Review: Because it is Absurd by Pierre Boulle

This is part of a series on French author Pierre Boulle.

Julliard, 1966

translated by Elisabeth Abbott

Vanguard Press, 1971

190 pages



The full title of this collection is Because it is Absurd (on Earth as in Heaven), and if that sounds familiar to you, that’s because it riffs off of Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:10: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Thank goodness I have a Catholic husband to point out these things to me!) As Boulle’s biographer Lucille Becker has noted, “[d]espite his own professed lack of belief…, Boulle’s Catholic education is evident in much of his work” (Pierre Boulle, 97-8). Because it is Absurd, is, in some ways, the most explicitly religious of his books thus far, including angels, Eden, God, Jesus, and more.

The first four stories in the collection (“On Earth”) take up everything from Hitler alive and well in Peru in the 1970s (“His Last Battle”) to a disgraced man hiring his own murderer (“Interferences”). Only the former (of all four stories) could be considered speculative, since it’s an alternate history. The three subsequent stories (“As in Heaven”) are much more interesting and strange, imagining (among other things) the Garden of Eden as a kind of universal franchise and angels destroying all of the holy places in Jerusalem in order to end religious warfare forever.

In general, this collection is something of a hodge-podge, which unfortunately takes the sparkle out of those stories that truly stand out. Indeed, it’s those tales in the second half of the book that are the most interesting, so my review will focus on them.

“When the Serpent Failed” starts off small and ends up encompassing the whole universe. Here, Boulle reimagines the Biblical creation story of Adam and Eve. What would have happened had Eve said “nah” to the serpent when enticed to eat the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Bad, bad things, apparently. As per usual when it comes to Boulle, the most commonplace things, when taken to their logical conclusions, become completely absurd. So Eve says “no, thank you” and the serpent is like “wait, what?” so he obviously turns to God for next steps. But then God turns to (I kid you not) the Holy Computer to ask what should be done. The three huddle up and imagine a million different ways to entice Eve to eat the apple. After all, the other 2,999,999 Eves on 2,999,999 other inhabited planets took that juicy bite and everything went according to plan. This one sassy Eve, though, isn’t falling for the serpent’s wiles. But what happens, then, if Adam and Eve remain “innocent” of good and evil and stay immortal, but still procreate and build new things and eventually head out into the universe? According to Boulle, this human race would become an amoral horde that would wipe out the other planets’ populations and replace them. So when the three finally find themselves stumped, they let Jesus take a crack at the problem. Jesus is like “guys, you’re overthinking this” and comes up with a simple but foolproof plan to bring Eve back into line.

And if you thought that “Holy Computer” sounded a bit Stanislaw-Lem-ish, you’re be absolutely right.

“The Holy Places,” while an interesting idea, seems rushed and could have actually been a much better, longer story. Here, “J” (Jesus), “Y” (Yahwh), and “A” (Allah) direct their angels to raze all of the holy sites in Jerusalem. Not just raze them, ohhhh no, but pulverize them so that nothing, absolutely nothing is left. That way, they believe, humans will just throw up their hands and stop fighting religious wars. Also, guess who shows up again? That’s right: the Holy Computer. Well, in this story, it’s called the “Great” Computer, but same thing. I wasn’t convinced, but like I said–an interesting story idea.

And then we have “The Heart and the Galaxy” (1970, tr. 1971) which I’d call a lighter, more humorous version of Lem’s dead-serious masterpiece His Master’s Voice (1968, tr. 1983). Both concern humans desperately waiting for a signal from an alien intelligence and, when they receive a signal, they pounce upon it in order to decipher it. In Boulle’s story, scientists wait on the dark side of the moon in a place called the “Cosmos Observatory” in hopes of hearing a signal. As Boulle does in many other stories, he ratchets up the tension until the very last page. The scientists go nuts when they think they’ve intercepted alien communication (from 40,000 light years away), and when they calm down, realize that the aliens are trying to teach them their language via binary code. The scientists set up a complicated grid and follow the aliens’ instructions, eventually deciphering a message that…well, I won’t spoil it for you (wink, wink).

So if I had been Boulle’s editor, I would’ve told him to include “When the Serpent Failed” in Time Out of Mind and expand “The Heart and the Galaxy” into at least a novella. As it stands, though, Because it is Absurd is a wild ride.

I find myself saying that a lot in my Boulle reviews…

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