There are some awesome illustrations in the 1890 sci-fi novel Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique (The Twentieth Century. The Electric Life) by Albert Robida. The novel is in French, so I’ve just used Google to translate a few snippets. But the illustrations are killer.
First is the cover, which has a pretty chill steampunk vibe.
But open this baby up, and it gets intense fast! The caption for this is perfect: “L’Electricité (la grande Esclave)”, or “Electricity (The Great Slave)”.
Then Chapter 1 starts, as many novels do, with God riding the Earth like a bicycle. Possibly bowling over some angels on the way.
Who wants to go sailing on “Les Donjons Flottants” (Floating Keeps)?
Robida was eerily prescient here. Cavalry has indeed become obsolete in modern warfare, replaced by “Charge de Bicyclistes”, with support from cannons-with-helmets.
In the “Défilé du 8e Chimistes” (Parade of the 8th Chemists), Robida describes chemical warfare 15 years before WW1 would see it deployed on a horrific level:
The sword is a tradition, a last vestige of the ancient weaponry of the Middle Ages; on the modern battlefields, these cumbersome instruments, which are complicated to handle and have so little effect, are hardly used.
Do we not possess the series of asphyxiating or paralyzing gases, convenient to send by tubes at short distances or by light shells, simple cylinders easily directed 30 or 40 kilometers from our electric guns!
There’s quite a lot in this book about chemical warfare, but I noticed something different later in the book: “The Miasmatic War - Manoeuvres of the Artillery of the Offensive Medical Corps”
Miasma was a popular theory at the time, postulating that disease was spread by “bad air”. Perhaps Robida envisioned biological warfare in the future? And are those soldiers protecting themselves with surgical facemasks?
Robida may not have been a fan of the Industrial Revolution: “Our Rivers Carry the Most Dangerous Bacilli”
Yeah, definitely wasn’t a fan: “Our Rivers and Our Atmosphere - Multiplication of Pathogenic Ferments, of the Various Microbes and Bacilli”
On the lighter side, who hasn’t wanted to chuck a chair at their monitor during a tense Zoom call on their telephonoscope?
Despite my highlighting of some of the thematically darker images, La Vie Électrique isn’t all dystopic doom and warfare. I’ll end this post as Robida finished his novel, with a nice view of the airships above Paris.