# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978
Science Fiction in France before Verne
Translated by J.M. Gouanvic and D. Suvin
The purpose of this essay is to describe the development of French science
fiction in the 19th century before Jules Verne.1 It will not be
confined to an historical study but will also consider some hypotheses about the
ideological and cultural locus in which SF may have tried to take root
before Verne established, for several generations, the pattern of the
technological adventure story for young people based on his particular paradigm
of accelerated circulation in a closed universe. The concept of ideological locus
implies that the social discourse as a whole can be described as a topology
within which various types of discourse are situated in an intertextual mesh
consisting of relations of contiguity, filiation, derivation, and opposition.
The ideological locus can be deduced, I think, from characteristics
within the texts under consideration: various socio-linguistic and stylistic
features, ideological presuppositions, imitated or transposed semiotic models
— all these constitute converging clues for determining a locus. External data
— the cultural status of the publisher, the audience aimed at and reached, the
critics' reactions — serve as a verification of the internal analysis.
1. As a starting point, I shall regard as SF that group of narratives of
conjectural imagination that describe a society axiomatically different from the
empirical society around the author. The described state of affairs is estranged
with a view to liberating the social imagination and promoting a rational
criticism (which can include a satirical dimension). At the dawn of industrial
capitalism, when the bourgeois revolutions were completed and the model of
scientific activity was taking its modern shape, conjectural fiction also
acquired, in its formal as well as its thematic constants, a number of essential
features that are part of our modernity. This conjectural fiction is on our side
of the ideological watershed; its peculiar and archaic features are rather
Here then is a chronology by short title of French SF (omitting, as a rule,
nonfictional utopian writings and narratives that did not appear in book form)
from the First Empire to the end of the Second Empire, 1802-1870:2
1802. N. Restif de la Bretonne. Les Posthumes. Paris: Duchêne.
1805. J.B. Cousin de Grainville. Le Dernier homme. Paris: Deterville.
1808. Coffin-Rony. Voyage d'Hyperbolus dans les planètes. Paris:
1810. J. Mosneron. Le Vallon aërien. Paris: Chaumerot.
1810. Duc de Levis. Les Voyages de Kang-Hi. Paris: Didot.
1831. A. Creuzé de Lesser. Le Dernier homme. Paris: Delaunay.
1832. P.S. Ballanche. La Ville des expiations. Paris: n.e.
1832. J. Boucher de Perthes. "Mazular," Nouvelles. Paris: Treuttel & Wuertz.
1833. C. Nodier. "Hurlubleu." (1853, in Nouvelles, Paris: Charpentier.
1834. F. Bodin. Le Roman de l'avenir. Paris: Lecointe & Pougin.
1836. L.N. Geoffroy. Napoléon et la Conquête du monde (also pbd as Napoléon
apocryphe, 1812-1832). Paris: Delloye.
1836. V. Considerant. Publication complète des nouvelles Découvertes
dans la Lune. City and publisher not named.
1839. L. Desnoyers. Aventures de Robert-Robert. Paris: Hortet & Ozane.
1839. P. Boitard. "Etudes astronomiques," Musée des Familles,
1840. E. Cabet. Voyage en Icarie. Paris: Souverain (pseud. of Th. Dufruit).
1844. J. Grandville and T. Delord. Un autre monde. Paris: H. Fournier.
1845. E. Souvestre. Le Monde tel qu'il sera. Paris: W. Coquebert.
1852. O. Berlioz. "Euphonia." Les Soirées de l'orchestre.
1854. C.I. Defontenay. Star ou Psi de Cassiopée. Paris: Ledoyen.
1854. E. Coeurderoy. Hurrah! ou la Révolution par les Cosaques. Londres: n.e.
1856. A. Driou. Aventures d'un aéronaute parisien dan les mondes inconnus. Limoges: Barbou.
1857. C. Renouvier. Uchronie, l'Utopie dans l'histoire (1st version).
1876, final version in book form, Paris: Bureau de la critique philosophique.
1857. L. Gozlan. Les Emotions de Polydore Marasquin. Paris: Michel-Lévy.
1858. J. Déjacque. L'Humanisphère. Bruxelles: n.e.
1859. E. Gagne.
Omégar ou le dernier homme. Paris: Didier.
