(asked by Larry)
2. Okay, from high literature to something a bit more populist for my second question… How is science fiction regarded in France? Is it a respected genre or something that is dismissed as juvenile or trashy? I mean this in terms of both the bigger, popular series like Star Wars and Star Trek from the USA and Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 from Britain and also the more literate aspects of the genre. Are any of these enjoyed in France? I am on a few sites, both academic and fan-oriented, that deal with SF and none of them receive many French visitors…
I am interested since obviously Jules Verne is enormously respected in the English world as one of the founding fathers of the genre. It is hard to think of many more recent French writers that have come to our attention here, though, apart from Pierre Boulle (for Planet of the Apes) and Gérard Klein (known more to genre experts.) Is there much SF writing being produced in France?
Likewise, I can only think of a handful of French SF films: Godard’s Alphaville and La Jetée and the comic-inspired Fifth Element and Tykho Moon being the only examples that immediately spring to mind.
Do you think there is a large cultural difference between the reception of SF between France and the English speaking world?
Thanks in advance,
From my knowledge, Science-Fiction used to be regarded as trashy and juvenile back in the days, but it is more and more respected today. I’m not exactly sure why, When I was a kid, growing up in the 70′s-80′s I just loved science-fiction, but my friends and I were in the minority. Neither adults nor other kids our age loved or respected it. Nowadays, it really seems that it has broken through the mainstream. Science-Fiction films are as successful here as in the US.
I’d like to think that my generation were the precursors who allowed the next generation to bring it to the mainstream, but truth is that Science-Fiction has been around for a long time in France too, it didn’t wait for my friend and I.
Now, from a literary point of view, while quite popular in number of sales, it still is not a very respected genre, but truth is that most of science-fiction literature is unfortunately not very good literature. And when it is (I’m thinking Pierre Boulle or René Barjavel here for the French ones, we could add people like Ray Bradbury or Aldous Huxley), they’re not really considered as “science-fiction writers” but just as “writers”.
That being said, current big writers are not really mainstream and while I could mention a few English language ones (William Gibson instantly comes to mind) I really don’t know any current French science-fiction writer.
Interesting that those sites you’re mentioning don’t receive many French people, but it makes sense I guess. French academia is still very old school and I doubt that many French PhDs are being written nowadays about Science-Fiction. To give you an example, back in the late 90′s before moving to the US, I was thinking of a topic for my Master’s thesis (which I ended up not doing in France) and I was torn between treating about Star Wars literary and cinematographic origins (with a lot of Shakespeare and Kurosawa in it; ironically I bought my “thesis” in a bookstore a few years later) or something about Lord of the Rings, which was almost unknown in France before the film cam out. These topics were seen as almost revolutionary at the time. Oddly, more by my classmates than by my teachers. And as far as fan sites are concerned, there are a lot of them in French, so French fans maybe don’t bother populating the ones in other languages.
A few more random thoughts about some of the names you mention.
Jules Verne: Nowadays he is widely respected, but while he always was popular, I’m not too sure about how “respected” he was by his peers when he was alive. I’m sure there are studies about that.
Godard’s Alphaville: Every time I talk cinema with an English speaker, Godard’s name gets mentioned sooner or later (English majors in the US all seemed obsessed with him). Truth is in France, he’s more and more seen as a thing of the past. Most people that haven’t seen his films when there were in theaters (I’m talking his old Nouvelle Vague films) simply never saw them later, and even back then I’m not sure if he really was popular (with the general public). The sad truth is that while Nouvelle Vague still is somewhat “revolutionary” 60 years later in the English speaking world, in France it became mainstream to the point that anybody with a camera a few francs and a few friends started to make films because of it, and as very few of them had Godard’s or Truffaut’s talent, we ended up with a bunch of mediocre and boring films which have pretty became the norm in French cinema nowadays. Meanwhile Godard himself has become this angry annoying old man that nobody seems to be caring about anymore except for a few poseurs. Oh, I forgot to talk about Alphaville. Well, I haven’t seen it, and I guess that’s the thing, this film is much bigger abroad than it ever was in France I think.
La Jetée: I have to admit that I had never heard about La Jetée before 12 Monkeys. And nowadays most French people still haven’t heard about it, and to be honest even in the English speaking world, I’m pretty sure it’s unknown outside of some cinema buff circles.
The Fifth Element and Tykho Moon: The Fifth Element was very popular in France, it was back in the days when Luc Besson still had some credibility (here too, English speakers don’t seem to have gotten the memo, maybe they should read more his interview more as well as watching his recent films). Tykho Moon never was mainstream (I’m even surprised that it is somewhat known outside of France).
Those two films bring us to something interesting though (and almost another topic). Both films are heavily influenced by comic books, The Fifth Element strongly inspires itself from artists like Mézières and Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who were more or less involved in the production of the film, although Moebius and Jodorowsky sued Besson for plagiarism), we can mention Chris Tucker’s character who is a blatant rip off from Diavaloo in The Incal series.
Thyko Moon on the other hand was written and directed by Enki Bilal who is very famous in France (even my mom knows him and respects him!) and who primarily is a comic book artist.
And here we’re touching a very big cultural difference between France and the English world, as in France comic books are highly respected as a form of art (more on that another day maybe), they’re not sold as periodicals but as hardcover books and they form about 20% of books sold in France. Among them, science-fiction comic books are definitely not a minor niche as they maybe some of the biggest and most famous comic books for adults in France (of course not as famous as Astérix, but as I mentioned The Incal and Bilal’s works are almost considered as classics today).
I barely started scratching the surface, but I guess that’s a good start of an answer.