Science Fiction Studies

# 6 = Volume 2, Part 2 = July 1975

J.P. Vernier

The SF of J.H. Rosny the Elder

While Wells and Verne are today considered the founders of modern SF, J.H. Rosny Aîné (Rosny the Elder) remains virtually unknown, in spite of the fact that he was a prominent figure in French literary life at the turn of the century and produced a number of extremely interesting works in this genre. His first tale, "Les Xipéhuz" (The Xipehuz) one of the most original examples of early SF, was published in 1887, eight years before The Time Machine, and he continued writing SF all his life (1866-1940—see the appended list). However, his literary reputation declined sharply after his death. Like Wells he was over-prolific, and the value of many of his novels is very dubious. He made his name with the "prehistoric" novels—La Guerre du feu (The Fire War, 1909) being the best known. All his other works were ignored or forgotten. Much of his "realistic" fiction is nowadays almost unreadable, and even his best works are not entirely free from prolixity, maudlin sentimentality and awkward stylistic mannerisms. However, among the books discarded by critics and readers alike were some excellent and very original SF stories. The recent publication of a collection comprising the finest of these1 points to a revival of interest in his SF work. In spite of resemblances, he seems to have had no influence on Wells; on the other hand, it is likely that Rosny's later work partly reflects the interest aroused by French translations of Wells's SF. Unlike Wells, who was attracted by the imaginative potentialities of biological evolution and by the workings of the scientific mind considered as a means of triumphing over the waste in his contemporary world, Rosny, though very interested in other forms of life, was attracted not only by descriptive biology and ethnology but also by physics, chemistry and astronomy. His main concern was less with the Wellsian "mankind in the making" and more with possibilities of life in the universe.

Rosny was born in Belgium, but after a visit to England pursued his uneventful career of a professional man of letters in Paris. He was first a follower of Zola, whose influence he publicly repudiated in 1887, then a respectable member of the "Académie Goncourt"—yet exceptionally fascinated by the vistas science had opened up. His real name was Joseph Henri Böex. He had a younger brother, Justin Böex, who was also a novelist, and both used the same pen-name. Until 1892, Joseph Henri published his works under the name of "J.H. Rosny"; then, between 1893 and 1907, this pseudonym was used for books written by the two brothers in collaboration. This ended in 1907 when they decided to use the respective names of "J.H. Rosny Aîné" and "J.H. Rosny Jeune." Thus, the works published in 1893-1907 and now attributed to Rosny the Elder, were in fact written together with his brother; however, the stylistic traits they have in common with those written earlier or later show that Rosny the Elder was probably responsible for most of the writing.

Rosny's SF can be divided into four categories which represent different aspects of the same vision: (1) those dealing with wholly alien forms of life, in the past or future of mankind or on other planets; (2) those dealing with parallel worlds or unexplained natural beings and phenomena impinging on the narrator's and original reader's present; (3) those based on the "undiscovered island" pattern, in which the human protagonists suddenly find themselves cut off from society and placed in an alien setting which is presented as an autonomous world, though it does not have to be an island in the geographical sense; (4) novels dealing with the life of man and animals in prehistory.

I have excluded from this classification not only Rosny's "realistic" books, but also stories and novels with fantastic themes such as witchcraft, vampirism or doppelgängers. I have also left out works in which an SF element appears only incidentally and is not central to their development. Further, the question whether works describing adventures set in an imaginary prehistory are SF remains, in Rosny's case, open. One finds in them familiar SF themes, but the emphasis is largely on adventure for its own sake and a sort of high-flown lyricism rather than on logical exploitation of the situation created. In short, the cognitive element seems to have been made largely subservient to the pleasures of escapism. Of course, some of his stories are on the border-line where my categories overlap.