1861. P. Boitard. Etudes antédiluviennes — Paris avant les hommes.
1862. E. About.
Le Cas de M. Guérin. Paris. Michel-Lévy.
1862. E. About.
L'Homme à l'oreille cassée. Paris: Hachette.
1862. E. About.
Le Nez d'un notaire. Paris: Michel-Lévy.
1863. J. Fabien. Paris en songe. Paris: Dentu.
1863. J. Verne.
Cinq semaines en ballon. Paris: Hetzel. Verne's first
novel; the later ones are not mentioned here.
1864. H. de Kock. Les Hommes volants. Paris: Cadot.
1864. Descottes. Voyage dans les Planètes. Paris: Lecoffre.
1865. V. Fournel. Paris nouveau, Paris futur. Paris: Lecoffre.
1865. A. Eyraud. Voyage à Vénus. Paris: Michel-Lévy.
1865. G. Sand.
Laura. Paris: Michel-Lévy.
1865. A. Cathelineau. Voyage à la Lune. Paris: Faure. Probably an
adaptation of the English novel by C. Trueman, The History of a Voyage to the
1865. S.H. Berthoud. L'Homme dupuis cinq mille ans. Paris: Garnier.
1865. H. de Parville. Un habitant de la planète Mars. Paris: Hetzel.
1867. X. Nagrien. Prodigieuse découverte et ses incalculables
conséquences. Paris: Garnier.
1867. A. Assollant. Capitaine Corcoran. Paris: Hachette.
1868. Docteur Rengade. Voyage sous les flots. Paris: Brunet.
1868. F. Giraudeau. La Cité nouvelle. Paris: Amyot.
1869. P. Grousset. Le Rêve d'un irréconciliable. Paris: n.e.
1869. T. Moilin. Paris en l'an 2000. Paris: La Renaissance.
1869. X. Nagrien, Un Cauchemar. Paris: Lahure.
The study of this science fiction avant la lettre leads to a first
remark: the texts are varied and relatively numerous. The works under
consideration are not exclusively the productions of marginal writers, of
graphomaniacs and eccentrics; although some of our writers are totally unknown,
and others only moderately known, a few are writers of the first rank. It would
be erroneous to believe that these books were not read. Several even
reached a rather wide public; some gained a somewhat clandestine admiration from
a few enlightened dilettantes, a succès d'estime, which is not
disregarded by "mainstream writers." In other words, there existed in
France before Verne a heterogeneous but rather extensive production of what has
to be called science fiction. Before Verne, however, SF never established a
either as an industrial sub-literature or as an avant-garde aware of its
aesthetic innovations. On the contrary, this production without cultural
continuity remained deprived of any critical feedback — remained repressed and
unnamable. It seems that each writer felt that he was starting from zero,
for he scarcely knew his predecessors, or rather did not recognize them. He did
not see the link between them and himself. The recurrence of the same themes is
less a sign of plagiarism than of sheer blindness: the author knows the idea is
not his, but does not remember where he found it.
Let's take a counter-example from the para-literary genres. The gothic novel,
which was largely dominant in French literary mass production after 1800, was
undoubtedly looked upon as a despicable form of literature. Its frenzy and
obscenity horrified academic criticism, which claimed that such a
"literature for Hottentots" heralded the death of all aesthetic
values, etc. Nevertheless, people knew that it existed and a genealogy was
perceived; Walpole engendered Clara Reeve, who engendered Radcliffe, who
engendered Lewis and Maturin, who engendered the French gothic novelists
(without forgetting Sade, who was felt as the spiritual father of that
"literature of Cannibals").
Nothing of the kind existed for this early SF, even though each individual
work can be considered a primitive pattern for major 20th-century narratives. A
few of the works were recognized for the daring of their imagination and the
power of their satire, but the genre had no status at all; it was
institutionally illegitimate. In the small measure that SF was recognized, its
lot was similar to that of utopian socialist writings: it was admired in narrow
circles, but held up to ridicule in all the journals and covered with opprobrium
by the enlightened bourgeois (and by the recognized writers, from Louis Reybaud
to Gustave Flaubert). Bourgeois common sense saw to it that any imaginative
divergence was censured.
