French Tales of Cataclysms

I continue to look at French romans scientifiques featuring apocalypses and disasters.

It’s a big anthology, but it’s a low-res scan because I’ve already reviewed J. -H. Rosny Aîné’s “The Cataclysm” (aka “Tornadres”) before, and three works – Raoul Bigot’s “The Iron That Died”, René Pugol’s “The Black Sun”, and Colonel Royet’s On the Brink of the World’s End – will be getting separate posts in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Low Res Scan: French Tales of Cataclysms, ed. Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, trans. Brian Stableford, 2022.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

The Lofficiers’ “Introduction” recaps the history of French apocalyptic and cataclysmic stories through the end of World War Two. This anthology has ten stories and two novels “published between 1802 and 1928”. This is another example of Black Coat Press’s less than stellar copyediting since the earliest story is actually from 1858. All the stories here are translated and introduced by Brian Stableford with the exception of The Tremendous Event.

Pierre Véron’s “The Paris Deluge” (“Le Déluge en Paris’) was probably written in 1859 and not published until 1862 since there was a tradition of setting these kind of stories a multiple of thousands of years in the future. And what kind of tale is it? The ever popular ruined Paris of the future and archaeologists reaching bogus conclusions about contemporary life from the artifacts they find. Those stories became popular with the demolition and reconstruction of large parts of Paris under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann.

Here the year is 4859. The story starts with the last ten years of the city. It’s submergence under the advancing sea is ainticipated. For the last ten years, the submergence of Paris has been seen as imminent, and now it’s only six days away. Wealthy people seek out agents to give their fortune to the poor. Critics attack their own works, and novelists are offering refunds to readers.  A vast number of balloons are being built to escape the city, the proceeds to be given to the Association of Ruined Stockbrokers. Then Véron has a silly interlude with various forms of marine life contemplating Parisian life as the ocean innudates the city. 

The story then shifts three thousand years into the future with a discussion between geologists and archaeologists. We then get a rather crytpic description of four items which, in keeping with this sub-genre, are ridiculously interpreted. In a rare end note from Stableford, he tells us that, usually in such stories, indirect clues are provided by authors to let us figure out what those objects really are.  Here, Véron ran out of space and offered the explanation in four footnotes.

Eugène Mouton’s “The End of the World” (“La Fin du Monde”, 1872) illustrates a problem all writers of science fiction faced in the early days of the genre: coming up with an appropriate narrative form for their tales. Mouton’s solution was to adapt an absurdist tone for this story which has no characters.

The story opens with the question about whether humanity and the Earth is at the soup or dessert stage of the meal. Mouton decides Earth is not going to die by some geological accident. It will die from the disease of excess. Mouton then goes on to explain, through thousands of years, how increased industrialization and urbanization cranked up Earth’s heat and gives us the final result.

Stableford makes the claim that Mouton was the first author to imagine an ecocatastrophe caused by global warming associated with industrial activity. There is also the vaguest hint of biotechnology with descriptions of

unprecedented species of sheep and cattle, devoid of hair, tails, feet and bones are seen rolling around, reduced ot the art of husbandry to be nothing more than monstrous steaks alimented by four insatiable stomachs. 

Alfred Franklin’s “The Ruins of Paris in 4875” (“Les Ruines de Paris”, 1875) extravagently uses the idea of the future’s bad archaeology in an examination of various Parisian artworks, monuments, and even street signs. But the story is also a satire on Franklin’s contempary Frenchmen, especially after the tumultous year of 1871 which had seen the downfall of Napoleon III, the Paris Commune, and the disaster of the Franco-Prussian war. It may even be a bit of a satire on colonialism since the story is the tale of an expedition setting out from Noumea, then and now the capital of French New Caledonia, to Paris. 

We hear how these Parisians are much (presumably) like those in Franklin’s time: given to pleasure, frequent switches of mood, and, especially, frequently overthrowing their governments and each citizen thinking they are capable of being a leader. At story’s end, proving that the blood of Frenchmen does flow in the veins of Noumeans, the Parisians incite a revolt among the Noumeans, with various slogans quoted. 

The Story of an Earthquake” from Camille Debans (“Histoire d’un tremblement de terre”, 1892) is what, in the context of film, would be called a docudrama though it spends little time on any one character. It is a fictionalized account of an earthquake on November 18, 1834 off the coast of Chile. 

Louis Gallet’s “The Death of Paris” (“Le Mort de Paris”, 1892) has a stylishness and vividness that you would expect from a librettist of operas which Gallet was. It starts out as describing the rather intellectually attenuated, if affluent and safe, life of future Parisians. Aerial travel is a major feature even if the capital of the United States of Europe has moved to Marseilles. (Russia has greatly expanded and – perhaps wishful thinking on Gallet’s part – Germany has all but vanished.) Animals have all but vanished too. All the citizens are all beautiful, and the women all look about twenty. Physicians are unknown since the secrets of nature and microbes have all been probed. Sentimental emotions and aesthetic ideas have all been banished. There is no literature or art and no museums or libraries.  A simplied language is spoken. Newspapers have shrunk to a single sheet. A bit of music is still performed, but mostly “sonorities” are piped into public places. There is no religion. The people are happy and, unusually enough, grateful too. The weather is cooling. And then, one day, a snowstorm starts. Gallet succinently summaries the resulting breakdown of society. 

