Book Review: Future Without Future, Jacques Sternberg (1971, trans. 1973)

(Rus Anderson’s cover for the 1973 edition)

3.75/5 (collated rating: Good)

Jacques Sternberg (1923-2006) was a Belgian author who occasionally published SF, especially early in his career. Future Without Future (1971, trans. by Frank Zero 1973) contains a nearly novel-length novella “Fin de siècle” and four other bleak satirical works published between 1958 and 1971.

A worthwhile acquisition for “Fin de siècle” (1971) alone. The other stories are still worth a read. If you’re interested in SF in translation, this collection is a must have. I plan on tracking down Sternberg’s only SF novel in translation, Sexualis ’95 (1956, trans. Lowell Blair 1965). It’s a shame La sortie est au fond de l’espace (“The Way Out is at the Bottom of Space”) (1956), “a black comedy set in space and featuring the last human survivors of a bacterial Holocaust” doesn’t exist (yet!) in translation…. (See SF Encyclopedia for a rundown of his works).

Like Stanislaw Lem, Sternberg creates planetary environments and otherworldly denizens that feel truly alien. In the more dystopic works, Sternberg’s bleak outlook on humanity’s increasing inability to connect with each other and our pasts conjures the nihilistic black comedies of Barry N. Malzberg.

Highly recommended.

Fun tangent: Sternberg wrote the script for Alain Resnais’ French New Wave SF film Je T’aime, Je T’aime (1968).  I’m a huge fan of Rensais’ films—in particular Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel, or the Time of Return (1966).

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

“Fin de siècle” (1971), novella, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): This novella, the primary reason to track down the collection, clocks in at 119 pages. Prepare yourself for a journey into a nightmare, a dystopia where all the places (real and imaginary) the we can attach anchors to conceive of ourselves as individuals with desires and pasts are shorn away…. In a vast metropolis, where the features of the buildings are erased by layers of pollution (a product of a deliberately encouraged cult of the automobile), the “year” 2000 approaches.

In diaristic format, we follow the life of man subjected to the past erasing whims of the dystopian state. An arbitrary plethora of bureaus control the experience of time, the experience of love, the ability to conceptualize the self…. Our narrator collects the detritus of time, balled and rolled and matted, in a room of his apartment. Unlike any other bureaucratic nightmare (a favorite topic of SF) I have read so far, “Fin de siècle” manages to convey a world so indelibly realized in its capricious nature—where the passing of time and what can be known fade-out. The present, a state of chimeric shifting, cannot be understood or predicted.  The past and the future no longer exist….

“Very Sincerely Yours” (1958), novelette, 3/5 (Average): In an alternate past (?), a man named Strigel sends a series of complaint letters to “The Adventure Story Book Club” of Paris. A soon to be terminated employee of the book club decides to respond with a series of letters of his own, although, without addressing Strigel’s complaints. Rather, the employee wants to “to really write,” without addressing the “gloomy, painful subject” of the book Strigel hasn’t received (125). What unfolds, at least initially, are the desires of man desperate for interaction and contact, although Strigel himself, if he’s really a man, doesn’t seem to live in the same Paris. The Calvino-esque urban duality where letters can traverse to the other city devolves into something different, and far less interesting…. I won’t spoil the ending.

Fascinating for the epistolary nature of the tale–and the initial curiosity it generates.

“The Ephemera” (1962), short story, 4/5 (Good): A spaceship is forced to land on a forbidden planet (Drige): “a ridiculous prohibition: between certain death in space and probable death on this world, it was not difficult to choose the second alternative” (158). For Ylge and the narrator, initially thrilled to be alive, the reason for the warning isn’t clear—at first glance. Sternberg, before revealing the reason behind the prohibition, successfully conveys Dirge’s profound alienness: “Everything on Drige was transparent: explosions of light, sparkling fireworks, dazzlement” (160). In addition, “most worlds were so strange […] that we lacked words to describe them, theorems to understand them, and imagination to acknowledge them” (161). However, Ylge and our narrator soon discover the planet is inhabited, and, despite the aliens’ peaceful intentions, the experience of time is what makes the planet truly different—and forbidden.

This is a lovely story. The planet is vibrant and truly “alien.” And the final sequence a gorgeous ritual of death…

“Vacation” (1959), short story, 3.5/5 (Good): Sternberg’s best stories in the collection refuse to indulge in lengthy explanatory lessons…. “Vacation” is more a philosophical polemic (interesting in its own way) than story–although the elements of a story are tacked on at the end. The critique of modern society unfolds at length: “Some had, in fact, predicted that the Atomic Era would usher in the end of the world, others that it would be synonymous with a Golden Age of Happiness for all” (173)–Sternberg suggests that the world will indeed survive, although we will be far from happy…. In this future “wallowing in opulence and prosperity,” its inhabitants engage in endless cycles of consumption in order to “impress[…] each other” (175). Itself a “vicious circle in which people are running blindly, lost, distracted, drunk on running faster without any exact idea of what they are looking for” (175).

The plot, mostly an afterthought, follows the narrator who travels to the planet P.4, low on the list of relaxing places, on vacation. The alien inhabitants of the planet “do not speak; they utter their complaint in a single bass note, always the same” (181). At night the Translucides—“phantasmic gleams”—“perform feats […] by means unknown to themselves” (182). The feats involve slipping through walls, hovering around the beds of human visitors. The narrator wakes up with “Translucides about me, in frozen attitudes, or elongated, like some agonized octopus,” like “soft fishbowls in which one can follow every movement of their larval organs” (183). The eyes of the Translucides are enormously liquid, “so soft, and therefore all the more disquieting” (183). In this unnerving environment the narrator experiences no reprieve from the problems of Earth life, and before it is all over, yet another purgatorial experiences transpires….. Like the Translucides, he is trapped in patterns and desires that he cannot entirely fathom.

