Review: The Engineer von Satanas, edited and trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.
“That slut Science!”
Some novels have memorable taglines. That’s the one for the centerpiece of this collection, Albert Robida’s The Engineer von Satanas.
I doubt that Robida, writing in 1919, seriously thought that World War One would start up again in 1920.
But I don’t doubt the sincerity of this amazing work of vitriol and bitterness.
When wartime censorship was lifted, Robida poured his despair out in a work unremarked upon and unreprinted until this translation by Brian Stableford. It is, as Stableford argues, the pioneering work of all those science fiction stories of survivors existing in the rubble of civilization, heirs not to the ruins of natural disaster and cosmic randomness but human action, of the terribleness of modern war. It was a vein that entered British science fiction a few years later in Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (1920) and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (1922) and into American science fiction after Hiroshima.
It wasn’t always that way.
Robida the artist and writer did two short, illustrated stories called “War in the 20th Century”. One was published in 1883 and the other in 1887. Both are breezy japes full of future tech. While this book reprints Robida’s illustrations for The Engineer von Satanas, it omits his art for those earlier stories. (theRiddleoftheSands has reprints of some of the illustrations of the 1883 version.)
The first details the Australo-Mozambique War of 1975 started by Australians manipulating the Mozambicoville Stock Exchange. The weapons are submarines, “mobile fortresses” (essentially a very large tanks), balloons, “rocket-torpedoes”, balloons, railway artillery, “asphyxiating shells”, electrical weapons that induce epilepsy, and machine guns. The casualties are high but merely accepted. 290,000 Australians die at the final battle of Mayazamba. The whole thing is written as a piece of future heroics with no central character.
Stableford notes that Robida narrows the distance between his contemporary reader and the story’s world in each iteration of his future war. The second story is even more comic than the first. It relates the exploits of Fabius Molinas, a French bachelor and reservist in the 18th Territorial Aeronauts. His vacation is interrupted by a war in 1945. The opponent is unnamed, but it’s pretty obvious it’s Germany. At story’s end, the Fabius ends up in Mexico and marries into the local aristocracy. The weapons are largely the same. The “mobile fortresses” of the 1883 version have become “mobile blockhouses”. The idea of an Offensive Medical Corps is introduced and they employ a variety of bacteriological munitions. Mediums show up as weapons:
… the most powerful magnetizers and suggestionists in Paris … marched slowly toward the enemy lines, emitting torrents of fluid by means of energetic processes.
There is more variety of chemical agents in this story.
One senses that most of the political speculation of Robida’s stories are there for mere comic preposterous, inversions of contemporary politics. “A great African nation” and Australia, both colonies in 1883, fighting a great war! How deliciously absurd! In the 1887 version the Danubian Empire is undergoing a civil war, an American attack on the coast of France has been repelled, and a Chinese naval expedition foundered on the rocks of Corsica. The only seeming sincerity seems a passing complaint about the high taxes that empire necessitates.
But the Great War made Robida, as Stableford argues in a spinoff article in the June 2015 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, an “accidental prophet”.
The Engineer von Satanas opens with a couple of prologues. The first introduces us to the sinister Brother Schwarz. He’s been disturbing a medieval monastery with his alchemical pursuits and ultimately gives a local aristocrat the secret of gunpowder. The second prologue, set at the fictitious 1909 Peace Conference in the Hague, has the famous engineer von Satanas, who looks a lot like Brother Schwarz, showing delegates the military potential of new technologies, “all the ingenious things of which use would obviously never be made”.
Then we get the main story, the return to civilization of our hero Paul Jacquemin, a naturalist who left on an arctic exploration in April 1914. He returns to Europe after 15 years of being stranded with his fellow expedition members. The seas are strangely empty, the lighthouses dim. And then their ship hits a mine, and all but Jacquemin die. Floating in the sea, Jacquemin meets Marcel, the survivor of another sunken ship.
The two wash ashore and are immediately grabbed by the locals, bags put over their heads, and they’re whisked off to a cellar (to avoid a gas attack, it turns out).
They meet the locals whose origins and injuries are tokens of the war’s reach and misery:
- Miraud, French aviator, missing an arm.
- Estebano Gomarès, Spanish businessman, former prisoner of the “Boche”, the French, Americans, and British.
- Demetrius Manoli, Rumanian oilman.
