The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique, 2nd Edition, Brian Stableford, 2016, 2017.

Cover by Timothee Rouxel

This is Stableford’s companion to his four volume New Atlantis series on British scientific romances.

As usual, Stableford writes in a clear way with some nice turns of phrase though he lets some of his snarkiness and sarcasm show at times and has some nice turns of phrase. 

The book starts out in 1657 with Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune [Other Worlds] and goes through 1939. Because of World War Two, little French work was published in the 1940s. Like the British scientific romance, it was subsumed into the dominant American mode of science fiction after the war.

Stableford mentions, as did James Gunn’s in his Alternate Worlds, some of the genres that fed into sf/roman scientifique: traveler’s tales (le merveilleux), imaginary voyages, utopias, and satires. (He talks about how French censorship of books meant many were published with bogus foreign printing information and under pseudonyms.) However, a unique French element was what Voltaire coined contes philosophiques. The interest in telling “fay stories” in the French court also played a role.

Stableford divides his analysis by historical eras and themes within them. 

The first is the prehistory of the roman scientifique which is not clearly distinguished from the literature of the Age of Enlightenment, next is the revolutionary eras of 1789 through 1851, the Second Empire from 1851 through 1870, the era between the Franco-Prussian War and World War One, and, finally, the period after World War One. 

There are some broad similarities between the scientific romance and the roman scientifique.

Both started with extraordinary voyages and utopias.

Around the late 1800s through 1939, both started to produce stories of speculations based on science and technology though interest in technology seems more akin to 1920s American pulp fiction (and Hugo Gernsback did actually pay to have a couple of the novels Stableford mentions translated and published).

Both, unlike American sf, were pessimistic in the interwar years with tales of anxiety and man’s inability to control his technology. France’s pessimism in those years was expressed earlier than Britain. Most of its tales of post-war anxiety started after the war and continued until 1930. British scientific romances started to get gloomier in the 1930s. 

In none of the three countries was its form of sf particularly respected.

France, like Britain, had a few noted literary writers who wrote a few pieces of roman scientifique including Émile Zola. He extolled something he called roman experimental which employed a “scientific method of character analysis, based on the study of the influences of hereditary and environment in shaping individual behavior”. (It was Alexander Baumgarten that proclaimed mimetic fiction to be the highest value in literature.) Some writers, like Maurice Renard, were enthusiastic supporters of the roman scientifique and wrote significant works, but, eventually, they couldn’t support themselves in the market place and took to crime and thriller fiction. 

Indeed, the “melodramatic” (a word Stableford uses a lot, though I’m not sure if, ultimately, he disapproves of exciting adventure fiction and plots) potentials of mad scientists and extravagantly dangerous devices led to something like the modern technothriller which almost always go back to what Stableford calls a “normalizing” ending, i.e. hit the reset button so the world is essentially the same at the end of the story as at the beginning. 

The roman scientifique, in the mid-1800s, created the modern superhero. 

Then there was the freakishly prolific Joseph Morelli who produced up to 100,000 a words a month for a period of 30 years. But no book was ever published under his name. His roman scientifique work was published in the French equivalent of the pulps and even he eventually turned to crime fiction. (His life somewhat mirrors William Hope Hodgson’s. He became a cabin boy at a young age and had a hard time of it.)

The roman scientifique did have some unique features. 

It was much more interested in utopian works and their flip side, the dystopia. Stableford divides utopian works into three categories: the eutopian (a utopia displaced by geography but contemporary to the time of the story’s writing), the euchronic (a utopia displaced into time, either the past or the future of the story’s writing), and the eupsychian (a utopia achieved by altering human conscious or attitudes). 

The roman scientifique produced, starting in the age of Napoleon III, a lot of stories about a future Paris (and, sometimes, Paris’ prehistory). These were stories often featured archaeologists and normal people of the future making erroneous deductions about the author’s world. This type of stories were inspired by the reconstruction of Paris in that time which continued after the Franco-Prussian War. 

Anarchism and its related movements of Symbolism and Surrealism were a theme in the roman scientifique

Of course, Stableford talks about Jules Verne and how his publishers limited what he was allowed to publish and that some of his atypical works were stories he re-wrote as a sort of a ghost writer for other authors. The Vernian extraordinary voyage endured into the 1920s before it petered out. Before Tachiovsky’s papers on rocketry in 1913, many interplanetary voyages had implausible rationalizations before then and even after then. But, surprisingly for being known primarily as a hard sf writer specializing in biological speculations (though a look at his bibliography shows much fantasy and weird fiction), Stableford doesn’t get very hung up on scientifically plausibility. It’s nice if sf of whatever country has scientific plausibility, but the “literary elegance” of possessing it is not essential, and its absence does not mean a work has no value. 

The one extraordinary technological prediction from a writer of roman scientifique is from a writer who never wrote another one: Henri Austruy’s “L’Olotélépan”. It basically describes the modern world of the smartphone and internet. 

There are many stories here which touch on images and motifs that showed up later in famous works of British and American sf written independently. Maurice Renard came up with the idea of what would become Bob Shaw’s slow glass though Stableford says that space constraints kept Renard from developing the idea more thoroughly. Another idea thoroughly developed and prominent in the roman scientifique is the mad scientist. That was the primary theme of Félix Bodin who specialized in depicting the obsessive mind of the scientist, its occasional impracticalities, unconcern with common morality, and disconnection from regular society.

There were a number of writers I have read or definitely want to read more of: Albert Robida (who, after The Engineer von Satanaas seems to have become less bitter and Stableford makes it clear that he was a major author in roman scientifique), Edmond Haraucourt, André Couvreur, and Renard. 

There is a bit of gloominess about this book. At the time of its publication, Stableford was 69 years, and he says in the introduction that he perhaps cut his survey off a decade too early. However, to extend its scope further would require another 10 years of reading (even for Stableford!), and he thought it worthwhile to present what he did have. 

The conclusion of the book is more barbed. He talks about the courage of these writers in doing what they did despite their failures artistically and commercially. (Perhaps he was thinking of the last twenty years of his career in which he’s basically only had his novels published by small presses using print-on-demand.) Those French authors were writing “antistories” because stories purport to represent an understandable and predictable world. Sf and the roman scientifique are paradoxical in that they pretend, with the word “science”, to objectively and truthfully present the real world even though they present imaginary worlds to one degree or another. 

It is good, contends Stableford, that we have such stories because they remind us the world is always changing and not knowable even in its present. Yet, we can gain understanding of the world and science’s effect on it, even in stories with implausible “science”. He evokes one of his favorite authors, Alfred Jarry, and his pataphysics in this regard. But Stableford wearily notes, with bitter resignation, that too few authors and readers, even today, want to engage in truly original and imaginative sf.    

The book’s index only references the authors discussed. A timeline of significant works is also presented. There is a convenient listing of all the covered titles that have been translated for Black Coat Press, also the publisher of this book. There are a number of covers reproduced throughout the book. However, all are in black and white and, frankly, only a minority have any cover illustrations, so that was not as interesting as I hoped.

I still highly recommend this book for anybody interested in the history of the tributary known as the roman scientifique before its banks vanished, and it joined the literary river we now call science fiction. There is no other equivalent to this book in English.

Terry Harpold and Michael Dirda provide parallax looks.

3 thoughts on “The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

  1. Looks interesting. I’m currently making my way through Adam Roberts’ History of Science Fiction, which covers some of this ground. He traces the origins of SF back to the Reformation.

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