Imagine a world bathed in the light of five suns, where shrubs fly like birds and nuts swing from trees like pendulums. In the nineteenth century the French surgeon Charlemagne Ischir Defontenay did just that. Using the conceit of a fictional collection of alien documents found in the Himalayas, Defontenay traces an intricate history of a distant solar system across millenia, through the rise of nations, the development of space-faring technology, first contact between exotic worlds and the final blossoming of a wonderful alien civilization. Readers will delight at the inclusion of examples from this foreign culture, such as play extracts, prose poems and even myths.
The 1854 French original was titled Star ou Psi de Cassiopee: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace. Google translates this to Star or Psi Cassiopee : a History of the Wonderful Worlds of Space. I read the 1975 Daw edition, which changed the title to STAR (Cassiopeia). A shout and a whisper of a title, but an understandable decision as the main planet of the book is referred to by its inhabitants as Star. I should also mention that the Daw edition was translated by P. J. Sokolowski, who did a great job from what I can see.
If I were pitching this to a sci-fi fan, I’d describe it as somewhere between Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men. Star is a verdant world that would be capable of assimilating a hobbit or two, and the Starian’s obsession with beauty is downright Elvish at times. They also fly through space in these spheres called abares, which Defontenay describes as being stocked with supplies like food and air, and encounter imaginatively bizarre humanoids. My favourite are the near-invulnerable inhabitants of the gloomy globe of Rudar, who fear only the lethal floating orbs they call death. The totally transparent world of Elier was another memorable moment. All this wonder, along with Star‘s long timescale, make the novel a worthy predecessor to Stapledon and to a lesser extent Tolkien.
Star‘s biggest flaw is racism. You see this on the cover, the slim blonde woman being served by the blue slumping figure. This figure represents the repleus, the humanoid species enslaved by the Starians. Only Defontenay doesn’t use terms like enslave, he uses terms like domesticate. An extinction event gives the repleus an opportunity to build their own civilization, a culture described by the author only in the most insulting and animalistic of terms. Every time a repleu appears Star reads like Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. I’m not entirely sure what France was doing in 1854, I’m guessing they had colonies in northern Africa and south east Asia, but no amount of historical context could make Defontenay’s glowing praise for the enslavement of an intelligent species palatable for the modern reader. As I see it, the only way in which Star‘s racism could be redeemed would be if a modern sequel contested that the fictional documents mentioned by Defontenay were written by the Starian version of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not sure if it would be worth it.
I recommend Star if you like stories about told on a massive timescale renders individuals almost invisible and turns cultures into characters. If you like reading about cool things that can only happen in prose, this might be for you I’d also only recommend it if you’re willing to overlook a lot of racism.
I’m interested in reading more old texts that use modern science fiction tropes. Lucian’s A True History is a good example of this, since it’s basically the ancient Greek version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. If any of my commentators are aware of anything else like Star or A True History, i’d appreciate it if they left a hyperlink in the comments