The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Secrets of Mr. Synthesis (1888)   

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Secrets of Mr. Synthesis (original: Les Secrets de Monsieur Synthèse) and its sequel, Ten Thousand Years in a Block of Ice (original: Dix Mille Ans dans un Bloc de Glace, 1889), were written by Louis Boussenard. The French Boussenard (1847-1910) was an author of adventure and science fiction novels.

 In The Secrets of Mr. Synthesis Mr. Synthesis, a Swedish scientist, attempts to control the evolution of humanity and to alter the Earth's orbit. He fails at both and appears to fall to his death from an iceberg. In Ten Thousand Years in a Block of Ice Mr. Synthesis wakes up from a suspended animation sleep of ten thousand years to find that Earth is now inhabited by “cerebrals,” small men descended from the Chinese and Africans. The cerebrals have big heads, small bodies, and vast mental powers, including levitation and telekinesis. They have enslaved the few remaining white men and use them for menial labor. Initially the cerebrals distrust Mr. Synthesis, because he is white, like the slaves, but his intellect quickly gains him their respect. The future world of the cerebrals is different from the modern day: glaciers have advanced across most of the Northern and Southern hemisphere, so that life is only possible on a small strip of land around the equator. The capital of the world is now at Timbuctoo. East of Asia insects have built a new continent consisting entirely of coral, so that it is now possible to walk all the way around the globe. Communication has been attempted, with limited success, with Mars. Mr. Synthesis is initially impressed with the cerebrals’ civilization, but he comes to see that it is based on slavery and the cultural values of traditional China, which he finds distasteful. He goes to China and kills himself via self-hypnosis.

The Secrets of Mr. Synthesis is one of the earliest French mad scientist novels, similar to but preceding André Couvreur’s Doctor Caresco novels (see: The Necessary Evil). Ten Thousand Years in a Block of Ice takes a different approach and makes Caresco sympathetic—much more so than the outright villainous Caresco, and a significant departure from the contemporary mad scientists of English and American fantastika, who tended to be less sympathetic than Synthesis, more insane, and more unbalanced.1 

Ten Thousand Years in a Block of Ice is also of note because it is one of the earliest uses of a character type which would become common in twentieth-century science fiction: the big-headed, small-bodied character with a variety of mental powers. The character type is possibly a residual memory of the Boskops, a possible hominid species—and possible enemy of Homo sapiens—that may have died out in Africa about ten thousand years ago and who had small bodies and heads up to thirty percent larger than Homo sapiens’.2 Alternatively, the big-headed small-bodied character with a variety of psychic abilities (BHSBC hereafter) may be a consequence of the Egyptian worship of the god Bes, the dwarf god of homes and birth, who was portrayed as having shortened legs and arms and an unusually large head. Whatever the source, the BHSBC appeared intermittently in the nineteenth century (one example is Edward S. Ellis’ Johnny Brainerd; see “The Huge Hunter”) and then more often in the twentieth century, in British story papers, in American pulps, in German heftromane, and in French dime novels. Sometimes a hero in the American pulps—Victor Rousseau’s Ivan Brodsky (1926-1927) is a BHSBC Occult Detective—in the French dime novels the BHSBC was always a villain; examples include the BHSBC Martians in Marcel Laurian’s “L’Étrange aventure de M. Narcisse Barbidon” (Le Cri-Cri, 1912) and the BHSBC children—the result of a mad scientist’s experiments—in André Falcoz’s La poudre de mort (1929).

Ten Thousand Years in a Block of Ice is also of note as an articulation of the rising contemporary Yellow Peril fears of the “white race” being overwhelmed and eventually exterminated by rising numbers of Asians (see: “The Yellow Napoleon”). Ten Thousand Years was published in 1889, eight years before the phrase “yellow peril” was coined by the Russian sociologist Jacques Novikow. But similar phrases, like “yellow terror,” were in use around the time that Boussenard wrote Ten Thousand Years. More importantly, the anti-Asian ideology of the white race being imperiled by unnumbered hostile Asians was widely present, not just in American and British fiction and political discourse, but that of France. “French Indochina” had only been formed in 1887, the year before Ten Thousand Years was published, and “from their first arrival in Indo-China, French colonisers recorded their attempts and failures to penetrate and understand local societies and cultures.”3 These attempts emphasized the large numbers of Asians in the French colonies, especially as compared to the French in the colonies, the Asians’ hostility to the French presence in their countries, and the local resistance to the French colonizing and acculturating project, the mission civilatrice. Ten Thousand Years can be seen not just as a racist commentary on Asians as a whole but as Boussenard’s warning about what might happen in the future if the Asians of French Indochina are not successfully made Christian and French.

The Secrets of Mr. Synthesis was published as a novel but appeared simultaneously as a feuilleton serial in the popular science magazine La Science Illustrée (Mar. 10, 1888-Feb. 9, 1889). Boussenard was one of the two writers who “set the pattern in 1889-90 that dictated the initial slant given to the magazine’s fiction section and cemented in place the category description of roman scientifique,”4 a much more scientifically-oriented type of fantastika than what was being published in Verne’s novels and in Journal des Voyages, the leading magazine of Vernean fiction. Mr. Synthesis begins as a kind of detective story but quickly becomes both an adventure story and a novel about a mad scientist; “the resultant whole is nevertheless an intriguing transitional link between the kind of roman scientifique that Verne had pioneered in his more imaginatively-ambitious works and the kind that was about to be pioneered by H.G. Wells.”5 

Recommended Edition

Print: Louis Boussenard, Monsieur Synthesis. Tarzana, CA: Black Coats Press, 2013.

Online: (in French; there is no English-language translation available online).


1 Nevins, “Organ Theft and the Insanity of Geniuses.”

2 Honesty compels me to note that as far back as 1958—the first Boskop skull was only discovered in 1913—doubt was cast upon the Boskops as a separate race: “The features exhibited by the Boskop skull and those which have been termed 'Boskopoid' are not specific to any 'new' single, African racial group, and in Africa they may be found in varying degrees in the Bushmen, Hottentots or Bush-Hottentot admixtures.” Ronald Singer, “The Boskop ‘Race’ Problem,” Man 58 (Nov. 1958): 178. The current academic thought is that the Boskops are anomalies of Homo sapiens rather than a separate species.

3 Milton Osborne, “Fear and Fascination in the Tropics: A Reader’s Guide to French Fiction on Indo-China,” in Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush, eds., Asia in Western Fiction (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 162.

4 Brian Stableford, “Introduction,” in Louis Boussenard, Monsieur Synthesis (Tarzana, CA: Black Coats Press, 2013), ii.

5 Stableford, “Introduction,” iv.