Science Fiction Studies

#34 = Volume 11, Part 3 = November 1984


  • Daniel Gerould. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Science Fiction (Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Tomorrow's Eve. Trans. & Ed. by Robert M. Adams)
  • Herbert Sussman. Victorian Science Fiction (Darko Suvin. Victorian Science Fiction in the UK: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power)
  • Donald Watson. Doomsday--And Beyond (W. Warren Wagar. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things; Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, & Joseph D. Olander, eds. The End of the World)


  • Science Fiction and Philosophy (Robert E. Myers, ed. The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy. Critical Studies) (John Fekete)
  • The Mechanical God (Thomas P. Dunn & Richard D. Erlich, eds. The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction) (Patrick A. McCarthy)
  • Entertaining Science (Amit Goswami, with Maggie Goswami. The Chronic Dancers: Exploring the Physics of Science Fiction) (Charles Elkins)
  • Griffin and Wingrove on Aldiss (Casey Fredericks)
  • Urania's Daughters (Roger C. Schlobin. Urania's Daughters: A Checklist of Women Science-Fiction Writers, 1692-1982) (Susan L. Nickerson)
  • Female Protagonists (Betty King. Women The Future: The Female Main Character in Science Fiction) (Linda Leith)
  • Pop. Lit. Crit. (Tom Staicar, ed. Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction) (Linda Leith)


Daniel Gerould

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Science Fiction

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Tomorrow's Eve. Trans. & Ed. by Robert M. Adams. Urbana, IL: Illinois UP, 1982. 222 pp. $17.95.

Count Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1828-89), an impoverished French aristocrat and disabused late romantic living in an age of positivism and technology, is best known for his grandiose symbolist drama, Axel. But he is also the author of many fantastic and macabre stories (collectively titled Cruel Tales), several of which can be considered SF in that they provide a supposedly scientific basis for imaginary inventions, and also of a full-fledged SF novel, Tomorrow's Eve, about the fabrication of an ideal female android. Largely a cult figure until recently, Villiers has been rediscovered in France by a new generation of readers as a result of the popularity of fantastic literature and its intensive study by modern scholars who no longer regard it as marginal and out of the main stream.

Acclaimed by some as Villiers' masterpiece (the author himself called it his Don Quixote that would make his name and avenge his neglect at the hands of the critics), Tomorrow's Eve has been reprinted in France in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and in the present edition appears for the first time in English translation. It is now possible to place this major work within the SF tradition and to appreciate its originality.

Written between 1877 and 1879, appearing in periodical form in 1880, and published in final version in 1886, this strange and fascinating novel is remarkably contemporary in its sardonic tone and skeptical sensibility, despite its slow pace and ornate, overblown manner of presentation. Viewed as a total structure, Tomorrow's Eve conforms to a familiar SF pattern in stories of man-made creatures: that of the creator who loses control of his creation--in this case, happily so, since the android acquires a soul from contact with mystical powers from beyond. But philosophical discourse, not plot, dominates the novel, and Villiers ironically twists the basic story of the creation of the android, renders it equivocal, and adds layer upon layer of parodistic dimension in his exploration of what for him is of prime importance: the problem of how we perceive the material world and how we represent it, given the newly discovered technical means of recording, reproduction, and duplication. Epistemological questions about the limits of our ability to know reality come to obsess the twin protagonists of the novel, representing opposite sides of the human psyche: the rationalistic and the spiritual. Since illusion ultimately proves to be indistinguishable from reality, the solution to the dilemma proposed by Villiers in Tomorrow's Eve through his two alter-egos is to will one's own superior illusion and impose it on the world as a subjective reality, with the aid of modern technological artifice. Such radical solipsism can be sustained on Earth only briefly; because the Ideal cannot co-exist with reality, death becomes the sole realm where the dualities of spirit and matter are to be resolved.

As the novel opens, Lord Celian Ewald--a wealthy, handsome, 27-year-old English nobleman--is ready to blow his brains out because Miss Alicia Clary, the beautiful actress he loves, has a crass, banal soul that fills him with revulsion and destroys his desire. Enamored of the absolute and the infinite, Lord Ewald is appalled to discover that the body of a Venus de Milo can be inhabited by a foolish materialistic bourgeoise who typifies the soulless mechanical world of the 19th century. This degenerate age does not repress commonplace sexuality, but denies fulfillment to longings for the transcendent. Aspiring to the religious and moral beliefs of an earlier time, a fastidious idealist and esthete like Lord Ewald feels himself an alien in a culture given over to commerce and rationalism, and seeks a way out--to another world--through suicide.

