Robida, Albert

Tagged: Art | Author

(1848-1926) French illustrator and author, the first visual artist who could be said to specialize in sf Illustration, with an abiding interest in fabulated Inventions; the most important and popular nineteenth-century figure in this nascent field. Though he was clearly working in the tradition of such French artists and illustrators as J J Grandville, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) and Gustave Doré, Robida – who published more than 60,000 illustrations in a career that began in 1866 and lasted until his death – soon moved very far from these models. His world is almost literally charged with electricity (a central Icon of Technological progress in nineteenth century French sf), vibrant, aerated, buoyant; it constitutes a kind of pantomimed exposition of an intimate, tellable future, as conceived by a late nineteenth-century French intellect. His most eminent visual heir may be the British illustrator W Heath Robinson, whose Some "Frightful" War Pictures (graph coll 1915) clearly echoes some of Robida's visions of the nature of Future War, and clearly takes off from the more implausible of his visual inventions.

Always responsive to Dystopia and Satire, Robida illustrated works by François Rabelais, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jonathan Swift and Camille Flammarion and others, but his most important visual work was created (and was most effective) in close conjunction to his own texts. These texts were sometimes – but not always: Robida's publishing career, which is extremely complex, has not yet been fully sorted – first published in feuilleton form, or in slim bound instalments, or both, and then later as full-length books. This pattern was followed, though only partly, in his first sf text, a gently satirical homage to Jules Verne's Voyages extraordinaires entitled Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de M Jules Verne ["The Very Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnin Farandoul in the 5 or 6 Continents of the World and in All the Lands Known or Even Unknown to Mr Jules Verne"] (first appeared June-? 1879 Librairie illustrée in 100-parts; 1880; rev 1883), subsequently broken into five short volumes: Le roi des singes ["King of the Monkeys"] (1882 chap), Le tour du monde en plus de 80 jours ["Round the World in More than 80 Days"] (1882 chap), Les quatre reines ["The Four Queens"] (1882 chap), A la recherche de l'éléphant blanc ["In Search of the White Elephant"] (1882 chap) and S. Exc. M. le Gouverneur du Pole Nord ["His Excellency the Governor of the North Pole"] (1882 chap). The central narrative, around which gather figures from Verne's own works, concerns the raising in the wild by intelligent apes (see Apes as Human) of a young Superman, a clear anticipation of Tarzan and all his breed; after he becomes king of the monkeys, and conquers Australia with his monkey army, the grown Saturnin embarks on travels that encompass the globe, and even extend to Saturn (see Outer Planets), where he meets the eponym of Hector Servadac (1877).

Robida's second sf novel, Le vingtième siècle (dated 1883 but 1882; trans Philippe Willems as The Twentieth Century 2004), was, on the other hand, first published as a book. The long discursive narrative, which is set in 1952, is perhaps his masterpiece, certainly if read (and viewed) along with its thematic sequels in the Twentieth Century sequence: La Guerre au vingtième siècle (1887; trans Penny Bath as "War in the Twentieth Century" in The Tale of the Next Great War, anth 1995, ed I F Clarke), which assembles and augments materials published in magazine form 1869-1887, but differs markedly from an earlier version published under the same title (1883 La Caricature) (see Weapons); and Le vingtième siècle: La vie électrique ["The Twentieth Century: The Electric Life"] (1891; trans Brian Stableford as Electric Life 2013), a darker tale beginning in 1953 with a Disaster which briefly disrupts the European Weather Control system, and focuses on a Scientist father's attempts to apply the principles of Eugenics to his son's marriage. The depiction of the modern world as enslaved by the frenetic pace of Technological innovation is sharp.

