Science Fiction Studies

#30 = Volume 10, Part 2 = July 1983




Marc Angenot

Albert Robida's Twentieth Century

Albert Robida. Le Vingtième siècle [1883]. Geneva & Paris: Slatkine Reprints, 1981. 400 [+3] pp. & color illus. SFr. 90.00.

Slatkine has recently issued a deliciously faithful reprint of one of Albert Robida's major illustrated SF novels, Le Vingtième siècle (The 20th Century). Although Robida is mainly known as a caricaturist, a lithographer, and an SF and fantasy illustrator (certainly the most gifted of his kind in his century), it should be remembered that he is also the author of a number of prophetic tales and novels, all set in the 20th century and profusely illustrated with tailpieces, sketches, caricatures, and color plates that bear the stamp of an unbridled sense of futurological conjecture and extrapolative insight.

Nicholls' SF Encyclopedia, although admiring Robida's pencil strokes and imaginative vigor, adds that "the constant ironic intelligence of his work is rather undermined by his inability to imagine the future except in terms of more and more gadgetry" (p. 501). I should like to dispute the validity of this judgment; for I believe that even if Robida's fantasies look somewhat like a sort of highly modernized Victorian universe, the French caricaturist still should be praised for his exceptional acuteness and clearsightedness in rightly extrapolating not only technological changes but also--and mainly--their impact on social mores and people's turns of mind. I would be the last one to contend that an SF work should be admired for its anticipatory "prophecies" or for the degree of accuracy of its conjectures. There is nonetheless a problem with Robida's fantasies, something that is always acknowledged with amused amazement but never accounted for: Robida is the only 19th-century SF writer to invent a picture of our century which is never fundamentally wrong: his ironically pessimistic predictions have by and large proved to be true, in an unequaled degree of soundness and complexity.

Robida was born into a family of Compiègne craftsmen in 1848. He spent his life in rural seclusion, a hard worker, father of numerous children, and an indefatigable contributor to satirical weeklies like La Vie parisienne and Le Journal amusant. In 1873 he founded his own successful journal, La Caricature. His first illustrated SF book is a delirious parody of Jules Verne coupled with the theme of future wars (the Disunited States of Paraguay vs. Australia): Voyages très-extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul (1879). His Vingtième siècle was published in 1883 and subsequently complemented by La Guerre au XXe siècle (War in the 20th Century, 1887; first version in serial, 1883) and La Vie Électrique (The Electric Life, 1891). These two sequels have not (yet) been republished by Slatkine.

The action of Le Vingtième siècle is set in the 1950s. Chronologies in Robida are always rather precise, and it is important to note that his fiction is meant to deal with middle-term anticipations: kids of the 1890s are supposed to be eventual witnesses, though worn out by old age and crippled by rheumatism, of a France of the 1950s. Robida's reader is pictured as that broken-down silhouette of a greybeard who leads his grandchildren to the Museum of Cluny, where they are admiring with amazement that prehistoric remnant: the last locomotive (p. 9).

It is true that Robida's texts are generally undistinguished, but his paradigm of modernity leaves nothing overlooked. The plot of Le Vingtième siècle is very banal. Hélène Colobry, an orphan under the wardship of her uncle, the famous banker Raphael Ponto, leaves her boarding-school in the country to come back to Paris and embrace a career. Her uncle and tutor Ponto and his wife, who is a leader of the Feminist Party, try to counsel her to go into law or medicine, or even journalism; but the young lady, who shows a rather traditionalist frame of mind and whose provincial education seems not to have prepared her for the stress and restlessness of modern urban life, resists. She does not succeed in adapting herself, never seems to fit into the picture, and fortunately falls in love with an enterprising cousin who cherishes her enough not to oblige her to become a career woman.

