Science Fiction Studies

#132 = Volume 44, Part 2 = July 2017


Terry Harpold

Roman Scientifique and Its Discontents

Brian Stableford. The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique. Encino, CA: Black Coat, 2016. 672 pp. $49.95 pbk.

In a little less than two decades’ time, Brian Stableford has edited, translated, and published with Black Coat Press more than 150 volumes of previously untranslated French science fiction originally published before the mid-twentieth century—in addition to, and within the same period, a prodigious stream of original short and long sf in English, several edited collections, and more than two dozen volumes of criticism and history. Stableford’s stamina and productivity may be unparalleled in the field. This colossal project to recover French texts unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers has opened to view an important chapter of sf’s development of which many enthusiasts and scholars remain unaware. The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique (hereafter Plurality) is a critical facet of the recovery effort, combining excerpts from Stableford’s introductions and afterwords to the translated volumes with new material that relocates this famously varied and fractious genre within an historical and theoretical framework that makes clear its originality and influence on modern sf. The book constitutes the most comprehensive survey of the French roman scientifique (approximately, “scientific romance”) to date in any language.

Plurality is divided into six chapters, bracketed by a lengthy introduction and conclusion, the latter of which is followed by “A Chronology of Roman Scientifique, 1657–1939,” a critical bibliography, a nine-page list of relevant Black Coat Press titles, and an index of the nearly 750 authors discussed. (Regrettably, the index lists only proper names and page numbers.) The first two chapters, on the legacies of medieval romances, contes philosophiques, and the imaginary voyage, and the scientific and philosophical settings of the Enlightenment, set the backgrounds for roman scientifique’s emergence in the early nineteenth century. The remainder of the book focuses on works published between 1789 and 1939, i.e., between the French Revolution and the outbreak of World War II. (Stableford notes that the cutoff date is “at least a decade too early” [17], adding that another ten years of literary excavation would be needed to sort out a more complete view.) These discussions are organized by political or scientific contexts, or by literary themes (“The End of the World,” “New Utopias,” “Travels in Space and Time,” “Future Wars,” “Apes and Supermen,” etc.), and generally work through authors and texts in historical order of their publication. Longer discussions, in some cases across multiple chapters, are devoted to major figures such as Restif de la Bretonne (whom Stableford credits as the most important early author of roman scientifique), Camille Flammarion, Maurice Renard, Albert Robida, J.-H. Rosny, and Jules Verne. Unsurprisingly, Verne, his imitators and fellow-travelers (Jules Gros, André Laurie, Georges Le Faure, and others), are given prominence, but Stableford also turns a spotlight on writers such as Flammarion and Rosny, who were nearly as decisive influences on modern French sf, as well as on many lesser-known figures who were popular in their time but are now mostly forgotten. In this cabinet of curiosities it is sometimes difficult to sort out the champions from the also-rans and the left-behinds, but one of the signal strengths of the book is its broad narrative of literary innovation and influence and its even-handed treatments of major and minor figures.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Stableford’s emphasis is on roman scientifique’s evolution. This, he maintains, can be understood only within the genre’s French and Continental contexts; the Anglo-American branch of early sf that is now labeled “scientific romance” emerged to a large degree separately from its European analogue. There were important points of contact and influence: examples include Verne, Wells, Flammarion, and George Chesney (whose “The Battle of Dorking” [1871] inspired more future-war fiction in France than in Chesney’s native England). Prior to the mid-1920s, however, French and Anglo-American sf developed in parallel, with different artistic aims, narrative methods, and cultural statuses. A sign of this on the French side is the inconsistent, overlapping terminology for the genre’s products: roman futuriste [future fiction], roman scientifique, fantasie scientifique [scientific fantasy], merveilleux scientifique [scientific marvel fiction], romans d’hypothèse [hypothetical fiction] (20-23); Stableford devotes a long portion of the Introduction to the histories of these different terms, their partisans and critics, before settling on roman scientifique as the best single rubric, despite its misleading resemblance to the Anglo-American label. The tangled terminology reflects, he argues, the underlying thematic, narrative, and cognitive tangles of the genre, and its resistance during most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to settling on the narrower range of literary aspirations that characterized British and American strains of sf. After the historical divide of the pulp era and the subsequent dominance of American sf—which was more confident in the totemic powers of technology and more fixated on the conquest of planetary frontiers—the complexities of French and British sf were papered over by the all-encompassing rubric “science fiction” (science-fiction in French), and by Hugo Gernsback’s retconning consolidation of “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story” (3). Plurality embraces the unevenness, the fits and starts of roman scientifique, rejecting Stableford’s own earlier description of it as “proto-science fiction” (12)—that trajectory of development seems to him now too linear—in favor of something that appears to have been less a precursor than a series of interesting detours and dead ends along the way.

