J.-H. Rosny aine: ‘Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind’
By Michael Dirda,
Some readers might remember the 1981 film “Quest for Fire.” Set among ancient hominids who speak a kind of proto Indo-European language (invented by Anthony Burgess), it garnered several European awards and an Oscar for best makeup. It also brought a small measure of attention to J.-H. Rosny aine — that last word means “senior” — who had written the 1911 novel upon which the movie was based. After Jules Verne, the Belgian-born Rosny (1856-1940) is probably the greatest of all French-speaking science-fiction writers, although only a few of his works have been readily available in English.
Happily, thanks to the Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction Series, three of Rosny’s finest novellas can now be enjoyed in authoritative translations. Never having encountered any of his fiction, I was unprepared for the power and beauty of “The Xipehuz,” “Another World” and “The Death of the Earth.” There’s nothing hokey or dated about these startling visions of Otherness, although they were first published more than a century ago. You won’t read better science-fiction stories — or even better stories — this year. Let me give you just a taste of each.
“The Xipehuz” opens 1,000 years before the rise of Nineveh and Babylon. A nomadic people called the Pjehou are traveling through a forest just before sunset. As the tribe and their animals enter a clearing, where they hope to camp, they discover a “phantasmagorical sight”: “a large circle of bluish, translucent cones,” each with a star near its base. As well as the cones, the clearing contains other entities, some “strata-like” and others cylindrical. Stunned, the Pjehou can only imagine that the entities are gods.
All at once, however, these shimmering organisms sense the presence of observers: “And suddenly, their stars pulsating and vibrating, the cones became elongated, the cylinders and the strata made a rustling noise like water thrown on flames, all coming toward the nomads with accelerating speed.” The attack is overwhelming, as these obviously sentient creatures employ some sort of electrical discharge to stun or kill the humans. Oddly, however, they immediately cease their aggression at a certain fixed limit of the forest. Beyond that boundary, one is safe.
From this dramatic opening, Rosny goes on to describe the culture of these bizarre and apparently invulnerable beings, noting that they undergo constant metamorphosis, in which “cones tended to stretch into cylinders,” even as “cylinders were expanding their sides, while the strata changed partially into curves.” Worryingly, it gradually becomes apparent that the Xipehuz, as they are soon called, are growing in number, and as their population increases, so does their perimeter of action expand. Unless they are stopped soon, the Xipehuz will wipe out mankind and take over Earth.
In “Another World,” Rosny presents the first-person account of the early years of a young man who is apparently a mutant. His skin is violet, his movements incredibly agile, his fast speech incomprehensible and his eyes “corneous” and opaque. Yet, with those strange eyes, he can peer into a parallel world that interpenetrates our own, one that is populated by diaphanous “Beings” who are “moving next to and all around man, without man being aware of it.” Those who live on land the boy calls the Moedigen, and those who inhabit the air the Vuren. Could they be related to the Xipehuz?
In “The Death of the Earth,” carbon-based life forms have almost disappeared from the planet. By this point, humankind has passed through the “radioactive age,” killed off all the animals, except for a few highly evolved birds, and been dramatically reduced to a remnant population by increasingly cataclysmic earthquakes and the gradual drying up of the rivers and oceans. Only a few oases survive, where resigned men and weary-hearted women eke out a half-life, without hope for anything better.
Meanwhile, a new non-organic species — the ferromagnetics — roam the deserted wastelands and flourish. These creatures, like swirls of living rust, leach iron from human blood and leave people so anemic that they die. When “The Death of the Earth” begins, the seismic shocks are increasing in intensity and water is growing scarcer and scarcer. But one man, Targ, refuses to surrender to the general lassitude and dreams of a renewal of civilization.
Throughout these stories, Rosny invents plausible neologisms to describe ancient tribes, future machinery and strange practices. He writes in a terse, reportorial fashion, although at moments of high emotion he rises to more poetic expression: When Targ rescues a young blond woman, he falls in love at first sight: “And, as he was admiring the red flower of her lips, the delicate curve of the cheeks and their pearly flesh, two eyes opened, eyes that had the color of mornings, when the sun is vast and nature’s soft breath moves across the solitary lands.” Here, in fact, a would-be new Adam finds his Eve. But can the world ever be a garden again? Or will the ferromagnetics inherit the Earth?
Rosny’s stories are translated by Daniele Chatelain, a professor of French, and George Slusser, curator of the Eaton Collection of science fiction and fantasy at the University of California at Riverside. The pair provides unusually rich endnotes, emphasizing Rosny’s evolutionary vision, the hard-science approach he takes to the issues addressed by his stories and how his themes of eco-disaster and the transhuman were picked up by later writers.
The two scholars provide a lengthy introduction of 83 Roman-numeraled (lxxxiii) pages, which most readers will be wise to skip, at least initially. In it, Chatelain and Slusser compare Rosny to Verne and H.G. Wells, explore the writer’s originality and touch on his legacy, but they do so in a strongly academic and eventually offputting style. Go directly to the stories. Later on, you can work your way through this insightful but demanding essay.
These brilliant works by Rosny underscore how often American readers — and I include myself — simply neglect the artistically ambitious and exceptionally entertaining science fiction written in languages other than English. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s “Tomorrow’s Eve” (1886), about an android developed in Thomas Edison’s secret laboratory, is as powerful a fable as “Frankenstein.” Kurd Lasswitz’s “Two Planets” (1897) helped inspire the development of rocketry in Germany. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (1921), banned in the Soviet Union, remains one of the great visionary dystopias, rivaling (and influencing) works by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. Only a generation ago, the works of Stanislaw Lem gained a well-deserved international reputation, as this restless Polish writer produced a series of Phildickian metaphysical headspinners and Vonnegut-like science-fictional satires; try “Solaris” (1961) or “The Futurological Congress” (1971).
But first look for “Three Science Fiction Novellas” and discover Rosny’s haunting visions of prehistory and human destiny, of the existence of more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in anybody’s philosophy.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
THREE SCIENCE FICTION NOVELLAS From Prehistory to the End of Mankind By J.-H. Rosny aine Translated from French by Daniele Chatelain and George Slusser Wesleyan Univ. 148 pp. $35