The Germans on Venus and Other French Scientific Romances

Timeslip Troopers and The Martian Epic got me interested in the works of Théo Varlet. So, as I usually do when reading more deeply in an author’s work, I sought his short fiction first.

Review: The Germans on Venus and Other French Scientific Romances, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2009. 

Cover by Gil Formosa

As laid out in his “Introduction”, this is the second anthology of French science fiction or, more properly, roman scientifique that Stableford has done for Black Coat Press.

Unlike the first, which attempted to define and show the “fundamental pattern of development” of the French roman scientifique, Stableford merely seeks to come up with representative samples from the entire period of the genre. Unintentionally, it ended up being somewhat biased towards humorous stories, he says. When authors defend themselves against the charge of absurdity by being absurd, their narratives are pushed to the limits.

Following the turmoil of the French Revolution, propagandizing for progress was harder. The skepticism about the benefits of progress and the perfectibility of human society was a common theme. Many of these stories have the theme that Isaac Asimov dubbed the “Frankenstein complex”: no good can come from technological progress. Stableford’s “editorial sieve” wasn’t interested in the “more pragmatic aspect of antitechnological sentiment” because that’s rather mundane in the context of science fiction. He opted for the more extreme and interesting cases. And, of course, some stories touch on the growing conflict between society and religion which, in the roman scientifique, played out in two distinctive ideas not seen much in American science fiction or the British scientific romance: the “plurality of worlds” and cosmic palingenesis – the transmigration of souls.

I’m not going to mention much about the background of each writer, but Stableford does introduce each story with a useful literary biography of its author, their place in the roman scientifique, and any probable influences on their work.

An excerpt from the novel Posthumous Correspondence [Les Posthumes, Lettres reçues après la mort du mari, par sa femme, qui le croit à Florence] (1796) by Restif de la Brettone starts things off. As you would expect from the title, this is one of those tales of a wandering soul sending his experiences back regarding the sometimes sentient lifeforms he encounters on Luna, Mars, and Mercury. This being Bretonne, a writer who was heavily invested in sexual themes, we not only get descriptions of alien language and physiognomy but the experience of aliens having sex. His protagonist Multipliandre should know. His soul has to inhabit some of those alien bodies.

Charles Nodier’s “Perfectibility”, first published in two parts as “Hurlubleu Grand Manifafa d’Hurlubière ou la Perfectibilité” and “Léviathan le long Archikan des Patagons de l’île savante ou la Perfectibilité, pour faire suite à Hurlubleu” in 1933 is a satire that still works in part to amuse the modern reader. Perfectibility is what our hero Berniquet, a self-described “delegate of the intellectual propaganda of perfectibility”, is very interested in. But, after setting out from Paris in 1933 on the trial of a religion lost to history and that promises to further perfect human society, things go rather astray. (The religion is Zeretochthro-Scah aka Zorastrianism.) He now finds himself in the approximate year 11933 and a court jester – though he’s the Chief Jester of the Holy College of Buffoons – for King Manifafa. Most of the story is told in a dialogue between the two. There was the stop in Patagon where Berniquet met a society of peaceful idiots. That seems an ok arrangement to the King. But Berniquet argues “The essential destiny of man is to make progress . . .whether he likes it or not”. Things aren’t helped when the locals accidentally give Berniquet a drink that puts him out for 10,000 years. And, eventually, Berniquet, through a series of misadventures, ends up falling from the sky into Manifafa’s kingdom where he gets involved in a near civil war between factions of the buffoons, takes a space trip via cannonballs, and is exiled when a member of the king’s harem takes a fancy to him. It has a little bit of the feel of the third part of Jonathan’s Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Several of the pieces here are, as Stableford admits, on the fringes of the roman scientifique. One is Louis Ulbach’s 1864 work “The Story of a Naiad” [“Histoïre d’une Naiad”]. It is an example of a form Stableford dubs the “science non-fiction story”, familiar to American readers of science fiction through some of the works of Martin Gardner and Isaac Asimov. Ulbach tells us of the marvelous water-powered statue commissioned by King Louis XIV and its ultimate fate.

It’s more astronomical journeys by a disembodied soul in “Astronomical Journeys”, an excerpt from X. B. Saintine’s novel La Seconde vie from 1864. Actually, there seem to be two discarnate souls on the Moon, our protagonist and his decorator. They find ruins of a past civilization there. Deductions on the sexual mores and culture of a civilization of hermaphrodites, who are first brother and sister then husband and wife – all in one body – are made. Then things get absurd when the figures from the room’s decorations and furniture come to life. It’s amusing, and there is, in the depiction of lunar life, also a running theme on the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution with Saintine siding with anti-evolutionist Georges Cuvier.

