World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Black Sun”

Essay: “The Black Sun”, René Pujol, trans. Brian Stableford, 1921.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

Stableford’s calls this a “corrosively downbeat” story and one of the finest works of French cataclysmic fiction because of its deft psychological touches, and I agree. 

He also suggests that the publisher wanted something like J. -H. Rosny’s The Mysterious Force, and there are some similarities. In both, a cosmic force disrupts life on Earth. Both, center on a small group in the country during changing conditions, particularly in the second half of Rosny’s tale. However, Pujol’s entire tale is set in rural France in village near a canal and limestone quarries. And, whereas Rosny’s tale has an alien force creating strong empathetic and telepathic ties within a group – while setting other groups against each other, Pujol shows the psychological strains on his characters. Its one flaw is that, as Stableford notes, its ending seems very rushed as if, in its third installment, his editor wanted Pujol to wrap his serial up.

The story centers around Dantenot, his fiancé Jane, and her parents Jérôme (an optician) and Amélie Sternballe. They are visiting Dantenot, a schoolteacher. 

It’s December, and the weather is unusually hot. The situation worsens with windstorms. People go mad from the heat or just drop over dead. On December 26th, a great storm devastates many things. While the story centers on this French village since Dantenot is the narrator, he does throw in asides about how similar events affected other parts of Europe and the United States.  Rail lines and aqueducts are damaged as are telegraph lines. Before they are cut off from the outside world, news stories appear about the unusual heat wave affecting the whole world. A local curre tells Dantenot that logic and science has no answers for it. Whether it grows hotter or cooler, some theory will be proposed as an explanation.

Eventually, things become so unbearable that the four seek shelter in the local quarries. There is a scene where Dantenot goes back to their home because the party forgot to bring food. He is somewhat resentful that they seem to think nothing of demanding he go back in the hot night to do this though they barely survived reaching the quarries. 

On a second trip, to get cutlery and supplies from a grocery store whose owner is dead, Dantenot encounters Cynécarmieux, an astronomer who has stumbled into the village. He wants food though he is convinced they are ultimately doomed. His theory is that the sun has met with a dead sun, a “black sun”, and its heat has increased. 

In the quarry, they will find another survivor, a wine merchant, and a group of strangers. They both threaten the safety of the group. Water becomes an issue, but some is found. Things reach their climax when the wine merchant, reduced to such frenzies of hunger that he has reverted to self-cannibalism, attacks the astronomer, and they drive him off. 

Then the group, pushed to its last extreme, decides to slaughter a horse they found and let shelter with them. 

The story ends with the sun unaccountably returning to normal, and Jane and Dantenot married and with a child. Jane’s parents have survived, and so has the astronomer who has remained in the village. Dantenot notes, thankfully, their amnesia about so much that passed thus providing a rationale for the sudden ending.

A new order has sprung up: 

Philosophers, statisticians and economists have, in any case, said enough. They have described the formation of the new society, composed of survivors issued from the mines and caverns where they had taken refuge. They have explained that enough engineers survived to have the tyranny of science recognized, enough advocates to constitute a truly political parliament, enough energetic men to take possession of the wealth of deserted Asia and Africa.

Change oscillates; the problem of Constantinople remains entire; the next election will determine the scrutiny of lists, with proportional representation of minorities.

The passions are the same in the embryonic new humankind. 

This rather affirms (in the mention of minorities) and contradicts (in the supremacy of the scholar and scientist) an early remark of Dantenot’s about events during the disaster: 

Existing social inequalities had rapidly disappeared, to give way to others. The privilege of strength had been imposed. Powerful muscles and automatic weapons conferred an undeniable superiority on their possessors. It was not rare to see a scholarly professor or an influential politician behaving respectfully before a dock worker he would have scorned a few days before.

It seems that the elite are back in charge in the post-Black Sun world.

In the story’s last line, Dantenot says “Fear assembles individuals and inspires a mutual love in them.” 

Yet, that somewhat contradicts Dantenot earlier noting that his love for Jane, under the torment of hunger, attenuated. That is the corrosive aspect of the story Stableford notes. 

The story’s World War One reference is slight but interesting.

Describing the devastation of that December 26th storm, Dantenot says:

The Eiffel Tower had held firm, as well as the pylons of the big wireless telegraphy station at Croix d’Hins; by contrast the antenna of the German Station at Nauen, which had told so many lies during the war, no longer existed.

Bigot, Raoul. “‘The Black Sun.’” French Tales of Cataclysms, Hollywood C, S.l., 2022, pp. 281–281

There was indeed a German wireless station at Nauen. In fact, it’s the longest continuously operating radio station in the world and started up in 1906. Besides providing communication in the war for the German Imperial Fleet and its businesses, Germany’s Transocean news service used the transmitter to provide news, unfiltered by British control of submarine cables, to the Americas and Asia. Its broadcasts could be received worldwide.1

Now mass propaganda efforts via radio were not a feature of World War One just because there were so few radio sets around. It was hardly a device most homes would have. So, it’s unclear what “lies” Dantenot is referring to. Presumably, even if the broadcasts were not received by millions, propaganda for Germany could still be disseminated since the news would be picked up by papers and governments.


1) h (accessed February 7, 2023) 

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