In my recent look pre-World War Two French science fiction stories of disaster and apocalypse, I missed a couple of stories. This book has the first, “The Death of Earth”, but I’ll be reviewing, as usual, the whole book.
Review: The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, trans Brian Stableford, 2010.
Given that Rosny vies with Jules Verne among scholars of French science as being its most important writer and that this is the first of eight Rosny volumes put out by Black Coat Press (excluding Rosny’s widely available Quest for Fire), Stableford’s “Introduction” is long, 60 pages. Stableford doesn’t go so far as saying French science fiction didn’t exist before Rosny, but he does says that his characteristic themes and conjectures were unprecedented before and since.
Rosny was born in Belgium in 1856 and christened Joseph-Henri-Honoré Boëx. He had an early interest in science and technology, spent some year as an adult in London where he entered a troubled marriage. When he moved to Paris to establish himself as a writer, he became involved several literary disputes. Even his friends acknowledged he was very pugnacious and disputatious man. He did spend some years trying to inherit writer Edmond de Goncourt’s literary and actual estate.
He didn’t start out writing science fiction, and Stableford talks about his many straightforward literary works which were acclaimed but didn’t sell that well. His collaborations with his brother, J.-H. Rosny Jeune (aka the Younger) produced no science fiction work and only lasted about ten years. Not many of his contemporaries appreciated his science fiction except Maurice Renard who also wrote it. The market for French science fiction greatly contracted after World War One. Rosny persisted in writing it, but Renard didn’t.
There’s a fairly long quote from René Doumic, a hostile critic of Rosny’s work who, nonetheless, offered a perceptive analysis of it. Rosny’s work tended to be episodic with little connecting rational between its elements. In his “Afterword”, Stableford says Rosny’s enduring problem in writing science fiction was that he was immediately struck by an intriguing idea or image and didn’t think through, before he started writing, their implications and consequences. Rosny’s “patchwork” compositions were the price we pay for his striking ideas because he could never have written them if he waited to fully develop them.
“The Xipehuz” (“Les Xipheuz”, 1887) may be the first hostile alien invasion story since it predates H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. In the ancient Middle East, “forms” show up, strange creatures that appear as cones, cylinders, and planes with patches of light. They kill most of the warriors of the tribe that discovers them. However, the survivors notice that the forms, who seem to glide over the ground and kill with a touch, don’t proceed past a given radius. When the tribe returns, thinking they are safe, the tribe is attacked again by the forms who have increased in number. Word gets out among the tribes of the area that the forms threaten human survival. A proto scientist, Bakhoun, studies the forms and calculates how long it will take for them to take over the world. He figures out ways of fighting them, and a series of battles ensues involving thousands of humans and forms and with ever evolving tactics The forms are eventually annihilated. Bakhoun mourns their death and that they and humans were implacable foes. He wishes he could have learned about their culture and how they perceived the universe.
If they are aliens, Rosny, unlike Wells’, tells us nothing of their history, how they got to earth, or why they came, or details of their biology. On the other hand, the forms could be descended from life on Earth. It’s probable, says Stableford, that Rosny himself didn’t know the answers to those questions.
However strange, tedious, and difficult it is to read, Stableford argues “The Sceptical Legend” (La Légende sceptique, 1887) is a pivotal text in understanding Rosny’s work. Part speculative essay, part prose-poetry, and also a piece of fiction, its sole character is a young man named Luc. He contemplates all sorts of quasi-scientific, mystical connections between the cosmos and man, the new configurations atoms could take on after being in contact with organic life, how to start a new religion, the connection between sleep and madness, the possibility of humans developing the ability to perceive electrical fields, and, most importantly, “planetary physiology”, the idea that the spaces between atoms and planets are not really, as our senses perceive them, empty, but potentially filled with life. It was an idea he was to use later in The Mysterious Force as well as many other works.
“Another World” (“Un Autre Monde”, 1895), is the tale of a mutant, our narrator. Born with light violet skin, the irises of his eyes eventually covered with something that looks like a beetle’s skin, possessing little strength but great agility, and living on a diet of just alcohol, he also has altered perceptions. His hearing is acute and, while many of the colors of the visible spectrum are only shades of gray to him, he can see colors in the ultra-violet rage. Eventually, he figures out that only he can see strange lifeforms all about his family’s rural Netherlands farm, thin figures that pass through human bodies undetected. Given that he wants to tell someone about this but can’t because his handwriting is crap, and he talks very fast, he sets out for Amsterdam to find a scientist he can reveal this alien life to.
Stableford says this may be Rosny’s most frustrating work because it moves away from a detailed investigation of those aliens and to a conventional ending of marriage – though certainly not with a conventional woman. I didn’t find it that frustrating and expected the aliens to be mostly mysterious and vaguely explained.