In all of Sternberg’s stories in this collection, the desire for connection–be that in a dystopian future that erases the traditional anchors onto which we build self-meaning (“Fin de siècle”) or letters to another reality (“Very Sincerely Yours”)–features prominently. In this case, the lengthy essay does not mesh effectively with the plot.  Focusing on the vacation and the strange denizens of the planet would have heightened its power.

“Future Without Future” (1971), short story, 3/5 (Average): As with “Vacation” (1959), Sternberg includes a substantial narrator-gives-a-monologue essay that introduces the philosophical and polemical arguments that follow. In 1975 the Vietnam War ends as American soldiers refuse to fight en masse (189). A strange new world unfolds, one that cannot be entirely understood: “How does one follow a precise chronology in a world where the notion of years, months, hours, and calendar have gradually been lost?” (190). Sternberg seems to suggest that the anti-war youth were content “living off their relatives or their parents, sullen and silent, and secretly delighted to see their elders grow as agitated as shrimps in trying to support them” (191). How this relates to the anti-war movement isn’t clear. In many ways, this reads as a rant about the increasing influence of post-modernism in music, philosophy, and music. Emil Cioran’s Precis of Decomposition (194) becomes a bestseller, the youth blast “Ornette Coleman, Minus, and Bartok” (193). Advertising and modern business are under attack…. In world where historical thinking evaporates, “Future Without Future” reads as a desperate attempt to chronicle an uncertain decline.

(Title page for the 1973 edition)

(Title page II for the 1973 edition)

(Dedalus and Pierre Faucheux’ cover for the 1977 edition)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Future Without Future, Jacques Sternberg (1971, trans. 1973)

  1. Joachim,
    I’ll probably give it a try when I can gfind a copy. I’d read his How’s Business in Jakubowski’s Traveling Toward Epsilon, but his satirical voice didn’t impress me. I’ve also read Sexualis ’95 and was disappointed by his story getting lost in too many words.
    When I think of French SF writers I would go with Verne, Boulle, Gerard Klein, Rene Barjavel and Pierre Barbet, though the latter’s mixture of fantasy with SF detract from my enjoyment. You might want to add Barjavel’s Ashes, Ashes (1967 translation of Ravage,1943) to your apocalyptic reading list. Klein and Barjavel are the best of the modern French SF writers in my humble opinion.
    Keep up your inspiring posts!

    • Hello Andrew,
      Thanks for the great comment. My exploration of French language SF is cursory at best. As a kid and adult I read a ton of Verne in translation AND in the original French (in grad school)… My favorite was Mysterious Island which, until recently, only existed as an abridged version in English (they cut a lot of the social commentary).

      I have a few of Barjavel’s works but not Ashes, Ashes — due to the online price, else I’d snatch it up!

      I plan on reading my French SF — but plans and I don’t mesh well, my reading whims spin in all sorts of directions.

      If I were reading one of the lesser stories in the collection I too would not be a fan. It’s the presence of Fin de Siecle that elevates the collection (and it’s more than half the actual book).

  2. I picked up a copy of this a few years back. I remember enjoying “Fin de siècle”. But I couldn’t help but read Sternberg with an eye to his historical context. Sternberg was involved with the Planète mag in France in the 1960s. Guy Debord and the Situationists (the subject of my PhD thesis… but that’s another story…) absolutely loathed Sternberg, Bergier, Pauwels et al. Reading the Sternberg story reminded me of the Situationist critique of the coming “cybernetic” future. I couldn’t help but wonder to what extent–if any–that Sternberg was influenced by the situs when writing this.
    Have you seen Je T’aime, Je T’aime? Now that is a great (sf) film.

    • I must confess that I do not know enough about the intellectual context in which Sternberg was operating. There are OVERT critiques of post-modern writing and thought in the collection (he drops some names). If you are curious I can track some of them down. Let me know!

      I have not seen Je T’aime, Je T’aime yet — I want a Criterion edition! I have browsed the fascinating stills.

  3. Looks fascinating. I will have to check it out.

    I love LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, haven’t seen any others among his films. (My wife has little tolerance for foreign language films. Retirement project: see a lot more of them!) I tried to ignore the subtitles the first time I saw LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, trying to use my high school/college French, which kind of worked and maybe made the film stranger!

    • Like Anthony mentioned above, I wish I knew a bit more about the French-language intellectual movement of the day — I suspect it would make the collection, especially the title story, a far richer reading experience.

      Most of my foreign film watching happened in college. I haven’t been that into movies in years. But I watched a nigh-encyclopedic quantity — from Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) [to this day one of my favorite films] to Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

      • I was in college (and thus not so far from my French classes!) when I saw LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. A few years ago I went through a Bergman phase (he is as great as his reputation.) My favorite French films (from a sadly small total) are Krystof Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS films (which I suppose qualify as French-Polish) and for a short film, Chris Marker’s LA JETEE (which I think is just astonishing, easily the best time travel movie of all time.) But I’m no expert.

        But as I said — catching up on foreign films will be one thing I do in retirement.

        • Yep, all of those are things I consumed as well. I was particularly obsessed with Polish films, the French New Wave, 1920s Soviet experimentalism, the Japanese New Wave, and German 80s New German Cinema. And more then just Marker’s La Jetee — I watched Sans Soleil (1983) and The Last Bolshevik (1993). The latter as I was fascinated (and still am) with the ideas behind Aleksandr Medvedkin’s film trains [moving train film studies to create functionalist documentaries at various industrial sites around the Soviet Union to expose bourgeoisie corruption. He ended getting in a ton of trouble with the Soviet authorities]. I took a Soviet Film class and went to all the showings for the other film classes in which my friends were enrolled (German and French).

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