Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974

Peter Fitting

SF Criticism in France

From Verne until the 1950s, SF has languished in France where it eventually reappeared largely as an Anglo-American phenomenon. From then on, the majority of books and stories published are translations, and SF criticism is based primarily on American writing (though there has been a renewed critical interest in the work of Verne during the last decade--see the article by Marc Angenot in SFS #1). Critical interest awakened brusquely in the 1950s. (In what follows all translations are my own--except the passages from Butor's essay.)

It began with an enthusiastic article in Sartre's influential periodical Les Temps modernes, coauthored by Stephen Spriel and the noted writer Boris Vian, "Un nouveau genre littéraire: la science fiction" (October 1951). Spriel and Vian use as their starting point Groff Conklin's 1946 anthology The Best of Science Fiction (also reviewed by the leading writer and critic Raymond Queneau in the March 1951 issue of Critique), and Conklin's classification of stories according to thematic groupings. They claim for SF the special quality of "disorientation": "SF is a new mystique, for the simple reason that it is the resurrection of epic poetry: man's continual surpassing of his own limits, the hero and his exploits, the struggle against the Unknown." That same year the first series of paperback SF, "Fleuve Noir--Anticipation," was launched, soon followed by two more collections, Gallimard's "Rayon fantastique" (from 1952) and Denobl's "Présence du futur" (from 1953). In 1953 two SF magazines also began publication: Galaxie, limited almost entirely to translations from Galaxy, and Fiction, which used material from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as some original French material. During the next few years there were SF articles, and sometimes stories (usually translations) in some of France's most important intellectual reviews. In March 1953 the Marseilles quarterly Les Cahiers du Sud presented a special number on SF under the title "Nouveaux aspects d'une mythologie moderne" This issue included an article by Michel Carrouges, "Le spectroscope des anticipations" which describes "anticipatory literature," a genre which includes, according to the author, SF as well as utopian fiction, surrealist poetry and the writing of such authors as Raymond Roussel and J.L. Borges. Although there is little discussion of SF itself, the essay is an empassioned and poetic plea for writing which is "oriented towards the future."

This current of anticipatory literature ... is infinitely more characteristic of the 20th century than the thriller or the literature of the absurd. Like an ostrich, one can pretend that it does not exist, one can delay momentarily its development, but its accession to the forefront of current interest will not be stopped. For it is irresistibly borne forward, by the movement of scientific revolutions, by the turmoil of modern thought confronted with the extensive metamorphoses of human life, by the unending appeals of distress and desire. This literature is not a reliquary of memories nor a mirror moved along a road or through a bedroom, it is the burning spectroscope of the future... (p16)

For that same issue the novelist and critic Michel Butor (whose study of Jules Verne figured significantly in the current revival of interest in Verne) wrote his essay "Science Fiction--the Crisis of its Growth," which created a controversy when it appeared, fourteen years later, as translated by Richard Howard, in Partisan Review (reprinted in T. Clareson, ed., SF: The Other Side of Realism). Butor defines SF as "a literature which explores the range of the possible, as science permits us to envision it"; and the range of the possible is "life in the future, unknown worlds and unexpected visitors" (pl58). In the most original part of his essay, the author warns that SF is in a crisis: SF writers have become unimaginative, they have come to rely on the simple invocation of SF themes to evoke an imaginative response in the reader. The SF writer's freedom to use any setting he wants Butor calls a false freedom:

If we flee infinitely far into space or time. we shall find ourselves in a region where everything is possible, where the imagination will no longer even need to make the effort of coordination. The result will be an impoverished duplication of everyday reality. [In SF of this sort] the author has merely translated into SF language a newspaper article he read the night before. Had he remained on Mars, he would have been obliged to invent something. (pl60)

Furthermore, because each writer describes a different future, the result for SF as a whole becomes, "an infinity of variously sketched futures, all independent of one another and generally contradictory" (pl64). Butor's description of the crisis seems questionable, and his solution would seem even more so. He proposes a collective effort by SF writers to correlate their future worlds, each taking into account the descriptions given by others in order to introduce his own new ideas.

