Essay: On the Brink of the World’s End, Colonel Royet, trans. Brian Stableford, 1928.
You say you don’t want to read any French tales about the ruins of Paris or philosophical musings on how the post-apocalyptic should be organized? You just want something pulpy and fun. Maybe a mad scientist tale . . . ?
Well, this one is close to what you want. There is a mad scientist. As to the apocalypse, well, you won’t get that. As the title suggests, we’re only going to the brink of the world ending.
That’s not a spoiler. Our narrator, philosophy professor Paul Lefort, tells us right at the beginning that the recently deceased French President, before he died, asked Lefort to, at last, reveal how the world almost ended twenty years ago at the hands of a “single man, simultaneously a genius and a madman”.
That man is Lefort’s best friend, Roger Livry. He’s a brilliant chemist and wealthy from an inheritance from an uncle.
It’s August 5, 192* when Lefort visits his friend whom he finds packing for a trip to Camp de Châlons. It’s here the story’s World War One content enters.
As Stableford’s note explains
During the Great War it had close links with the nearby Camp de Suippes, close to the front, also used as a training ground and to store stocks of chemical weapons.Stableford, Brian note 55 on Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 315.
A bit later we get this about Livry’s wartime service:
Finally, during the hostilities, his conduct had been admirable. He had involved himself in the gas war, pursuing research at the front, under shell fire, into toxic substances employed by our pitiless enemies, inventing replies as he went along to their odious malevolence.Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 316-317.
All very plausible and consistent with history.
Incidentally, don’t put too much weight on the author of this story having a military rank. Stableford says not much is known about him. His name appeared with author Paul d’Ivoi on serials before the war, by himself on “jingoistic propaganda pieces” and “garish thrillers” during the war, and a future war epic in 1931.
Lefort is concerned about this destination because Camp de Châlons is also where a certain woman is, Héléné Thiérard-Leroy. The previous April, Livry briefly met her on a visit to Monsieur Héléné Thiérard-Leroy, an astronomer.
To give you an idea of the kind of man we’re dealing with, Livry asked Héléné’s father for her hand in marriage the next morning. And he’s turned down because she’s already engaged to be married in three months.
Livry claims he just wants to do some experiments at the camp. He then rails against a former lab assistant, Jobert, who stole some radium from him as well as some of his “Omega acid”.
The narrator goes to the camp with Livry who rents a house nearby. To do the cooking, they find Étienne, a small boy and former gutter snipe of Paris, who is an apprentice pastry-chef reading a chemistry textbook when they meet him. The two men take an immediate liking to him.
One night, Livry reveals his mad plan born of romantic despair. He goes on about the woes of the world and how it would be better if the human race was just put out of its misery. He’s no coward, though. Sure, he could kill himself, but he wants to help the rest of the world out of their misery too.
And he knows how to do it.
Using his Omega acid and radium, he has found a way to dissociate the oxygen and hydrogen molecules in the atmosphere’s water vapor. The hydrogen will leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and the world, without water vapor, will cool. Furthermore, water molecules thus affected transmit the effect like an infectious disease. He has already set the reaction in motion at their house. Livry proclaims himself the “Man of the Apocalypse”.
And we’re off on a journey that will go from France to Algiers and end with a military assault on a fortress in the Pyrennes. Almost every character in this book, major or minor, will play a significant role in the plot. We’ll meet a distasteful and very wealthy American who, besides being a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, is a member of a “suicide club”. We’ll meet a daring glider pilot. We’ll see more of the Thiérard-Leroys. And Jobert will try to blackmail Livry out of some more radium and Omega acid to pursue his decidedly more benevolent plans for them.
The major attraction of the story is Lefort’s shifting attitudes towards his friend. Is Livry just running an experiment? Will it really produce results? Will anybody believe him if he tells the authorities about it? Is his friend really going to go through with his plans? And, finally, his resolve that, yes, his friend needs to be stopped.
Near the end, Livry expresses his belief that, after mankind is gone, evolution will provide
new beings that will not have the terrible flaws that come from the lamentable imperfection of our organs and rudimentary sensesDoyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 405.
They will not know the misery of humans including “lovesickness, the greatest of them all”1.
“Above all, I dream of a humankind that will only have one sex and no heart. From that will emerge the veritable superhuman.”Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 405.
It’s a pretty good mad scientist story even if we only get a taste of what Livry can do.
- Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 405.
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