This is part of a series on French author Pierre Boulle.
selected and translated by Xan Fielding
Secker & Warburg, 1966
It’s a bit confusing when you try to sort out exactly which of Boulle’s stories from which English edition of Time Out of Mind first appeared in which French collection.* Here’s a handy list:
from Contes de l’absurde, 1953 (5 stories)
- “The Age of Wisdom” (Le règne des sages)
- “Time Out of Mind” (Une nuit interminable)
- “The Perfect Robot” (Le parfait robot)
from E=mc², 1957 (4 stories)
- “The Miracle” (Le miracle)
- “The Lunians” (Les Luniens)
All but one (“The Age of Wisdom”) of the above was included in the eight stories of Contes de l’absurde suivis de E=mc², 1963. In 1966, Vanguard published Time Out of Mind and Other Stories, which listed both Xan Fielding and Elisabeth Abbott as the translators and included twelve total stories. The Secker & Warburg edition of the same year includes all of these stories but three (“E=mc²,” “Love and Gravity,” and “The Hallucination”). “The Diabolical Weapon” and “The Man Who Hated Machines,” both from 1965, come from another Boulle collection, Histoires charitables. I admire anyone who can keep all of that straight.
For the rest of us, here’s the list of stories in the 1966 Secker & Warburg edition that I read (not including the two non-speculative stories):
- “Time Out of Mind”
- “The Miracle”
- “The Perfect Robot”
- “The Lunians”
- “The Diabolical Weapon”
- “The Age of Wisdom”
- “The Man Who Hated Machines”
* * *
I love reading an author’s short stories alongside their novels because you get to see the germs of their ideas. Boulle, in particular, keeps coming back to the clash between religion and science, the absurdity of human endeavors, and the fuzzy line between humans and machines. As in his novels, ideas and not characters drive Boulle’s stories, for in each he makes a point about human nature generally, not the individual desires and motivations that drive specific people in specific circumstances.
“Time Out of Mind,” one of Boulle’s most famous short stories and the only one in this edition to discuss time travel, takes on paradox with a hefty dose of humor. It tells of one Oscar Vincent, a bachelor and bookstore owner in Montparnasse who just wants to people-watch and drink some beer on a summer evening. Suddenly, he spots a dude in a red toga who looks lost, and then things get crazy. When Vincent asks toga-man if he needs help, the former learns that this guy is actually from an ancient civilization that has learned how to travel though time. To make things weirder, both men then notice a strange-looking dude sitting near them who seems to be listening intently to their conversation. This guy eventually comes up to the two new friends and explains that he is from the far future. Poor Vincent then becomes embroiled in what turns out to be a deadly fight between past-dude and future-dude, in which each travels forward and backward in time, trying to stop the other from successfully traveling in time. Absurdity ensues, but my favorite part is when Vincent notes that the bartender views all of these time flashes and guys appearing in weird outfits with perfect equanimity, verging on boredom. I could easily see this story as a Monty Python skit.
Boulle especially loves taking ideas to their logical and thus often absurd conclusions, and thus we have “The Lunians,” “The Diabolical Weapon,” and “The Age of Wisdom.” “The Lunians,” though a bit heavy-handed, tells the humorous story of two groups of astronauts secretly landing (unbeknownst to one another) on the far side of the moon. Of course, one group is from the US and the other is from the Soviet Union (this story was written in 1957, after all). Having carried out their separate, secretive schemes, neither side can even imagine that the other would do the same. So what happens when the Americans set up camp and start investigating the far side of the moon? They find lunar creatures that look strangely like themselves! The story turns into a real eye-roller when the two groups of astronauts make contact, see one another without their space helmets on, figure out how to communicate, and then exchange information about their own cultures, all the while failing to realize that everyone there is human. Boulle puts too fine a point on this, but remember that this is 1957 and the Cold War is quite toasty. On the moon, separated from their respective nations and enmities, Americans and Soviets are the same–neither one is much more scientifically advanced than the other and they’re interested in learning more about the moon and how they can use it to their own advantage. The optimists among us might think that, once the two groups realize who the other is, they’d hug and make peace and everything would be great. But this is Boulle so of course that doesn’t happen. Rather, both sides agree that the moon must be destroyed. Of course.
