Science Fiction Studies

#69 = Volume 23, Part 2 = July 1996


George Slusser

French Science Fiction: The Occluded Genre

Jean-Marc Gouanvic. La science-fiction française au XXe siècle (1900-1968): Essai de socio-poétique d'un genre en émergence. Amsterdam: Editions Rodolpi B.V. (USA orders: 800-225-3998), 1994. 292pp. $27.50.

Critical studies that deal exclusively with French sf are rare in French, and rarer yet in English. An adequate critical overview has yet to appear in either language. The reason for this, perhaps, is not only (as Gouanvic's subtitle suggests) that French sf is an "emerging genre," but a genre that has never emerged, a form of literature that, unlike its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, has never sufficiently defined its own identity in relation to French literary tradition and its dominant canon. Symptomatic here may be the fact that the French sf critics capable of producing this critical overview, have chosen instead to write of American sf: Pascal Thomas and Pierre K. Rey's La nou velle science-fiction américaine (1981), then Gérard Cordesse's work of the same title (Aubier, 1984). Possibly the best general study on sf in French to date, Roger Bozzetto's L'obscur objet d'un savoir: Fantastique et science-fiction: deux littératures de l'imaginaire (Aix-en-Provence: PUP, 1992), seems to have in mind, as a point of contrast, the Anglo-Saxon model, when he seeks to define the relationship of sf in France to the high literary culture in that country:

Nous présenterons trois états marquants des relations entretenues entre la science-fiction et l'ensemble du système littéraire. Avant 1950, où elle est à la fois dans le domaine de la littérature et dans l'infralittéraire de 1950 à 1954, et de cette date ý 1965 où elle s'est constituée en paralittérature. (185) [I will present three phases that define the relationship between science fiction and the literary establishment: before 1950, when it was viewed as littérature and from 1950 to 1954, as infralittérature, and then from the latter date to 1965 when it came to be known as paralittérature.]

What seems enviable in American sf is that it parted ways with "literature," and henceforth did not need to define itself by such a relationship: it was neither "below" nor was it "parallel to" literature; it was something else altogether. To Bozzetto, a literature of scientific extrapolation, as promised by Verne, failed to develop and to achieve generic identity during the period that encompassed the two world wars. Pierre Astier however speaks of a general "crise du roman français" during this period. Writers were trying diverse forms of fiction, among them the utopian novel, even the novel of anticipation. There was no consensus or direction until the New Novel emerged after World War II. In relation to this mainstream, French sf (as clearly distinct from American imports of this period) remained a "paraliterary" form. As such, it merely shadows the central process of French literary culture at this time, which was to develop (in revolt against the old "realist" hegemony Robbe-Grillet imputed to Balzac) new forms of otherwise recognizable fantastic or surrealist narrative. Bozzetto sees French sf as never achieving more than a virtual existence: "la sf française pourrait en effet se proposer comme un exemple pour hybrider la culture sf et la littérature d'avant-garde." [French sf could in fact offer itself as a model for the hybridization of sf and avant-garde littérature.] (my italics).1 In post-Vernian France however, it seems there was no "sf culture" per se. Even the themes and forms of American sf, which after World War II could have brought about a hybridization, were filtered through a critical and reviewing apparatus that sought to turn them too into avatars of surrealism. Indeed, the reason a specifically French sf cannot emerge is because it was there all along, the shadowy twin of the dominant forms of French literary culture. But what French critics do not see, the Anglo-Saxon reader fortunate enough to read French sees clearly.

This long preamble is necessary to put Gouanvic's book in perspective. This book is clearly a recycled thesis, one whose titular parameters, 1900 to 1968, alert us in its terminus post quem to its year of redaction. Or to the fact that he, like many intellectuals of that period, saw the aborted "revolution" of May 68 as a culminating moment, beyond which all was anticlimax. Whatever the reason, in 1994 Gouanvic is again telling the reader that French sf as genre has still not emerged. His short postscript on post-1968 writing in this area shows him aware of the highly significant and prolific work of writers such as Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Michel Jeury, Serge Brussolo, as well as the bandes dessinées of Moebius (Jean Giraud) and Philippe Druillet. Whereas the pre-1968 works Gouanvic discusses rarely bear the publishing designation "SF" (for Fleuve noir the term is "anticipation"), these works do in profusion. He is unwilling to take these works at face value, to believe that their authors believed they were writing sf, and a French sf at that. His unwillingness suggests he felt he had, from his pre-1968 examples, all the evidence he needed to conclude that a distinctively French sf had not, hence would never, come to light. But this is true only if one keeps, as point of comparison and contrast, the Anglo-Saxon model (or its aborted Vernian form). This is, implicitly if not openly, Gouanvic's touchstone. Its presence, ironically, blinds him to the import of the very material he presents in his analyses.

