm, and was written about even as early as 538 AD (in the case of the original legend that inspired the Brothers Grimm story, “Faust”).

As technologically advanced as Olimpia and Nathanael are, Spalanzani needed the otherworldly power to make them nearly indistinguishable from humans, and that illusion comes from the automaton’s apparent personalities and mental states.

Aaaand back to philosophy!

Schelling claims that “every entity, everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time.” This idea of a universal contradiction inherent to everything “that is” as “not only possible, but in fact necessary” is a concept that seeks to explain the progression of beings in time (according to the modern philosopher Žižek). Only beings that are, such as humans, actively Being (existing as a conscious entity), experience this contradiction, as they both need it to continue existing/progressing in time and, as creatures of order and reason, abhor it.

This perpetual motion created by the cycle of contradiction is a phenomenon that inanimate Things cannot ever experience. A machine is content to be a machine, because it doesn’t have the capability to question its existence as true Beings do. Humans actively question their own questioning, something that drastically separates themselves from Things. Seeking the help of a power beyond his own, Spalanzani made a deal with Coppelius to create a sentient Being from an inanimate Thing, knowing what he attempted to do was impossible.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics


The use of A.I. in sci-fi movies as a plot device in sci-fi movies never seems to get old. From apocalyptic scenarios like The Terminator and The Matrix to (attempted) tear-jerkers like A.I. and Her, artificial intelligence is both worrisome and exciting. So where does our future stand in this regard?The truth is that we can’t know for sure where things will go, but the path seems to become less murky [Read More]


No consciousness without paradox: I, Robot and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Coupling the contradiction of existence (Being) with the non-contradiction of a static Thing, he created a paradox that could only end in the violent rupture of the automatons pseudo-consciousness, which, in Nathanael’s case, literally shattered his artificial mind. In Spalanzani’s attempt to create perfection, he relinquished any hopes of creating true unattainable perfection, absolute completeness, the thing toward which Beings are constantly striving, the thing that defines their very existence. The yearning to become whole is a distinctly human characteristic that a machine, intelligent or otherwise, could never hope to understand, thus dooming Nathanael from his inception. Modern day representations of AI. show the most sympathetic, human-like androids and AIs (such as Sonny in I, Robot or Rachel in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) suffer a longing for understanding or affection, but even those examples are rarely, if ever, plagued by the longing to become “whole,” because as AI’s, they already are. Endlessly tormented by the clashing of contradiction and non-contradiction inside his mind, Nathanael repeatedly malfunctions and shuts down, sometimes for weeks at a time, until he apparently resets, “all traces of madness… vanished.”

Final Thoughts on Der Sandmann: Science- Good, Evil Magic- Bad

Nathanael’s artificial nature is what doomed him to death in the end, not Coppelius, though his unholy animations did play a large part. When one considers the devils magic to be evil, it is then imbibed with eternity. Non-contradiction is the very essence of eternity, the stability of the unchanging, like the clockwork gears that propel Nathanael to motion, as contradiction propels humanity. The necessary contradiction inherent to Being is what shattered Nathanael’s mind, and Coppelius’s evil magic in conjunction with Spalanzani’s precise clockwork are the two images of eternity, the known and the unknown.  Doomed to malfunction, Nathanael’s inherent, but unintentional caricature of the contradiction of Being was merely a symptom of the very contradiction of contradiction and non-contradiction attempting to exist harmoniously inside one small, delicate, clockwork mind.

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