Régis Messac was the first writer of French roman scientifique to become acquainted with American science fiction and to write his own work in the French genre with a sophisticated knowledge of the manner in which the analogous genre had developed and was evolving, thus becoming an interesting special case in the evolution of the still-separated literary brethren.
Messac was born in Champagnac in 1893, and he attempted to complete his initial program of academic study at the École Normale Supérieure, an establishment primarily geared to training scientists and engineers, but he had to renounce any such ambitions temporarily when he was conscripted at the beginning of the Great War in August 1914. After being seriously wounded in the head in December of that year, he obtained an initial teaching qualification during his convalescence; he spent the rest of the war working in various auxiliary services, retaining the lowest possible rank throughout for ideological reasons.
Messac learned English during the war from English soldiers and also became involved with Germaine Desvachez, a young woman widowed by the conflict in 1914, whom he subsequently married in 1922, a year after the birth of their son Serge. After his demobilization in 1919 he wrote two autographical novels describing his wartime experiences, which had helped to complete his deep cynicism regarding human nature and crystallize his strong commitment to pacifism. He completed his teaching qualification and was awarded his agrégation in 1922, in letters rather than the sciences he had originally planned to study; he went on to become a highly regarded literary scholar but never abandoned his interest in the physical sciences and also maintained a strong interest in the development of the social sciences.
After teaching at the University of Glasgow in 1923–24, Messac went to Canada, where he spent five years at McGill University in Montreal. It was there he was introduced to American pulp fiction including science fiction. Although his primary academic concern was crime fiction, which was considered far more respectable than science fiction by virtue of its middlebrow extensions and its long history, it seems to have been the subject matter and narrative devices of science fiction that spurred his own creative inspirations, as evidenced by his early works of roman scientifique, written in the 1930s. The doctoral thesis on which he worked at McGill but completed and sustained in Paris following his return to France in 1929 was entitled Le “Detective Novel” et l’influence de la pensée scientifique [The “Detective Novel” and the Influence of Scientific Thought].
The subsequent years proved difficult for Messac, by virtue of a series of personal disappointments and tragedies, which he described and dramatized in a third autobiographical novel L’Homme assiégé [A Man Under Siege] (1936), and his anguish was clearly reflected in a sequence of exercises in roman scientifique that he produced in the 1930s, culminating in the publication of the novel La Cité des asphyxiés (1937; tr. as Stranglehold City). The early works in the sequence appeared, two of them pseudonymously, in the pacifist periodical Les Primaires, after Messac became its editor-in-chief. “Musique arachnéenne” (tr. as “Spider Music”) appeared in the December 1932 and January 1933 issues under the signature Sancho Llorente. “Les Doléances de j.o.r. 2AM. L., citoyen de l’âge du rayon” (tr. as “The Grievances of j.o.r. 2AM. L., Citizen of the Age of Radiation”) appeared in the March 1933 issue, in Messac’s regular column Propos d’un utopien [Discourses of a Utopian], in which he frequently used fictional devices in the service of satire and propaganda. “Le Miroir flexible” (tr. as “The Flexible Mirror”) was serialized in seven parts from November 1933 to November 1934, with a frame narrative signed Columbus North.
The publications that appeared in Les Primaires remained confined to the esoteric pages of the periodical for a long time, until they were “rediscovered” in the 1970s. The first item in the series to appear in book form was the novella Quinzinzinzili (1935; tr. under the same title), although one section had been previously published as “Comment fut déclarée la guerre de 1934 par Boudou-Bada, professeur à l’Université de Capetown” [How the War of 1934 was declared, by Boudou-Bada, Professor at the University of Cape Town] in Les Primaires in April 1934, as a column in the Propos d’un utopien series, while “Le Miroir flexible” was being serialized. Messac did write one more work of futuristic fiction after La Cité des asphyxiés, the novella “Valcrétin,” in 1943, not long before he was murdered by the Nazis in 1945—no one knows exactly how, when, or where, official records having lost track of him after his deportation—but it could not be published at the time, for evident reasons, and it did not appear until 1972; it belongs to the same adventurous satirical category as its predecessors, and it can be regarded as a component of the sequence.