In May, 1953, there was a special SF number of the Catholic journal Esprit which contained both stories and articles, including a second enthusiastic presentation by Spriel and a negative appraisal by B. D'Astorg, who concluded that SF was "an alibi for modern despair." Then in 1954 Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles was published in France where it met with immediate critical acclaim and commercial success. As far as many Frenchmen were concerned, this was the first instance of SF writing with real literary merit, and in France today Bradbury is still the best-known SF writer.

By the late 1950s there had been many more articles dealing with this "new" genre, including a special double number of the review Europe (July-August, 1957), which devoted almost 100 pages to SF. There were ten articles in that issue, including several historical essays dealing with SF prior to Verne, essays about the SF audience, two studies of individual authors (Bradbury and Capek), and a comprehensive review of the genre by J.-C. Pichon, "Science Fiction ou réalisme irrationnel" Science and technology have given us, according to Pichon, "a universe without dreams, without suffering and without the irrational [where] the gravest danger is not sudden death, but living badly" (p35). And Pichon considers SF the only literary genre which may be able to help in rediscovering the lost meaning of our lives and deal with our present despair and anxiety, "by surprising us, forcing us from our usual patterns of thought, and thus preparing us for the inexpressible through a more profound realization of the relativity of all things. In order to penetrate the forbidden universe where the subconscious secretes its monsters, SF has not only renounced all scientific method, but reason itself" (pp38-39).

Another attempt at defining SF in terms of its ability to put into question traditional ways of thinking was undertaken by the novelist and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot, in his essay "Le bon usage de la science-fiction" (Nouvelle Revue Française, January 1959). Unlike Pichon, Blanchot stresses the relationship of SF to science, not in its techniques or prognostications, but as the literary equivalent of the challenges to traditional ways of understanding science and reality following the theories of thinkers like Einstein.

Jacques Bergier, better known for his subsequent sensationalist Matin des magiciens (with Pauwels, Paris 1960; published in English in 1963 as The Dawn of Magic), takes an almost completely opposite perspective in his article on SF in the third volume of the Plé iade Encyclopédie de la Littérature (Paris 1958). He stresses the importance of SF as a problem solving or predictive medium, devoting much of his article to descriptions of inventions and predictions from early stories in Astounding and their subsequent realizations.

DURING THE 1950s there were two noteworthy books published in France dealing with SF: J.-J. Bridenne, La Littérature française d'imagination scientifique (Paris 1950, 280pp); and Jacques Steinberg, Une Succursale de la fantastique nommée science fiction (Paris 1958, 70pp).

Bridenne's study is concerned with all French literature which uses scientific imagination." From this perspective he reviews French literature from the beginning, looking at the scientific attitudes and creative writing of such diverse authors as Voltaire and Balzac before turning, in the second third of the book, to the works of Jules Verne and his literary posterity. There are subsequent chapters devoted to scientific propaganda, medical literature and the detective novel, but the longest and most useful part of the book is the omnibus chapter, "La pré sence de la science en litterature contemporaine." Here he surveys from his scientific perspective the works of "scientific" writers like Zola, as well as works which we think of as SF. This chapter is valuable, not so much as a discussion of well-known French SF authors (such as Rosny or Barjavel), but as a checklist of little known authors and works which might be considered SF.

Jaques Sternberg is a prominent SF short-story writer and novelist (La sortie est au fond de l'espace, 1956) and scenarist (Alain Resnais' Je t'aime, je t'aime), and his is the only descriptive work in French from an active SF writer. This brief and lively book includes reproductions of U.S. cover illustrations and stills from films exemplifying SF's major themes. Sternberg argues that SF is a modern form of fantastic literature which is concerned, not with science, but, like all fantastic literature, with the mysterious. He sees today's SF writer as the heir, not of Verne, but of Jarry's Pataphysics and of Surrealism. In Sternberg's view, the great SF writers are united, "by their violent pessimism, their lucidity, the apprehension with which they view their century, their anguish and, finally, their hatred of science" (p44). His reactions to SF, like those of many other Frenchmen, appear to be based primarily on the works of Bradbury and Lovecraft, rather than on SF as a whole.

