World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Frenetic People

My look at pre-World War II apocalyptic romans scientifique continues.

Essay: The Frenetic People, Ernest Pérochon, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.

Cover by Yoz

The effects of World War One on literature are vast but usually hidden behind metaphors, displaced into other settings. This series is about the overt use of World War One in fantastic fiction. Pérochon’s novel uses the war in both ways.

Born in 1885, Pérochon saw combat, briefly, in the war. He was conscripted and went to the front but suffered a heart attack there in 1914 and was discharged. Another heart attack would eventually kill him in 1942 but not before he saw more horrors of the twentieth century. He ran afoul of the Vichy government. His only child and her husband joined the French Resistance, but she was imprisoned in Buchenwald though she escaped.

Pérochon was not one of those authors who routinely wrote science fiction. This was his sole venture into the genre. His usual stories were about the French poor working the land.

Stableford’s “Introduction” notes that the inter-war years saw no shortage in either Britain or France of stories about civilization destroyed in a future war. It seemed entirely plausible that the next war would see chemical, biological, and even atomic weapons delivered to cities via aerial bombardment. These stories tended to be more extreme in French romans scientifique. The Great War had, of course, been fought on French soil. Those French works tended to displace their future war stories more in time than British scientific romances did.

Published in 1925 as Les Hommes frénétiques, Stableford contends this novel doesn’t quite match the “sheer brutality of its excess” of José Moselli’s Illa’s End, also from 1925. However,

its far greater sophistication and mock-laconic attention to detail renders its account of superscientific warfare even more effective in its horror.

Having read both novels, I agree.

Our story opens at the Avernine Institute in the fifth century of the Universal Era. Avernine is a great scientist whose work resulted in an energy grid, using the ether, that extends around the world, a work so important that the time is called the Age of Avernine.

Avernine is nearing his 100th birthday, and it will be celebrated by a sort of international conference. At the Institute is our protagonist, Harrison, Avernine’s favorite pupil. He has made a remarkable discovery: how to create artificial life the size of corpuscles and dubbed “magical systems” or “etheric life” from Avernine’s grid.

A great deal of this novel doesn’t involve Harrison directly. Pérechon instead gives us a widescreen depiction of political and military conflict. He’s also not shy about openly stating his themes.

Avernine’s century is a time of dangerous ennui. Stimulant drugs are popular. Gladiatorial matches of a sort have returned.

This is a world that has carefully cultivated, after human civilization died out in the Christian Era in a great war between Asia and the West, the mere appearance of justice and a general equality. Courage has been tapped down as a dangerous atavism. 

The World War One content comes in with a quote from a history book Harrison picks up. In the section on the years 1914-1918: 

The historian briefly mentioned that long and bloody skirmish, whose causes seemed, at a distance, puerile and extremely confused. Nothing new, in any case, had emerged during the war—only a few timid excursions of aircraft in the background, and a few ferocious but maladroit deployments of poison gases. As in the remotest times, the belligerents had sent their most vigorous young males against the enemy, confiding firearms to them, resulting in a terrible negative selection. That war, pursued for long months with a terrible obstinacy by numerous armies, marvelously disciplined and provided with murderous engines, had severely shaken the old world.

Perochon, Ernest. The Frenetic People (French Science Fiction Book 85) (Kindle Locations 297-302). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition

That history book, incidentally, is dedicated to another of Pérechon’s themes. It is not ideaology or religion or social movements or economics that decisively shapes history but technology.

Pérechon did not see his contemporary world as learning anything from the Great War. 

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the next sees the death of “powerful collectives”  with civil wars often following national wars. The Asia-West war breaks out in 2145 from no greater reason than a female Asian poet being hauled away after protesting a sermon in San Francisco by riding a naked goat. Losing to the West after attacks on its infrastructure using the new metal, “lead Z”, the Asians resort to bacteriological warfare. Three centuries of something like a Dark Age followed, and then the Universal Era begins. 

A program of “artificially forming broad currents of opinion” is started that sacrifices “some precious living strength”. Nationality is stamped out and so is “pride of caste”. Historical studies are only permitted to a “small number of mature individuals” who have to swear never to serve in public office. Generosity is promoted, and courage regarded as a “mild form of ancestral ferocity”. Justice is regarded as the primary motive for wars in the past and is accomodated by “the appearances of law” being preserved. 

Yet, “people were unacquainted with happiness”. Sadness and pessimism abound. Art is decadent except occassional lively and happy works produced by scientists. 

The words justice, honor and liberty were beginning once again to flap like flags, in arrogant speeches. 

In essence, Pérochon’s society as placed itself against the entirety of the French motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Stableford notes that the frénétiques of the original title not only is equivalent to “frenetic”. It’s also a concept of the Decadent for

when a society reaches a phase in which its privileged members are ensured not merely of the supply of all their basic needs but also all available luxuries, they will develop new and profoundly unhealthy appetites to replace the ones that have been sated, because many, if not all, humans are constitutionally incapable of contentment and placidity.