What we then get, of course, is a picture of Paris, of Europe, and even a honeymoon trip around the world--quite enough to accustom Hélène, and the reader, to the rhythm and peculiarities of 20th-century civilization. We watch television (i.e., a "telephonoscope") with its absurd and sensationalist serials (the most successful of which is entitled Purée of Garbage) interspersed with obsessive commercials. There is also the TV News to tell you every hour all you need to know about wars and massacres throughout the world. We take a plane, and even an aircab, to survey Paris and its endless suburbs checkerboarded into blocks of factories, housing developments, workers' flats, and student hostels. We go to the Comédie-Française to see a performance of Pierre Corneille's Horatius rewritten by Gaetan Dubloquet, and complete with a dramatic pantomime by the Crockson Brothers and the Chicago Mime Company. We attend festivals of aeronautics (without worrying much about a quite ordinary number of casualties) and also rallies for Women's Lib. We even witness a Student Revolt, half riot, half masquerade (in 1952, not 1968), that includes the barricading of Paris streets. We dine at a rotating restaurant intelligently erected on an aerial platform on top of Notre-Dame's towers (no need to climb the stairways; you will find an elevator in the towers themselves), and from there we contemplate the Paris skyline, with the Tour Saint-Jacques in the foreground cleverly transformed into a gas station for aircabs.

We are invited to social evenings and learn the most popular dance, jerking and twisting to the rhythm of the "Australian." We learn about audiovisual teaching in modern colleges, with their digests of Homer and Virgil (obviously scientific studies now take precedence over literary ones). We also discover a sensitive and philanthropic welfare state where criminals, far from being guillotined, are being rehabilitated at retirement homes. Hélène discovers the social blessings of mass media and mass tourism (the Coast of Brittany is but one huge endless ribbon of concrete and skyscrapers whose overcrowded and polluted beaches do not seem to appeal to our heroine). We visit a fast-food factory and its network of hoses that supply daily fare to every apartment in the city.

Here a short excerpt will be to the point:

'I am not talking of steam-choppers for your vegetable soup and power-hammers for mashed potatoes....' [one food magnate tells another].

[...] 'Let me stop you right away [...] I am sure you remember that cook of yours who was purée'd together with his vegetables by one of your hammers.'

'Certainly. but that was a case of suicide.'

'Yes, but the accident was-noticed only after the dinner...your subscribers degusted your cook!'

'If the newspapers had not stupidly divulged the matter, nobody would have noticed! The proof is that the National Food Board [...] had not found any peculiar taste in that purée....It was an insignificant accident...the kind of thing that happens every day in factories.' (pp. 82-83; unbracketed ellipsis points in the original)

There is much more in the book. Indeed, each of its 400 pages brings a surprise: sometimes a new gadget but also new social features, new ways of looking at things (ways that are never radically utopian nor fundamentally dystopian and apocalyptic).

Robida's main fictional objective is to dream about man's ability to adapt, and to adapt not in any kind of heroic way, but in petty details as human beings try to rationalize progress, taking pride in its "advantages" and disregarding its absurdities. Robida is a conservative, old- fashioned satirist who seems to have taken literally the Marxian concept of the economic determination of ideological superstructures. That is why I cannot accept Nicholls' judgment about Robida as a simple inventor of gadgets. What the novelist-illustrator tries to imagine are the mass effects of technological change and the type of ideological discourse that would help people learn to "love" them. That is also why what he seems to discover, first of all, is a McLuhanesque civilization, where "electronic" media and ever faster means of transportation have realized the paradigm of a Global Village. Robida's Vingtième siècle is an anti-utopia where everything is electrically powered but where scientific progress is inversely related to what we now term "environmental concerns," which the present French government has in fact consigned to a "Ministry of the Quality of Life."

If Robida seems to be endowed with prophetic vision, that, I am afraid, is because he has no confidence in the "blessings" of progress with regard to their bringing about any "cultural revolution," and also because he was that type of pessimistic reactionary who appears to be convinced that were technology to strip life of all its charms, humankind would fortunately remain what it has always been: stingy, sheep-like, pretentious, and gullible--in sum: happily capable of adapting by deceiving itself that whatever is new is good and worthy.

Western industrial societies do not look like the utopian dreams of Verne and others, but neither do they look like the apocalyptic nightmares that other SF writers at the end of the last century conceived of. Some thought that any world war would bring about a total collapse of civilization and a return to the Stone Age for the rare survivors. Robida knew better. He, the Master of Future Wars' scenarios, the one who "invented" biological warfare, atomic bombs, systematic destruction of civilian targets, genocide, mass "disinformation," and even world political terrorism, nevertheless knew that what we term "civilization" would go on in one way or another, with ups and downs, axiomatically unable to change its pace, but also not so fragile as to collapse entirely.

