What is the sinister science?

fig. 1. Who is the sinister scientist? Collage by antyphayes.

1.

What is the sinister science? For a start, it’s this blog. But could it be something else?

2.

I have another blog called Notes from the sinister quarter. Originally, I set it up to be the platform for my PhD research—primarily on aspects of the life of the Situationist International (1957-1972). I took its name from Ivan Chtcheglov’s proto-situationist text, Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953).

In his article, Chtcheglov envisaged a city given over to the playful desire for the total creation of life. The city was presented as a possible realisation of Guy Debord’s idea of the ‘constructed situation’. The emphasis was on play and the ‘total creation’ of life in opposition to the chaotic, exploitative, and oppressive reality of the capitalist city.[1]  

In clear opposition to the so-called functional capitalist city divided into commercial, residential, industrial and governmental districts, Chtcheglov proposed that his city of play and desire would ‘correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.’ [2] Thus, he imagined various districts—quartiers in the French—whose names indicated something that transcended the merely descriptive or habitual. But of all his proposed quarters one in particular stood out. 

The Sinister Quarter […] would replace all the dumps, dives and other gateways to the underworld that many peoples once possessed in their capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers, such as traps, dungeons or mines. It would be difficult to get into, with a hideous decor (piercing whistles, alarm bells, sirens wailing intermittently, grotesque sculptures, power-driven mobiles, called Auto-Mobiles), and as poorly lit at night as it was blindingly lit during the day by the excessive use of reflective phenomena. At its centre, the “Square of the Appalling Mobile.” And just as the saturation of the market with a product causes the product’s market value to fall, children and adults alike would learn not to fear the anguishing occasions of life as they explored the Sinister Quarter, but rather be amused by them.[3]

Of course, Chtcheglov, Debord and other young ‘International Letterists’ imagined their city of creative desire amidst their play within and without the dumps and dives of Paris—a living sketch of the projected sinister quarter and situationist city. Indeed, Chtcheglov’s Formulary… would prove crucial to the early years of the Situationist International, particularly of what would become known as ‘unitary urbanism’. By proposing the use of literary and other artistic works as ‘blueprints’ liberated from the mausoleum of culture to aid in the construction of future situations, Chtcheglov anticipated the later theory of détournement. Against much of the contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist orthodoxy, Guy Debord would later make explicit what was implied by Chtcheglov’s vision: in order to be practical, any methodological critique of capitalist urbanism must encompass an argument for what comes after. Or even more succinctly: the critical means must encompass the end aimed for:

[T]he practice of utopia only makes sense if it is closely linked to the practice of revolutionary struggle. The latter, in its turn, cannot do without such a utopia without being condemned to sterility.[4]

3.

There is an article by André Breton that reminds me of Chtcheglov’s Formulary…—a precursor if you will. Breton’s article, translated as ‘Once Upon A Time’, was first published in the surrealist journal Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, no. 1 (1930). In the article, Breton imagined establishing a house and grounds on the outskirts of Paris dedicated to placing its temporary denizens into a ‘position which seems to be as poetically receptive as possible’.[5]

What Chtcheglov did for the imaginary city, Breton attempted on the scale of a single building and its immediate surrounds. In Breton’s case a certain sinister quality pervades the entirety of his project:

Nothing grand. Just around thirty rooms with, as far as possible, long corridors that would be very dark or that I would myself make dark. […]

For each bedroom, a large clock made of black glass will be set to chime especially well at midnight. […]

There will be hardly anything but small study lamps with green lampshades that will be dimmed very low. The blinds will remain lowered day and night.

Only the white-washed reception hall will be lit with an invisible ceiling light and it will contain no other furniture, besides two authentic Merovingian chairs, and a stool on which will sit the perfume bottle tied up with a pale ribbon, inside which a discoloured rose will be immersed with its stems and leaves equally lifeless […].[6]

The décor is distinctly—and inevitably—dream-like, pervaded with the spectral gloom one would expect of such nocturnal visions. Breton perversely equips his playground with a single law, redolent of his own grip upon the reigns of surrealist (anti) power: a firm injunction against sex, ‘strictly forbidden, under penalty of immediate and definitive expulsion’ from the building and its grounds.[7] One wonders how such a directive would have been enforced in a zone otherwise given over to chance and play.

