The Great Cataclysm

This was another book I sought out since it was listed as a possible inspiration for Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion.

Review: The Great Cataclysm, Henri Allorge, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Grillon

Brian Stableford says in his “Introduction” that not much is known about Allorge. He published poetry which included poems on mathematical and scientific subjects. He may have been a teacher. He wrote mostly for juveniles after World War One. That includes some possibly juvenile science fiction. Published in 1922 as Le Grand Cataclysm, roman du centième siècle, this work won the prestigious Prix Sobrier-Arnould very probably, says Stableford, because of its pacificist message, but its more notable today for its ideas concerning resource depletion.

Like J. -H. Rosny Âiné’s The Mysterious Force and Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion, this is a story of what happens when the power goes out in an electrified civilization.

But the lights don’t go out here in a contemporary society but in a far future utopia, the city of Kentropol in the year 9978.

Allorge’s novel wasn’t at all what I expected. It’s funny at times, not at all a humorless and stern screed against militarism and industrial civilization.

The furnishings of Kentrepol are mostly what you would expect from a utopia of the time.  

Electricity powers a number of labor-saving devices including electrostatic removal of dust and provides beamed power for aviation. Confirming national stereotypes, French romans scientifiques are often concerned with synthetic foods. Here custom-made pastes and liquors provide all the nutrition an individual needs. Here you don’t take a coffee or tea break but “have a bottle of perfume”. The government is a mixture of elected assemblies and academics. Weather can be precisely predicted. People have odd names. Here they are all derived from geometric shapes. Births are regulated to maintain an optimum male-female ratio. All surnames are derived from geometric shapes.

There are some not so standard elements. All that electricity comes from generating plants using solar or tidal energy. Money is radioactive to increase its velocity and to discourage its accumulation. A large part of medicine is the removal of organs and washing them or replacing them with animal ones. Here you can get a literal brainwash. A minor motif in French science fiction are intelligent simians, here chimps and orangutangs. They are slaves and smart enough to even pilot aircraft. There are also sentient Martians, and the residents of Earth and Mars are attempting to work out an interplanetary alphabet.

As you might expect in this technocratic society, what art there is serves science and mathematics. And rational regulations extend to who can marry whom.

And that’s the problem of our hero Triagul Parabolis. He wants to marry Sinusia Altair, and she wants to marry him. Not out of love. Like all sentiments, that’s a thing of the past. (A doctor even assures Triagul that love was a literally infectious disease now abolished.) But first the couple has to pass the marriage exam. It’s no mere yes-no or multiple-choice exam but answered in audio essay form. Since it’s all on science and math, Sinusia won’t have a problem, but Triagul . . . Well, as you might expect from someone interested in love and ancient art and history, Triagul’s chances for marital bliss aren’t looking good.

But he starts to cram for the exam. That includes watching a film on the great geological cataclysms, mostly earthquakes, which wiped out the world’s cities in 8960 and led to the building of the six cities humanity lives in now.

It’s while he’s watching the film that we get the first intimation of disaster: power fluctuations affecting the projector. They are blamed on strange meteorological phenomena off the coast of the Atlantic. And thus begins what Dr. Altair, Sinusia’s father, warned about right at the novel’s start:

Our modern existence surrounds us with redoubtable forces that are still somewhat mysterious. Let us be fearful of the revenge – doubtless unconscious, but terrible —  of Nature.

Triagul goes off to his exam where, bizarrely, he finds Sinusia in his head. She’s been experimenting with telepathy and thought she would help out on his exam. But then something goes wrong with the examination machine. Triagul gets an electrical shock powerful enough to put him out.

Waking up at the Radiant Hospital, Triagul finds out that he didn’t pass the exam but can try again and that several other victims of electrical shocks are there. He also gets into arguments with several people about his passion for the old world, the value of sentiment, and his claim that primitive humanity possessed useful wisdom.

But Triagul is well enough to take a trip to the ruins of Paris with nurses Parhelia and Apehlia Elliptine, their brother Helikos, and librarian Quadrilos Spirol.

