Book Review: The Neon Halo, Jean-Louis Curtis (1956, trans. 1958)

3.5/5 (collated rating: Good)

The French novelist Jean-Louis Curtis (1917-1995), best known for his Prix Goncourt-winning The Forests of the Night (1947), crafts a linked series of short stories in The Neon Halo (1956, trans. 1958) that chart the evolution of modern society between 1995-circa 2100. While the thematic influence of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) permeates the pages (permanent warfare, reproductive technology, psychological and pharmaceutical conditioning, etc.), The Neon Halo contains genuine vibrancy and intriguing ruminations on persecution and martyrdom. Despite the frequent references to the French literary environment of Curtis’ day, The Neon Halo pulses with wit and levity despite the dour subject matter.

Like Orwell, Curtis is fascinated by the speculating on the evolution of language. The pages are filled with invented slang that saturates each successive story to a greater degree (“supersex,” “fondant,” “ploucs,” “courantiste,” “atomic,” ec.). The collection serves not only as a future political/religious history but a linguistic one as well. The collection is a smart satire of the methods the state uses to manipulate the masses, the corrosive nature of fame, and the fate of the empathetic soul in the modern world.

Recommended for fans of satirical mainstream treatment of SF’s archetypal themes and 50s science fiction in translation.

Brief Plot Discussion/Analysis

“The Neon Halo” (1956), 4/5 (Good): Welcome to post-Cold War dystopia! In the year 1995, the US and the USSR sign a “Universal Treaty of Mutual Non-Aggression between White Races” which “excludes the yellow and black races” (13). Increasingly disturbing rhetoric of “Oriental Peril” fill political speeches terrifying the masses (13). The shadow of Orwell’s 1984 (1949) looms–a new enemy must be manufactured as the Cold War comes to its end… In parallel, the “spiritual leaders […] of the white nations fuse Latin Catholicism, Slav Orthodoxy and Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in one single religion” (12). The distinctive theological elements of each religion are transformed into an apparatus to support the state: “The great event of the century […] is the total secularisation of Christianity” (14). The Sisters of Delta espouse a new Trinity: “God, the Law and the City” (22). With religion an instrument of the state, individual liberty–relaxed moral standards and “doctrines of individualism”–becomes the target (23). Into this epoch defining moment, M. Laurent and his assistant Getrude, return to France to raise money from their charity mission caring for the survivors of the nuclear conflict between the US and the USSR.

“The Neon Halo” explores the idea of sanctification and martyrdom. Laurent, a deeply caring person devoted to his mission, must confront a transformed world. At first he welcomes the fame as it generates more than enough money for him to continue his mission of mercy. Over time the sinister elements of the post-Cold War state become agents of persecution and Laurent is refashioned as a saint. Of course, one cannot have a martyr without a witness. Gertrude, possessed by obsessives hero worship, writes the The Life of Monsieur Laurent that forms the bulk of the story. And through her selective and adoring eyes we witness M. Laurent’s final days and the triumph of the state.

“The Genitor” (1956), 4/5 (Good): Sometime after the events of “The Neon Halo,” Loulou D’Esclarmont, without profession and no fixed income, should be picking up “fondant” [money] by the bucketful (72). He’s “young, handsome, intelligent and the bearer of one of the greatest names in France” (72). Instead, he borrows money from a barkeep and listens to the electrofactophone playing the pop songs of the day on repeat. Loulou had always felt himself closer to the “warm life of the people than to the pretentious artificialities of the bourgeoisie” (76). Of course, like his noble ancestors ensconced in well-funded ennui, he’s unwilling to do much of anything.

But Philippe Mercadié has a plan! Every French woman wants a child with noble blood! And ads promoting Loulou’s sperm, with his face obscured and his pectorals showing, fill the movie theaters! His progeny populate the streets. But Loulou accidentally lets on to a woman he yearns to love his secret/lucrative profession. And Loulou soon has his contract broken–“you’re liable to be sent to prison: a donor is under oath, he has no right to reveal his paternity” (107)–and cast off into the streets, attempts to track down his children….

O Loulou and his runaway sperm–what a riot.

“Ideas to Sell” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good): New ideas are running dry. In his sanctum with “the muffled clatter of a hundred typewriters” and the “ringing of televisiophone bells” on every floor, Philippe Mercadié (of the previous story) rules the Paris Ideogenic Centre (113). Have an idea for a new TV series? Call Philippe Mercadié and he might give you an offer. And he’ll immediately sell it to someone else for a nice pile of fondant. His Idea Hounds track down writers and musicians and ring them of their ideas. But then Philippe Mercadié receives a call… a brazen challenge to his kingdom: “He says he’s got a a sensational idea. He says he won’t deal with anyone but you” (123). Philippe dismisses the challenge initially. But something gets under his skin… and he invites the audacious man to his office and pays him to speak. But there’s a scheme afoot and Mercadié, like Loulou and Laurent, will come toppling down.

“A Very Exclusive Club” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good): In an increasingly secular future with stringent views on morality, rebels naturally appear… Suicide numbers in Paris skyrocket. People want something to give them meaning. And Daisy turns to “a very exclusive club” lead by Silvio. They eschew “culture” and present themselves as “erudite, perhaps, or well read, or aesthetes, or dandies. We are Latinists, or Hellenists. Or, quite simply, people of taste” (145). This future Mithraic cult promises companionship, conversation, and “Pompeian evenings” (145). But the state gets a whiff of the secret organization that provides an outlet for humanity’s passions and a taste of what is forbidden. Like Early Christianity receiving the imprimatur of Emperor Constantine, what will happen when the state institutionalizes what was secret and forbidden?

“One Another” (1956), 3/5 (Average): As the future history progresses, “One Another” hones France’s dystopian slide… Adults chant “inequality, conformity, plasticity” (190) and chug mugs of stimulodron (190). Adolf Hitler becomes the patron saint of the Outer Darkness (a physical manifestation of Hell where those who refuse to follow the designated path are assigned to vast death camps). Happiness and individuality are forbidden words. Hormone therapy controls when one can have children. You can fight for the state of course at 18! An artificially induced asexual state is imposed on the masses other than between 25-35 when everyone is paired off to produce children. The story follows Bogo, who learns a handful of forbidden words which he clutches to his chest, as he comes of age. And like everyone else who dares look beyond what has been prescribed, the tentacles of the powers that be will find him in the darkness.

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