The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To French Science-Fiction
[This is a guest article by French author, Jean-Claude Dunyach. It is a revision of an aritcle he first wrote in 2004. The formatting has been as submitted as French styling is somewhat different to Anglo-American. – Cheryl]
French SF has a glorious past (remember Jules Verne?) and, hopefully, a bright future. But the present situation is a little more complicated and difficult to decode. Especially when you try to evaluate it on the same scale than US SF — or Anglo-American SF. The definition of the word SF is not exactly the same on both sides of the Atlantic. It is often confused with Sci-Fi in the US (‘Star Trek’ juvenile, lite fantasy series or shared universes to name a few commercial examples) while most French authors claim that it is ‘literature at its best’. Disney versus ‘The Louvre’ if you catch my meaning. Of course, both formulations are too narrow to be entirely true but they’re not entirely false, either. Let’s see why.
1) The Cultural Background
First, one has to understand that France — and most of Europe, in fact — has a distinct cultural background and that SF does not play the same role as in the English-speaking world. French TV, for example, is not really interested in SF. French mini-series are often based on novels from the 18th or 19th century (not as boring as you might think but rather short on special effects and light sabres — and Depardieu often plays one of the main parts). Famous TV series like ‘Star Trek’, ‘Babylon 5’, ‘Millenium’ or ‘Doctor Who’ are almost ignored in France, except by the usual nerd fanbase (I’m one of them). ‘The X-Files’ was a huge success although we are one year behind the US, which means that several details from ‘The X-Files – The Movie’ were not comprehensible to most of us at the time.
Neither do we have the equivalent of comics books. No Batman, X-Men or Spider-Man. No shared universes where Judge Dredd meets the Punisher to fight against the villains. No Marvel Universe, even if French Superheroes existed before World War II… No equivalent of Sandman — which is bad. But we have tons of SF ‘bandes dessinées’, with plenty of famous artists from Druillet, Moebius to Caza, Bilal, Bourgeon or Mézières (who worked with Besson and who inspired many US series like ‘Babylon 5’) and lots of brilliant newcomers. Scenarios are often elaborate and quite complex and they are considered as acceptable cultural objects. But an album of ‘bandes dessinées’ is often priced over $20 US. Parents can buy it. Not kids.
Japanese Mangas, however, changed the situation since they were affordable and fun. So, there is a real manga subculture here – and of course the various Marvel/DC films are very popular among millennials. So did Star Wars in my youth. But, if you’re a famous French filmmaker who wants to shoot a SF movie (Luc Besson, for example, or Jeunet), you’re almost forced to work with Hollywood. It seems that there’s no money available for SF projects in the French cinema, even if the situation may change in the near future.
So, what we call SF in France is mainly ‘written SF’ with a distinct flavour of graphic covers. The cultural gap between French SF books and the visual equivalent coming from the other side of the Atlantic is quite large.
2) A Brief Journey in History
French Science-Fiction was almost killed by the 1st World War. It did not emerge as a movement until the late fifties. A few Anticipation books were published in the meantime but without any SF label on it — take for example ‘The Imprudent Traveller’ (1943) by René Barjavel.
During the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, several important authors from the USA or Great Britain began being published regularly in France. Many different imprints – from deluxe hardcovers to paperbacks – were mostly devoted to foreign SF. In parallel, a popular imprint entitled Fleuve Noir Anticipation specialized in short novels – the French equivalent of pulps – from local authors. At that time, the public regarded French authors as only pale copies of their Anglo-American competitors. And SF as a whole was labelled as “sub-par literature”. However, in 1961, the novel ‘Sylva’ by Vercors (Jean Marcel Bruller) became the only non-English-language novel ever to be a finalist for the Hugo.
This situation improved a little in the mid-seventies when a few French authors – Michel Jeury, Philippe Curval, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Pierre Pelot – were published by famous imprints like ‘Ailleurs & Demain’ (‘Elsewhere & Tomorrow’). These books were not only excellent in the traditional Anglo-Saxon SF sense, they were different. Inspired by literary experiments like the ‘Nouveau Roman’, they could be regarded as the French equivalent of the British ‘New Wave’.
