Science Fiction Studies

#49 = Volume 16, Part 3 = November 1989

George Slusser

"Science Fiction in France": An Introduction

The essays in this Special Issue are meant to give the English-speaking reader a sense of the nature, scope, and quality of the SF tradition in France. Tradition, however, should no doubt be pluralized; for as Jacques Goimard once pointed out to me, there are two such currents, not one.

These are the same two mapped in the brief but thorough opening survey by Arthur B. Evans (who virtually acted with me as Guest Co-Editor). The first runs from 19th-century writers like Verne, Flammarion, Rosny the Elder, Robida, and Gustave Le Rouge to the outbreak of World War II, and includes latecomers such as Barjavel. With the notable exception of Verne, it is marked in large part by works whose themes have come to be identified with SF, but whose authors are general literary figures rather than SF writers per se. Produced not only by the likes of Rosny and Barjavel, who wrote in a variety of genres and forms, but by Villiers, Daudet, and Anatole France as well, SF during this period was part of a "mainstream." And this may be the reason why such SF lacks the definition and direction that its "ghettoization" in the "pulps" gave it in the US—pulps that, ironically, made Verne the model of the ideal SF writer.

The second French SF period is post-World War II. It is marked by direct contact with the American pulp tradition. More precisely, it can be seen as the product of a reaction in the 1960s and '70s to the influx of American magazine SF in the 1950s. For Evans, this original flowering of SF on native French soil, concurrent with the events of May 1968, distinguishes itself by an anti-American stance and ideology. Its rise is also concomitant with the late-'60s' discovery of Philip K. Dick and his "schizophrenic America" (to use Gérard Klein's term). From these origins comes its particular orientation, whose distinguishing traits are: a turn from speculation on tomorrow and elsewhere ("ailleurs et domain") to protest in the here and now ("ici et maintenant"); exploration of inner rather than outer space; concern with ecology and the human system of limits; and on the opposite—nightmare—side, fascination with mind control, paranoia, and political and material oppression. In the French SF of this period, for example, time travel is not a means of freeing humankind from material barriers. Rather it reaffirms, as in the film La Jetée (1959), the ineluctable hold of these barriers on human existence.

But is French SF of the 1950s merely a series of slavish imitations of American pulp stories? Bradford Lyau proves the contrary. He argues that the early 1950s' novels in the Fleuve Noir "Anticipation" series, though seemingly mere space operas, are really "philosophical" novels in the traditional manner of Cyrano and Voltaire. Using American space opera as their decor, the Fleuve Noir writers actually seek to promulgate a political or social vision and engage French cultural issues vitally alive in the 1950s, most notably those concerning the role of technocracy in government, the role of the individual in society, and the role of women. In a somewhat complementary manner, I argue that with the beginnings of Fiction, we have far more than just a French edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. On a contract basis, Fiction (along with its sister publication, Galaxie) translated American SF stories for the French market. But Fiction was unique in having an editorial board whose purpose, both stated and unstated, was to dialogue with their American writers and texts in order to define their own national tradition and to set guidelines for a French SF to come. Singling out writers like Bradbury and Sturgeon, critics like Jean-Jacques Bridenne and Gérard Klein use them as "models" to define a native sense of SF as genre and mode of writing—a sense, I contend, that conforms to a vision of humankind's relation to materialist science already present in Descartes and Pascal. Fiction was the "workshop" for the French writers (Klein included) who produced Evans's renaissance of the 1960s-70s. And its vision emerges naturally in contrast to a pulp American vision in which these critics see the resurgence of perhaps the only enemy the Cartesian tradition has known since its inception in the 17th century: that materialist positivism so often associated with the name of Verne.

Is this second period of French SF anti-Vernian, then? This may be one of the reasons it has come today to the impasse which Pascal Thomas points to in his essay. He focusses on the new French SF writers, many of them (belatedly) influenced by the New Novel and thence by a current of thought which, from existentialism to structuralism and post-structuralism, has proffered a vision quite different from the scientific positivist's. This difference, Thomas in effect argues, shows up on a literary level in an inattention to—if not outright contempt for—story-line and plot which bespeaks a constricted view of humankind's capacity to act and to control its destiny. But in thus embracing the new novelists' experimentalism and "literarily," the new generation of SF writers has ignored the Vernian preferences of their readership. These were fed in the past by American "hard" SF; and in increasing numbers readers are (re)turning to such fare today, keeping Heinlein and Benford on the charts despite the silence or even the hostility of French critics. In other words, these new writers are in imminent danger of losing a substantial part of their audience.

In this and other ways, the shape and development of French SF bear on the nature of the French mind itself. Of all Western cultures, the French most consistently associates itself with reason and hence with scientific method. An entirely new view of that culture may therefore be available from the standpoint of an SF which has its roots in the Cartesian cogito (as is evident even in the shift of the area of operation to the comic strip, or bande dessinée, which is arguably Cartesian in its framing of visual—i.e., sensory—materials). At the same time, some still broader questions arise apropos of the ignorance of this SF outside France. Evans's remarks in the paragraph concluding his introduction to his bibliography of secondary materials might prompt us to inquire further into the reasons for and consequences of overlooking a corpus as rich and diverse as French SF offers. Could a Jeury or a Brussolo have the impact that Verne did on American SF if there were another Gernsback around to make them accessible to anglophone readers? What does the dearth of translations say about the state of SF publishing in the English-speaking world? Have the barriers of language and culture really disappeared in our brave new information age? And, perhaps above all: Are we up to the kind of alien encounter which the French SF described surveyed in the following pages challenges us to undertake?

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