I continue with my look at the romans scientifique of Théo Varlet.
Review: The Golden Rock, Theo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.
Varlet’s firsr science fiction novel mixes astronomy with the “dismal science” of economics for a tale of international intrigue, French post-World War One woes, impending war, and romance while also managing to be somewhat prophetic.
Published as Le Roc d’or in 1927, Varlet’s novel is, as Stableford notes in his “Introduction”, a takeoff on a posthumous Jules Verne work from 1908, La Chasse au météore. While’s Verne’s tale was an amiable comedy involving the families of two American astronomers and how the discovery of a near-earth object made of goal – and attendant plans to bring it down to Earth with a ray – causes growing acrimony and threatens the marital plans of two of the families’ members, Varlet’s tale is much more serious.
The story begins with narrator Antoine Marquin, a medical doctor, attending a party the day before he is to leave on an expedition to the Antarctic. There he meets the Kohbulers of Switzerland. He doesn’t much like the pushy Dr. Kohbuler, but he is immediately smitten with his beautiful daughter Frédérique-Elsa, an accomplished mathematician.
A radio broadcast announces a great storm in the North Atlantic with the loss of many ships. (As in The Xenobiotic Invasion, Varlet uses mass media to do a lot of his exposition, but here it’s not only newspapers but radio.) Here Varlet raises early his theme of the changes modernity has brought and humanity’s dangerous character. Marquin remarks to Dr. Kohbuler that
The rhythm of life on our planet has accelerated, and humankind is increasingly forming a whole, a single organism palpitating all at once with the same reactions.
Varlet, Theo. The Golden Rock (French Science Fiction Book 86) (Kindle Locations 161-162). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.
If this storm had happened 13 years ago, it would have taken three or four days to learn about the loss of life. (That interval, incidentally, would take us back to the sinking of the Titanic.) Dr. Kohbuler says the Great War showed humanity was not a homogenous mass, that the races are irreconcilable.
Later, the party members feel a shaking which reminds Marquin of an earthquake he once experienced in Italy. A later radio broadcast says tsunamis hit the coasts of Western Europe from Ireland to Spain and even more damage was done on the eastern coasts of Canada and America. Submarine cables and wireless transmissions have been affected.
The Great War makes its one and only explicit appearance in the novel in the next chapter:
I was alone in the world, since my wife and my mother had been killed in Paris in April 1918 by a shell from a Big Bertha.Varlet, Theo. The Golden Rock (French Science Fiction Book 86) (Kindle Locations 226-227). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.
Big Bertha did indeed kill 256 Parisians between March and August 1918.1
But it is the financial woes of France from the war that the novel is concerned with. France is heavily in debt, inflation is high, and the franc is taking a pounding in its exchange rate with the pound sterling, the international currency of the time. The French public is demoralized.
Marquin boards his ship, the Erebus II, and we find it’s well stocked with various scientists including several geologists, mining engineers, and mining equipment. It seems there are hopes that minerals worth exploiting will be found in the Antarctic.
But a new island has been discovered, dubbed N, in the North Atlantic, and the French government retasks the ship and expedition to check it out.
N, it will quickly be realized by a geologist, is not some new volcanic island. It’s a bolide of gold, soluble gold chloride specifically, and iron. Its wealth could vastly improve France’s fortunes, and N’s nature is kept secret while negotiations are held at the League of Nations as to which country will get the island.
Discipline takes a hit on an island where you can pick up large gold nuggets with your hands, and the ship’s captain, afraid to describe the island’s true nature even in coded transmissions, heads back to France leaving some of the crew there where they facilitate a deception to further the cover story that the island is just a regular volcano.
After returning to France – a munity is quickly put down on the way back, Marquin meets with his friend Rivier, a banker and sponsor of the original Erebus II expedition, and tells him about the island. Rivier is clever and convinces the French government to wage an economic war against several of the world’s currencies, particularly the pound. Holdings in foreign currency are sold off, making the franc more valuable, and France spends down its gold reserves (presumably to buy up francs).
The franc appreciates in value. Normally, France’s actions would be foolish and only effective in the short time with the franc eventually returning to an even lower value, inflation getting worse, and exports falling. Even gold as a reserve of wealth is going to take a hit if all the gold of N enters the economy. But France can take advantage of it now to pay off debts. Rivier, when arguing with governmental officials, even evokes the Great War:
It won’t be able to take back all the gold put into circulation in the interim. And that’s one more reason for us to act rapidly. Your politics isn’t bold enough, Monsieur President, and you’re looking too far ahead. Haven’t we learned, during the war and in the course of the years that followed, the relativity of human actions and the impossibility of knowing in advance what it would have been wise to do? Let’s strive to do our best in the light of our present knowledge, and according to our conscience. The future will decide.Varlet, Theo. The Golden Rock (French Science Fiction Book 86) (Kindle Locations 1178-1182). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.
