Size / / /
Three Science Fiction Novellas cover

The first question about any effort of literary archaeology is whether the unearthed pieces of literature are readable. After all, there's as much junk to be found in the cellars and backstairs of libraries as there is unrecognized genius—more, by weight, if we consider Sturgeon's Law. The academics and eager editors who present us with the results of their years of delving are invested in the chase, full of the thrill of discovery, steeped in the idiom of the works to which they've devoted themselves. They are therefore liable to claim pressing importance for whatever story or novel or monograph they wish us to invest with its proper significance in the context of history. And the thing is, a lot of the unearthed junk may be important, in its proper context, to the development of the epistolary novel or of the Oulipo movement, but this does not necessarily make said junk any more readable or desirable to a member of the general reading public. Distrusting the academic apparatus is a reflex the concerned reader can find it all too easy to develop, but, on rare occasions, it is an impulse which should itself be distrusted.

In short, the three novellas by J.-H. Rosny aîné, newly translated, introduced, annotated, and presented by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser in a beautiful edition by Wesleyan Press, are not only almost as important to the development of science fiction, and specifically of hard science fiction, as those worthies claim they are; they are also cheerfully, simply, infectiously readable, with a flowing and involving sense of storyline and a noteworthy and distinctive tone and atmosphere. From the sentences of the original French quoted in the introduction and in several of the annotations, I conclude that these qualities are shown to advantage by the prudent choices of the translators, but were also decidedly there in the original language. The icily clear, sharply poetic phrases make me admire and appreciate the job Chatelain and Slusser have carried out, because this tone is similar in either tongue.

It is not a tone one would traditionally expect from the time period in which these works were written. It is the tone of a man writing hard science fiction with a firmly scientific grasp of concept, an underlayer of careful rationalist structure, and a very finely wrought sense of prose. "Les Xipéhuz," the first of these novellas, was published in 1888; "Un autre monde" ("Another World") in 1898; "La Mort de la Terre" ("The Death of the Earth") in 1910. Chatelain and Slusser claim that "Les Xipéhuz" is the first work truly classifiable as hard SF. I do not know enough about either nineteenth century literature or the history of hard SF to have much idea whether this is plausible, but they also state, with evidence, that Rosny aîné was the writer who first invented the scientific neologism as an SF story-device, and that is certainly an achievement worthy of great respect. (They suggest, in fact, that he coined the word "astronaut." I would have appreciated more citations on this matter.)

J.-H. Rosny aîné was the pen name of Joseph Henri Honoré Boëx, of Brussels (1856-1940). The pen name was originally shared with his younger brother Justin, but it became obvious that the older was the more talented writer. As Joseph became more prominent, he began signing his works with aîné (meaning elder), as well as going back through earlier work and using the epithet to claim or disclaim authorship. He had parallel careers as a science fiction writer and as a novelist of historical naturalism, ending as the president of the prestigious Académie Goncourt. One of his naturalistic novels, somewhat oddly translated, formed the basis of the film Quest for Fire (1981), but, as Chatelain and Slusser make very clear in their introduction, the vast majority of his work does not exist in English. Damon Knight has translated "Les Xipéhuz" and "Un autre monde," Brian Stableford has done a couple of adaptations, and that's about it.

This is really too bad. The three novellas here make it clear that his work is as entertaining as ever, with the additional savor of being academically interesting.

"Les Xipéhuz" is set in the late Neolithic. A band of wandering hunters encounters an inexplicable group of beings in a forest, beings which look like cones, or cylinders, or pieces of geological strata, but which prove to be deadly if they are approached. Communication cannot be established. Although it's never made clear whether the shapes arrived from somewhere else or are a terrestrial species humans had never encountered, they are intelligent, they spread, they are too strange to understand, and they kill. The story's protagonist, Bakhoun, analyzes everything he can determine about the shapes in the style of the best late nineteenth century scientific methodology, makes the decision that the shapes can be destroyed at very great cost of human life, and takes his people to war. The telling of this story is fascinating—the Neolithic culture, for instance, is presented with the very best anthropological detail that Rosny aîné could obtain (which of course reads now as extremely outdated); he has extrapolated linguistics, fashioned religion, considered the realities of weapons production. But then the story demands that someone learn more about the shapes than it is plausible for any of Rosny aîné's tribesmen to manage, so Rosny aîné has to produce a scientist-ahead-of-his-time and interpolate him somehow. And Bakhoun is not merely a scientist, but one who is allowed to tell his story in his own words, in a fake archaeological document: the narrative begins in media res among the tribesmen, breaks off for a literally nineteenth century discussion in which a then-modern unnamed narrator describes possible physical remains of this culture and the battle, and then continues in first person with Bakhoun's stone tablets, so we can see him rationally reason.

