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The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To French Science-Fiction

by Jean-Claude Dunyach

French SF has a glorious past (remember Jules Verne?) and, hopefully, a bright future. But the present situation is a little more contrasted 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 term 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 is always playing one of the main parts). Famous TV series like Star Trek, Babylon 5, Millenium or Doctor Who are almost ignored in France. The X-Files was a huge success, although we were one year behind the US, which meant that several details from The X-Files – The Movie were not understandable 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 equivalent of Sandman — which is bad. But we have tons of SF bande dessinées, with plenty of famous artists from Moebius to Caza, Bilal, Bourgeon or Mézières (who worked with Besson and was an inspiration to many US series like Babylon 5) and lots of newcomers. Scenarios are often elaborate and quite complex and they are considered as legitimate cultural objects. But an album of bande dessinées is often priced over $10 US. Parents can buy it. Not kids.

And if you’re a famous 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 French cinema, even if that situation may change in the near future.

So, what we call SF in France is mainly ‘written SF’. 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 First World War and its resurrection only started as a movement in the late fifties. A few Anticipation books were published in the interim, but without any SF label attached — take for example Monkey Planet (aka Planet Of The Apes) by Pierre Boulle or The Imprudent Traveller by René Barjavel.

During the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, many important authors from the USA and Britain were published regularly in France. Many different imprints – from deluxe hardcovers to paperbacks – were almost entirely 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 considered French authors to be only pale copies of their Anglo-American competitors.

This situation evolved a little in the mid-seventies when a few French authors – Michel Jeury, Philippe Curval – where 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 considered 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 to question French society as it was. 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 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 poorly written by the public. 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 treated Science Fiction as a medium for literary experimentation and adopted a post-modern attitude toward writing. 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 had appeared and French SF boasted more than forty professional1 writers. A monthly magazine – Fiction – published one or more short stories by French authors in every issue, with eight to ten ‘new authors’ every year. 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. The 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 disappeared, along with the annual anthology Univers. Many SF publishers reduced their activities and most of them stopped publishing new French authors. The only major exception was Fleuve Noir Anticipation – but they were only putting 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 (http://www.galaxies-sf.com), which came out the same month and contributed to open some space to new authors. Each magazine published 30 issues or so, so far.

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 last summer, which I was in charge of, and Escales 2001 has been released last year).

Escales sur l’Horizon was a huge book with 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’ of 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 is improving – each major French publisher is creating or revamping its own Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Gothic line and the public seems to be interested in what the future will look like2 – the only way for French SF to survive is 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 wunderkinder (he is 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 allow travel between distant stars to an entire planet shaped like a Dyson sphere where humans as well as other creatures have been transferred en masse for some kind of experiment (the third book in this series is in print). This is something that you can find also in books by other Europeans — Alastair Reynolds with Revelation Space comes 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 it is. 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 primary themes in French SF since the end of the seventies are artists and museums of the future – the latest collection of young French authors, published this month, also explores 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 of this imagined 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 recently released line 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 none of the characters are 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 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 in science (at least hard science).

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 albino cats sold with a set of washable colours so you can paint them the way you would like to, 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. Serge Lehman, a stylist with a good sense of wonder, started his epic History Of The Future in the early nineties. Pierre Bordage is our sweeping sagas specialist and a best-seller since his first trilogy. Richard Canal, who lives in Africa, is trying to merge mainstream and SF in a future dominated by African-like societies. Roland C. Wagner, who appeared early in the eighties, finds 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 – an uchrony set during an alternate Algerian independence war in the sixties, is a masterpiece.

And a new generation of authors merging SF, Fantasy and Steampunk is now firmly installed: David 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’immortalitéThe Immortality’s Taste) and many, many others. And a couple of years ago, a serious novelist, Norbert Merjagnan, just came out of nowhere with a widely acclaimed first novel. This year, the editions l’Atalante will publish a very large novel in three sections (Le Melkine by Olivier Paquet) that is one of the most remarkable space operas that I’ve read in years. There’s hope for the future, I would say.

5) 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! One of the latest ones – Les Particules Elémentaires (Elementary Particles) a novel by Michel Houellebecq – was a huge success and an equally huge scandal, partly due to explicit sexual scenes. But most of the journalists who interviewed him were unable to understand that this 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 millenium change

Revised edition copyright © 2004 by Jean-Claude Dunyach 

 Jean-Claude Dunyach, born 1957, is one of the leading contemporary French sf writers. He has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and supercomputing and works for Airbus in Toulouse in southwestern France. Dunyach has been writing science fiction since the beginning of the 1980s and has already published seven novels and eight collections of short stories, garnering the French Science-Fiction award in 1983 and the Prix Rosny-Aîné Awards in 1992, as well as the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and the Prix Ozone in 1997. His works have been translated into English, Bulgarian, Croatian, Danish, Hungarian, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.

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