Long time readers of this blog won’t be surprised that, after hearing Brian Stableford cite Rosny’s The Mysterious Force as an influence on Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion, I decided to read it.
Low Res Scan: The Mysterious Force and Other Anomalous Phenomena, J. -H. Rosny Aîné, trans. Brian Stableford, 2010.
Depending on which source I’m reading (Brian Stableford or the Brothers Lofficier), Rosny vies with Albert Robida for the title of second most significant writer of French science fiction after Jules Verne. These days he’s mostly remembered for the prehistoric fantasy Quest for Fire which was made into a movie. But there was much more to Rosny than prehistoric fantasies.
Since this is the third of eight Rosny books put out by Black Coat Press, Stableford’s “Introduction” doesn’t include a lot of detail on Rosny’s life and works.
“The Catacylsm” is certainly worth reading, but I’ve already reviewed it elsewhere under its alternate title “Tornadres”.
The remarkable The Mysterious Force was published as La Force mystérieuse in 1913 and it’s pretty clear this was an inspiration for Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion. Here it’s not an alien fungus that alters civilization but an alien life form that may come from space and, possibly, an alternate dimension.
Both alien invasions greatly degrade technologies relying on electromagnetism. But Rosny’s novel is much more complex in its plot and concepts.
Things get off to a rapid start with Georges Meyral, a scientist, noticing something has altered light. Double refraction lines can be detected and the spectrum seems to be disappearing starting with its ulltraviolet end. Meyral summons his friend Antonin Langre over to his home. Langre is a somewhat embittered scientist. A younger colleague stole his work which went on to great acclaim. A signficant part of the novel is the two scientists’ investigations into this new phenomena and it ends with their somewhat tenuous speculations. Rosny gives us detailed descriptions of that work.
Langre’s work is is interrupted by a call from his daughter Sabine. She has finally left her loutish husband Vérranes. He is sometimes abusive and always self-pitying. Meyral loves Sabine, but he never proposed to her. He didn’t think it right to do so given that he regards the older Langre as a mentor. He doesn’t even say anything when an exasperated Langre says he wishes Meyral would have married his daughter.
But the trip to get Sabine reveals a “fevered humanity” on the streets of Paris. Tempers are flaring and murderous mobs roam about. But Meyarl manages to find Sabine and her two children in a train station and get them back to Langre.
The next day Meyral is astounded at the night’s previous violence. A socialist mob attacked the government and even took the prime minister hostage and killed him. They, in turn, were shot down indiscrimatingly by the police. It seems cities throughout the world experienced similar violence.
The two scientist continue their work. It seems more and more of the specrum is disappearing as if being eaten starting with the shorter wavelengths. If the green portion disappears, they think humanity is doomed.
Electrical technology begins to fail further causing chaos. Even normally combustible materials no longer burn easily or at all. Many people just drop dead, and the temperature starts to fall.
Langre, his family, Meyral, and their servants bond in this time. More and more they start to feel lethargic.Vérranes even shows up at Langre’s home and tearfully requests that he be allowed to die with his family, a request Sabine grants, and Vérranes does die.
Shortly, in the cold, all in the group, except Meyral become unconscious and seemingly die except Meyral realizes they are really in a deep coma.
But they don’t die. The temperature rises again, the spectrum returns to normal, and the “Great Renewal” of the novel’s second part begins. The group goes to spend the summer in the country.
But there they will learn the “mysterious force” is not done with them as it begins to alter their minds and bodies.
This novel is quite good. It’s fast paced. Rosny’s alien force and its effects are well-worked out, and the psychological realism he brings to Sabine’s and Meyral’s relationship is touching. Rosny definitely earns his plaudits with this one.
The same can not be said of Hareton Ironcastle’s Amazing Adventure. Published as L’Entonant voyage de Hareton Ironcastle in 1922, this novel’s three part structure leads leads Stableford to suspect that one or more parts started out as other stories by Rosny. Stableford speculates, given that Hareton Ironcastle is an American (described as being Aryan in looks) and, uncharacteristically for a Rosny character, religious and given to prayer, the author was angling for an American sale.
I was uninterested in most of the novel until the third part.
Ironcastle gets a letter from his friend Samuel Darnley. Writing from Africa, Darnley speaks of how evolution is more advanced in the remote area he is in. There are strange plants and warm-blooded reptiles.
Ironcastle, along with his daughter Mureil, decide to go to Africa to meet with Darnley. In tow are another man and woman, and they will meet up with two more people in Africa.
We hear about the primitive splendor of Africa and how it resembles the world primitive humans evolved in. There are helpful native guides and laborers and hostile tribes. The party even picks up a wounded gorilla and brings it along. Muriel is abducted and has to be rescued.
In the third part, the party enters an area where a strange plant is the dominates “normal” plants and humans and is tended by a group of intelligent reptiles. There is a race of near humans with marsupial qualities. This “plant kingdom” is described as very moral and only feeding on other life only as necessary.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this is not the first English translation of Rosny’s novel. DAW published one in 1976 as Ironcastle with a translation by Philip José Farmer. Stableford says that, for the “casual reader”, Farmer’s version is better. He smoothed out some of the joints between the sections of Rosny’s novel and introduced thematic elements from some of his other works, but, for better or worse, Stableford translation is more faithful.
(Additional thoughts with spoilers)
Stableford’s “Afterword” provides plenty of spoilers and mostly talks about the development of some of Rosny’s ideas throughout his work.
Many of Rosny’s works, according to Stableford (this volume is the extent of my Rosny reading), took up the theme of how human physiology was ill-suited, especially in the sexual realm, to finding happiness. The “eupsychian modifications” the aliens bring to humans in The Mysterious Force are counterbalanced by the carnivorous plague. In his later works, though, such counterbalancing became less and less prevalent.
But most of the afterword is taken up with the matter of hallucinogenic mushrooms in both the volume’s novels. Stableford notes that, through the years, Rosny’s depictions of “alternative humans” become less and less gentle and more brutal. It may be that the third part of Hareton Ironcastle’s Amazing Adventure is Rosny stopping just short of giving us a utopian ecosystem on Earth where nature is not as red in tooth and claw.