Although Messac’s interest in American science fiction undoubtedly played some part in prompting the planning of his own works of speculative fiction, his works have very little in common with American science fiction in terms of their manner and purpose. His work is more sophisticated, both stylistically and philosophically. Even “Musique arachnéenne,” which is a relatively trivial conceit in which a prisoner of the Inquisition comes to believe that he has learned the secret of arachnean music from a spider in his cell, has an unusual polish and wit. “Les Doléances de j.o.r. 2AM. L., citoyen de l’âge du rayon” is even slighter, being a vignette in which an inhabitant of a drastically altered future looks back on the “good old days” of twentieth-century industry, but it too illustrated the extent of Messac’s imaginative reach as well as the satirical motivation that impelled it to such extremes. His work belongs to the Voltairean tradition of contes philosophiques, to which the two longer novellas are much more obviously related in their imaginative verve, their mordant satirical bite, and their relentless harassment of human stupidity.
It is just about conceivable that “Musique arachnéenne” could have been published in English translation in 1932, and “Les Doléances de j.o.r. 2AM. L., citoyen de l’âge du rayon” could have been published in English as a wry satirical reflection on a commonplace kind of nostalgia, but neither of the first two novellas could possibly have found a market at the time, offering ideological meat that was far too raw and bloody for the queasily prudish arenas of interbellum American and English publishing. “Le Miroir flexible” would probably still be capable of driving at least some Americans to fury today, were they ever to deign to read it. Nowadays, the righteous wrath with which it attacks religious Fundamentalism and Bible Belt culture is by no means unfamiliar, but in 1933, the story was exceptional in its vitriolic stridency.
The main story told in “Le Miroir flexible” is framed by a narrative in which the ostensible author explains how he encountered a reclusive woman known as “the old spinster” in a boarding house in Esterel and received from her a manuscript relating her experiences many years before, in a small town in Alabama, where her father, Joseph Favennens, an ambitious inventor, had bought a cheap plot of semi-desert land in order to install his laboratory.
Already regarded with disapproval by the Fundamentalist preachers of the town by virtue of his atheism, and by the local Ku Klux Klan because of his lack of racial bigotry, Favennens becomes the object of a more intense hostility in the wake of the apparent murder of a local vagrant, when rumors of sightings of a mysterious “giant serpent” cast a shadow of suspicion over his activities.
When the “serpent” disrupts a Klan meeting, causing a stampede in which there is another fatality, a detective called in to investigate the case sets a trap for the “monster,” and succeeds in “killing” it—only for it to be revealed that it is actually a living machine constructed by Favennens, a functionally designed automaton capable of learning and primitive intelligence. When he proudly refuses to be run out of town following the destruction of his creation, he is murdered by an enraged mob whipped up by a preacher indignant at his alleged blasphemy in daring not only to compete with the creator but to claim that he has done a better job of the work of creation.
Had Messac not been the editor of a magazine, the likelihood is that “Le Miroir flexible” would never have been published; there was no other likely outlet for it at that time, and it is a fervently combative and bitterly angry story. Precisely for that reason, however, it is one of the most powerful works of speculative fiction produced in the 1930s, and its fugitive existence prior to its belated resurrection in a book edition published in 2009 illustrates the fact that the difficulties previously faced by Cyrano de Bergerac in pioneering scientifically inspired contes philosophiques in the seventeenth century had not disappeared even in three centuries. The agents of the Holy Office had lost their teeth in the interim, but the sentiments that inspired them had not lost their avidity to bite, and although the primary target of stories like “Le Miroir flexible” is religious intolerance, that was only one of the sources of potential hostility and disaffection likely to hobble the circulation of sophisticated contes philosophiques in the 1930s. When they wanted to employ fiction as a means of dramatizing and spreading their message, the champions of technology and the science behind it were not working in a benign, or even a neutral, environment.