2. Restif de la Bretonne appears as the first SF writer at the dawn of
the 19th century, with Les Posthumes (1802). Restif is a great plebeian
writer quite impossible to classify within the compartments of conventional
literary history, failing as he does to comply with the stiff canons of the
bourgeois aesthetic. He is in turn a pamphleteer, a memorialist, a novelist, a
social critic, a "pornographer" (he coined the word), and the inventor
of the theory of cosmic sexuality that directly influenced Charles Fourier. He
had earlier produced several works connected with SF: a novel, Le Découverte
australe (1783), and a drama of utopian anticipation that places him close
to Mercier, L'An deux mille (1790).
Les Posthumes relates the travels of the Duke de Multipliandre through
the solar system and the galaxy. The thesis of the plurality of inhabited worlds
recurs frequently in primitive SF. Restif gives us the first exemplary model of
the genre: a narrative universe in expansion, subject to cycles of centrifugal
metamorphoses. From the language of the Selenites to the customs of the
Martians, Restifs audacity is unbridled: he extrapolates, dreams, systematizes,
parodies. At the apex of his conjecture is the insight on the origin of species:
"Did man, before becoming Man, pass through each and every animal
species?" ("Les hommes, avant d'être des hommes, auraient-ils passé
par toutes les espèes d'animaux?" — Lettre CCCXV). There is no
sententious transposition of empirical customs, no philosophical satire here,
but a metamorphic continuum that seems to me characteristic of genuine SF. Yet,
as the work of an old man (a scandal to his contemporaries, discredited with the
powers that be) and as an erratic catch-all full of tedious digressions as well
as strokes of genius, Restif's science fiction was a commercial failure (Restif
himself marketed it) and fell into oblivion with his death in 1806.
In 1805 Cousin de Grainville committed suicide, leaving in manuscript a prose
version of the philosophical epic he had dreamt of during his whole life, Le
Dernier homme. The text was published; translated into English in 1806 as Omegarus
and Syderia, without the author's name, it inspired Mary Shelley's The
Last Man. It is the epic of the tribulations of the last man, Omegare, who
must leave the last woman, Sydérie, so that they will not have the progeny that
would recommence the eternal cycle of barbarism-civilization. It is a hybrid
text, full of both Christian marvels and rational conjectures (the Earth dies
from ecological exhaustion, despite the endeavors of men who have even displaced
the oceans), and thus presenting a partially secularized eschatology. Although
it was completely unsuccessful in 1805, Charles Nodier, the erudite romanticist,
republished it in 1811; Creuzé de Lesser put it into verses in 1831; and Elise
Gagne plagiarized it with great care in 1859, as did Flammarion and others at
the end of the century.
Let me pass over other writings that lack talent if not audacity: Coffin-Rony
(1808), Jean Mosneron (1810; theme of the lost valley), and the Duke of Lévis
(1810; Paris in the 20th century), as well as a long series of anonymous
leaflets distributed through popular peddling that describe in four pages the
conquest of Mars or the arrival of an aerolite inhabited by a Selenite, for with
these we cannot even guess at anything about the authors, the public, or the
demand they were supposed to meet. I will also not comment on such other works
in the chronology as the hazy "social palingenesy" of the spiritualist
philosopher Ballanche, the conjectural tales of Charles Nodier (for my taste,
too much tongue-in-cheek in apology for imaginative audacities), or the SF
tales, among them a voyage to the Moon, of the young Boucher de Perthes, later
to be the father of paleanthropology.
Félix Bodin, a liberal politician and novelist now fallen into oblivion,
published Le Roman de l'avenir in 1834. He was conscious of inventing a
new genre that he called "littérature futuriste," in which the intent
is not the description of an ideal utopian society but instead the production of
"a novelistic plot transposed into a future socio-political
In his preface he tries to imagine the connection between changes in
technology and changes in customs. A "novel" of the future can be
written only on the assumption that contradictions and conflicts will still
exist. Through individual destinies Bodin will hint at new moral axioms,
speculating about miscegenation, the "restoration of the Jewish
kingdom," the progress of aeronautics, the attempt to promote a universal
language, and the failure of that attempt. He ends his preface withs
these words: "The epic of the Future remains to be written. I hope that
someone else will take care of this. In so vast a literary empire, there is
plenty of room for a Moses, a Homer, a Dante, an Ariosto, a Shakespeare, and
even a Rabelais" ("L'épopée de l'avenir reste à faire. J'espère qu'un autre que moi s'en chargera. Dans ce vaste empire littéraire il y a largement
place pour un Mo´se, un Homere, un Dante, un Arioste, un Shakespeare, et même
un Rabelais" [p 31]).
