Friday, March 22, 2024

Fiction that Makes You Think

I have just finished reading my third science fiction novel by the twentieth-century French writer René Barjavel. I have written previously about his novel Le Voyageur Imprudent. A time traveler accidentally kills his own grandfather in the past and thus finds that he does not exist and has never existed. This novel also included a glimpse into a very distant nightmare utopia.

Other Barjavel novels dealt straight on with the main issue of the writer’s time, nuclear disaster. In La Nuit de Temps he wrote about a previous utopian world that destroyed itself by nuclear war, but also the explosions pushed the Earth to its present tilt. Modern scientists discovered this ancient temperate utopia underneath Antarctic ice.

Un Rose au Paradis also raises disturbing questions about nuclear war which, we can only hope, we do not need to worry about anymore. The richest man in the world, Mr. G, is richer than most rich nations. He sells cheap nuclear weapons. This draws our attention to the fact that one reason nuclear weapons are relatively rare is that they are expensive. What if they were so cheap that every little country, state, or even corporations could buy them from Mr. G? You would have a world thickly implanted with weapons.

The next thing to which the novel draws our attention is that once a crucial density of nuclear weapons is reached, the use of even a single one of them could cause the others to explode just from the heat. At the beginning of the novel, this density had been reached. The next day, another country was going to activate its weapons. If a war got started at that point, it would be big enough to permanently sterilize the surface of the Earth. But if the war started before that point, all organisms would be killed but the Earth would still have a solid surface, the atmosphere would still have oxygen (something I doubt), and life could be seeded anew. Mr. G pulls a console out of his pocket, presses a button, and destroys the world a little early so that it can be resurrected. This raises the question, would it ever be right to start a nuclear holocaust?

Mr. G had prepared a survival pod for animals and seeds in suspended animation, and with just two human survivors: a man and his pregnant wife who gave birth to twins, one male and one female. From this, Mr. G could start the world over in twenty years. The twins, of course, would have to produce children. Barjavel apparently did not understand the genetics of inbreeding very well. But was this any different from a world population started by Adam and Eve, which grew from brother-sister matings in a literalistic interpretation of Genesis?

The little family had all their needs taken care of. Every day, meals of roast chicken appeared. The family had no contact with the outside world, and had nothing to do. The family had slipped in a copy of a big French dictionary, from which the son learned everything about a world he had never seen. He ate chicken but had never seen a chicken. He was impatient to see the world. His sister was even more bored. This raises the question, would you be happy without work? Even if it is just mental work like what I am doing by writing this essay.

But Mr. G, who lived with them, had made a mistake. He had not counted on the boy getting his twin sister pregnant before the end of the twenty years. With six people instead of five, they would run out of oxygen. Mr. G insisted the girl abort her fetus; she could always get pregnant again. But the mother would not permit this. She had another idea of how to reduce the population. She pushed Mr. G into the food recycler. This, however, messed everything up, the animals left suspended animation and began breathing, and the little biological restart pod almost asphyxiated. This brings up the point that no one, not even Mr. G, is smart enough to plan a perfect future.

Some parts of this novel were silly. When things were falling apart, the food synthesizer produced, instead of roast chicken, a big live rooster who chased the people around until he knocked himself out against a glass pane, but in so doing he cracked the pane and started the process of animal resuscitation, before the twenty years was up. Whether this was sillier than the four-headed robot I cannot say. And the ending was too nice. The family and all the animals figured out how to emerge from the pod, and they not only found a fertile Earth waiting for them, where the cinders of lost civilization fertilized the soil, but also Mr. G wasn’t actually dead but was awaiting them.

I like to read fiction that makes me think, even when I am disappointed by some parts of it. The novels of Barjavel had proven to be a good place for me to think.


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