You’ve been tirelessly promoting works of French proto-SF. What’s your fascination with that subject?
I’ve been translating them in profusion; there’s not much I can do to promote them. The fascination stems, originally, from the days when I produced a history of Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, when I became very interested in comparisons and contrasts between the early development of the British and American traditions of speculative fiction – and, as a corollary, further comparisons and contrasts between those and the early evolution of Europeans traditions. The latter interest was hampered by the lack of available translations, until I had learned to translate French myself, and Jean-Marc Lofficier generously offered to publish my translations through Black Coat Press. Since then I’ve been trying to translate as much as I can, as fast as I can (racing against the gradual deterioration of my eyesight), in the hope of getting the bulk of the job done in time to cultivate a general appreciation of the pattern.
Which particular works stand out for you?
When I began the project, the authors whose work I most wanted to investigate and make available were J.H. Rosny, Maurice Renard, Albert Robida, and André Couvreur – although Couvreur’s work won’t fall into the public domain until 2014. Judging by second-hand sources, they looked to be the most enterprising pioneers of the post-Vernian era. I’ve picked out other individual target works with the aid of the Versins Encyclopédie and the excellent exploratory work being done by a number of French collectors and researchers – Marc Madouraud, Guy Costes, Joseph Altairac, Jean-Pierre Moumon, Francis Valery and others – which is gradually making its way on to the web through such sites as Sur l’Autre Face de le Monde. Periodicals like Rocambole and Philippe Gontier’s Le Boudoir des Gorgones have also been very useful in helping me to map the field and directing me to promising materials. The Bibliothéque Nationale’s website gallica has been enormously useful as a source of downloadable texts that are otherwise unavailable. Some things I’ve found just by random browsing, like Marcel Rouff’s Journey to the Inverted World – a wonderful item of anarchist sf. There are several other authors whose speculative fiction I’ve been highly delighted to discover, including Henri Falk, Jules Lermina and Han Ryner.
You translate minor works as well as major ones. Why translate everything, instead of just the most important works?
Who’s to say what’s ‘‘important’’ and what’s not? I prefer to make my own judgments rather than rely on established thinking, and that requires looking at as much material as possible. My reading pace is so slow nowadays that I figure I might as well record the translations as I’m making them. It’s always been my policy when writing about particular authors, particular themes or entire genres, to try to read everything relevant – or as much as I can find. This will be my last project of that sort, as I’ve had to dispose of my collection of English-language materials, so I’ll try to do it as thoroughly as I can before blindness sets in or the grim reaper comes knocking. Fortunately, I don’t find any of it tedious, and am able to get thoroughly and passionately involved with almost all of the texts I translate.
How has French SF influenced the field of science fiction as a whole?
Except for Verne, hardly at all – and except for Poe and Wells, there was very little influence in the other direction, until American SF conquered the world in the post-WWII surge of coca-colonization and all the European traditions of speculative fiction were drowned in the deluge. That’s precisely what makes the early material so interesting, though; because the mutual influence was so muted, one can compare and contrast three distinct ‘‘alternative worlds’’ of speculative fiction. That comparison gives us some inkling of the many ways that science fiction could have developed, in other cultural circumstances. I find that fascinating, although I might be alone in that particular quirkiness.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or the work you do?
Only that I’m alive and active, although probably not for much longer. If your august predecessor Charlie Brown was correct when he declared that print-on-demand books don’t really count as publications, but only as ‘‘potential publications’’ then I suppose I ceased to exist ten years ago, when I was finally relegated from the commercial arena, but if physicists are right in deeming that even the hardest vacuum is a seething chaos of imperceptible subatomic particles, I guess there’s some potential even in the virtual vacuum in which I’m working nowadays. At present I’m trying to produce 24 volumes of translation and a quarter of a million words of fiction per year, which would be quite a lot of potential if anyone ever paid enough attention to any of it to cause it to materialize; but if no one does, it hardly matters; I don’t have anything else to do.