The Plague, by Nathalie Henneberg

French science-fiction writer Nathalie Henneberg was well versed in the art of “world creation”, as evinced in her monumental space opera “la plaie” (“the plague”).

Earth is swept by a plague which turns people into zombies serving the designs of a malevolent cosmic entity. The surviving humans flee an insane solar system by the millions and scatter across the galaxy.

The novel takes us back and forth over several decades between the fates of different mutants becoming gradually aware of unforeseeable possibilities.

This new species seems to have been grown as a reaction against the plague by Earth itself. The planet is seen as a living, self-regulating creature, a tortured macro-organism consciously manipulating its environment to ensure its survival.

Among other mutants we follow the paths of Villys, a teenage girl able to project her mind in time and space to escape bullying.

Villys flees as a stowaway in a huge and rusty cargo ship manned by sadistic sailors and malfunctioning robots . This cyberpunk spaceship is under the command of a monstrous female captain,  who discards the passengers one by one and sends them floating in weightlessness around her ship in a state of semi unconscious corpses.

Villys eventually escapes together with Quick, an android and Hell, a disturbed sailor acting as a gigolo to this mad matron. They manage to land on the old planet Hera in the Sagitarius system, inhabited by two races : the native Herans dominated by the sleepwalking Sohis. Hell is killed while partaking in a ritualistic fight typical of that strange codified world.
Terran refugees have arrived in great numbers on Arcturus. The arcturians are a decadent alien race who teached civilisation to the different human races who successively lived on earth and were plagued and destroyed one after the other by the same cosmic evil. This old arcturian race has gone through a succession of mutations and has developped its mental abilities to such an extent that it has become unfit to live other than in virtual reality.

Now that Earth seems to be lost, they have given the aquatic planet Sigma to human mercs who have established there a colony. The humans are accumulating massive wealth that the arcturians no longer need in gigantic floating warehouses and have recreated a sort of Venice,  a huge labyrinth of canals upon the only island of the planet. They are also building a huge fleet of spaceships with a view to recapture Earth one day.

But the plague cannot be fought by violent means, since it feeds on violence itself and in turn amplifies it. Only the mutants, who have developped powers to move through the interplan of space and time, gets wise to the fact that the plague is extracting time sequences and replacing them by others which it has infected.

“The Plague” is a book of great descriptive power and beauty : carniverous nebulae, living seas of huge waves consisting of innumerable howling corpses, graveyard of dead astronauts orbiting in weightlessness in hieratic rows, Armageddons repeated endlessly in infinities of different worlds.

Nathalie henneberg is a bit too decadent for my taste but I must admit she managed to capture epic visions of cosmic battles, mountains of hands and tongues of conquered ennemies piled up before assyrians winged-bull kings , refined royal suicides staged like pyrotechnical wonders, tentacular town-libraries expanding into huge human sprawls, alien princesses subjected to unspeakable transplantations.

She explores an eerie world of strange rites and cosmic demonology, a gigantic theatre of alien races and impossible loves : angels of flames,she-males, giant squids, living planets, the synthetic race of the Arcturian, resulting from a series of  mutations operated inside a monumental cathedral of transplantations.

Time seen as a dimension is also a cleverly used plot device : her heroin Villys eventually reaches a planet haunted by mirages where different time planes are layered on the same plot of land; she thus comes across victims of recent atrocities, ghosts of long dead invaders, forgotten primordial denizens from the dark ages in a hallucinating juxtaposition of different time sequences.

It is not possible to give an approaching complete summary of this intricate book whose climax takes place on the hybrid planet Antigone, the two faces of which are on the limit of two worlds : reality and anti reality, the latter gradually aspiring our own universe.
At the moment where a maelstrom of absolute evil is going to engulf our world, a mutant sees the way to save it.

Illustration by Caza

The House of a thousand floors, by Jan Weiss

In today’s review I take a closer look at a jewel of Czech science fiction and fantasy.

(Contains spoilers)

The House of a thousand floors (DUM O TISICI PATRECH) is a science-fiction novel by Jan Weiss, from the year 1929.

