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Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind

By J.-H. Rosny aîné

Translated and Introduced by Danièle Châtelain and George Slusser

Wesleyan University Press | 2012 | 236 pages | $35.00 hardcover | $16.00 e-book

An Essay by Steven Paul Leiva

At the end of April the Los Angeles Times Book Awards were handed out at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the largest book festival in the country.  What’s always been interesting in these literary accolades, is that, unlike other mainstream awards like the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Critics Circle Award, the LA Times book awards includes among the typical categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography and Poetry, two categories of what might be considered genre literature: Mystery/Thriller and Graphic Novel.

But the inclusion of these genres -- so open-minded, so Los Angeles, so West Coast -- just points out the glaring non-inclusion of Science Fiction.

Is this understandable?  Perfectly. For the mystery genre, despite having started out in the pulps just like science fiction, has been considered “literary” ever since it was decided that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were “great” writers. (And I’m not saying here that they are not).

Also mysteries, which usually concern murder, deal forthrightly with morality, or the lack thereof, good and evil, and the darkness in the human soul, which allows readers to think that they are thinking deep thoughts.  The dark, rain slick mean streets of today, it seems, are literary; the starlit space-ways of humanity’s future, it seems, are not.

Of course it’s not really that simple.  Science fiction is well considered by many. It is taught in colleges and universities, and Philip K. Dick has joined Chandler in having his work reprinted by the Library of America. Still, science fiction, so potent in TV and cinema, maintains a second class standing in literature.

Indeed science fiction’s success in film and television, where its wild imaginings and otherworldly visualizations can be so beautifully realized in modern special effects, may have added to a long-standing bias and prejudice against it as a literary form. That bias and prejudice, though, may not be without causes.

One cause might be that the unreal, pseudo-real, and occasionally surreal qualities of SF is often a turn-off to those who prefer their literature to be “real” or, as they might say, naturalistic.  Some people just can’t get beyond the rockets, robots, and ray guns, all of which is more stereotypical than typical of SF literature. 

Another cause could be that if you took a cursory look at the Science Fiction New Books shelf at Barnes & Noble you might think that there are more galactic empires in space than galactic democracies, making these works not so much  westerns in space, as they have been accused of being, but medieval romances projected into the future.  That’s desirable if you just want an exciting, action filled book -- a galactic empire allows for gunplay; a galactic democracy allows for debate -- but how many medieval romances win major literary awards?

The real, essential cause, though, might be the science half of science fiction, especially in works called “hard” science fiction as opposed to science fantasies and space operas. Hard SF is fiction that is based in science and what we have learned through science about humanity and the universe, and all that that portends. 

Can such fiction, based in facts, ever be considered true literature by those who prefer their fiction to be based in, say, feelings? Science and established facts are worth pondering but not arguable, because we are not all scientifically minded. Feelings, because we all have and embrace them, are eminently arguable because we all have equity in our arguments.

Of course there is also the fact that some hard SF, coming more from facts than feelings, can be ham-fisted in style and cursory in character development, two qualities people rarely give awards to. But hard SF does not have to be this way, and not all of it is. One would hope that if they so choose, the LA Times could find at least five such books in a single year that feature, besides thoughtful meditations based on scientific facts about the state of the human condition now and in the future-- stylistically compelling stories with characters brought into flesh and blood told by writers of depth and talent.

A model for such writers might well be a SF writer you have probably never heard of -- I know I never had -- and who is now being brought to light by Danièle Châtelain and George Slusser. The two university professors have translated, and provide an introduction to, three science fiction works by J.-H. Rosny aîné (1856-1940), a Belgium-born contemporary of Jules Verne and of H.G. Wells.

The purpose of the book they have produced, Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind, is not just to expose Rosny to today’s English readers, but to declare that if either Verne or Wells can be considered the “Father of science fiction,” or even share that title, then Rosny should be considered, more specifically, the “Father of hard science fiction.”

Although Châtelain and Slusser do not say this, you get the feeling that they consider hard SF to be the only true SF. In their long and comprehensive introduction they explain hard SF as being that where, as physicist-writer Robert L. Forward has said, “The science has written the fiction,” distinguishing it from conventional fiction which, “bends the laws of nature to its wishes and desires, whereas science fiction cannot.” 