In New York with his attractive but vacuous fiancée, the English nobleman pays a farewell visit to his old friend, Thomas Alva Edison, at the inventor's home in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Learning of the young man's desperate decision, the "Wizard of Menlo Park" offers to provide Lord Ewald with an Android that will be an exact replica of Miss Alicia Clary but without her offensively vulgar soul. Spokesman for scientific pragmatism, the American inventor sets out to demonstrate the superiority of artifice over nature and the necessity of illusion in the face of an unknowable external reality.

Inclusion of the historical Edison in the framework of fantasy was Villiers' masterstroke. It gave the novel topicality when it first appeared. The inventor had moved to Menlo Park only in 1876, and the following year was made a member of the French Legion of Honor. Recent inventions, such as the telephone, microphone, and phonograph, figure prominently in Tomorrow's Eve; and since the principles upon which the Android is constructed are possible extensions of what has already been discovered, the author is able to give a scientific rationale for the creation of such a marvelous being and induce belief in his readers that perhaps it could someday be realized. For this purpose, the novel has been projected a few years into the future; we are told that Edison is 42, making the time of the action 1889. Inventions still to come--the loudspeaker and the cinema (in color and with sound!)--are included among Edison's accomplishments and described in detail.

It is sometimes said (by Maxim Jakubowski in Anatomy of Wonder, for example) that Villiers in Tomorrow's Eve was a follower and imitator of Jules Verne. But if Villiers has a French precursor, it is rather his friend Charles Cros (1842-88), Bohemian poet and inventor, who in 1869 wrote treatises on the means of communication with the planets and on color photography, and in the Spring of 1877 submitted a description of a phonograph to the Academy of Sciences. For his conception of Edison, the author of Tomorrow's Eve may have drawn upon Cros and his bizarre tale, The Science of Love (1874).

In any case, the inclusion of the historical Edison results in a curious mixture of fact and fiction that gives the novel its modern sensibility and disturbing resonances. Combining facetious jokes, erudite digressions, satire, sarcasm, farsighted predictions, and long Wagnerian arias (Villiers was an early French pilgrim to Bayreuth), Tomorrow's Eve presents a grotesque and prophetic picture of a commercial culture of mechanical duplication, deceptive publicity, and manipulated appearances. The tone is at one and the same time playful, operatic, and ironic. (In Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans, one of Villiers' first admirers and disciples, refers to his "savage raillery, cruel jeering, and gloomy jesting" and likens it to Swift's black rage against humanity.)

The crux of the matter lies in Villiers's ambivalent attitude towards Edison, his technological feats and showmanship, and at the same time in the extremely ambiguous role that both the "Wizard of Menlo Park" and his magical "science" play in the novel. Edison, the apostle of reason, the very embodiment of the new, becomes the agent for reinstating the Ideal, as he himself re-enacts the old religious and cultural mythologies in modern scientific guise. The rationalistic world-view which has killed the Absolute now offers to manufacture a perfect replica as a substitute. This is the paradox at the heart of Tomorrow's Eve and of Villiers' attitude to science.

Doubly dedicated to both dreamers and derriders, Tomorrow's Eve maintains an unresolved duality in all its aspects. Edison's perfect Android, showing the superiority of artifice over nature, is praised to the point of mockery, and Lord Ewald's lofty Ideal of womanhood, which makes him prefer his own imaginings to any living human being, emerges as an extreme form of narcissism and autoeroticism. As an aristocratic poet, Villiers is filled with hatred for a scientific-technological age that worships progress and material success, and yet at the same time he is fascinated by its machines which can copy and forge with such skill that, in a world of impoverished nature and cheapened feelings, he is tempted to choose the reign of artfully calculated illusion over that of vulgar reality.

In his Cruel Tales, Villiers portrays an inauthentic world in which illusion and artifice are replacing life; genuine emotion no longer exists or has been driven inward to the realm of solitude and silence. But publicly everything can be brilliantly staged and given striking shape by simulated words and gestures. The theatre and the theatricalization of life become images of this process for Villiers, an ardent playgoer and playwright, who recognized the centrality of the Parisian stage (with its newly acquired technical means of dazzling illusion) for French social life in the second half of the 19th century and saw its broad metaphoric implications.