“Le Miroir flexible” is deliberately framed as a philosophical riposte to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, perhaps not so much to the novel as to the far cruder and then-recent 1931 movie version, but it is also explicit in reacting against a contemporary glut in tales of mechanical robots. One of three pulp science fiction stories by David H. Keller that Messac translated into French was “The Psychophonic Nurse” (1928), and he might well have been familiar with Keller’s “The Threat of the Robot” (1929) as well as other pulp fantasies employing the term in the same way, with reference to metallic humanoids—in contrast to the play in which the term was coined, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1921), in which the individuals in question are creatures of artificial flesh and blood rather than mechanical devices. The philosophical issues raised and argued in Messac’s story, however, cut far deeper than the simplistic thinking of pulp sf or Karel Čapek, addressing the central question of artificial intelligence in more detail and with greater rationality, anticipating discussions of its practicality that would not reach a similar sophistication elsewhere for decades. It is a great pity that the story remained buried for so long in the pages of an obscure political periodical, as it can now be recognized as one of the most remarkable speculative works of its era.
The same can also be said about Quinzinzinzili, although it addresses a more familiar theme in depicting a world devastated by a Second World War, that possibility having been one of the dominant motifs of French roman scientifique and British scientific romance since 1919. The novella does not add a great deal to the account of the “war of 1934” published in Les Primaires in that year, which is primarily concerned with the likely reactions of contemporary politicians and journalists to the advent of a new war, and its account of the superweapon whose unleashing temporarily turns the atmosphere poisonous is cursory. The narrator of the savagely tragic story written around that satirical fragment knows very little about the war itself, only having a handful of documentary sources. He survives because he happens to be visiting a cave high in the mountains of the Massif Central when the poison is unleashed, in the company of a group of children, which includes the two tutees in his charge. Their guide dies, perhaps leaving him the only living adult—at least so far as he can determine—in the entire world.
The principal focus of the enveloping story is its description of the bizarre culture formed from scratch—with very little input from the disaffected and ineffectual adult observer—by the children, who represent a slight, if somewhat precarious, chance that the human race might not become extinct, even though there is only one girl among them. The narrator does not see that slight chance as a hope, but merely as an absurdity, and his account insists on presenting his observations as a kind of black comedy, although his scathing sarcasm cannot entirely disguise the underlying tragic sensibility.
In one respect, Quinzinzinzili belongs to an interesting subcategory of “castaway stories” in which children have to build a society from scratch without the support of any kind of educational system or effective adult guidance—other notable examples include W.L. George’s Children of the Morning (1926) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)—but Messac’s version goes further than other stories of that type in having the children devise their own language, based on French but deviating from it in ways partly determined by circumstance and partly by chance, producing such occasional meaningful bizarreries as the word that gives the story its title.
Coupled with the development of that new language, and intimately entangled with it, is the development of new superstitions and a new religion, which sarcastically reflect theories as to how traditional superstitions and religions might well have originated and evolved; that feature of the story adds a considerable anthropological interest to the speculative venture, as well as adding to the puzzles that continually confront the protagonist. The narrator of Quinzinzinzili has no one to whom to turn for any kind of consolation; he is utterly alone, in spite of the children in whose midst he lives and whose survival he documents, and he eventually feels that he has no alternative but to be brutally honest in filling the final page of a notebook that no one will ever read:
When I think about the future, I see a new collective Calvary, a new painful and dolorous ascension toward an illusory paradise, a long sequence of crimes, horrors, and sufferings.... A new society is about to be born, as ridiculous, perhaps more ridiculous, than the other, full of an infinite stupidity, larded and interlarded with barbaric cunning and puerile refinements, complicated and useless: everything that they too will name science, progress, intelligence, and civilization, or something similar.
