Science Fiction

Science Fiction: French Classics


Academic interest in science fiction has spurred a boom in republication of "classics" of SF—not the classics of Asimov and Heinlein (which you can find on any news stand), but "classics" nobody ever heard of. Most of these are published in limited hardcover editions, aimed at libraries—and at prices only libraries can be expected to pay. Some are still readable today; most are more of scholarly interest, but there are exceptions.

DAW Books, a mass-market paperback line, has gone out on a limb and revived two classics of French science fiction, Charles I. DeFontenay's Star, or Psi Cassiopeia and J.H. Rosny-ainé's The Astonishing Journey of Hareton Ironcastle.

Apart from the classics of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the contemporary British writers like James White and Keith Roberts, non-American SF is virtually unknown to casual readers in this country, and even many fans assume everything important in SF originated here, at least since Wells. It isn't so, of course. French science fiction, for example, didn't end with Verne. (In fact, it didn't altogether begin with him.) What happened after 1900 or so was that romantic, imaginative literature became less fashionable—and therefore less likely to be translated. And even before that, Verne was the only SF writer widely translated.

Neither Star, which dates back to 1854, nor Ironcastle (the shortened title of the Rosny-ainé novel used by DAW for an adaptation by Philip Jose Farmer), which was published in 1922, has ever appeared in English before.

DeFontenay (1819-56), an obscure doctor, playwright and poet, was virtually forgotten even in France until he was rediscovered by French SF critics about five years ago. Star was literally a literary mutation, seemingly springing from nowhere—and leaving no progeny. The novel—actually a collection of narrative poems, essays, plays and travelogues—purports to describe the history and customs of the inhabitants of a multiple-star system in Cassiopeia, treating their religion, political philosophy, arts and science.

De Fontenay's landscapes are described as evocatively as those of Jack Vance in recent novels: the movements of four suns—white, green, red and blue—create constantly changing patterns of light and shadow uncannily like those of Marune in Vance's latest novel, Marune: Alastor 933. Although the inhabitants of Star (a planet, despite its name) are human to the Nth degree, the flora and fauna are like nothing on Earth—nor are the repleus, a second, semi-intelligent race that provides servants for the aristocratic Starians. DeFontenay was apparently the first imaginative writer to create a really alien environment.

Star is also an epic, describing the journeys of refugee Starians from planet to planet in their system after a plague wipes out their race on their homeworld. The peoples they meet are exotic, to say the least. Tassul's natives are hermaphrodites; those of Lessur share an erotic symbiosis with their world. Rudar is shrouded in perpetual fog, and inhabited by beings preyed on by a living Death that feeds on their psychic energies.

Most of DeFontenay's style, as translated by poetess P.J. Sokolowski, is quite effective, and the passages dealing with Star itself, its history, the plague and the colonization of other worlds by Starian refugees, are vivid and memorable. Towards the end, after the Starians migrate back to their homeworld and conquer the degenerate repleus, the work tends to bog down in utopian preachment—but far less so than most utopias.


J.H. Rosny-ainé (1856-1940) was the pseudonym of Joseph-Henri Boex, who occasionally collaborated with his brother (J.H. Rosny-jeune), and was to France, without exaggeration, what Wells was to England, even though few American readers have ever heard of him. Rosny was a nonconformist from the start—at age 11, he infuriated his father by writing a story about a "Society of Free Children" who flee to a wild country to escape "persecution by their parents."

Initially attracted to the "naturalism" of Emile Zola, he broke with that school in 1887, complaining that it lacked true imagination. That was the year he published "Les Xipehuz" (translated here as "The Shapes")—the first interplanetary invasion story, and unusual even by today's standards. It is set in prehistoric Persia, and the invaders are a crystalline form of life totally alien to Earthly organisms. Not until the 1930's did writers like Stanley G. Weinbaum and Raymond Z. Gallun duplicate Rosny's feat.

The only other story by Rosny to have appeared in English is "Another World" (1895), a sensitive account of a mutant whose appearance is strange and who can see a world parallel to our own, but invisible to normal humans. The most striking thing about the story is Rosny's identification with, and sympathy for the mutant. Most American SF, even decades afterwards, tended to regard mutants as malevolent, or at best pitiful. Rosny was obsessed with the idea of the plurality of existence. In "The Mysterious Force" (1913), an encounter between "our" universe and a parallel one alters physical laws, and leaves behind alien life forms that become part-symbiotes, part parasites on Earthly life—an idea that anticipates Walter M. Miller's modern classic, "Dark Benediction."

Ironcastle, which is scheduled to appear this month in English, has an odd publishing history. One of the few full-length SF novels Rosny wrote (he preferred what we call novellas), it was farmed out by DAW for translation—but editor Donald A. Wollheim didn't like the results. So he sent the translation to Philip Jose Farmer, and asked him to rewrite it. In a sense, then, the work as it appears here will be a posthumous "collaboration."

Its theme is typical of Rosny: somewhere on Earth, a fragment of another planet has crashed, and its life forms infected the surrounding area. Hareton Ironcastle, a British scientist-explorer, sets out to investigate the phenomenon—and his journey becomes like an interplanetary one without his ever leaving Earth: as he approaches the scene of the impact, flora and fauna become stranger and stranger until the "alien" overwhelms the "natural."

Like Wells, Rosny didn't restrict himself to science fiction. He was a member of L'Academie Goncourt, and most of his output consisted of "social" novels that aren't highly regarded today. He also emulated Jack London in prehistoric works like The Giant Cat—the only one of his novels previously to have appeared in English. But again like Wells, it is for his science fiction that Rosny is honored. Had his SF been translated when it first appeared, he would undoubtedly enjoy world fame today, for it is both highly imaginative and highly literate.

Even Wollheim considers most of Rosny's works too "quaint" to appeal to modern readers. Of course, anything written 50 or 75 years ago tends to seem "quaint" today—but we are familiar with the quaintness of English literature, and take it for granted. Perhaps it isn't too late to develop an appreciation for Rosny, "quaint" though his works may be.

Whatever the impact here of Star and Ironcastle, their publication represents correction of two literary injustices, and the two novels will be a pleasant surprise to those who would never have expected anything to emerge from the exploration of science fiction past but dime novels, Tom Swift and utopian tracts.

John J. Pierce's science fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.