SF/F WRITING AROUND THE WORLD - PART 3
ALAIN LE BUSSY: FRENCH SF AND FANDOM

(Cosmos Pen 4/2004)




Preliminary note: There is no French SF proper, but SF written in French in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec or even Africa. So, the word French SF hereunder must generally be understood in that wide way. At the same time, there are SF stories written in France in regional languages like Briton or Occitan. However, as these stories had no impact on the developpment of the French SF (except if and when translated in French!) I won't consider those in a work which is certainly no doctorate thesis.



 

The pre-history of French sf/f

If you go far away in the past, some classical French stories were axed on SF, with the a trip to the Moon (in Comic history of the Empires and States of the Moon) from Cyrano de Bergerac, around 1640, or the voyager coming from Sirius of Voltaire one century later.

At the beginning of the second half of the XIXth century came a change in the readership, because several newspapers turned "popular" with cheaper prices and larger circulation. It was the time of serials like The Three Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas, Les Mystères de Paris of Eugène Sue or Rocambole of Ponson du Terrail. At that time, Emile Gaboriau wrote L'Affaire Lerouge, considered as the first real detective novel.

This brings us to somebody who also wrote detective stories, and fantasy, Edgar Poe. Although he was American, his works were translated by Charles Baudelaire one of the main French poets of ever and it's generally admitted that the translations were much better than the originals, so Poe/Baudelaire opened the litterature Hall of Fame to detective and fantasy stories.

And then, there was Jules Vernes, of course, although he wrote more "Scientific Wonder" than real SF (Exploiting the last scientific discoveries, prolonging further, but with a very few cases of impact on the society and changes in the daily way of life. One of the few examples is Paris au XXème Siècle, an early work but published only several years after his death).

Another element in the developpment of French SF is that in the last decades of that century, there were several magazines devoted to the latest scientific discoveries explained to the public at large (Popular Science) where some imaginary stories where published. These were always of the hard-science type of course.

At the end of the XIXth century came the Belgian Rosny brothers, writing together in the beginning, then separately. They were both members of the first Goncourt Academy which continues to attribute each year the Goncourt Prize, the most known of all French litterary prizes.

The eldest wrote many real SF stories, as well as prehistoric ones. (p.ex: The War for Fire, which became some years ago a very good film of JJ Annau.) He created the french word "astronaute", title of one of his novels. When the French Fandom created an annual prize based on the Hugo system, they chose Rosny aîné as name for it, unaware he was Belgian! I had to remind them that when I became the first Belgian to get that prize in 1993.

 

The twentienth century

Between the two worlds wars, there were popular SF novels. Rosny was still writing at that time - he died around 1940 - but the most known writer of that period are, Jean de la Hire, Gaston Lerouge and José Moselli.

At that time Jean RAY, a Belgian author was very prolific, with tens of fantasy stories and also some novels. He was writing in French, Dutch and English and had some stories published in Weird Tales. He is also known as the author of most of the Harry Dickson adventures published in French and used the penname of John Flanders for several SF novels.

During the war and just after it, came René BARJAVEL who was rediscovering many classic themes of SF, with Ravages (a post-cataclysmic universe) or Le Voyageur Imprudent (the Time Travels). He lived till the mid-eighties, with many more SF novels, like Le Grand Secret (the secret of immortality) or La nuit des Temps.

At the turn of the '50, France rediscovered SF, mostly through the translations of the big American names of the time (Van Vogt, Asimov, Bradbury Heinlein…). Note that what happened with Poe/Baudelaire was renewed when Boris Vian translated The World of A: a translation better than the original and a real best seller widely overpassing the limits of the SF lectorate.

Several book collections were born. Among those, let's mention the main ones: le FLEUVE NOIR, (popular SF, mostly written by French), PRESENCE DU FUTUR and le RAYON FANTASTIQUE. There were also magazines: FICTION (French F&SF), GALAXIE (French Galaxy), SATELLITE (purely French).

Books and magazine gave their chance to French (or Belgian) writers. Among those, some survive till now, at least litterarily: Francis CARSAC, Stefan WUL, André RUELLAN (mostly published at that time under the pen-name of Kurt STEINER), Pierre BARBET, Peter RANDA, not forgetting of course Gérard KLEIN, author at 16 of Le Gambit des Etoiles, which is still one of the main French SF classics. Klein continued writing but became also the director of AILLEURS & DEMAIN, the prestige SF collection published by Robert Laffont.

Later, in the sixties/seventies appeared other writers… Among those, let's mention Michel Jeury, very prolific, with tens of novels. Just for the fun, I'll quote him: All SF witers are megalomaniacs or paranoiacs, except me: I'm really the greatest and because of that, everybody hates me!

