Jonathan McCalmont is a film, book, comics, and games critic. He blogs at Ruthless Culture.
Every generation contains a finite amount of creative talent and when that generation reaches adulthood, that talent decants itself into the creative scenes that appear most attractive at that particular point in time. Sometimes that talent flows into music, sometimes it flows into painting and sometimes it flows into writing an endless stream of articles about productivity. I mention this because, while French-speaking Europe has a fine tradition of literary science fiction, recent generations have tended to channel their creative energies into producing SF comics rather than SF novels or short stories. As a result, if you wander into a French bookshop you will struggle to find anything except American or British science fiction. However, wander into a French comic shop and you will encounter one of the richest and most singular science fiction traditions on Earth.
Part of the richness of French SF comes from the fact that comic writers don’t need to worry about explaining their worlds to you in language developed for describing our world. They can just show you the weird alien worlds and leave it up to you to make sense of them. This approach to SF is particularly evident in the series of known and published collectively as The Incal. Written by the surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and initially drawn by the late Moebius, The Incal tells of a low-rent private eye who somehow finds himself entangled in a power struggle involving grotesquely dystopian cities, terrifying alien overlords and corrupt interstellar churches. Like all of Jodorowsky’s films, The Incal is best understood not as a conventional narrative but as a series of carefully arranged images designed to be interpreted either as mystical allegory or childish humour. Though at times almost impenetrably weird, The Incal’s colourful and surreal take on traditional space opera is a design classic whose influence can be detected in almost every work of contemporary cinematic science fiction.
A good deal less influential and yet to be widely translated into English are the works of Christophe Pelinq a.k.a. Arleston. Arleston is one of the most commercially successful French comic writers working today. His best-known series Lanfeust de Troy (briefly published in South Africa under the name Lanfeust of Troy) is a raunchy action adventure story set in a fantasy world where everyone is born with a single magical power. Hugely successful right from the start, this series spans not just multiple volumes but multiple series forcing Arleston to expand his setting to the point where it now encompasses multiple planets, multiple timeframes and characters who can travel in both time and space. However, while the Troy books showcase Arleston’s talent for telling big dumb crowd-pleasing stories, the less widely read (and unlikely to be translated) Maitres Cartographes series showcases a darker set of concerns.
Set on a planet covered by a single medieval-style town, the series follows a cartographer as he delves into the mysteries of his world and uncovers a hidden science-fictional reality beneath. Initially quite fun, the series gets darker and darker the more the cartographer becomes aware of the secret forces that swirl around him. Imagine a thriller set in the world of Gene Wolfe’s Book of The New Sun and you will get a hint of the richly complex flavour that makes Les Maitres Cartographes such an enjoyable and nourishing dish.