In 1960 Kingsley Amis' New Maps of Hell appeared in translation and was well received. But there are few articles in the 1960s and none by creative writers of the stature of Blanchot, Butor, Queneau, or Vian, major figures in their own right whose interest in the genre seemed to herald a literary event of major importance. The same slackening of interest might account as well for the failure of the first all French SF magazine, Satellite (1958-1962). Only one short book on SF appeared in the 1960s, G. Diffloth's La Science Fiction (Paris 1964); similar, but far inferior to Sternberg's work, this book is composed mainly of photographs and listings of themes and titles.

THERE HAS BEEN a revival of interest in SF since the late 1960s. In 1967 the German exposition of SF opened at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris (and the French catalogue includes an introduction by the French SF writer Gérard Klein, "La science-fiction est-elle une subculture?"). And the last five years have witnessed the rise of fandom as well as the introduction of SF into university and lycée curricula. This new attitude towards SF has produced two important studies published in inexpensive format: Jean Gattégno, La science-fiction (Paris 1971, 128pp), and Henri Baudin, La Science-fiction (Paris 1972, 160 pp).

Gattégno's work is the more traditional of the two. It is divided into three parts, the first of which is a concise historical survey including sections on Verne, Wells, early American SF, the "golden age" and the "Second revolution of American SF"; as well as brief descriptions of French and Soviet SF.

In the second and most substantial part of his study the author examines SF under three major thematic headings: 1) "L'homme et la société," 2) "mondes strangers et extra-terrestres" and 3) "le temps." Under the "Man and Society" heading he distinguishes utopian fiction, which, he writes, is concerned with the static description of another society, from SF, which is concerned with the possible evolution of society. The concept of the evolution of man and society involves, according to Gattégno, three different kinds of development: the evolution of society, the evolution of knowledge, and the evolution of man himself. Western SF has, since Wells, frequently viewed the evolution of society with apprehension, a tradition which contrasts markedly with the optimism of Soviet SF. In the 1950s this pessimism becomes the anti-modernism of novels like Fahrenheit 451 and Canticle for Leibowitz. Recent SF, Gattégno concludes, often depicts a future similar to ours, though the author's attitude towards that society is no longer one of indignation and though the future society is usually far from an ideal one. Under this heading, too, he considers the mores of the future as depicted in SF. Discussing the evolution of knowledge, Gattégno surveys the role of science and technology in SF, from the optimism of Verne through Campbell's editorial interest in the effects of technological change on man, to future machines, computers and robots. Finally, in his discussion of the evolution of man, he examines the superior man (the mutant) as seen for instance in Slan and More than Human, which becomes, in recent SF, the "man-god," with the reworking of ancient myth by waters like Farmer and Zelazny; this category also includes the end of Earth and the end of man.

Under the second heading, "Other Worlds and Extraterrestrials" Gattégno writes that until the 1940s the "other world" was usually seen as inimical, either a threat or a world to be conquered. Later, a less belligerent attitude began to coexist with the first: writers began describing the "other world" as more humane and ideal than ours. In recent SF there has been, on the one hand, a growing feeling that it is "the Earth and its inhabitants which are truly strange" (p80), and on the other hand, a new interest in other worlds for their own sake. Studying the treatment of extraterrestrials in SF, the author notes the predominance in Westem SF of BEMS, aliens as political, racial or psychological menace, as well as some modifications of earlier, hostile relations between aliens and humans. In Anglo-American SF, Gattégno writes, extraterrestrials do not usually resemble humans; they often have superior technological and mental powers, but "the harmony and coherence of form and function, as well as the fullness of faculties, are finally reserved to human beings" (p85).

In the short chapter for his third heading, "Time," the author distinguishes between those who attribute to SF a prophetic role, from Verne to Campbell, and those who see in it a symbolic function; the former underline the importance of the science, and the latter the fiction of science fiction. The chapter also discusses time travel and parallel universes. In his conclusion, Gattégno raises some general questions with some tentative answers about SF--its relation to science, to literature, its distinctive genealogical and ideological aspects.