In the meantime, a younger generation of angry young men was using Science-Fiction as a means of questioning French society as they perceived it. They wished to use SF as a political medium. One of the imprints created at that time was called ‘Ici & Maintenant’ (‘Here & Now’), in answer to the well-established ‘Ailleurs & Demain’. It is interesting to note that good authors like Jeury, Andrevon or Curval were published by both imprints.
Unfortunately, even though the messages expressed by this ‘French political SF’ were interesting, too many books – or short stories – from that period were considered by the public as poorly written. In reaction, a brief but intense neo-formalist movement called ‘Limite’ emerged in the beginning of the eighties, featuring new authors like Emmanuel Jouanne, Francis Berthelot and Antoine Volodine. They considered Science-Fiction as a medium for literary experimentation and adopted a post-modern attitude. Several novels and short stories were published independently by the authors but their first common anthology was also the last…
It has to be noted that French Science-Fiction was not really interested in space even if a few ‘westerns in space’ were published regularly. The ‘space opera’ genre was mostly something associated with Anglo-Saxon SF.
At that time – the mid-eighties – many new authors appeared and French SF boasted more than forty professional writers. An old monthly magazine – ‘Fiction’, launched in 1953 – published one or more short stories by French authors in every issue, with eight to ten ‘new authors’ every year discovered by its editor Alain Dorémieux. Regular anthologies were open to French stories and a special one-shot anthology entitled ‘Futurs au Présent’ was entirely devoted to new, not-yet-professional, authors. ‘Futurs au Présent’ introduced Serge Brussolo and Jean-Marc Ligny – two major French SF authors – and was followed by ‘Superfuturs’, a few years later. In the meantime, the Editions Fleuve Noir was publishing nearly sixty French books each year. Young authors were slowly replacing their elders.
But, unhappily, the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties were characterized by a major editorial crisis.
At that time, ‘Fiction’, our monthly professional1 magazine, disappeared, along with the annual anthology ‘Univers’. Many SF publishers cut back their activities and most of them stopped publishing new French authors. The only major exception was Fleuve Noir Anticipation – but they only put out thirty French SF books a year while making several unsuccessful attempts at publishing ‘Star Trek’ novels or lite fantasy series. Fleuve Noir introduced almost all the new authors of the early nineties like Ayerdhal and Serge Lehman – not to mention the Belgian Alain le Bussy, the Swiss Wildy Petoud and the Canadian Jean-Louis Trudel. The only exception was Pierre Bordage, a brilliant novelist who was discovered by a regional press and climbed his way to fame in a year or so!
The situation remained more or less the same until 1995, when three SF magazines were launched almost simultaneously. The first one was ‘CyberDreams’, which wanted to be the French equivalent of ‘Interzone’. It played a major role in revealing the new generation of British authors and in publishing several French stories.
CyberDreams was soon followed by ‘Bifrost’ and ‘Galaxies’, which came out the same month and opened some space to new authors. Each magazine (except CyberDreams which folded after a handful of issues) published more than 80 issues or so, as of today.
In the meantime, two French short story anthologies edited by famous French authors were released: ‘Genèses’, in 1996, edited by Ayerdhal, with the major French Publisher J’ai lu, and ‘Escales sur l’Horizon’ edited by Serge Lehman in 1998 (it was followed by ‘Escales 2000’, which I was in charge of, and ‘Escales 2001’ has been released in 2001. Another collection edited by Serge Lehman “Retour sous l’Horizon” was issued in 2009).
‘Escales sur l’Horizon’ was a huge book made up of 16 short stories and novellas from sixteen French and Canadian authors. It also contained a very important preface by Serge Lehman, which might be considered as the ‘French SF Manifesto’ for the end of the century. These two collections were well received by the public – both won prizes – and the press referred to us as the new ‘French SF wonderboys’. Don’t laugh!
