The Martian Epic

It’s backward in time to cover my reading of the past five months.

And it’s back to Brian Stableford though, this time, only to one of the works he translated and annotated for Black Coat Press. After reading his co-authored Timeslip Troopers, I wanted to read more Théo Varlet.

Review: The Martian Epic, Octave Joncquel and Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2008.

Cover by Arnaud Demaegd

The two novels in this omnibus, Les Titans du ciel [The Titans of the Heavens] and L’agonie de la Terre [The Agony of Earth], were originally published in 1921 and 1922. Stableford notes they were some of the most important works of roman scientifique published in France between the wars.

They certainly are remarkable, especially for an Anglo reader. That isn’t just because they are, as Timeslip Troopers was, a sort of sequel to an H. G. Wells’ work, but because they feature a significant strain of French cultural and scientific thought in the 19th and early 20th century: spiritualism, the idea of discarnate souls not only on our planet but others, souls capable of travel by thought.

There certainly are plenty of thrills in the wake of a Martian invasion in the year 1978, an invasion which the genius Wells’ had a sort of cloudy precognitive vision of: massive destruction social collapse with strange new cults and political movements springing up.

The Titans of Heaven is a compelling novel told as sort of a memoir as it happens by the narrator, Léon Rudeaux, Besides the intended echo of The War of the Worlds, the work is almost precognitive itself in anticipating H. G. Wells’ later The Shape of Things to Come. Like that work, Joncquel and Varlet give us a world state created out of war.

Ironically, it comes into existence when at the very moment the idea of a “yellow peril” is maligned. China and Japan set out to establish an empire by conquest. Fortunately, a secret committee of scientists thwarts them by the Great Discovery, an electromagnetic device that renders metal weapons dangerous to use.

The Committee of Science and Progress is the nucleus of the United States of Europe aka the United States of the World – capitol in Paris, of course. Blaster toting Senegalese (used as colonial troops in the Great War) are the muscle. (“Blasters”, incidentally, is not the literal translation of the French word used, but Stableford notes it makes sense to use since they resemble that ubiquitous weapon of near-contemporary American science fiction.) A world of universal disarmament and world peace breaks out. 

Eventually, sentient life is detected on Jupiter and communication, via visual means is, developed. Earth even gives the Jovians the technology for wireless communications. We learn that there is a hierarchy of intelligent life on the planets of the solar system with each getting more sophisticated and spiritual the farther you go from the sun. 

All of a sudden, the Martians start communicating. They ask some questions that blatantly have strategic military communication, but, in a world with no more war (though I don’t know if the authors intended this irony) it doesn’t occur to anyone to not answer them. 

The next thing you know, the Martians are launching a “torpedo” a day with the first targeted at Paris.

As any good writer does when writing this kind of thing, Joncquel and Varlet delight, in this part of the book, in depicting massive destruction with torpedoes using materials that burn on contact with water and divert from their seeming targets at the last minute. We also hear how, since the torpedoes are made with several precious metals, people risk their lives to salvage their parts. 

During all this, our narrator is a publicist on vacation from the rat race and studying botany as a hobby. A series of events place him at the side of the people fighting the Martians as part of the United States of the World and, though he has been a solitary and selfish man all his days, it’s love at first sight when he meets a woman with them, Raymonde. They are reincarnated former lovers. 

The Titans of Heaven is full of man going atavistic in all sorts of ways. We see a revival of flagellants (disease breaks out in the wake of the attacks), militant Islam, nationalism when several nations break away from global governance, hedonism, and a general nihilism exemplified by the Eternal-Nightists. Many Soviets spring up which the narrator and others have brushes with. (Varlet was no fan of communists since his family lost Russian holdings because of the Russian Revolution.) 

Counter measures are developed using an electronic screen to divert the missiles, but this works only a while. The Jovians promise to punish the Martians for their aggression. But, as with several key points in the novel, orbital positions are important, so the Jovians can’t act immediately.

But the novel moves beyond mere destruction and social disintegration into weirdness when the Martians themselves come to Earth, Cairo specifically.