Henri Baudin's La Science-fiction is less academic and more speculative, and finally less satisfying. Rather than give a definition of SF, Gattégno defines it indirectly, by describing and classifying its themes. Baudin, on the other hand, begins with a series of examples and traditional definitions and arrives at a set of characteristics that define SF. He then takes the expression "science fiction" and asks about the relationship between science and fiction, determining three approaches to SF: 1) a "rationalist perspective," works in which fiction is subordinate to science; 2) an "intellectual perspective," philosophical SF where the message is more important than either science or fiction; and 3) a "literary perspective," works where literary features and the imaginary have become more important than science.

From the first perspective, Baudin distinguishes four types of fiction in which science provides the rationale for SF and which are determined according to the proportion of science to fiction. There are works which are almost entirely science, the category of "vulgarisation," as well as three categories of works with diminishingly less rigorous scientific content, categories which he calls "anticipation," "prospection" and "extrapolation." Writing of "vulgarisation," Baudin does not deal with SF, but with the strangeness of much of today's science fact. "Anticipation," according to Baudin, is the rigorous use of science in SF and is found in those works which describe technical innovations and future inventions. The social sciences, which are less exact then the natural sciences, provide the material for a more speculative and generalized kind of SF prognostication which he calls "prospection." And scientific paradoxes (Einstein's theory of relativity, the Moebius strip) lead to the most extravagant and imaginative speculations (time travel, parallel universes) which the author, perhaps inappropriately, labels "extrapolation."

Baudin's "philosophical perspective" comprises SF works "the rationale of which is an ideological, utopian, political or moral thesis." And within this perspective he makes three distinctions: "fiction in which the thesis predominates (the allegorical co-opts the imaginary), the fusion of fiction and thesis (the projection of an implicit ideology into the imaginary) and the fictional exploration of an ideal" (p50). To explain his first distinction, the author identifies SF in which the thesis predominates as utopian-dystopian fiction and discusses at length how such SF "usually works in favor of rationalism and relativism" (p55). In discussing "the fusion of fiction and thesis," Baudin examines how SF works are informed by different implicit ideologies: although, for instance, the message of a novel like The Space Merchants might appear to be explicit rather than implicit, the ideological message of such works, which are read primarily as entertainments, is discernible only after a more critical reading. By "the fictional exploration of an ideal," Baudin means fiction in which the depiction of a sociological, political or ideological future is one of the interests, but not the primary purpose of that fiction. Examples of such worlds include Heinlein's "future history" series and Asimov's Foundation trilogy.

The third perspective is that of literary SF, "where science is subordinate to fiction." Literary SF is more than the development of the adventure tale, more than a meditation on science and its powers. Like other French critics I have mentioned, Baudin writes that SF is today's literature of the fantastic: more specifically, it is an expression of man's unconscious needs and desires, as revealed by the presence in SF of basic human archetypes. Thus, for Baudin, SF is especially appropriate as a medium for the presentation of moral (Case of Conscience), religious (C.S. Lewis), and metaphysical (World of Null A) themes. Under the heading of literary SF, he also studies the relationships of SF to literature and culture. As different from the traditional novel, which expressed the imaginary through the character, in the SF novel, it is the setting, the fictional universe itself which brings the reader into "immediate contact with the structures of the imaginary" (pll9).

In his concluding chapter, "Science fiction et réalité," Baudin briefly acknowledges that SF may be seen as the ideological reflection of the reality which has produced it, and that much SF is a compensation for a repellent reality. But what interests him is SF's propaedeutic function, the pedagogical role SF can play in preparing us for the future: "SF is a less extreme response to the confining rationalistic positivism of our times than is the fantastic; without denying the validity of rationalism, it enlarges and complements it through the use of the imaginary" (pl52).

