- Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind by J.-H. Rosny aîné
The Belgian author J.-H. Rosny aîné is a relative unknown. A contemporary of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, he wrote a number of science fiction stories, as well as naturalistic ones, all in French. Despite being something of a celebrity in his day, he has received scant attention from the anglophone world—a smattering of (allegedly poor or half-baked) translations and a couple of Ph.D. dissertations that "tend to dismiss Rosny's 'scientific' novels and disparage SF" (147). With this new volume, Chatelain and Slusser aim to set a foundation for, and secure an interest in, Rosny as a subject of study and to argue for his import in the history of sf. The work contains a lengthy introduction, copious notes, and a useful annotated bibliography, along with a selection of three newly translated novellas. The stories themselves are a valuable addition to the scholarly canon, but the critical framing oscillates somewhat between fascinating insight and a sense of overreaching that threads unnecessary fractures through its otherwise solid case.
Beginning with the three novellas, I cannot speak to how well the selections represent Rosny's oeuvre as a whole, but they certainly present a well-curated stand-alone collection. They take us from prehistory through a more or less contemporary age to the end of humanity as a species. This not only shows the reach of the author's speculative thought but also provides a strong basis for comparison that allows key elements of Rosny's thought and style to emerge. The three stories are The Xipéhuz, Another World, and The Death of the Earth.
The first, The Xipéhuz, tells a tale of prehistory, in which tribal, nomadic humanity is threatened by an encounter with the eponymous race. The Xipéhuz are not, however, aliens. They are an earthly species, and the story tells of a moment in evolutionary history when humanity's survival hung in the balance. Initially overwhelmed, humanity triumphs through the work of what may be the first "rational" man, Bakhoun, an early advocate of the [End Page 225] sedentary life, agriculture, and "measurement." Through observation and experiment, and the eventual marshaling of armies, the Xipéhuz are defeated, and humanity is allowed to continue upon their evolutionary path. Another World gives us a mutant protagonist, born of humanity but with a skin of pale violet, increased speed and grace, and most importantly a transformed eye, capable of seeing not only hues beyond the human ken but another dimension coterminous with our usual ones, inhabited by strange creatures hitherto unseen. This world and these creatures appear to be as unable to affect the human world as humans are able to affect them, but both exist in some kind of metabolic relationship to the same environment. The story consists of the reader learning about the mutant and his relationship to the world and how the mutant becomes subject, instrument, and object of scientific study in this new dimension. Finally, The Death of the Earth takes place at the end of humanity's reign, with scarce water left on the Earth. Humanity has been separated into clusters around remaining oases, keeping in contact through a communication relay known as the Great Planetary. There is no way to reverse the grand ecological shifts that are making the Earth uninhabitable for humanity but producing a perfect environment for the young race of "ferromagnetics" that are spreading swiftly. The story ends with humanity's demise.
As might be obvious from the above synopses, Rosny is not one of literature's great plotters. The stories are very interesting at the level of ideas, but they lack, at least in comparison to those of Wells and Verne, a certain literariness—they are far more science than fiction. It is no surprise that when the...