In the creation of sf across the world, though not in the evolution of American sf after 1925 or so, Robida was a figure of the first importance; it may be that his focus on France (rather than Germany or the UK) dissuaded figures like Hugo Gernsback, who never published him in Amazing, from treating him as a figure of importance. Perhaps most elatedly in The Twentieth Century, Robida envisions a complex, theatrical France powered almost entirely by electricity; there are no airplanes, but dirigibles (see Airships; Pax Aeronautica) fill the cities and the skies, even being used to help sustain, from above, some of the more elaborate structures, all of which are designed to interact with the populous skies. There are no cars at all (and hence no prevision of Genre SF's denial of the impact of the automobile); intercontinental travel is either by huge dirigible or by tube. Robida espoused a mildly comical Feminism; the heroine of the first novel, who is herself anything but feminist, is treated as hapless in her own right, but not therefore typical of women in general; and his male figures are no more or less comical than the women who dominate the law and journalism. His sense of the importance of Communications is particularly marked – the "telephonoscope", though not described with any technological prescience, does convey both sight and sound in a manner evoking both television and email (including spam). In some ways, his vision seems to leapfrog most of the twentieth century, and to pre-configure many contemporary Steampunk re-creations of nineteenth-century Europe, most clearly perhaps (because it is a Graphic Novel sequence) in Bryan Talbot's Grandville series of Alternate History tales comprising Grandville: A Fantasy (graph 2009), Grandville Mon Amour (graph 2010), Grandville Bête Noir (graph 2012) and Grandville Noël (graph 2014), where Robida's influence is explicitly acknowledged.

There were several further works of sf. Jadis chez aujourd'hui ["The Long-Ago is With Us Today"] (10 May-14 June 1890 Le petit français illustré; 2000 chap) is a Time Travel fantasy featuring a scientist who resuscitates Molière and other literary figures in order to show them the Universal Exhibition of 1889, which bores them: a vision of France definable as an exposition of consumables may have already begun to pall on Robida, who was acutely attuned to the appearance of the world but who was not easily fooled. L'horloge des siècles ["Clock of the Centuries"] (8 November 1901-11 April 1902 La Vie Illustrée; rev 1902) is one of the earliest treatments of the Time in Reverse theme later used by, for example, Philip K Dick in Counter-Clock World (1967), Brian W Aldiss in An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! 1968) and Martin Amis in Time's Arrow (1991); but a consequence of knowing the future, as one leaves it, is an awareness that the future will not be golden. Later pre-War works include "L'Automobile en 1950 – L'Aviation en 1950" ["The Car in 1950 – The Airplane in 1950"] (1908 Les Annales Politiques; in La Locomotion future, anth 1996) and Un Potache en 1950 ["A Schoolboy in 1950"] (1917 Mon Journal; 1994).

Robida's post-War tales leave the pleasures and pixillations of his nineteenth century work far behind; with the beginning of World War One, his disposition had darkened, not unnaturally, as Les Villes Martyres ["The Martyred Cities"] (graph portfolio 1914) clearly demonstrates by its visions of ruined Cities; and his last works express a sense of the fragility of the electric future he had once espoused. L'Ingénieur Von Satanas ["Engineer Von Satanas"] (1919; trans Brian Stableford in The Engineer Von Satanas anth [see Checklist] 2015) is a harsh Future War Satire in which during the course of World War Two, which breaks out almost immediately after 1918, an avalanche of maleficent Inventions culminates in a doomsday device that effectively ends civilization (see the End of the World). "En 1965" ["In 1965"] (1919-1920 Les Annales Politiques et Littéraires) predicts a time of troubles; and Un chalet dans les airs (1925; trans Brian Stableford as Chalet in the Sky 2011), his last novel, set in the distant Near Future, conveys a poignantly terminal feel. It is told ostensibly as a story for boys: the chalet in which they are being schooled is in fact an Airship capable of operating as a Spaceship, which they embark upon for a Fantastic Voyage across the world, which is slowly recovering from devastating planetary Wars; they come to grief for a time in a New York dominated by skyscrapers. Robida's death saved him from further anticipations. [JC/PN/JG]

see also: France; Transportation.

Albert Robida

born Compiègne, Oise, France: 14 May 1848

died Neuilly, France: 11 October 1926

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The Twentieth Century

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