The Handbook of French Science Fiction

Since I’ve been spending so much time in Le territoire de la romance scientifique Français and will be staying there awhile longer, I decided I needed to pick up another literary map.

Review: The Handbook of French Science Fiction, Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier. 2022.

Cover by Vincent Laik

In 2000, McFarland published the Lofficiers’ massive 800-page tome entitled French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Pulp Fiction: A Guide to Cinema, Television, Radio, Animation, Comic Books and Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present. In 2003, Black Coat Press was founded by the Lofficers to publish, for an English-speaking audience, some of the works they talked about.

Recently, they’ve reworked and reorganized that volume into four books that have started to be published by Black Coat Press. Besides this one, I’ll be reviewing The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Literature.

This book is 315 pages of text and an index – more on that later.

Organized chronologically, the book starts with the 1500s and goes through 2000. While there is a bit about French science fiction after that year, the Lofficers say they made no real attempt to extend their original coverage of their subject.

After a chapter on utopias, most of the following chapters are divided into “Journeys to Other Worlds” (space or alternate dimensions or dream worlds), “Journeys to Other Lands” (earthbound tales of lost races, utopias, and science and technology), and “Journeys to Other Times” (future tales, alternate histories, and time travel) sections. Some chapters add sections on major authors, notable authors, publishers, young adult titles, publishers, and mainstream authors who also produced science fiction. Only Jules Verne gets his own section.

I read this book cover to cover and found must of it interesting. It was only toward the modern periods with their abbreviated lists of authors and descriptions that my eyes started to glaze over.

Many major works get enough of a description to pique your interest, and footnotes give the ISBNs of all the referenced works that have been issued by Black Coat Press. The coverage of an author or theme doesn’t always neatly stay in the chronological borders assigned its chapter.

The broad outlines of French science fiction were known to me up to 1950, the stopping point of Brian Stableford’s The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds, so Lofficers’ coverage of the next 50 years was all new to me. The Silver Age of 1950 to 1970 saw a massive introduction of translated American science fiction into France. While the period was one of ‘rebirth, growth, and consolidation”, French science fiction found its themes and “modes of expression” dominated by American examples of the genre. The 1970s saw the French New Wave in science fiction and the politization of the genre. The number of published works greatly expanded until the mid-1980s.

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Chalet in the Sky

This one was mentioned in Brian Stableford’s introduction to Henri Allorge’s The Great Cataclysm, so, I picked up a copy.

Review: Chalet in the Sky, Albert Robida, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Eric Lorin

Brian Stableford’s “Introduction” is particularly useful in this novel. This is the third Robida volume published by Black Coat Press, so there is not so much autobiographical material here. Instead, Stableford places these stories in the context of literature and Robida’s career. “Un Potache en 1950”, “A Schoolboy in 1950”, was published in 1917 and Un Chalet dans les airs, Chalet in the Sky, Robida’s last novel, was published in 1925.

In the 1890s, when technology allowed the easy printing of photographs in newspapers, Robida’s career as a writer and illustrator began to be crimped, and that accelerated with World War One. He began to write for younger markets where his humorous illustrations were still favored. In his heyday, he was well known for his garish illustrations of future warfare and life in the 20th century. Eventually, he found himself doing a lot of illustrations for other people’s work. A pacificist, he came to hate illustrating seriously speculative tales of war. When the Great War started, the market for illustrating future war or even doing illustrations on life in the future largely evaporated. The exception was the juvenile market which still wanted to shield children from the horrors of war and maintain morale.

The public school story was a genre that started with Tom Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857 though Stableford says it wasn’t established as a genre until the late 1880s with the work of Talbot Baines Reed. It had already been parodied in 1882 with F. Antsey’s Vice Versa. In 1906, Angela Brazil expanded the genre with stories about a girls school. 

While these British works were translated into French, French writers didn’t write in the genre. Stableford says Robida’s genius recognized two things: the school story is sort of a utopian fantasy and that, decades before J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the genre could be enlivened by introducing fantastic elements. 

In the 1880s, Robida started to produce works on life and war in the year 1950. That world of 1950, especially with its aviation technology, seemed a good fit for a school story. After Robida got the post-war bile and vitriol out of his system with The Engineer von Satanas in 1918, Robida did “In 1965”. It was intended for adults and not very well received. 

Stableford says of “A Schoolboy in 1950”

its Utopian ideals are tarnished, if not frankly deceptive. The disasters featured in the novel are the results of accidental breakdown rather than malice, but that only serves to make their threat seem more ominous, especially in combination with the story’s visit to England, and the discovery there of the continuing thrust of the Industrial revolution.”

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The Great Cataclysm

This was another book I sought out since it was listed as a possible inspiration for Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion.

