A lot of American science fiction fans tend to think that Hugo Gernsback invented sf when he started Amazing Stories in 1926, although of course Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are back there somewhere in the dim prehistory of the field. Actually, science-fictional ideas were very much in the air a century ago (in Russia, “mainstream” writers like Alexander Kuprin, Valerii Bryusov, and Alexei Tolstoi were writing about computerized cities, ecological catastrophe, and trips to outer space, and Kuprin even wrote a parody—in 1913!—of pulp sf, complete with mad scientist and super-weapons), and I was amused to come across a reflection of this in Proust’s The Captive. From pp. 259-60 of my edition:

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only really rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is…

And later on the same page, musing about music:

And, just as certain creatures are the last surviving testimony to a form of life which nature has discarded, I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been—if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened—the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language.

A nice break from gossip and genealogy!


  1. gossip and genealogy?

  2. Is there some sort of award given to someone who has read the whole thing? Or a club of such people?
    I bet they have a test for skipping. Just a few basic questions about some of the well known slow spots.

  3. I’d have to go look them up, but I think some of the descriptions of zeppelins attacking in Les temps retrouvé probably have some science fictional flavor to them.
    The award for reading the whole of Proust is that you get to go back and read the whole thing over again with increased enjoyment. And that is a sublime reward indeed.
    I didn’t read the whole thing at once, but over a period of about two years. Whether I would have done so had I not had a couple bouts of serious back trouble that kept me lying in bed for several weeks at a time I can’t say, but read it I did. Sure, there are difficult parts, but I only wish there were more.

  4. Proust as science fiction? But of course! After all, the whole thing is (and I’m not being facetious here) a time travel story …

  5. The point is not to read the whole thing but to understand that the book recreates a world. I’ve only read parts, but when I have a block of time, and I really want to be elsewhere, nothing works better. It would be *the* book to bring to a desert island.

  6. gossip and genealogy?
    That’s what large chunks of the dialogue consist of, often combined: “Oh, but the Countess of X bought her title, by rights she is only the Baroness Y! Her mother was a second cousin of…”

  7. Marcel was much more familiar with the members of the pre-WWI avant garde (most of whom adored science) than Remembrance might seem to indicate. Cocteau, whose film ideas and work, might easily suggest the above quotes, was his regular companion. Agostinelli loved flying aeroplanes and Marcel researched the engineering (and other) details when he considered buying one for him. This aspect of the author of the most famous novel of “gossip and genealogy” — some indications of which are sprinkled throughout the volumes — is not well known.
    This puts me in mind of another author whom I would never have suspected of having the least grasp of sf (science fiction / science future) until I’d read a remarkable passage from one of his poems, published in 1842:

    For I dipt into the future, far as the human eye could see,
    Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
    Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
    Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
    Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
    From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
    Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
    With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunderstorm;
    Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
    In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

    Airships carrying freight, mustard gas (“ghastly dew”), airforces (“airy navies”) and dog fights (“grappling in the central blue”), and the League of Nations (“the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world”). Nostradamus would be jealous, Orwell embarrassed. The connection between the poet and these lines is totally anti-intuitive.
    Any guesses?

  8. Guess (without using Google): Tennyson?

  9. If you define science fiction as writings about travels in outer space, science fiction in French is older than this passage in Proust. Take for example Cyrano de Bergerac’s (1619-1655) “Histoire comique des Estats et empires de la Lune” and “Histoire comique des Estats et empires du Soleil”.
    The genre even has precursors in Antiquity: e.g. Lucian of Samosata’s “True Story”.

  10. “Locksley Hall” is well known to me (it was actually written in 1835, making it even more prescient); of course (proto-)sf goes way back, and modern sf considerably predates Proust, but I was struck (and amused) by his use of such ideas.

  11. Oh, and excellent guess, JCass!

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