And so I return to the work of Théo Varlet, this time for his second roman scientifique.
Review: The Xenobiotic Invasion, Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.
Published in 1930 as La Grande Panne, this is a charming science fiction novel that succeeds as a romance and a treatment of alien invasion and social upheaval. It also has some surprisingly modern resonances.
Our narrator is Gaston-Adolphe Delvart, a fairly successful painter. The book opens with him visiting his friends, Géo de Ricourts and his sister Luce. The subject turns to a rather rare topic in French romans scientifique – rocket powered space travel. Varlet was one of the few authors of French speculative fiction to use the idea before 1950.
It seems that it’s a potentially a big day for the advancement of aeronautics and rocketry. The American Moon Gold Company is launching, from Columbia, Missouri, a rocket ship to the moon. It’s part of a well-publicized attempt to bring back gold from Luna. The ship was developed by Professor Lescure and to be piloted by his famous daughter Aurora.
Alburtin, a medical doctor also visiting the de Ricourts, says he’s seen Aurora in the newsreels and found her “very pretty”. Delvart admits he does too. But what he tells us is that he is really fascinated with her. His disdain for famous film actresses is inverse to their popularity, but Aurora . . . And why he wouldn’t he be attracted to Aurora? She’s beautiful, has several doctorates in math and science, and is a skilled pilot and, now, a rocket test pilot.
Luce asks why anyone would find a bespectacled American scientist attractive. Luce herself is quite attractive and knows it and flirts with Delvart. But, despite her beauty, Delvart knows there’s an “undeniable moral incompatibility” between the two of them. Besides, Luce has made no secret of her plans (to the horror of her mother) to marry a rich American when she can find one.
Wanting a break from the de Ricourts, Delvart accepts a ride back to Cassis with Dr. Alburtin. And, along the way, the woman of Delvart’s dreams falls from the sky.
The men pull the unconscious Aurora from her rocketship after a controlled landing, and they also grab a bag of meteorites collected in Earth orbit.
Taking Aurora back to his clinic, Alburtin takes a few meteorite samples to x-ray out of scientific interest.
Aurora turns out to be all right, but she fears reporters knowing where she is, so Alburtin takes steps to hide the rocket. Aurora does send a telegram to the Moon Gold Company letting them know her fate.
It seems the Moon Gold Company is running a scam. It doesn’t know if there’s any gold on the moon, and Aurora certainly never landed on the moon as planned and her rocket drifted off course enough to force a landing in France and not Missouri.
Soon Cheyne, the company’s financial officer and chief source of funding, is on the way to Paris with Professor Lescure. Planted newspaper stories start showing up advancing the story of coming lunar riches, and Lescure is afraid that, if reporters find her, her congential honesty will ruin the company. And that would ruin her father who Cheyne has some kind of hold over.
So, Aurora sets out incognito to Paris with Delvart escorting her. Along the way, the two will get closer. (And why not? Aurora turns out to be cultured, knows Greek and Latin, speaks excellent French due to her French-Canadian mother, has a photographic memory, and can learn anything.) But Aurora doesn’t want to hear Delvart loves her and says they must remain friends since, it seems, Cheyne also has some kind of hold over her too.
But they aren’t alone on that trip. Under the influence of Alburtin’s x-rays, those meteorites sprouted a red fungus, and the fungus is brought to Paris with the other meteorites. The itching it induces is a minor problem compared to its need to feed on electrical fields. Soon, the lights, wires, and subway tracks of Paris are covered by it.
Life begins to grind to a halt, and here the novel becomes weirdly familiar when the authorities, in order to stop the fungus, impose what we now call a lockdown, enforced by the Xs (for Xenobiotica Police), to prevent people from moving about and using electricity.
Varlet tells this part of the story not only from Delvart’s point of view but using newspaper quotes. (Varlet worked as a journalist at times.) There is economic dislocation and political agitation, and, Stableford suggests, Varlet may have drawn on not only his own imagination but the work of his friend Gustave Le Bon, an early theorist on crowd psychology.
There are two outstanding scenes where Aurora and Delvart are trapped underground when fungal growths stop the train, and there is a great wind rushing through the tunnel as the rapidly growing xenobiotic sucks the oxygen from the air. (Varlet doesn’t really do much else with this part of his concept). The other is the appearance of the “ardent lichen”, a new form the rapidly evolving fungus assumes.
The reset button isn’t hit at the end of this novel. Life on Earth isn’t ever going to be the same, and, as one scientist puts it, perhaps the survivors will develop a needed “neophobia” or, at least, take
“the first step towards a higher wisdom, which will include a consciousness of cosmic harmony and the duties it imposes . . .
Despite his interest in modern technological and scientific developments, Varlet’s novel is ambiguous about the value of technology. Aurora, beautiful symbol of scientific accomplishment and its possibilities, brings great disruption to Earth, and, at novel’s end, that turns out to be more than just the xenobiotica.
Perhaps, as Delvart’s uncle remarks, it wouldn’t be bad if man went back to a pre-electrical time. He certainly lived that way when young, and maybe war wouldn’t be possible. No, replies Delvart, humans would still continue to kill each other because “It’s a necessity of human nature”.
The “Introduction” by Stableford mentions a couple of possible influences on Varlet’s novel: J.-H. Rosny Aîné’s Le Force mystérieuse from 1913 and Henri Allorge’s Le Grand Cataclysme. I’ve read both and plan on reviewing them. The only explicit allusion to another work of speculative fiction in Varlet’s novel is Rosny’s “Les Xipéhuz”, a story I have not read.
Stableford also talks about Varlet’s claim, in the second edition of the novel, that the American pulp story “Death from the Stars” by Rowley Hilliard was something of a rip-off of his novel. While Stableford acknowledges that the editor, David Lassar of Wonder Stories where Hilliard’s story appeared, did occasionally publish translated stories from Europe, it’s probably just a matter of two writers developing the same idea independently.
Interest in Varlet’s work revived in his own country in 1996. He’s now regarded as a significant genre pioneer. This novel shows why.
Brian Stableford certainly is doing a service with all his translations of French SF…. Are his introductions to the volumes comprehensible? I don’t always find his scholarly work terribly clear.
The introductions are very comprehensible as well as the annotations. I generally like Stableford’s work. In fact, I just picked up his massive encyclopedia Science Fiction and Science Fact.
The only caveat is that, in the case of an author with several works issued by Black Coat Press, Stableford generally puts most of the biographical info about an author in the first work by the author they publish. Thus, most of Varlet’s material is in his co-authored The Martian Epic.
In the vast pile of books to be reviewed, I have a couple of more Varlet novels I’ll be reviewing.
He wrote a synthetic account of early French SF in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction that I was so excited to read… but…