In this reading, roman scientifique functioned as both an important signal and a sometime instigator of literature’s adaptation to the age of technoscience; it repurposed habits of romantic and naturalist fiction to new patterns of meaning derived from the new sciences, while appearing to keep to familiar strategies of storytelling and reception. Stableford stresses here roman scientifique’s roots in transgressive eighteenth-century writing (the contes philosophiques and the more scandalous strains of “philosophical”—i.e., under-the-counter—literature) and the genre’s resulting skepticism of social and cultural mores (35). In its most original moments, he observes, the genre refuses “the satisfactions that the majority of readers want and expect from fiction” (33): the normalizing endings and “happily ever after” resolutions that were increasingly rendered improbable by the era’s wrenching changes in technology, culture, and politics. When conventional resolutions of plot and conflict do occur, Stableford asserts, “they never quite ring true” (33). Whereas, for example, American sf of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced the conquest of outer space because it dovetailed with the imperial aspirations of the United States, in Britain and France the terrors of a First World War, the specter of a second, and the coming decline of colonial power fostered greater uncertainty and pessimism.

Stableford’s assertion that a defining trait of roman scientifique, or at least of its best examples, is a refusal to normalize readerly satisfactions (32–33) is appealing, though it is perhaps more a formula for the genre’s aspirations, or even the aspirations of sf more generally, than a description of what the genre most often achieved. The failure of roman scientifique to adhere to one or more affirmative mythologies could have been a symptom of the obdurate complexity of the literature, which might have in fact needed all of those alternative labels to capture its range. And there are plenty of normalizing resolutions in the genre, not just in the simple sense of “happily ever after” closures to the adventure—Verne and Flammarion are notorious for those—but also in assertions of gender, racial, and national privilege; there are plenty of those to go around, particularly in the nastier strains of future-war and race- war fiction. (There are interesting exceptions. Stableford devotes a good deal of his discussion to the portion of roman scientifique that embraced eutopian and uchronian solutions, and forecast classless and gender-equal societies.) Later figures such as Maurice Renard and J.–H. Rosny aîné may be considered counter-examples; their storyworlds tend to be anything but reassuring. And one suspects that Verne’s framing is not always serious, though Flammarion’s narrative mechanics and clumsy metaphysical arguments are always in earnest. The claim, however, that roman scientifique purposely frustrates readers’ expectations of notionally realistic or culturally affirmative outcomes gets at something that readers of this literature will recognize: it is shaggy and noncompliant, self-consciously so, and not only because it emerges from multiple sources and wrestles with their legacies. Behind the mannered prose, improbable plots, and clunky stage-machinery, a lot of it appears to be testing literary and cognitive strategies that are now understood to be science-fictional, but which were not typical of dominant strains of sf in the early decades of the

A failure to satisfy equates to a kind of willful literary contrarianism that can be mistaken for a quaint refusal of the scientific bases of the genre or for remnant elements of the merveilleux that harder forms of sf might seek to eliminate. Yet the scientific absurdity of much of the genre, all the creaking and puffing apparatus that seems to us now outdated and unaware, is irrelevant, Stableford insists, to roman scientifique’s actual accomplishments; later critics are missing the point (633) when they fault the genre for its outlandish inventions, mysterious energies, unlikely heroes, and weird physics: “the achievement for which most readers have looked to the genre”—accurate prediction of the future, or depiction of credible alternative futures—“is one that its authors never actually attempted, and in which they would have been bound to fail if [they] had” (628). In any case, only a fraction of roman scientifique was concerned with imagining possible or probable futures; more original than its efforts at prediction, Stableford argues, was the genre’s embrace of the full spectrum of technoscientific disruptions of its moment.

