The Handbook of French Science Fiction

Since I’ve been spending so much time in Le territoire de la romance scientifique Français and will be staying there awhile longer, I decided I needed to pick up another literary map.

Review: The Handbook of French Science Fiction, Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier. 2022.

Cover by Vincent Laik

In 2000, McFarland published the Lofficiers’ massive 800-page tome entitled French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Pulp Fiction: A Guide to Cinema, Television, Radio, Animation, Comic Books and Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present. In 2003, Black Coat Press was founded by the Lofficers to publish, for an English-speaking audience, some of the works they talked about.

Recently, they’ve reworked and reorganized that volume into four books that have started to be published by Black Coat Press. Besides this one, I’ll be reviewing The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Literature.

This book is 315 pages of text and an index – more on that later.

Organized chronologically, the book starts with the 1500s and goes through 2000. While there is a bit about French science fiction after that year, the Lofficers say they made no real attempt to extend their original coverage of their subject.

After a chapter on utopias, most of the following chapters are divided into “Journeys to Other Worlds” (space or alternate dimensions or dream worlds), “Journeys to Other Lands” (earthbound tales of lost races, utopias, and science and technology), and “Journeys to Other Times” (future tales, alternate histories, and time travel) sections. Some chapters add sections on major authors, notable authors, publishers, young adult titles, publishers, and mainstream authors who also produced science fiction. Only Jules Verne gets his own section.

I read this book cover to cover and found must of it interesting. It was only toward the modern periods with their abbreviated lists of authors and descriptions that my eyes started to glaze over.

Many major works get enough of a description to pique your interest, and footnotes give the ISBNs of all the referenced works that have been issued by Black Coat Press. The coverage of an author or theme doesn’t always neatly stay in the chronological borders assigned its chapter.

The broad outlines of French science fiction were known to me up to 1950, the stopping point of Brian Stableford’s The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds, so Lofficers’ coverage of the next 50 years was all new to me. The Silver Age of 1950 to 1970 saw a massive introduction of translated American science fiction into France. While the period was one of ‘rebirth, growth, and consolidation”, French science fiction found its themes and “modes of expression” dominated by American examples of the genre. The 1970s saw the French New Wave in science fiction and the politization of the genre. The number of published works greatly expanded until the mid-1980s.

There may have been a much larger number of titles – but many sold poorly. The 1980s saw a retrenchment of more traditional works that sold better. Gone were many of the literary experiments and political works. The publishing boom in science fiction had ended. The 1990s saw a modest recovery of the field and more titles issued. As of today, science fiction publishing in France exceeds all other non-Anglo countries’ in Europe printed (if you take Germany’s Perry Rhodan titles out).

In a long tradition of science fiction scholarship, the Lofficiers, as champions of French science fiction, note the many cases where it was the first to develop certain fictional conceits and themes or significantly develop them.

Things that stuck out in my mind as unique to French science fiction is the number of mad scientist stories or stories just dealing with the allegedly strange psychology of scientists.  Medical doctors frequently show up with mad or dangerous schemes. Early romans scientifiques also have way more off-Earth voyages than the English scientific romance or early American science fiction. French science fiction definitely has a lot of works dealing with socialism and anarchism. It also has a fair number of proto-superhero stories.

I should add that this book covers all French language science fiction, not just that published in France.

The book showed me Black Coat Press has published a lot more post-1940 titles than I thought.

So, if you’re interested in French science fiction and just want a book you can look up a period of interest or one of the many authors listed in the index . . .

Well, you could do that if the index wasn’t such a mess. I won’t bore you with specific examples, but I will note there are several page numbers indexed that go beyond those 315 pages of text. So, if you are looking at this as strictly a reference book you’ll just dip into now and then, you’re going to be frustrated.

Even with that, I’m happy I read this one and think it will be useful for future research – even if with that index.

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