Review: The Great Cataclysm, Henri Allorge, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Grillon

Brian Stableford says in his “Introduction” that not much is known about Allorge. He published poetry which included poems on mathematical and scientific subjects. He may have been a teacher. He wrote mostly for juveniles after World War One. That includes some possibly juvenile science fiction. Published in 1922 as Le Grand Cataclysm, roman du centième siècle, this work won the prestigious Prix Sobrier-Arnould very probably, says Stableford, because of its pacificist message, but its more notable today for its ideas concerning resource depletion.

Like J. -H. Rosny Âiné’s The Mysterious Force and Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion, this is a story of what happens when the power goes out in an electrified civilization.

But the lights don’t go out here in a contemporary society but in a far future utopia, the city of Kentropol in the year 9978.

Allorge’s novel wasn’t at all what I expected. It’s funny at times, not at all a humorless and stern screed against militarism and industrial civilization.

The furnishings of Kentrepol are mostly what you would expect from a utopia of the time.  

Electricity powers a number of labor-saving devices including electrostatic removal of dust and provides beamed power for aviation. Confirming national stereotypes, French romans scientifiques are often concerned with synthetic foods. Here custom-made pastes and liquors provide all the nutrition an individual needs. Here you don’t take a coffee or tea break but “have a bottle of perfume”. The government is a mixture of elected assemblies and academics. Weather can be precisely predicted. People have odd names. Here they are all derived from geometric shapes. Births are regulated to maintain an optimum male-female ratio. All surnames are derived from geometric shapes.

There are some not so standard elements. All that electricity comes from generating plants using solar or tidal energy. Money is radioactive to increase its velocity and to discourage its accumulation. A large part of medicine is the removal of organs and washing them or replacing them with animal ones. Here you can get a literal brainwash. A minor motif in French science fiction are intelligent simians, here chimps and orangutangs. They are slaves and smart enough to even pilot aircraft. There are also sentient Martians, and the residents of Earth and Mars are attempting to work out an interplanetary alphabet.

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The Mysterious Force and Other Anomalous Phenomena

Long time readers of this blog won’t be surprised that, after hearing Brian Stableford cite Rosny’s The Mysterious Force as an influence on Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion, I decided to read it.

Low Res Scan: The Mysterious Force and Other Anomalous Phenomena, J. -H. Rosny Aîné, trans. Brian Stableford, 2010. 

Cover by Vincent Laik

Depending on which source I’m reading (Brian Stableford or the Brothers Lofficier), Rosny vies with Albert Robida for the title of second most significant writer of French science fiction after Jules Verne. These days he’s mostly remembered for the prehistoric fantasy Quest for Fire which was made into a movie. But there was much more to Rosny than prehistoric fantasies.

Since this is the third of eight Rosny books put out by Black Coat Press, Stableford’s “Introduction” doesn’t include a lot of detail on Rosny’s life and works.

The Catacylsm” is certainly worth reading, but I’ve already reviewed it elsewhere under its alternate title “Tornadres”.

The remarkable The Mysterious Force was published as La Force mystérieuse in 1913 and it’s pretty clear this was an inspiration for Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion. Here it’s not an alien fungus that alters civilization but an alien life form that may come from space and, possibly, an alternate dimension.

Both alien invasions greatly degrade technologies relying on electromagnetism. But Rosny’s novel is much more complex in its plot and concepts. 

Things get off to a rapid start with Georges Meyral, a scientist, noticing something has altered light. Double refraction lines can be detected and the spectrum seems to be disappearing starting with its ulltraviolet end. Meyral summons his friend Antonin Langre over to his home. Langre is a somewhat embittered scientist. A younger colleague stole his work which went on to great acclaim. A signficant part of the novel is the two scientists’ investigations into this new phenomena and it ends with their somewhat tenuous speculations. Rosny gives us detailed descriptions of that work.

Langre’s work is is interrupted by a call from his daughter Sabine. She has finally left her loutish husband Vérranes. He is sometimes abusive and always self-pitying. Meyral loves Sabine, but he never proposed to her. He didn’t think it right to do so given that he regards the older Langre as a mentor. He doesn’t even say anything when an exasperated Langre says he wishes Meyral would have married his daughter.

But the trip to get Sabine reveals a “fevered humanity” on the streets of Paris. Tempers are flaring and murderous mobs roam about. But Meyarl manages to find Sabine and her two children in a train station and get them back to Langre.

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The Castaways of Eros

My look at the fiction of Théo Varlet concludes.

Review: The Castaways of Eros, Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 1943, 2013. 

Cover by Jean-Felix Lyon

In the 1936 second edition of The Xenobiotic Invasion, Varlet mentioned a sequel to that novel. However, that sequel, titled Aurore Lescure, pilote d’astronef, wouldn’t be published until 1943, five years after Varlet’s death.