It's awkward, of course. The sections of the story don't fit. The three styles employed in the novella are at war with each other—all three are outgrowths of trends which had already been present in French literature, but they don't go well together. And yet all three are developed in new and revelatory ways for Rosny aîné's time. He's working partly in the tradition of Flaubert's Salammbô, which attempts to recreate a long-past historical period in a mythic-dramatic mode, using everything the writer could find out about the real history (and which also gets things hilariously wrong from a modern perspective). He's also working in the mode of Diderot's traveler's tales, which pretend to be factual scientific reports on places in the Pacific Islands where neither the author nor any other Frenchmen had been, and which use these reports to create a moral allegory of the way humans should and shouldn't behave—Rosny aîné has kept this structure while removing the moral element almost entirely. Lastly, he's working with the schema of the first person war or adventure story, à la Victor Hugo. It's no wonder he can't hold these three genres together, and yet the momentum is such that while you're reading you don't particularly care, because the shapes—which Bakhoun names the Xipéhuz—are too convincingly alien. They are the real novelty in this piece, the thing that most histories of SF state didn't happen until much later: the genuinely incomprehensible alien being. We never find out where they came from or the meaning of what they do, what they are made of or what they eat or if they eat. Their actions, unlike those of the humans, are not intended as an expression of any given period of history or any allegory or any moral standard whatsoever, and that is why the story still works.

The alien, the strange, is Rosny aîné's principal theme in this book. In "Un autre monde," the other world of the title is our own. The protagonist, born to perfectly normal parents in a small village in a rural part of Belgium in the middle nineteenth century, has violet skin and eyes in which the pupil and iris are the same color. He can only derive nourishment from alcohol, and moves so much faster than ordinary human beings that he can neither speak nor write intelligibly. He also sees things—beings which take up the same spaces we do, move through the same air, and interact with the same natural, physical objects, but who can neither perceive, nor be perceived by, humans. They are described as, basically, mobile collections of intersecting straight lines. Some fly. There are different species. The protagonist has some ideas about them, from a lifetime's study, but is driven to near-madness by his inability to communicate with anyone around him and by his certainty that even if other people did understand him they would believe him to be mad. Fortunately all is put right by a fortuitous scientist, who can record the too-fast voice on a then-very-new gramophone and play it back slowed down; this story, as the previous does, thinks of men of science as incredibly competent and universally successful problem-solvers, and the ending looks forward to the untold wonders of further study. The joy of reading this story is again in the exceptionally peculiar aliens, but also in the protagonist's gentle, melancholy attempts to make sense of things, the progression of his quest, and his happiness when he finally finds a true friend and mentor. It's worth noting that the aliens here are totally harmless, orthogonal to all human activity. There is no reason we should not share a planet forever.

It's this story that brings out and develops, however, a trend which forms my chief problem with this book—namely, the devotion of the translators to one set of critical interpretations of Rosny aîné's work to the point of implausibility and of neglect of other possibilities. This never intrudes into the story texts themselves, but the critical notes sometimes seem completely divorced from reality. Chatelain and Slusser spend much of their introduction (which I read after the stories, of course, since scholarly discussions always divulge the entire plot of their subjects) analyzing Darwinian evolution and its place in Rosny aîné. They are justifiably excited by the way his work takes evolution as a commonplace truth and uses it to extrapolate, explain, and regulate the actions of humans and aliens. But this brings them to the point of saying that the alien shapes, called both by Bakhoun and by the author the Xipéhuz, must be evolutionarily disadvantaged and unlikely to defeat human beings, and that this is reflected in their name because it contains both an X and a Z, which letters, being later in the alphabet, are signs that they're just somehow behind us humans. I have an acquaintance whose middle name is Xerxes, and I'm sure he'll be very pleased to know of his evolutionary disadvantages. This sort of thing is not even literary criticism. I don't know what it is, but it isn't reasonable.