There are other details—rooms almost impossible to gain entry to possibly the one most in keeping with Chtcheglov’s difficult to access quarter. What I find most fascinating, and commensurate with the Formulary…, is Breton’s idea of a distinctly anti-capitalist architecture as re-enchantment, as the recovery and practical elaboration of those fantastical stories we were told as children—stories whose main failing is precisely their role as forms of inoculation, subservient to the rapidly approaching adult world of wage labour and other alienations.

As Breton may have remarked, somewhere, anywhere: the sinister is what tends to become real.

4.

So, having got this far you might be wondering: is there a sinister science?

Without doubt, the sinister science blog draws inspiration from Chtcheglov’s imaginary city and Breton’s dream house. To that extent, I am more than happy to declare the surrealist and situationist lineage of this project. However, “the sinister science” is, for me, no mere bon mot or frivolous affectation—even if it is also this. I also sincerely believe in a sinister science, one that bears comparison to a more general sense of science—what is called Wissenschaft in German—rather than modern restricted sense of what was once called the natural sciences.

If there is a single principle of the sinister science, it is error. The anti-royal road to truth is littered with our blunders and mistakes. In part, this is Hegel’s argument: the false is a moment of the true. But he continues: no longer as the false.[8] Hegel’s truth is not founded upon the principle of bivalence and “falsifiability”. Rather, error is resolved as a moment of the process of truth (and so, per the comments above, not false at all). Without digressing into an examination of Hegel’s truth versus conceptions of the truth value of propositions, for now it is enough to hold onto the following: Hegel is more concerned with truth as a process and the role of error in this process. Error, in Hegel’s sense, is only false to the extent that it is considered in abstraction from such sensuous processes, and so posed in a less than splendid isolation from the entire truth of the matter. Indeed, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel draws attention to the crucial role that error has in the movement of truth, insofar as error and contradiction are generative of the processes which resolves them. Unlike the analytic sense of truth, Hegel’s truth is not a question of the truth value of a particular proposition considered in isolation. Truth, by his reckoning, is this not so much arrived at as it is the form and content of the entire process.

However, Hegel’s conception of error and truth should not be confused with more recent conceptions of the relativism of truth derived from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche infamously argued that truth is merely the history of an error.[9] In contrast to Hegel, Nietzsche was not interested in the relationship between truth and error, but rather keen to demonstrate that all purported truths are merely so many fictions. All that make them true, by his reckoning, is the extent to which they embody a will to power that triumphs in the face of other, competing ‘truths’. More recently this has been recast by Michel Foucault as the theory of discursive power. As has been often pointed out the chief problem with such claims is that they tend to be self-undermining. By presenting truth as the function of a successful will to power, such theories undermine their own implicit claim to being true.

Crucial to Nietzsche’s conception of the necessarily fictitious nature of ideas about reality is the belief in the utter irreconcilable difference of thought and being. In his reckoning, it is this difference that is at the root of the fictitious claims about being fashioned by humans. However, in making this claim Nietzsche follows his master, Schopenhauer, albeit with the more transcendental aspects of the latter’s Kantian philosophy hacked off. Nonetheless, and despite his apparent loathing of the thinker of Königsberg, Nietzsche maintains the unfortunate dualism of Kant’s schema, insofar as thought and thinking are cast as irreducibly other to what is not thought. Thereby, even though Nietzsche and his followers claim the mantle of radical materialists, they in effect maintain precisely the spectral Platonism that they so loudly protest. Except, in their case, the dualism they eschew is hidden behind the assertion of a flat ontology of immanence.

fig. 2. “We know only a single science, the sinister science.” Still from the film Them! (1954).