In fact, even if the situation was growing better at the time – each major French publisher was creating or revamping its own Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Gothic line and the public seemed to be interested in what the future would look like2 – the only way for French SF to survive was to cross the borders and to find readers outside Europe.
And then, we went back to space — where it all started.
A good example of authors in that trend is Laurent Genefort. He is one of our wunderkind (at that time he was thirty with almost as many books behind him) and he is famous for his creation of alien environments and strange planets. He wrote a series of independent novels that take place in the galaxy, but a galaxy that has been once populated by a very ancient race called the ‘Vangk’. The Vangk disappeared but left behind a fantastic collection of artefacts — from doors that allows to travel between distant stars to an entire territory, Omale, shaped like a Dyson sphere where humans as well as other creatures have been transferred en masse for some kind of experiment (there are four books and a handful of short stories set in Omale). This is something that you can find also in books from other Europeans — Alastair Reynolds with ‘Revelation space’ come to mind or Juan Miguel Aguilera.
But, even if many French authors are well aware of the cultural icons and trends of Anglo-American Science Fiction, our books have a distinct flavour. You should try our wine, too…
3) Typical French Themes: Art, Flesh and Irony.
It is somewhat difficult to point out the specificity of French SF – assuming that it is specific, which I believe. Surrealism was probably a major influence in the eighties, as well as the ‘Nouveau Roman’ and other literary experiments, but this concerns mainly the way we write our stories, not their subjects. And, here in Europe, Surrealism is so ‘air du temps’ — part of the background — that it is hard not to be influenced by it.
I think that the two main specific themes in French SF from the end of the seventies until the end of the nineties were artists and museums of the future – one of the latest collections of young French authors at the end of the century also explored that theme – and the relationship with the body – flesh considered as an experimental territory.
Art in the future was a central theme in the eighties and it is making a serious comeback. It is interesting to note that the so-called art defined in the future is either a terrorist way to change society – art as a means to move the masses and to control them – or the ultimate expression of freedom versus totalitarian states. In the collection ‘Musées, Des Mondes Énigmatiques” (‘Museums, Enigmatic Worlds’), most stories describe fugitives from the outside world seeking refuge in a museum. Some of them are trapped and destroyed, some find help from other refugees. Almost no character is interested in art for art’s sake. As a possible metaphor of actual French SF, this is quite frightening.
As for the ‘experimental territory of the flesh’, the theme is probably linked to Surrealism – Dali, for one, is famous for his statue of the Venus de Milo with drawers. Since Science-Fiction is often considered as a literature of metamorphosis, toying with the idea of artistically rebuilding your body is a natural trend! One must notice that this body-rebuilding is quite often done for artistic reasons and without the use of biotechnologies or scientific gizmos.
I must add that most French SF writers are usually neither scientists – I’m one of the few exceptions – nor particularly interested by science (at least hard science). However, French SF often has a sociological dimension. Many books published since the last twenty years are focused on new ways to build a society, or rebellion again the “old world” ways of doing things. In that respect, one of the most successful writers of today is Alain Damasio, who only published half a dozen of books in fifteen years but each of them was a major success.
And, just for the fun, I would like to mention a recent French SF anthology (2014) whose subject was “Describe a society in 2074 where luxury plays a major role”. The corresponding eBook in various languages – including English – can be downloaded freely from the major eBook stores (including the one starting with an A).
4) A few personal trajectories
With the exception of the well-identified literary movements mentioned above, whose impact was limited, French SF is composed mainly of individualists whose trajectories are quite different.
