Literary Wanderings

J.-H. Rosny aîné

I recently finished a fascinating book by the French science fiction writer J.-H. Rosny aîné. Born in 1856, he is considered the second most important French science fiction writer (after Jules Verne). He is also virtually unknown in this county.

The book is entitled Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind. It contains three works:

  • "The Xipehuz" (1887) - in which primitive humans encounter inorganic aliens (geometric shapes)
  • "Another World" (1895) - in which a human mutant is able to communicate with inhabitants of another dimension
  • "The Death of the Earth" (1910) - possibly the first "last man on Earth" story, certainly the first to describe human-alien symbiosis

    The book also contains a long introductory essay by Daniele Chatelain and George Slusser comparing Rosny aîné to his contemporaries H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. And there are plenty of story annotations.

    Rosny aîné's bibliography includes over one hundred stories and novels. Unlike Verne, Rosny aîné did not back away from his discoveries. As Chatelain and Slusser point out, Verne would take the reader to a new place--the far side of the moon, the center of the Earth--but never examine the discovery's consequences. Rosny aîné's fiction is much more probing and reminded me of H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) or Stanislaw Lem (Solaris).

    My favorite of the three stories mentioned above was "The Death of the Earth." It is written in a dreamy, introspective style eerily similar to that of The Time Machine.

    Hopefully much more of Rosny aîné's output will be forthcoming.

    Trivia note: Rosny aîné coined the word "astronaut" (The Navigators of Infinity (1925)).

  • Big, Bold Science Fiction

    I read a fascinating article recently entitled Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction by Glenn Harlan Reynolds. The premise is that we need science fiction that inspires people to dream big. We used to have that, Reynolds says, but it's gone. For whatever reasons, we seem to have lost the ability to do big things. Or we no longer have the will.

    I agree.

    Being someone who grew up in the 60's where we were launching people to the moon, I find this pretty depressing. I remember watching the Apollo 11 landing and my parents telling me how lucky I was to be young, that they couldn't imagine the wonderful things we would be doing when I was their age.

    Turns out I wouldn't have wanted to.

    I was recently at Cape Kennedy, had a tour of the old launch sites (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo--the works). Two things stood out: how archaic the equipment was (reel-to-reel tape recorders, mechanical relays) and what a shambles these old sites were in (broken concrete, decaying buildings). It reminded me of the scene at the end of the movie Planet of the Apes. Charlton Heston is walking along the shore and comes upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. That's about the size of it.

    (Nor is this relegated to manned space missions. It wasn't long ago when we ceded advanced particle physics to the Europeans with the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider. The Waxahachie, Texas site is now slated to become a tier IV data center.)

    If we could embark on such endeavors with the "computers" we had back then, imagine what we could do with today's technology. Sadly, we don't even seem to be having that conversation.