In his “Introduction”, Brian Stableford speculates Varlet may have hoped this novel would be picked up in translation in America. Varlet was almost alone among roman scientifique authors of the time in his interest in advances in rocketry. While Varlet’s style probably wouldn’t have been amenable to an American pulp audience, if he had managed to place it in that market before he died, it might have been fondly remembered as the first pulp story to feature sentient dinosaur-like creatures. Instead, that distinction goes to Norman L. Knight’s “Saurian Valedictory”.

This novel is Varlet’s least ambiguous and most explicit attack on modernity, specifically industrial civilization.

It’s two years after the events of The Xenobiotic Invasion. The great powers of the world, still fearing infection from more alien fungi, are still maintaining a moratorium on rocket flights exiting the atmosphere.

But what are they doing behind the scenes? Well, young reporter Oscar Frémiet has discovered, working undercover, that the German military is very interested in rocketry and has been doing secret launches. (Varlet even mentions Hermann Oberth, one of the future inventors of the V-2.) He plays a minor, but important, role in the preceding novel and is narrator Gaston-Adolphe Delvart’s nephew.

Oscar, not so coincidentally, shows up at his parents’ house to see Delvart and his wife, Aurore Lescure. He’s trying to sniff out why Aurore Lescure is meeting with the famous Madame Simodzuki. She’s a billionaire and a very famous philanthropist who inherited her dead husband’s industrial fortune.

Gaston, Oscar’s father, argues with the narrator and Oscar that each nation developing rocket technology will, inevitably, lead to an arms race as it did before World War One. Delvart argues that many nations possessing rocket powered weapons could achieve peace through deterrence.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Golden Rock

I continue with my look at the romans scientifique of Théo Varlet.

Review: The Golden Rock, Theo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.

Cover by Mandy

Varlet’s firsr science fiction novel mixes astronomy with the “dismal science” of economics for a tale of international intrigue, French post-World War One woes, impending war, and romance while also managing to be somewhat prophetic.

Published as Le Roc d’or in 1927, Varlet’s novel is, as Stableford notes in his “Introduction”,  a takeoff on a posthumous Jules Verne work from 1908, La Chasse au météore. While’s Verne’s tale was an amiable comedy involving the families of two American astronomers and how the discovery of a near-earth object made of goal – and attendant plans to bring it down to Earth with a ray – causes growing acrimony and threatens the marital plans of two of the families’ members, Varlet’s tale is much more serious.

The story begins with narrator Antoine Marquin, a medical doctor, attending a party the day before he is to leave on an expedition to the Antarctic. There he meets the Kohbulers of Switzerland. He doesn’t much like the pushy Dr. Kohbuler, but he is immediately smitten with his beautiful daughter Frédérique-Elsa, an accomplished mathematician.

A radio broadcast announces a great storm in the North Atlantic with the loss of many ships. (As in The Xenobiotic Invasion, Varlet uses mass media to do a lot of his exposition, but here it’s not only newspapers but radio.) Here Varlet raises early his theme of the changes modernity has brought and humanity’s dangerous character. Marquin remarks to Dr. Kohbuler that

The rhythm of life on our planet has accelerated, and humankind is increasingly forming a whole, a single organism palpitating all at once with the same reactions.

Varlet, Theo. The Golden Rock (French Science Fiction Book 86) (Kindle Locations 161-162). Black Coat Press. Kindle Edition.

If this storm had happened 13 years ago, it would have taken three or four days to learn about the loss of life. (That interval, incidentally, would take us back to the sinking of the Titanic.) Dr. Kohbuler says the Great War showed humanity was not a homogenous mass, that the races are irreconcilable.

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The Xenobiotic Invasion

And so I return to the work of Théo Varlet, this time for his second roman scientifique.

Review: The Xenobiotic Invasion, Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011. 

Cover by Grillon

Published in 1930 as La Grande Panne, this is a charming science fiction novel that succeeds as a romance and a treatment of alien invasion and social upheaval. It also has some surprisingly modern resonances.

Our narrator is Gaston-Adolphe Delvart, a fairly successful painter. The book opens with him visiting his friends, Géo de Ricourts and his sister Luce. The subject turns to a rather rare topic in French romans scientifique – rocket powered space travel. Varlet was one of the few authors of French speculative fiction to use the idea before 1950.

It seems that it’s a potentially a big day for the advancement of aeronautics and rocketry. The American Moon Gold Company is launching, from Columbia, Missouri, a rocket ship to the moon. It’s part of a well-publicized attempt to bring back gold from Luna. The ship was developed by Professor Lescure and to be piloted by his famous daughter Aurora.

Alburtin, a medical doctor also visiting the de Ricourts, says he’s seen Aurora in the newsreels and found her “very pretty”. Delvart admits he does too. But what he tells us is that he is really fascinated with her. His disdain for famous film actresses is inverse to their popularity, but Aurora . . .  And why he wouldn’t he be attracted to Aurora? She’s beautiful, has several doctorates in math and science, and is a skilled pilot and, now, a rocket test pilot.