Precisely because it could have no conceivable sequel, there was a perverse sense in which Quinzinzinzili demanded one, figuratively if not literally—and it is not at all surprising that Messac wrote one. La Cité des Asphyxiés follows on closely from Quinzinzinzili in terms of its rhetorical fervor and its mordant satire. The two works are thematically related and have several overlapping features; there is even a teasing reference in the novel capable of suggesting to readers familiar with the earlier work that—however improbable it might seem, given the apocalyptic theme of the earlier story—the novel might be set in a distant future consequent to the novella’s near future.
La Cité des Asphyxiés is set very solidly in the tradition of Voltairean satire, but its fundamental mordancy harks back to the source of Voltaire’s own principal inspiration, found in the works of Jonathan Swift. It is perhaps the most Swiftian of all the works of belated Gulliveriana, but it adds an extra edge to Swift’s trenchant misanthropy by applying a more radical and more sophisticated political criticism, aimed at cultural targets that Swift never had the chance to encounter. There are other English influences in the work, primarily that of H.G. Wells, two of whose early scientific romances, The Time Machine (1895) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) are echoed in its makeup, There is also is a wry acknowledgement to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s subterranean utopia The Coming Race (1871) although Messac’s initial intellectual exploration of the notion of a subterranean society probably owed more to the suggestion of Gabriel Tarde’s sociologically sophisticated Fragment d’histoire future (1896; tr. as Underground Man).
The text begins with a frame narrative in which an unsympathetic and clearly unreliable narrator, Belle Sims, explains how experiments in transtemporal television carried out by her husband and her father seem to have created a time machine that has hurled one of her husband’s friends, Sylvain Le Cateau, into a far future, when humankind lives underground because the depletion of the atmosphere has made the surface uninhabitable. The early phases of the main story, handicapped by Le Cateau’s unreliability for reasons that seem to go far beyond his chronic stupidity, describe his first impressions of Subterranean society and his early adventures therein, concentrating on technical matters in a manner calculated to give an impression of coherent extrapolation and fidelity to scientific thinking, which is only gradually transformed for satirical purposes. A reader could easily begin to construe the main story as if it were a straightforward exercise in extrapolative speculative fiction and engage with it in that fashion before its satirical elements become vitriolically scathing, thus adding a useful measure of sensitivity to their eventual sting.
At first, Subterranean society seems to Le Cateau, who can only see a tiny fraction of its stratification, to be a sufficiently comfortable milieu which benefits from many advanced technologies, permitting extraordinary sophistications in the fields of medicine and communication. He only realizes slowly what the consequences are of the fact that the society’s industrialists have to manufacture its air, thus giving them the ultimate capitalist stranglehold on the laborers who produce it. The corollaries of the methods of that manufacture add an extra twist to the vitriol of that element of the satire—and it is the gradual realization of that situation that transfigures Sylvain’s personal vision of Subterranea from an eccentric eutopia to a grotesquely horrible dystopia in whose fortunes his own role comes to seem extremely problematic.
The ambiguously layered narrative method is particularly well suited to form a detailed description of a fictitious world that is, literally as well as metaphorically, “turned upside down,” in order to provide a distorted reflection of our own. The description of the subterranean world’s physical and biological organization cannot, in the final analysis, be said to ring true, but it is nevertheless developed with great ingenuity and considerable rational acumen; it includes many telling details whose points of plausible support add a valuable additional note of conviction to their satirical aspect as well as to the graphic surrealism of their imagery.
In the same way that the novel’s worldbuilding benefits from the deft combination of earnest extrapolation and satirical endeavor, the frame narrative “explaining” the protagonist’s displacement in time is also carefully earnest as well as carefully blinkered, employing the calculated eccentricity of its notional narrator to work around the fact that no proper explanation of the background endeavor is provided and that the paradox remains paradoxical. The scientific underpinnings of both elements of the story are actually absurd—few modern readers would have difficulty finding logical fault either with the theory of time supporting the protagonist’s displacement in the frame narrative or with the method of atmospheric manufacture eventually specified in the main narrative—but the manner of their presentation confers a gloss of apparent logic that was eventually to become one of the key elements of the peculiar artistry of sophisticated genre science fiction. Messac’s use of the strategy lends his novel a narrative solidity that is rare in satirical fiction, especially in utopian satire.