Roman scientifique aimed at, and sometimes achieved, an ideal that golden age sf genres more often missed: the upending of readerly confidence in the verisimilitude of little-r realism or little-n naturalism and the embracing of what Stableford terms the “anti-story”:

rebellious not only against the fundamental fiction that the world is the way conventional fiction represents it to be, but against the conventions of fiction itself.… Roman scientifique is not only self-contradictory because science, as truth, is not supposed to have any truck with fiction, but because fiction, no matter what its essential hypocrisies might contend, is not supposed to have any truck with truth. (632)

He admits that the actual achievements of the genre were, and were always bound to be, mixed: anti-stories must be rarer than stories, because opposition to convention must be rarer than convention, and the energies of the marketplace tend to resist innovation and disruption. “The wonder,” he observes,

is that roman scientifique existed at all between the eighteenth century and the 1930s, and that it was sometimes done well—with authentic genius in its finest examples, along with a necessary hint of madness—and that even in its tawdriest examples there is very often a valuable spark of self-contradictory enlightenment, which makes them worthwhile in spite of their camouflage and their frequent capitulations to the deadly pattern of popular demand. (634)

This might suggest that readers’ caprice is most to blame for the genre’s diminishing returns over time, but Stableford reserves his strongest barbs for the “self-appointed members of the intelligentsia”—he means contemporary critics who dismiss roman scientifique as a lapsed experiment—who “hate science, because science is too difficult for minds that pride themselves on intelligence to grasp” (633). What those critics mistake in the genre, he argues, is its embrace of counter-intuitive, irresolutely skeptical thinking that, irreverently, (re)makes the world according to its rules and the devil take the hindmost of effortless storytelling.

The breakneck pace of Stableford’s translating, editing, and writing in recent years shows in production glitches of this and other of his Black Coat Press titles; Plurality includes a fair number of minor typographic and formatting errors. Another missed opportunity is the uneven quality of the book’s black and white illustrations of covers, title pages, and interior illustrations of the works discussed. Many of these images are obviously low-resolution scans of print originals, probably acquired from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica online repository. (Stableford notes that Gallica, the Base de données francophone de l’imaginaire [Database of Francophone Literature of the Imagination] and similar archival web sites have opened access to numerous French sf titles that are impossible to find otherwise.)

A lack of good-quality illustrations has long been a weakness of comprehensive critical reference works on sf, even as it is understood that the field’s graphic canon is uniquely deep, diverse, and of key importance to its development. (Of relevance here: the first great era of sf illustration begins in the nineteenth century during the rise of the roman scientifique.) An author or editor of a reference work faces the challenges of determining which illustrations to include, of finding fair copies of images not born digital, and of prohibitive expenses of image reproduction and permissions for works still in copyright; color reproduction is usually out of the question. Standard historical sf references often include no illustrations, even in chapters that discuss visual media. The few critical surveys that feature extensive illustrations and that are not of the coffee-table book variety—Brian Ash’s Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1983) and John Clute’s Science Fiction: The Illustrated Edition (1995), for example—sacrifice depth to wider treatments of multiple media; they are useful for their purposes but their critical analysis tends to be abbreviated. The first print edition of Nicholls, Clute, et al.’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1972) included many illustrations. These were omitted from the second print edition for reasons of space and expense; the online third edition includes illustrations by way of a “Picture Gallery” cross-linked with the Encyclopedia’s text entries. The product of a pre-digital publishing regime, Pierre Versin’s Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science fiction [Encyclopedia of Utopia, Extraordinary Voyages, and Science Fiction, 1972] is in this regard the model of the printed critical reference, copiously illustrated and ornamented with attractive and informative images. Guy Costes and Joseph Altaïrac’s Les Terres creuses: Bibliographie commentée des mondes souterrains imaginaires [Hollow Earths: Annotated Bibliography of Imaginary Underworlds, 2007], though produced digitally, is similarly handsomely illustrated. (Comparisons of Plurality to Versins and Costes and Altaïrac’s magisterial, unapologetically sui generis studies seem appropriate.) Plurality’s inclusion of images is an important corrective of a publishing orthodoxy that has distorted the image-textual history of sf, but it is unfortunate that many of the works discussed are unavailable in formats that can do justice to their rich visual allures.