Now the ruins of Paris and the fallacious conclusions of future archaeologists about our world were not a minor motif of French science fiction but a quite prevalent one. Here, in a humorous chapter ironically titled “How History Is Written”, Spirol delivers his quite specious reconstruction of the Paris of the past.

Triagul is unimpressed and begins to realize that, at least on this subject, he’s the authority. And Triagul will come into his own when the cessation of beamed power from Kentropol downs the party’s aircraft. He’ll teach the party how to improvise weapons to fight off animal attacks, make fire, and rig some sails in an attempt to take their aircraft back via water. When he gets sick and the rations are low, the rest of Kentropolians even decide that, of all people, it’s Triagul who can actually eat some primitive food.

A primitive combustion powered craft shows up and takes the party back to Kentropol. We learn electrically powered technology is gone. Primitive pieces of technology are being dragged out of museums to be powered by fossil fuels – except there’s not a lot of fossil fuels left. The simian slaves get uppity after being instructed in new manual tasks to replace automated chores like housecleaning, and they demand a union. Fights start breaking out in the normally staid assemblies and academics.

Worst is to come when it is learned that neighboring Heraklopol (both cities are on the African coast of the Mediterranean) is planning something. They have designs on Kentropol’s Isle of Coal and refuse to join a confederation of Earth’s cities where resources will be pooled.

The Great Cataclysm has begun.

My only criticism of the novel would be that, in its third part, it becomes more fable like, particularly regarding the speed and ease Triagul manages to implement various methods and technologies from civilization’s earliest days.

Additional Thoughts with Spoilers

Allorge doesn’t follow up on some matter as you might expect. Sinusia’s telepathic experiments are only mentioned that once. Little is done with the communication with Mars except a message from there: “Terrans beware! Catastrophe threatens you!

The novel ends with Triagul, Sinusa, and some other survivors at the oasis of the Flowery Spring. They visit the ruins of Kentropol to see what happened there and find many dead simian slaves – their party still has a loyal one, but they can bring little of use to back. 

A message in a bottle is found from Colombopol (the Americas’ one city):

If life persists on this impoverished globe, and if the Earth may still shelter human beings, for a few centuries more, can they succeed in supporting a frightful existence, to which death is preferable by a factor of a thousand, so far as I am concerned?

I address to them my fraternal good wishes and, as I yield my last sigh, I weep for Science, the unique splendor of Life, that marvelous star, doubtless extinct forever, while waiting for the sun to disappear, with all its planets, into an icy night that will known [sic, “know no”?] dawn.

At novel’s end, the survivors with Triagul swear a new oath, actually part of a marriage ceremony with three couples that include him and Sinusa, not to Science, but life even at a primitive level

There is a list of the technological conveniences lost for good, but it’s all right. They have love, that primitive emotion. We hear

“ . . . the fate of the future peoples, created powerful bonds, which made obedience to the laws of the most imperious necessity easy and pleasant. Isolation, dolor and distress had informed the others, too, of love, and love had reconciled them to resignation.”

Those marriage vows implore the couples to

. . . always have in mind, in all your thoughts and deeds, the good of the colony, and that of the human race. Swear that you will live fraternally with your companions, that you will be good to the Simians and the animals, that you will use what still remains of the wealth of the impoverished Earth economically, that you will never sacrifice the future for the present, and that you will never allow yourselves to be corrupted by the spirit of greed and avarice. 

On the last page we are told “Suffering had revealed love to them, and love had opened their souls to beauty”. 

The very last paragraph is an ode not to the metaphorical sun of Science, but the actual sun: 

O Sun! . . . You without whom life is condemned to extinction, continue to shine upon us, and those to whom we shall give birth! Do not condemn the Earth to icy Darkness! In spite of everything, life is beautiful! Shine on, O Sun, for future humankind! 

But Allorge, while giving us a tale on the dangers of war and industrial civilization and Triagul and his friends discovering the joys of the primitive, isn’t going to let rest easy with a solar paean to the old ways.

The very last line makes it clear this romantic sentiment is only a stop gap on the road to human extinction:  “And with an instinctive gesture, all the young women raised their white arms toward the sublime star, like a supplicant chorus of old, imploring the clemency of its rays in favor of the generations to which they would give birth, which would – for a time – repopulate the miserable planet.”

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