This overemphasis on evolution leads Chatelain and Slusser, in their notes on "Un autre monde," to ignore a fairly sizable elephant in the room. They discuss the protagonist as a mutant, who is never named as such; they discuss the protagonist's similarities to and differences from the creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to which Rosny aîné is writing a kind of optimistically ironic inverse (his protagonist is, after all, tolerated by human society in general, loved and mentored by a scientist, and at the end even marries and expects to have children who will carry on his traits, which no one around him finds worrisome). What they do not mention is that "Un autre monde" is in structure and detail a fairy tale. The protagonist is described in the absolutely classic manner of a changeling from some sort of fairy realm, reminiscent of Scottish tales such as that of the Green Children of Woolpit. (In fact, "Un autre monde" has a lot in common with that particular story, which involves children of unusual skin color and abilities and which has been circulating since the twelfth century.) I'm not saying that Rosny aîné is writing a fantasy, but that one of the great strengths and pleasures of "Un autre monde" is watching his fusion of the elements of a traditional, possibly supernatural otherworld with a rigorous and sensible scientific explanation for that world, and that this is a pretty major thing for the commentators to miss entirely.

This emphasis on evolution in Rosny aîné also means that a vast chunk of the introduction is taken up by citations of appearances of that theme in the three stories, some of them as forced as the one about the Xipéhuz, and discussion of ways in which evolution does not appear as a theme in other major SF writers of the period (Wells, Verne, et al.); there is also a lot of discussion of possible lines of descent of this theme from Rosny aîné into later SF writers (which is very much complicated by the fact that many of the English-speaking writers cited could not have read him). This is all very well and good, except, as I have mentioned, when it isn't, but it means that there is no space given to Rosny aîné's antecedents in the French literary intellectual tradition to which he belonged, and little attention to his interactions with his contemporaries in naturalistic fiction—interactions which must have taken place, given Rosny aîné's association with the circle of the great literary figure and art critic Edmond de Goncourt and eventual presidency of the Académie Goncourt after Edmond's death. I would have preferred examination of Rosny aîné's literary friendships, the obvious descent of his prose style and story structure from the scientific fairy tales of Voltaire, or comparison of his themes to those of his contemporary J.-K. Huysmans, to this lengthy discussion of ways in which his work is different from that of English language writers who were not aware of him and whom he did not read.

That said, it's important to remember that Chatelain and Slusser are effectively introducing Rosny aîné to an English-reading audience, scholarly or otherwise; that their sourcing and citations are generally good and their translations genuinely readable. It is a shame that they let their particular evolutionary hobby horse run quite so far away with them, but their work in general is fascinating, praiseworthy, and more than respectable. Which leads me to the final story in the collection, "La Mort de la Terre," the longest and finest of the pieces here presented. It is a masterpiece.

The first two stories, while in many respects very much ahead of their time, still do have the air of the nineteenth century about them, particularly in their handling of plot and character. "La Mort de la Terre" (1910), while it owes a clear debt to Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), owes that debt primarily in that Shelley created the genre it is working in. In terms of overall conception, scientific ideas, technology level presented, and incidental details, the story could easily have been written and published at any time up until the early 1970s without seeming anachronistic, and would begin to seem dated at that point only because of the way it handles social relationships and romance. Its ambiguous, ironic, melancholy grand apocalypse not only feels modern today, but is in some ways possibly more foreboding than when it was written.

