The history of France's relationship with sf is one of long flirtation, marked through the centuries by episodic outbursts of passion and, in recent times, by an increasing shift from authorship to readership, from the active to the passive role, as more and more people become avid consumers of the US/UK sf tradition. A few remarkable French writers of sf have emerged, but, although the 1970s were an active period for French sf, no truly indigenous school of writing has yet taken shape.
A quest for "great ancestors" in the corpus of French literature would be endless. Many texts – some vintage classics, some long-forgotten oddities – show that Fantastic Voyages, the search for Utopia, and speculation about other worlds and alien forms of society were constant preoccupations. People tend to overlook the fact that the last parts of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564; trans 1653-1694), especially L'isle sonante ["The Ringing Island"] (1562), are clearly set in the future and almost constitute an early style of Space Opera with their processing of foreign languages, customs and landscapes.
One century later, interest in the otherworldly asserted itself in works such as Cyrano de Bergerac's Histoire comique contenant les états et empires de la lune (1657; trans as A Voyage to the Moon 1659) and Bernard le Bovyer de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes habités (1686; trans J Glanvill as The Plurality of Worlds 1929), but it is in the eighteenth century that we encounter the most direct forerunner of sf in its modern sense, in the form of the conte philosophique, or philosophical tale. Conditions were then ideal for the emergence of something akin to sf: the Siècle des Lumières was one of universal curiosity, of philosophical audacity and political revolution; it gave birth to all-encompassing spirits such as that of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and saw the writing of the Encyclopédie (1751-1772), which merged the two aspects of culture, literary and scientific, the divorce of which would be one of the main sources of the decline of French sf in our time.
The conventions of the conte philosophique – which generally takes the shape of a fantastic voyage – are predecessors to those of sf: the voyage to the far island symbolizes what we now imagine in interplanetary travel, and the islanders themselves stand for what are now aliens, while the study of their civilizations serves as a mirror/criticism of our institutions. Conversely, the satire of French (= European) society as seen through foreign eyes was a device that had already been used by Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) in his Lettres persanes ["Persian Letters"] (1721).
The genre could be illustrated by numerous stories (Pierre Versins states that "at the beginning of the eighteenth century, at least one speculative work was published each year"), but among its landmarks were Voltaire's Micromégas (Berlin 1750; France 1752), Louis-Sébastien Mercier's L'an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771; trans as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred 1772), Restif de la Bretonne's La découverte australe ["The Southern-Hemisphere Discovery"] (1781) and Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt's Icosaméron (1788), an early story of travel to the centre of the Earth. Such was the vogue of speculation that in 1787 a publisher started a list of Voyages imaginaires which ran to 36 volumes and may be considered the first sf series ever.
Perhaps the most significant sf figure of the early nineteenth century was Félix Bodin (1795-1837), whose Le Roman de l'avenir ["The Romance of the Future"] (1834) consists of a long theoretical discussion of the nature of futuristic fiction, this being a preface to a fragmentary or unfinished novel about a future, in which mechanized warfare appears. As Paul K Alkon demonstrates in Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), Bodin's book presents an aesthetic which – significantly for sf – refers not only to a genre which takes the future as its subject but to one that itself will exist only in the future. The remainder of the nineteenth century would seem to be entirely dominated by the formidable silhouette of Jules Verne, but it was a very active period in other respects too, carrying on the élan of the preceding era. Scientific achievements and the Industrial Revolution gave birth to popular novels in the same way that philosophical turmoil had produced its share of contes. Verne himself stands apart because he was the first writer to be systematic about it and build his whole work according to a vast design, as described by his publisher Jules Hetzel in 1867: "His aim is to sum up all knowledge gathered by modern science in the fields of geography, geology, physics, astronomy, and to remake, in his own attractive and picturesque way, the history of our Universe." From then to his death in 1905, Verne gave Hetzel the 64 books which make up his Voyages extraordinaires, subtitled "Voyages dans les mondes connus et inconnus" ["Voyages into the Known and Unknown Worlds"]. Jacques Van Herp (1923- ), who himself wrote a large number of works of Children's SF as Michel Jansen, has argued that the huge success Verne enjoyed, basically among adolescents, drove serious critics and historians away from him, so that – in France anyway – one may trace back to Verne the lame academic quarrel about whether sf, or "anticipation", is high literature or not. Indeed, that question had never been raised before; it took a bourgeois system of education (see below) to institute class-struggle among books. Verne's work went the way of Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island: that of a sort of universal reputation which does not preclude underestimation or misunderstanding. Until recently, Verne was ignored by the universities, but fascinated such diverse minds as those of Raymond Roussel (who called him "le plus grand génie littéraire de tous les siècles" ["the greatest literary genius of all time"]), Michel Butor and Michel Foucault (1926-1984).
