J.-H. Rosny aîné. Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind. Ed. and trans. Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser. Early Classics of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2012. lxxxiii + 248 pp. $35.00 hc; $16.99 ebook.
─────. The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters. Ed. and trans. Brian Stableford. The Scientific Romances of J.-H. Rosny Aîné. Encino, CA: Black Coat Press, 2010. 435 pp. $25.00 pb; $7.99 ebook.
As Arthur B. Evans and others have often observed in the pages of this journal, French currents of nineteenth and early twentieth century sf were not limited to Jules Verne and his imitators.1 Other French sf authors of the period included such innovative and consequential figures as Camille Flammarion, André Laurie, Gustave Le Rouge, Maurice Renard, Albert Robida, J.-H. Rosny aîné, and Jacques Spitz, who are only now becoming known to English-speaking readers as complete and accurate translations of their work are published for the first time—thanks largely to Wesleyan University Press’s “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series, edited by Evans, and to Brian Stableford’s prodigious one-man evangelism for early French sf under the Black Coat Press imprint. A large and varied corpus of historically significant material originally written in French is now available in sound English versions; the role of these authors in the universal history of the field is clearer, and the steadfast Anglocentrism of most modern sf criticism appears increasingly shortsighted. These excellent new editions of major works by J.-H. Rosny aîné, whose contributions to a distinctively French sf idiom were arguably as important as Verne’s, are particularly welcome. This review will focus primarily on the three novellas common to both edited collections and the respective translators’ critical introductions. (Unless otherwise noted, citations are from Chatelain and Slusser’s translations.)
“J.-H. Rosny aîné” was the principal pseudonym of Joseph-Henri-Honoré Boëx (1856-1940), who was born in Brussels, lived and worked for a while in London, and then resided in Paris for most of his career as a writer. The aîné (“the elder”) distinguishes him from his brother Séraphin-Justin-François Boëx (1859-1948), a.k.a. “J.-H. Rosny jeune” (“the younger”), with whom Joseph collaborated on more than fifty short stories and novels attributed to “J.-H. Rosny” from about 1891 until 1907, when each began writing under the distinct pseudonyms. Most of their collaborations were conventional Naturalist or romance fictions, though two early novels, Vamireh (1892) and Eyrimah (1896), are widely credited with inventing the genre of prehistoric fiction. Rosny aîné would later return to this, most famously in La Guerre du feu (1911), the basis of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 film The Quest for Fire.2 Stableford makes a convincing case that the brothers’ literary association was more apparent than real, that the senior Rosny was responsible for most of their writing together, and was probably solely responsible for the prehistoric and science fiction published or drafted during their collaboration. After the separation, Rosny jeune would go on to publish at least twenty other novels, but only three had any speculative content and none has had a lasting influence. In contrast, the elder Rosny (whom hereafter I will call simply “Rosny”) was most productive after 1907, publishing more than forty novels and collections of shorter fiction and several speculative nonfiction essays, which have had a profound impact on subsequent French fantasy and sf.3 Two of the three works by Rosny under discussion here were published before the collaboration ended but are unambiguously the work of the elder.
“The Xipéhuz” (Les Xipéhuz, 1887) is a brilliantly original account of disastrous first contact. The novella begins somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, a millennium before the rise of Ninevah and Babylon, as a nomadic tribe called the Pjehou are preparing to settle in a forest clearing for the evening. They are shocked to encounter there a gathering of translucent bluish cones, each about half the size of a man and with a star-shaped light at its base that pulsates and, it is soon discovered, shoots a sort of death ray. (There are other forms in the group as well, “strata” and cylinders in hues of green and bronze, but it is never clear if they are a different species or other stages of development of the cones. Nor is it clear where these forms have come from. Their alienness does not mean that they are extraterrestrial in origin; they are just … different from anything that humans have encountered before.) It is immediately clear that the cones are alive and intelligent when they rush to attack the Pjehou, slaughtering many of them and only stopping a pitiless pursuit of the fleeing humans at an unmarked boundary beyond which the cones appear unable to pass. The discovery of this limit is the first of several inferences the humans will make concerning the behaviors of the strange forms. The second is that the Xipéhuz, as they are called, are increasing in number and the boundary of their brutal action is widening; the third is that the unchecked expansion of their domain must lead to the eventual demise of humanity. The Xipéhuz have, in effect, forced a new evidence-based reasoning on the superstitious Pjehou and neighboring tribes. Efforts by their priests to appease the terrible new gods only result in further massacres, and the tribes turn to the leadership of a man named Bakhoûn, whose new empirical methods—he studies the Xipéhuz and deciphers some of their system of communication, their reproduction, and, crucially, their vulnerabilities—will shift the struggle in the humans’ favor.
