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),
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:
ARTICLES ON OTHERS ROBIDA WORKS:
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
||A review by Georges T. Dodds
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
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.