Futuristic fictions and power relations through the globe

Some remarks on the long history of imagined conflicts to come, against the backdrop of the emergence of a world technology-mediated interconnectedness – closing the future wars series

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.”[1]

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.


Notes

[1]   Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 91.

Credits

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 Historiography22 (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.

See here all posts in the future-wars series

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Futuristic fictions and power relations through the globe," in Geographies of Time, 01/11/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1834.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

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.

See here all posts in the future-wars series

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

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license