It is thousands of years in the future. Humanity has developed science and technology to the point of being able to split and manipulate atoms, but the world has been overtaken by environmental catastrophe: much of the planet's water has boiled off into space because of climate change caused by industrial pollution. The few human survivors live in oases centered on the few remaining underground springs. They also mine hydrogen-bearing rocks to combine with oxygen, but there's very little left of those either. Massive seismic convulsions put the underground springs continually in danger, and everyone knows there cannot be many more generations before the final catastrophe. There is no naturally surviving organic life outside the oases—only the people; their giant, genetically engineered birds which predict earthquakes, are of nearly human intelligence, and fulfill human needs for interaction and caretaking; and the few food crops which remain. The people don't have the freedom to leave their oases and look for more water, however, because there is inorganic life in the deserts, life which came about as a result of human industry:

One first began to notice the existence of the ferromagnetic kingdom towards the decline of the Radioactive Age. They appeared as strange violet spots on human iron, that is, on iron and iron alloys which had been modified by industrial usage. The phenomenon only appeared on products that had been recast many times; these ferromagnetic spots were never discovered on natural iron. The new kingdom could only have been born, therefore, thanks to a human environment. . . . We had found ourselves perhaps in an analogous situation in relation to some earlier life form that, during its decline, allowed protoplasmic life to flower. . . . [T]here was no doubt that they were organized beings. Their composition is unique. It admits only a single substance: iron. . . . The structure of this iron, in this living state, is quite varied: fibrous iron, granulated iron, hard iron, soft iron, and so forth. The whole is malleable and contains no liquids. (pp. 74-75)

The ferromagnetics are not, at the point when the story begins, intelligent, though they show signs that they may become so in the future—they are becoming larger, quicker, and more organized in structure. They move very slowly, and so are not a threat to any mobile human, but if they come upon one asleep they will absorb all the iron from the person's blood, as they absorb all other iron they happen to encounter. This restricts human movement to places which can be made into fortresses against the ferromagnetics, and cuts humanity off from the vast majority of the remains of its previous civilization, since the ferromagnetics cannot be destroyed by any force the oasis-dwellers have at their disposal.

But, due to their fortified oases, humans don't tend to see the new beings as a threat; the constant earthquakes are much worse. The protagonist, Targ, is described as a genetic atavism, a man who has the spirit of innovation and technological conquest in a culture which is highly regulated due to lack of resources. At the start of the tale, a great set of earthquakes destroys the springs of every one of Earth's oases. The law states that the people will submit to painless euthanasia rather than dying painfully for lack of water. Targ, instead, goes to prospect in underground caves for water, hunts through many perilous crevasses and tiny passages, and treks through the land of the ferromagnetics at great personal risk. He does indeed find water, and is granted the right to live in the oasis he has saved and to marry there and have children. There are only about five thousand people left alive, since those not taken in by the last oasis commit suicide (some even before the water at their homes is gone), but Targ hopes that his children will not be the last generation of humanity. This is where most stories would end.

Instead, Rosny aîné allows about ten years to pass in ellipsis, and then the final earthquake comes, destroying Targ's spring and ending the possibility of human civilization. He flees with his wife, their children, his sister, and his sister's children into the wilderness to avoid being forced into euthanasia. Since the necessity of genetic diversity was not an idea in scientific circulation at the time (in fact Targ believes, explicitly, in the story of Adam and Eve), they still hold some fading hope. After less than a year, while Targ and his sister are out searching for more water, they return briefly to their old oasis in time to encounter the last few survivors, about to lapse into drugged comas. These dying people are happy to escape life, and mock Targ's determination for humanity to continue. Their feelings reach and influence his sister, so that when a landslide obliterates everyone left back at the camp, she gladly poisons herself (thereby neatly avoiding the moral question of whether the species should continue through incest).

Targ walks into the desert and there has something of a epiphany:

He thought that whatever remained now of his flesh had been transmitted, in an unbroken line, since the origin of things. Some thing that had once lived in the primeval sea, on emerging alluvia, in the swamps, in the forests, in the midst of savannas, and among the multitude of man's cities, had continued unbroken down to him. And here, the end! He was the only man whose heart beat upon the face of the Earth, once again vast and empty! . . . [R]efusing euthanasia, he left the ruins, he went to lie down in the oasis, among the ferromagnetics.