The reraising of the franc to its gold value—which I’m seeking and will obtain, by God!—is, on the contrary, the reestablishment of equilibrium…the normal state of affairs. Since the war, as the franc has been debased, we’ve been living in a topsy-turvy house…increasingly topsy-turvy, if I can use that expression. Well, I’m setting the house to rights. There are going to be people who break their backs, obviously—those who took the new situation to be definitive; those who clung to foreign currencies or took their capital elsewhere, and the profiteers who speculated on the aggravation of the fall in our currency. So much the worse for them. In compensation, the others, the great mass of Frenchmen, will congratulate themselves on no longer being constrained to perform deplorable acrobatics standing on their heads. Yes, there’ll be some temporary inconvenience in recovering the legitimate basis, and then a new division of wealth, but it was inevitable sooner or later…and this will doubtless spare us a worse revolution…Varlet, Theo. The Golden Rock (French Science Fiction Book 86) (Kindle Locations 1350-1358). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.
But the French government isn’t the only one that knows the true nature of N. Marquin, in an “amorous indiscretion”, reveals the truth to Frédérique. And the Kohbulers, as we learn in an earlier scene (outside of Marquin’s point of view), are German spies. Frédérique breaks codes and her father is involved in an operation to flood France with counterfeit francs.
Soon international tensions ramp up with several nations claiming N, and Japan and Germany prepare for war. (It’s interesting to see Japan have such a prominent place in the narrative. I assume, after her role in World War One – which even saw the Japanese navy in the Mediterranean – people were starting to realize the country’s importance.) Marquin even says Japan’s actions makes
whites conscious of their solidarity in the presence of a peril to which they had given so little thought.Varlet, Theo. The Golden Rock (French Science Fiction Book 86) (Kindle Locations 2383-2384). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.
Frédérique, as a symbol of amoral scientific and mathematical experise, will undergo a similar moral evolution to Professor Lescure in The Xenobiotic Invasion.
Varlet’s short novel is compelling in its own right and also provides an interesting look at the psychology of Europe between the world wars.
Also included in the volume are three interesting short stories, not romans scientifiques, from early in Varlet’s career that show his deep ambivalence about modernity and the many changes he had already seen in his life.
“The Thunder of Zeus” (“Le Tonnerre de Zeus”, 1904) pits Ancient Greece against modern vulgarity represented, of course, by an American businessman, Colonel William Klondyke. In Sicily, the narrator comes across the ruins of a large Greek temple recently discovered. His discussion with the site’s custodian when the Colonel shows up. After hearing the temple was one of the very largest Greek temples ever built, the Colonel launches into a remarkable rant against Greek architecture, comparing it unfavorably to the wonders of the modern world. When the narrator points out that, even in America, the Greeks are regarded as the progenitors of modern civilization, the Colonel extends his tirade to include Greek philosophy, religion, and science. It’s such a bitter rant that the narrator feels the Colonel is in “mysterious proximity to antiquity”, his very essence rebelling against the old gods.
The custodian relates a legend that the spirit of Jupiter took up residence in the temple after the emergence of Christianity. Later, after some monks started to live in it, Jupiter brought the roof down on them which accounts for the extreme jumble of the ruins. He also posted an eagle to watch over the site, the only eagle in Sicily.
And then the eagle shows up, and the Colonel is determined to kill, cook, and eat it. Things don’t go well for the Colonel.
Greek themes show up again in “The Last Satyr” (“Le Dernier satyre”, 1923). While visiting Greece and reading aloud some verses by Theocritus aloud, the narrator encounters a satyr.
A discussion follows with the satyr revealing he’s not his old self. He no longer knows the “language of my youth”. He’s almost lost his soul. People throw rocks at him. Sure, there are still a few nymphs around, and he lays in ambush for the occasional peasant girl, but he’s impotent these days. The narrator is disgusted that the only tunes the satyr can play on his flute are vulgar and very modern ones.
Holding, perhaps ironically, that modern elixirs can cure all sorts of ills now, the narrator procures in town a mixture of rum, caffeine, and cola for the satyr.
It does the trick, and the satyr talks about the good old days: sex with nymphs and women and running with centaurs. But, things go very wrong and modernity has the last say when the satyr, feeling his oats, rapes a girl.
“Messalina” (“Messaline”, 1923) is a semi-erotic tale. The narrator has a very unfulfilling sexual encounter in a railroad hotel with a local prostitute. Trying to sleep afterwards, he overhears the occupants of the next room. And their sex seems to be much more rewarding. Their dialogue brings very pleasing images to his mind. The woman next door is an ‘excellent courtesan” compared to the mediocre one in bed next to him.
Wanting to see this remarkable woman, he seeks her out the next morning. She is not at all what he expected.
I took the tale to be about the sometime incomprehensibility of other people’s erotic lives and that sexual attraction may be partly a process of self-deception or, perhaps, sex changes perception.
While this story evokes, in its title, the ancient world, it’s not clear if Varlet is expressing much of an opinion about modernity. However, the dialogue of the “expert courtesan” is full of classic allusions which puts her above the banal conversation of the narrator’s rental. The narrator also makes a remark about “ether-addicted” whores. I’m not sure how much condemnation of modernity Varlet intended with that remark. Varlet himself was a great experimenter with mind-altering substances, and, at story’s beginning, the narrator is looking for an opium den.