Here that idea shows up most notably in an absurd conflict taken up by this too contented people. In a world where nations are no more, the conflict is between the meridianists and parallelists, communities based on certain lines of the worldwide energy grid which closely follows lines of longitude and latitude. The parallelists tend to be

functionaries of businesses or manual enterprises, building workers, meteorological contractors and those in aerial transport. 

The meridianists are

great agriculturalists, engineers, organizers of transport by land and sea, civil servants, domestic workers and those involved in warehousing and distributing goods

Harrison is uneasy about scientific progress. He agrees with that history book. Given the power of science, scientists, he feels, should be under closer surveillance. 

Sylvia, a beautiful and famous dancer, has set her sights on marrying Harrison. She is associated with a radical poet and gladiator, Lahorie. 

Things start to go wrong at the international congress to celebrate Avernine’s birthday. He tells the crowd he is not certain his work is good, urges them to be prudent, “don’t pick dangerous fruits without taking precautions”. 

A major discovery is announced: a great human civilization, which might have destroyed itself, existed in the Tertiary Era. Avernine’s statement and the news of the Tertiary civilization makes Harrison think that scientists should not have “special rights” but be subjected to “severe discipline”. 

A labor demonstration over a one hour work day shows up at the celebration. Things get violent, and it’s put down by the World Police. Some of its members are sentenced to death. The rest are sent to undergo a process that rather sounds like the psychological destruction and rebuilding of personality in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and I wonder if this is the first use of tha tidea.

This starts a political conflict which results in Harrison being drafted into the World Parliament. Despite news censorship, rumors fly aggravating things. 

In his time in government, Harrison openly pleads with the Parliament to either “supervise science or kill it”. He also warns of the dangers of the “conquest of the ether “ because that’s what he’s been doing.

At the Institute is Lygie, another scientist. She is a gentle person (and missing some fingers from a lab accident) and loves Harrison, and they eventually marry. Yet, throughout the novel, she is philosophically set against Harrison’s idea of reining in science. She is almost the symbol of the dangers a scientist can unleash even when a good and reasonable person. When Harrison says

Humans are mad and wicked, and they can’t be otherwise; can one not see that they’re dying of ennui in the garden of sagacity?

she replies “All that is a nightmare! And what does it matter? It’s necessary to know, regardless.” 

In a moment of carelessness, she is rendered sterile in an experiment with magical system 13 which preferentially affects the sex organs.

The political situation continues to deteriorate with “historical arguments” now being used by politicians. The world government is forced to devolve into a federal system of twelve zones of roughly equal size and population, and it is no longer in control of the recruitment of the World Police or appointment of its officers. 

A feverish vitality enters humanity, “dangerous, ardent, and beautiful”, with the arts seeing a new flowering. Sports imitative of barbarism become popular. 

Weather control is used in disputes between two zones in Africa, and Lahorie puts together a coalition of Islamists, a religion never completely stamped out. The great African War begins in a way similar to how I suspect Pérochon thought World War One did:

No one succeeded in establishing with precision in what circumstances, in what place and by whose fault the hostilities commenced. 

The war escalates from aerial bombing to gas warfare and bioweapons, both facilitated by control of weather systems. It also sees the first use of weaponized magical systems because Harrison’s work has been replicated in Africa. 

Discussion is undertaken by the neutral nations about whether to cut the belligerents off from the world energy grid. Some argue to take out the African part. But, while that may stop the fighting, it would also render aid difficult. Perhaps using the grid for war could be rendered impossible by some technology yet uninvented. Harrison, who argues for destroying the grid in Africa, figures out how to do that after the magical systems are employed.

When the grid is shut off in Africa, the magic sytems don’t always vanish immediately, and some leak over to adjacent areas that were neutral. 

Harrison thinks the magic systems will result in the end of everything, but Lygie wants to figure out a better control for them.

Harrisson was not convinced. He kept silent, though, for Lygie was talking in a voice tremulous with emotion, and he divined the words she was not speaking: the tenacious hope of the injured spouse, the egotistical and passionate expectation of some miraculous cure. 

He isn’t convinced there is a cure for humanity short of a “return to prescientific barbarity”. 

A “gorgeous imprudence, an ardent principle of life, a political rejuvenation of races” develops as the meridianist-parallelist conflict grows after the African War. Labor strikes bring on vicious retaliation with executions and “psychic correction”. Refugees from these “meridianist” dictatorships take their animosity into the parallelist zones. Small conflicts break out all over after refugees are armed and sent back to their home settlements to cause trouble.

In a remarkably compressed time (rather like the July Crisis of 1914), things reach their dangerous conclusion: 

After three weeks, the conflict was general; society was on the brink of the abyss.

And yet, there were still people to be found to argue that these were slightly serious teething troubles, an ordeal from which humankind would emerge purified, provided with a new and salutary discipline!