Among Verne's contemporaries in the field, one should at least mention the astronomer Camille Flammarion and his Récits de l'infini (1872; trans as Stories of Infinity: Lumen – History of a Comet in Infinity 1874) and the novelist cum draughtsman Albert Robida, who was no less prolific than Verne, whom he parodied in his Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul (serially published from June 1879; for book publication > Albert Robida) which purportedly took their hero "into all the countries known and even unknown to Mr Jules Verne". Robida proved himself a visionary as well as a humorist in his Le vingtième siècle ["The Twentieth Century"] (1882), La vie électrique ["The Electric Life"] (1883) and "La guerre au vingtième siècle" ["War in the 20th Century"] (La caricature 1883).
By the turn of the century, however, the one name Verne had to contend with was that of J-H Rosny aîné, a writer who possibly deserves as much consideration. The Rosnys, two brothers of Belgian extraction, started together a writing career that was eventually to win them seats in the Académie Goncourt, but we are concerned only with the numerous stories and the 17 novels of Rosny aîné (the elder brother), which run from the prehistoric, such as La guerre du feu ["The War of Fire"] (1909), through the cataclysmic La mort de la terre ["Death of the Earth"] (1910) to the futuristic Les navigateurs de l'infini ["Navigators of Infinity"] (December 1925 Les Œuvres Libres; 1927). Rosny aîné consistently brought to the field, besides a solid scientific culture, a breadth of vision at times worthy of Olaf Stapledon.
The period ranging from the 1880s to the 1930s, largely predating the US boom of the 1920s, was the true golden age of French sf: we might call it France's pulp era. Not that there ever existed any specific sf magazines, but wide-circulation periodicals such as Le Journal des Voyages and La science illustrée – and, later, Je sais tout, L'Intrépide and the very important Sciences et voyages – regularly ran stories and serialized novels of "anticipation". Sf was thus lent a degree of respectability by being introduced as an extension of travel and adventure stories. In the general title given to his work, Jules Verne had proceeded similarly from "known" to "unknown" worlds.
Apart from isolated works by nonspecialists such as L'Ève Future (1886; trans as The Eve of the Future 1981; new trans as Tomorrow's Eve 1982) by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, L'île des pingouins (1908; trans as Penguin Island 1909) by Anatole France and Le Napus, fléau de l'an 2227 ["The 'Disappearance': Scourge of the Year 2227"] (1927) by Léon Daudet (1868-1942), this period gave birth to a host of popular writers: Paul d'Ivoi, Louis Boussenard, then Gustave Le Rouge, Jean de La Hire, André Couvreur, José Moselli, René Thévenin, etc. All were not of equal worth, but three names are outstanding: Maurice Renard, author of the amazing Le docteur Lerne (1908; trans as New Bodies for Old 1923), which he dedicated to H G Wells; Jacques Spitz, whose best novel was L'oeil du purgatoire ["The Eye of Purgatory"] (1945) and whose earlier L'agonie du globe (1935; trans as Save the Earth 1936) was given a UK edition; and Régis Messac (1893-1943), whose Quinzinzinzili (1935) and La cité des asphyxiés ["City of the Suffocated"] (1934) exhibit a sinister mood and grim humour that deserve to gain him a new audience today.
