Cleaning my book shelves the other day I noticed a few vintage science fiction books that I had really enjoyed long ago. Written in the years 1900- 1910, they seemed to me ideal for a short book review because I think they really anticipate the steampunk genre, with the sort of characters you could find in a Conan Doyle or an Arsene Lupin novel, but mixed with alien predators and depicting a “War of the worlds” much more subtle than that of H.G. Wells.
The first of these authors is Maurice Renard, a very distinguished and inventive french writer from the first decades of the last century. In America, he has been known before WWII for his novels “The Hands Of Orlac” (which was turned into film first in 1924 with Conrad Veidt, and later in 1935 with Peter Lorre) and “A Man Amongst The Microbes” , which inspired the movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man”.
His masterpiece, which I am reviewing today, is a novel called Le Péril bleu (The blue peril) which, though published in 1910, still reads very well today. It combines detective story, horror and science fiction and the story is intriguing and suspenseful.
In the peaceful Bugey region, in the French Jura, which Brillat-Savarin once described as « an English garden 100 square miles large », with its romantic ruined castles and chapels perched on picturesque hillslopes, and its cascades, ponds and lakes dotting the scenery, human parts are discovered scattered all over these idyllic landscapes.
We follow then the usual red herrings of the crime genre until we eventually realise that the danger comes from above. And what a danger ! We come to learn that invisible, ethereal beings live in the upper layers of earth atmosphere on a thin, spherical membrane forming an invisible crust which extends all around the orbit. Imagine an invisible, giant cobweb which imprisoned the earth of 1910, the vast expanses in which we live being nothing more to them than an ocean from which they capture humans like fishes.
Once they have been collected, the humans are dissected, studied and mounted for display in a sort of alien museum of natural history. Certain bodies are discarded and are thus found scattered in the enchanted nature of Bugey; one of them had in his pocket the account of his unfortunate sojourn among these aliens that he had time to write just before being dumped out of their stratospheric dwelling.
Considering the time when the story was written (1910, 12 years only after “War of the worlds” and with the best of Edgar Rice Burroughs still waiting to be written), the superior alien race described in the book is highly original. Judge by yourself : after managing to capture one of the alien ships, the french gendarmerie discover that these enigmatic extraterrestrials do not exist as persons ; what is operating their ships are in fact conglomerates of little insect-like components assembling and dissembling in order to form temporary and functional organs controlling their machines. And this was thought of hundred years ago !
Although this book has not been republished in recent years, those who live in a french-speaking country can very easily find it in second-hand bookstores.
Romans et contes fantastiques. Paris: Laffont “Bouquins,” 1990. It contains 5 novels by Maurice Renard (Le Docteur Lerne, Le Péril bleu, Les Mains d’Orlac, Un Homme Chez les Microbes, and Le Maître de la lumière)
The next french author from the same period I will be reviewing shortly is Gustave Lerouge.