This was intended to just wind up my look at pre-World War Two French science fiction featuring disasters and apocalypses, but, like many such stories, it also turned out to be another French work bearing the marks of World War One.
Essay: The Napus: The Great Plague of the Year 2227, Léon Daudet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.
Readers in the know will notice that this work isn’t from Stableford’s usual outlet for translated French science fiction, Black Coat Press. He was told
’Léon Daudet was not a nice man’ – a principle which, if universally applied, would slim down the literary tradition considerably.
However, the Lofficiers, owners of Black Coat Press, do briefly mention this novel and two other works by Daudet in their The Handbook of French Science Fiction.
Why was Daudet a bad man? Well, he was a noted right-wing author in France. Wikipedia refers to him as a Catholic integralist, a man who rejected the idea of church and state being separated. He ran for office in 1927, the year this novel was published. He also spent some time in jail after being convicted of libel when he accused the government of being involved in the shooting death of his son.
Stableford’s “Introduction” says this is the most farcical of all French future war novels. Daudet was very skeptical of the idea that no weapon was so terrible that it wouldn’t be used. He was also unusual in his depiction of a
future in which scientific knowledge has continued to progress, takes it for granted that much of that science will be intellectually bankrupt, and that the fraction that is not will be largely deleterious to the quality of human life . . . that much contemporary theoretical knowledge is seriously mistaken, and that the theories that replace contemporary ones will be just as arbitrary and liable to supersession.
He concludes by stating this novel is a “twisted classic of sorts”, “provocatively uncomfortable rather than soothingly soporific”.
I enjoyed this novel quite a bit though I found the ending a bit murky and truncated.
Stableford speculates it was a response to Ernest Pérochon’s The Frenetic People, and there’s merit in that idea. Both feature protagonists who are scientists working at esteemed institutions, and both those men will fall in love with one of their co-workers. But where as the pacificist and socialist Pérochon railed against war, Daudet considers it necessary and that people will get used to it, whether high-tech warfare or not. Indeed, France and Germany fight a war about every 50 years in this future. The novel ends with the idea that different nations have different souls, souls where different interpretations of truth and beauty merge and are incompatible with those of other nations.
That protagonist is our narrator, the clumsily named, as he’s the first to admit, Polyplast 17,177. The number indicates he is one of many Polyplasts. And here Daudet’s refreshing cynicism starts. The Polyplasts were the offspring of what might now be called an international non-governmental organization. The idea was that the offspring of various international breedings would create a pacifist group of scientists. Instead, the Polyplasts are a bellicose lot who spend a lot of time contemplating war, developing weapons, and laughing inappropriately at human misfortune.
Things start off on a Parisian street one May day when the narrator sees a man simply disappear with a “dry click”. The man’s granddaugther says “N’a pus, a grand pé a pati, n’a pus”. Literally translated, it means something like “it can’t be”, but Stableford’s note says it might be the child is mispronouncing “n’a plus”, “it can’t be” or “impossible”. The man is the first victim of the Napus, the “death without remains”.
However, it doesn’t affect humans the same way universally. Africans have their skin lightened to a whitish cast which makes some happy. Chinese victims do produce remains, a stinky residue in the shape of a tiny footprint. The book is full of Daudet’s references to national or racial characteristics. As you would expect, the Germans come in for the most denounciation, a treacherous race given to metaphysics. The last chapter is titled “Boche Will Be Boche”. Americans, we’re told, feel the need to mandate or ban consumption of certain products. Russia is given to cycles of white and red terrors.
Polyplast (I’ll drop his full name) works for The Aristotle Institute. It’s with its staff that the book has many unexpected modern resonances with what we call, inaccurately, science these days. Science in our time is plagued with institutional corruption, sloppy methods and a massive replication crisis, paper mills, and general cowardice. The scientists here aren’t much better. Polyplast says that scientists, however bellicose, are always defferential to administrators.
A variety of theories are proposed regarding where the Napus came from. Bacterial or viral infection is a theory long abandoned and derided in favor of “cytons” in cells. The scientists have various theories about what causes the Napus: over cleanliness, the psychological effects of “cinebooks” (tablet-like devices that combine text and moving images), bad diet (one scientist sells an elixir advertised to prevent it), and, most disasterously (which rather reminds me of Net Zero), Sidoine’s theory that it is caused by electromagnetic technology.
His proposal that there should be an international agreement to renounce electricity is rejected by Germany whose industry depends on it. That and the disappearance of a German scientist at an international conference on the Napus problem precipitates war. Germany claims he was murdered, not a Napus victim.
There are actually quite a lot of similarities to World War One and the war in this novel. Both are started by assassinations (at least as claimed by Germany). There is a series of national mobilizations.