The careful deployment of limited and flagrantly biased first-person narratives, earlier used to striking effect in Quinzinzinzili before being adapted to both of the narratives in La Cité des Asphyxiés, helps to give the novel a distinctive kind of ambiguity that goes far beyond the handling of speculative science and the imagery of the invented world. Indeed, all the kinds of specific detail featured in the multilayered story are embedded in a surrounding matrix of vague and troubling uncertainty. That is a very tricky narrative method for an author to employ and has its downside—particularly in rendering both viewpoint characters unsympathetic and sometimes irritating—but Messac develops it with sufficient artistry and conviction to make it highly effective.
One side effect of the viewpoint characters’ limitations in comprehending and coping with the things they observe and report is that the plots of both the main narrative and the frame narrative take on a certain element of mystery, because the reader is perennially invited—and, indeed, challenged—to make deductions that the protagonists cannot. Sometimes, the protagonists eventually reach the conclusions which the reader might have anticipated, but sometimes they do not, and the answers to problems posed are left tantalizingly unspecified. Not all readers appreciate that kind of challenge, but those who can will inevitably find Messac’s work particularly intriguing.
One important aspect of that kind of challenge is the use made of the invented language featured in the main narrative. Quinzinzinzili also features an invented language but its development is relatively straightforward and the account of it rendered in the novella does not raise nearly as many puzzles as the language of the Subterraneans in La Cité des Asphyxiés. Many of those enigmas are left teasingly unanswered, both in cases where the reader is clearly expected to draw deductions and in cases where no such deductions appear to be possible. The continual juggling with elements of the language and the protagonist’s attempts to get to grips with it eventually become the most vital and vibrant aspects of the novel’s satirical method. That is another reason why the novel benefits from its slow and relatively earnest build-up, because the invented words of the Subterranean language have to be leaked into the text in a measured fashion, allowing the reader to get used to them before the concluding elaboration—but the deployment of so many invented terms adds considerably to the challenges confronting the reader.
By virtue of these various strategies and intricacies, La Cité des Asphyxiés was one of the most sophisticated futuristic fantasies yet produced at the time of its original publication as were its two immediate predecessors. They have, inevitably, been matched and perhaps overtaken since then, but Cité remains a highly significant landmark in the evolution of futuristic fiction, and it is sufficiently distinctive to remain intriguing and engaging today.
As Belle Sims remarks in her final, stubbornly inconsequential note, Le Cateau’s story resembles a hoax—more specifically, “one of those hoaxes of which the perpetrator alone retains the secret, without ever deigning to disabuse his victims.” If Régis Messac is such a hoaxer, though—and he certainly does not deign to explain himself within the text—he does distribute a number of clues as to what might really be going on behind the scenes of Le Cateau’s strange adventure.
Those “clues” might, of course be deceptive: a series of red herrings. It is possible that at least some of the puzzles in the text—the apparent shift in meaning of the word cubil, descriptive of one of the classes of the individuals of Subterranean society; the disappearance from the story of the character Palem, who is Le Cateau’s original host in Subterranean society; the abrupt appearance within the story of false beards previously unmentioned and unnoticed, etc., etc.—might simply be the result of the fact that the author made up his story as he went along, continually adding new elements on a whim and forgetting others, and never bothered to do a second draft to correct or excuse the incoherencies. But that would be an insulting as well as an implausible hypothesis, and many of the clues in question make no sense at all unless they really are clues, intended to hint at the imagined reality behind appearances that are, as we are repeatedly told, blatantly deceptive.
