World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Napus

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”.

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The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters

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.

Cover by Vincent Laik

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.

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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.

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The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories

My look at French romans scientifique with an apocalyptical bent continues.

Review: The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories, Renée Dunan, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.

Cover by Phil Cohen

While Ernest Pérochon’s The Frenetic People was an argument against justice, equality, and the liberty of scientists, Dunan’s The Ultimate Pleasure attacks human character as a whole though having little to say about the danger of scientists pursuing knowledge unsupervised. Published under the title Le Dernière jouissance, it came out in 1925 as did Pérochon’s novel.

Stableford’s “Introduction” gives a brief bio on Dunan. She was a literary critic and wrote in a variety of genres. She was very prolific between 1920 and 1925 in books and various magazines and may have written more than published. While she claimed that all her fiction was based on “the Neo-Platonism of Bergson, the Relativism of Einstein and the Pansexualism of Freud”, Stableford says the only consistent influence was the pansexualism since Dunan was also known as writer of erotica and sometime hack pornography. Dunan’s tales in this book, particularly The Ultimate Pleasure, are action adventure stories with philosophical ponderings. And, yes, there are some semi-erotic scenes in that novel.

Stableford says it

is a very peculiar addition to the tradition of dystopian fiction, not least because of its curious even-handedness, although that might be partly due to a reversal of opinion while the work was in progress. In its depiction of a future absolute tyranny it is remarkably stark. 

This is a post-catastrophe world. Thirty years before the novel’s main story, a massive fault split the earth open from Peru to the “Far North”. Out of the fault, the Bloody Sweats emerges, blood pouring from its victims’ pores. Millions die from it.

A team of scientists discovers the Bloody Sweats is caused by a gas emerging from the fault. Dubbed Necron, the gas isn’t the only danger. The newly exposed surface alters the atmosphere to produce a great deal of “cyanogen, carbon monoxide and free chlorine”. Oxygen in the atmosphere begins to be depleted. 

 The last relics of civilization disappeared. In parallel, the frenzy of pleasure-seeking and the fury of asceticism increased. Their partisans massacred one another. 

Forests, complete with wild beasts, spring up in once inhabited lands. People flee to Siberia.  Germans vanish entirely, and the Baltic nations kill all foreigners. Cannibalism shows up as do roving rural gangs. 

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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.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: On the Brink of the World’s End

Essay: On the Brink of the World’s End, Colonel Royet, trans. Brian Stableford, 1928.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

You say you don’t want to read any French tales about the ruins of Paris or philosophical musings on how the post-apocalyptic should be organized? You just want something pulpy and fun. Maybe a mad scientist tale . . . ?

Well, this one is close to what you want. There is a mad scientist. As to the apocalypse, well, you won’t get that. As the title suggests, we’re only going to the brink of the world ending.

That’s not a spoiler. Our narrator, philosophy professor Paul Lefort, tells us right at the beginning that the recently deceased French President, before he died, asked Lefort to, at last, reveal how the world almost ended twenty years ago at the hands of a “single man, simultaneously a genius and a madman”.

That man is Lefort’s best friend, Roger Livry. He’s a brilliant chemist and wealthy from an inheritance from an uncle.

It’s August 5, 192* when Lefort visits his friend whom he finds packing for a trip to Camp de Châlons. It’s here the story’s World War One content enters.

As Stableford’s note explains

During the Great War it had close links with the nearby Camp de Suippes, close to the front, also used as a training ground and to store stocks of chemical weapons.

Stableford, Brian note 55 on Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 315.

A bit later we get this about Livry’s wartime service:

Finally, during the hostilities, his conduct had been admirable. He had involved himself in the gas war, pursuing research at the front, under shell fire, into toxic substances employed by our pitiless enemies, inventing replies as he went along to their odious malevolence.

Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 316-317.

All very plausible and consistent with history.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Black Sun”

Essay: “The Black Sun”, René Pujol, trans. Brian Stableford, 1921.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

Stableford’s calls this a “corrosively downbeat” story and one of the finest works of French cataclysmic fiction because of its deft psychological touches, and I agree. 

He also suggests that the publisher wanted something like J. -H. Rosny’s The Mysterious Force, and there are some similarities. In both, a cosmic force disrupts life on Earth. Both, center on a small group in the country during changing conditions, particularly in the second half of Rosny’s tale. However, Pujol’s entire tale is set in rural France in village near a canal and limestone quarries. And, whereas Rosny’s tale has an alien force creating strong empathetic and telepathic ties within a group – while setting other groups against each other, Pujol shows the psychological strains on his characters. Its one flaw is that, as Stableford notes, its ending seems very rushed as if, in its third installment, his editor wanted Pujol to wrap his serial up.

The story centers around Dantenot, his fiancé Jane, and her parents Jérôme (an optician) and Amélie Sternballe. They are visiting Dantenot, a schoolteacher. 

