J.-H. Rosny was one of the pioneering authors of French science fiction, second only to Jules Verne. His stories and novels staked out themes that would become staples of the genre, including alien contact and genetic mutation. Evolutionary adventurer.
J.-H. Rosny, Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind, Trans. by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser, Wesleyan, 2012.
To the short list that includes Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as founding fathers of science fiction, the name of the Belgian writer J.-H. Rosny Aîné must be added. He was the first writer to conceive, and attempt to narrate, the workings of aliens and alternate life forms. His fascination with evolutionary scenarios, and long historical vistas, from first man to last man, are important precursors to the myriad cosmic epics of modern science fiction. Until now, his work has been virtually unknown and unavailable in the English-speaking world, but it is crucial for our understanding of the genre. Three wonderfully imaginative novellas are included in this volume. “The Xipehuz” is a prehistoric tale in which the human species battles strange geometric alien life forms. “Another World” is the story of a mysterious being who does not live in the same acoustic and temporal world as humans. “The Death of the Earth” is a scientifically uncompromising Last Man story. The book includes an insightful critical introduction that places Rosny’s work within the context of evolutionary biology.
“In a lengthy, well-researched introduction the authors situate Rosny’s work within evolutionary biology, showcasing his interest in Darwinian evolution and arguing for his rightful place as the true father of hard science fiction. The three novellas are intriguing and nicely translated. … Highly recommended.”―S.E. Vie
“…Rosny was a species pluralist, and believed that human beings are no more entitled than any other creature to reign supreme. He would have felt right at home among the Men In Black.”―Laura Miller
Rosny “belongs somewhere between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. (He is) one of the true originals of science fiction.”―Paul Kincaid
"It seemed to me that it was here, in this dawning of the race, that the veil of mystery might part, here that some simple, primitive idea would perhaps issue forth, would illuminate for me a small corner of this deep dark abyss.... How many times did I feel myself at that moment on the verge of grasping some fleeting glimpse of the Xipéhuz's essential nature, an extrasensory glimpse, a pure abstraction, and which, alas, my poor senses buried in flesh were never able to pursue."— J.-H. Rosny aîné, "The Xipéhuz"
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. - Michael Dirda
One of the major publishers of state-of-the-art critical editions is Wesleyan University Press, whose “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series has brought back into print, often in fresh translation, work by Verne, Wells, Camille Flammarion, Ignatius Donnelly, and others. The latest volume in the series is J.-H. Rosny aîné’s Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind (January 2012), translated and introduced by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser. Rosny aîné (1856-1940) was a pioneer in the representation of alien beings, including metallic and other inorganic life forms, and his tales foreground problems of communication across species boundaries in ways that seem quite modern (the three included here were published between 1887 and 1910). A lengthy (75-page) editorial introduction evaluates the author and his work in relation to relevant historical, scientific, and genre contexts. If you find this slim volume to your taste, you can sample many more of Rosny aîné’s scientific speculations in the numerous editions translated by Brian Stableford and published by Black Coat Press, a Tarzana-based publisher that specializes in English translations of classic works of French popular fiction. - Rob Latham
The Xipéhuz were created by “J. H. Rosny (aîné)” and appeared in “Les Xipéhuz” (“The Shapes,” L’Immolation, 1887). “J. H. Rosny (aîné)” was the pen name of Joseph Henri Honoré Böex (1866-1940), a French author. For many years after his death Böex was forgotten, primarily because the majority of his work was written in disrespected genres like science fiction and the prehistoric romance. But in recent years critics and academics have begun paying him more attention and giving him the credit he deserves. Böex produced some remarkable science fiction and is considered (with Jules Verne) to be one of the most influential figures in the development of science fiction in France. “Les Xipéhuz” is one of his most famous, and best, stories.
“Les Xipéhuz” is set in the Middle East, circa 5000 B.C.E. A nomad tribe, the Pjehu, discover a group of “translucent bluish cones, point uppermost, each nearly half the bulk of a man…each one had a dazzling star near its base,” clustered around a spring. When the Pjehu draw close to the cones, or “the Shapes” as the narrator calls them, the Shapes attack them, killing many, although they only target warriors and avoid killing women, children, the sick and the aged. But the Shapes do not pursue the Pjehu beyond a certain distance and ignore them if they leave the Shapes alone. The Pjehu, shaken, consult a group of local priests who decide that the Shapes are gods and that they must be sacrificed to. But the Shapes kill those priests who approach them.
The priests experiment with slaves and determine the distance beyond which the Shapes will not pursue humans, and then the priests set that boundary with stakes and decree that the Shapes are to be left alone. But other tribes are not told about the priests’ decree or ignore it, and members of those tribes cross the boundary and are massacred. Then the Shapes begin expanding their territory. When the tribes try to resist, hundreds of their warriors are killed by the Shapes. All the tribes of Mesopotamia begin fearing for the existence of Man, and some men turn to dark cults.
The tribes’ wise men at last consult the hermit Bakhun. Long ago he had abandoned a nomadic life for a pastoral one, and in so doing flourished. Bakhun believes in odd and unusual things, like the sun, moon, and stars being “luminous masses” rather than gods, and that “men should really believe only in those things tested by measurement.” Bakhun tells the wise men that he will dedicate his life to studying the Shapes. He does so, and draws a number of significant conclusions, most important of which is that the Shapes are living beings rather than spirits or gods.
