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The Twentieth Century
Albert Robida, translated by Philippe Willems, edited by Arthur B. Evans
Wesleyan University Press, 397 pages

Albert Robida
Born May 14 1848 in Compiègne, France, Albert Robida was the son of a carpenter. Destined for a career as a notary, but bored by his studies he began doing caricatures. He began his career as an illustrator-caricaturist in 1866 in the Journal Amusant, and contributed works to a number of other publications. In 1880, along with publisher Georges Decaux, he founded his own magazine La Caricature, which introduced a number of notable illustrators. He based a series of heavily illustrated travel guides entitled Vieilles Villes (Old Cities) on his extensive travels in Europe from 1875-1879. He also illustrated numerous literary (1001 Nights, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Swift) and popular history works.

In the field of imaginative literature, Robida's first contribution was the four part, lavishly (450 black and white and colour illustrations) illustrated, near 800 page Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde, et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de Monsieur Jules Verne (1879). Part I and a small portion of Part II were translated into English and saw publication in the New York-based humor magazine Puck [6(151)-7(163), Jan. 28 - April 21, 1880] under the title Hermesianax Pratt. His Variegated Adventures in all the Countries of the Globe, Including some Unknown to Jules Verne. Some have suggested that the first part of this work may have inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes.

Robida also contributed three illustrated novels of science fiction or romans d'anticipation: Le Vingtième Siècle (1883), La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle, (1887) and Le Vingtième Siècle - La Vie Électrique (1890). A very shy, reserved and straight-laced man, though with a biting wit, Robida died at his home in Neuilly, October 11, 1926.

Official Robida website
BOOK REVIEWS - COMMENTARY: The Twentieth Century: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


Philippe Willems
Philippe Willems is assistant professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL. His fascination for the visual dimension of nineteenth-century popular culture, issues of mimesis, and science fiction found a deep echo in the works of Albert Robida. His current research focuses on narrative processes combining word and image in nineteenth-century fiction.

Arthur B. Evans
Arthur B. Evans is professor of French at DePauw University and managing editor of the scholarly journal Science Fiction Studies. He has published widely on Jules Verne and early French science fiction, including the award-winning book Jules Verne Rediscovered. He is general editor of the Wesleyan University Early Classics of Science Fiction series.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Twentieth Century Albert Robida's The Twentieth Century, as pointed out by P. Willems in his lengthy and rather erudite introduction, and John Clute in his Excessive Candour column, is an important work of early science fiction. Important in that Robida, as possibly the first dedicated science fiction illustrator, gives us something part ways between a mere illustrated novel and a graphic novel, with illustrations that go far beyond depicting the mere text, adding visual information and details which expand one's view of the world he creates. At the time he wrote, Robida's work, while popular, was largely overshadowed by that of Jules Verne, who was roughly 20 years his senior. Indeed Robida's first novel length work of fiction, Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde, et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de Monsieur Jules Verne was largely a spoof of Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires series, with even an appearance by Capt. Nemo in the first part of the book. However, where Verne's romans d'anticipation were truly hard SF, with a sometimes didactic exposition of the science to back up the futuristic gadgetry, he showed little concern of their possible influence on society -- except perhaps in his posthumously published Paris in The Twentieth Century (1996). In contrast, Robida's prediction of 1952, as seen from 1882, completely ignores the physics and inner workings of the technology he presents (everything works through the miracle of electricity), focusing more on how society deals with the technology, and adding a great deal of satire and outright humor, generally absent from Verne's SF works (although Verne's non-SF title Kéraban le têtu is quite humorous).

In some ways Robida's view of the future is closer to our current reality than Verne's, perhaps because he extrapolates the natural evolution of the society of his time, rather than that of its technology. Some (Nicholls and Angenot) argue whether Robida's 1952 is just an extension of 1882's technology or true prescience. Certainly, underground compressed air-powered bullet trains are a direct expansion upon the poste pneumatique, a high speed compressed air driven mail distribution system inaugurated in Robida's lifetime. Similarly, personal dirigibles are clearly a product of their time, though he does have some bearing advertisements. However, Robida also projects full women's equality, media-friendly choreographed revolutions, flat-screen television (the téléphonoscope) with multi-channel cable TV, live telecasts from the front of distant wars, ultra-liberal prison reform, airborne restaurants and casinos, revisionist historical documentaries, and even ultra-condensed literature (see here for this very thing today).

As for the novel itself -- like any good utopia or distopia, don't expect any plot, just some characters serving as a vehicle to view the projected society. As such, The Twentieth Century is a guided tour to 1952, with the thin premise of a multi-millionaire's "dumb blonde" niece trying her hand as a defense attorney, a politician, journalist and financier as she tries to decide what sort of career to take up -- ultimately she gives just gives up and marries. So why bother reading The Twentieth Century? One because it is, for all the subtext Dr. Willems might read into it in his Introduction, a wonderfully light-hearted, whimsical, funny book, lampooning everything and everyone in sight -- it is even funnier when read in the original French. And secondly, for all that Robida was stodgy and straight-laced in his personal life, his illustrations (see 1, 2) are informed with all his ebullient Gallic wit and humor, and are worth the price of admission in of themselves. His fish-like dirigibles, while perhaps reminiscent of vehicles in some of Hieronymus Bosch's weirder paintings, are whimsical and goofy, and one just can't help but feel the whole thing is a grand farce. Certainly, Robida's first novel, ...Saturnin Farandoul... is one long screw-ball comedy-adventure, and one can certainly see some of this in The Twentieth Century.

This first English translation, which from a few comparative samplings of the French vs. English texts is very well done, includes illustrations from a number of the original French editions (though unfortunately none of the original colour illustrations), as well as some of Robida's other artwork. Philippe Willems' introduction, while well researched and clearly presented, stands at close to 60 pages. With section subtitles like Hermeneutic Heterogeneity and Postindustrial Positivism, along with 30 pages of endnotes and bibliography, such material might frighten off some, but be advised that the novel itself is much more Monty Python than Woody Allen.

Copyright © 2005 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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