It is clear to Bodin that a "futuristic genre" is bound to appear.
Those who are fond of prophecies in SF should read his preface, for it is a
literary prophecy of extremely penetrating insight. His book thus belongs to SF
not only for its content but also by the genological status claimed for it by
In the following generation, however, Bodin's faith is only partly justified,
for although the literature of cognitive estrangement does develop, it does so
only sporadically. Between 1835 and 1865 all the major subgenres and models of
SF are exemplified, but each only by a single work. Likewise, all sociological
points of impact are occupied: SF becomes light bourgeois reading, fiction with
the function of the political pamphlet, the popular serial, the avant-garde text
for the informed amateur, the doctrinaire text intended for marginal sub-groups,
children's and young people's literature. But at none of these points does it
develop any continuity.
In 1836 Louis Geoffroy produced his Napoléon apocryphe, the first
great uchronia. Napoleon is not defeated in Russia and does not die in St.
Helena; instead he becomes Emperor of the World and dies in Paris in 1832 at the
peak of his glory — a glory that has concealed a ruthless totalitarian
dictatorship, a rational despotism in which the rapid development of sciences
and techniques is achieved at the expense of individual liberty. This text might
have been a mere political pamphlet, but it is saved by its concern for
verisimilitude in details and by its shrewd parody of institutional discourses
(the historian's, the statistician's, the legist's, etc.).
Uchronia is less the refusal of real history than the recognition of its
ineluctable laws: by altering the course of events the author gives birth to a
new history, but one that still contains the same rational determinism and
contingency as empirical history.
Another novel of alternative history is Renouvier's L'Uchronie (1857)
a voluminous speculation by a neo-Kantian philosopher who modified one element
of ancient history (the transmission of power from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus)
so that he could imagine the history of the West as it could and should have
been if Christianity had not spread over Europe. A serious even austere work, it
also had no posterity.
In 1839, 25 years before Verne, Pierre Boitard published the first story of
adventure and scientific popularization for young people: Etudes
astronomiques. This work depicts a voyage through the solar system, with the
beings of each of the planets representing a stage of evolution: orang-outangs
endowed with speech; fossil men (expressly named as such); humanoids on Mars
analogous to the African Black; and modern men on Jupiter dressed as Romans.
That was in 1839, in a Christian review for families! Thus highly audacious SF
appears in the most unexpected institutions, to disappear soon after. (Two years
after his death, Boitard's Paris avant les hommes  was published;
it is the first Darwinian narrative, and in it the pre-historical ape-man makes
his appearance.) Other novelists for children, Desnoyers (1840) and Driou
(1856), also use SF themes, but in a silly, wily way, with over-simple devices
(the world upside down, etc.).
Etienne Cabet, the promoter of Icarian socialism, gave a fictional form to
his doctrine for strictly opportunistic reasons: he wished to be read by the
ladies. Written in a drab style, with a thin and stupid plot, and with extreme over-systematization, Voyage en Icarie (1839) is void of any literary
value, though its sociological importance is very great. Cabet is the complete
opposite of Fourier: the social model of Icarie is centripetal and
fetishist; the narrative is an obsessional accumulation of details that tend to
prove the perfection of the whole on a smaller scale. Happiness is quantifiable;
deviance is inconceivable, and the proselytism is stifling. One menu, one dress,
one newspaper, one model of apartment — with the whole underlined by the sighs
of admiration of the European travellers who have witnessed the marvels and
narrate the story.
If with Restif we have one of the first interplanetary voyages, with
Grainville an epic in the Klopstock manner, with Bodin the first anticipation
novel, with Geoffroy the first uchronia, we have with Emile Souvestre the first
anti-industrial dystopia. His Monde tel qu'il sera (1846) is the paradigm
of a genre later used by Robida and Wells, and still later by Zamiatin, Huxley,
and Orwell. (Souvestre's analogies to Orwell are really amazing.) Souvestre sees
history as a process of cumulative, asymptotic degradation, a process that
eliminates every traditional value in favor of the rule of quantity. The
capitalist industrial society is extraneous to Man, whom it destroys, since it
has no other law than its own maximal development, with the economic substituted
for the biological. In the year 3000, when the whole earth is simply the
Republic of United Interests (whose motto is "Everything with steam"),
the Capitalist attempts to "produce men the way threadmills produce cheap
fabrics" ("fabriquer de l'homme à l'instar du calicot"). This
religious denunciation of modern civilization has procured a
and a sort of cultural recognition for Souvestre.