"I hope that there will soon be four or five hundred theatres in every capital, where the ordinary events of life are acted far better than in reality, so that nobody will take much trouble any more over living for himself," Villiers declares in one tale, where the suggestion is made that whenever we feel a strong emotion we should hire an actor to express it for us. In another story, "The Glory Machine," canned applause is produced in the theatre by newly perfected automata. In other tales, advertising slogans are projected into the sky (where heavenly signs and portents once appeared), and a device is patented for chemical analysis of the final sighs of the dying. What was formerly the expression of the supernatural will or the individual soul is now subject to recording and duplication. Since the reality of the phenomenal world is an illusion, each human being is imprisoned within his or her own consciousness and lonely dreams; the only communication possible with others is via a limited number of programmed words and gestures which can be better produced by duplicating machines, actors, or automata.

Accordingly, it is not inappropriate that Tomorrow's Eve opens with Edison alone in study, lamenting that it was not possible to record great "noises of the past" or to recapture for an audio-archive "lost sounds"--such as the sound of the trumpet at Jericho, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Tidings brought to Mary. He then thinks how it would have been possible to verify the supernatural happenings in the Bible if photographs could have been made, for example, of the Deluge taken from the top of Mount Ararat, or the crossing of the Red Sea (with subsequent issuing of postcards). These seemingly irrelevant and jocose reflections actually establish Edison's (and Villiers') primary concern in the novel: the retention, recording, and reproduction of a "reality" that will always remain uncertain and problematic.

The method by which the Android's speech is produced is an instance of the novel's concern with the ingenuities of dubbing and doubling. All the words pronounced by the new Eve are those of her model, Alicia Clary, as she recited the works of the greatest poets--recorded, recombined, and played back on a golden phonograph in the Android's chest. When Lord Ewald objects that his ideal love will have only a limited number of possible responses, Edison points out that "real" conversation is infinitely more restricted in its narrow circle of clichés.

The novel's recurring theme of replication is carried one step further by the author in that the old gods, myths, and beliefs--seemingly vanquished by science --are repeated in new technological modes; even the great poetic works--the Bible, Paradise Lost, and Faust--become synthesized and replayed. Science is mythologized. Returning from exile, the occult, otherworldly, and transcendent infiltrate the stronghold of materialism, where they are re-animated and reinstated. Brandishing a perpetual cigar and offering his friend lights from strange electrical devices, Edison is a modern Prometheus attempting to bring humankind freedom. He is also a daring rival of God the father, proclaiming "Fiat lux" with electricity and creating the new Eve in his underground laboratory, which is "our lost Eden, rediscovered," in America; formerly it was a cave used as burial grounds of Algonquin tribes. In this Avernus to which the questing heroes must descend in a special electrical elevator, there is an "artificial paradise" with counterfeit vegetation, breezes, flowers, and birds--some with human voices and laughter--featuring a recorded nightingale's song and a mechanical hummingbird which can recite all of Hamlet. Here the influence of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) is discernible, as well as the example of the bizarre inventions designed for King Ludwig of Bavaria.

Legendary and epic analogues abound, but it is the Faustian theme (so prominent in fantastic literature) that is the most fully deployed after the fundamental biblical and Promethean motifs. In the second section of the novel, entitled "The Pact," Lord Ewald, in pursuit of the absolute, enters into a demonic bargain with Edison, even though he knows the experiment to be mortally dangerous. But the "Wizard of Menlo Park" is a white magician, a compassionate modern devil, whose mocking laugh contains all human sorrows. Edison's creation of the Android, Lord Ewald senses, is a "violent shriek of despair, " expressing his love for humanity. The heavens are vacant; "on this stellar speck, lost in a corner of the boundless abyss," Edison is a rebellious angel using the old forbidden knowledge to fashion solace for man. "Since our gods and our aspirations are no longer anything but scientific, why shouldn't our loves be so too?" asks the American inventor.

Daughter of the Zeus-like Edison's mind, the magneto-electric Android (named Hadaly) is the Ideal made material, corresponding to Lord Ewald's deepest desires, a radiant priestess and envoy from a land beyond, recalling her lover to heaven. "Photosculpted" on the body of Alicia Clary, the copy will be more like the model than the original itself, because reality is mediocre and everchanging, whereas the Android has the eternal beauty of the dream. The young English lord, who despises the woman he loves because she is a sphinx without an enigma, merely an ordinary mortal exuding animal spirits, is anti-human and therefore rabidly anti-woman. The novel's misogyny is part of its ideological thesis (the triumph of thought over matter) and based on a hatred of life and of the life-giving. It is significant that Lord Ewald first experiences true passion for his fiancee in what he imagines to be his last interview with Alicia Clary, but what is in fact his initial meeting with the Android, who is "a superlative machine for creating visions" and a consummate actress capable of playing many different women. In her he finds his own soul reduplicated.