It’s December, and the weather is unusually hot. The situation worsens with windstorms. People go mad from the heat or just drop over dead. On December 26th, a great storm devastates many things. While the story centers on this French village since Dantenot is the narrator, he does throw in asides about how similar events affected other parts of Europe and the United States.  Rail lines and aqueducts are damaged as are telegraph lines. Before they are cut off from the outside world, news stories appear about the unusual heat wave affecting the whole world. A local curre tells Dantenot that logic and science has no answers for it. Whether it grows hotter or cooler, some theory will be proposed as an explanation.

Eventually, things become so unbearable that the four seek shelter in the local quarries. There is a scene where Dantenot goes back to their home because the party forgot to bring food. He is somewhat resentful that they seem to think nothing of demanding he go back in the hot night to do this though they barely survived reaching the quarries. 

On a second trip, to get cutlery and supplies from a grocery store whose owner is dead, Dantenot encounters Cynécarmieux, an astronomer who has stumbled into the village. He wants food though he is convinced they are ultimately doomed. His theory is that the sun has met with a dead sun, a “black sun”, and its heat has increased. 

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Iron That Died”

Essay: “The Iron That Died”, Raoul Bigot, trans. Brian Stableford, 1918.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

This is one of those accidental alternate histories written during World War One.

Published in the December 1918 issue of Lectures Pour Tous, it was written before the November 11th armistice ended combat.

It’s not a particularly interesting story on its own merits though it does have historical interest since this is the first science fiction story to use to idea of iron suddenly removed from modern civilization, an idea taken up by other French authors as well as British and American ones.

The story opens with one Lieutenant Jacques in the trenches of the Western Front during some vaguely described – very likely due to wartime French censorship – battle. He’s the sole surviving officer after his position has been under artillery fire for 48 hours, “the hail of the 20s and the 150s”.1 Oddly, a list of German artillery used in the war shows no guns with those calibers whether measured in centimeters or millimeters.

The enemy attack is rebuffed, and Jacques, a man of delicate constitution, goes off to sleep. He was a scientist before the war and even has installed “an improvised wireless receiver”.2 Wireless receivers were in use by the French military by then, and it’s perfectly plausible a man of Jacques’ knowledge and training could make his own. French manufacturing provided some of the necessary parts used in British radios.

At this point in the war, it’s realized Germany needs to be beaten quickly after “what the Bocho-Maximalist had done to the old Greater Russia”3, a reference to the Bolshevik Revolution, aided by Germany sending Lenin to Russia, that had taken the Russian Empire out of the war.

As he’s about to sleep, the answer tot the gnawing problem of how to use his scientific knowledge at last comes to Jacques.

The next part of the story has Jacques sending letters to his superiors saying he has the idea for a new weapon and will only reveal to French Prime Minister Clemenceau. Eventually, he gets his meeting and makes his proposal and a secret plan, complete with combat tests and steps to avoid damage to neutrals, is put in motion.

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French Tales of Cataclysms

I continue to look at French romans scientifiques featuring apocalypses and disasters.

It’s a big anthology, but it’s a low-res scan because I’ve already reviewed J.-H. Rosny Aîné’s “The Cataclysm” (aka “Tornadres”) before, and three works – Raoul Bigot’s “The Iron That Died”, René Pugol’s “The Black Sun”, and Colonel Royet’s On the Brink of the World’s End – will be getting separate posts in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Low Res Scan: French Tales of Cataclysms, ed. Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, trans. Brian Stableford, 2022.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

The Lofficiers’ “Introduction” recaps the history of French apocalyptic and cataclysmic stories through the end of World War Two. This anthology has ten stories and two novels “published between 1802 and 1928”. This is another example of Black Coat Press’s less than stellar copyediting since the earliest story is actually from 1858. All the stories here are translated and introduced by Brian Stableford with the exception of The Tremendous Event.

Pierre Véron’s “The Paris Deluge” (“Le Déluge en Paris’) was probably written in 1859 and not published until 1862 since there was a tradition of setting these kind of stories a multiple of thousands of years in the future. And what kind of tale is it? The ever popular ruined Paris of the future and archaeologists reaching bogus conclusions about contemporary life from the artifacts they find. Those stories became popular with the demolition and reconstruction of large parts of Paris under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann.

Here the year is 4859. The story starts with the last ten years of the city. It’s submergence under the advancing sea is ainticipated. For the last ten years, the submergence of Paris has been seen as imminent, and now it’s only six days away. Wealthy people seek out agents to give their fortune to the poor. Critics attack their own works, and novelists are offering refunds to readers.  A vast number of balloons are being built to escape the city, the proceeds to be given to the Association of Ruined Stockbrokers. Then Véron has a silly interlude with various forms of marine life contemplating Parisian life as the ocean innudates the city. 

The story then shifts three thousand years into the future with a discussion between geologists and archaeologists. We then get a rather crytpic description of four items which, in keeping with this sub-genre, are ridiculously interpreted. In a rare end note from Stableford, he tells us that, usually in such stories, indirect clues are provided by authors to let us figure out what those objects really are.  Here, Véron ran out of space and offered the explanation in four footnotes.

Eugène Mouton’s “The End of the World” (“La Fin du Monde”, 1872) illustrates a problem all writers of science fiction faced in the early days of the genre: coming up with an appropriate narrative form for their tales. Mouton’s solution was to adapt an absurdist tone for this story which has no characters.

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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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