From Souvestre to Robida, from Villiers de l'Isle-Adam to Pérochon,
bourgeois SF in France can be called a fiction of Science only if we allow for
one reservation: it felt a visceral horror, an aristocratic contempt tinged with
panic, for Science, and dreamt for the future of nothing but a return to a
closed, feudal, and patriarchal society, an ideological "zero growth"
in a pastoral environment. This phantasm becomes more and more exacerbated in
the years immediately after Souvestre, during which a number of anti-modernist
dystopias appeared, culminating in the bitterest and sharpest of them all,
Giraudeau's La Cité nouvelle (1868). Hyperbolic caricatures of the world of
machines become a constant in satirical conjecture during this period, as with
Grandville (1844), draughtsman of genius whose pencil-stroke anticipates and
heralds Albert Robida.
Very different is Defontenay's Star (1854; recently republished in
English), which by itself gives evidence of the unrecognized richness and
audacity of French SF in the 19th century. It is a description of a planetary
system (Psi Cassiopeia), of the races living on one of the planets, of their
history, customs, mythology, and technology, and of the migration of the
Starians through the planets of the system. The narrative is a model par
excellence of SF: creation ex nihilo of an expanding paradigm, a
totality as distant as possible from the empirical world and yet endowed with a
rational dynamism, genuinely strange but still intelligible.
Known today as the inventor of plastic surgery, Charlemagne-Ischir Defontenay,
a physician, was a disciple of Fourier and an admirer of Hoffman. Some of the
themes in his novel (at the outset appreciated by a few amateurs, but then
completely forgotten) shed light on the ideological substratum of romantic SF.
Such is the case, e.g., with anti-gravitation (a mythical device by which
spaceships can escape planetary gravitation), with symbiosis between
races and even between humans and animals (an alliance that allows mankind to
avoid too great a dependence on machines), with the migration without
conflict of the Starians through their solar system, with the lethal
character of the religious need (the Priests of the Great Plague driving the
people to collective suicide), and with the divinization of man as the
ultimate philosophy of the cosmic age.
It is almost impossible to paraphrase such great SF, for its aesthetic merit
lies in the multiplicity of systems, models, customs, and doctrines it permits
us to appraise in all their complexity and entanglement.
Defontenay's type of imagination can be opposed as much to Souvestre's anti-industrial
pessimism as to Cabet's entropic socialism. It is of minor importance that
Souvestre sees the dark shades and Cabet the rosy tints (to his mind), for in
both, the ideological pattern is the Leviathan-State, focusing the whole social
energy on a rationalistic fetish, whether a despotic "socialist"
planning or an idolatry of profit and profitability. To this implosion of the
narrative into a dead-end conformity, Defontenay opposes the model of a
continuum in which expansion of the novelistic world produces a liberation of
the characters that is homologous to the imaginative liberation evidenced by the
very form of the story.
3. In 1862, stimulated by the publisher Hetzel (who some years later
would launch the Magasin d'Education et de Récréation, the first
genuine magazine for young people in France), Jules Verne began publishing his
scientific adventure novels. Their success was immediate, and the sociological
implantation was very strong: there was an ever increasing demand from a public
never limited to teenagers; the moral and pedagogical institution gave Verne its
approval; a host of imitators appeared (André Laurie, Le Faure and Graffigny,
Nagrien, Calvet, Berthet); and other writers, without imitating Verne,
transposed his devices in aiming at the same reading public (such as Danrit, in
the future-war novel, which in France was a genre intended for young men, in
whom it was deemed essential to inspire a virile patriotism and hatred of
In terms of cultural sociology, Verne's success contrasts with the failures
of all the other authors we have mentioned, from Restif to Defontenay. It is as
if SF had for sixty years sought in vain for an institutional "landing
point" and ideological model; as if, despite the quality of some of the
works mentioned, powerful resistances had impeded any success for forms with an
intense speculative drift or a strong utopian and social-satire element, so that
the fiction of scientific conjecture was finally repressed and driven
into a more timid institutional framework, one more easily watched over by
social censorship. It is obvious that Verne (a writer whose coherence and
complexity of vision place him among the greatest) was able to skirt this
censorship, thanks to his talent. But it is important to note that his early
success was apparently a consequence of the repression of and implicit
interdicts on conjectural imagination since the 1789 revolution.