“The Death of the Earth” (“La Mort de la Terre”, 1910), is an excellent story. You can think of this as a bookend to Rosny’s prehistoric story Quest for Fire, a quest for water in the final days of humanity. Resorting to a frequent instrument of disaster in French science fiction, Rosny has Earth desiccated after quakes more than a million and a half years ago. The oceans dried, huge mountain ranges were thrust up, and most of the water to retreat to Earth’s core. At humanity’s height, there were 23 billion people on Earth in a technologically advanced society with atomic power.
Yet, at humanity’s height, a decadent detachment from nature was there. “Magnificent and mysterious poetry was extinct.” Wild lands had disappeared. Suicide was the “most redoubtable malady” of humanity.
After another 30,000 years, it becomes clear that the Earth has withdrawn its favor from the human race who once vanquished the plant and animal realms. The population reduces to 300 million. In another 30,000 years, humanity is reduced to a few oases about the equator. It might survive another 50,000 or 100,000 years.
Among animals, only birds and humans have survived,
Industry has declined drastically though the technology is still available. Psychologically, humanity is diminished.
Humans live in a state of resignation, sadly and quite passively. The spirit of creation is extinct; it only reawakens, atavistically, in a few individuals. By continual selection, the race has acquired a spirit of automatic obedience, and by the same token, its laws have become immutable. Passion is rare, crime non-existent.
But here are two humans left with passion, not fatalistic, and willing to fight to survive. They are Targ and his sister Arva. Targ saves a community by finding them water, but, after new quakes drain the reservoir, Arva and Targ with their families leave rather than to submit to the standard euthanasia that communities practice after disasters. (And, many times in such cases, the number of people volunteering for suicide exceeds the quota.)
They roam the earth looking for water. But there’s a new menace. The realm of minerals has thrown up its own form of life, beings of iron called the ferromagnetals. And, throughout the story, their speed, size, and numbers will increase posing a constant threat to humans whose iron they feed on.
Interestingly, the frequent French roman scientifique concern with artificial food shows up briefly. When synthetic food is produced at man’s height, it is always found to produce “strange maladies or rapid degenerations”. Natural livestock has disappeared but there are engineered varieties:
veritable zoophytes, hideous ovoid masses with limbs transformed into vestigial stumps and jaws atrophied by force-feeding.
This one doesn’t end happily. Targ and Arva are almost indomitable, but Rosny makes clear that man’s time has passed.
The Navigators of Space (Les Navigateurs de l’infini, 1925) is sort of a continuation of the themes of “The Xipehuz” and “The Death of the Earth”. A party of three men become the first humans to visit Mars where they find an intelligent race, the Tripeds, whose biology and perceptions are very different from humans. They can see a much broader portion of the spectrum than humans. Their reproduction is reminescent of the Xipehuz. There’s also an invasion going on. The Tripeds face another life evolved from the realm of minerals, the Zoomorphs.
The fatalism and placidity, both as a group and as individuals, of the Tripeds is like the Last Men in “The Death of Earth”, but they rally when the humans develop a sign language to communicate with them (they have no ears, mouth, or nose) and develop a weapon to repel the Zoomorphs.
There’s also the mysterious energy beings in Mars’ atmosphere, the Ethereals, and a romance develops between the narrator and the Triped Grace.
However, it was certainly desire that I felt in her presence; every time our bodies made contact I felt that marvelously pure tenderness that I had felt on the day of her resurrection. Might it be love, all the same? If so, it is as foreign to our pitiful love as Grace is to human femininity. . . . Then – oh, how can I describe it? It was an embrace, nothing but an embrace.
The relationship between Grace and the narrator is the epitome of a desire Rosny to cross the boundaries of “biology” and enter into a communion with non-human intelligences he suspected existed in the universe. In The Mysterious Force, an alien presence creates a more intimate human community. Here the intimacy is with the alien itself
The Astronauts (Les Astronautes, 1960) is in the book only for completeness sake. Stableford suspects only the first 5,000 to 6,000 words of this 25,000 word story were written by Rosny. It was first published in a paperback reprint of The Navigators of Space and presented as a sequel.
The three men of that book return to Mars along with the sister of one of them. The main points of interest are the revelation the Ethereals are intelligent and how communication with them is opened. There’s also a love triangle of sorts between narrator Jacques, Grace, and the human Violaine. Grace and her father even go to Earth with the explorers, and we have sort of a fusion of human and Martian with the resolution.
In that afterword, Stableford notes that the disgust Jacques feels concerning human physiology and, especially, sex wasn’t just an opinion formed from Rosny’s aging but another example of his alienation from humanity and desire that some larger community of intelligent beings may be found, one that would offer something akin, but different and better, to the joys of human companionship. While I didn’t mind reading anything here, even “A Sceptical Legend”, I found “The Xipehuz”, “The Death of Earth”, and “Another World” the standout tales.