In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.
Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012.
When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.
When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.
When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.
The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.
Deciding the machine is trouble, Renard orders it destroyed, but, before that can be done, some servants accidentally activate it, and the men find themselves in “Beautiful Valencia”. That is, in fact, the novel’s original French title, La Belle Valence. It was, explains Stableford in his introduction, an idiomatic French phrase from the turn of the 20th century.
A quick encounter with the local occupying Moors turns them into friends, and another encounter with the Valencians, ruled over by Dominicans and their Inquisition (an obvious anachronism notes Stableford) turns the Christians into enemies.
It doesn’t take long for Valencia to fall, and the rest of the novel is the joy and troubles of the Poilu-Moor occupiers.
The unit’s doctor, Major Thévenard, may not be the greatest doctor, but he’s cheerful with the men, tries to bring some medical innovations to the city, and is a womanizer. But only so many medical supplies made the journey in time, and the Moorish chief keeps wanting hits of ether.
There’s also a British aviator and his plane who got swept up by the time machine, and he spends his time dropping little flags on parts of Spain and Gibraltar to claim them for a future British Empire.
Lieutenant Monocard becomes enamored with the idea of spreading real civilization to 14th century Spain. The local Franciscan priest, Geronimo, becomes a real convert to that idea. Burning through a library the French brought with them, Geronimo (who sort of figures out the Poilu are visitors from the future or maybe angels), goes from medieval philosophy to the Enlightenment to reading Nietzsche. He ends up proclaiming “Down with the clergy! Long live Anarchism!” (Given the biographical notes on Varlet in The Martian Epic, which I’ll be reviewing later, stating his family lost holdings in Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was not a fan of communism or anarchists.)
After an initial round of looting and semi-rapine, none of the French are in a hurry to go home. Besides, the batteries of the time machine need recharging.
The soldiers quickly gain the favor of the population through distilled liquor, forming new businesses, and selling jewelry made of cast aluminum (sort of like trench art. One of the soldiers delights in taking pornographic pictures of women. Crude bicycles are introduced and paper money.
But all is not well. Geronimo’s enemy, the Inquisitor Tortorado may have been deposed and literally gone underground, but he starts a counter-revolution. And the poilus’ ammo isn’t going to last forever . . .
As usual with these Stableford translations of French works for Black Coat Press, there are footnotes and an introduction. Little is known about Blandin though Stableford speculates he was certainly a French officer who served on the Western Front in World War One and was disenchanted with his experience. This is one of several novels that Théo Varlet collaborated on for French publisher Edgar Malfère, It seems Malfère would give Varlet promising manuscripts to work over for publication. Since he has already presented a biography of Varlet for earlier translations of his work, Stableford doesn’t give us much on Varlet.
Stableford is certainly right in stating the novel is surprising in its sexual frankness, anti-Catholicism, and sympathy with the Moors. (One wonders if a modern Frenchman, now that Moslems are no longer exotics in African and Middle Eastern colonies but a large and troublesome population in Paris, would share that sympathy.) He also suspects Varlet may have toned down some anti-Catholic elements of Blandin’s story.
As with the Christian characters, the Jewish characters are a mixed lot. Some are treacherous collaborators with Tortorado. Some like the city’s new regime.
And there is some irony in how the poilu are depicted. They introduce modern, potent addictive drugs which turn both the Emir and Geronimo into addicts. The soldiers coerce the native women into sex at times, and introduce syphilis to Spain, centuries ahead of schedule. So the blessing of civilization Monocard claims to be bringing are not unambiguously good.
In his “Afterward: Loose ends and Inconvenient Knots”, Stableford speculates on what a possible sequel would have been like. He says that neither publisher Malfere or the authors could conceive of actually having history altered by the story. That would not come until 1939 with American science fiction, specifically L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall.
While the novel ends with history, at least officially, showing no trace of the poilu’s journey in time, there are some definite loose ends that could have fruitfully been used for a sequel, and Stableford speculates on a couple of possibilities. We don’t know if a sequel was ever planned, though.
It’s a short, entertaining novel and a worthy bit of trailblazing for a minor sub-genre of science fiction.