By comparing the invariants of Verne with those of Bodin or Defontenay, the
signs of this ideological repression can be discovered in the narrative recipe
that Verne's talent was able to abide: the requirements of, first, the
verisimilitude inherited from bourgeois realism, which forced Verne to destroy
his conjectural objects at the end of the narrative, e.g. the Nautilus,
the Albatross, the golden meteor; second, the popularization that made
his fiction a handmaiden to Science, resulting in the austere statements on the Coelenterata, the customs of Australian aborigines, and the principle of the
Ruhmkorf coil; third, the description of Earth and its planetary suburbs as a closed
world traversed in an accelerated circulation, a model homologous to the
capitalist economic circulation (as I have argued in another study);4
fourth, a taboo on all radical exteriority-- no extraterrestrial beings, no mutation, no
cataclysm, etc.; fifth and last but not least, the various taboos and
imperatives of puerile and "decent" sexual morals.
Verne's genius consisted in making a virtue of these constraints, but it is
striking that at the same time (during the 1860s) other writers tried to propose
to the same public what we may call a more audacious SF. The titles speak for
themselves: Voyage à Vénus (Eyraud), Voyage à la Lune
(attributed to Cathelineau), Un Habitant de la Planète Mars (Parville), Prodigieuse
découverte et ses incalculables conséquences (Nagrien), and some time
later the Ignis (de Chousy) so admired by Alfred Jarry. No less striking
is the fact that all these novels were unsuccessful. They contrast with Verne's
brilliant prosperity during these years. Even though there is no doubt that his
talent placed him above the unsuccessful writers, the indirect censorship of
pedagogical and cultural institutions must also be taken into account.
Thus established literature at first rejected any form of SF as a foreign
body. Made up of realistic genres, it welcomed only one type of imaginative
story. That type was not the gothic novel (of which the masterpiece in France
was the young Victor Hugo's Han d'Islande, 1823), whose frenzy was
censured in the name of good taste even more strongly in France than in England,
and whose reign in the established literature was not long. It was instead the
"conte étrange" (uncanny tale), which appeared later in the century
as the French version of German and English "fantasy" and was embraced
by canonic literati. What I call "conte étrange" (a designation more
adequate than "conte fantastique") is a narrative meant for the dreamy
relaxation of the bourgeoisie in which the events related admit of two
explanations, one fantastic and paranoiac, the other rational and neutralizing.
The narrator oscillates between the two principles on the basis that "There
are more things in heaven and earth/ Than are dreamt of in your
philosophy." The bourgeois reader, a skeptical positivist but nostalgic
spiritualist, gratifies himself with uncertain metaphysical musings, stimulated
by the author's refusal to resolve the issue. The model of the genre is
Maupassant's "Horla," which in fact combines the scientific
explanation with the occultist non-explanation and thereby neutralizes knowledge
by terror and terror by knowledge.5 This hybrid genre will in our
time mislead French critics into considering SF an avatar of
"fantasy," whereas it has from the outset been a fully autonomous
In other words, the dominant bourgeois aesthetics in the 19th century
tolerated imagination only when it expressed fear, the paranoia of interdicts
and punishments, or the fetishism of mystery. It refused or ignored it when it
induced dreams of expanding universes, of the plurality of inhabited worlds, or
of the happiness of metamorphoses.6
Jules Verne brought to SF a benign social justification: the promotion of a
literature for young people, progressivist and "virile," with no
exaggerated display of moralism and with good literary value (generations of
teenagers have learnt standard literary French from Verne rather than La
Bruyère or Chateaubriand). To the adult public, which he conquered right away
in spite of the pretense of being a children's writer, he offered a vision of
the world that D. Suvin, in an apparent paradox, calls a "liberal
utopia."7 Science, the motor of an unlimited development, the
immanent solvent of all social contradictions, produces the future from the
present without any rupture or backlash. Hence the absence of anticipations in
Verne, the plot being always contemporary with the publication date.