World War Two put an end to this thriving period, and during the 1940s only one writer of note appeared: René Barjavel, with Ravage (1943; trans as Ashes, Ashes 1967) and Le voyageur imprudent (1944; trans as Future Times Three 1971). At the end of World War Two, two factors were to bear heavily on the future of sf in France. The first was the growing separation, at school, in the universities and in all thinking circles, between les littéraires and les scientifiques. This made for a lack of curiosity on the part of aspiring novelists about science and its possible effects on the shapes of our lives, and drove many talents away from the genre, which was definitely viewed as teenager-fodder. France had, as it were, ceased to dream about its own future – and about the future generally. Second, whatever interest in these matters existed was satisfied from another source, the USA. In the years following World War Two the French public discovered all at once jazz, US films, thrillers and the US Golden Age of SF. One key personality of the period was Boris Vian, novelist, songwriter, film buff and jazz musician, who translated both Raymond Chandler and A E van Vogt. This was the time of the creation of Le club des savanturiers by Michel Pilotin, Vian, Raymond Queneau and Audiberti. In 1951, Queneau wrote an introductory essay in Critique: "Un nouveau genre littéraire: les sciences-fictions" ["A New Literary Genre: SF"], followed two years later by Michel Butor, with "La crise de croissance de la science-fiction" (January 1953 Cahiers du Sud; trans as "SF: The Crisis of its Growth", Partisan Review 1967; reprinted in SF: The Other Side of Realism, anth 1971, ed Thomas D Clareson).
Sf was again fashionable but mainly in translated form. Between 1951 and 1964, the Rayon fantastique series published 119 titles, mostly US; it was followed in 1954 by Présence du Futur, which still exists today. By the end of the decade some French names were appearing on the list of the former – Francis Carsac, pseudonym of François Bordes (1919-1977), Philippe Curval and Albert Higon, pseudonym of Michel Jeury – and the latter – Jacques Sternberg and Jean Hougron – but for the most part French authors were published, often under pseudonyms, in the less prestigious Fleuve noir series, created in 1951. The best of these were Stefan Wul, B R Bruss (Roger Blondel), Kurt Steiner (André Ruellan) and Gilles d'Argyre (Gérard Klein).
In 1953 Éditions Opta launched the French editions of Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxie and Fiction, whose contents differ notably from those of their US models. These two would remain for many years the principal outlet for US stories and a springboard for new French talents, including critics. But such were few and far between. The initial impetus given by the discovery of US sf in the 1950s slowed down during the following decade. One magazine which devoted more space to indigenous authors, Satellite, had a brief life. Among the new writers, Michel Demuth, Alain Dorémieux and Gérard Klein were soon absorbed by editorial responsibilities and their output consequently became irregular.
The most personal voice during this period and the succeeding years has been that of Philippe Curval who, from Le ressac de l'espace ["The Breakers of Space"] (1962) through Cette chère humanité ["This Dear Humanity"] (1976), has consistently maintained a high standard while never imitating the US model. Beside him we should again mention Michel Jeury, who resumed writing (under his own name) with Le temps incertain (1973; trans Maxim Jakubowski as Chronolysis 1980), and Daniel Drode (1932-1984), whose only novel was Surface de la planète ["Surface of the Planet"] (1959). Mainstream writers occasionally tackled sf: Pierre Boulle with La planète des singes (1963; trans as Planet of the Apes 1963; vt Monkey Planet 1964); Robert Merle with Un animal doué de raison (1967; trans as The Day of the Dolphin 1969) and Malevil (1972; trans 1974); and Claude Ollier, an adept of the nouveau roman, with La vie sur Epsilon ["Life on Epsilon"] (1972).
In the 1970s the situation underwent further changes, once more due to a definite influence: that of the UK New Wave and in particular post-New Worlds sf. J G Ballard's later work, along with that of such US writers as Thomas M Disch, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad and, above all, Philip K Dick, had a tremendous impact on the new generation of readers who lived through the 1968 student uprising and saw the possibilities of making powerful political statements in speculative form. Several young authors who began writing in the mid-1960s (Daniel Walther, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Jean-Pierre Hubert) readily took that route, and were followed by a batch of newcomers, with Dominique Douay, Pierre Pelot and Philippe Goy the best among them.
