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Astrobiology's Cultural Influence
 Spotlight on France

French Tales of Infinity
The fantastic fiction of the French astronomer, Camille Flammarion.
Prof Mark Brake and Rev Neil Hook

The Dreadful Hammers of Jules Verne
Geology was born on the excavations of the industrial revolution and Verne was one of its first champions.
Prof Mark Brake and Rev Neil Hook

Life of a Comet Hunter: Messier and Astrobiology
He revolutionised the observation of galaxies, but what did Messier make of the alien life debate?
Prof Mark Brake and Martin Griffiths

Summary: In last December's issue of Astrobiology Magazine European Edition, we looked at the great influence of English science fiction writer, HG Wells, on the way in which we thought of evolution and alien life in the twentieth century. Here, we continue the story by looking at the fiction of the prolific French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, in the context of late nineteenth century fantastic literature.

French Tales of Infinity

HG Wells' The War of the Worlds was a great and immediate success, though it was considered by one bourgeois commentator in the British Daily News to be so brutal that it "caused insufferable distress to the feelings" .   These doubts apart, however, the impact and influence of Wells' work cannot be overestimated.   Inspiration of many imitations, The War of the Worlds signals the origin of the contemporary nexus of the alien in fiction, armed with its potential for questioning evolution and its potent currency in the public imagination.   And yet Wells' was not the only commanding voice.

In both science and fiction, the alien infused the work of Camille Flammarion , infecting the intellectual life and popular culture of France. Flammarion's notable calling as a science communicator began when he was a mere twenty years of age.   La Pluralité des Mondes Habitées ( The Plurality of Habitable Worlds , 1862) was a very successful study of the habitability of the planets of the solar system, going through thirty-six editions by 1892, and translated into at least six and possibly as many as fifteen languages.

The enigmatic " Flammarion Woodcut" originates with Flammarion's 1888 L'atmosphère : météorologie populaire

Life in the Universe

Many of Flammarion's projects proved to be enduring.   He founded the Societé Astronomique de France, and a Flammarion publishing firm, both of which still exist, and constructed a telescope, twenty miles south of Paris at the Juvisy-sur-Orge estate gifted to Flammarion by an admirer of his work, which is still operational.   Flammarion's second book was a speculative mélange of science and fiction, Les Mondes Imaginaires et Les Mondes Réels ( Real and Imaginary Worlds , 1864).   The book was a thorough history and critical survey of explorations in extraterrestrial life both in philosophy and in the cosmic voyage genre.   In its pages Flammarion admits the inspiration of Kepler, Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac and Jonathan Swift in literary speculations on the habitability of planets, and even stars.

Flammarion , like Wells, was possessed by an ardent passion to communicate science to the mass of ordinary people, experimenting with various narrative devices to further his cause.   It was only a matter of time before his speculations spilled over into science fiction.   And in so doing, Flammarion paved the way, more than any other nineteenth century writer, for the public acceptance of the cosmic context of modern science.   His 1872 Recits de L'Infini , translated as Stories of Infinity in 1873, included three fascinating and wonderfully imaginative tales of other worlds.   In Infinity , The History of a Comet , and particularly Lumen , tell of a disembodied travelling spirit, which observes the potential range of wondrously exotic life in the universe.  

Lumen is a testament to the way in which an unbridled science-fictional imagination can support the science of thought-experimentation.   Written before the literary style of science fiction had been perfected by the likes of Verne and Wells, Lumen is based on the dialogic style of science communication, particularly Humphry Davy's Consolations in Travel; or, The last Days of a Philosopher (1830) and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes ( Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, 1686).   In Lumen , Flammarion was the first author to thoroughly apply the theory of evolution, albeit Lamarckian, to the creation of truly alien life forms, thereby laying one of the fundamental keystones to twentieth century science fiction:

"We have grown so used to the idea of alien beings since HG Wells found a melodramatic role for them to play in The War of the Worlds that it is hard to imagine a time when the idea was new and wonderfully exotic" .

Kepler may deserve credit for inventing the alien in Somnium , but Flammarion was the first writer to "extrapolate that notion to its hypothetical limit" and to "fill that range with examples by the dozen" .   Wells' masterstroke was to reflect the inhumanity of the alien back on humanity itself, "To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brains and hands . at the expense of the rest of the body" .   In the immediate future it was the Wellsian image of the alien as monstrous that would prevail.   Only later did the Flammarionesque idea of alien life as a precious fifth element reappear.


Not content with creating an otherwise benign alien in Lumen , Flammarion goes on to hint at spacetime.   Thirty years before Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, Lumen was the earliest science fiction novel to proffer the principle that time and space are not absolute.   They exist, Flammarion suggests, only relative to one another.   The author goes on to picture the changes in observation that may result from travelling at velocities close to, and beyond, the speed of light, considering that faster than light travel would render history in reverse.   Indeed, Flammarion's very notion of space as a seething sea of 'undulations', replete with latent and pent-up energies, is equally inspired.

It was in the nineteenth century that time travel first materialised.   Not only in Lumen , but also in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno (1889), where the hands of a professor's Outlandish Watch can be moved backwards, enabling the holder of the watch to move back in time too.   But Wells merits his accolade as the supreme pioneer of travel in time. His 1888 story, The Chronic Argonauts , is an exciting foretaste to The Time Machine in which the jauntily named Dr Moses Nebogipfel journeys from 1887 to 1862 where he kills someone in self-defence and returns in time.   Dr Nebogipfel speaks of "a geometry of four dimensions - length, breadth, thickness, and duration" as the basis for time travel, heralding the Time Traveller's hypothesis in The Time Machine , "There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it" .

It is this Wellsian notion of time as the fourth dimension that we find in Einstein's sky.   It is the fabric of a universe of effortlessly wheeling galaxies in gently curving spacetime.   And it is into this bible-black sky that science fiction now plunged, trading the Wellsian terror of the void for a Vernian contemplation of the freedom of infinite spacetime.   "All philosophy," Fontenelle had written, "is based on only two things: curiosity and poor eyesight; if you had better eyesight you could see perfectly well whether or not these stars are solar systems" .   In the twentieth century, curiosity and the outward urge of Verne and Flammarion took science fiction to infinity, and beyond.

Professor Mark Brake and Reverend Neil Hook