The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Napoleons Of Eridanus by Pierre Barbet (1970)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box of over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number five.)
There are so many people on this planet of ours that there's usually only a slim chance that what you're doing at any given moment isn't being done by someone else. Whether you're walking the dog or watching a rerun of Seinfeld, there's an excellent chance that someone somewhere is up to the same thing, be it around the corner or across the sea. Finding something that no one else is doing at any given time can be oddly satisfying, which is how I felt whenever I cracked open this book. It's also pretty much the only satisfaction I took from it.
I don't presume that even this column's most loyal readers tracked down this week's title. If you did, bless you. Also, I'm sorry. Despite a promising premise, The Napoleons Of Eridanus makes for pretty dismal, if fast-paced, reading. Written by the prolific French science fiction writer Pierre Barbet, it concerns a small group of French soldiers who, while retreating from Moscow after Napoleon's invasion of Russia, happen upon a flying saucer that whisks them and a handful of buxom Russian peasants to the stars. Why? Because an alien race called the Fortruns faces the threat of invasion from their the Kveyars. Though so technologically advanced that they've replaced their bodies with indestructible robotic parts, the Fortruns have grown lazy and decadent and thus need the kind of fighting power that only old-fashioned soldiers of Napoleon can provide.
That may sound like a fun idea but the fun pretty much stops at the idea. The soldiers experience virtually no culture clash, adjusting to life in space as if it were just a move to Provence. Seemingly not all that attached to Earth, they decide fighting a bunch of aliens might be kind of fun. And fight they do, in lovingly rendered passages like this one:
The Kveyars soon enough realized what was happening and lowered bulkheads to seal off the underground passageways. Unhappily for them, Bernard's troops were accompanied by a few drilling machines, and these obstacles were quickly demolished. Kveyar reinforcements called to the rescue were unable to prevent the rampaging Fortrun robots from reaching the central power station and seizing the controls before the defenders cold blow them up. All the gates of the surface posts were opened.
All of them? Yes, all of them. Maybe I'm missing something here, or maybe translator Stanley Hochman hacked out the nuance, but only the attention to detail separates Barbet's writing here from a play session with action figures. The soldiers fight aliens, screw the bawdy Russians (whose sense of patriotism apparently erodes outside of Earth's orbit), get cloned, then double-cross their double-crossing abductors. It's a dull march from Point A to Point B, however colorful the scenery.
Napoleons seems to be of a piece with the rest of Barbet's work, based on what I'll quickly admit was a cursory investigation. Relatively speaking, this is his second most famous book translated into English behind Cosmic Crusaders, in which, per Wikipedia, "alien attempts to manipulate the Knights Templar to take over the world during the Crusades." Vive la difference! I don't know if it's an improvement or not, and I don't intend to find out. Nor do I intend to pursue Barbet's spacebound soldiers any further, even though he followed Napoleons with two sequels. They're not in the box and I don't plan to make them my business.
One further note: The book did come with a few illustrations, presumably so readers' imaginations didn't get overly taxed. Here's one:
Next week: We return to Ian Fleming's world with Live And Let Die. Also, at readers' request I've extended the list of upcoming books another week. Is having the first three enough or should I go longer?
Next:Live And Let Die, by Ian Fleming
Then: Johnny Goes South, by Desmond Cory And then: The Food Of The Gods by H.G. Wells