IN ROSNY'S FIRST STORY, "Les Xipéhuz," nomadic tribes in the land that was to become Mesopotamia, the cradle of mankind, are confronted with mysterious creatures shaped like translucent cones of living matter fraught with magnetic energy. Their sudden appearance on Earth and proliferation threatens the very existence of the human species. The Xipéhuz are living minerals and so fundamentally different from men that no communication can ever be established with them. Contrary to Wells's Martians, who are shown as a further development in man's evolution, the Xipéhuz represent a form of life for which there is no precedent or conceivable model in the human mind. Eventually the invaders are annihilated due to the ingenuity of an exceptional man, Bakhoûn—an outsider who refuses the accepted norms of society. Bakhoûn's life represents a more advanced stage of human civilization, or conversely, it is reminiscent of Edenic perfection—a comparison explicitly drawn by Rosny. A sedentary life, which he shares with four wives and thirty children, enables him to devote all his energy to intellectual pursuits.... Bakhoûn's reasonings rely on measurable data, and he opposes the religion of his age by believing in a single God and emphasizing wisdom as man's fundamental moral principle.

This first story reveals Rosny's constant assumptions that other forms of life, of coherently organized energy, could coinhabit the universe without our being aware of it, and that the man capable of coping with such problems is a character harmoniously combining science, faith and art, a superman who shares with a small elite of disciples the secrets of the universe.

In "La Mort de la Terre" (The Death of the Earth, 1910), Rosny describes not the death of our planet but that of mankind. The Earth has undergone tremendous geological changes, and when the story starts, 500 centuries in the future, there is an irreversible shortage of water. The few men left have returned tor small independent communities in which the birth-rate is deliberately kept very low. Posthistorical men have reinvented tribal life, but as different from prehistory men now know that they are a doomed species, and their behaviour is utterly passive: "The creature spirit has gone; it reappears, atavistically, only in a few individuals. Through a selective process, the race has acquired a spirit of automatic and therefore perfect obedience to new immutable laws."2 Instead of human consciousness and of the animal kingdom in general, the Earth now favours the mineral kingdom. A new form of "ferromagnetic" life has arisen; it will soon come into its own and supersede animal life. Symbolically, the last man refuses euthanasia and lies on Earth where the minerals will cause his death by anemia: "Then, humbly, some particles of the last human life entered the New Life."3 The last men accept the new form of life which will cause their extinction, but which also implies a mysterious design governing the evolution of life.

This sense of a basic unity in the universe is a major motif in Rosny. It reappears in the short novel Les Navigateurs de l'infini (The Navigators of the Infinite, 1925),4 where estrangement is spatial rather than temporal. Three Earthmen land on Mars which they find inhabited by creatures whose shape is based on a ternary symmetry: the tripeds have six eyes, and they reproduce by parthenogenesis. This enables Rosny to expatiate on the advantages of a method which does away with the grossness and vulgarity of sex.... But the Martians have reached the same stage of evolution as the men in "The Death of the Earth": they are threatened by the "zoomorphs," a new form of flat protoplasmic life, and have lost all creative spirit; it is the Earthmen's technology and energy that wins the struggle against the alien creatures and ensures the survival of the Martian tripeds. The main weakness of the book lies in a love affair between the narrator and a female Martian triped; it often verges on the ridiculous, but it also enables Rosny to suggest that our aesthetic appreciation can be aroused by things or beings possessing no common point with man. In the same way, the discovery on Mars of the Ethereals, luminous networks of phosphorescent matter who are an entirely alien form of life, appeals to the explorers' keen aesthetic sense. Men are not equipped to fully understand this phenomenon, but they are filled with a sense of beauty and wonder at the sight. All this is a consequence and proof of the mysterious design and unity at work in the universe. The sense of a universe extending far beyond our ordinary faculties of perception was probably the source of Rosny's imaginative powers.

THE SECOND GROUP of stories and novels deals with strange (though not supernatural) unexplained beings and phenomena. As Rosny explained in La Force mysteriéuse (The Mysterious Power, 1913), the existence of parallel worlds leaves two alternatives: either they constantly permeate our world and are thus difficult to perceive since they do not disrupt the customary course of things, or their interaction with us is only occasional and the collision of two worlds gives rise to the most terrible catastrophes.

Two stories deal with the first alternative: "Un autre monde" (Another World, 1895) and "Dans le monde des Variants" (In the World of the Variants, 1939). In both, an exceptional individual living in our world can perceive and exist in a different parallel universe too. In "Another World" a young Dutchman, held for debile, is in fact born with an organism geared to a different rhythm: he moves much faster than ordinary men, speaks so quickly that his words have to be recorded and slowed down to become understandable, and what is opaque to ordinary men is transparent to him and vice versa. These peculiarities enable him to see a world populated by mysterious beings entirely different from ourselves and living alongside us, ignoring men and ignored by them, and yet modifying our environment as we modify theirs. Here again Rosny is concerned with expanding imaginatively the limits of our universe: our limited perception may be the only explanation for the assumption that man is a superior creature and the focus of the whole world.

