Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The literary genre of science fiction is generally thought to have emerged in the second half of the 19th century, with authors such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It was later popularized by movies and comics. Energy is often a major issue in science fiction because of the many extraordinary situations and sophisticated machines featured in the stories. Even just to travel through space requires a source of energy that is supremely powerful and virtually limitless. Science-fiction novelists, comic-book authors and filmmakers have a wide range of possibilities to choose from. This article discusses these options, using different works as references.
Our starting point is the two best-known novels by René Barjavel (1911-1985), considered to be one of the fathers of science fiction in France. A journalist, publisher, dialogue writer and novelist, Barjavel was extremely popular in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Several interviews in which he expresses concern about the development of civilization can be found on the website of the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA). His first works were referred to as “extraordinary tales.” Like many science-fiction writers, Barjavel was a moralist who used fantastical stories to get his readers to think about the world and its future, technology and its regulation and the destiny of humankind. He was also a man of his times who expressed his generation’s fears and anxieties, with novels like Ashes, Ashes (French title: Ravage), which deals with the consequences of a shortage of essential energy, and The Ice People (French title: La nuit des temps), which explores the potential annihilation of humanity. Although science fiction tends to be pessimistic (particularly literature, less so film), it tries to alert contemporary readers to a certain number of potential risks before it is too late.
Ashes, Ashes (1943): The Electric Apocalypse
Barjavel’s first successful novel, Ashes, Ashes, was written during World War II and published serially in the collaborationist newspaper Je suis partout. The story takes place in 2052. The world has turned its back on the most impressive technological inventions and “abandoned the atomic age,” opting for propeller planes instead of nuclear-powered vehicles. At the same time, it is possible to take the suspension railway all the way from Nantes to Vladivostok. At the beginning of the book, a newspaper quotes a leading professor who explains why electrical problems occurred in late December 2051 and early January 2052. A voltage drop was felt across the entire globe for a period of ten minutes. The disturbance appears to have been caused by an atomThe basic unit of matter and the smallest, indivisible unit of a chemical element... imbalance, induced by sunspots, which were also responsible for a sharp rise in temperature.
But the worst has yet to come. All of a sudden, “the television, the ceiling lights, everything, goes black at the same time.” Cars, powered by electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor..., come to a standstill. Paris is plunged into darkness and deafening silence. Telephone lines go dead, streets are pitch black, elevators get stuck. Panic begins to set in, and people everywhere start to scream: “What’s going on?” Several planes crash into the city. Fires break out in the subway. Candles and lighters are the only source of light in Paris, and the risk of fire increases. People try to walk down the stairs but cannot see where they are going. Attacks multiply, due to the absence of law enforcement. Fear of the unknown creates anxiety and stress: “They waited for light or death.” Everyone tries to flee the city, which has turned into a trapA volume of “sealed” rock whose configuration or type prevents the oil and gas trapped in the reservoir....
The government tries to organize meetings. The council of ministers asks: “Who cut our electricity?” Is it a natural, scientific phenomenon or a “non-scientific, irrational nightmare”? One catastrophe leads to another. Train control systems no longer work. The information vacuum spawns rumors of an enemy invasion. The defense minister reports the mysterious explosion of weapons, and the finance minister can no longer access the central bank’s gold reserves because the electric doors are blocked.
Dead relatives, which in this society are optimally preserved at home, begin to decompose, owing to the lack of electricity. Then, water becomes scarce as electric pumps fail. People try to get away, but they are not used to walking or climbing stairs. Distances are too great. As a result, owning one of the rare horses becomes a critical advantage. Desperate and terrified, the bewildered population slides toward oblivion. Once a model of order, society succumbs to the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest. Paris is eventually engulfed by flames, violence, chaos and epidemics, as the small reserve of remaining water becomes contaminated. A handful of survivors, led by a man called François, manages to leave the city against the odds. Haltingly, they make their way south, where they intend to set up a new community. But will they be able to escape technology and progress?
The theme of blackouts had a certain resonance in 1943, when energy shortages occurred during the Occupation. But apart from making a nod to contemporary events, Barjavel is issuing a harsh warning: we are totally dependent on technology and completely incapable of coping without it, should for some reason we be deprived of it. The electrical failure is not a mere 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... outage. It is a complete breakdown of values, due to a devastating chain of events that unfolds over the course of a few days. Because humans are subservient to technology, they are incapable of adapting to extraordinary circumstances, unless they happen to be like François or one of the other exceptional members of his group. The return to nature and patriarchal values is a theme that is consistent with the spirit of the times (the book was written in 1942), but Ashes, Ashes can also be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the risk of technology spiraling out of control and destroying society. The story takes place in 2052, more than a century after it was written, so it can be viewed as a final warning.
