posted Sunday 20 May 2012 @ 10:42 am PST
In the fall of 2010, I had the privilege of attending a conference where I got to meet Brian Stableford for the first time. Always an admirer of his fiction, I was thrilled to have a chance to talk with him and learn of his current projects. His main efforts these days, he revealed, would lie in translating forgotten vintage French fantasy and science fiction, much of which had never previously had English-language editions. At one dinner outing, Brian further confirmed his love for Gallic culture. The conversation had turned to the fancy of what era one would visit, if given a single trip in a time machine. Brian looked wistful, then declared, ” Fin de siècle Paris!”
True to his passions, Brian has poured out a steady stream of such volumes, all published by Black Coat Press. If you visit their web page and search their catalogue under Brian’s name, you’ll see nearly 100 titles, exclusive of his own writings. These constitute an invaluable resource for SF scholarship, as attested to by John Clute, who has found Brian’s informative forewords, afterwords and annotations, full of original research, invaluable for adding data to the SF Encyclopedia. But moreover, these forgotten fictions represent sheer good fun for readers, who get old-school adventures and a window onto a vanished period of history.
Today we’ll look at the two newest offerings, which are the first volumes in a series titled “The Dominion of the World.” The run will culminate with The Psychic Spies and The Victims Victorious.
Originally published in 1899, The Plutocratic Plot opens with brio and pulp vigor. US billionaire and uber-capitalist William Boltyn, stymied in his plans to get favorable trading legislation through Congress, and also failing to militarize the nation for a conquest of Old World countries, decides to form his own private army. He solicits monetary contributions from a cabal of fellow magnates, and signs on the famed genius inventor Hattison of Zingo Park (read, Edison of Menlo Park) to whip up some superweapons. All gung-ho, Hattison builds an instant city in the Rocky Mountains (foreshadowing the Manhattan Project of the 1940s), and puts his infernal thinking cap on. The only oddball element in the cabal is a cantankerous old fellow named Madge, who insists that spiritualism and the occult can contribute meaningfully to the scheme. Shades of Hellboy and the BPRD!
Humor is provided by Boltyn’s Falstaffian servant Tom Punch. For a love interest, we get Aurora Boltyn, the billionaire’s scientifically inclined, ledger-minded daughter. Hattison the elder attempts to arrange a marriage between Aurora and his techno-nerd son Ned. But Ned balks, and is sent to Europe on a spying mission. But what develops? Europe seduces Ned, and he falls in love with beautiful and soulful Lucienne Golbert, daughter of another scientist. They marry, and the first book ends—but with the American terror campaign still looming.
Le Rouge and Guitton are shamelessly propagandistic about “the Transatlantic Peril,” their counterpoint to the anti-Asian “Yellow Peril” that occupied so many pulp pages in the USA. Americans are a cruel, charmless, rapacious breed, their country a cultural wasteland. “Like all American cities, New York has no history. It has scarcely existed for a century.” To the contrary, “In being so prodigal with space and light, large squares and promenades, the Parisians had made their city the most cheerful and joyful place, where one could live life to the full.” But guess what, the Brits are dissed as well, so there’s not even any Euro-solidarity expressed!
Spain comes in for a similar tongue-lashing at the start of the second book, The Transatlantic Threat,
when Ned and Lucienne go there for their honeymoon. After this bit of romance, Le Rouge and Guitton introduce new complications. Monsieur Golbert and his scientific partner, Olivier Coronal (who also loved Lucienne but nobly stepped aside) want to build an undersea railway across the Atlantic, to show the humane ambitions of real science, as opposed to the brutal aims of the Americans. It’s naked rails, by the way, and a wheeled submarine, not a tunnel or tube. They secure funding from a rich French banker. But when the Americans hear of the plan, they not only blow up the rails, nearly killing Ned, Olivier and M. Golbert, but also bankrupt the banker!
Our tale shifts focus to Olivier and his comical servant Léon. In America now to distance himself from Lucienne, Olivier falls in love with none other than Aurora Boltyn! And she returns the sentiment. But Olivier is still determined to thwart her father, and so he goes undercover at the secret research city, there discovering—well, let’s just say that modern SF readers will probably think of the recent mockumentary project titled Boilerplate.
One has to admire the authors’ unrelenting castigation of America. “The engineer Hattison promised us marvels that will realize our common dream, the crushing of Europe. That will mean, for Americans and me in particular, industrial supremacy over the entire world. We shall have abolished, once and for all, the useless rubbish that the old European civilization drags in its wake.” For 21st-century readers of any nationality, the theme has a delicious, delirious through-the-looking-glass quality that is truly counterfactual now, after the alliances of two world wars and so much history. Still the critique remains stimulating.
And when the authors launch into a resounding paean to the utopian potential of science in chapter IX, we see that despite their tendentious plotting, their hearts were in the right place, allied with the Gernsbackian visionaries who would soon follow in their pioneering footsteps.