A man awakens with amnesia at the foot of a huge stairway. He has just emerged from some kind of body horror nightdream and has no conception who or where he is. The staircase has only blank walls around it so the man has no choice but to proceed up and up indefinitely. Finding no way out after ascending dozens of floors, he finds in his pocket a notebook from which he learns that his name is Brok (which means “pellet” in czech , we will find out why later) and that he has a mission to accomplish.

He has been given one month invisibility by the World Government’s Secret Service, during which he must explore the House of a thousand floors and recover the beautiful Princess Tamara abducted for the harem of the almighy Muller, the architect and hidden ruler of this colossal house.

Meeting a strange blind stonecutter on his way up, he learns more about this intriguing skyscrapper.

He is just at the beginning of his quest through this gigantic Babel tower populated by all classes of people amalgated there by Muller. Each group of floors contains entire town districts housing various aspects of human activities : industrious compounds,  seedy brothels in back alleys, stock exchanges in upscale neighbourhood, exotic playgrounds, even urban guerilla in the upper floors trying to topple the government of this mad private universe. Like an almighty peeping Tom, the unapproachable Mulller observes and controls everyone and everything in his world, except the invisible Brok.

Brok sets out to uncover the secret of this delirious House which Muller wants to keep building up to the sky. We must remember that the book dates from 1929, so this “art deco” parallel world with its crazy machines, architecture and gadgetry has a steampunk flavour before its time.

In the House of a thousand floors thrives a luxuriant society where a surreal capitalism is pushed to the limits of absurdity : we see a gigantic roulette game where the players place bets on entire continents or countries, a lottery offering intersideral cruises to prize winners who finally end up as manipulated guinea pigs. Weiss renders finely every minor detail. A futuristic movie house is using poor addicts to broadcast hardcore shows through a contraption connected to their eyes.  In a sinister anticipation of the extermination camps, a crematory company advertizes for the painless suppression of all disabled people from their town district.

Pursued by the grotesque henchmen of Muller, the invisible Brok is greeted as a liberator by insane crowds of revolutionaries and finds himself entangled in a strange love scene with Princess Tamara, the whole thing spiced up by his invisibility.

Deftly written, the novel makes fine use of a range of experimental styles and techniques. At times, linear storytelling gives way to a collage of incongruous elements : excerpts from fictitious books, encyclopedia articles, radio broadcasts transcripts are used as shortcuts to describe places or events ; other narrative ingredients include fanciful advertisements,  ludicrous administrative documents or political slogans which highlight the idiosyncrasies of this decadent world.

Another stylistic device is the use of the recurrent nightmare that befalls Brok in always shorter intervals ; he sees himself in a stinking place with bodies piled up around him and a red hot triangle flaring above him. Each times he awakes, a new turn in the action takes place, leading Brok to different quarters in the House.

Eventually Brok reaches the secret heart of the House of a thousand floors ; Muller’s private quarters are entered through a musical bridge vibrating with a melody customized for each visitor. Brok traverses a series of rooms each one more insane than the others : a huge crystal where a living heart is beating on a plate, a conservatory where human faces are kept intact and ready to be worn, a strange Ali Baba cavern and at long last, the inner sanctum of Muller. To his amazement Brok enters a sort of nursery complete with childish toys.

In front of a huge organ-like control desk sits Muller himself, looking halfway between a child and an incredibly old dwarf. And now comes the final confrontation between this mad demiurge and his invisible opponent. Muller tries to entice Brok : “You have discovered my secret, but I know who you really are”. Dodging a treacherous slash, Brok has to stab Muller to defend himself. As Muller lays dying, the House of a thousand floors begins to crumble and to bury Brok.

Brok suddenly awakens from what appears to have been a long fever dream and realizes he is a wounded soldier, emerging from sleep in a world war I lazaret bed. The reality was a dream and even the hate-figure of Muller was a figment of his imagination.

Jan Weiss explores imaginatively what was then the unnown continent of dreams and of subconscious identity. He was a countryman of Franz Kafka and delighted in analysing uncompromisingly the futility of  man’s efforts against the anonymous forces which are shaping and ruling mankind. The dream thematic is here ambiguous : while the inhabitants of the House of a thousand floors are puppets controled by a demiurgic dictator, the evil figure of Muller and the detestable pleasures he draws from his private world are nothing but a dream of Brok. While Brok himself was thought by Muller to be nothing more than one of his many creatures…so who was real ?