Michel still writes, I think, but left the SF field nearly twenty years ago, to write country novels (peasant novels) which pay a lot more!

Now, coming to the end and turn of the century, there are some confirmed writers like Jean-Claude Dunyach, Roland Wagner, Michel Pagel, Laurent Genefort, Joëlle Wintrebert, Ayerdhal and… me. Also some promising new ones, that I won't mention, because promises must be held through time to merit it.

 

The publishing situation

The publishing side is not very positive. After the beginning in the fifties, the sixties were very good years, although le RAYON FANTASTIQUE disappeared around '65. The seventies were crazy, there were new companies, and established ones wanted their SF sector.

(When I was 20, I could not find enough SF books in French to feed my hungry of reading, so I began buying US/British paperbacks. Now, you find easily the best of all which is published in these countries translated in French with, notably, J'AI LU or LE LIVRE DE POCHE, the two main publishers of all litterature.)

At the end of the seventies, there was a true collapse of that market. GALAXIE disappeared. FICTION survived till the end of the eighties and we had some years without magazines support, except the fanzines.

A little before the turn of the century, new magazines were created, like GALAXIES, BIFROST, TENEBRES, of which the first two still survive. They are semi-pro (which means nobody is a full pro on their staff and they don't pay much… but they pay! They are quaterly and reaching their 8th birthday. There is also KHIMAIRA produced in Belgium which intends to go pro.

I have to make here a special chapter on the Québéquian SF. It's a special case, because of the Province policy of supporting financially the French language through all aspects of culture. There has been a magazine called IMAGINE which lived nearly twenty years as fanzine first, as pro later, with some 76 issues published. SOLARIS is still thriving and over 150 issues. There are also novels published, by authors such as Elisabeth Vonarburg, Esther Rochon, Jean-Louis Trudel, Joël Champetier or Claude Bolduc. This is a very alive sector of French speaking SF.

The (provisory) end of the story is bleak:

The Fleuve Noir stopped publishing popular French SF four years ago. J'AI LU is mostly open to translations. There are many young companies (NESTIVEQNEN, as example), or some traditional but smal ones, like L'ATALANTE. The problem is that the new companies prefer essentially Fantasy and are badly distributed.

In 2003, I had 3 novelettes published in anthologies… with a promised circulation of less than 300. I had a juvenile with Nestiveqnen, with a circulation of 1.000. This is not very profitable and could discourage anybody to make a career of writing SF!

 

The French fandom

The French (and Belgian one, and Swiss one) differs widely (from what I know) from what you find in Nordic or Eastern countries by the fact that with one or two exceptions, we have no clubs, no societies.

Manifestations of Fandom are thus the fact of isolated individuals, sometimes grouping two or three people in a ponctual effort, like making a fanzine or a convention.

There have been fanzines since the beginning of the sixties. One of them was produced by Pierre Versins a French collector living in Switzerland who died in 2001. He published also a monument, The Encyclopedia of SF. When he decided to retire, he gave his collection to create a museum, LA MAISON D'AILLEURS in Yverdon (Switzerland).

Among those active at that time, I must mention Claude Dumont, a French living in Belgium, who published fanzines during forty years (Le Fanal Fanique, Octazine, Octa). He made me discover fandom and fanzines, but the true lauching of it was the HEIDELBERG Worldcon in 1970.

Many new zines were created just after that meeting, like L'AUBE ENCLAVEE, NYARLATOTHEP, MAGNUS, BETWEEN, ANTARES of JP Moumon and XUENSè (my own zine). That was also the time of the first Eurocon (Triest, 1972), and the first French con, in 1974, together with Belgian cons, mostly organized in Flanders. (There was only one in French-speaking Belgium, in Liège, 1976, and guess who was one of the crazies organizing it?)

 

The cons

Fanzines come and go, the phenomenon is certainly not proper to France. The cons stay.

They never were a mass phenomenon. I think Yverdon '95, with some 160 members (including one-day visitors) was the largest one. Hundred, hundred and twenty is more common.

They are organized everywhere in France, Belgium or Switzerland, provided there are people crazy enough to be canditates for organizing them. Votes on the new site is decided at the con two years before. Through the convention chart, it must be during a school vacation period (which is wide enough: there are Eastern vacations, and the summer ones includes July and August) and must be a science fiction meeting. But we are enough wideminded to guest some of these awfull Fantasy guys and gals!