As frequently predicted after the Great War, weapons are targeted against populations. The Germans induce earthquakes, floods, hail, and sonic disruptions – all with effects not as intended, most spectacularly in the climactic Battle of Sound when it is the lack of planned anti-sonic armor (“mufflers”) in the British and French forces that protects them while many of the German forces die. There is also, interestingly, financial warfare when Germany releases the Analgos, German marks tainted with a euphoric substance which becomes in high demand, and the exchange rate between the mark and dollar crashes the latter.
While all this is going on, the Napus continues to claim victims and also increase the growth of some trees and mushrooms which reach giant size.
But the novel isn’t really concerned with the war. Polyplast and his love Henriette rarely leave Paris except to attend the international beauty contest that is set up during an armstice – and that starts the war up again. Other effects of the Napus, are the production and increased growth of giant plants like trees and mushrooms. Most of the novel is the ridiculous science of his colleagues and German enemies.
In all the attacks on science, democracy, and the press, you can see some of Daudet’s own beliefs. France is a monarchy again, and there is, of course, a great deal of sympathy for Catholicism. Early in the novel, there is a discussion between Polyplast and a priest. The latter argues that there is no reason the Napus should induce such anxiety in the populace. They have always been liable to die at any time.
Polyplast’s moral nadir is when he tortures, for days on end, the man who assassinates Sidoine. The man is garrotted, hung, electrocuted, and finally beheaded with an attempt made to reconnect his head. (The Aristotle Institute asserts its legal right to conduct its own punishment of those who commit crimes against its members.) Nor is that the only privilege extended to this group of scientists. One member poisoned around a hundred people, but was forgiven. Suggesting a link between scientific brilliance and immorality, the man’s scientific brilliance fades when he renounces murder.
There is a lot of renouncing of scientific pursuits at one point in the novel. Many scientists produce brilliant, one-off works of art totally divorced from their usual studies. Perhaps, following the suggestion that the Napus is nature’s way of taking care of European overpopulation, this renaissance is nature’s answer to war’s destruction.
The final repudiation of science occurs at the end when the Institute’s head, Cortenaz, proposes a prize for suppressing seductive – though true – ideas rather like another scientist tried to suppress the knowledge of explosive production.
Polyplast, whose character softens during the course of the book, and Henriette propose their own theory for the plague. But the language and theory is convoluted enough, even after Stableford’s annotation, that it’s something of a let down. Shortly after delivering it, Polyplast himself vanishes from the Napus in the book’s penultimate paragraph.
The novel is heavily influenced by France’s experience in the Great War, but it does have a few, very general references to that event.
When Polyplast checks out a cinetext of one Dominé (not, from what I can tell, an actual historian) concerning the Battle of the Marne, he sees:
the famous retreat of Charleroi, when the French armies recoiled, harried by the German troops. There is a long file of infantrymen, artillerymen, field pieces, ammunition boxes and wagons, in the landscapes of the Pas-de-Calais, the Somme and Oise1
That was an actual retreat of the French Army on August 24, 1914, before the Battle of the Marne, and the description is accurate as mentioned in Georges Blond The Marne.2
Wilhelm II, who had once allowed his entourage of financiers and industrialists to impose the absurd war of 1914-18.3
To be honest, in the many theories of why World War One started, including popular ones blaming Germany, I’ve never heard the blame put on German businessmen, but I have no trouble believing that people believed it in Daudet’s time. And it’s not like I’ve heard all those theories.
In many grave circumstances, and twice during the old war of 1914, the Marne appeared to side with the land it waters, and played dirty tricks on the Germans.4
This is a very general statement and a bit poetic. Of course, the river Marne did play a significant role in the Battle of the Marne. The German Army crossed it on its initial attempt to carry out the Schlieffen Plan – and retreated across it later. Daudet almost implies it flooded or something, but I have found no record of that. There was significant action around the St. Goad Marshes but that’s to the south of the Marne.
This book lives up to Stableford’s claim of being a disturbing, an attack on pieties on the desireability of peace and science. That’s not a combination found in other French science fiction I’ve covered.
You might disagree with that view. It’s harder, especially in 2023, to disagree with the observation of one General Levin to Polyplast:
For I don’t think you take the view here, any longer, that the elite is always wise and science always benevolent.5
- Daudet, Léon, trans. Brian Stableford The Napus: The Great Plague of the Year 2227. Wildside Press, 2012, p. 44.
- Blond, Georges. The Marne: The Battle That Saved Paris and Changed the Course of the First World War. Prion, 2002, p. 14.
- Daudet, p. 117.
- Ibid, p. 155.
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