Monday, June 9, 2014

Other Chariots, Other Gods

I've been reading Nathalie Henneberg's The Green Gods (1961), a French SF novel that was translated by C.J. Cherryh and published as part of the DAW SF imprint in 1980. The front of the book text on the DAW book identified N.C. Henneberg* as "The 'A. Merrit' of France", but don't let that fool you: the prose is good and the text isn't particularly racist. For sure though, it's a Lost World SF novel with strong planetary romance themes. It's evocative, dreamy, and surreal. And there is a strong Mesoamerican feel as in so much pulp Lost World literature inspired by the late 19th Century Atlantology of Ignatius Donnelly.

Imagine a human world that has fallen to a Cataclysm. It is cut off from other human worlds from millennia. Brave explorers from the human interstellar empire have tried to reach it and recover their lost world, but the world is trapped behind an impenetrable barrier.

Meanwhile on that lost fallen world, humanity has fallen. We are no longer on the top of the food chain. Intelligent insects rise from their hive-like mound cities, as well as from the ruins of our ancient cities, now abandoned or fallen to them. These creatures besiege humanity, and there are even more subtle threats that like among us as well. Human society has been engineered into a static caste system. In the city of A-Atlan, the various strata of humanity huddle within Mesoamerican-style step pyramids and stone courts. These great and crumbling structures hide the underworld ruins where ancient devices like "flamers" lie scattered among the human bones of those who succumbed to the Cataclysm and the horrors of later times.

Of course, the Lost World we're talking about here is Earth, not Tekumel. The Secret Masters aren't the Temple hierarchies, the Gods, the OAL, secret societies, the wielders of Mind-Bar spells, or the Blasphemous Accelerators. No, the Secret Masters are intelligent plants, in particular the mind-manipulating peyote plants and their spiny cactus soldiers.

While I couldn't find any references to the book on the Blue Room listserv search engine, I wonder if the book was an influence on M.A.R. Barker. I am sure it must have been an influence on more than a few contemporary SF&F authors including:
  • M. John Harrison - The Green Gods has human warriors wearing insect armors here that resemble those of the better known Viriconium
  • Michael Moorcock - Elric's drugged, decadent Dreaming City of Imyrryr is reminiscent of Henneberg's A-Atlan
  • Jeff VanderMeer - Henneberg has drug-producing plant overlords rather than the drug producing fungal overlords of VanderMeer's Finch
  • China Mieville - The Green Gods has an intelligent spiny cactus race that may have inspired those in Mieville's Bas-Lag
  • Tanith Lee - Less the details or trappings of lost words and pulp SF than the dreamy decadence and romanticism; I had to keep reminding myself that C.J. Cherryh was the translator of The Green Gods, and not Tanith Lee
Of course, many of the above elements were just in the "soup" of adventure literature and occult movements of the late 19th/early 20th Century.

I'm sure there are other influences too. I wish more of Henneberg's work were available in English. Thankfully, The Green Gods is still available in English courtesy of the Black Coat Press. Interestingly, the Cherryh byline in the Black Coat Press edition says "adapted by"; that edition also includes four additional Henneberg stories translated by Damon Knight and  a new introduction by French SF scholar Charles Moreau.

This week at FATE SF we're doing some posts inspired by Henneberg's novel. Stop by and check them out.

*It's important to note that much of Nathalie Henneberg's output was intermixed with that of her husband, Charles Henneberg. He passed away in 1959, two years before Nathalie Henneberg's The Green Gods was first published in French.


  1. Wow. Sounds like something I should get my hands on.

    1. It's trippy! It also reminds me of David Zindell's "Neverness" and Raymond Harris's "The Broken Worlds."

  2. What Trey said. :-) IIRC there's a Raymond Z. Gallun story that also features an awesome plant intelligence - Seeds of Dusk, I think.

    1. Good to know. I really need top read Wyndham too.