Villiers' future Eve would seem to anticipate the Dadaist bachelor machines and mechanical brides, if it were not for the fact that she is utterly chaste and serves to neutralize any low and degrading desires that her lover might have had for the original living model. The only women whom Lord Ewald can accept are martyrs and consolers, and it is essential that the Android will remain an eternal virgin. In this, the future Eve resembles the second Eve, Mary. In all the detailed technical discussion of the construction and functioning of the Android, there is never any mention of sexual organs. The novel is concerned with reproduction as replication by artificial (that is to say, artful and artistic) means, but turns its back on reproduction as procreation, which is natural and life-continuing. Tomorrow's Eve moves relentlessly towards renunciation of all that is earthly--and finally of life itself.

Through telepathic communication and psychic current from a mysterious being, the Android acquires a supernatural essence. "A soul which is unknown to me has passed over my work," Edison is forced to admit. The secret voice of Sowana, a consoling woman who has suffered greatly and become a spiritual medium of thought transmission, has guided the "Wizard of Menlo Park" and now directs the Android on her transcendent journey. Edison, who starts the novel as a ruthless and pragmatic technician, is revealed to be a creative artist and the director of a theatrum mundi controlled by higher powers.

Since the ability of mind to rise above matter and of consciousness to mold reality is transient, and perhaps itself an illusion, Lord Ewald's desire for union with the absolute can be accomplished only in death. Thus the novel moves to an ironically tragic denouement. Resolving to live in happy isolation with Hadaly on his ancestral estate, the young lord has his Android bride shipped to England in a large crate--after she has first climbed into the black ebony coffin, lined with black satin, in which she travels (ominously recalling tales of vampires), and then been disconnected. Edison packs the instruction manual in the coffin, telling Lord Ewald how his new Eve is to be activated by manipulating the rings on her fingers, to be fed on special pills, and to have her joints oiled once a month with an extract of roses.

During the crossing of the Atlantic on the liner Wonderful, a storm strikes and fire breaks out in the hold--the Promethean flame now turned destructive. Despite the young lord's superhuman efforts to reach his love, the Android is immolated as on a funeral pyre; and when the ship goes down, she sinks back into the non-being of the waters. The natural elements express their fury after being downgraded in favor of the artificial; the Deluge is come again, in vengeance for Edison's challenge of the deity. The despairing English nobleman is forcibly saved against his will, whereas the real Alicia Clary, coincidentally on the same voyage, drowns when her lifeboat overturns. From his castle in England, Lord Ewald telegraphs Edison a few final words before blowing his brains out (as he had originally intended at the start of the novel). Tomorrow's Eve ends with a Wagnerian Liebestod in which love is linked to death; only suicide enables one to rise superior to a detestable world where life is inherently vile. (The poet Paul Verlaine called the catastrophe devastating in that a soul is forever annihilated and Edison, its creator, crushed. Noting that when Villiers died in 1889 [the year the novel takes place], the real Edison was in Paris, Verlaine wonders if the American inventor was aware that he was the hero of such a splendid symbolic work.)

Epic in its ambitions, Villiers' novel has been called the French Faust. In the chapter on "Robots and Humans" in his theoretical study Futurology and the Fantastic, Stanislaw Lem makes a somewhat less favorable estimate. He judges Tomorrow's Eve as proto-SF, touchingly anachronistic in its naive technical descriptions of the mechanism of the Android (lacking even any indication of how her sight functions) and inept in its inadequately justified attribution of a soul to Hadaly, but farsighted in its satiric analysis of linguistic cliches, which anticipates the plays of Ionesco. The Soviet critic, N. Rykova, on the other hand, considers Tomorrow's Eve as an SF utopian fantasy which by the end--given Villiers' belief in the power of the dream--becomes transformed into a fairy tale, but nonetheless remains prophetic in its exploration of the motif of the automaton that acquires independent existence and free will. Here the Soviet writer sees a bond between Villiers' work and modern SF; indeed, he compares it to Lem's Solaris, where the heroine created by powers unknown to man has more than a little in common with the Android Hadaly.

We have reason to be grateful to Robert Martin Adams, who has made Tomorrow's Eve available in an excellent English translation, to which he has provided a lucid and informative introduction about Villiers. My only quarrel is with Adams's rendering of the title, which I believe would be both more accurate and resonant as The Future Eve.

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