Chalet in the Sky

This one was mentioned in Brian Stableford’s introduction to Henri Allorge’s The Great Cataclysm, so, I picked up a copy.

Review: Chalet in the Sky, Albert Robida, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Eric Lorin

Brian Stableford’s “Introduction” is particularly useful in this novel. This is the third Robida volume published by Black Coat Press, so there is not so much autobiographical material here. Instead, Stableford places these stories in the context of literature and Robida’s career. “Un Potache en 1950”, “A Schoolboy in 1950”, was published in 1917 and Un Chalet dans les airs, Chalet in the Sky, Robida’s last novel, was published in 1925.

In the 1890s, when technology allowed the easy printing of photographs in newspapers, Robida’s career as a writer and illustrator began to be crimped, and that accelerated with World War One. He began to write for younger markets where his humorous illustrations were still favored. In his heyday, he was well known for his garish illustrations of future warfare and life in the 20th century. Eventually, he found himself doing a lot of illustrations for other people’s work. A pacificist, he came to hate illustrating seriously speculative tales of war. When the Great War started, the market for illustrating future war or even doing illustrations on life in the future largely evaporated. The exception was the juvenile market which still wanted to shield children from the horrors of war and maintain morale.

The public school story was a genre that started with Tom Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857 though Stableford says it wasn’t established as a genre until the late 1880s with the work of Talbot Baines Reed. It had already been parodied in 1882 with F. Antsey’s Vice Versa. In 1906, Angela Brazil expanded the genre with stories about a girls school. 

While these British works were translated into French, French writers didn’t write in the genre. Stableford says Robida’s genius recognized two things: the school story is sort of a utopian fantasy and that, decades before J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the genre could be enlivened by introducing fantastic elements. 

In the 1880s, Robida started to produce works on life and war in the year 1950. That world of 1950, especially with its aviation technology, seemed a good fit for a school story. After Robida got the post-war bile and vitriol out of his system with The Engineer von Satanas in 1918, Robida did “In 1965”. It was intended for adults and not very well received. 

Stableford says of “A Schoolboy in 1950”

its Utopian ideals are tarnished, if not frankly deceptive. The disasters featured in the novel are the results of accidental breakdown rather than malice, but that only serves to make their threat seem more ominous, especially in combination with the story’s visit to England, and the discovery there of the continuing thrust of the Industrial revolution.”

As with his other stories set in 1950, Robida’s story is not as “optimistic as it seemingly wants or tries to be”. Its obvious moral is that it’s dangerous to rely on technology. Chalet in the Sky was intended for a juvenile market, but Robida couldn’t resist introducing a more adult-themed story, and it ended up not being in a juvenile series. Stableford says of the novel that it is far from Robida’s best work. It has repetitions and contradictions, but it is still of interest.

I suspect “A Schoolboy in 1950” is as much a parody of the English as it is of the English school story. 

Our hero is Gustave Turbille of the Chambourcy open air school, a lad of fourteen and a half.  He’s been assigned by his father to watch out for Alfred Koufra, a black African student from a French colony in the Congo. Naturally, Gustave being Gustave, the fact of Koufra being the son of a notary is inflated so that now Khoufra is the son of an African chieftain. 

Gustave is mad for invention and mechanical things. That includes various ways of trying, unsuccessfully, to cheat on his exams or speed up the playing time of audiovisual lectures. Like nearly all his acquaintances, he’s sports mad though one of is friends is a poet determined to get in the French Academy by age 30. Only Koufra is a serious student though he always gets ensnared in Gustave’s schemes. 

There are aerial races, competitions between Chambourcy and the nearby girl’s school, agronomy classes that feature a plowing race, and a duel fought on rowboats. Greek grammar courses are interrupted by rugby games. 

Gustave is a self-professed innovator  and finds “the materials and paraphenlia of civilization” “hardly functional”.

One girl is constantly harrangued on pending career choices by her various uncles – who all advise her not to pursue their profession. 

There is a great deal of personal aerial travel including by Gustave on a sort of flying motorcycle. There are also high speed tube trains, and we hear about a catastrophe on the Paris-Naples run.

The students mount a revolt at the two schools. 

A teacher says Koufra is a good student, but Gustave is a disappointment and “too sporty” cultivating muscles more than brains. Supremely self-confident and somewhat fatuous, Gustave says he cultivates muscles because he is too intellectual. 

An airship break down strands the students on a school trip into the French Alps. Gustave actually does save the day by getting a radio at the resort working and summoning help. The students’ accounts of their time standed all widely vary in accuracy.

They stop at a heavily mined region of Belgium which seems to make one teacher sad. Koufra finds a fossil in a coal mine – except it isn’t. In England, a busincess course involves observing a deal for rice. Gustave piggybacks on a deal of his father for pocket knifes from England by adding personal razors.