“The Perfect Robot” and “The Man Who Hated Machines” explore the sometimes extreme ways in which humans react to intelligent machines. In the first story, a brilliant scientist (Professor Fontaine) who works for the Electronic Brain Company (EBC) is tasked with perfecting “calculating machines,” though he doesn’t stop there. As his research into cybernetics continues, he starts making the case for “thinking machines,” which some on the board of directors dismiss. Nonetheless, Fontaine argues that many things that seem uniquely human are not so different from what machines can do:
properly speaking there was no such thing as ‘creation’, since this word should always be understood in the sense of ‘combination’ or potential rearrangement of former facts. According to [Fontaine], in all operations of the human mind the solution or outcome was always contained, at least implicitly, in previous data. The brain had never done otherwise than modify the disposition of these data and present them in a new aspect. Consequently, between the aforesaid human brain and the artificial electronic brain there was a difference only of quality and not of nature. (81)
So there, board of directors! Remember, though, this is Boulle, so he takes the idea of a “perfect robot” to its limits. Over time, Fontaine figures out (stay with me here) how to make robots solve all mathematical problems, always win at chess, pair up with robots of the opposite sex, and have robot babies (I know, I know). There’s just something…something that still isn’t quite right. Wait…Professor Fontaine’s got it! Robots can become more “perfect” = “human” by…making mistakes!
Unlike some of the stories in this collection, “The Man Who Hated Machines” is more disturbing than humorous. The narrator explains that he first met this particular unnamed machine-hating man when he observed the latter deliberately avoiding a sensor that automatically opened a door to a bookshop. Striking up a conversation, the narrator learns that this machine-hater deliberately sabotages machines so as to satisfy his obsessive and increasingly deranged need to show humanity’s superiority to mechanical devices. Eventually, the machine-hater trains himself to be a walking calculator who can beat a machine…until an even more complex machine is built by a slightly deranged millionaire to beat him. The contest gets so out of hand that by the end, neither man nor machine can even calculate 1+1. Where the story gets disturbing is when Boulle’s narrator describes the hater’s thorough deconstruction of the sophisticated machine, with wires, tubes, buttons, and other pieces scattered around or deliberately inserted into the wrong places. The machine becomes more human, then, and the hater becomes less so.
In “The Diabolical Weapon,” a group of high-level military men gather to report their findings to the prince, an enlightened and intelligent ruler, explaining that atomic weapons have made all other weapons, armies, and maneuvers obsolete. Their ultimate suggestion: ban atomic weapons (not, of course, because they do unbelievable damage and could kill millions but because soldiers and officers need something to do).
We can see the germ of the idea for Desperate Games (1971; tr 1973) in “The Age of Wisdom,” a story about two competing factions of scientists (the worshipers of the particle and the followers of the wave) who think they can “fix nature.” As in “The Lunians,” both factions undertake secret research, not realizing the other is doing the exact same thing. The goal: to balance the temperature around the globe, thus warming the poles and cooling the equator. Apparently neither side thinks through the resulting destruction that this will cause, and since both factions are doing it, well…nothing good comes of it.
And finally, “The Miracle” seems to be where Boulle works out his ideas for The Good Leviathan – specifically, where spirituality and science converge. Here, a priest gives a powerful sermon about the necessity of believing in miracles. One woman, taking the priest’s words to heart, brings her son (whose eyesight was severely damaged in the recent war) to the church and demands that the priest heal him. Realizing that the woman has taken his words literally but unable to refuse her, the priest lays his fingers on the young man’s eyelids and asks God for a miracle. Ironically, a miracle does happen–the young man can see again–but the priest (yes, the priest) refuses to believe it. The young man’s doctor and several prominent eye specialists all examine him and conclude that, truly, the restoration of the man’s eyesight can’t be attributed to anything but a miracle. Word gets to the bishop, and then to Rome, where a thorough investigation is launched into what happened in this small church in France. Even when the Vatican declares that the miracle is real, and the doctors all agree, the priest simply cannot bring himself to believe it. As one of Boulle’s biographers explains, this “story centers around the conflict between science and religion, a conflict that not only has preoccupied both scientists and philosophers for centuries but also constitutes an important theme in Boulle’s work. Despite his own professed lack of belief…, Boulle’s Catholic education is evident in much of his work” (97-8).
Time Out of Mind and Other Stories, then, is an early collection of Boulle’s ideas, which he’ll expand on in his later novels. While some are so absurd they’ll make your eyes roll back into your head, others explore serious issues about cybernetics, space travel, and spirituality that are alive and well in the twenty-first century.
* I’m leaving out of the discussion the non-speculative stories “The Man Who Picked Up Pins” and “The Enigmatic Saint”