While Baudin's work is more ambitious than that of Gattégno, it is also more disappointing, at least for this reader. The theoretical framework of his approach to SF is an interesting one, but the categories and definitions he sets up seem vague and do not always correspond to what he does. In the first section, for instance, he discusses "vulgarisation" without mentioning SF's role as a means of diffusing scientific ideas and theories. Similarly, in the section on literary SF he discusses moral, religious and metaphysical SF without explaining how this is different from the philosophical SF he described in an earlier chapter. Although Baudin's work purports to be a discussion of SF in general, the scope and range of his research and therefore his viewpoint seem limited in several important ways. He tends to quote or paraphrase needlessly and over-extensively; while, on other occasions, he makes assertions for which there are no examples or analyses. Since SF is (as Baudin points out) a predominantly American genre, too many French works and too few American ones are used in this study. Moreover, most of the stories to which he refers are taken from Fiction (fifteen of the twenty-five French stories, ten of the fifteen American stories) while he ignores the other French SF magazine Galaxie.

WHILE THERE have been fewer articles dealing with SF in the last few years, one should be mentioned here: Gérard Klein, "Entre le fantastique et la science-fiction, Lovecraft," in the special Lovecraft volume of "Les Cahiers de L'Herne" (Paris 1969, 380pp). In this long essay, the author first attempts a literary analysis of Lovecraft's work. But, he writes, it is not possible to understand this work or "its unique position between fantastic literature and SF through internal analysis alone or even through reference to literary history.... It seems necessary to us to look outside literature, at the development of society and of the relationships between social groups, for the deepest and perhaps the least hidden meaning of his work" (p58). Using the Marxist literary sociology of Goldmann and Lukács, Klein defines SF as follows:

Fantastic literature translates the survival of religious and medieval values while registering their progressive liquidation.... On the other hand, SF corresponds to monopoly capitalism and its evolution parallels the evolution of that society. Since its inception SF has predicted the dissolution of the individual who is fated to become the `invisible man,' he who sees, who still possesses consciousness, but who finally dies because he is not acknowledged and cannot act. In SF, as in society, the individual is dissolved while the position of things becomes determinative. Well before the "Nouveau Roman," SF has conferred on objects--the robot, the time machine etc.--a privileged status.... Moreover SF confers easily upon the individual, without thereby becoming necessarily pessimistic, the status of object.... But in this, SF already heralds, beyond the death of the individual, the birth of new, transindividual values. Thus in Sturgeon's More than Human, a Gestalt, that is a collective being, is shown to represent the true future of man, rather than the isolated superman, the heir of the individualistic liberal tradition." (p62)

Klein then uses these methods to analyse closely some of the major fictions of Lovecraft, concluding that they correspond "to the transition from a liberal bourgeois society to a monopolistic one, at a time when the autonomy of the individual is threatened, a time when he finds himself deprived of the positive individual values which had been conferred on him during the earlier period of `free market' capitalism" (p64).

We have seen the special liking of the French for Bradbury and Lovecraft as well as the repeated description of SF as an offshoot of fantastic literature, and, not surprisingly, a number of interesting studies of the fantastic literature have appeared in the last decade which I will list here: (1) Louis Vax, L'art et la littérature fantastique (Paris 1963) and La séduction de l'étrange (Paris 1965). The first is an inexpensive and useful survey of fantastic art and literature; the second, a penetrating study of what causes the sensations of strangeness and disorientation in the reader. (2) Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris 1970). In this formalist study Todorov distinguishes fantastic literature from other genres which have often been included with it. In fantastic literature there is, according to Todorov, uncertainty about whether or not an apparently supernatural event can be explained naturally, whereas, in SF, the supernatural event is explained by reference to science. (3) "Le Fantastique," Littérature (December 1972). This special number on the fantastic includes a very difficult article by Jacques Favier, "Les Jeux de la temporalité en science fiction."