About two-thirds of the text of “The Xipéhuz” purports to be an abridged translation of sixty “pre-cuneiform tablets,” called The Book of Bakhoûn, which records the proto-scientist’s experiments and his account of the battles between humans and Xipéhuz that lead to the eventual extermination of the cones. As Chatelain, Slusser, and Stableford observe, the conceit of the text-within-a-text is not meant to be convincing; Rosny is manipulating well-worn effects of conventions of the found manuscript. His aim, and a remarkable achievement of the novella (in addition to the ingenious descriptions of the Xipéhuz and their behaviors, which have no anthropomorphic qualities whatsoever) is to use those conventions to encode the broadest sweep of historical epic—which genre we can assume Bakhoûn is inventing—in the same register as the discourse of empirical deduction: in other words, to invent a specifically science-fictional kind of origin myth.
“Another World” (Un autre monde, 1895) shifts the task of accounting for unprecedented experiences to a more intimate register. The narrator, a native of rural Holland, is a mutant born of normal human parents. Unusually thin (he subsists from infancy on a diet of exclusively of beer and schnapps), his skin is pale violet, he is uncommonly agile and quick, and he is able to understand human speech but can talk only in an accelerated mode that is incomprehensible to others. His eyes are glaucous, as if with cataracts, and most of the spectrum of human vision appears to him only shades of gray, though he can see other colors that normal humans cannot. He can barely see through glass, water, or ice, but usually opaque substances (clouds, wood, plant matter, iron, coal) are translucent to him. And he can see living, geometric forms he calls Moedigen and Vuren, which occupy a realm adjacent to and overlapping this one: “a kingdom of beings … moving about upon the waters, this atmosphere, this ground, in completely different ways than we do, but with a certainly formidable energy, by means of which it acts indirectly upon us and our destiny, just as we act indirectly on it and its destiny!” (36). This other realm is not menacing or frightening to him—there is nothing Lovecraftian in its revelation; it is merely co-present and evidence, like his own existence, of a plurality of beings beyond those previously familiar to humanity. Rejected by his family and the local townspeople, he flees after his seventeenth birthday to Amsterdam, where he is first mistaken, bizarrely, for a cannibal from Borneo—Rosny is playing here with our reductive responses to the genuinely exotic—but eventually meets a young doctor who is fascinated by his case and determined to understand his experiences. (A brilliant technical detail of the story: the doctor uses a phonograph to record and slow down the narrator’s strange speech so that it can be understood.) As the story ends, the mutant is happily settled into a life of scientific collaboration and has married and produced a son like himself, who he hopes will carry on the research and father other “seers of this invisible world” (57).
“The Death of the Earth” (La mort de la terre, 1910) is in many respects the most accomplished of Rosny’s sf texts. The setting is the very distant future of Earth, several hundred centuries after seismic catastrophes and unexplained changes in the Sun have caused the oceans to drain into abyssal caverns and the rivers and lakes to dry up. Most plant life is gone. All forms of wild and domestic animals are extinct, apart from evolved birds, who ply the thinning air and can communicate in a rudimentary language with the remnants of humanity. In long decline from their former technological glory, the humans eke out meager lives in a few distantly-removed oases, their society strictly regulated and culturally stagnant. Only a few individuals are permitted to reproduce, exchanges of goods between oases are limited, and mass suicide is the usual solution to frequent crises of resources. The coming end of the species is accepted with equanimity by nearly everyone.
