by Bradford Lyau



238 pp/$55.00/October 2010

The Anticipation Novelists of 1950s French Science Fiction
Cover by Wood River Gallery

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

There is a tendency to look at science fiction as an American art form with brief acknowledgement of Britain’s contributions in the form of H.G. Wells and the New Wave of the 1960s. Occasionally a nod is made to non-Anglophonic science fiction, usually with the awareness that one of the founders of science fiction can be considered to be Jules Verne, a Frenchman. The Anticipation Novelists of 1950s French Science Fiction: Stepchildren of Voltaire, Bradford Lyau examines, and calls to an Anglophonic audience’s attention, the genre as it developed in post World War II France.

While Lyau acknowledges some debt held by the authors published by Anticipation, a French publishing house, to American and British science fiction, he also discusses their descent not only from Verne, but from other French authors, often in the mainstream, and notes that in addition to the short stories which formed the background for so many American tales, the French also drew upon the philosophical tales that grew from the writings of Voltaire.

Lyau contends that these French authors are as much a product of the philosophical tale as of the narrative story and focuses his attention on eleven authors whose work was published by Anticipation, specifically on their work that appeared between 1951 when Anticipation published its first science fiction title until the end of the decade, when it published its 148th title. Just as all the authors published by an American publisher, such as Tor or Ace will write different types of stories, the authors Lyau examines who wrote for Anticipation show a broad range of philosophies and styles. Even as Lyau divides them into moderates, extremists, conservatives, and radicals, he further subdivides their styles and themes within those categories and even within the individual authors’ oeuvres.

When introducing a topic, Lyau has an unfortunate habit to resort to lists, citing a lengthy selection of authors or stories without necessarily explaining who the individuals are or their importance outside the set about which he is writing. This seems to assume a familiarity with the names that might be acceptable if Lyau were listing names like Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Heinlein, but the offhand references to “Alain, Claudel, Colette, Gide, Giraudoux, Saint-Exupéry, and Valery,” seems unwarranted.

Another problem, which is not of Lyau’s making and, perhaps, Lyau’s work will help rectify, is that few of the authors he discusses in The Anticipation Novelists of 1950s French Science Fiction have been translated into English at any length. Lyau’s reader, therefore, is entirely reliant on the author for explanations of the plots, characters, and themes in the works of these authors. Lyau does an excellent job in relating the importance of the novels to the extent that the reader wants to track down the non-existent translations of the works and see the ideas offered up by F. Richard-Bessière (the most translated) or Jean-Gaston Vandel. However, there is likely not a large enough call for sixty-year-old foreign science fiction to make translation and publication a commercially viable venture.

Lyau’s study provides an excellent introduction to the French novels in the postbellum period, although the inability for readers to have easy access to the works Lyau is discussing is likely to limit the influence of his work. Lyau's work is a reminder that not only does science fiction exist (and thrive) outside the English speaking world, but it also has a breadth equal to English science fiction and draws from different traditions to make it a vibrant literature which could provide freshness for authors working in English. 

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