To be absolutely clear, the sinister science is incompatible with Foucauldian and Nietzschean notions of error. As I hope I have made clear, the sinister science is closer to Hegel’s negative dialectic and Marx’s redeployment of this under the aegis of his ‘materialist conception of history’. Indeed, that this science is implicated in not only the criticism of all that is, but equally its transformation, is precisely what makes it sinister. And with due alternation, I can induce Hegel to remark that history is the sinister bench upon which the cosmos itself will be dissected and rearranged. Or, as Marx and Engels purportedly wrote, shortly before crossing out their fruitful error:

We know only a single science, the sinister science.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulary for a New Urbanism, 1953.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Translation modified.

[4] Daniel Blanchard & Guy Debord. Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program, 1960. Translation modified.

[5] André Breton, ‘Once Upon A Time’, from The Dedalus Book of Surrealism 2, translated by Michael Richardson, Langford Lodge: 1994, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., pp. 2, 3-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] See, Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Preface, thesis 39 (T. Pinkard translation).

[9] See, Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

s12

fig 1. Monday, 11 September 2000, outside the Crown Casino in Melbourne. Much like Where’s Wally I am somewhere in this photo. The logo in the upper left is unknown to me, but I assume is related to the source of this photo.

S12 by way of S11

On September the 11th, 12th and 13th, in the year 2000, exactly a year before the more famous 911, there was S11. ‘S11’ was the campaign we protestors organised to blockade the World Economic Forum (WEF) round held in Melbourne at the Crown Casino. Looking backward on the year 2000, from the year 2020, I recall things of little consequence, the stuff of idle chatter and gossip from that time. We wondered—inevitably—what we should be calling the days after September 11. Was S11 the entire protest, or just the first day? And if S11, why not S12 and S13?

Still pondering such quandaries twenty years later, I was struck by the 20th anniversary mostly because people I both do and do not know began posting about it on twitter. Looking over these various comments, articles, pictures and other reminiscences, and ruminating on my own recollections, I stumbled across a mostly forgotten document on a mouldering hard drive. A draft of an email I sent to a friend soon after I returned home after the Melbourne protests.

Love & Rage was the group who I felt the most affinity with back then. I think I became a member either during or immediately after the S11 protests. I later helped set up a Love & Rage “branch” in Canberra. Among what I call the Love & Rage crew or gang in the email below, there were also probably people from the Revolutionary Action crew from Wollongong. When I wrote the email in 2000 I was not completely clear about the differences or relation between LR and RA. There was definite crossover. The LR and RA milieu were motivated by a variety of ideas that broadly were opposed to both Marxist and Anarchist orthodoxy. The group was a relatively eclectic mix of leftist and libertarian Marxist and Anarchist thinking, syndicalism, councilism, a dash of the situationists and post-situationists, feminism, queer radicalism, all of the posts (postmodernism, poststructuralism, and post-Marxism), and especially ‘Autonomist’ Marxism. I have written on Love & Rage, but only in passing, in an article called Dead Real (2013). I was also involved in editing a Love & Rage related zine called This Is Not A Commodity published in early 2001, and available here. Included in the zine is an eyewitness account of S11 by a comrade entitled S11: Make Crown a prison, the criminals are already inside. For more on Love & Rage, though unfortunately from a relatively hostile, syndicalist perspective, see two accounts available here and here . These articles are descriptions and criticisms of two different Love & Rage meetings in Sydney in February and July of 2001, published in Rebel Worker—the paper of the Australian based Anarcho-Syndicalist Network (ASN). I attended both of the Love & Rage meetings mentioned in these articles, and probably have notes on them somewhere, in some forgotten notebook.

Below, I’ve re-written my email from the year 2000 in part, mostly to clarify some of the more telegraphic sections. It’s mostly self-explanatory, and very much from a first-person perspective. Wisely, at the time I chose to concentrate on two distinctive memories, one of a frenzied fight and struggle with some security guards on the first day, S11. The other a clownish attempt to liven the boredom of blockading on the second day, so-called S12. That’s all it is, a fragmentary first hand account with little or no critical analysis. From the less than sublime to the more than ridiculous.

And so, with no further ado….


Dear K.,

S11 was a blast! It was like nothing I’ve been involved in before. Despite the cop violence it was probably the most “peaceful” demonstration I’ve been involved in—a testament to the sheer size of it. I heard estimates of up to 20,000 demonstrators on Monday the 11th of September.