By all evidence, a new order of life, or something akin to life, will follow: the ferromagnetics, iron-based entities that resemble moving patches of lichen, which are gradually spreading over the surface of the deserted wastes. Human contact with them is fatal (they leach iron from hemoglobin) and despite their centuries-long encroachment on the oases, no Bakhoûn seems to have devoted much time to understanding them or determining if they are self-aware or merely animated by chemical tropisms. The hero of the story, Targ, is unusually determined and insightful—a throwback to more energetic ancestors—and perhaps could be a future Bakhoûn, but he is too preoccupied to set his energies to scientific tasks. Whereas Bakhoûn actively writes out the origin myth of human history, Targ, long past the ability to create anything new, acts out that history’s entropic end.
After a long period of relative stability, the seismic shocks grow more frequent; more of the oases collapse and their inhabitants kill themselves in resignation. Targ’s efforts to find refuge for his dwindling clan are uneven and unable to stave off the inevitable; the remaining members of his family are killed in an earthquake and he is left alone as the last human. And then the narrative takes a remarkable turn into post-entropic, posthuman time. Targ reflects back on the arc of natural history, from the origins of life through succeeding kingdoms of plants, animals, humans, and the coming age of the ferromagnetics. Actively rejecting an individual end in suicide, he chooses instead transhuman continuity: “he thought that whatever remained now of his flesh has been transmitted, in an unbroken line [sans arrêt], since the origin of things. Some thing that has once lived in the primeval sea, on emerging alluvia, in the swamps, in the forests, in the midst of savannas, and among the multitude of man‘s cities, had continued unbroken down to him” (121; emphasis in original). In the novella’s final paragraph, Targ lays down among the ferromagnetics and “a few small pieces of the last human life entered into the New Life” (121).
Chatelain and Slusser propose in their long introduction to the novellas (longer in fact than each of the texts by Rosny) that Rosny’s legacy to modern sf is his striking transhumanism, expressed directly in Targ’s life-in-death but implicit throughout his literary universe. In Rosny’s fiction—nearly all of it is first-contact fiction—the other is irreducibly unlike us and is organized according to biologies and socialities that stand apart from human understanding or, as in “Another World,” can be communicated only imperfectly. Thanks to Bakhoûn’s anachronistic philosophy, the tribal humans in “The Xipéhuz” manage to defeat their strange antagonists, but not because humans are the superior species. Things might just as well have gone the other way and only turned out as they did in that the cones’ extermination is the root of our history, and Rosny wants to—literally—write out that fatalist logic of contact. The narrator of “Another World” is human and inhuman; the birth of a child like himself is not an ominous sign of things to come—compare the alarm with which the Children in John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) are greeted—but an example of an alternative, even equivalent order of being, like the Moedigen and Vuren that only the father and son can see. When Targ elects to continue the unbroken line of life and disperse himself within the ferromagnetics, there is no indication that the ferromagnetics even notice his sacrifice; the end of his consciousness is no more relevant to them than the disappearing water for which they have no biological need. Contact between humans and others in these stories is an ethical event in the narrowest sense of the term, lacking a moral dimension because the human perspective that this would require is present only, or nearly only, to the degree that humans are captured in energies and systems beyond them.
There is, as Chatelain and Slusser stress, nothing like this in Verne. A rejection of the worst of nationalism and colonialism and an inconstant sympathy for their victims are as far as Verne will go to question the tenability of human action within a general natural-historical arc, and differences among the (always human) parties involved are attributed by him to accidents of technology, politics, or race, not to ontology. There are no equivalents of the Xipéhuz, Moedigan, Vuren, or ferromagnetics in Verne’s fiction because he has no interest in orders outside of the human and the terrestrial circuits of a nineteenth-century geographical imaginary.4 If Targ’s reflection on kingdoms leading to and beyond his death pretty obviously reverses Axel Lidenbrock’s famous reverie in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) of the prehuman origins of life, Verne has played the safer strategy, making sure that Axel is yanked back from his dream before he falls too deeply into it. Verne’s most extreme experiment in future history, the short story ‘The Eternal Adam” (“L’Eternel Adam,” in Hier et demain [Yesterday and Tomorrow], 1910), which was probably co-written with Verne’s son Michel, envisages the long now as a recursive series of collapses and resurrections of civilization, but there is no question that turns of the series must take their meaning from human recognition of their pattern.