Verne's ideological position, however, is the product of the repression of
the SF characterized by a pure imaginative liberation and by utopian critique,
which appeared before him and which he helped to mask.
After 1865 a new body of SF was gradually to appear, with Camille Flammarion
(who worked a vast spiritualist reconversion of positivist science, the eternity
of the soul being proved by astronomy and modern physics) and then in the
literary avant-garde with the "philosophical" novels of Rosny the
Elder (who reintroduces a radical exteriority into the narrative world).
Dealing with these authors and others would lead us beyond the limits assigned
to this study.
4. To conclude. It is important to understand that both the ideological niche attributed to Jules Verne (who should no longer be called "the father
of SF") and his status as a writer for young people are not fortuitous, but
rather the product of institutional movements and specific ideological occultations. To say this is in no way to diminish his genius, but is instead to
make clear how the emergence of a new form is conditioned by the interaction of
a number of cultural practices.
1. Verne's first "scientific" novel is
Cinq semaines en ballon,
published in Paris by J. Hetzel in 1863, translated into English and published
in London 1870 as Five Weeks in a Balloon.
2. Editorial Note. Since Professor Angenot has spoken above of using
"the cultural status of the publisher" in determining the
"ideological locus" of a text (even though he does not do so in this
essay), SFS here makes an exception to its rule against specifying publishers in
3. I will not in this essay deal with nonfictional utopian writings (Fourier,
Saint Simon, etc.) nor with narrative extrapolations by precursors of
libertarian socialism (Coeurderoy, Déjacques).
4. "Jules Verne, the Last Happy Utopianist" in P. Parrinder, ed., Science
Fiction: A Critical Guide (London: Longmans, [planned for] 1978).
5. For this genre, all the "great" names can be mentioned: Charles Nodier, George Sand, Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Mérimée, Maupassant, Erkmann-Chatrian,
and Barbey d'Aurevilly. The "uncanny tale" can be seen as a variant of Hoffmanian fantasy, whose hermeneutic ambivalence has been emphasized and thus
made its most important feature.
6. As a compromise, a "middle-of-the-road" SF will appear at the
beginning of the 20th century as part of "leisure-reading" literature.
It will then be cast in the mold of the "uncanny tale" from which it
will retain above all the rule of hermeneutic oscillation (Maurice Renard, J.A.
Nau, C. Derennes, et al.). In popular paraliterature, no form of SF appears
before Verne. Around 1860 popular paraliterature is still dominated by the model
of the Promethean novel, with its handsome, gloomy hero, the avenger of social
injustices, a model that will give birth to the miscarriage-of-justice novel,
and then, by obliterating the original ideological intention, to the detective
novel. Not until the beginning of the 20th century can there be found in the
industrial serials the first examples of SF meant for a plebeian readership —
contaminations of gothic Manichaeism, the Promethean novel, the science fantasy (Guitton
& LeRouge, La Conspiration des Milliardaires, Le Régiment des
hypnotiseurs, 1899 ff.).
7. See D. Suvin, "Communication in Quantified Space: The Utopian
Liberalism of Jules Verne's SF," Clio 4(1974):51-74.
This study describes the development of French science fiction in the
nineteenth century before Jules Verne. It will not be confined to a historical
study but will also consider hypotheses about the ideological and cultural locus
in which SF may have tried to take root before Verne established, for several
generations, the pattern of the technological advnture story for young people based on his
paradigm of accelerated circulation in a closed universe. Offering a chonology of French
SF from 1802 (N. Restif de la Bretonne, Les Posthumes) to 1869 (X. Nagrien, Un
Cauchemar), the essay argues that there existed in France before Verne a heterogeneous
but rather extensive production of science fiction. Before Verne, however, SF never
established a tradition, either as an industrial sub-literature or as an
avant-garde aware of its aesthetic innovations. On the contrary, this production without
cultural continuity remained deprived of any critical feedback--before Verne, SF in France
remained repressed and unnamable. It seems that each writer felt he was starting from
zero, for he scarcely knew his predecessors, or rather did not recognize them. The
recurrence of the same themes is less a sign of plagiarism than of sheer blindness: the
author knows the idea is not his, but does not remember where he found it. Forty-six novels written by Vernes precursors are listed; many are briefly
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