Gouanvic offers rich descriptions of the works of several interesting French authors of "anticipatory" fiction from 1900 to 1968. He presents the reader with raw data. He never however asks why he chose these writers to represent the trajectory of his ever- emerging genre. Clearly, in relation to Vernian beginnings, they trace an obviously contrasting path to the Anglo-Saxon model which, in a sense, later assimilated Verne. Here, it is the turning away from Verne that is evident. Gouanvic does not emphasize or analyze it; yet if we read between his lines, we see a unique form of French sf, affirming its shape, as it goes, in relation to traditional French literature.

The first question the reader asks is why Gouanvic chooses to begin his study with the date 1900? This effectively locates the origins of sf in France, not as one might expect with Verne and 19th century "positivism," but rather with J.H. Rosny aîné, and the Wellsian elegaic pessimism of a work like La Mort de la terre (1910; The Death of the Earth, 1972). Gouanvic however makes nothing of this choice. The next writer he discusses in detail is Maurice Renard. Though he claims to see Renard as a critic both of Wells/Rosny and Verne, it is clear from his descriptions alone that the "anti-Vernian" strain wins out. The "serious" side of Le péril bleu (1912) for example leans toward the Wells of War of the Worlds and the Rosny of La Force mystérieuse; its clownish "sub-plot" is a chase lifted from Le Tour du monde en 80 jours, complete with British policemen and Turkish villains. Gouanvic's third major author, Jacques Spitz, who represents the entre deux guerres and specifically the 1930s, is chosen again for anti-Vernian reasons. Gouanvic tells us he chose Spitz because "ces romans possèdent certains caractères qui les inscrivent dans le grand courant de la littérature satirique à la suite des Cyrano et des Voltaire" (135) [These novels possess certain traits which identify them as part of the great tradition of satirical literature stemming from Cyrano and Voltaire.] From the plot summaries we are given however, the "satire" in Spitz's novels, correcting the alien invasion scenarios of Wells and Rosny, is that of the late Voltaire's Candide or the poem on the disaster of Lisbon. Gouanvic classifies Spitz's novels in the following manner: cataclysmic narratives; tales of mutation (like the well-known La Guerre des mouches (1938) [The War of the Flies] where reasoning flies defeat and exterminate humanity); and what he calls tales of "anticipation," which, he says, serve to "foretell" a series of disastrous and unavoidable futures. But what is called "satire" here takes Renard's travesty of Vernian positivism to a different level. The model here is the "philosophical" tale in the strong sense of the 18th century philosophes. Spitz however carries this off in heavy handed manner. Wanting to replay Voltaire's assault on Leibnizian optimism, Spitz's approach does not take us through an implacable series of ironic deflations, but leads to open affirmation of cosmic pessimism. Gouanvic's description of L'Oeil du purgatoire (1945) for example, presents the voyage of a modern Candide, this time to the end of Wellsian spacetime. But here, the search is not to find impressions to fill a blank sheet, but rather (as with a character in a Lem novel) a staged alien encounter that leads to revelation of the universe as mirror. Not only is what the protagonist has been pursuing nothing more than the image of himself, but now it is the nature of that image to remain forever a blank sheet.

