Racial Fears and Techno-Apocalypses

A new post in the future wars series: yellow perils, bacteriological weapons, and futuristic inventions, before and after WWI

By 1908, the stereotypes and racialised representation of Asian populations used in Albert Robida’s feuilleton La guerre infernale – such as the demographic pressure and willingness to sacrifice millions of individuals (instalments 16, 24), the comparisons with insects such as ants (instalment 23, Les fourmis jaunes), the topoi of Oriental cruelty – were well established in popular Western yellow peril narratives and propaganda.[1]

In La guerre, bacteriological weapons are used to reduce their numbers (instalment 25, A nous le choléra!) but soon these weapons pollute the waters and affect the “whites” as well. Among yellow-perils coeval narratives, Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” ought to be mentioned for a similar idea of an annihilation of Chinese people operated – successfully in London’s case – by Western powers with bacteriological weaponry, after the realisation of China’s potential for world domination thanks to its demographic strength. Written around 1907 and first published in 1910, London’s short story is mainly set in 1976, and it is framed as written retrospectively from a yet even more distant future. According to John Swift “The Unparalleled Invasion” “clearly gives expression to an uneasy premonition, in London, in his culture, or in both, of the precariousness of white racial supremacy; but, more interestingly, it pays homage in language and plot to an emergent science and scientism that made racial anxieties simultaneously more frightening and more manageable.”[2] The parallel might help today’s reader to better grasp the significance of the yellow peril theme at the time, and to see how a grotesque exaggeration and satirical elements are exploited by Giffard and Robida’s in expressing in words and images racial fears.

The fear of an overwhelming wave is aptly represented by the image of an artificial hill made by soldier with their bodies, which the Chinese army erects on its march towards Moscow so that the officers can get a better view of their surroundings (instalment 28, Les Chinois à Moscou). The scene is described with horror by the narrator, who is following the Chinese army as a prisoner with other Westerners. In Moscow, horrible tortures and painful deaths await them, drawing on the topos of Oriental cruelty, not unprecedented in Robida’s work, nor isolated in popular French and Western publications, where, by the end of the 1880s, Chinese torture had become a fairly common topic in  public discourse, thanks not only to the interest in Chinese society and culture created by developments in East-West political and cultural relations such as the opening of a Chinese embassy in London in 1877 and the Chinese section at the 1878 Paris International Exhibition, but also to the proliferation of specific tropes in popular literature[3] (instalments 28 and 29, Dans l’avenue des supplices).

Albert Robida, illustration for La Guerre infernale by Pierre Giffard (Paris: Èdition Méricant, 1908), published in issue 28, “Les Chinese à Moscou”, 895. A Chinese army with prisoners in cangues advances towards Moscow; text reference: “Ce fut dans cet équipage que nous entrâmes à Moscou”. On this image see also Giulia Iannuzzi, “The Cruel Imagination: Oriental Tortures from a Future Past in Albert Robida’s Illustrations for La Guerre infernale (1908)”, 2017, external link to full open access version.

Throughout the novel, nature is bent and shaped by technology: tunnels of gigantic proportions are excavated both by the Germans when they attack France, and in England where the Tube is re-purposed as a bomb shelter, transferring the entire capital underground (instalments 8 and 9).[4] The famous London fog is cleared with specially developed acetylene guns (instalment 10). To ward off Japanese battleships, the Americans create a cage of fire on the water using a system of oil pipes off the coast of Florida. Thanks to the genius of an inventor by the name of Erikson, the US Department of Power and Electricity manages to jam the Japanese compasses, and to freeze the water by suddenly removing the oxygen from it. Thousands of Japanese corpses are burnt, poisoning the air with a terrible stench. Similarly, by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and by electrifying the soil, thousands of casualties are caused on land, in a terrible exercise of “scientific massacre” (La tuerie scientifique, instalment 17).