Martian souls want human bodies, and the first novel ends with the souls of the narrator and Raymonde discarnate.

The Agony of Earth opens with a sort of cosmic journey by Rudeaux and Raymonde spirits before they make contact with the Venusians who are next on the hit list because of the religious imperative of a Martian religion which sees them successfully reincarnating in the bodies of intelligent life on a succession of planets, a transmigration culminating with a reunion with the sun.

The rest of the novel has our two heroes, again firmly embodied in their old forms, impersonating Martian leaders and attempting to sabotage their plans to destroy Earth and conquer Venus. They also have to figure out how to save their surviving friends from the first novel from being captured and their bodies used. The narrator also suspects that the chief Martian mechanist, inhabiting the body of his old friend aviator Sylvain Leduc, knows he’s an imposter.

There’s a quite a bit of humor in the second novel. There aren’t enough humans left on Earth to meet the demands of Martian souls, so an industrial process is set up to implant Martian souls in various primates, the “shaggies”, who are rapacious towards the bodies of human women.

But then the Martians, as a whole, are depicted in unflattering terms. They are given to gluttony and threaten ecological damage disaster on Earth (apart from planning to make it uninhabitable when leaving). They eat everything except bats, no doubt because they resemble their old Martian form. Gluttony is followed by orgies.

There are internal divisions in the Martians though, and the narrator respects the Martian pope, maintainer of an older, noble faith centered around the Universal Spirit in all intelligent life. Opposed to him is the “mechanist” faction who attempt to speed up by technological means and conquest the journey to the sun. They are pitiless, and the authors clearly mean for us, at novel’s end, to see dangerous mechanist trends in human society.

Besides that opening journey through the cosmos, there are a couple of other scenes which come across as dreamy journeys or meditations.

As a long story, it’s quite unlike anything you are likely to encounter in English language science fiction.

In his “Introduction”, Stableford provides lots of useful information on the authors and work.

Joncquel was, it seems, a typical science fiction – in particular a Jules Verne fan and there is one scene in The Agony of Earth which seems a takeoff on Journey to the Center of the Earth. When publisher Edgar Malfère set up shop in Amiens in 1920, Joncquel gave him about 15 unpublished manuscripts. They were big on ideas but not literary niceties. Malfère gave them to Varlet, who he had worked with him before, to work over. Varlet and Joncquel may have known each other already since they came from the same region in France. 

After the two novels printed in this omnibus, Varlet and Joncquel worked on another project, but it was never published. The reason may have been that 1922 Varlet spent time working with Andre Blandin on Timeslip Troopers). 

It is definitely on the record that Joncquel sued Malfère over not paying contracted royalties. However, he lost the case. In fact, he was ordered to pay Malfère damages. However, one result of the lawsuit was that Malfère was not allowed to publish a third Joncquel and Varlet collaboration, La guerre des microbes (War of the Microbes). That book has, in fact, been published by Black Coat Press, and I hope to review it soon.

Not much is known what became of Joncquel which Stableford laments because, despite being an inept writer, he had a great imagination. We can’t tell, says Stableford, what each man contributed in these novels. It is likely that Varlet introduced the idea of a love interest and that Rudeaux is a stand-in for Varlet. In fact, the novels, especially the first, are somewhat roman-a-clefs with many characters based on people Varlet knew. In the court case, Malfère said that Varlet altered the sequence of events and modified the plots in Joncquel’s manuscripts.

Varlet was a great psychonaut who claimed to have taken mind-altering drugs more than a hundred times and writing up the results in journals, so he may have invented or heavily altered the scenes with near-hallucinatory quality.   

Stylistically, Varlet, who first published as a poet, has a fondness for verb-less sentences and shifting tenses from present to past. They harm the coherence of the story says Stableford, but they do replicate the feeling of a sort of “automatic writing”.

I definitely recommend this book not only to those interested in the history of French roman scientifique but because it is a strange, fascinating, and novel story even a hundred years later.

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