Plurality was designed to be, as Stableford observes early on, the companion project to his history of British scientific fiction, New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance, the 2016 four-volume expansion/ revision of his one-volume 1985 study Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890–1950 (reviewed in SFS 44.1 [1988]: 159-63). Like Versin’s Encyclopédie (and New Atlantis and Scientific Romance), Plurality is a manifestly personal work, the record of an individual’s vision of a literature with which he has unequaled familiarity, and whose role in the invention of literary modernity has, he believes, been unappreciated. In the pages of this journal, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Versins, Nicholls, and Clute were still arguing for sf’s literary importance when the first editions of their mammoth doorstops were published in 1972 and 1979. The battle for sf’s merit as an object of academic research has since (mostly) been won, but apart from the serious attention paid to its best-known figures (Verne and Wells, mostly), roman scientifique and scientific romance have been treated (mostly) as abandoned branches of sf’s evolutionary tree or—another bit of perverse retconning—as precursors of latter-day steampunk. There is a palpable sentiment running through Plurality that Stableford feels he must defend the worth of roman scientifique’s place among other speculative genres and to plant a flag there: “the real purpose of the project, I am perfectly ready to admit, is a feeble and perhaps ridiculous hope of leaving behind a few particles of thought that seem precious to me, although the inevitable conclusion of the exercise is that they are unlikely to seem so to many other people” (630). This note of self-deprecation could make Stableford’s project (and the project of roman scientifique, if it can be said to have only one or just a few projects) seem excessively sui generis, or perhaps past their expiration dates. But that is a wrong-headed interpretation of what is objectively a closely reasoned, superbly documented, original synthesis of an astonishing amount of material to which no one else has devoted equal care. Plurality demonstrates very clearly the lasting significance of roman scientifique for modern sf, and the genre’s anticipation, better than its immediate successors, of the conditions in which fiction could and would remain culturally indispensable in the twentieth century. All the shopworn trappings of its plots, its frequently nonsensical “science,” its dubious fondness for melodrama, its failures to pry itself loose from the nationalisms, racisms, and sexisms of its time—none of these glitches were or are unique to roman scientifique, and they have not been cast out of sf generally. All of this aside, the great innovation of the genre, Stableford argues, is its fundamental irreverence—he terms this its “whimsy”—with regard to the fictional norms of its time. Whimsy “does not go anywhere, in the sense of having an intellectual destination, but it does go away from the fundamental lie that the world envisaged by conventional mundane fiction really is the world as our existential situation ought to compel us to experience it” (633; emphasis in original). That could be, and I suspect that it is for Stableford, a credo of excellent science fiction tout court. One need only add the caveat that the storyworlds of roman scientifique belong to a narrower slice of sf, one in which Dr. Faustroll is of the same party as Dr. Frankenstein.

Plurality is a spirited defense of the most important strains of French sf in the long nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It belongs on the scholar’s and enthusiast’s shelf alongside Versins, Nicholls and Clute, et al., as a unique and compelling record of a genre that deserves renewed critical attention. And it is unlikely to be the author’s final word on the subject. As I write this (January 2017), I count on the Black Coat Press site more than a dozen forthcoming new translations by Stableford.

Ash, Brian, ed. The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Harmony, 1983.
Base de données francophone de l’imaginaire. 1999-. Online.
Clute, John. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: DK, 1995.
─────, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 3d ed. London, Gollancz, 2011–. Online.
Costes, Guy, and Joseph Altaïrac. Les Terres creuses. Bibliographie commentée des mondes souterrains imaginaires. Amiens: Encrage, 2007.
Gallica. Bibliothèque nationale de France. 1997-. Online.
Gernsback, Hugo. “A New Sort of Magazine.” Amazing Stories 1.1 (Apr. 1926): 3.
Stableford, Brian. New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance. 4 vols. Rockville, MD: Wildside, 2016.
─────. Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890–1950. New York: St. Martin, 1985.
Versins, Pierre. Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science fiction. Lausanne: Éditions l’Age d’Homme, 1972, 1984.

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