SCIENCE FICTION and PREHISTORY
by François BORDESProfessor of Prehistory of the Science Faculty of Bordeaux
[translated from the French by Stephen Trussel]
While stories or novels more or less concerned with man's distant past are not extremely abundant in the production of science fiction, they do, however, exist. And often they show a complete ignorance of the scientific bases of prehistory. Readers who would howl in pain and twist with anguish at a story where the Moon has an atmosphere, or in which an astronaut moves more quickly than light in normal space, swallow, without retching, "fantastic" affirmations no less unlikely, unthinkingly, such as that man has existed for 20 or 300 million years!1
For the benefit of readers of Satellite, I will endeavor therefore, in this short article, to review those things which are currently known on this topic, without entering, of course, into the technical details. But first let's look at some "prehistoric" themes, as they have been treated by French or foreign authors.
I will pass quickly over the novels, understandably famous, of J. H. Rosny. I have already expressed my high regard for "La Guerre du Feu," with some scientific reservations, in the preface to the "Club du meilleur livre" edition, which applies as well to "Le Félin géant," its sequel. On the whole, the author used the poet's privilege to condense, in a representative, symbolic hero, features and discoveries which should have taken millennia to develop. "Vamireh," if one considers the time when it was written, has aged amazingly well. Of course, the "artistic" style is somewhat irritating at first, as is the famous "hiatus" separating the Paleolithic from the Neolithic, that never existed, and the meeting between the last Magdalenians and the first Neolithic which never occurred. And furthermore, it is necessary to divide by two the famous "It was twenty thousand years ago... " that begins the novel.
"Eyrimah," in spite of mistakes of the same type, unavoidable at the time, vigorously depicts struggles between late Neolithics, Mesolithic hunters delayed in the mountains (which the researches of my friend Laplace-Jauretche have confirmed as the Pyrenees), and the first newcomers of the Bronze civilization. There also, the poet's privilege... "Nomai" is a pretty short story of the lake dwellers. I like less "Helgvor du Fleuve Bleu," even more dated, but Rosny wrote it during his "hiatus" from Prehistory, at the time of the great writings by scientists at the end of the 19th century, and when other general, up-to-date works, were to be born. One cannot blame Rosny for not having read the technical notes dispersed in many journals.
"Le Trésor dans la neige" [The Treasure in Snow] uses the classic theme of the Lost World: a Paleolithic tribe surviving within the polar circle. Touching prehistory more or less, "Sauvage aventure" [The Wild Adventure] is based on the survival, in Sumatra, of a race different from man, but having possibly distant common forebears.
Max Bégouen, one of sons of the famous amateur prehistorian, Count Bégouen, and one of the "inventors" of the famous bisons of clay of the underground cave of the Tuc of Audoubert (Ariège), gave us three good novels that touch on Prehistory. One of them "Les bisons d'argile" [Bisons of clay], is an excellent evocation of the Magdalenien, and I don't see much point to retelling it here. If it doesn't have the strength of the "Guerre du Feu," it stands well above the average. "Tisik and Katé," a story of two Magdalenien children, is a very good book for teenagers, but adults will also read it with pleasure. "Quand le mammouth ressuscita" [When the mammoth revived] is pure science-fiction: a team of biologists manages to first resuscitate a frozen mammoth in the ice of Siberia, then Paleolithic men. The only big improbability is the state of conservation in which they are found!
Rosny's contemporary Edmond Haraucourt, as far as I know, wrote but a single work relating to prehistory, his novel "Daah, le premier homme" [Daah, the first man]. It is a philosophical, excellent novel, like those of Rosny, but to an even larger degree gathering in a one hero, millennia of evolution. It is about a man, or rather a pre-man of the very old Paleolithic. Some chapters, in particular the one on the great rains, will haunt the reader for a long time.
A little lower on the scale, but still good, is Claude Anet's novel, "La fin d'un monde" [The end of a world]. Like "Vamireh", it is also set at the end of the Magdalenien, and tells the story of the contact between the last of the Magdalenians and the first Neolithics, and the downfall of the civilization of the first at the time of this contact. Thus it is based on old theory, although it was written around 1925.
Continuing our descent, we find "Va'Hour l'illuminé" [Va'Hour the illuminated], by Fernand Mysor, distinctly more fanciful, and, quite at the bottom, in our view, "La vallée Perdue" [The Lost valley], by Noelle Roger.
I will skip over the novels of Léon Lambry ("La mission de Run le Tordu" [The mission of Run the Twisted], "Rama, la fée des Cavernes" [Rama, the fairy of Caves") inspired perhaps in a bothersome way by the novels of Rosny, "La tribu du Lac d'Azur" [The tribe of the azure Lake], by Maurice of Mills, the small novels for Boy-scouts, and the innumerable comic strips where one sees Paleolithics fighting tyrannosauruses. Small anachronism of about 50 million years! It is just, however, to notice that some among them don't have any pretensions, and are solely humorous, such as "Alley-Oop", from the United States, or "Archibald", in France!