After years of study Bakhun also also deduces what the Shapes’ weakness is–the star at their base–and tells the priests and elders and chiefs what he has seen. Many tens of thousand of the warriors of “the plain of Mehur Asar” assemble, and a war is launched on the Xipéhuz. After a few setbacks and great loss of life, the Xipéhuz are destroyed and humanity’s future is assured. However, Bakhun mourns the fact that the survival of Man required the death of the Xipéhuz– that “the splendor of Life be tarnished by the Shadow of Murder!”
“Les Xipéhuz” is a remarkable achievement on several levels, especially considering that it was Böex’s first story. “Les Xipéhuz” is one of the first stories of the 19th century to present truly alien, non-anthropomorphized beings. Most aliens in 19th century science fiction were some variant of Earth creature and were often (though by no means always) humanoid. But the Xipéhuz are not only alien in shape (geometric, silicon/crystalline forms rather than carbon based forms modeled on animals or insects) but are also alien in mindset. Their temperaments and personalities are familiar, or seem to be, to Bakhun, but their motives and background are alien, not just to Bakhun but also to the modern reader. Modern science writers often find it difficult to create aliens who are truly alien. That a twenty-one-year-old did it in his first story, before science fiction had coalesced into a distinct genre, and at a time when the vast majority of fictional “aliens” were lightly-disguised humans or monsters, is exceptional.
“Les Xipéhuz” is also notable for the way in which it merges the prehistoric genre with science fiction. Such a combination is not extraordinary today, but in 1887 it was practically unheard of. There was little genre mixing, certainly not in the postmodern way modern readers have come to expect today. Stories generally stuck to one genre. This was not always true, as horror and ghost
story authors made use of a number of genres to tell their stories, but it was generally true. Few detective stories were set in the past or made use of anything speculative or fantastic, and science fiction stories rarely deviated from the Verne and Wells modes. In 1887 there were science fiction stories and there had been a few prehistorical stories, but there weren’t any stories combining the two. “Les Xipéhuz” also anticipates the later Vamireh, Roman Des Temps Primitifs (1892), by Böex and his brother Séraphin Justin François, who published jointly as “J. H. Rosny.” Vamireh was not the first prehistoric novel, but it was the Böexs’ first of five, with the fifth, La Guerre du Feu (1911), gaining them fame. Böex is known as “the Father of the Prehistoric Novel” for his influence and output in that subgenre, and “Les Xipéhuz” is his first in that field. But the story is a combination of the prehistoric story along with science fiction.
Finally, “Les Xipéhuz” is notable for the fluid way in which Böex switches styles. The middle passage, written in modern (19th century) scientific terminology, is hard science, but uses the explanatory approach of Golden Age (1940s/1950s) science fiction authors. The final section of the story, written in Bakhun’s voice, is reminiscent of modern heroic fantasy fiction, with invented fantasy names (“Dzums, Sahrs, Khaldes”) and fantasy terminology and phrasing (“Anakhre, the third son of my wife Tepai, was a mighty maker of weapons”). This might seem like a confused mishmash, but in the context of the story, with interstitial explanations for the differing styles, the shifts in style work well.
Additionally, “Les Xipéhuz” reads well as a story. English translations have a clean and straightforward style with the occasional vivid image. There is a certain over-earnestness to some of the statements, but on the whole the story reads smoothly and effectively, without any of the padding, posturing, or pontificating that American and English sf authors were prone to and
without the obsession with verisimilitude which Verne tended toward.
The Xipéhuz are silicon-based, geometric-shaped alien beings. Most are in the shape of a cone, and nearly all are cylindrical, but there are numerous individual variations in shape. Some of the Xipéhuz are tall and thin, others are short and squat, some are cone shaped while others are rectangular slabs. Their shapes and colors can change, but they generally remain cylindrical and bluish-green. They communicate by flashing lines in various shapes across their sides. They can kill by focusing rays from the “stars” at their base. They have individual personalities and are at least comprehensible by humans, but their purpose for coming to Earth, besides an apparent drive for expansion, is unknown, as is their culture. They are truly alien and are only slightly comprehensible.
J.-H. Rosny was the pseudonym of the brothers Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856–1940) and Séraphin Justin François Boex (1859–1948), both born in Brussels. Together they wrote a series of novels and short stories about natural, prehistoric and fantasy subjects, published between 1886 and 1909, as well as several popular science works. After 1909, the two brothers ended their collaboration, and Joseph Boex took to signing his works as J.-H. Rosny aîné (J. H. Rosny Major), while his brother Seraphin used the name J.-H. Rosny jeune. (J. H. Rosny Minor) In 1903, the Boex brothers were named to the first jury for the Prix Goncourt, an influential annual French literary award. They are considered to be among the founders of modern science fiction.
Of the two, the elder brother Joseph (J.-H. Rosny aîné) is somewhat better known and many of the joint Rosny works are incorrectly attributed only to the elder brother. Of their books, The Quest for Fire is the best known, especially since it was made into a the motion picture of the same name in 1981.