The same hypothesis is the basis of his short story "Le Cataclysme" (The Catastrophe, 1888) and his novel The Mysterious Power. In both Rosny exploits the theme of the Earth accidentally encountering an unknown source of energy from outer space. In the short story a "stellar shower," falling on an isolated French tableland of peculiar bolide origins, modifying the physical properties of matter and realizing thus an old popular prophecy, is presented with remarkable imaginative power. The Mysterious Power is a more elaborate use of the catastrophe theme: a mysterious zone of energy crosses the trajectory of Earth and suddenly alters the properties of the light spectrum. Chaos spreads over Earth, communications and industrial production come to a halt. (Strangely enough, a few months after the publication of this novel, Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt appeared in The Strand Magazine; the similarities between the two works were so striking that in 1924 Rosny suggested the possibility of plagiarism. However, the device was a familiar one: it had been used by Verne in Hector Servadac, by Wells and by a number of popular writers.) Rosny's novel works out the implications of this device through neat scientific explanation. Unfortunately, it is marred by a sentimental and melodramatic subplot, and also by the fact that the events are seen from the point of view of another very unconvincing ideal scientist. This stereotyped character, who reappears in many of his works, may be one of the reasons for Rosny's lapse from literary fame.

THE IDEAL SCIENTIST plays a particularly important role in the "undiscovered island" stories, where he is as a rule the protagonist, and often also the narrator. The stories follow the same pattern: an explorer discovers some hitherto unknown part of the globe, where he is made to confront creatures whose existence calls into question some basic assumption concerning mankind or reveals some hidden aspect of the human personality. The observer is placed into a situation where social relationships are reduced to a minimum, so that the impact of discovery falls on his isolated personality, usually representative of what Rosny considered the best qualities of the human species.

A few examples will show the common characteristics of these discoveries. In "Nymphée" (1893) the hero narrates how during an expedition to the Far East he found a strange country of marshes, islands and caves inhabited by several different tribes of "Men of the Water," human creatures biologically adapted to their exceptional environment and representing the living proof of the reality on which ancient legends were founded. Rosny devotes several stories to variations on the physical shapes acquired by different types of hominidae who, by some accident of nature, have been kept apart from the development of the modern world. In "Les Profondeurs de Kyamo" (In the Depths of Kyamo, 1896), the explorer Alglave—who reappears in several stories—finds and aids giant gorillas in whom he recognizes the ancestors of man. Another expedition takes him to a world of mysterious caves ("La Contrée prodigiuese des cavernes"—The Prodigious Cave Country, 1896) where strange animals live in a primitive society ruled by intelligent vampire-bats. But the most significant stories may well be "Le Voyage" (The journey, 1900) and "Le Trésor dans le neige" (The Treasure in the Snow, 1922). In the first one Rosny inverts a number of generally accepted notions concerning biological evolution: in it primitive men are found living in friendship with and subordination to elephants, whose decisions give an example of wisdom as opposed to the murderous folly of men. Similarly, in "The Treasure in the Snow" Alglave discovers, amidst barren expanses of polar ice, a temperate oasis where a last family of primitive men has survived with the last mammoths. He saves our ancestors from extinction, and conveys the survivors to North Africa. There he creates a kind of prehistoric reservation where the virtues of the first men are allied to the knowledge brought by divilization. At the end of the story, a new miscegenated race is being created.

THIS SUMMARY of Rosny's main forms suggests the scope and originality of his imagination. Although his thought is not systematic, the recurrence of patterns and motifs points to certain ideological standpoints.