In the realm of the philosophical tale, within the confines of Science-Fiction stands Vercors' excellent novel of a few years ago, "Les animaux dénaturés" [You shall know them; Borderline; The Murder of the Missing Link]. There also the theme is that of the Lost World: a scientific expedition finds, in New Guinea, some Pithécanthropeses. Although the Science-Fiction part is secondary, the main goal of the tale being to show, with supporting proof, that no satisfactory definition of man exists, the scientific documentation is very serious.
In "Sciences et Voyages" [Sciences and Journeys], the then weekly magazine that published a quantity of excellent Science-Fiction, appeared a novel by René Thévenin, "L'Ancêtre des Hommes" [The ancestor of Man], quite readable, that also concentrates, although without the strength of evocation of Rosny or Haraucourt, many inventions into a single human life.
Abroad as well appeared novels and stories based in Prehistory. Some are honestly loathsome, such as J. Leslie Mitchell's "Three go back," where one sees three modern men brought back to Atlantis, supposed homeland of the Cro-Magnons. One of heroes affirms to have picnicked in an underground Cro-Magnon cave (sic) (a shelter under a rock used as a lodging) and there to have drunk a bad Moselle wine. What an idea as well, to drink Moselle in Périgord! The punishment fits the crime!
More original was Lester del Rey's story, "The Day Is Done," where one saw the Neanderthals disappear, not under the arrows of the Cro-magnons, but merely by abandoning the struggle, feeling outclassed. Rosny also spoke, in one of his novels, of "the abandonment of organic hope".
In "The Long Remembering"2, Poul Anderson, in our opinion one of the best contemporary Science-Fiction authors, describes a violent contact between the last Neanderthals and Cro-magnons. This should sometimes have occurred. Except for small details, such as the too precocious appearance of the bow, or the too prolonged survival, in Europe at least, of the Machairodus, the saber-toothed tiger, the story is, from the scientific point of view, excellent, and powerfully evocative.
In "This Star Shall Be Free," Murray Leinster tells of the contact of an Antarien expedition with men of the superior Paleolithic, and what occurred some millennia later.
One of the classics is "A Story of the Stone Age," by Wells, in our opinion the only story written in English that can compare to "La Guerre du Feu." Two Acheuleans, a man and a woman, hunted by their tribe on the banks of the quaternary Thames, finally return victorious. Few reproaches to make from the scientific viewpoint. Wells, like Rosny, had a background that permitted him to understand science "from the inside".
Excellent also, in a more symbolic form, is "Before Adam," by Jack London. There also we are in the lower Paleolithic, in spite of the anachronism of the bow.
E. Rice Bourroughs has written often describing primitive humanity. Breathless adventure stories one reads at a sitting, but which have pretty much the same rapport with true Prehistory as Barsoom with the Mars of astronomers!
Chad Oliver's "The Mists of Dawn" tells of the odyssey of a teenager thrown, due to circumstances and a time machine, into the moment of the passage of the middle Paleolithic to the superior Paleolithic. Although the author is an anthropologist (in the American sense) and a good author of Science-Fiction, the book is, for us, disappointing.
This review is, evidently, not exhaustive! It only deals with works that we have in memory, or that we have been able to find. Soviet Science-Fiction seems to abound in works of this kind, but, alas (for us!) we don't read Russian! One science-fiction tale has been translated, where the heroes find, in an immense cave, men at the Paleolithic stage of civilization. It is V. Obroutchev's "Plutonia," but Prehistory only plays a secondary role in it.
As for the movies! We recall the extravagant "Tumok Son of the Jungle" (the title says it rightly, I believe) where Paleolithic eaters of raw meat first come up against dinosaurians, then against refined and smiling Neolithics! Throw it in the fire! What John Ford will have the courage to try "La Guerre du feu"? [n.b. Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Quest for Fire" 1981]
Well then, what of the Prehistory in all of this? It seems that an accessible clarification for the non-specialist is necessary, given the mistakes committed by excellent authors, which spoil otherwise remarkable stories and novels as much as would the affirmation that one can go by plane to Mars. I mentioned above "First on Mars", where the author assigns to humanity a fabulous antiquity. In his "Expedition to Earth", A. C. Clarke hardly did better when, after having clearly described a mesolithic civilization, at the latest at the end of the superior Paleolithic, he writes: "behind him the river flowed gently toward the sea, serpentine through the fertile plains on which, more than a thousand centuries later, descendants of Yaan would construct the great city that they would call Babylon." Supposing that Babylon dates to 3,000 years before our era, and as the end of the Paleolithic dates to at the most 8,000, we are far from the 100,000 years of Clarke! A pity, because the story is remarkable.
Firstly, it is today certain, if it ever could have been in doubt, that man didn't come from elsewhere, but surely evolved on our own planet.
Let us look quickly then at the history of prehistoric civilizations and human forms, to the extent that, in broad strokes, today's science can establish... [historical remainder of article not yet translated]