Friday, November 30, 2018

A Fictional Experiment: An Example from René Barjavel

René Barjavel (1911-1985) was a French novelist who explored perplexing scientific themes. Perhaps his two best-known books are La Nuit de Temps (The Night of Time; translated as The Ice People) and Le Voyageur Imprudent (The Careless Traveler, translated as Future Times Three). In his 1943 Voyageur time-travel novel, he became perhaps the first person to suggest the Grandfather Paradox: If you go back in time and kill your ancestor, then not only do you not exist, but you could never have existed, therefore you could not have killed your ancestor, therefore...

I would like to use Le Voyageur imprudent as an example of performing a scientific experiment by means of fiction. For something impossible like time travel, this is the only way to test hypotheses.

Time travel novels are nearly always the author’s way of making social commentaries. H. G. Wells used The Time Machine as a way of saying that if current (as of a century ago) trends continue, the leisure class will evolve into childlike, tender, stupid Eloi and the working class will evolve into bestial Morlocks. The twist was that the Eloi appeared to be the privileged class but were mere cattle for the Morlocks. (Sorry to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it.) Wells was, by writing this novel, saying that we had to do something to solve this problem. Wells’s open proclamation of eugenics, however, was not the right way to deal with the problem.

René Barjavel certainly fit into the social commentary pattern. When the time travelers visited the year 100,000, they found that humans had evolved into a multitude of forms, but that they had transformed the face of the Earth so that it consisted only of flat plains with regular lines of conical structures. Some of the human forms had mouths without jaws, and digestive systems without anuses; they lived off of milk, delivered through teats that fit directly into their conical mouths, and completely assimilated the molecules. Each of the cones on the landscape had a gigantic woman with thousands of teats and into whose huge body little males were irresistibly drawn to deposit sperm and then the males were digested. This sounds like Barjavel’s nightmare vision of what you get when you cross a twentieth-century Soviet state with a spider and run it forward to the distant future.

Barjavel’s novel was based on the totally preposterous premise that a man named Noël Essaillon invented a material known as noëlite that would allow a person, when wearing a green diving suit, to float through time and space. Of course it was preposterous; it was merely a device to get us into the story, and the author had no intention of making it plausible. My time travel novels are equally preposterous for the same reason. Essaillon chose a young math teacher, a French soldier in World War Two named Pierre Saint-Menoux, to be his collaborator, since Essaillon was wheelchair-bound and could not himself travel in time. Spray on some noëlite, slip into the scaphandre suit, and off you go. But when Pierre slipped into the near future, he found that Essaillon’s pretty little daughter Annette had grown up. Love was inevitable. During one of their trips to the future, the elder Essaillon (pushed around by Pierre) died, then came back to life, then decided that God wanted him to stay dead.

Saint-Menoux wanted to understand the time structure of reality. So he performed experiments. He went into the past and interrupted a wedding so that he could steal jewels. (He and Annette were also very poor in wartime France.) When he got back to the future, though, he discovered that the wedding he had interrupted was that of the parents of one of his friends. That friend no longer existed or, more properly, had never existed. However, the incredibly ugly building for which that friend had been an architect still existed, designed exactly the same way by some other architect. Perhaps, Saint-Menoux thought, history was inevitable and individuals did not matter. He also wanted to see if he could make himself appear in history books by doing something outrageous in the past. In his green scaphandre, he stole money from a bank. What he did not count on was getting his scaphandre ripped and inactivated. The distraught Annette had to go back in time and rescue him. Back into his home time, he found that he had appeared in history as The Green Demon. He had become a legend.

Saint-Menoux was to marry Annette the very night when he decided he had to answer one last question before giving up his time traveling to become a husband. He wanted to know whether he could change all of history, not just the history of individuals. He decided to go back to 1793 and kill Napoleon. Pierre found Napoleon, but accidentally killed another man instead, the man who turned out to be his ancestor. At that moment, Saint-Menoux ceased to have ever existed. The final scene was very touching. Annette heard a shriek outside, it reminded her of Pierre, but even as she was thinking about Pierre she forgot who he was. She ran past the workshop where her father was still working unsuccessfully on his time machine.

Annette raised the lamp as she looked outside of the door: La lampe dessine sur les pavés un carré de lumière. Très haut, dans les étoiles ...  La lune éclaire la rue vide. Un petit tourbillon de vent ...  jette sur ses pieds nus un feuille morte. Isn’t French beautiful? The lamp threw a square of light on the paving stones. Very high up, amidst the stars, the moon illuminated the empty street. A little whirl of wind threw upon her naked feet a dead leaf. And that was the end of Saint-Menoux, and the very memory of him, and of noëlite, which Annette’s father would never actually discover.

I wrote previously about Jacob Bronowski who saw an essential unity in the processes of scientific and artistic creativity. Barjavel’s novel, I believe, is a good illustration of it.

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