Professor explores the work of a science fiction pioneer

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The fourth floor of the Rivera Library was packed full of science fiction fans, both young and old, eager to hear the words of Dr. George Slusser. Dr. Slusser, who is a comparative literature professor as well as the curator emeritus of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy here at UCR, was met with a warm welcome. His presentation, which he titled “J. H. Rosny: Science Fiction’s Unknown Precursor,” discussed the literature and significance of J. H. Rosny aîné.

J. H. Rosny aîné was a Belgian author who was born in 1856, began writing at an early age and continued writing until his death in 1940. Rosny published his first science fiction tale, “Lez Xepihuz,” in 1887. It tells the tale of primitive humans encountering and wiping out a race of hostile invaders. Dr. Slusser pointed out that there are two things notable about this piece: one is that it is one of the first stories to deal with the concept of ancient man, and two is that Rosny does not shy away from the concept of completely other-worldly forms of life. This is one of the first cases in which alien lifeforms in literature are not portrayed with anthropomorphism. Dr. Slusser told us that this is an example of science really driving the fiction, and an example of how important Rosny’s work really is.

Dr. Slusser went on to tell us that when writers like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne touch on the subject of the unknown, they ultimately pull back away from it. In Wells’ “The Time Machine,” the hero witnesses all the grand advancements of the future, but ultimately comes back home, never really leaving our comfortable reality. In Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” the submarine passes by the lost city of Atlantis, though the crew dares not explore it, and in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” the protagonist runs in fear from a lot of what he comes across. Rosny, Dr. Slusser tells us, did not “cop out” when it came to delving into an unknown world. Dr. Slusser supported this claim by examining Rosny’s “La Mort de la Terre” (“The Death of the Earth”). The story revolves around humans and all carbon-based life on their way to extinction, giving way to new, superior, iron-based forms of life. Eventually the last man on Earth gives himself as sustenance for these new creatures. But what’s intriguing about this story is that its last paragraph tells a bit more after the last human is dead, and is told in the past tense. This would imply that the story is not narrated by a human, nor is it narrated for a human audience. While all early science fiction writers wrote entirely from a perspective embedded in the fear and paranoia of a humanist culture, Rosny dared to write in a theoretical world that defies this perspective by being completely alien.

Before leaving, Dr. Slusser allowed for questions from the audience. In response to a students question regarding the motivations of Rosny, Dr. Slusser answered that the author was quick to adopt Darwinian concepts into his writing. His fascination with the ideas of evolution allowed him to think of worlds beyond that of human influence. He chose to write about what could have been and what will be, rather than what is.

The second question asked why Rosny did not gain as much popularity or impact until very recently. The simple answer was that he confused most of the people of his day. While the French people enjoyed the more naturalist works of Rosny, they were baffled by the many neologisms he created (he was the first to coin the term “astronaut”). Many people of his time were too stuck in the mindset of their own time and perspective to really attempt to understand his stories of other worlds. And then with the English language dominating the literary world of science fiction, the Belgian Rosny was left in the dust. Lack of attention to Rosny and his work is considered a great wrong by Dr. Slusser, one he has gone out of his way to right.

Dr. Slusser and his wife, professor Danièle Châtelain-Slusser, have translated three of Rosny’s greatest tales and released them under the title “Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind.” In it are “The Xipehuz” and “The Death of the Earth” as well as a third story called “Another World,” about a man who can see beings from another dimension.

Dr. Slusser reminded audience members of Rosny’s early defiance of humanist culture and exploration of the unknown, and thus justified that J. H. Rosny should be regarded as one of the fathers of modern science fiction.

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