Since 1991, they were situated in Montfort sur Argens (south of France, near Nice), Redu (Belgium, a book-village wirthout any hôtel!), Orléans, Sofia-Antipolis (French Silicone Valey, near Nice), Yverdon (Switzerland), Nancy (North-east of France) three times in a row, lacking other candidates; Lodève (south-west of France), L'Isle sur la Sorgue (South-east, near Avignon), Esneux/Tilff (Belgium, near Liège, my back yard), Flémalle (Belgium, near Liège, an S.O.S. last minute site, because there had been no candidate the previous year).

Mid-august this year, we are going back to l'Isle sur la Sorgue, and in 2005, three weeks after Interaction (August 25-28), we are coming back to me, in Esneux.
The French cons have some classical aspects and some which, I think are not.

Among the classical, the guests, the speeches, panels, and so on. All in French, of course, except if one of our guests is British (Brian Stableford last year, i.e.). In that case, somebody will provide a running translation (I did it for Ian Watson in 1976), but all in all, SF fans (even French!) known better English than the normal French citizen. If you were curious to visit us, you wouldn't be completely lost.

The bar is also classical. When in Belgium, we tend to have a choice of several beers among the several hundreds produced in the country. Prices are cheap (I'm telling this thinking specially to the Finnish readers), between 1 euro for common (which means superior to anything produced abroad, haha) beer, to 2 euros for special Abbey beers.

(By the way, do you know that Trappist Abbey beer can legally be brewed only in Belgium… even the US fakers had to recognize it in front of their courts! Sorry if I'm making some publicity here!) Note also that a traditionnal not-Abbey beer, with over 12 degrees of alcool, is the… Bush!

Among the traditionnal events, we have the prizes. The main ones are the ROSNY aîné, one for the best novel published the previous year, one for the best shorter work. (written in French, no translation enters the game); since 2002, we have the Merlin same categories, for Fantasy. We have also the INFINI prize (see INFINI later) for unpublished short stories.

 

The less serious traditions

And - but here were leave the traditionnal/international - we have the VERSINS prize (remember Pierre Versins?). It goes to the author of the worse pun made during the convention.

We have no filk songs contest, but sometimes, Raymond Milési, the Keeper of the Chart, sings parodies of well known songs. Mort of the time, he organizes games on SF authors/titles, which are not only knowledge tests, but about ability to read between the lines (If the translator can do it, once the question was: A well known author defined as Transport vehicle + Tool with teeth. Answer was, in French of course: le bus + scie = me)

These prizes are proclaimed during the banquet, or just before. Although the convention begins on Thursday afternoon and closes on Sunday, the Saturday Evening banquet, is the real end: on Sunday morning, some leave early and the reste is usually to tired (should I say hangovered?) to do anything.

During the Banquet, we have the auction. Sometimes, it's for real collectors item, but it's mostly for fun. We have a very good auctioner, Georges Pierru, retired primary school teacher, and you should have seen him in 1992 selling the bra of Micky Papoz (1991 organizer) with demonstration of the use of such piece of garment. Or, in 1999, commenting a reverse strip-tease by Jean-Claude Dunyach. I sold one of my T-shirts at that time, (one slightly sexual I never dared wear in public) I had to peel the one I was wearing to prove I could wear the one on sale. The auction is certainly a great chance to release all the stress for anybody, specially con organizers!

There is also what I call the Sacred Altar of Fandom: In Lodève (1999) Guillaume Thiberge, assistant to the auctioner, was a little bit over enthousiastic with the hammer and made a hole in the plastic covered table. We bought the damaged table and since then it voyages from con site to con site, to be honored each time by a new hole.

 

Infini

INFINI is the association of French SF and litteratures of the Imaginary. It's not a club, in the sense we have one only meeting per year, during the convention. It's more like an information center. We publish a quarterly information sheet on paper, which is a monthly on the web. We try to support SF actions, we can also, mostly due to the web, act to give information.

Although I have been president for two or three years, I'm not sure of our present membership. Between 60 and 100, I guess. We also organize a yearly prize, of which I preside the Jury. We are certainly not alone to defend SF in the French speaking world, but we are one of the main voices... said the beast that shouted SF at the heart of the world.

 


 
Alain le Bussy, born in 1947, master in Political/Social Sciences made a carer in Human Ressources in the Swedish groupe MODO forst, with Caterpillar later. He writes since 1966. He had some 25 novels published, and numerous shorter works. He obtained the 1993 Rosny aîné prize, and twice the 7th Continent of the Canadian IMAGINE magazine. He was one the 1976 Belgian convention organizer, the main one of de 2002 French one, and works on de 2005 one, while being - although Belgian - the French agent for Interaction, the Glasgow 2005 Worldcon.