The Ice People (1968): Universal Energy and Zoran’s Equation
The Ice People is one of René Barjavel’s most successful works. A year after it was published, it received the Prix des Libraires award. Together with Ashes, Ashes, it is one of the author’s most famous novels. It was initially written as a script for filmmaker André Cayatte, but when the movie failed to materialize, Barjavel turned it into a novel.
The story begins in Antarctica, when a French and later international expedition discovers an extremely ancient civilization that lived 900,000 years ago. A man and a woman are found asleep in a sphere. After she is awakened, the woman, named Elea, tells the story of her past and reveals the existence of a highly advanced civilization. In her time, there were two rival empires, Gondawa and Enisorai. The former used Zoran’s equation for proliferation, while the latter chose equilibrium. But war decimated the population. Before everything was destroyed, however, it was decided that one man and one woman would be preserved for eternity: Elea and the man sleeping beside her in the sphere.
In this story, told in reverse chronology, the approach to energy adopted by the ancient civilization is both original and mysterious. Energy is first mentioned in relation to a strange machine that produced food from nothing. When asked from what source the machine made the food, Elea replies: “With The All.” After some hesitation, the translation machine renders this as universal energy, universal essence or universal life, the first term being the most accurate. To explain how this concept works, Elea mentions Zoran’s equation, which she then proceeds to draw:
Afterwards she says: “There are two ways to read it. It can be read using everyday words and it can be read using universal mathematical terms.
-Can you read it?
-I can read it with everyday words. It says: ‘what doesn’t exist exists.’
-And the other way?
-I don’t know.”
Zoran is the name of the man who long before found the “the key to the universal field,” “the key to the universe, the key to good and evil and the key to life and death.” Scientists from around the world hope that the man lying in the sphere next to Elea is Coban, an eminent scholar who, once revived, will be able to explain the equation so “universal energy can be used to make clothes for the naked and food for the hungry.” That way it will no longer be necessary to fight over raw materials. Zoran’s equation is the emblem of the past civilizations. It is featured in the name of a university and emblazoned on high-speed aircraft and a lab director’s coat, either in red or white.
The man next to Elea turns out not to be Coban, the only one with knowledge of the universal formula, but Paikan, Elea’s great love, who is incapable of explaining the equation. However, the explorers find a wall with engravings that could shed light on the mathematical formula. The equation is extremely complicated, and “even researchers at the [French National Center for Scientific Research] CNRS can’t figure it out.” In the interest of world peace, scientists recommend that the texts on Zoran’s equation be widely circulated. The formula will thus belong to everyone, not to an exclusive few. The Zoran treatise is translated into 17 languages... but we are not going to give away the ending!
As well as being a love story with overtones of Romeo and Juliette, The Ice People contains several underlying messages at an age when nuclear power, information technology and space exploration were all blazing new paths of progress. The novel also bears the stamp of the Cold War, with the conflict between Gondawa and Enisorai echoing that of the United States and the Soviet Union. In both cases, each side possesses ultimate power, be it the atomic bomb or Zoran’s equation. In addition to alluding to the balance of terror, the book shows that an ancient civilization could achieve a level of development superior to our own – proof that history is not necessarily linear.
Because it provides understanding and wisdom, Zoran’s equation – not machines and technology – is the only source of absolute knowledge. The Zoran symbol evokes the concept of yin and yang, two opposite yet complimentary forces that govern the universe. It also draws parallels to Taoism, a religious and philosophical system that shuns technology. While Zoran’s equation is a deep source of knowledge, it also carries the seeds of destruction as the ancient civilizations end up destroying themselves. The two ways of reading the equation, mentioned by Elea, constitute a mystery. Everyone can read it, but only a few can grasp it. Like Albert Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2, it is easy to read, but difficult to understand and comprehend. Nevertheless, the equation is the road to enormous power. Past civilizations may have discovered a universal formula in the form of Zoran’s equation, but they used it to pursue destructive goals rather than peace. Modern society has done the same with gun powder, dynamite and the atomic bomb. In this respect, René Barjavel the moralist would agree with Rabelais: “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.”