Finally, Gouanvic's choice of Fleuve noir anticipation writers B.R. Bruss and Stefan Wul (Pierre Pairault) to represent post-World-War II French sf is highly significant. Again however, the reader must read between the lines to understand why this choice might offer clues as to the nature of a French sf genre. Gouanvic has left the between-wars period of the "crise du roman français," and is finally dealing with an sf-specific publishing line. Despite the venue however, the works of the two writers, when Gouanvic describes the manner in which they treat apparently stock sf themes, reveal a sophistication, indeed a "philosophical" intent in the best French sense of the word, that marks them as something very different from what the Anglo-Saxon reader would think of as "popular" or mass fiction. In effect, there is no hiatus between the works of Rosny or Spitz, and these novels, which seem to be their natural continuation. Gouanvic however, perhaps because he has little faith in the continuity of the anti-Vernian, "mainstream" tradition he himself has traced from Rosny, or perhaps, falling back on the Anglo-Saxon model he evokes elsewhere, insists at this point in making a distinction between "serious" sf and "science-fiction de série" (by which he means mass market sf). The question is however, in such a homogeneous and monolithic culture like that of France, that turns juvenile literature into Tintin and mystery fiction into San Antonio, and where the only recognizable "pulp" sf by our standards is a sub-Vernian feuilleton called Les Aventuriers du ciel, is there really a mass market literature, or a mass market sf? Once we eliminate this mass literature habitus, either as dumping ground for the tasteless and "non-literary," or as place of gestation (in the Anglo-Saxon myth) whence a brand-new hence "vital" genre is born, then we must look elsewhere to find a French sf. Gouanvic's series of texts offers evidence of a coherent form of sf, operating within, not outside of, the French literary tradition. French critics seem to wish it were otherwise.

The real problem, in discussing Fleuve noir writers, is to read their novels in light of the criteria set, during the same period from 1955-1965, by the more "literary" theoreticians associated with the journal Fiction. This publication, originally intended to be the French-language version of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, gradually evolved, in the hands of Gérard Klein and others, into a forum for defining a uniquely "French" form of sf. The Fiction editors looked down on Fleuve noir as hacks, slavishly imitating the worst of an Anglo-Saxon sf they wished to eschew. Ironically however, it is this popular or "mass" sf production, not the more "literary" writers, that remained the most "French." First of all, Fleuve noir used predominantly French authors, thus was all but closed to Anglo-Saxon influence. The critics of Fiction were perhaps beguiled by the American-looking covers, and the "American" pseudonyms of writers like Bruss and Wul. But it is doubtful they read much farther. Klein, under the name of Gilles d'Argyre (the joke is "argent"--money) wrote what he thought were meta-fictional parodies of Fleuve noir novels. The irony is that these, sharing a same cultural fascination for poetic symbolism that runs from Baudelaire to surrealism, merely read like more ornate and self-conscious versions of the typical Fleuve noir narrative. The Fiction critics sifted through US imports until they came up with a definition of sf based on selectively kindred "surrealists" like Van Vogt and Dick. At the same time however, Stefan Wul, drawing sources of inspiration primarily from French culture, produced organically the sort of sf these critics were trying to define. Gouanvic, at the end of his study, still asserts that a true "science fiction française" has not yet come to be. His reader, all the while, has witnessed, in the historical description and plot summaries given, the clear sense of a developing, and uniquely French, form of French sf.

Gouanvic has a couple of intriguing formulas to describe the literature he presents, but fails to define their descriptive potential for French sf as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon forms (fictional and critical) he assumes are dominant, or even the East- European (in his words "satiric") model expressed in Darko Suvin's "cognitive estrangement." Gouanvic's first formula is "la poétique de l'altérité," and it is precisely this he sees lacking in the work of a B.R. Bruss. "Altérité" is not "alien encounter," which implies an active, expansive quest, a reaching-out to the other, both physically and cognitively, in order to communicate with it, assimilate or conquer it. Nor is there any sense of a dialectic process: the cognitive de-centering of Suvin's sf novum. Rather Gouanvic describes the relation between his set of binaries "poétique" and "altérité" in terms of the following process: "penser ensemble cognition et sublimation." [to think at once cognitively and spiritually]. This echoes the program of Pascal in his use of the word "pensée." Pascal hoped to subsume two irreducibly contrary modes of thought the "contrariétés" of rational (or "scientific") reason and that higher form of thought he locates in the "heart" ("le coeur a ses raisons...") in an inverse relationship he called "renversement." Pascal sums up the condition of thinking mankind in relation to this universal dynamic (the "I" speaking here is God) in Pensée 420: "If he raise himself up, I lower him; if he lower himself, I raise him up; and I always contradict him, till he understands he is an incomprehensible monster." Indeed, it is just such a condition that marks the protagonists of the sf literature Gouanvic describes. These, enacting this "poétique de l'altérité," are seen both seeking to escape their social situation, and to embrace and accept it. Gouanvic however, in faulting a Bruss for not achieving this poetics of otherness, seems to shift to Suvin's model of the "novum," rather than following the cultural logic of his phrase, from Pascal to Rimbaud.