Similarly, the historical vision of H.G. Wells’s early scientific romances—to which Chatelain and Slusser devote most of their comparison of Rosny with his contemporaries—is irreducibly anthropic. The terrestrial microbes to which the Martians of The War of the Worlds (1898) fall prey cannot be said to have infected their new hosts in our interest, but the infection manages nonetheless to preserve human domination of the planet. The monstrous products of Dr. Moreau’s surgery in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) aspire, tragically, to an ersatz humanity, whereas the speciation of the Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine (1895) spells out the future degeneration of Victorian society into a literal parody of itself. The Time Traveler’s vision of the entropic end of time—some green slime and a football-shaped, tentacled thing hopping about on a darkened beach—is of the distant terminus of intelligence, observed by a human interloper who is there to measure the significance of the scene and who flees from it in horror.
Rosny’s difference from his contemporaries in the degree of his leveling of human priorities within natural-historical phenomena leads Chatelain and Slusser to their primary and probably controversial claim: Rosny—not Verne, Wells, or any of the other major writers of the early twentieth century—is the first author of genuinely hard sf. That genre, they argue, is not characterized by the presence in the story-world of technological apparatus or its consistency with a particular scientific model, but by a critical world-view that informs the logic of the writing and the fiction, “a vision of the human condition and human evolution that does not violate material process but coincides with it, as far as we understand its workings. Essential to this vision, as it develops over the twentieth century, is the question of a posthuman or, more accurately transhuman possibility” (li). In this reading, the hardness of Rosny’s transhumanism is measured out in his unsentimental commitment to natural-historical causality and “evolutionary ecology,” and unapologetic decentering of human actors in the contact events that put those systems into play or reveal their consequences. Rosny, then, counts as the first writer of hard sf not because he writes about accepted scientific principles (there is little of that) or realist technoscience (there is less of that), but because his fiction is perhaps the first in sf in which human agency is posited rigorously among, alongside, and not above, myriad nonhuman agencies of a materialist universe.
It is an appealing argument in several respects. But Rosny’s innovations here are, I think, more inconsistent than Chatelain and Slusser assert. Rational transhumanism is a primary motive force of his fiction, and no one else was writing quite like him at the time. But his literary products are—as Stableford acknowledges more openly—uneven. Rosny is a sloppy writer; he mixes stylistic and narrative techniques carelessly; he takes shortcuts; he often cannot see his way through to the ends of his premises. After a promising start, he appears not to have been able to bring “Another World,” or subsequent reworkings of its story, to a satisfying conclusion.5 Despite its impressive elements of historical self-reflection, “The Xipéhuz” is no less an allegory of origins—perhaps also a scientific allegory of origins—than is Freud’s Totem and Taboo (which comes to much the same conclusion: civilization was born from an act of murderous violence). And Targ’s dissolution among the ferromagnetics can only hint at more radical possibilities. If it anticipates the unresisting exit of Olaf Stapledon’s Last Men and First Men (1930) but manages to avoid the “brave theme: … man himself at the very least is music” (Stapledon 304) that flags Stapledon’s soft anthropism, it still rings a note of decidedly human aspiration. Targ sobs as death “[enters] his heart” and his “few small pieces” [parcelles] enter “humbly” [humblement] into the New Life; his last act is not so uninterested in the outcome as the inhuman forces that compel it. I think Stableford’s intuition (435) is correct—that there is in Rosny’s writing a hint, sometimes more than a hint, of a will to transcendence that marks the author’s personal investment in the ends of his evolutionary ecologies.
