Saturday, June 1, 2024

Adolphe Alhaiza's Cybele

Cybele is an 1891 science fiction novel by Adolphe Alhaiza, or perhaps it’s better described by the then-popular term scientific romance.

Jean-Adolphe Alhaiza (1839-1922) was a follower of the utopian socialist philosophy of Charles Fourier, but he was not exactly an orthodox follower. Alhaiza had some intriguing scientific beliefs, some of which had some very slight plausibility at the time. He believed in a 20,000 year cycle in which firstly one of the polar regions became progressively colder while the other became warmer and then the process reversed itself. The result would be regular climatic cataclysms. This idea plays an important role in the novel. This is a novel of ideas, and the ideas are wonderfully eccentric.

It’s a kind of time travel story. The hero, Marius, travels through space and time by means of a form of astral projection. He finds himself on Earth but it’s not the same Earth. It’s a planet named Cybele which is identical to Earth in every respect except that history has progressed by another 6,000 years. On both planets history follows an absolutely identical course. Everything that has happened on Cybele in the preceding 6,000 years will happen on Earth. Every event will be repeated, precisely. Cybele is Earth’s future.

Marius becomes a kind of celebrity lecturer, offering the people of the future a glimpse into the past. He finds that his own life seems to be repeating itself, an aspect of the story that didn’t make much sense to me.

As a novel Cybele fails spectacularly. Every single mistake that a science fiction writer could possibly make is found here. Most of the book is an interminable series of clumsy infodumps. We’re treated to a detailed political history of the next few centuries but that’s the problem - we just don’t need so much detail.

The plot is almost non-existent. There’s nothing to engage our interest or to make us care about this future world or about Marius.

The resolution of the plot is extraordinarily clumsy and makes us feel that we have wasted our time reading the story.

There are some very good ideas here. The 20,000 year polar cycle is interesting and does actually drive the plot, such as it is.

Other good ideas are just thrown in for no apparent reason. The sleepers are a cool idea but they play no part in the story. The problem of interplanetary communication is handled very cleverly, but again it plays no part in the story. Both of these ideas could have been developed in fascinating ways, but they’re not developed at all.

I honestly don’t think the author had the slightest interest in writing a novel. He wanted to write a religio-scientific-political-philosophical treatise. The book does offer an intriguing insight into the utopian mindset. Those who create fantasy utopias always seem to overlook the inconvenient fact that a utopian society will be made up of people, and people never behave the way utopian thinkers want them to. Alhaiza was a man with big ideas but I don’t think he understood people at all.

Alhaiza also lacks technological imagination. There’s no “sense of wonder” here. The most advanced technology in the book is represented by airships that might have seemed high-tech in the days leading up to the First World War but as examples of the ultra-advanced technologies that might be available 6,000 years from now they’re a bit sad.

Cybele does offer some insights into the kinds of things that late 19th century intellectuals were interested in. Things like hypnotism, which gets mentioned a number of times.

Cybele, translated by Brian Stableford, is available in paperback from Black Coat Press. I don’t honestly think I can recommend this book. Black Coat Press however published translations of a lot of late 19th century and early 20th century French science fiction that is worth reading.

The Navigators of Space by J.-H. Rosny Aîné and George le Faure’s The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System are entertaining and the two anthologies News from the Moon and The Germans on Venus are worth checking out. Gustave Le Rouge’s Vampires of Mars is wild crazy stuff.

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