In this light, one aspect of Gouanvic's analysis is highly significant. His final argument for calling the sf of B.R. Bruss "regressive" (thus "popular") in relation to the more literary forms of Rosny and Spitz is the presence of "conservative" paradigms of courtly love and adventure in Bruss's novels. Taken on a superficial level, the politics of Bruss (the pen name of Roger Blondel) seem fair game for Gouanvic's 1960s leftism: his work is "familocentric" (Gouanvic sees this as "Petainist," but also has to admit it is stock and trade in American sf writers like Asimov), or sentimental, or preaching jingoist "courage" in the face of the enemy. Beyond surface cultural traits however, one identifies a deeper cultural continuity here, which links the binary of courtly romance love and adventure to the centrally dominant binary relationship of mind and matter formulated in the 17th century by Descartes and Pascal. Insofar as paradigms of courtly romance seem to abound in post-Cartesian France, it is possible to see this horizontal (or narrative) model of love and adventure coming to serve as analogue to Pascal's vertical model of "renverse ment," by which man as thinking reed, weakest thing in the universe and yet the only thinking thing in that universe, is replaced again and again at the median point between infinitely large and infinitely small. Gouanvic's comparison of Bruss's sf and Erec et Enide, the twelfth century novel of Chrétien de Troyes, does not seem so far-fetched then, when we provide a Cartesian or Pascalian link. Making this comparison, just as with the cogito an individual comes to fix his rational existence by means of rational doubt, so "love," in the courtly system, becomes the fixed point of the elliptical seeking called "adventure," in which mind can also be said to inscribe the limits of its reach in relation to res extensa. Chrétien's courtly adventures function in this realm of the rational alien, never leaving it for the realm of the non- rational other. "Supernatural" figures encountered by Yvain, for example, routinely speak and reason with the protagonist, indicating possession of reason, instead of the status of Cartesian machine entities.

Using a term taken from Jesse Pitts, Gouanvic describes the activity of Bruss's protagonists, as they make their trajectory of adventure as "le culte de la prouesse" (with the word "prowess" taken here in a Vernian sense of pure technological wizardry). Instead however, a better descriptive word perhaps is Pascal's "esprit de finesse." Indeed, this term indicates precisely what protagonists in works from Rosny to Bruss do, which is an ability to negotiate the boundary between reason and non-reason, allowing them to explore this boundary, then loop back to the "contractual" realm of family and marriage. This comparison reveals at the very least an astonishing continuity of French literature and culture. And if writers as disparate and wide-flung as Chrétien and Bruss can be terms of comparison here, then sf in France is clearly part of this continuity, hardly surprising when we consider that this same French seventeenth century gave its culture (unique perhaps to Western scientific cultures) both the Cartesian adventure of rational science, and its Pascalian antidote. There are, in fact, further corrections of the romance paradigm of adventure and love. I see developing in narratives that are obvious prototypes of the French sf narrative, Candide for instance, a form of negative finesse. Here the purpose of the displacements that are Candide's adventures is to test the survival of the human center (the cogito or Pascal's "thinking reed") at the same time as the human mind examines possible limits in relation to those infinite spaces of res extensa. Such a paradigm is profoundly different from the Anglo-Saxon model of the scientist or scientific mind as heroic explorer, sailing strange seas of thought alone, or sailing beyond the sunset, seeking so as not to find. What this culture calls alien "encounter," is little more than a turning of the Cartesian method into a tool for conquering the other, a means of pushing the "envelope" farther and farther. For the French however, it seems that if "otherness" or altérité exists, it is in order that the rational mind may act to confirm (and continue to confirm) its existence.