Most of the hints dropped by the direly unreliable Sylvain Le Cateau as to what that hidden reality might involve are deeply enigmatic, as might be expected from a character who clearly has no idea what is happening to him or why. Readers are, however, given a few helpful indications of the things that have been hidden from him in the fragments that Belle Sims picks up from the messages reduced—presumably deliberately—to incoherence, as well as in the curious corners of Sylvain’s own narrative.
In the intermission that follows the conclusion of the first fragment of Sylvain’s narrative, covering an interval when, Belle reports, Sylvain “began to mingle with the social life of the Subterraneans,” he apparently encountered “certain types of individuals both baroque and terrible, of whom he spoke with a mixture of admiration and horror.” Belle is “particularly struck ... by what he says about certain technicians whose power and influence are enormous, and who appear to correspond to a certain extent with our philosophers, but who, from what I understand, spend all their time solving crossword puzzles of some kind.”
Very little is said in the coherent part of Sylvain’s narrative about these powerful and influential individuals, who remain invisible behind the scenes of the image of Subterranean society that he eventually constructs and certainly do not seem to fit into the picture he paints of the Great Conery and its products, the parts of the education system that he is allowed to see. Sylvain does, however, make some possibly significant observations in passing, first in association with the “medical treatment” described in the second fragment of his narrative, where he observes that:
The race has been subjected to a series of vaccinations and selections that has caused all contagious disease to disappear, or become exceedingly rare. It has been possible to influence the elements, mysterious in your epoch, whose hereditary combination makes up what is known as the personality. It is even possible, it seems, to manipulate and organize it at will.
The “physicians” featured in this sequence are ostensibly enabling Sylvain to breathe Subterranea’s artificial air more easily, and they presumably achieve that end but it seems certain that they also “manipulate and organize” his personality. Do they, for instance, cause him to forget that he has been sending messages on a regular basis from the cavern where he arrived—even though he refers to such attempts at the beginning of the second fragment, before mentioning his illness—to such an extent that when the enigmatic and perverse scientist Hourra eventually takes him there, he thinks, mistakenly, that he is returning to it for the first time?
Whether that is the case or not—and it seems the likeliest hypothesis to account for the chronological anomalies that arise in juxtaposing the sequence of time elapsed in the twentieth-century “T [for Time Machine] room” and that elapsed in the course of Sylvain’s experience—it is probably best to assume that from the time of his “illness” on, at least, while Sylvain is gradually and carefully introduced to the elements of Subterranean society, what he thinks as well as what he sees, or what he thinks he sees, is being influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the actual and conscientiously invisible technocrats of that society.
But who are they, and what is their purpose?
One glimpse of insight is probably provided by a passage in which Sylvain gives some indication of the range of properties attributable to “luxury airs.” There he notes that
the superoxygenation of the neopallium by rich airs sometimes leads to the creation of new senses. Certain children of the rich whose mothers have been raised themselves in a luxury atmosphere become capable, it appears, of perceiving the four-dimensional continuum intuitively.
He subsequently adds that “the mind of a bovril specialized in meditation and reflection is something divine and superhuman compared to the degenerate mentality of the majority of unfortunate zeroes,” stating that while some zeroes “have reverted to two-dimensional vision, like the horses of the twentieth century,” the bovrils—the Subterranean social elite—“are beginning to conceive and to perceive four dimensions.”
What does this mean, and what does it imply? Well, anyone is free to guess, but what it might suggest is that the masters of Subterranean society, who are obviously far better informed about the twentieth century than Sylvain is allowed to perceive or think, have a much clearer notion than him or Belle Sims about what is happening at the far end of the temporal bridge, and about the nature and significance of the bridge itself. If they can perceive the four-dimensional spacetime continuum “intuitively,” they are probably far better equipped to construct, operate, and manage a time machine than Belle’s husband, Rodolphe Carnage. The fact that they have drugs distorting the perception of time—with which Sylvain is surely dosed, unknowingly, more than once—adds further support to this supposition.