Then, humbly, a few small pieces of the last human life entered into the New Life. (p. 121)

The conflation of the new rulers of the earth, the ferromagnetic kingdom, with the language often used by churches to describe baptism and entry into the communal theological body is certainly not accidental. Rosny aîné's vision may sound bleak, full of one tragedy after another without surcease, ending in inevitable apocalypse; in fact it is full of melancholy beauty and is the story of a man who, even when individual survival is impossible, determines that he will not break the chain of lives that came before him, that he will as his final act connect the kingdoms of organic and inorganic life. The hint that some such exchange may have happened at the dawning of the rise of organic life emphasizes the cyclic nature of the rise and fall of species and provides hope and comfort in an essentially atheistic schema. There will always be a rise, even if it is not our rise. There will also, inevitably, always be a fall, and the two are sides of the same coin. Just as the Xipéhuz inevitably fall before the advance of humanity, so humans fall before the ferromagnetics. Rosny aîné treats this with tenderness, sadness, and grandeur. We aren't told whether "Un autre monde" takes place in the same fictional continuity as either of the other two stories (or whether they share continuity with each other), which is unfortunate, since that knowledge would shed light on Rosny aîné's beliefs about the abilities of variants on the same species, having different strengths, to survive in the same location. The only writer I am aware of who has explored evolution as a cosmic cycle and the questions of species intercompatibility in anything resembling a similar way is Osamu Tezuka, whose multi-volume manga Phoenix looks at similar questions on a similar scale but from a worldview which differs slightly because it involves the Buddhist idea of karma. (Olaf Stapledon seems to see evolution as a process which inexorably leads up, as opposed to up and down again, and most other writers just aren't working on a similar time-scale.)

Looking at the massive ambition and unusual emotional emphasis of this novella, it's very understandable why Rosny aîné's translators are so preoccupied, as I have mentioned, with his treatment of evolution. Being carried away by the sheer scope, power, and beauty of "La Mort de la Terre," the grandeur and originality of its themes, is a sensible literary and human reaction. It's unfortunate that the same impulses which cause them to present this work to us and take pains to preserve its greatness are the same impulses which produce the commentary's aggravating bias—the impulses which lead a critic towards literary archaeology.

O Translators, given the pleasures and strengths of the excavations you've performed for us, if we promise to acknowledge the importance of Rosny aîné to the history of science fiction and of literature in general, may we have some more of these marvelous stories?

Lila Garrott has blue hair and brown eyes. Her fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in Not One of Us, Mythic Delirium, and other venues. She recently completed a project in which she read a book and wrote a review of it every day for a year; the reviews may be found on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.

Lila Garrott lives in Cambridge with her wife. Her hair is blue and her eyes are brown. She recently completed a project in which she read and reviewed a book every day for a year. Her poetry has appeared previously in this magazine and others, and her fiction and criticism in wildly scattered venues.
3 comments on “Three Science Fiction Novellas by J.-H. Rosny aîné”
Paul Kincaid

Thanks for the review. I wish we anglophones were better able to take note of Rosny, whose work hasn't been as widely translated as it deserves. That said, I could have wished that the stories chosen for this volume weren't among the few that have been translated before (The Xipehuz and Another World by Damon Knight, The Death of the Earth by Brian Stableford), in part because it would have been nice to have the chance to discover something new, and in part because the Knight translations in particular are so much better than Chatelain and Slusser.
You are so right about the commentary, as well. It can be ludicrously overblown, and the scholarship is often wildly off the mark. Why claim that The Xipehuz was inspired by English evolutionary debates when there was a tradition of prehistoric fiction that was almost entirely French in origin?
It's a worthy book, but Rosny could, and should, have been much better served.

Stephen Fritter

Stableford has in fact translated and published seven volumes of works by J.-H. Rosny aîné. Plus works by the equally important and perhaps more literate Maurice Renard.

Stephen Fritter

The following link leads to a list of nook books in the French Science Fiction series.


%d bloggers like this: