Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
A theme in certain works of literature from all over the world is that of energy sources being hidden or disappearing in mysterious circumstances. This opens the door to a whole host of possibilities which can quickly turn into a nightmarish dystopia (as opposed to a utopia, the hope for a bright future). The principle goes that people will always try to access hidden energy – sometimes at the risk of tearing the social fabric and shattering the techniques of the time. Or, on the other hand, could the use of outdated energy resources have led to a completely different world to the one we now know? After all, civilizations are largely shaped by the energy they use. Writers have been exploring these ideas since the mid-19th century.
The coming race
Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) was a prominent British politician under Queen Victoria. He was also a writer, best known for The Last Days of Pompeii, which has been adapted to cinema several times. Bulwer-Lytton was also the author of The Coming Race, a novel with nods to science fiction, morality, Jules Verne and Gulliver’s Travels. The work became surprisingly famous some time after publication.
The Coming Race’s American protagonist discovers a chasm which, although it extends deep down into the earth, is somehow illuminated with gas lamps. He follows the shaft and comes across strange animals, homes and a civilization with – literally – superhuman powers. His hosts begin to tell him about vril, which is central to the story: “Therewith Zee began to enter into an explanation of which I understood very little, for there is no word in any language I know which is an exact synonym for vril. I should call it electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... , except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, etc. These people consider that in vril they have arrived at the unity in natural energetic agencies [...]”. This energy seems to be the key to everything, an ultimate powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... and explanation for all things: “These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of vril [...] they can influence the variations of temperature – in plain words, the weather; that by operations [...] applied scientifically, through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics. To all such agencies they give the common name of vril.”
Vril has brought these populations strength, healing and light, but also peace: “As these effects became familiarly known and skillfully administered, war between the vril-discoverers ceased, for they brought the art of destruction to such perfection as to annul all superiority in numbers, discipline, or military skill. The fire lodged in the hollow of a rod directed by the hand of a child could shatter the strongest fortress, or cleave its burning way from the van to the rear of an embattled host. [...] The age of war was therefore gone, but with the cessation of war other effects bearing upon the social state soon became apparent. Man was so completely at the mercy of man, each whom he encountered being able, if so willing, to slay him on the instant, that all notions of government by force gradually vanished from political systems and forms of law.”
The sharing of vril becomes synonymous with civilization, a source of life and intelligence, cures for illnesses (through vril baths, in the same vein as the electric baths of the 19th century), and more. Indeed, this knowledgeable, happy and super-powerful society is the coming race referred to in the title. The mysterious vril has sparked imaginations since the mid-1900s, when some people thought that it really did exist somewhere or even that certain pioneers or sects had already unlocked its secret. A handful of esoteric groups continue to believe in vril today, with theories as sensational as they are unlikely.
April and the Extraordinary World is a 2015 animated film co-directed by Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares. Widely acclaimed by critics – it won Best Feature Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival – the French-Belgian-Canadian production was shown in movie theaters as well as on television. In the film, a number of different energy sources have been deliberately concealed, transforming the course of history.
The feature-length animation in the style of French comic-book artist Jacques Tardi is set in an alternative past, where Napoleon III died before the Franco-Prussian War could take place, meaning that France and Germany remain at peace. However, the great scientists of the second half of the 19th century begin to mysteriously disappear one by one, with the result that Europe continues to rely on coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... and steam for energy. Inevitably, the world does not discover the likes of electricity or oil, nor aviation, organic chemistry, radio or any of the other inventions from the Second Industrial Revolution. The atmosphere is gray and polluted, causing everyone to cough. Since sunshine is a rarity, tomatoes have become a luxury (in contrast to endives). The sky is full of smoke and locomotives are all run on steam – meaning that foreign cities are connected to Paris by cables (using two Eiffel Towers, side by side), with limited success. It’s unsettling, nightmarish, and distinctly dystopian. The film also raises questions about the role of scientists, the importance of energy in society, and what would happen in a world without progress; because, since the 19th century, electricity has given us more than light. The many possibilities of this new energy ushered in a new civilization. However, in works such as this set in an alternative past, history always seems to find a way to resume its course (as we know it), one way or another. In April and the Extraordinary World, some scientists, two young children, a chatty cat named Darwin, and a few reptiles change the fate of this gloomy, coal-centered society. But their bid to resume progress is not without its twists and turns!
In a number of adventure stories set in the future (as opposed to both The Coming Race and April and the Extraordinary World, which take place in the present or recent past), the plots center around the search for a mineral, usually buried or hidden, with special properties that everyone wants and is fighting over. Unsurprisingly, the names of these extraordinary elements are often reminiscent of uraniumGray, very dense radioactive metal that is relatively abundant in the Earth's crust and oceans in the form of UO2... or radiumDiscovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898... , whose astonishing characteristics have been marveled over for over a century. Again, the fantastical narratives focus on the hunt for a near-limitless energy with powers as yet unknown. Examples of such stories are not hard to find, since the premise lends itself relatively easily to thrillers. James Cameron’s famous 2009 film Avatar is all about the aptly named unobtanium. When humans arrive on the moon Pandora, they discover a mineral that has never been seen before in the solar system – unobtanium – which is the key to solving the energy crisis threatening Earth (one of many examples where science fiction makes reference to topical affairs). All those involved in the project are employed by the RDA, a military consortiumA consortium is an association of individuals, companies, organizations, governments ... that mines resources in outer space. Since the largest depositAn accumulation of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, metal ore or another commodity... is located under the roots of a gigantic tree inhabited by a Na’vi clan called the Omaticaya, a group of humans decide to create Avatar, a diplomatic program designed to win the trust of the Na’vi and persuade the Omaticaya to leave their home so that the unobtanium can be mined. But the invaders’ scheme doesn’t quite go to plan. The film’s message is that we need to protect nature without sacrificing it to our industrial needs. In another American movie, Total Recall (first version released in 1990, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), Mars has beel colonized and extraction of its underground turbinium resources is underway. The planet is under the tyrannical rule of Vilos Cohaagen, who controls the mines and oxygen supply. The lesser known, less commercially successful movie The Core (Jon Amiel, 2003) runs on a similar theme. One sequence shows character Dr. Brazzleton’s work on a vessel with an outer shell made of a highly resistant tungsten/titanium alloy that can travel underground and withstand heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... and pressure, which it turns into energy. This material is called “unobtainium” and, as with Avatar’s similar sounding “unobtanium”, is a play on words hinting at the unlikelihood of such astounding properties.
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The films and literary works referred to above:
Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a highly successful author in the 19th century, but his notoriety has since faded. Several of his novels, including The Coming Race, can easily be found for free online. French readers can learn more about the context surrounding the work by referring to Histoire de la littérature anglaise, Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.
April and the Extraordinary World is an animated film in the style of Jacques Tardi. It can be viewed legally online. Critical responses (mostly glowing) from the time of release are also of interest.
Avatar, Total Recall and The Core are recent films that are widely available. Energy plays an important role but is not always central to the plot. Some are adaptations of novels or short stories (for example, Total Recall is based on Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale), which is also worth a read.