Luce asks why anyone would find a bespectacled American scientist attractive. Luce herself is quite attractive and knows it and flirts with Delvart. But, despite her beauty, Delvart knows there’s an “undeniable moral incompatibility” between the two of them. Besides, Luce has made no secret of her plans (to the horror of her mother) to marry a rich American when she can find one.

Wanting a break from the de Ricourts, Delvart accepts a ride back to Cassis with Dr. Alburtin. And, along the way, the woman of Delvart’s dreams falls from the sky.

The men pull the unconscious Aurora from her rocketship after a controlled landing, and they also grab a bag of meteorites collected in Earth orbit.

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This Immortal

Over at The Books That Time Forgot, there has been discussion of Roger Zelazny.

While I’m working on new posting, I thought I’d post this Raw Feed.

Raw Feed (199): This Immortal, Roger Zelazny, 1965. 

Cover by Gray Morrow

I had forgotten how witty Zelazny could be in his prose and dialogue. 

Conrad Nomikos, like the hero of Zelazny’s My Name Is Legion, is a man of a mysterious past fighting a covert struggle.  Here, though, Conrad has wearied of his struggle to assert Earth’s independence from the Vegans and is unsure how to continue that struggle. 

Like most Zelazny novels, there are religious and literary references (many of which I don’t recognize) allusions. Here the mythical framework, also found in other Zelazny novels, is Greek in origin. Conrad and his dog Bothan are like some Greek demigod. 

I found the first third of this book rather slow, if witty, but things picked up as the grand tour of a near deserted Earth began. The novel moved quickly then. 

I loved particularly the mad anthropologist with his Frazer-inspired ability to lend class to a bunch of cannibals. Zelazny briefly, but poignantly, touched on the plight of the long-lived Conrad: his seeing friends and family — especially his son Jason — grow old and die. 

The novel’s end, with Conrad inheriting the Earth, was interesting but I thought Cassandra’s survival a bit contrived. 

New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance

Review: New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance: Vol. I: The Origins of Scientific Romance, Brian Stableford, 2016.

New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance: Vol. II: The Emergence of Scientific Romance, Brian Stableford, 2016

New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance: Vol. III: The Resurgence of Scientific Romance, Brian Stableford, 2016.

New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Fomance: Vol.  IV:  The Decadence of Scientific Romance, Brian Stableford, 2014. 

This is an expansion of Stableford’s earlier Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 which I’ve already reviewed. It is 968 pages of text compared to the earlier work’s 337. All four volumes are intended as a single work with the index in the fourth volume. (And, no, I don’t why the fourth volume has an earlier copyright.)

A great deal of the expansion is in Vol. I which doesn’t even make it to 1890. Stableford traces the first use of the phrase “scientific romance” to a 1780 essay by English lawyer James Ibbetson. His complaint had nothing to do with what we would think of as “scientific romances” but with the notion that English common law went back to the city of Troy. That notion is what  Stableford calls a “scholarly fantasy” – a notion that was taken up as a theme in his The Darkling Wood

Scholars are inherently far more likely to fall prey to their own patter than inventors of romance; indeed, it is a rare scholar who does not. There is no fantasy that tries harder to pretend to be fact than scholarly fantasy, although it is the case, perhaps sadly, that all scholarship, including scientific scholarship, contains a weighty component of fantasy – which, by virtue of its scholarly nature, tends to be very insistent in its denial of its own fantastic quality.

Stableford offers his own definition for the purpose of his discussion: Scientific romance is essentially the romance of the disenchanted universe: a universe in which new things can and must appear, quite unpredictably, by virtue of the discoveries of scientists and the ingenuity of inventors; and a universe that is already rich in strange phenomena that humans have not yet discovered, the range of which can only be tentatively estimated with the aid of scientific notions of conceivability. It remains a kind of romance, although it is skeptical of received ideas and frequently mischievous in the manner of the challenges that it opposes to them. There is an irreducible element of ‘flim-flam’ in it, but one that aspires to enhance its seriousness rather than detracting from it, however paradoxical that might seem. 

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After a lull of a few weeks in which I couldn’t get my hands on the weekly reading of LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition’s Deep Ones’ discussion group, my weekly weird fiction review is back.

Unfortunately, it’s back with this.

Review: “Lull”, Kelly Link, 2002.

Normally, I would do a detailed plot synopsis to order my thoughts for the Deep Ones discussion. However, I am not going to do that for this one. It’s too long, and I didn’t like the story. To Link’s credit, nearly every sentence is important in this story, so I synoptic compression wouldn’t save much space.

The only other Link story I’ve read is “The Specialist Hat”, I said of that story in my notes that it opened promisingly but “degenerated into so-what obscurity.” That is mostly true for this long story.   

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