In 1899 Rosny published La Légende sceptique (The Skeptical Legend) which he described as a "fictionalized essay." In this strange work, of the family of Poe's Eureka, scientific concepts are blended with passages of somewhat hazy lyrical mysticism in an attempt at a comprehensive vision of creation and the development of life. It shows that, for Rosny, science was essentially a means to an end situated beyond the realm of knowledge, "a poetical passion."5 He proceeds from subjective aesthetic appreciation considered as an absolute—hence his insistence that beauty can be perceived independently of any reference to past experience. His characters fall under the spell of Martian tripedettes or prehistoric females regardless of the fact that such experiences are outside known aesthetic enjoyment. Rosny assumed that there is such a thing as an innate sense of the beautiful, and that it has a positive value. Thus aesthetics was associated with ethics, because it reflected the individual's perception of the mysterious great design at work in the universe. This personal, intimate aesthetic reaction to the outside world is a way of achieving a direct knowledge of reality, a cognitive process—which at first sight seems hardly reconcilable with the rational demonstration of science. Yet Rosny saw no contradiction between this blind faith in the direct apprehension of the universe and a scientific knowledge of its multiform aspects which increased man's cosmic sense. Scientific knowledge was neither an end in itself nor a means of establishing Man's mastery over nature, it was simply another element increasing our perception of the basic unity and mystery of creation. Thus, his SF did not aim to create imaginary structures based on scientific hypotheses. It blended the logical deductive process of scientific research with a vague meditation, interspersed with daydreams on the mysterious nature of the universe. Rosny's imagination apparently worked in two contrary and yet complementary directions: on the one hand it expanded almost indefinitely, suggesting the possible existence of boundless parallel worlds, survival and development of ancient forms of life, or universal catastrophes due to unforeseen cosmic vagaries; on the other hand, all these diverging elements were kept under control, and chaos prevented, by a blind act of faith in the existence of a significant unifying principle in the universe. This ideological conception manifests itself in the recurrence of certain elements in Rosny's fiction. His main characters are usually scientists cum philosophers cum priests cum poets: they are mystic explorers of the unknown, always outside society, and little concerned with the rest of mankind. Consequently, Rosny almost never achieves Wells's effect of subversive estrangement due to the contrast between the unexpected and the norms of the everyday world, and thus putting these norms into question. In Rosny's work, the world of normality hardly ever appears, and when it does—as in "Another World" or The Mysterious Power—it is populated by brutish louts, bloodthirsty rabble, dumb but faithful servants, and other stereotypes whose sole function is to exist as a foil to the protagonist. Only a small élite approaches the sense of religious unity with the world, although it is true that secular power is not their goal: when these supermen, thanks to their knowledge and superior spiritual qualities, have saved the world, they usually withdraw in splendid isolation after advising their less gifted brethren to cultivate wisdom....

This attempt at reconciling the rational and the irrational con be explained only if one realizes that Rosny's vision is permeated with the Edenic myth, i.e. with nostalgia. for an imaginary period when the universe was characterized by the organic union of opposite and contradictory elements. Or, to put it differently, Rosny was fascinated by the notion of an ahistorical era, of a time when the complexities of modern society were unknown, and in which brute strength determined evolution. Hence the part played by prehistoric times in his fiction: they provided him with a setting in which he could outline the concept of a fundamental link uniting men and animals, and also express his ambivalent response to primal urges.

Rosny's attitude toward love affords a revealing illustration of this ambivalence. When one of his protagonists falls in love, the result is a series of conventional sentimental scenes, but when one of the partners does not belong to the ordinary, contemporary world the result is far more interesting. Rosny is disgusted by and fascinated with sex, that competing principle of unity. In "Les Hommes-sangliers" (The Wild-Boar Men, 1929) a Dutch girl is captured by primitive boar-like men and repeatedly raped by their leader. She reacts with shame and horror but also with fascination and sexual yearning; the primeval instinctual urge which has thus been revealed makes a return to civilized life appear as an intolerable anticlimax, and she commits suicide as the only way out of her dilemma. This union of individuals belonging to different species illustrates Rosny's interest in the possibility of creating new beings that would reconcile apparently conflicting traits. Sympathetic parthenogenesis—the reproductive system of Martians in The Navigators of the Infinite—is an ideal because in it the biological urge is transmuted into a perfect fusion of two selves. In "The Treasure in the Snow" Alglave copulates with a prehistoric female, thus creating a race that will unite the fundamental qualities of primitive life and the more sophisticated knowledge of modern man.

