La guerre infernale’s case study, explored in this series on future wars which comes to an end with this post, can today foster a better understanding of how the representation of the future begun to work as a pliable setting for speculative narratives, and how related genres emerged and found success in early-contemporary European cultural consumption.
This 1908 feuilleton invites today’s reader to mind a plurality of levels, exploiting critical tools at the intersection of different scholarly traditions, so that it might in turn be used to provide concrete evidence of phenomena involving complex historical traditions and communicative circuits. In other words, what one might call a global microhistory of Giffard and Robida’s fiction locates its object against the backdrop of a long history of ideas, as an apt expression of the emergence of a world technology-mediated interconnectedness in its specific early-contemporary European historical and cultural context, and as a unique embodiment of its author(s) ideas.
Speculations about the future between the late-modern and the-early contemporary periods – from Guttin’s Epigone to Macaria, from Madden to Mercier and Condorcet – represent through fiction the deep changes that affected ideas of time in the European mind in the age of colonial expansion. Knowledge from remote parts of the globe and close encounters with other societies generated an information flow towards the centres of imperial powers, which fed new attempts at comprehend and systematise the varieties of the human life. Literature and illustration exploited – and some time, in the hands of authors such as H. G. Wells, called into question – the consolidation of history as progress. A consequent hierarchisation of human experiences, from the mid-nineteenth century on, informed the juxtaposition of spatially and temporally distant civilisations in complex cultural artefacts such as international exhibitions and fairs.
Futuristic fictions interpreted the increasingly central role that science and technology had in shaping everyday life, and, on a different scale, power relations through the globe. Literary and visual cultural products to be found in popular magazines and illustrated book collections, such as Robida’s works, shared the thematization of the future and the imaginative use of techno-science as wonder to be found in international expos especially from the 1880s on.
Satirizing the present, extrapolating possible consequences from coeval inventions and trends, offering a device to produce awe – or horror – in its readers, and putting techno-science at center stage in its narrative invention, Robida’s tomorrow is today all the more fascinating as it epitomizes a phase in the cultural history of the future in which the deep structures that informed the conceptualisation of historical time underpinned new forms of mass cultural consumption. In so doing, Robida’s imagination shows at work the genre’s distinct treatment of causal mechanisms in time: “These projections … playfully represent the colonisation of the future by the present, through the forceful extension of contemporary trends, and, at the same time, the returning feedback – colonisation of the present by the future, the reified anticipations, anxieties, and projects of our technoscientific problem-solving.”
Between the seventeenth and the early nineteenth century, a long history of future-conflicts scenarios used to argue political options and to reflect on a secularised history, in which society might be shaped by human action. These works are precedent to the codification of future wars as a speculative fiction sub-genre with a recognisable set of conventions, appealing to a specific horizon of expectations. Technology as means of world interconnectedness as well as spectacle and source of wonder, anxieties fuelled by tensions between European powers and by the emergence of non-Western actors provided fertile ground to the fortunes of future-war narratives during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. Imagined conflicts to come put into focus the critical relations between technology and globalisation and between technology and power relations that characterised a mature phase of European imperialistic expansion.
In La guerre infernale’s representation of future warfare and its effect on society, an imagination that extrapolates from the compression of a global space-time through technology is at work, drawing on exhibitionary mechanisms made popular by those international expos with which Albert Robida was familiar, such as Paris 1981, 1989, and 1900. Robida’s case illustrates how shared mechanism between fiction and expos might be interpreted in light of an isomorphism derived from the existence of a common matrix – a shared set of roots in the same cultural-historical context – as well as of a complex set of mutual influences, including the adoption of the same science-fictional mechanisms by the creative agencies involved.
Like other future-war narratives, La guerre projected fears of a techno-scientific driven modernity applied to armed conflicts. After 1918, war experienced in the heart of Europe will favour the pessimistic shift represented by L’Ingénieur Von Satanas. Yet, already before 1915, many recent experiences outside the European space (from Southern Africa with the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars, to Manchuria with the Russo-Japanese War, from French Indochina with the Franco-Siamese War to China with the Boxer rebellion) gave an immediate evidence to fears that took centre stage in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century European mass media. Giffard and Robida’s feuilleton, with its serialised formula, exploitation of sensational plot elements, and ability to tap into widespread anxieties, was again an excellent example of that in many ways.
 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 91.
This post is adapted from Giulia Iannuzzi, “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 Historiography, 22 (2019): 95-136; par. “Techno-apocalypses”, pp. 124-126. 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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