People refused to admit the state of war.

The situation was, it is true, unprecedented. Neither the mediocre national adventures of the prescientific era, nor ancient religious and civil discords, nor the Great World War of the Christian twilight, nor even the recent African war, could compare to that total effervescence: a strange duel in which the two parties were in contact everywhere, and it was impossible for them to hold any ground.

Perochon, Ernest. The Frenetic People (French Science Fiction Book 85) (Kindle Locations 1967-1973). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.

I suspect Pérechon may have been thinking of those few who thought war would purify people prior to 1914. 

The war is, at first, fought in small, local actions or by guerilla tactics with each side taking care not to damage the grid. But “Science, opening a period of monstrous possibilities, was to bring about a rapid denouement.” 

An Australian scientist figures out how to guide bioweapons using grid lines. “Etheric systems” strike back at his location. “From then on, humankind lost control of its actions.” 

It’s here Pérochon gives his long list of the magical systems and their varied effects in the war: sensory derangements, grotesque disfigurations, mental aberrations, and even in the reanimation of the dead.

Harrison makes a worldwide announcement that the war is over. It’s full of lies to bide time for him to put carry out his secret plans. An angry mob surrounds him declaring him a traitor to the meridianists for ordering labs shut. He escapes but not before coming under attack by a magical system and carrying out his worldwide shutoff of the grid. 

Sylvia shows up at the Refuge, home of Harrison and Lygia, and leads a blind mob against the latter out of the spite of a spurned lover. The attack breaks the containment around magical system 13 which Lygia has still been experimenting with to find a cure for her sterility. The result is that nearly all of humanity is sterlized. 

Human destiny was about to be accomplished. It was the end of all joy and all suffering, the irremediable misfortune…death. 

Harrison arrives to find out what happened and seems to talk to Lygie. His heart broken, he goes away and dies in an aircraft crash shortly afterwards. 

The novel’s third part, “Genesis”, is that return to prescientific barbarity. It describes the further effects of System 13 and the disintegration of civilization berefit of power and radioactives after Harrison’s actions.

Humanity descends into further decadence, but it’s a decadence that is not producing a fluorescence of art and vitality:

Defeated humankind, condemned to death, agonized in sadness and ugliness. Ordinarily, everyone lived in isolation. The last families broke up; the last remaining children, even the very young or infirm, were frequently abandoned by their parents. Ephemeral groups sometimes formed, but they were people in despair, coming together in order to die, or sick people driven by a diabolical instinct to gather together and travel in order to infect others.

It often happened that the concern for individual self-preservation lost its force. There were numerous suicides, and more numerous still were those who dragged themselves around, miserably, in a cowardly fashion, incapable of ensuring their own subsistence in the most prosperous environment.

Intelligence degenerated. Ideas were flat, dull and confused. A kind of bewilderment was observable in everyone, a homogeneous imbecility, sometimes accompanied by occasional crises of disordered effervescence. These crises were often confined to the insane. Among the less disequilibrated, they always constituted a morbid state, a feverish revolt, the last flicker of a flame on the point of going out. That momentary and abnormal mental activity was ordinarily manifest in a malevolent fashion; the excited individuals drew up plans of destruction, striving to discover methods of efficacious and rapid vandalism.

A few scientists tried, from time to time, to get back on their feet and search for a remedy that might bring salvation. The idea of an inconceivable, miraculous success, sustained them then, and they were almost happy, but most of them could not retain that attitude for long; after a few days, they abandoned everything.” 

The Adam and Eve of this new world are two children and former servants from the Institute: Samuel (who seems to be retarded and a mulatto which may be Pérechon’s way of imagining an end to future racial conflict) and Flore. The book’s end is an account of them interacting with other survivors, finding a dog, and an account of their children. 

This is a bleak book, the bleakest of the post-apocalyptic French novels I’ve read so far. The hope of Henri Allorge’s The Great Catacylsm is absent, and Pérochon ends with his characters further down on the technological scale than Allorge’s. It’s also much more pessimistic about human nature. Its horrors are greater than Moselli’s novel which I’ll be reviewing soon.

Unlike Colonel Royet’s On the Brink of the World’s End, there is no lone mad scientist seeking destruction to put the world out of its misery. Here the world seems full of self-destructive impulses, and the apocalypse does result – though with survivors. In some ways, it is the inverse of Royet’s story. Pérechon’s society is, materially, a utopia without the woes Livry lists in Royet’s novel as a reason to put the world out of its misery.

And, while Albert Robida’s The Engineer von Satanas vehemently goes on about that “slut, Science” promiscuously servicing war, here the argument is clear that science is the most powerful force for change in the world and cannot be trusted to be left in the hands of scientists.

And, to prevent all this, Pérochon says we have to renounce liberty, equality, and fraternity. 

I’m not of the same mind, but this is definitely not a book irrelevant to today’s world where ennui produces ills and scientists have definitely shown themselves incapable of being trusted.  

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