Serge Brussolo appeared in the early eighties and started producing four to five novels every year in a very surrealistic style. He became quite popular and diversified to historical novels and thrillers, using various pseudonyms. In his books, you find albinos cats sold with a set of washable colours so you can paint them the way you want, oceans replaced by hundreds of millions of dwarves that live in the mud, hands up and carry boats in exchange for food. Of course, every now and then, they reproduce and you get a tidal wave of dwarves who want to conquer new territories. But the coast guards have machine guns…
As for the nineties, let’s mention:
Ayerdhal – a pseudonym – is most famous for his political space operas with complex intrigues and interesting feminine characters – his death in 2015 was a shock. Serge Lehman, a stylist with a remarkable sense of wonder, started his epic ‘History of The Future’ in the early nineties and has become one of the most important writers of essays on the genre. Pierre Bordage is our sweeping sagas specialist and a best-seller since his first trilogy – he is really a must-read. Richard Canal, who lives in Africa, was trying to merge mainstream and SF in a future dominated by African-like societies (he is a precursor of Afrofuturism and he is making a comeback after nearly fifteen years of silence). Roland C. Wagner, who appeared early in the eighties, find his inspiration in rock’n roll and humorous descriptions of extra-terrestrial societies – he won most of the French SF Prizes in 1999 and again in 2011. His latest huge book – a uchrony settled during an alternative Algerian independence war, in the sixties, is a masterpiece. He died unexpectedly in a car accident in 2012 and his loss is deeply regretted by all.
And a new generation of authors merging SF, Fantasy, Steampunk is now firmly installed: Sabrina Calvo – whose books are somewhere between Peter Pan and the lunatic fringe –, Fabrice Colin, Laurent Kloetzer, Xavier Mauméjean, Catherine Dufour (who won in 2006 all the major French SF Prizes for her novel “Le Goût de l’Immortalité” – “The Taste of Immortality”) and many, many others. In 2008, a serious novelist, Norbert Merjagnan, came out of nowhere with a first novel widely acclaimed (“Les Tours de Samarante”). In 2013, the editions l’Atalante published a very large novel in three sections (“Le Melkine”, from Olivier Paquet), one of the most remarkable space operas I’ve read in years. There’s hope for the future, I would say.
An important trend to notice is the massive emergence of female authors. Until the end of the 90’s, French SF authors were mostly male, even if Joelle Wintrebert, Sylvie Denis and Sylvie Lainé (the best short-stories writer of the genre in my opinion) were crucial contributors to the genre. But since more than 10 years, the best YA books are equally shared between both genders and many new female authors are taking over the genre. Emilie Querbalec, Estelle Faye, Claire Duvivier or Floriane Soulas, to name a few, were nominated or won many of the recent major French SF literary prizes.
5) Judge us by our covers…
I mentioned earlier the crucial importance of illustrations and art in our work – surrealism was of course a major trend but one can also insists on the influence of “fantastic hyperrealism” (Wojtek Siudmak being the central figure of this movement) and of “Bande Dessinée”. Many famous artists did both (Moebius, Caza, Mézière, Druillet, Forest or Manchu to name a few) and they contributed to give a distinct flavour to our genre. While mainstream books were generally not illustrated, ours where flashy, trendy, and easily recognizable. Since the seventies, the osmosis with graphic illustrators and painters was crucial for our evolution!
6) Newcomers From Mainstream: Osmosis and Mimicry
A final trend: it seems that Science-Fiction is slowly becoming socially acceptable, at least for some members of the mainstream fiction community. During the last five years, a handful of SF-related novels have been released by major publishers and some of them ranked highly on the best-seller list! Today, most of the French editing companies have a line dedicated to science-fiction or are publishing SF books with no particular label.
Two examples come to mind: ‘L’Anomalie’ (the Anomaly) by Hervé Le Tellier that won the “Prix Goncourt” in 2020 and, before that, in 1998, ‘Les Particules Élémentaires’ (‘Elementary Particles’) a novel from Michel Houellebecq that was a huge success (“Prix Goncourt” too) and an equally huge scandal, partly due to explicit sexual scenes. But most of the journalists who interviewed him were unable to understand that its book was Science-Fiction and he had to explain SF to them. In detail.
I’m glad he wasn’t forced to do the same for the sexual scenes!
1 Professional means of course that they were published professionally but very few of them were earning enough money to make a living. The French market was just too small and French books were rarely translated for publication elsewhere.
2 Probably an effect of the millennium change