Rosny always emphasizes unity: man is not the centre of the universe, but his world may be intimately associated with other parallel worlds; primitive life fills the modern observer with a sense of perfect harmony; Eden may not mean peace but it certainly means a natural order of things. And science enables modern man to see, beyond appearances, that the diversity of the world is but part of its fundamental oneness. Scientific knowledge is the discovery, by logic and deduction, of the fact hinted at by mythical and popular lore that life in all its aspects springs from a basic unifying urge. Because it is a sort of revelation, it has to be pursued in isolation, outside of the social and historical context.

This is why Rosny could equate science with poetic enthusiasm: like the Romantic poets, the scientists worked toward the recreation of the lost original oneness. Their function was religious since it led to a metaphysical interpretation of the world and sprang from a subjective sense of wonder at the spectacle of the universe. In a world in which God was dead, science was to take over the role of traditional religion and show that there was a purpose—even if not completely intelligible to man—in the universe. In the light of the French literary scene at the end of the 19th Century, Rosny's work appears thus as a reaction to naturalistic fiction and mechanical materialism, yet one that does not return to a refurbished Roman Catholicism.

Rosny has largely been ignored by modern criticism because his best work is contained in his SF (especially in the short stories). I am not suggesting that his fiction has the same symbolic power as Wells's: his failure to refer to the ordinary social scene of his day otherwise than through vapid abstraction does much to undermine his artistic achievement. But his imagination was extremely original, and his best stories are historically pioneering and still valuable contributions to modern SF. In spite of the rather pseudo-romantic lyricism which mars a good many of his descriptions, his conception of parallel worlds inhabited by beings with whom no communication would ever be possible and the way he inverted generally accepted notions on evolution remain, even today, a considerable achievement.

Rosny had the misfortune of being a contemporary of both Verne and Wells, who overshadowed his reputation. But there is no reason why the fate of his vision should not parallel theirs. It is different but just as fascinating. His powers were probably more uneven, but at his best he could certainly rival either.


1J.H. Rosny Aîné, Récits de science-fiction, edited by J. Baronian with an introduction by J. Van Herp (Verviers: A Gérard-Marabout 1973); this is the best available collection of Rosny's stories.


2"La Mort de la Terre," in Récits (Note 1), p148 (my translation).

3Ibid., p188.

4It was followed by a second part, Les Astronautes, published posthumously (Paris: Rayon fantastique 1960).


5J.H. Rosny Aîné, Torches et lumignons (Paris 1921), p11.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY. Only the SF stories and novels are mentioned. As they were all published in Paris and, in the case of the short stories, frequently reprinted in various collections, only the date of first publication is given. Novels not discussed above are briefly characterized.

My thanks are due to M. Pierre Versins for indications about the secondary bibliography. The following books by Rosny also contain useful material on him: Torches et lumignons (2921), Les Sciences et le pluralisme (1922), Portraits et souvenirs (1945, with biographical note by R. Borel).

*The stories marked by an asterisk appear in Récits (Note 1).

S1. H.P. Thieme. Bibliographie de la littérature francaise. Paris 1933. Volume 2, pp663-66, contains a fairly complete bibliography of works by and on Rosny up to 1930.

#1. Les Xipéhuz.* 1887.

#2. Le Cataclysme.* 1888.

#3. La Legénde sceptique.* 1889. Essay.

#4. Vamireh. 1892. Prehistoric novel.

#5. Eyrimah. 1893. Prehistoric novel.

#6. Nymphée.* 1893.

#7. Un Autre Monde.* 1895.

#8. La Contrée prodigieuse des cavernes.* 1896.

#9. Les Profondeurs de Kyamo.* 1896.

#10. Le Voyage.* 1900.

#11. La Guerre du feu. 1909. Prehistoric novel.

#12. La Mort de la Terre.* 1910.

#13. La Force mystérieuse. 1913.

#14. Le Félin géant (The Giant Cat). 1918. Prehistoric novel.

#15. La Grande énigme. 1920. Another variation on the discovery of an unknown land, in which the relationships between living beings are inverted, thus calling into question man's place.

#16. Le Trésor dans la neige."* 1922.

