My look at the fiction of Théo Varlet concludes.
Review: The Castaways of Eros, Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 1943, 2013.
In the 1936 second edition of The Xenobiotic Invasion, Varlet mentioned a sequel to that novel. However, that sequel, titled Aurore Lescure, pilote d’astronef, wouldn’t be published until 1943, five years after Varlet’s death.
In his “Introduction”, Brian Stableford speculates Varlet may have hoped this novel would be picked up in translation in America. Varlet was almost alone among roman scientifique authors of the time in his interest in advances in rocketry. While Varlet’s style probably wouldn’t have been amenable to an American pulp audience, if he had managed to place it in that market before he died, it might have been fondly remembered as the first pulp story to feature sentient dinosaur-like creatures. Instead, that distinction goes to Norman L. Knight’s “Saurian Valedictory”.
This novel is Varlet’s least ambiguous and most explicit attack on modernity, specifically industrial civilization.
It’s two years after the events of The Xenobiotic Invasion. The great powers of the world, still fearing infection from more alien fungi, are still maintaining a moratorium on rocket flights exiting the atmosphere.
But what are they doing behind the scenes? Well, young reporter Oscar Frémiet has discovered, working undercover, that the German military is very interested in rocketry and has been doing secret launches. (Varlet even mentions Hermann Oberth, one of the future inventors of the V-2.) He plays a minor, but important, role in the preceding novel and is narrator Gaston-Adolphe Delvart’s nephew.
Oscar, not so coincidentally, shows up at his parents’ house to see Delvart and his wife, Aurore Lescure. He’s trying to sniff out why Aurore Lescure is meeting with the famous Madame Simodzuki. She’s a billionaire and a very famous philanthropist who inherited her dead husband’s industrial fortune.
Gaston, Oscar’s father, argues with the narrator and Oscar that each nation developing rocket technology will, inevitably, lead to an arms race as it did before World War One. Delvart argues that many nations possessing rocket powered weapons could achieve peace through deterrence.
Professor Nathan, Aurore’s scientific colleague, has died two weeks ago in a car accident. He was the only reason she continued working at a scientific institute run by the Moon Gold Company. (Aurore is very wealthly and doesn’t need the money.)
While she isn’t about to tell this to prying Oscar, Aurore has been asked to pilot the Ad Astra I by Simodzuki. Delvart eagerly encourages Aurore in this. He’s lost interest in his profession as a painter and has been wishing that, as when they first met, he and Aurore could work on an enterprise together. He is delighted to accompany Aurore into space, to “serve science” under Aurore’s orders.
But the political fallout of Oscar’s revelations have caused many governments to reconsider going into space. The French government is now quite interested in what Simodzuki, a private citizen, is up to on the Île du Levant.
A raid forces a premature launch of Simodzuki’s ship. The goal was originally to check out Eros, now at its closest position to Earth and exhibiting some unusual changes in lumonosity, and then Mars. Oscar is brought along to be an engineer.
But Oscar brings something extra: a stowaway, his fiance Ida Miounof.
They can still reach Eros, but there will be no trip to Mars.
There they find a race of sentient, dinosaur-like aliens and a human-like race so degraded, dumb, and cannibalistic they are dubbed the “bowwows”.
The four are imprisoned, but the aliens are really only interested in human science, and only Aurore knows anything substantial on that subject. She is interrogated for months, so long that the position of Eros will not allow an immediate return to Earth.
Delvart may be at a loss as to what to do with his eventual freedom, but Oscar and Ida aren’t. She is determined to make the lives of the bowwows better.
Ida is an unpleasant person, the novel’s villain because Ida is a Bolshevik agent, and she proves surprisingly competent and clever in inciting a revolt among the bowwows.
As is always the case with Varlet’s novels, solo or collaborative, his style is smooth and pleasant. Here he switches between past and present tense and presents the story not only through Delvart’s account but journals, newspapers, and radio broadcasts.
There’s a reason Varlet is considered one of the best of the inter-war roman scientifique authors. If you’re interested in French science fiction, Varlet is a good place to start.
(Additional thoughts with spoilers)
There is a thematic structure to this novel.
In the scenes on Earth, various arguments are made about humanity’s future and the benefits of science.
Gaston Frémiet thinks a new arms race is about to begin with the same results as in 1914. Madame Simodzuki also thinks humanity is threatened. But she envisions, expressing a common thought in science fiction, that humanity needs to move offworld. It is on Mars, Simodzuki thinks, that a sort of scientific utopia of carefully selected people can be built and scientific knowledge preserved.
Aurore is happy to pilot Simodzuki’s spaceship, but she is far less naïve. Humanity will carry its flaws into outer space. That’s a view vindicated by Ida’s destructive revolution.
An ecstatic Delvart, when he finds out he is going to Eros, becomes, by his own admission, something of a meglomaniac walking the streets of Paris. He regards the masses as
only human material, which is born, lives and dies without ever having contributed anything in the progress of their species.
They are a mere “culture medium” to support the geniuses that push progress forward. That phrase will be recapitulated as “cultural broth” on Eros where such a metaphor is much more literally true. But it didn’t save the alien Lacastrians on their original home of Ektol, and it doesn’t save them on Eros.
And, waiting to return to Earth, the castaways of Eros learn that a race to colonize Venus has commenced in their absence.
In short, it seems Aurore and Uncle Gaston are shown to be wiser about humanity’s inability to wisely use technology than Oscar and our narrator.
The world of Ektol, the height of Lacastrian civilization, is clearly intended by Varlet to be a metaphor for industrial civilization:
the failures of cosmic duty toward the planet of which we had custody: the destruction of life on its surface; deforestation and the inconsiderate squandering of natural resources; abusive and insensitive electrification extending so far as to disturb gravitation; the absurdity of technology, the so-called generator of wellbeing and repose, but inevitably resulting by its acceleration in forced labor for all; assaults of the reigning species against itself; fratricidal wars whose necessity originated from another error, the limitless multiplication of individuals devoid of elevated thought, whose numbers caused brutal instinct to predominate”
But, at novel’s end, life goes on for the narrator and Aurore as they plan a trip to Mars. Simodzuki’s fears have been realized. The exploration of space will not be private affair. It will be conducted by governments which will take civilization “with all its errors and human passions, good and bad” to Venus. Delvart’s enthusiasm to serve science has lessened, and he has returned to painting.
On a final note, the site of Simodzuki’s base on the Île du Levant is chosen because of its location near a nudist colony which provides cover for Simodzuki’s project and makes infiltrating it harder. The island was a nudist colony in Varlet’s time and still is. He lived nearby and, being an enthusiastic “naturist”, visited it frequently. Another nudist science fiction writer, one Robert A. Heinlein, supposedly mentions the island in Glory Road.
Heinlein was a nudist eh? That figures, it shows up prominently in several stories of his after all…