Georges Bethuys’ “Cataclysm” (“Cataclysme”, 1896) has an interesting publishing history. The magazine La Science Française published two parts of a serial, Conte bleu, by G. Bethuys. Instead of the third installment, this story, for whatever reason, was run instead (and was the last piece of fiction the magazine published which is a shame says Stableford since Bethuys’ original story, was shaping up to be one of the more interesting ones of the time) but its conclusion never appeared. The cataclysm here is geological but more complicated than a mere earthquake. (There were several stories in this anthology with speculation of a geologic nature, and I was almost tempted to do a Geology in Science Fiction series on them. But the blogging madness must have a limit.) This story has massive complicated geological changes occuring in France which ends with it abutting England and parts of Germany innundated by the sea. I was amused that the story has an impending war caused by some revolution in Armenia. Apart from matters of geology, though, the story isn’t that interesting.

It’s not some geologic menace that threatens in Henri Falk’s “The Age of Lead” (“L’Age de Plomb”, 1919) but the sun. The story starts out in Libreville, the colony of French Gabon. Life is pretty good for the Lieutenant-Governor Parmesif and his family and his secretary. An annoying plague of hair loss begins to be reported in the colony. The local veterinary proposes a epizootic and contagious infection. He has no explanation for why plants begin to lose their skin. Soon humans are starting to be affected in all the tropical regions of the Earth. Vegetaion is affected too.

Parmesif takes his family out of danger, back to France. There we encounter the “radiophysicist” Galfo whose girlfriend Winnie Barklett just happens to be the daughter of a wealthy American businessman, J. S. Barklett. Galfo has discovered the sun is putting out a new, gamma-ray like radiation. He gives away the remedy – lead shielding – free to Barklett who makes a fortune as the “King of Lead”. Bracklett will ungratefully forbid Winnie from marrying Galfo since he’s so dopey as to not have sold his secret for much more. Falk does work out many of the many social, technological, agricultural, economic, and legal implications of the Age of Lead well before resetting the status quo. The tale ends with a satrical barb aimed at the French military.

Finally, we have a novel from a famous mystery writer, Maurice Leblanc: The Tremendous Event (Le Formidable Évément, 1920). (This one seems to be translated, introduced, and annotated by Jean-Marc Lofficer.) It’s enjoyable and wildly romantic. Our hero is, and hero is the right word here, Simon Dubose. At Brighton, he visits his friend Edward Rolleston and the love of his life, Isabel Bakefield. We also hear of some recent shipping loses in the English Channel and strange reports of fountains and whirlpools appearing. In fact, an old geology professor of Dubose’s, dubbed Old Sandstone, is in the area researching the matter.

Simon asks Lord Bakefield for the hand of his daughter in marriage. He refuses despite Simon’s accomplishments – he’s a world class runner and a student of art and beauty. Lord Bakefield’s dead wife could trace her ancestry to King George III, and he can trace his ancestry to nobility that came to England with William the Conqueror. In fact, his ancestors ruled over Simon’s ancestors back in Dieppe. Still, Lord Bakefield agrees to an odd proposal. If Simon can conqueor something and perform heroics in the vein of Hercules or Don Quixote (an odd choice), he can marry Isabel. But he has just two months to do that.

It turns out that Isabel and Simon are planning to elope, and that night they leave, with trepidation given the recent lose of ships in the Channel, on a ship to Dieppe.

And they were right to have concerns since their ship sinks, but they are rescued by a yacht and arrive in Dieppe.

Rather disturbed by all this, Isabel takes a ship back to England, determined to marry with the consent of her father.

Then the tremendous event happens, a massive earthquake which raises part of the land beneath the Channel. Simon wants to get back to England to see if Isabel is all right. A ship is out of the question given the damage on the French coast. He begins to explore the new land and, seeking one sight after another, he finds himself pulled west and eventually decides to just see if he can cross on land to England, and so he does making him the first man to do it, sort of a William the Conqueror. 

Along the way, he finds a man peculiarly dressed like a Mexican, dead from a stab in the back.  He also encounters a woman trussed up whom he cuts free and rescues, taking her to Brighton.  He also sees the wrecks of several ships along the way and crowds of looters about them.

In Brighton, he finds out his friend Edward has kidnapped Isabel and her father and headed into the “No-Man’s Land”. A group of Indians, performers in movies, happens to be in the area. In fact, one of them was the dead man Simon came across, and the woman, Dolores, is another.

Accompanied by Old Sandstone who wants to continue his research, Simon and the Indians head off in the new frontier to rescue Isabel. If a white man accompanied by Indians crossing the frontier in pursuit of a white captive sounds like something out of a James Fennimore Cooper novel, yes it does. In fact, Leblanc explicitly alludes to Cooper a few times.

On that frontier, they will find a place where

notions of right and wrong, promises, obligations, duties of friendship, established rules, decent behavior

no longer exist.

And that’s not the only danger. Simon has promised to be absolutely faithful to Isabel, but will he be able to resist the sincere charms and beauty of the Amazonian Dolores?

With the exception of Gallet’s, most of the future Paris stories probably only have an appeal to students of romans scientifique, but the Leblanc and Falk stories still have their charms.

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