I would also like to mention G. Bouyxou's La Science fiction au cinéma (Paris 1971). This inexpensive paperback includes both a chronological history of SF films by country of origin and reviews in depth more than thirty films arranged in generic categories. It is a more stimulating and valuable study than any of the three or four recognized works on the subject in English. And finally, I must mention Pierre Versin's monumental (and very expensive) 990 page Encyclopédie de l'Utopie, des Voyages extraordinaires et de la Science-Fiction (Lausanne 1972). This "encyclopedia in gestation" treats, in some 900,000 words, "utopias, extraordinary voyages and science fiction," a comprehensive literary genre which the author defines as the literature of "rationalistic fictional conjectures" (p5) and which began at least 4000 years ago with an anonymous Egyptian prophetic tale and the Epic of Gilgamesh. This vast work demands a lengthy review, which I will attempt in a later issue of SFS, contenting myself here with only a few comments. It is an entertaining and useful work, once one accepts what it is and is not: it is not a complete, definitive, authoritative or objective overview of this field, nor was it written primarily for scholarly use. It is a very personal, subjective and sometimes exasperating compilation which should be measured, as the author cautions us, not so much in terms of its dimensions or ambitions, but as the first step towards delimiting the parameters of the field. The work is divided into approximately 1500 alphabetically arranged entries which include the expected author listings as well as generic, thematic and topical entries which are at time substantive essays in themselves. The choice of items is extremely heterogeneous, ranging from the obvious to the arbitrary, the whimsical and the absurd: in company with listings on "Contact," "Robots" or "Time," we find items like: "Billards" (pinball machines with a SF motif); "Allaitement" (breast-feeding in utopian fiction); "Alpiniame" (mountain climbing); "les Beetles" ("It is surprising that this instrumental and vocal group, unlike others ... has not interested itself more in SF," pl02); and "Aisance, Lieux d... (400 words on the absence of privies in SF).

Arbitrariness and subjectivity are apparent in the substance of these items as well as in their selection, and there is often an abrasive facetiousness, especially in his opening sentences: writing on the theme of immortality, for instance, he begins: "and here, Ladies and Gentlemen, mankind's oldest theme" (p453); on Réné Daumal, "French writer, victim of the Great Benighted, Gurdjieff" (224); on "The Future of SF": "There is no reason why it should not have one" (p82); and finally, the complete listing for "Science Fiction": "If you have read this far and still don't know what it is..." (p802). There are also many omissions and oversights: although he surveys the development of fictional conjectures under different national headings (e.g. France, Germany, U.S., but also Brazil, Romania etc.), there is no listing for England. And his limitations are especially apparent in the area of contemporary Anglo-American authors: he includes the names of Bob Olsen, F.M. Robinson, William Sloane and Donald Wandrei on his list of "the most important American SF authors" (p296), without listing them elsewhere, but there is no mention on that list nor listing elsewhere for: H. Harrison, R.A. Lafferty, U.K. Le Guin, B. Malzberg, L. Niven, L. Padgett, A. Panshin, J. Russ, N. Spinrad (John Brunner is credited with having written Bug Jack Barron, p626) or T. White. He does mention Norman Kagan, however, whom he describes as, "probably the most important of the young American authors" (p488).

To sum up then, I would certainly recommend this book despite my many reservations. It is a seemingly limitless source of fascinating and useful information, but since there is no index and since his system of classification is so idiosyncratic, the book is more rewarding and enjoyable when it is simply perused rather than when used as a reference work. In the latter case, it is likely to lead through frustration and anger to reflections on what this encyclopedia could have been....



From the days of Verne until the 1950s, SF languished in France, where it eventually reappeared largely as an Anglo-American phenomenon. But critical interest awakened brusquely in the 1950s, beginning with an enthusiastic article co-authored by Stephen Spriel and the noted writer Boris Vian that appeared in Sartre’s influential periodical Les Temps modernes. In "Un noveau genre littéraire: la science fiction" (October 1951), Spriel and Vian use as their starting point Groff Conklin’s 1946 anthology The Best of Science Fiction (also reviewed by Raymond Queneau in the March 1951 issue of Critique), claiming for SF a unique quality of "disorientation": "SF is a new mystique, for the simple reason that it is the resurrection of epic poetry: man’s continual surpassing of his own limits, the hero and his exploits, the struggle against the Unknown." That same year, the first series of paperback SF was launched, followed by two more collections, Gallimard’s "Rayon fantastique" (from 1952) and Denoël’s "Présence du futur" (from 1953). Covering diverse material—from SF magazines to Michel Butor’s influential rediscovery of Jules Verne—the essay surveys the French discussion of SF from the early 1950s through the publication of Pierre Versin’s Encyclopédie de l’Utopie, des Voyages extraordinaires et de la Science-Fiction (Lausanne 1972).

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