At the end, when the “phono-whisperer” intended to provide test answers, fails spectacularly, Gustave gets his comeuppance. Koufra is awarded best student – “meekly falling in with the old routine, without seeking something better” says Gustave. He’s convinced his father will look at his athletic scores and think fondly of his business deal and won’t notice his bad academic remarks. (However, a teacher does approach Gustave hoping he’ll invent a device to grade exams automatically.) 

But Gustave’s father does notice his bad grades. At story’s end, Gustave says

I really can’t launch myself into large-scale industry to exploit the ideas that I might have, nor enter the Académie des Sciences for a number of years yet, so there’s no urgency; I have all the time I need for a little learning. I’m returning to old-fashioned work—it’s decided! 

But Gustave has no humility and much gradiosity: 

To begin with, here’s a rather extensive program of scientific research; it’s a matter of finding, if not by the start of next term, then as soon as possible, firstly the machine for correcting assignments that will give so much pleasure to Monsieur Radoux, then an automatic machine for rich rhymes, a machine for shortening winter, a machine for extending vacation time, etc., etc.

At story’s end, Gustave wishes Koufra a good break and that he’ll see him next term.  It’s mildly amusing, but there’s nothing really extraordinary about the story.

Chalet in the Sky is set in about the year 2893.

Our protagonist, Monseiur Chabol (a scholar with 42 works in progress), says, at the novel’s beginning:

The world is becoming uninhabitable, alas. Our planet is being sabotaged. No solidity anywhere, in Europe and America, or in the scarcely-tranquil hidden corners of Central Africa. The perforated, worn-out soil, creviced in all directions by quakes, subsidence, shocks and slippages, former mines collapsed or invaded by subterranean seas, forests destroyed… I’m not making recriminations; doubtless the imprudence of our ancestors is to blame, but our globe is getting old as well, and it’s aging terribly badly.   

The Great Pyramid has almost sunk into the ground. A sixth continent was built at the end of the 20th century – and blown up accidentally (a fragment is in space near the moon). Switzerland now has port cities. The Caucuses were leveled, and the soil taken to build a new island chain. An asteroid, part of a planet destroyed by a distant exploding sun, landed in the Pacific with its dinosaur-like creatures still on it to plague the Japanese administrators who took over after unsuccessful English and American expeditions to the islands. New York City is a massive, very noisy place.

The Reconstruction Works’ projects occssionally discover things like a train lost for 800 years in a French train tunnel. ZZZ rays have allowed the capture of other celestial bodies in the solar sytem. 

Chabol did try to take a vacation on the moon once, but a flu epidemic put him in quarantine for the whole trip. This time he’s going to take his chalet, which he’s taken a loan out for, to interesting parts of the world. Basically, it’s an aerial rv. He’s even got a pilot for it – though the drunken pilot tries to steal it which causes a delay in New York City and legal entanglements involving the theft. Bascially, the pilot, after all his years working, just wanted to take it to a lake and fish. Perhaps Robida is saying that even a master of advance technology will eventually grow weary of it and want the simple life. 

On the trip, Chabol takes his nephews Moderan and Andoche. Their parents, members of the French government involved in the Reconstruction Works, call them frequently, and Chabol, with the help of the onboard Cine-Phon university, is to educate and prepare them for exams.

There are some thematic ties-ins to Robida’s earlier “A Schoolboy in 1950”. Mention is made of work being done on a machine to grade exams, and the train lost for 800 years brings to mind the train disaster in the earlier story. 

In another example of French romans scientifique’s concern with synthetic food, the chalet is stocked with many pills for food and liquor. The boys’ mother even says about the meals of we ancients,

Imagine what fabulous delays the old modes of alimentation must have inflicted on Progress and Civilization!

Chabol’s housekeeper stows away for the trip along with Chabol’s two dogs.

(Spoilers ahead) 

The matter of food comes into play at the chalet’s last stop where the novel abruptly ends. The chalet visits an isolated region of South America. The locals practice hunting, and the boys and housekeeper become increasingly interested in primitive food. Chabol also notices that the hunters come from all over the world and aren’t native to the region. In effect, they are dropouts from modern society. Chabol stays there with his housekeeper and nephews justifying it in the name of archaeology to learn more about the tribe’s ways. Really, though, he finds the life amenable as do the others.

It’s a gentle and, at times, humorous, book. 

3 thoughts on “Chalet in the Sky

  1. Bookstooge January 28, 2023 / 6:04 am

    I always loved the idea put forth about food in pills. Even as a kid I knew it was ridiculous and to this day, every time I go into a pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens, I roll my eyes at the whole sections of “vitamins and minerals”. Eat your fruit and veggies people!

    • marzaat January 28, 2023 / 11:08 am

      I think Chalet in the Sky does more with the idea than any other story I’ve read.

      As I’ve said more than once, it’s an idea that shows up in a lot of French sf.

      The converse is Auguste de Villiers L’Isle-Adam’s “The Love of the Natural” which is basically a complaint against all kinds of adulterated food and drink and even cigars.

      • Bookstooge January 28, 2023 / 11:12 am

        considering how much the french love their food, I find your findings ironic 😀

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