The other very fruitful descriptive term Gouanvic presents, this time to describe the relation of fiction to its scientific "content," is "la dérive imaginative de la science." Just as, for Gouanvic, the "poetics of the other" was best defined in Bruss's failure to achieve it, here this "imaginative swerve," taking fiction out of the pedestrian realm of scientific extrapolation, is discussed at length in relation to the work of another Fleuve noir anticipation writer Stefan Wul. Here again, there seems surprise that a writer, again in a mass-market series is able to negotiate between the "reactionary" needs of his medium and an expression of the poetic imagination. This time it is not the theme of scientific investigation (the search for the "other") that is in question, but the means by which, or medium through which, such investigation takes place, in this case transmuting the banalities of Vernian measurement into surreality. But as with the example of Bruss (whose work does bear comparison with that of a Chrétien on the level of a "poetics of alterity"), here the Rimbaldian "dérive imaginative" of Wul should not occur where it does, but does. This Gouanvic calls "le paradoxe Wul." It is a paradox easy to resolve. For not only is mass literature invariably propaganda from the right, but indeed, the high degree of literary sophistication of this mass literature reveals a continuity which, in this culture, challenges this distinction in the strongest manner.

Gouanvic's term (echoing Rosny's "merveilleux scientifique" yet making more obvious the current that runs from symbolists to surrealists) places us squarely in the broad French tradition. "Dérive" should not to be confused with Suvin's "cognitive estrangement," because the motor here is not cognition but "imagination." Closer perhaps is the Anglo-Saxon term "sense of wonder." Gouanvic's term however is much more precise, describing the act of imagination as it destablizes or "causes to veer off course" facts or "laws" of science. "Imagination" here is neither practical reason nor some esemplastic power. Rather it suggests, more in the Pascalian sense, the interworking of two otherwise antithetical forms of "thought"the "esprit de géometrie" (Pascal's version of our "hard" quantified scientific knowledge), and the "esprit de finesse," directed by the "heart." The paradox of this "dérive imaginative" in Wul is that of Rimbaud's "déréglement raisonné des sens," and the surrealist's fusion of reason and dreamwork. Gouanvic speaks of Wul's use of science giving the reader, along with solid scientific hypotheses, a "plaisir de lecture fondé sur le scientifique." Again, the purpose of such an activity is not, as with the neologism or metaphor of Anglo-Saxon sf, to extend the episte mological field of the reader (quite literally with the neologism, which offers a tenor whose vehicle must be summoned from the not-yet-known). Rather it is to affirm, in this pleasure, the presence of the mind of the reader in relation to the res extensa of the material world that science purports to enumerate. The "sense of wonder" here comes not from proceeding from investigation to discovery of a new hypothesis. It comes from an act of mind as it de-centers known scientific "law." One could compare this affirmation of imagination in the face of science's cold equations with the parity Pascal's reed establishes with the laws of the universe that crushes it. For it knows it is crushed; the universe does not know it crushes.

Let me reiterate. Gouanvic's book offers a richness of information about writers almost never discussed, especially in the English-speaking world. And it offers some intriguing formulations. But in the conceptual sense, it does little or nothing with this material. The general categories Gouanvic applies, such as pro- and anti-science, or popular and "literary" culture, prove less than useful in analyzing the data set forth. Given the "altérité" to the Anglo-Saxon reader of French sf itself, as it seeps through these descriptions and formulations, I would have hoped for an attempt to define the uniqueness of this literature in relation to other strong sf traditions. Certainly, French sf seems unique in the degree to which it has not diverged from the French literary "mainstream," but rather has evolved as an analogue to the symbolist, surrealist, or even "new" novel or narrative. In fact, it is so enfolded in its tradition that most French readers do not know it is there. For these readers, the only literature they know as sf is American sf, which since World War II has stage by stage entered the French market. Bookstores are filled with novels by Heinlein, Benford, Bradley, even L. Ron Hubbard, and they have numerous and devoted readers, notably among members of the scientific and technocratic establishment. And, compared to the very different, monist and materialist view of science espoused by many of these American writers, the works described by Gouanvic, to the average French reader, would not seem to be sf. The French critic however, trained in his dominant literary tradition, sees here the ghost of Jules Verne returning through the American connection. Such a critic, if a critic of sf, does not want his sf to be like American sf. At the same time however, and here is the quandary at the heart of a study like Gouanvic's, he wants this French sf, like American sf, to be different from the mainstream to be vital, new, exciting, emergent.