Still, what I take to be Chatelain and Slusser’s underlying approach here is an intriguing contribution to sf historiography. It shifts measures of hardness away from the technoscientific fetishism that has driven the rightward bent of hard sf in recent decades (Bould and Vint 148-52) and repositions the problem of definition in relation to a concept of science as a general praxis of critical reasoning, not a system of technical a prioris and preprogrammed outcomes, (which may, on the other hand, further muddy the already problematic distinction between harder and softer sf. Chatelain and Slusser’s measure has more to do with the notional science of hard sf than its hardness.) Less convincing is their claim that Rosny’s writing is typically hard because he uses opaque neologisms to name “devices that already exist in this future world, and the reader is left the task of explaining their function by witnessing them” (liv), which they compare to Heinlein’s invention of waldoes. It seems more probable that Rosny’s invented words express incomplete and uncompletable meanings —again, more allegorical than denotative.
Stableford’s introduction to this, the first of six volumes of Rosny’s fiction he has translated for Black Coat Press, is mostly devoted to Rosny’s literary milieu and troubled career, especially his role in the (Edmond de) Goncourt circle, his early Naturalist fiction written partly under Goncourt’s influence, the sometimes savage responses of contemporaries to Rosny’s break with Naturalism, and his relations with Maurice Renard, another major figure of early French sf. (Renard’s “scientific marvel fiction” is—pace Chatelain and Slusser—closer in spirit to Wells than to Rosny, who, Stableford notes, rejected comparisons of his work to Wells’s.)6 Though the title of Chatelain and Slusser’s collection suggests a direct line between Rosny’s prehistoric and posthuman fictions, it is Stableford who makes the clearer case for the conceptual continuity of Rosny’s prehistoric fantasies—not just “The Xipéhuz”—with transhumanist elements of his later sf.
The volume also includes translations of several important short and long works that are not in the Chatelain and Slusser collection. “The Navigators of Space” (Les Navigateurs de l’infini, 1925) describes the first human voyage to Mars, with the surprising turn of something like interspecies (Earthling-Martian) erotic communion though, as Stableford notes, the details are observed with an indistinctness that seems more repressed than discreet. “The Astronauts” (“Les Astronauts,” 1960) is a flawed short sequel to “Navigators,” and is probably not entirely Rosny’s work. Stableford’s annotations to “The Skeptical Legend” (“La Légende sceptique,” 1889) are helpful in unpacking this difficult, uneven, but probably essential essay, the closest thing to a comprehensive statement by Rosny of his overall fictional project. In his excellent critical afterword, Stableford credits as the essay’s most compelling idea the concept of physiologie planétaire (“planetary physiology”), by which Rosny appears to mean not a general, biological condition of life on Earth or another planet but something more like a universal mechanism of communication through which all forms of life here and elsewhere may be linked. (Another neologism: a planétaire in “The Death of the Earth” is a communication system that connects the distant oases, a sort of radio-based Internet.) The connection of this figure of the planétaire to evolutionary ecology would seem to be a potentially productive subject for future Rosny studies as it goes to the heart of something fundamental in his fictional imaginary. The historical and anthropological arc of biology crosses over via the system of the planetary into a trans- or even extra-human mediality, the signifying condition of existing and succeeding pluralities of life, marked in Rosny’s fascination with exchanges between species: Bakhoûn’s interpretations of the Xipéhuz glyphs, the mutant’s use of a phonograph to make his speech comprehensible, Targ’s conversations with the intelligent birds and eventual dispersal among the ferromagnetics, the ferromagnetics’ enigmatic ability to reproduce with one another at a distance. (Here Rosny anticipates, in a less pessimistic register, the contact narratives of Stanislaw Lem.)