Early on Monday morning I caught a train into the centre of Melbourne with some other comrades. I’d been staying at one of their places since arriving the day before. When we arrived in the city centre, I split off to go find the Love & Rage (LR) group from Sydney. I was a bit spooked as I walked alone across the grey concrete south bank of the Yarra toward the Crown Casino. The sky was overcast and dull. I remember thinking that if it poured down it would be a wash out. It did rain for a while in the morning, but not too heavily and it then it stopped. The first day was simply massive, we shut the Casino down and made life hell for the rich delegates and their willing stooge, Labor Premier Steve Bracks.

I was involved in some biffo, mostly on the first day. I helped hold back the horse cops on Monday morning on two occasions that were gloriously successful. The picture above is after one of those occasions (I can’t remember which—maybe the second?). S. was there at the first occasion. After that I lost track of him. I’m sure he was mixing it up elsewhere at the Crown Casino over the three days. I haven’t seen him since returning home. The last I saw of him he was handing out Texta-pens wrapped up in paper to assist in the beautification of the Casino.

Later that same Monday morning I was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the Casino. I found myself loitering around a picket line covering an access ramp to the Casino carpark, I think on the southern face of the building. At this point I think—I’m not sure—I was with some comrades from my town, L. and Z., not the LR gang. The picket was relatively small, somewhere between 10 and 20 people. This picket, away from the main entrances to the Casino, was not a very popular one at this point. After battling the horse cops I’d been scouting the perimeter with some comrades, pondering the possibility of breaking into the Casino and causing some havoc. A few of us had been hanging around a concrete ramp that led into a car park in the Casino. At the carpark picket the Casino’s private security detachment was relatively small, maybe around the same number as protestors on the picket, maybe not even that many—say around ten security guards. Me and my confederates thought this was a perfect place to break into the Casino, not much security, and no cops at that point. If only we had enough people to overwhelm the guards. Crucially we needed people who wanted to and were capable of breaking through. As luck would have it, at the exact moment we were discussing this, a column of several hundred protestors suddenly appeared behind us with a woman in the lead, a veritable new millennial Boadicea, eyes ablaze, hair streaming behind her, pointing at the line of security guards and yelling, “through the line!”, or something to that effect. I was electrified, who wouldn’t be?

Facing the column of angry and combative protestors bearing down on them, the security guards freaked out and went berserk, punching on with those of us up the front. And then it was on for young and old. The fact of our now overwhelming numbers should have secured us an easy victory. Unfortunately, there were a few people up front that didn’t want to be there, who had been caught by the sudden appearance of the column of demonstrators. I tried to help some of them out of the way, but it was too late. The press of the column of protestors was overwhelming, and the security guards had already begun to savagely attack us.

Unfortunately, because quite of the few of the picketers who were already there wanted no part of the flying column’s push to break through the security line, our frontline quickly fractured. All around us demonstrators were trying to get through the security lines. To be honest, I wanted to be fighting the security guards with my comrades, but I was also struck by the palpable distress and anxiety of those picketing comrades who didn’t want to be there. I knew what it was like to be in a hairy demo situation with seemingly no way out. At the so-called Federal Parliament House “riot” of 1996 (that’s what the law & orders called our mass attempt to break into the “people’s house” while the ACTU sold us out from their nearby “protest”) I remember being close to breaking when I thought I was about to be spattered by shattered plate glass amidst the crush to break through the main doors of New Parliament House.

Being at the point of the intersection of struggling demonstrators and security guards or cops is always shitty, even when you want to be there. It’s pretty easy to get badly injured by the blow of a baton, a punch or a kick. Under these circumstances, hemmed in by the sides of this concrete access ramp, and with the press of this column of protestors, the reality was that you didn’t have much choice in the matter, particularly because you had started up near the front on the picket line.