Besides their actual publication date, Stableford sometimes speculates on when stories were actually written. He gives a date of 1866 for Adrien Robert’s “War in 1894” [“La guerre en 1894”]. That would have been shortly after some recent Prussian invasions on the way to the unification of the German states in 1871. Thus, it beats out “The Battle of Dorking”, generally regarded as the story that, at least in England, kicked off the future war story. In France, this would be a sub-genre extensively developed by Albert Robida in the 1880s. This story is framed as a letter by a French visitor to an unnamed German Duchy. He uncovers a fearsome new chemical weapon and plans to invade France.   

Stableford compares Eugène Mouton to English writers of “nonsense literature” like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and W. S. Gilbert. But there’s a serious point to “The Origin of Life” [“L’Origine de la vie”] from 1877. It’s more essay than story and deals with two early criticisms of Darwin’s theory of evolution: how did life evolve on a very hot primordial Earth and how did complicated ecologies evolve? Motoun’s jests are humorous at times, but there are also some interesting anticipations of the future here. The end of the work was inspired by Baron Bertrand de Boucheporn, a catastrophic geologist (i.e. one who evokes now no longer occurring processes to explain geologic history instead of uniformitarianism – yes, I know current geology can no longer be so simply divided). He was no neptunite though, one who evoked a world-wide flood in the past to explain rock formations. He thought “aeroliths” might have played a role. There is also a vein that Immanuel Veliokovsky would mine in about 80 years.

To be honest, most of this book’s stories would only be of interest to science fiction connoisseurs or those interested in the history of the roman scientifique. However, Jules Lermina’s “Quiet House” [“Maison tranquille”] from 1889 is a fun, memorable story that still should appeal to modern readers. It’s a mad scientist story with not one but two mad scientists, Masters Aloysius and Truphemus. It’s a mockery of all sorts of things. Science comes in for it with the hare-brained scheme of the two scientists. They have a theory that all human nutrition can be supplied with compounds of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. This scheme seems to agree with Truphemus, described as spheroidal in shape. But Aloysius is cadaverous and his wife Tibby complains but has resigned herself. But Netty, their daughter, isn’t doing so well. She’s five and looks like she’s two.

It’s also a mockery of the gothic. The titular dwelling is a somewhat dilapidated looking dwelling in Hoboken, New Jersey, not some isolated country home or castle. The inside has been gutted to fit in a lab, and the “rooms” are iron boxes labelled accordingly and moved up and down on electric hoists.

If a scientist experimenting on his daughter’s body sounds familiar, the story does, as Stableford notes, bear a resemblance to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”. And, yes, there is a disruptive suitor from outside as in that story. He’s sort of a mockery of a sensitive romantic soul out of Edgar Allan Poe. He becomes convinced Netty is the embodiment of his true love. Of course, it all comes crashing down at the end. 

Another remarkable story is “The Automaton” [“L’automate”] also from 1889. It’s from noted French Decadent Rémy de Gourmont and not really a “scientific romance” but a philosophical horror story and an early installment in the very small sub-genre of speculative fiction which comes to the conclusion men and women cannot both be human. Philosopher Mérilon, in a conversation with friend Laube, an engraver, puts forth his notion that men should abandon conscious thought as much as possible and that what artists call inspiration is really just abandoning the self to unconscious programming. But it’s his idea that women are merely automatons that takes hold in Laube’s mind as he observes his lover Juliette.

Startling in its imagery, Marcel Schwob’s “The Future Terror” [“La Terreur future”] from 1891 is a nightmarish story depicting the night the Revolution breaks out complete with “guillotine-guns”. It may be, given Schwob’s interest in the Middle Ages, simply an allegory about the modern age and the murderous possibilities inherent in its science and ideologies, especially anarchism. 

Louis Mullem’s “A Rival of Edison” [“Un Rival d’Edison”] from 1909 is one of those stories that has less to do with technology than the peculiar psychology of some inventors. Here the inventor is Jonathan Dubourg. Alva Edison has beaten him to every invention he was working on. But not today. He’s going to unveil tv at a press conference. This is not, notes Stableford, the first piece of science fiction with television.

If it was slightly shorter, Alphonse Allais’ “Erebium” might be considered one of those pieces of flash fiction where the reader is invited to supply the possibilities and consequences for society after the ending. In the heady days after the discovery of radium, American K. W. Goldcock claims to have developed a substance, erebium, which emits blackness. Goldcock isn’t one of those Americans who is shameless self-publicist or a practical joker. He’s got the goods as he demonstrates to the narrator.