Can we really believe that Sylvain “falls” into the future rather than being pushed—or, to put it better, pulled—into it? He is, after all, uncannily fascinated by the screen, eventually hypnotized into sneaking into the T room to get a better look at it, and even though he is ridiculously incapable of wondering whether the word he initially mishears as “six nez mains” [six nose hands] might actually be the word cinéma [cinema], he does see the futuristic hypnotic cinema at work. Is it rather odd, in fact, that neither he nor Belle Sims calls attention to the apparent similarity between the images that can be seen on the screen in the T room (which include representations that are certainly not views of the cavern to which it allegedly connects) and the strange images that Sylvain sees in the hypnotic cinema.
Clearly, Sylvain is the subtle vehicle of the messages sent to the twentieth century from the mysterious other time rather than the actual messenger. Not only are his messages censored to such an extent that he sometimes forgets what he has previously written and seems unaware of some of the things he has done and is doing, but they are probably shaped in more ways than one. Toward the end of the transmission, we are told in the introduction, he does not even appear in person, the “slates” transmitting his messages simply being placed on a platform—and obviously, if what he supposedly writes on the last slate of all can be taken seriously, he cannot be the person who places it on the platform in question.
What Sylvain communicates, or seems to communicate, to the twentieth century, therefore, is actually what his mysterious hosts—the real ones, not the apparent ones—want to communicate. As to the extent to which it is a tissue of mocking deceptions, we can only guess. Similarly, we can only guess about the motives of the message’s senders, although if they really are located in the far future, there are probably only two reasons why such people might want to communicate information from the future to the past: in an attempt to change it or in an attempt to secure it. Of the two, the former seems more likely in this instance, especially if the messages really are coming from a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse.
That way, of course, lies paradox. Or does it? A mind with the flexibility of Niels Bohr’s might be able to think otherwise, and the scientist introduced in the final section of the frame narrative in order to introduce the notion of hypothetical “configuration space” is explicitly linked with Bohr. Perhaps it is more significant than it seems when the mention is first made that the one thing Belle Sims thinks she has deduced about the superhuman technicians of the future, although she has surely not grasped the truth of the matter, is that they seem to “spend all their time solving crossword puzzles of some kind.” So, in a metaphorical sense, do writers of sophisticated speculative fiction—and so, in a similar sense, must its readers, if they hope to understand the full import of what it is that such writers might be doing in their own schematic configuration space. Perhaps what Messac is doing in the novel is deliberately paradoxical, although he might well have been sufficiently familiar with the roman scientifique of Alfred Jarry to think of it as “pataphysical” instead.
No matter how bleak his mood had been when he wrote Quinzinzinzili—and it was certainly direly bleak—Régis Messac obviously hoped that the destructive Second World War featured therein would never actually happen. In the event, it did, and he was one of its civilian casualties; but the war was fortunately not as destructive for the entire world as its fictional anticipation in his story, although the Third World War still might be. In the same way, the author obviously hoped that the capitalist stranglehold on modern society that he exaggerated so luridly and ludicrously in La Cité des Asphyxiés would not progress to the self-destructive extreme detailed in that story. Thus far, it has not—but it is a compliment to the author’s foresight, as well as the particular quality of his bitter cynicism, that the satirical aspects of the story remain as uncomfortably relevant now as they were in 1937.
Author’s note: The English translations of the various Messac works indicated and cited in the above essay do exist, and their publication was scheduled by Black Coat Press for 2016. Even though the works are all in the public domain, the author having been dead for seventy years, that publication was blocked by the threat of legal action by his grandson, Olivier Messac, which BCP could not afford to defend no matter how certain the eventual victory might be. Evidently, Olivier Messac feels that the best way to conserve his grandfather’s legacy is to extend the inaccessibility of his work in the English language for as long as humanly possible. We can, of course, only speculate as to what the fervently anti-capitalist utopian Régis Messac might have thought of copyright trolls, although we do know that the Nazis murdered him in order to prevent him communicating his ideas to his fellow human beings, not because he posed any kind of military threat to them.
Brian Stableford lives in a paradoxical satire of the modern world.