The strangest thing then happened to me and a few other protestors amidst the tumult. I recall trying to pull a security guard off someone only to have the guard turn on me. In the scuffle, the security guard who was attacking me, the young guy I had saved from the guard’s beating, and two or three other unfortunate protestors, ended up on the wrong side of the skirmish. Which is to say, behind enemy lines, on the far side of the security line.

We were precisely where the rest of the protestors who were struggling with the security wanted to be—but there was only three or four of us. What to do, make a quick dash to the door and get into the Casino? But just as we found ourselves here, so deliriously close to the entrance, more and more cops began to show up on the side we found ourselves on. Quickly the idea of making a dash seemed a bad idea. The far side of the security line was rapidly becoming a bad place to be. I recall myself and at least one of my other harassed comrades trying to placate the security guard who was still facing us there. I even tried to shame him for having beaten the young guy I had saved.

Somehow, we got back to our side of the line, with the rest of the protestors. But by such time our chance had passed, and the cops had arrived to reinforce their beleaguered private security comrades. Perhaps it had been a crazy idea trying to break in at that point. Later we knew that there were at least one thousand cops in the Casino and several thousand private security. But hell, it would’ve been fun to have run rampant in the Casino before being caught.

At some point while the skirmish was still on we were treated to the bizarre sight of cops pulling some of the security berserkers off protestors. The private security had totally lost it, savagely attacking the picket and the protest. Which isn’t to say that the cops were much better, considering the yet to come brutal cop assault by the Tactical Response Group on one of our pickets on the following night, Tuesday the 12th. But on that morning, Monday morning, the security dogs were much worse that the cops.

With all this talk of columns and skirmishes and yelling and punch ups I’m sure I’ve given you the wrong idea about what S11 was really like. Despite the florid length of my account, the confrontation with the security guards took up all of about 5 minutes—it was a slow and frenzied time of abrupt and violent action. The confrontation with the horse cops earlier in the morning had been a little scary too, but then there were a lot of us, and we forced the cops withdraw. But mostly, over the next three days there was a lot of waiting, walking, talking, silliness and other stupidities. Just like in any war!

Unlike Monday the 11th when I’d been one of the wandering horde of protestors, on Tuesday I spent most of the day on one of the blockades with the Love & Rage (LR) crew from Sydney. By the afternoon my co-blockaders and I had become bored. To address the boredom LR gathered together and we discussed the possibility of alternate actions.

What did we discuss? After the Monday shutdown, we knew that the state, Crown management and the cops had shifted to transporting WEF delegates in and out of the Casino by launch. As a result, our blockades that had worked so effectively against car traffic on the Monday, were now more hostile encampments than a watertight siege.

The jetty entry points on our side were both heavily guarded and somewhat mysterious in nature. But on the far side, it seemed as if no one was guarding the jetty at which delegates both embarked and disembarked by launch to and from the conference. So, someone suggested in the LR meeting, how about we occupy one of the jetties on the unguarded far side?

So, after much talk and a little wandering, we did precisely this. We set off, running across the nearby bridge to the far side. But as so happens at times like this (like the carpark and the fortuitous column of protestors) a launch full of delegates just happened to set off and head for precisely the jetty we were heading for. We descended upon the jetty, whooping and leaping and shouting at the approaching launch and whoever. What a noise. Sure enough, the boat veered off and proceeded further down the river. Victory! Of sorts. The other jetty was too far away to stop them, so we returned a little deflated and desultorily back to the blockades on the other side of the bridge.

There’s about 20 Love and Ragers at this point. As we start back over the bridge, a cry rings out, “Delegate! Delegate!”. Someone has seen a WEF delegate. And then we’re all running back the way we came, but veering off toward an entryway to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre near the Casino.

I’m pretty buggered by this time, too many cigarettes god damn. I recall trailing the LR pack with C. We were talking loudly in cheesy Russian accents about our despicable plans for world conquest. The performative space of the protest is so alluring. We follow the rest of the gang into the entry of the exhibition centre, a through road that runs through the building and out the other side. As we pass into the road, low and behold we’ve stumbled into a cop staging area with tonnes of horses and cops wandering about. Strangely they leave us alone. It’s damn spooky as we wander through, as if all these horses and cops are a part of a conceptual art installation. And then we come out the other side with the rest of the LR gang to see the “Delegate!” in question being bundled into a car and driven off at speed. So, there we are, pondering our unsuccess, and I suggest that we get the hell out of where we are. So many cops and security float about—too many for us to get away with anything. I remember thinking that I should climb onto a nearby barricade and begin performing at the cops, in my best seductive movie star style, but decided against it in the face of some rather mean looking security-thugs near the barrier in question.