La guerre infernale, as the precedent La guerre au vingtième siècle, with its rutilant imagination, and its narrative frame ultimately neutralising tragedy and destruction as part of a dream from which the protagonists wakes in the last pages, testifies Robida as – in I. F. Clarke’s words –

one of the very few … who found it possible to be funny about ‘the next great war.’ [5]

It is worth noting that the experience of the First World War will radically change his approach. Immediately after the conflict, Robida published a short illustrated in-folio album – Le Vautour de Prusse – and a 302-pages novel – L’Ingénieur Von Satanas – developing the same anti-Prussian reflections, and revisiting the war theme with a more pronounced anti-militarist spirit.[6] L’Ingénieur’s second prologue, taking place in the fictional “Peace Palace” in La Hague where a pacifist international conference is inaugurating the palace, in 1909, seems to suggest a direct reprise of La guerre, followed by its pessimistic fulfilment. Scientists, politicians, philosophers, and millionaires from all around the world are championing a pacific progress and greeting the beginning of a new global golden age, brought about by techno-scientific progress. But scientific marvels become means of mass destruction in the hand of the greedy Prussians, corrupted by the evil engineer Von Satanas, a diabolical figure recurring through the ages, that might as well be seen as the embodiment of human nature’s dark side and inclination towards violence and conflict. In 1929, Europe and the whole world have become home to a new prehistoric and barbaric civilisation, a post-apocalyptic land, with survivors living underground. Endless irregular lines of trenches, bomb craters, burrows and tunnels disfigure the Earth surface and render the similar to the Moon’s.

Without losing the adventurous edge that characterised La guerre as well as other Robida’s earlier works, L’Ingénieur offers a rather more pessimistic and sinister take not so much on science per se – which is presented as the key to a possible future of harmony and prosperity – but on the human ability to put differences aside and resist belligerent instincts.

The next post in the future wars series will summarise some conclusions about Robida’s work and war imagery as a laboratory for a global and futuristic mind set.

Albert Robida, L’ingénieur von Satanas: roman (Paris: 1919). Copy at Bibliothèque nationale de France via Gallica. “Le gas! le gas! – crient-ils”.

Notes

[1]  Thoralf Klein, “The ‘Yellow Peril’,” EGO – European History Online, external link; John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds., Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (London: Verso, 2014); John W. Dower, “Yellow Promise / Yellow Peril: Foreign Postcards of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05),” MIT Visualizing Cultures, 2008, see especially section ‘Yellow Peril’, external link. See also Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[2]  John N. Swift, “Jack London’s ‘The Unparalleled Invasion:’ Germ Warfare, Eugenics, and Cultural Hygiene,” American Literary Realism 35, no. 1 (2002): 59-71, qt. 60; see here 67 for remarks on the narration’s grotesque detachment, elements of a dark Swiftean approach, and an ironic distance between London and his narrator. On London, the Russo-Japanese war, and yellow peril fears see also Daniel A. Métraux, “Jack London: The Adventurer-Writer who Chronicled Asian Wars, Confronted Racism-and Saw the Future,” The Asia-Pacific Journal  8, no. 4.3 (2010): 1-10.

[3]  André Lange, “Le rire et l’effroi. Supplices et massacres orientaux dans l’oeuvre d’Albert Robida”, in Le Supplice Oriental dans la littérature et les arts, ed. Antonio Dominguez Leiva and Muriel Detrie (Neuilly-lès-Dijon: Editions du Murmure, 2005), 135-169 ; Jérôme Bourgon, “Les scènes de supplices dans les aquarelles chinoises d’exportation”, 2005, Chinese Torture / Supplices Chinois, accessed January 21, 2020, external link.

[4]  On the precedent of the tube in La vie electrique see also Dominique Lacaze, “Albert Robida, Explorer of the Twentieth Century,” part I, “Technical Innovation” and part II, “The Invention of a Society,” Futuribles 366 (2010): 61-70, and 367 (2010): 65-76, see I, 65.

[5]  I. F. Clarke, “Future-War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871-1900,” Science Fiction Studies, 24, no. 3 (November, 1997): 387-412, see 398.

[6]  Albert Robida, Le Vautour de Prusse (Paris: Georges Bertrand, 1918); Robida, L’Ingénieur Von Satanas (Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1919), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, identifier: ark:/12148/bpt6k14217576. A brief mention is in Philippe Willems, “A Stereoscopic Vision of the Future: Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century,” Science Fiction Studies 26, no. 3 (November 1999): 354-378, see 376-377, note 18.

Credits

This post is adapted from Iannuzzi, G. (2019). “The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come: Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the Long History of Imagined Warfare”, Cromohs – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography22, 95-136; par. “Techno-apocalypses”, pp. 122-124. DOI: 10.13128/cromohs-11706. Full text available in open access: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/11706.

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Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Racial Fears and Techno-Apocalypses," in Geographies of Time, 01/09/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1807.

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