The anthology’s title story, “The Germans on Venus” [Les Allemands sur Vénus] from Andre Mas is a little known story of hard sf, a number-filled bit of propagandizing for realistic space travel. It even predates Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Vne zemli [Beyond the Planet Earth and Outside the Earth]. Unfortunately, it was published in 1913. Not only did World War One stifle its reception. It had an undeserved reputation as a jingoistic work though it is also an amusing satire on pre-war international politics. Germany, believing the stars belong to it, decides to colonize Venus. A giant wheel to spin ships into orbit is built in Africa. The ships are steered by onboard cannons, and the German colonists have adventures with giant reptiles and a Venetian species that may – in thousands of years – develop something like civilization. There’s even science fiction’s first space walk.

This translation also includes the work’s original bibliography of fictional works and technical papers dealing with space travel.

And, finally, we get to my reason for reading the book: Thèo Varlet’s “Telepathy” [“Télépathie”] from 1921. It starts with a subject near and dear to Varlet: mind-altering drugs. Hashish is a drug the narrator hasn’t tried yet, but a friend talks him into it. What results is an uncomfortable exchange of knowledge and attitudes when the narrator and his occasionally suicidal friend find themselves in telepathic contact. This is a much more chaotic conduit of thought and experience than the usual mere exchange of dialogue in most telepathy stories.

As usual, those interested in the development of the French strain of science fiction will want to seek out this offering from Black Coat Press. However, even a modern reader of science fiction uninterested in such things, may find the Gourmont, Lermina, and Varlet stories worthwhile.

Additional Thoughts With Spoilers

As I said, Gourmont’s story can be seen as part of a subgenre about the war – or at least doomed détente – between the sexes. That would include James Gunn’s “The Misogynist” which has women as an alien species.

A specific of Mérillon’s theory involves poets spitefully writing about the women who spurned them and how they wish revenge on those women to remind them, when they are aged and no longer beautiful, of how they treated the poet. These women, claims the philosopher, are just a habitual obsession, an automatic thought, of those poets.

Humanity, claims Mérillon, is always rationalizing about two beings that don’t exist: God and women. He’s been hurt by women frequently. That’s why he took to carefully analyzing them.  They are creatures of pure desire and passion who only seem to have thoughts. They have no “internal witness”. They live in the present, always pressing towards a momentary goal. They only seem to be self-aware. He approaches them now like a technician approaches an impressively designed machine.

“The role of woman is to love, to perpetuate; they carry it out marvelously; nothing distracts them, except the influence of the man to whom attraction points them, necessarily, as the Sun directs a sundial”.

After the destructive seed has been planted in Laube’s mind, he teases Juliette that’s she an automaton. But the idea takes hold, seems to be confirmed. 

Laube goes to visit Mérillon and tells him he’s been making notes, has confirmed the philosopher’s theory. Mérillon offers to visit Laube, but the latter won’t have it. The now horrifying Juliette is always there. 

Laube complains he was happy until he learned the truth. Why couldn’t he have been left with his deception? Then he proclaims he’s not an automaton. 

Mérillon doesn’t seem to really believe his theory. After Laube leaves him, he thinks

“And that’s what a girl does to an intelligent man! Another one lost. Loving those creatures! The poor wretch! Automatism always exists in extreme passion: love, despair, etc. That’s a chapter I might have forgotten. Ah, a lucky encounter. Unless he goes mad, which will come in the third part—to follow.” 

And that’s ultimately what happens. Laube goes mad and kills Juliette and wanders the streets proclaiming he’s killed an automaton. 

We get an interesting interlude towards the end told from Juliette’s point of view. It may or may not confirm Mérillon’s theory. She notices the change in Laube. She even remarks that he seems like an automaton. This could be seen as confirming Mérillon’s grand theory. Juliette certainly seems self-aware. 

She questions Laube gently. But, maybe, this is just part of her programming to love. She begins to think Laube’s mad. But, again rather confirming Mérillon’s theory, it never occurs to her to leave or talk to Laube’s friends. 

At story’s end, perhaps acting like a philosophical automaton, Mérillon says he’ll write the Laube case up for a journal.  But, in a jab at philosophy and the bad consequences philosophical theories can have on people, Mérillon says

“Poor fellow, weak in the head.  . . . That’s what transcendent philosophy can do to an imbecile!” 

This story is more subtle and ambiguous than it first seems.

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