So, we wander off, back through the exhibition centre. But sure enough the call goes up again, “Delegates! Delegates!” rings out and the point of the LR gang are running up a ramp that takes you into the bowels of the building. By the time I arrive at the top of the ramp the Love and Ragers are plastered against a glass wall that looks upon an escalator void in the building. All of the comrades plastered against the glass are hammering on it and shouting, “scum! scum!”. As I stand there, bashing on the glass and yelling insults at the besuited figures crowded onto the escalator, I notice that they are all women. All of them. Not a single man on the escalator. Pretty much we all begin to realise this at the same time, and our thumping and yelling starts to diminish. The women on the escalator look at us strangely, their faces a mix of fear and disgust.

It’s another conference entirely. Fuck! As we walk away, embarrassed and a little ashamed, a door pops open from the exhibition centre. A woman exits, looking a little frazzled, one of those we shouted at on the escalator. One of our number calls out, jokingly, “that’ll teach ya for going to a conference!”. More usefully, a comrade walks up and reads the conference logo on her backpack: they call back, “It says The Nth Women’s International Conference on Healing”. Fuck! And then there are more women, all attendees of the conference on healing pouring through the exit, past the remorseful and shamed eyes of their onetime attackers. We all, simultaneously, start calling out apologies, “sorry!”, “so sorry!”, “we thought you were from the WEF!” etc., etc.

Having, hopefully, learnt our lesson, we shuffled back to the blockade of the Casino with our collective tails in hand. Whoops! And let us never speak of this again… until now!

Yours,

signed, Me.

The Mysterious Force of J.-H. Rosny aîné

fig. 1. A detail from the cover illustration by Jean-Michel Nicollet for a 1982 edition of “La force mystérieuse: suivi de Les Xipéhuz”

The following review of J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Mysterious Force (orig.: La force mystérieuse, 1913) was first written and published in 2015. I like to think of this story as a speculative recasting of the end of the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Russian Revolution of 1905. The worker revolution is defeated, and the world grows grey as life breaks down. But ultimately, a new life triumphs in a reborn individualism amidst a nourishing though bizarre collectivism. A post humanism avant la lettre.

Rosny aîné, a contemporary of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, began publishing what is recognisably science fiction after Verne’s first works but before Wells’. In his fantastic speculations, however, he is more precursor to latter than child of the former’s hard SF in anticipation.

Rosny aîné’s Les Xipéhuz (1887) is a pioneering tale of a truly alien invasion set in the distant past of the human paleolithic and published almost ten years before The War of the Worlds. Its thematic sequel, La Mort de la Terre (1910), is set at the other end of human fortune, in the dying days of the species. Obviously influenced by the wonderfully weary end of Wells’ The Time Machine, Rosny aîné evokes his own peculiar and haunting vision of humanity’s end.

To my mind, Rosny aîné avoided the dystopianism that dominated Wells’ early work. For instance, in his imagined death of the human species in The Death of the Earth he achieves a tragic vision beyond the bleak and simplistic social Darwinism of Wells. However, Rosny aîné was no mere utopian propagandist. These are tales born amidst the immense ferment in French literature of the last half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps if French had become the dominant language of 20th century imperialism, the life of science fiction would have played out differently. But surely that is but one potential SF story among many still waiting to be told.

fig. 2. An illustration taken from the original serialisation of La force mystérieuse in the magazine “Je sais tout” in 1913.

The following review first appeared on works & days of the antyphayes

The Mysterious Force
by J.-H. Rosny aîné
First published in French as La force mystérieuse in 1913.
This review based on the Brian Stableford translation (or ‘adaptation’ as he describes it).