- Arbydian, Armenian mistaken for a Turk, businessman, former prisoner of the Germans.
- Bob Hatfield, American infantry major, missing an eye.
- Howard Gibson, American billionaire.
- Maître Saladin, French infantryman, missing an arm and leg and has a nasty cough from a gas attack.
- Bustamente, Peruvia infantryman (the war expanded into South America).
- Archibald Felton, New Zealand grenadier and former prisoner of war.
- Mohammed Bammakou, Senegalese rifleman, missing a hand.
- Konang, rifleman, “son of a mandarin from Hué”, presumably from French Indochina.
- Jollimay, Swiss professor of history and artilleryman, missing a leg.
- Vandermolen, former Dutch shipowner mourning the destruction of his native Harlem – and his tulip collection.
- Madame Vitallis, formerly of Paris, missing a leg,
- Madmoiselle Vitallis, daughter of Madame Vitallis.
Paul also meets Robida’s mouthpiece, Dr. Christiansen. And, almost from his first words, he states what will become the refrain of book:
You’re a man of science? Me too, unfortunately. I’m not paying you any compliment – oh no! We’re colleagues, then; I’m a poor devil of a Danish scientist. Doctor of medicine and many other things … very repentant and disillusioned, I assure you. Oh that slut Science! The harlot! The whore!
In the rubble, the survivors of that war scavenge for goods, hunt, and carry on with their lives. A love triangle even forms with Marcel and Miraud wooing Madmoiselle Vitallis in the “Age of Burrows”. Christiansen rails against science. Jollimay rails against
the folly of domination … the imperialism of despots, their rage of domination and hegemony … the furious domination of a race of prey!
Imperialism, Robida says, seems to have had a high price.
In the end, Paul’s convinced and accepts the indictment against that “slut Science”. A novel that, apart from Paul’s comrades drowning at sea, has been free of onstage death, ends with Paul and his new comrades, armed with bows and arrows, off to assault the Boche holed up in the Palace of Peace. Arthur Machen, in his “The Dazzling Light”, may have noted the medieval appearance of some parts of World War One. The weapons of this story are medieval. Civilization regressing is not an accident as in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Beyond Thirty. It’s the desired end.
The volume includes the reactions of two other French writers to the Great War.
Adrien Bertrand thought the war threatened something precious, so, even though he was a socialist and pacifist, he joined the French army immediately upon France being invaded. Shrapnel wounded his lungs in October 1914, and he ultimately died of those wounds in 1917. But, during that failed recovery, he managed to write the famous French war novel L’Appel du sol and some short pieces including “The Rain that surprised Candide in his Garden”.
That story is a post-mortem philosophical discussion that Vaissette, Bertrand’s alter-ego and also the hero of his novel, has with several characters from famous works of literature:
- Abbé Jérôme Coignard, a character from two novels by Anatole France
- Don Quixote
- Charles Dicken’s Mr. Pickwick
- Goethe’s Doctor Faust
Besides mocking Homer and Achilles (who, it is pointed out, participated in very little combat), Bertrand talks of how he reconciled his pacifism with war to protect society from the “pillagers, the uncivilized, friends of vice, rapine and brigandage”.
And Bertrand talks of the beauty of commanding men running towards death:
… I know that, deaf and blind in the unleashed tempest, while the heavens were exploding over our heads and the earth was being torn apart under our feet, we experienced the horror of a sacred frission!
Bertrand, of course, died before peace – however temporary – began. But Vaissette speaks for Bertrand in hoping there will be a better “new order of things”, a “wonderful harvest from peace.”
More in the way of a technocratic policy proposal wrapped in the gloating presentation of the victorious German General von Stick is Louis Baudry de Saunier’s “How Paris was destroyed in six hours on Easter Sunday, 20 April 1924”. Like Bertrand, Saunier was a journalist, pacifist, and socialist, but he also possessed a great interest in technology. He started out writing about bicycles and then moved to aviation and, during the war, wrote about the artillery and radio. Saunier’s story has the French throwing away their lead in aviation technology while the Germans, under the cover of developing a civil aviation industry, develop critical dual use technologies they use to knock out the political and logistical heart of France.
Bertrand’s and Saunier’s pieces are interesting examples, respectively, of pondering the war’s meaning and anxiety about more war. But Robida’s novel is truly a forgotten classic, readable in its own right as well as historically important.