Translators of both collections have had to deal with Rosny’s eccentric literary style. Stableford, who calls his English-language versions “adaptations,” presumably in acknowledgment of the difficulties of translation, attributes most of Rosny’s narrative and stylistic defects to the French author’s “patchwork” compositional method and failures to revise (29). Compared to Chatelain and Slusser’s translations, Stableford’s are the more literal, which makes the patchwork more evident, though helpful footnotes alert the reader to important word play in the original French. There are a few minor errors of translation and a fair number of typographic glitches, perhaps traces of the great speed with which the Black Coat Press texts are produced. Chatelain and Slusser’s renderings are more fluid and idiomatic, while still preserving about as much of Rosny’s distinctive syntax as grammatical English can sustain. (The book is, like other titles in the Wesleyan series, handsomely produced and impeccably edited.) A minor, unnecessary infelicity of their text: in the moment of nearest interspecies communication in “The Xipéhuz,” when Bakhoûn deciphers the meaning of some of the luminous symbols the cones display on their interlocutors’ bodies, the translators substitute for Rosny’s original glyphs a series of “equivalent” symbols of a system of their own devising (14). Stableford’s renderings of the glyphs (75) more accurately duplicate the hand-drawn and typographic composites of the first published version of the story and subsequent French editions.7
Given the different emphases of the critical introductions and the editors’ different approaches to problems of translation, each of these collections is essential reading for Anglophone readers new to Rosny, and recommended for anyone in search of a fuller understanding of Rosny’s importance in early French and world sf. Both collections include substantial bibliographies of recommended readings: Stableford lists the principal contemporary critical responses to, and biographical writings on, Rosny; Chatelain and Slusser include comprehensive lists of French and English editions of Rosny’s sf titles and the primary biographical and critical studies in both languages. Regrettably, neither collection includes an index.
1. See, among other articles, Evans, “Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction” and “The Verne School in France”; and Vernier, “The SF of J.H. Rosny the Elder.”
2. See J.-H. Rosny aîné, Romans préhistoriques. Stableford’s six volumes of translations of Rosny for Black Coat Press include the works collected in this omnibus.
3. The best single-volume collection of Rosny’s sf is Récits de science-fiction, which omits his long sf novel La Force mystérieuse (The Mysterious Force, 1914). Stableford’s Black Coat Press translations include the novel and most of the texts collected in Récits.
4. See my essay “Where is Verne’s Mars?”
5. Rosny would return to the basic scenario of Another World in “La Jeune Vampire” (The Young Vampire, 1920) and “Dans le monde des variants” (In the World of the Variants, 1939).
6. See Evans, “The Fantastic SF of Maurice Renard.” Stableford has translated five volumes of Renard’s short and long fiction published by Black Coat Press.
7. See Les Xipéhuz (1887), 285–86; in Récits de science-fiction, 114–15. Stableford’s text reverses the direction of the final glyph in the series.
Bould, Mark, and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Evans, Arthur B. “The Fantastic Science Fiction of Maurice Renard.” SFS 21.3 (1994): 380–96.
─────. “Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné.” SFS 15.1 (1988): 1–11.
─────. “The Verne School in France: Paul d’Ivoi’s ‘Voyages Excentriques.’” SFS 36.2 (2009): 217–34.
Harpold, Terry. “Where is Verne’s Mars?” Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science. Eds. Howard V. Hendrix, George E. Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. 29–35.
Rosny aîné, J.-H. The Givreuse Enigma and Other Stories. Ed. and trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2010.
─────. The Mysterious Force and Other Anomalous Phenomena. Ed. and trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2010.
─────. Récits de science-fiction. Ed. Jean-Baptiste Baronian. Verviers: Éditions Gérard, 1973.
─────. Romans préhistoriques. Ed. Jean-Baptiste Baronian. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1985.
─────. Vamireh and Other Prehistoric Fantasies. Ed. and trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2010.
─────. The World of the Variants and Other Strange Lands. Ed. and trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2010.
─────.“Les Xipéhuz.” L’Immolation. Paris: Albert Savine, 1887. 249–328.
─────. The Young Vampire and Other Cautionary Tales. Ed. and trans. Brian Stableford. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2010.
Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. 1930. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988.
Vernier, J.P. “The SF of J.H. Rosny the Elder.” SFS 2.2 (1975): 156–63.
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