Illa’s End

My look at apocalpytic French science fiction works from before World War Two continues.

Normally, this, as with anything labelled as a review, would be cross posted to LibraryThing and Amazon. Well, the latter isn’t going to be happen anymore since my last review was rejected for violating community standards.

That was not the first review rejected by them, but I suspected the earlier case was Amazon cracking down on reviews on items which you did not purchase from there.

The second rejected review was a book I bought on Amazon. Why was it rejected? Sexual content? Race? Violence? Don’t really care enough to analyze it. And I’m not going to go to the effort of writing or editing a separate review for Amazon.

There’s a community of one that determines review standards here.

So, for any writers or publishers wondering why future reviews of their work won’t be reviewed on Amazon, that’s why.

I follow a one-strike rule here.

Review: Illa’s End, José Moselli, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Jean-Felix Lyon

Don’t ever do that again.

That, speculates Brian Stableford in his “Introduction”, is what Moselli’s usual publisher, Maison Offenstadt, told him after reading this “recklessly ultra-violent” story serialized as  La Fin d’Illa in 1925 in Sciences et Voyages. It may, speculates Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier in The Handbook of French Science Fiction, also be one of the reasons the publisher lost a court case in 1925.

Moselli was a true French pulp writer. Under a variety of names, he wrote a million words a year for adventure stories, police thrillers, technothrillers, and high enough quality science fiction that the Lofficiers regard him as one of the two most important French authors in that genre in the 1920s. And, like many a pulp writer, he would never see any of his work between the covers of a book in his lifetime. That would happen in the Moselli revival starting in the 1970s. Almost all his work was for Maison Offenstadt, and his editor there may not have even read the first installments of the novel when it was published. When he did, an abrupt end might have been ordered hence the novel’s truncated feel.

Nineteen Twenty-Five was a great year for French works of apocalyptic science fiction since it also saw the publishing of Ernest Pérochon’s The Frenetic People and Renee Dunan’s The Ultimate Pleasure. Unlike those stories, though, Moselli’s novel takes place in the distant past in the lost land of Gondawanaland.

The prologue starts in 1875 with the discovery, on a deserted Pacific Island, of a strange manuscript written on metallic sheets and an odd stone ball. The ship’s captain doesn’t end up selling them for the amount he hoped, and they end up being sold for a pittance to an antique dealer. Eventually, they are bought by a medical doctor, Akinson, in San Francisco who, in 1905, mails his translation of that manuscript to a friend in Washington D.C. Shortly afterwards, Akinson’s housemaid throws that stone balls in the fire – and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1905 results.

That manuscript is the account of one Xié, a general of Illa, one of two cities in the distant past on Gondwanaland. It’s the account of a dying, rather psychopathic, boastful man. He’s not much of a sympathetic character, but he’s determined, in the slim hope his writing will be found, that the future know of the ignoble Rair and that he, Xié, was the savior of Illa. Except, almost right from the beginning, we know he was the destroyer of Illa.

Illa is a city, a massive cylinder with its government on top and the earth beneath the domain of apes and food processing plants. Stableford speculates that this book is a response to Henri Allorge’s The Great Cataclysm from 1922 which may have irked Moselli by its literary acclaim and pacificist message. And there are similarities.

Allorge’s novel, taking up a motif of many French science fiction stories I’ve read, has artificial food in it. Not really food as we know it but liquors and pastes. Moselli’s Illans have gone a step further. They don’t even eat. Rather, massive amounts of pigs and apes are killed and converted into a nourishing radiation that feeds the Illans. Only the brutish head overseer of the apes eats what we would call food.

And those apes aren’t really apes, but Africans. Through “appropriate nourishment and cleverly designed exercises”, their mental abilities have been deliberately degraded while their strength has been increased. They have also been bred to have four hands. In Allorge’s novel, intelligent apes are domestic and tranquil servants who only cause trouble towards the end of that novel. Here they are brutal miners and the enforcers, armed with poison gas grenades and matter disintegrators, for Limm, head of the secret police.

And, like Allorge’s novel, Illa has an enemy, the much larger city of Nour.

Apart from those ape policeman, is Illa a good place to live? Well, Xié tells us the “Queen of the World” is a happy if monotonous place. But Xié is a warrior. We learn almost nothing about Illa’s culture or arts or if it even has any.

But we learn a lot about its intrigues and factions which are reminiscent of real ones that would arise in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Illa is another argument, like Dunan and Pérochon’s novels, that you don’t want scientists running things. Here, that’s Rair, Illa’s head scientist, inventor of torture devices and also that elaborate process of converting flesh to nourishing radiation.

Like Dunan’s head scientist, Broun, Rair is concerned with matters of health. He’s decided that he can improve his food plants by using humans instead of pigs or apes. That will extend the lifespans of Illans. And he knows just the place to get the food: Nour. And, to prove a point, he’s not even going to bother getting the Supreme Council’s approval to launch a war on Nour to force an annual tribute of suitable foodstock in the form of its citizens.

Xié is asked to lead the military effort. He’s not pleased. He despises Rair, doesn’t like his usurption of authority, and seems to have moral qualms about using Nourans as food.

But Rair has his methods of persuasion, those torture chambers and thorough surveillance of key political figures like Xié and his friends, and Limm is utterly loyal to Rair. In fact, one of his apes stabs Xié’s daughter at the novel’s beginning in a not so subtle intimidation. The daughter is in love with Rair’s grandson, and Xié likes his perspective son-in-law.

But, for not entirely clear reasons, Xié does participate in that attack which brings on the beginning of the end.

Multiple imprisonments, escapes, attack and counterattack, war in the air and underground, a brutal ape revolt, flight, and a whole lot of dead people are the result.

In the violent climax, Xié will ponder if he’s become a bit of a brute himself. But that doesn’t stop him from setting Illa’s ultimate weapon, the zero stone, the very same material that caused an earthquake in 1905, to detonate. That’s the great savior of Illa.

Stableford, in his introduction and, unusually, in an “Afterward”, speculates on Moselli’s motives — boredom or to make a moral or aesthetic point or an extreme example of “melodramatic inflation” – in writing such a violent, brutal, and, (for the time) disgusting story. With unusual caustic irony, Stableford talks about how the story calls into question the morality of the revenge tale, our automatic identification with a first-person narrator (which Mosselli rarely employed), and fiction writers pandering to readers’ love of disgust and danger.

There’s no doubt that Moselli’s short novel is lively, exciting, and has a breakneck pace. No other French writer did anything like it before. And neither Moselli – or anyone else – do something like it again.

2 thoughts on “Illa’s End

  1. Bookstooge February 18, 2023 / 2:51 pm

    When there aren’t clear guidelines and then reasons given for rejecting a review, it has always meant the site isn’t worth a roll of toilet paper (ironic considering how high tp went a couple of years ago, hahaha). It’s why I left devilreads in ’13 and never really considering amazon a review platform.

    Sorry you had to deal with that. It’s never fun seeing a path cut off 😦

    • marzaat February 18, 2023 / 2:59 pm

      Well, less work for me even if less exposure. I had enough traffic on Amazon to qualify as a Vine Reviewer.

      Years ago, Amazon chased Matthew Carpenter away, a legendary reviewer of Lovecraft related material.

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