In another regard, the liberation of women, their acquiring civil rights and participating in all trades and crafts, is seen--in a radically pessimistic way--as being finally neither worse nor better than the status quo ante, offering certain advantages while increasing psychological conflicts and anxiety and implying a good deal of ridicule that social discourse successfully strives to conceal. Progress does not exist except at the rather superficial level of gadgets--including ideological ones (e.g., the President of Robida's French Republic is a Robot, but that doesn't change much); and even the latter amount to nothing more than an overlay on human nature, with its irrationality its "eternal" passions, and its capacity for familiarizing and adapting itself to absurdities. At the same time, progress is a kind of innocuous collective phantasm which profits a few crafty capitalists, and it is also a process without term or end wherein man's instinctive will to power and death is (happily) counterbalanced by his natural tendency towards chaos and incoherence.

Such a smiling misanthropy lacks loftiness and sublimity. Yet suffice it to say that where 19th-century utopians proved wrong, only Robida emerges as an accurate prophet. To put my point in (Philip K.) Dickian terms: Robida's vision persuades us that what we take to be our Real World is merely the absurd nightmare of a 19th-century petty-bourgeois artist who was disturbed by the first electric lightbulb and the first stirrings of feminism!

Le Vingtième siècle is only the second of Robida's novels. In the year of its publication (1883), a first version of a collection of his drawings, La Guerre au XXe siècle also appeared. Nothing essential about modern warfare is missing, from floating mines to poison gas, tanks, torpedoes, napalm, and machine-guns. The next of his books, Jadis chez aujourdhui (Once Upon a Time in the Present, 1890; rot. in Kerbiniou le très madré, 1892), is a time-travel fantasy tale. Voyage de fiançailles au XXe siècle (The Fiancés' Trip to the 20th Century, 1892) tells the story of the honeymoon before marriage of two youngsters in 1954. La Vie Électrique (1893) revives the characters of Le Vingtième siècle. L'Horloge des Siècles (The Clockwork of Centuries, 1902) is an amusing tale about the cosmic catastrophe that ensues when time begins to flow backwards.

In 1908, Robida, together with Pierre-Louis Giffard (b.1853), started publishing an endless (800-page) serial meant for a juvenile audience: La Guerre infernale, a most abominable (and perspicacious) account of what modern warfare will look like. The text is mainly made up of fictional excerpts from newspapers and top-secret H.Q. documents. These constitute a memorial to scientific massacre: to biological warfare and systematic (and highly rationalised) genocide, with its crematoria, its carnage involving millions of people killed by flame-throwers .... Juvenile reading, as I said! Thanks to the horror of (Chinese) tortures and the cold efficiency of (Western) technological discoveries, the number of deaths escalates. At the beginning, the war is merely a local one between Germany, on the one side, and Great Britain and France on the other. Soon, however, Japan and the US become involved (cf. Summary, La Guerre, p. 513), and scientific destructiveness gets out of hand, ending in a racial confrontation between Caucasians and Mongoloids ("Jap contre Sam," La Guerre, pp. 545 ff.).

In 1919, Robida on his own wrote and published a shorter novel, L'lngénieur Von Satanas (The Engineer Von Satanas), another future world war story, under the guise of a farewell to the first one. Here at last, things end with a return to pre-technological barbarism. The war is exactly that type which becomes nontechnological: it begins with the atom bomb and concludes with bludgeons. In fact, however, it has no conclusion; for the hero's last words are:

'And now let's take arms! Starting tomorrow. Me, a peaceful being up till now, I caress the barbed edges of my boar-spear and I grind my teeth. l feel completely moved by the joy and rapture of fighting....From tomorrow on, a new world is beginning; and I already foresee it.' (L'Ingénieur; pp. 298-99)

Albert Robida died in 1926. Except for the reprint of Le Vingtième siècle that is the occasion for these remarks of mine, none of his books is readily available, and the originals, when they can be found, go for a high price on the book collector's market. I therefore hope that my survey will convince some enterprising publisher to look at the writer's other--truly genial--works with an eye to republishing them, and also that some enterprising student will think of devoting a dissertation to the author of Le Vingtième siècle.

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