Nevertheless, the effervescence of the late 1970s did not survive into the 1980s. Lack of enthusiasm on the part of the public? Overabundance of books? Difficulties linked to general publishing problems? It was the beginning of a critical period in which the number of sf imprints, about 40 during the late 1970s, diminished to a half-dozen. The so-called "New French SF", sometimes inordinately politicized, was the first victim of this crisis. Partly because of its excesses, readers and editors grew weary of French sf authors, who then tried to explore different paths and attract recognition through other means. Some, mostly newcomers, reacted by turning to a form-oriented sf – that is, to a greater preoccupation with style, poetry and experimental writing (Emmanuel Jouanne, Antoine Volodine) – to the point where they sometimes forgot the true nature of the genre. Others were tempted into expressing their personal universes, often powerfully fantastic in kind. Among these were Jean-Marc Ligny, Jacques Barbéri, Francis Berthelot and particularly Serge Brussolo who, in less than ten years, made his mark with some 40 novels – including such definite masterpieces as Aussi lourd que le vent ["As Heavy as the Wind"] (1981), Carnaval de fer ["Iron Carnival"] (1983) and La nuit du bombardier ["Night of the Bomber"] (1989) – and became the most original and most popular sf writer of his generation. Finally, a third category of authors put their craft into the service of a "neo-classical" sf which invited the reader to reflect upon contemporary issues (Ecology, the media, Computers, genetics, cultural intermingling) though without giving up the traditional lures of exoticism and adventure. They include G.-J. Arnaud and his long series La compagnie des glaces ["The Ice Company"], which has run since 1981, Bernard Simonay with Phénix (1986) and Joël Houssin with Les Vautours ["The Vultures"] (1986) and Argentine (1989), all books which have found a large audience and won awards.
Today French sf shows a paradoxical face: it includes many talented writers, usually well detached from the UK-US influence, whether long-established authors or newcomers to the genre such as Richard Canal, Pierre Stolze, Raymond Milési and Colette Fayard. But, on the other hand, the dwindling of publishing imprints, magazines and columns – or their outright disappearance (Fiction ceased in 1989) – gives the unfortunate impression that the domain is definitely in peril. Thus, the best French authors – notably those with a long career behind them – are now inclined to abandon sf and turn to horror (> Horror in SF) which, courtesy of Stephen King, has become increasingly popular (Andrevon, Brussolo), or to mainstream literature (Sternberg, Jeury, Pelot, Andrevon, Curval, Volodine), or to screenplays (Ruellan, Pelot, Houssin), a far more lucrative field.
One would think that the existence of an active, passionate Fandom – thanks to which the French sf milieu has been holding its own Conventions since 1974 – would have given a boost to the national production, but such is not the case. French fandom remains self-centred, and is more devoted to its own byzantine arguments than to the task of working efficiently to enlarge sf's public recognition. In other words, fans complain about their preferred literature being locked up in a ghetto, but never do anything really helpful to change that. Only a handful of critics – sometimes translators, editors or writers themselves (Curval, Jeury, Klein) – have tried and are still trying to publish in mainstream magazines or newspapers regular columns or interviews meant to defend and exemplify sf (French or not) to the general public, who are often ill informed about the genre. [RL/JCh]
- Pierre Versins. Encyclopédie de l'utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science-fiction (Lausanne, Switzerland: Éditions L'âge d'homme, 1972) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Jacques Sadoul. Histoire de la science-fiction moderne 1911-1984 (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1984) [nonfiction: second edition, first published 1973: pb/]
- Jacques Van Herp. Panorama de la science-fiction: les thèmes, les genres, l'écoles, les problèmes (Verviers, Belgium: Éditions Gérard & Co, 1973) [nonfiction: pb/]
- Gérard Klein. Preface to Sur l'autre face du monde & autres romans scientifiques de "Science et voyages" (anth 1973) edited by A Valerie
- Gérard Klein. Malaise dans la science-fiction (Metz, France: L'Aube enclavé, 1977) [nonfiction: chap: binding unknown/]
Also useful are four anthologies of French sf short stories, Les Mondes francs, L'Hexagone halluciné, La Frontière éclatée and Les Mosàïques du temps (1988-1990) edited by Gérard Klein, Ellen Herzfeld and Dominique Martel
Previous versions of this entry