#17. L'Etonnant voyage de Hareton Ironcastle. 1922. Mainly an adventure in which the explorers discover that part of an alien planet, with its fauna and flora, has become welded to Earth; the device is reminiscent of Verne.

#18. Les Navigateurs de l'infini.* 1925. For Part II see #24.

#19. Les Hommes-sangliers.* 1929.

#20. Helgvor de fleuve bleu (Helgvor of the Blue River). 1930. Prehistoric novel.

#21. Les Compagnons de l'univers (Knights of the Universe). 1934. A lengthy reflection on the mysteries not so much explained as revealed by science; rather than a novel proper, it is in the line of #3, La Légende sceptique.

#22. La Sauvage aventure (The Wild Adventure). 1935. A development of the theme exploited in #19, "Les Hommes-sangliers" (The Wild-Boar Men).

#23. "Dans le monde des Variants.* 1939.

#24. Les Astronautes. 1960. Part II of the 1925 book—posthumous.

S2. J. Moog. "Un disciple de Zola," Nouvelle Revue 82(1893):554-71.

S3. R. Doumic. "Les romans de Rosny," Revue des Deux-Mondes 129(1895):936-47.

S4. Vernon Lee. "Rosny and the Analytical Novel in France," Cosmopolis 7(1897): 289-96.

S5. G. Rodenbach. "Les Rosny," Nouvelle Revue 105(1897):289-96

S6. Zadig (pseud.). "J.H. Rosny," Revue Bleue 13(1900):533-35.

S7. M.A. Leblond. "L'épopée évolutionniste de l'énergie humaine." Revue des Revues 46(1903):641-55.

S8. G. Casella. Les Célébrites d'aujourd'hui: J.H. Rosny. Biographie critique. Paris 1907.

S9. M.C. Poinsot. "J.H. Rosny," Grande Revue 41(1907):449-59, 595-604.

S10. J. Sageret. "La sociologie de Rosny Aîné, Revue du Mois 9(1910):270-85.

S11. C. Berton. "Souvenirs de la vie littéraire de J.H. Rosny," La Vie des peuples 4(1921):385-95.

S12. J. d'Ivray. "Rosny Aîné," Revue des Revues 150(1922):394-405.

S13. J. Morel and P. Massé. "Rosny Aîné et la préhistoire," Mercure de France 168(1923):5.

S14. J. Sageret. La Révolte philosophique et la science. Paris 1925.

S15. J. Morel. "Rosny Aîné et le merveilleux scientifique," Mercure de France 187(1926):82.

S16. J.J. Bridenne. La Littérature francais d'imagination scientifique. Paris 1950. Pp 191-98.

S17. J.J. Bridenne. "J.H. Rosny Aîné, romancier des possibles cosmiques," Fiction, Feb. 1956.

S18. P. Domeyne. Le Merveilleux scientifique, ses sources et ses prolongements dans les romans et nouvelles de J.H. Rosny Aîné. Diss. Lyon 1965.



Rosny has largely been ignored by modern criticism because his best work is contained in his SF, especially his short stories. His work in SF can be divided into four categories which represent different aspects of the same vision: stories about alien life-forms during the future of mankind or on other planets; stories about parallel worlds or unexplained natural beings and phenomena (these are often set in the present); stories based on the "undiscovered island" pattern, in which protagonists suddenly find themselves cut off from society and placed in a an alien setting (not always literally an island, but always isolated); and, finally, stories set in prehistory. I exclude from his SF not only Rosny’s realistic books but also stories and novels employing such fantastic motifs as witchcraft, vampirism, and doppelgangers. Rosny’s fiction lacks the symbolic power of Wells: his failure to refer to the ordinary social scene of his day other than through vapid abstractions does much to undermine his artistic achievement. But his imagination was extremely original and his best stories are historically pioneering and still valuable. In spite of the pseudo-romantic lyricism that mars his descriptions, his conceptions of parallel worlds inhabited by beings with whom no communication will ever be possible, along with his inversions of accepted notions of evolution, remain even today a considerable achievement. Among the texts discussed are La Guerre du feu (1909), "Les Xipéhuz" (1887), "La Mort de la Terre" (1910), "Nymphée (1893), "Le Voyage" (1900), and "Le Trésor dans le neige" (1922). A select bibliography of Rosny’s writings concludes the essay.

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