Saturday, December 11, 2010

The People of the Pole, by Charles Derennes

I’m continuing my exploration of French pulp fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This time it’s The People of the Pole (Le peuple du Pôle), a science fiction adventure tale by Charles Derennes.

Published in 1907, this is a lost world tale, a genre I’m quite fond of. This one adds quite a few original twists though.

A bored and wealthy young man, Jean-Louis de Venasque, has been seeking an outlet for his yearnings to journey to hitherto unexplored places. By great good luck, or possibly ill luck, he meets a brilliant but penniless engineer named Jacques Ceintras. The engineer has designed a new kind of airship, an airship capable of undertaking immensely long aerial voyages. And de Venasque has a destination worthy of this formidable ancestor of the zeppelin - the North Pole!

They reach the polar regions, but there is a surprise in store for them. They find not a world of ice, but a strange world filled with animal and plant life. Life forms cut off from contact with the rest of the world since the days when giant reptiles roamed the earth. So far the story sounds like a conventional enough lost world tale, but now Derennes introduces his first twist. These reptiles from an earlier geological age have not merely survived, they have continued to evolve. They have evolved to the point where they have developed not merely intelligence, but technology and civilisation.

This is a civilisation with very different values from human civilisation, a civilisation with a very different approach to the question of the sanctity of life and the importance of the individual, and Derennes uses this to offer some social commentary on our own beliefs about these subjects. Their technology is also rather different, and their polar world is illuminated by a an eerie kind of artificial sunlight.

Relations between the two explorers have become increasingly tense, and this situation worsens when they make contact with the reptilian civilisation of the polar region. The inherent difficulty of communication with intelligent creatures radically different from ourselves makes it impossible to make real and meaningful contact with the reptile people, while Ceintras’s increasingly erratic behaviour causes outright conflict. This first contact with a very foreign culture is not destined to end happily.

And now Derennes throws us another twist. The main narrative is ostensibly a diary kept by de Venasque, and Derennes now suggests that de Venasque may be a very unreliable narrator indeed. He hasn’t finished playing games with the reader though. After casting doubts on de Venasque’s account of the voyage he then suggests that maybe we should discount those doubts. He leaves us with a doubtful narrative but with the certainty that the voyage of the two aeronauts really did take place, and they really did reach the Pole. The remaining doubts concern what they actually found there, and what their own actions actually were.

For what seems on the surface to be a somewhat pulpy scientific romance The People of the Pole has a surprising degree of literary subtlety, and literary polish as well. It’s also an entertaining and fascinating adventure tale. And it has zeppelins. What more could you ask for?

It’s published by Black Coat Press, and easy enough to get hold of if a trifle expensive.

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