Hugh ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Gustave Le Rouge, a grand master of early pulp science fiction

Gustave Le Rouge is an interesting example of “belle epoque” science fiction, a period of the highest interest. His book “prisoner of mars” and its sequel “war of vampires”, which I am reviewing today, dates from 1908-1909 but contains many elements found in the pulp science fiction of the 30’s.

The method of space travel depicted in this book is even more unusual than those featured in the « Mars » or « Venus » series of Edgar Rice Burroughs or in the “cosmic trilogy” of the excellent C.S. Lewis. Amazingly enough, Le Rouge sent his main character Robert Darvel to the red planet in a capsule propelled by a psychic energy produced in an indian monastery by thousands of yogis gathered together as one cosmic soul.

Darvel arrives on one of the most intriguing Mars planet ever to be depicted in early science fiction. It features a strange hierarchy of aliens, each one more exotic and frightening than the others. Semi-humanoid but retarded creatures are treated like cattle by their blood-drinking super intelligent masters ; these are themselves dominated by  superior squid-like, invible beings haunting a mysterious city. And these in their turn fear a mysterious god-like power which dwells in a colossal crystal mountain to which they must sent every month scores of victims to be sacrificed as if to some monstrous martian Minotaur.

Le Rouge has a very engaging writing style, strangely visual and constantly bubbling with new creations and possibilities. He describes a luxuriant nature of carnivorous grass, flying aliens consisting exclusively of thought and disgusting feelers, and all sorts of hybrid monsters, with a full of organic details which makes you almost feel their presence. In one instance, he gives a fascinating description of the culinary delights of Darvel improvising a meal of minced pickled tongue of some martian bird, served on perfumed vegetable hearts.

His description of an eerie and abandoned martian city where Darvel flees from the Invisibles has a particular haunting beauty. The city has been built by an advanced but extinct martian civilisation, which collected in a complex maze all kinds of species, including a humanoid race. This huge, labyrintic necropolis leads to a gigantic underground aquarium where Darvel catches a furtive glimpse of some strange creature.

The subsequent adventures of Darvel lead him to accompany a group of sacrificial victims to the crystal mountain where the master mind ruling Mars dwells behind curtains of terrible and gorgeous magnetic storms and strange fogs. The dauntless Darvel discovers that the God of Mars has the appearance of a colossal brain living symbiotically in the planet. The incessant throngs of victims coming to the mountain are processed to feed him in some horrible way.

Using all his ingenuity and skills, Darvel succeeds to destroy the Master Brain. The grateful martians help the earthling hero to return home. But back on Earth, Darvel realises that he has been followed by the invisible vampires which begin to run havoc among the humans….

Le Rouge has written more than 350 books in the first three decades of the twentieth century, many of them abounding with interesting gadgetry : underwater railways, fortress islands drifting in enemy waters, machinery designed to create artificial storms and transform the climate of hostile regions, airborn battles between monstrous aircrafts, interplanetary communication by means of visual signals, bizarre synthetic food….

Le Rouge believed that machine was the future of man, but hundred years later his very sophisticated inventions have now a steampunk quality we can enjoy. Unlike Jules Vernes, Lerouge futuristic technology is more often than once sinister in nature : his other masterpiece, « docteur Cornelius », describes one of the first scientifical criminal and contains a astonishing catalogue of ingenious techniques to commit impeccable scientific crimes.

Le Rouge himself was a highly original person ; he had collected some huge curiosity cabinet, and was well versed in occult knowledge. By trade he was a journalist and specialized in the dark side of Paris ;he was fired because he was prone to make up the sordid details of a crime which he found too trivial.

Some books of Gustave Le Rouge (in french) can be downloaded as free E-book here. 

http://www.livrespourtous.com/e-books/detail/La-guerre-des-vampires/onecat/Livres-electroniques+Romans+Fantastique-et-SF/4/all_items.html

The blue peril, by Maurice Renard

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.