*

That the Earth might swallow its inhabitants, that the seas might drown the continents, that a deadly epidemic might carry off all living things, that the Sun might go out, that a fiery star might burn them or a displaced planet crash into ours — they were conceivable events, in the image of things that had happened since the beginning of the world… but this fantastic death of light, this dying of the colours, which affected the humblest flames as well as the rays of the Sun and those of the stars, derisively gave the lie to the entire history of animals and men!

In J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Mysterious Force, the eponymous force, later described as an ‘interstellar cyclone’, passes through the Earth and forever alters daily life. At first the force causes widespread anxiety and even helps spark a worker revolution that is ruthlessly suppressed by the French military. But worse is to come as the colours of the spectrum begin to disappear leaving a wan, grey reality barely animated by a lacklustre and dying humanity. Global civilisation is severely disrupted as technology and even the chemical reactions of material reality fail. Eventually the worst of the catastrophe passes. However millions have perished and a strange new world begins to manifest.

Those that survive the catastrophe find themselves covered in hieroglyphic ‘rashes’ that are later discovered to be the manifestation of an alien presence beyond visible perception. The rashes are more manifest symptom than alien appearance. Perhaps even stranger are the far reaching effects of the alien presence upon the animal life of Earth. Thus is marked the onset of ‘groupism’, a type of super-individual intimacy that binds together extended family and friendship groups into near telepathic gestalts, including even nearby non-human animals. Rosny aîné doesn’t present this as a disaster — the horror of collectivism descending on virile, competitive and fiercely individual Man — but rather as a type of communal idyll in which individuals reach new levels of individuality precisely as a result of the more heightened sensitivity to their intimate others. Such a view is a refreshing alternative to the barely repressed horror of the collective individual in such works as Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and more recently Star Trek’s Borg collective. And yet the emergence of this desirable collectivism in the story is more like a disease than a conscious decision (in contrast to the attempt at socialist revolution that is thwarted early on). Rosny aîné’s representation of an accidental transformation has the tang of pessimism and misanthropy.

Nonetheless there are some wonderful ideas pressed into serving the fairly mundane adventure and romantic threads of this novel. Its core idea was one common to Rosny aîné: if there are forms of life and intelligence outside the terrestrial realm they will almost certainly be utterly alien, verging on the incomprehensible.

Permit me, Gentlemen, to conclude with a hypothesis […]. Considering that the interplanetary storm gave rise to a cycle of phenomena […] we may conjecture that it is a world, or a fragment of a world, that has encountered the Earth. To all evidence, this belongs to a system very different from our solar system. […] It might be that our space includes different kinds of universe, some of which are capable of partial interaction with one another, and others almost complete in their mutual indifference and even their mutual permeability.

Such a perspective is there in his early The Xipehuz (1888) and his stunning Dying Earth story avant-la-lettre, The Death of the Earth (1910). In this he anticipated the later author Stanislaw Lem, who made the idea of the utterly alien a recurrent trope of his science fiction, written in the midst of the only too comprehensible cold war of Soviet state capitalism and Western ‘free market’ welfarism. Lem’s perspective is a hypertrophied development of the cultural cold war. The universe is not only strange, it is incomprehensible. Rosny aîné’s perspective is to my mind more interesting and less sceptical. His aliens are truly alien but not beyond the limits of rational inquiry and human understanding.

Rosny aîné was an old man when Stalin and Hitler came to power, dying at the age of 83 in 1940. He did not live to see the complete, horrible extent of World War Two, dying some months before the fall of France to the Nazis. Unlike Lem he did not emerge as a writer under the pervasive cloud of post-war existentialist absurdism. And unlike his contemporary (and junior) H.G.Wells he was less concerned with the utopian and dystopian promise of industrial civilisation and more interested in the potentially infinite variety and strange possibilities of life in a vast and long lived universe.

Nonetheless there is a residue of the utopian promise of the late 19th and early 20th century in his work, albeit shot through with a peculiar sadness. Indeed Rosny aîné repeatedly conjures the vast and time weary melancholy that Wells so briefly and beautifully wrote of at the end of his first novel.