They make a good case, given this definition, for Rosny as the Father of hard science fiction. But -- and I think they would agree -- the best case is made by Rosny in the three works they have chosen to translate, The Xipéhuz, a prehistoric tale of humans battling strange geometric life forms; Another World,  the story of a human mutant radically different with a visual acuity that allows him to see life forms sharing our world unseen by all others; and The Death of the Earth, a beautifully written, emotionally effective, and uncompromising, science-based story of the end of humankind.

The particular science that animated Rosny’s SF work (he was also well-known as a writer of naturalistic novels, and was a friend of Anatole France and Emile Zola) was evolution. Châtelain and Slusser give a good account of Rosny’s time in England when the controversy over Darwinian evolution was raging, a controversy he followed closely. He obviously came down on Darwin’s side as his work is a marvelous extrapolation of evolution, featuring compelling “what if’s” based in the workings of natural selection.

According to Rosny’s bibliography The Xipéhuz was his first published SF short story (and it is a short story rather than a novella, despite the marketing dreams of the publisher), and it reads that way.

It is inconsistent in style and clunky in execution. It is a work of imaginary pre-history taking place “...a thousand years before that great gathering of peoples that later gave rise to the civilizations of Nineveh, Babylon, Ecbatane.”

In other words, it is about some very early and primitive people. These people come across a life form so strange and unlike any other life form they have ever experienced, that it is obvious that it is part of neither the animal nor the vegetable kingdoms. 

The people name them Xipéhuz, and are in deep fear of them because these morphing, geometrical life forms seem to have conscious purpose, and yet the people can find no way to communicate with them. The Xipéhuz are reflexively aggressive, killing any animal they encounter, and not even for sustenance -- they just seem to destroy to destroy.

The people call upon a wise man, Bakhoun, to study the Xipéhuz and find a way to eradicate them, which he eventually does. The point of view of the story shifts in the middle from the omniscient to first person excerpts from “The Book of Bakhoun” that the wise man chiseled onto stone tablets.  Although Rosny tried to cover himself with a footnote wherein it is stated that the extract has been converted “...into modern scientific language,” it just doesn’t work to have this primitive sound like a professor. Rosny in his enthusiasm for science is trying to portray a rational, scientific mind in a time long before such minds existed.

Even less believable is Bakhoun’s sorrow at the end that they had to destroy the Xipéhuz to survive. The science was writing the fiction here, but in this case, to no good effect.

These faults appear nowhere in Another World, published ten years later in 1898. This story (again, not really a novella) is narrated by Karel Ondereet, a contemporary man born so mutated that he may be the beginning of a new species.  He’s abnormally, weirdly thin, and no regular nourishment seems to help.  Eventually it is discovered that alcohol is -- truly -- like mother’s milk to him, and he survives with attributes and abilities both strange and wonderful.

He has a violet hue to his skin, his eyes are opaque, he moves and talks with astonishing speed, and he sees light into the ultraviolet. He can also see other life forms living among us that no one else can see, and who seem unaware of us. While nothing about The Xipéhuz seems credible, Rosny very credibly puts the reader inside Karel’s head.

As an adult, because of his special abilities, he becomes a scientist researching that which only he can see. The research is for him pure joy, and Rosny succeeds in letting us share that joy.  Of course, such spontaneous, radical mutations would not be considered today as scientific, the mutations that drive evolution happen, we now know, on much smaller scales, but Another World allows us to contemplate the different forms that life might take, and that ours might not be the most perfect of them all.

The book ends with The Death of the Earth, published in 1910, and it truly is a novella.  It takes place many millennia in the future when the ecology of the Earth has so changed that man is no longer well adapted to his environment, and is slowly dying out. Simultaneously a new life form, the ferromagnetics, are having their genesis. 

Humankind, relegated to a few oases in a world that has become essentially one large desert with little water, know that they are dying out and that the ferromagnetics will inherit the Earth. Most of them are resigned to it, and they have laws and a culture of euthanasia that allow them to cope.

But there is still a spark of hope, of creative energy in Trag, who, unlike most of his fellows, strives mightily to survive. But the inevitability of this evolutionary moment cannot be turned back, and he becomes the last man on Earth, but not -- and this is Rosny’s point -- the last life. The ferromagnetics are not carbon-based life, but they are life nonetheless, and it is now their time, because they are well adapted to the environment of the moment, and, assuming that environment doesn’t radically change, they will evolve to master the planet. Another World is a fascinating and compelling story, a fiction written by science, cognizant of the facts, but deep in feeling.

Châtelain and Slusser are to be congratulated for bringing J.-H. Rosny aîné to our attention.

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