The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Shapes" (1887)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Shapes” (original: “Les Xipéhuz”) was written by “J. H. Rosny aîné” and first appeared in L’Immolation (1887). “J. H. Rosny aîné” was the pen name of Joseph Henri Honoré Böex (1866-1940), a French author. For many years after his death Böex was forgotten, primarily because the majority of his work was written in disrespected genres like science fiction and the prehistoric romance. But in recent years critics and academics have begun paying him more attention and giving him the credit he deserves. Böex produced some remarkable science fiction and is considered (with Jules Verne) to be one of the most influential figures in the development of science fiction in France. “The Shapes” is one of his most famous, and best, stories.
“The Shapes” is set in the Middle East, circa 5000 B.C.E. A nomad tribe, the Pjehu, discover a group of “bluish, translucent cones, with their pointed ends upright, each one with a volume of about half a man. A few clear stripes, a few dark circumvolutions, were scattered over their surface; each had near its base a dazzling star.”1 When the Pjehu draw close to the cones, or “the Shapes” as the narrator calls them, the Shapes attack them, killing many, although they only target warriors and avoid killing women, children, the sick and the aged. But the Shapes do not pursue the Pjehu beyond a certain distance and ignore them if they leave the Shapes alone. The Pjehu, shaken, consult a group of local priests who decide that the Shapes are gods and that they must be sacrificed to. But the Shapes kill those priests who approach them. The priests experiment with slaves and determine the distance beyond which the Shapes will not pursue humans, and then the priests set that boundary with stakes and decree that the Shapes are to be left alone. But other tribes are not told about the priests’ decree or ignore it, and members of those tribes cross the boundary and are massacred. Then the Shapes begin expanding their territory. When the tribes try to resist, hundreds of their warriors are killed by the Shapes. All the tribes of Mesopotamia begin fearing for the existence of Man, and some men turn to dark cults. The tribes’ wise men at last consult the hermit Bakhun. Long ago he had abandoned a nomadic life for a pastoral one, and in so doing flourished. Bakhun believes in odd and unusual things, like the sun, moon, and stars being “luminous masses” rather than gods, and that “men should only believe in things that can be proven by measurement.”2 Bakhun tells the wise men that he will dedicate his life to studying the Shapes. He does so, and draws a number of significant conclusions, most important of which is that the Shapes are living beings rather than spirits or gods. After years of study Bakhun also deduces what the Shapes’ weakness is–the star at their base–and tells the priests and elders what he has seen. Many tens of thousand of the warriors of “the plain of Mehur Asar” assemble, and a war is launched on the Xipéhuz. After a few setbacks and great loss of life, the Xipéhuz are destroyed and humanity’s future is assured. However, Bakhun mourns the fact that the survival of Man required the death of the Xipéhuz--that “the splendor of Life be soiled by the Blackness of Murder!”3
“The Shapes” is a remarkable achievement on several levels, especially considering that it was Böex’s first story. “The Shapes” is one of the first stories of the nineteenth century to present truly alien, non-anthropomorphized beings. Most aliens in nineteenth century science fiction were some variant of Earth creature and were often (though by no means always) humanoid. But the Xipéhuz are not only alien in shape (geometric, silicon/crystalline forms rather than carbon-based forms modeled on animals or insects) but are also alien in mindset. Their temperaments and personalities are familiar, or seem to be, to Bakhun, but their motives and background are alien, not just to Bakhun but also to the modern reader. Modern science writers often find it difficult to create aliens who are truly alien. That a twenty-one-year-old did it in his first story, before science fiction had coalesced into a distinct genre, and at a time when the vast majority of fictional “aliens” were lightly-disguised humans or monsters, is exceptional.
“The Shapes” is also notable for the way in which it merges the prehistoric genre with science fiction. Such a combination is not extraordinary today, but in 1887 it was practically unheard of. There was little genre mixing, certainly not in the postmodern way modern readers have come to expect today. Stories generally stuck to one genre. This was not always true, as horror and ghost story authors made use of a number of genres to tell their stories, but it was generally true. Few detective stories were set in the past or made use of anything speculative or fantastic, and science fiction stories rarely deviated from the Verne and Wells modes. In 1887 there were science fiction stories and there had been a few prehistorical stories, but there weren’t any stories combining the two. “The Shapes” also anticipates the later Vamireh, Roman Des Temps Primitifs (1892), by Böex and his brother Séraphin Justin François, who published jointly as “J. H. Rosny.” Vamireh was not the first prehistoric novel, but it was the Böexs’ first of five, with the fifth, La Guerre du Feu (1911), gaining them fame. Böex is known as “the Father of the Prehistoric Novel” for his influence and output in that subgenre, and “The Shapes” is his first in that field. But the story is a combination of the prehistoric story along with science fiction.
Finally, “The Shapes” is notable for the fluid way in which Böex switches styles. The middle passage, written in modern (nineteenth century) scientific terminology, is hard science, but uses the explanatory approach of Golden Age (1940s/1950s) science fiction authors. The final section of the story, written in Bakhun’s voice, is reminiscent of modern heroic fantasy fiction, with invented fantasy names (“Dzums, Sahrs, Khaldes”) and fantasy terminology and phrasing (“Anakhre, the third son by my wife Tepai, was a skilled maker of arms”4). This might seem like a confused mishmash, but in the context of the story, with interstitial explanations for the differing styles, the shifts in style work well.
Additionally, “The Shapes” reads well as a story. English translations of the story have a clean and straightforward style with the occasional vivid image. There is a certain over-earnestness to some of the statements, but on the whole the story reads smoothly and effectively, without any of the padding, posturing, or pontificating that American and English sf authors were prone to and without the obsession with verisimilitude which Verne tended toward.
Print: J.H. Rosny aîné, Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
Online: https://archive.org/details/lesxiphuz00rosnuoft/page/n7 (in French; there is no English-language translation available online).
1 J. H. Rosny aîné, “The Shapes,” in Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind, transl. Danièle Chatelain (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 3.
2 Rosny aîné, “The Shapes,” 9.
3 Rosny aîné, “The Shapes,” 28.
4 Rosny aîné, “The Shapes,” 18.