Monday, December 31, 2012

Star, or Psi Cassiopea

Star, or Psi Cassiopea may not be the first science fiction novel (Cyrano de Bergerac’s Journey to the Moon, published in 1657, has the best claim to that honour) but it is surely a strong candidate for the title of the first space opera. C. I. Defontenay wrote this extraordinary book in 1854.

It certainly has an epic sweep to it. It opens with a Himalayan explorer witnessing an asteroid crashing into the mountains, killing his companion. But this is no asteroid. It is part of a spaceship, propelled by a catastrophic explosion to the far side of the galaxy. The explorer finds an amazing manuscript in the wreckage. After much effort he deciphers the document. It is nothing less than the history of an alien civilisation, a civilisation from the star Psi Cassiopea.

These aliens referred to their planet, rather confusingly, as Star. There were actually two intelligent races on this planet, one species very like ours and another inferior species more like an ape but with close to human intelligence.

The civilisation of Star had more than its share of ups and downs. At one point a plague followed by a suicidal mania almost entirely destroyed the superior species. The few survivors took refuge in gigantic spaceship called abares. These were more like artificial asteroids than anything we think of as a spacecraft. The lesser species, the repleu, then dominated the planet for centuries, spending most of their time slaughtering each other and indulging in drunkenness and debauchery. The superior species, the Starians, meanwhile colonised the satellites of Star.

The descriptions of the strange cultures of these strange satellite worlds comprises the most interesting part of the novel. And Defontenay certainly did not lack imagination. One of these satellites is a transparent world, inhabited by transparent creatures.

Science fiction often has more to say about the era in which it was written than about the future and this novel certainly reflects the author’s thoughts on subjects like the rising tide of socialism, colonialism and fears of the decay of civilised values.

While it has to be admitted that Defontenay had remarkable powers of invention and a fund of interesting ideas the sad truth is that this is a rather dull novel. And I say this as someone who is a huge fan of 19th century French science fiction.

There are two main problems with this book. The first is the author’s habit of including large samples on Starian literature. Apart from a wealth of poetry there are several complete short plays! While this is an impressive example of world-building it does not make for easy reading.

The second problem is even more serious. This is more of an imaginary history than a novel. There is no central character with whom we can identify and no narrative drive. While an imaginary history spanning thousands of years is an awesome achievement, the result is more than somewhat turgid.

Of course those readers who value world-building more highly than I do may find all this more entertaining than I did.

Star, or Psi Cassiopea remains an important early step in the development of the science fiction genre but it cannot be recommended as an entertaining read.

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