Perhaps it takes an Anglo-Saxon reader to see that French sf is there. Post-1968, it has produced some extraordinary writers, like Michel Jeury, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, or Serge Brussolo. But they seem so much like regular novels to the French reader that they are not seen. If they wish to identify themselves, they end up being pushed aside by the reader. Bernard Pivot for example, in his popular television book review show, features all kinds of fiction even historicized romances of the "petite histoire" variety and novels about sea-wolves and the proverbial lone Breton sailor who sails the globe but never to my memory a science fiction novel. Were Jeury or Brussolo to take the name "sf" off their covers, they would be reviewed, and their novels would be seen as but another variation on the Cartesian cultural master-narrative I have described above. Indeed, the French sf "establishment" critics writer-editors like Gérard Klein have redefined the work of "kindred" American sf writers like Dick and Van Vogt and Cordwainer Smith, to the point where more recent editors like Jacques Goimard have produced editions packaged non-generically, as fiction. The other American writers are identified as sf, and sell (unheralded, indeed unnoticed, by critics and other cultural guardians). To the average French reader, this is sf; "tout le reste," as Verlaine put it, "est littérature."

Gouanvic's book should have delved into the cultural condition of sf in France. Instead, he systematically obscures ties between sf and the "mainstream." Perhaps he should not be blamed. For this very work of obfuscation was that carried on by the Fiction editors and critics, who as keepers of the gate for American sf systematically redefined French sf until it becomes quite indistinguishable from other (canonical) forms such as the fantastique or merveilleux. Gérard Klein's consummate model for defining sf is not Campbell or Heinlein, but Alice in Wonderland, and we see little difference between the alternate worlds of Cocteau's Orphée, those of Alice, and those of Wul or Jeury. Not even so-called "popular" sf in France is free from this reshaping of American pulp icons and "themes" from within. As Bradford Lyau's very significant work reveals, the Fleuve noir anticipation novels across the board (he read and analyzed the first 200 of these novels, regardless of the "status" of the authors, from Jimmy Guieu to the more "literary" Stefan Wul) were, despite their "popular" venue and audience, in fact latter day "romans philosophiques" in the manner of Cyrano and Voltaire. Within pulp sf space-opera conventions, they develop a space of discussion and commentary on contemporary social issues, operating within parameters of discourse that are apparently shared by the culture at large. Because of his high culture/low culture argument, Gouanvic is unable to see that, behind the space opera mask, what we have is simply the expression of one single culture.

To conclude, there is much of real interest in this book. To date, little has been written on Rosny aîné, and next to nothing on significant writers like Maurice Renard, and especially Stefan Wul. This material needs to be conveyed to English-language scholars of sf, and of French literature in general. I realize that, had Gouanvic attempted to sell an English-language version of his book to a university press either in the US, Canada or the UK, he would have run up against lists vastly overstocked with so- called gender and culture studies. The book was surely pushed back to a French-speaking audience, and the loss to the English language reader is great. Given this situation however, Gouanvic could have expanded the 1900-1968 limits of this thesis, and added a chapter or two on the marvelous production of the 1970s and 1980s. Even in French, there is little or no substantial work on a writer like Michel Jeury, who in his own very French way is one of the great writers to work in the sf field. I only wish Gouanvic had given us an overview of Jeury, to close the loop he opened with Rosny aîné.


1. "Intercultural Interplay: Science Fiction in France and the United States (As Viewed from the French Shore)," SFS 17:124, #50, March 1990. This essay is a revision and expansion of an article published in French in Science-fiction et fiction spéculative, ed. G. Hottois (Bruxelles: Ed. Univ de Bruxelles, 1985), pp. 11-25. Material from this French article, in turn, is incorporated into Bozzetto's later book (1992). What is interesting is the comparison between sf and "fiction spéculative": in this French context, it seems, sf must always seek definition in relation to some other, more generically and culturally established form, and never in relation to its own internal dynamics, at least where French sf is concerned.

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