1886 novel by French decadent, opium addict, and early science fiction writer Comte Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste Villiers de 'Isle-Adam, aka Villiers. Son of a failed treasure-hunter, growing up in the genteel poverty of the post-revolutionary aristocracy, besotted with Symbolism, drugs, Baudelaire, and Edgar Allen Poe - Villiers looked around at the modern world and saw a glorious dystopian future.
L'eve future is an edisonade, a popular genre in the late 19th century in which the protagonist of the story was always Thomas Alva Edison. In Villiers' novel, Edison creates a perfect electric woman - an android named Hadaly - for a friend whose fiancee's fallibility has driven him to despair. Given the almost occult significance of electricity for late 19th-c. romantics, Edison was the logical choice for the engineer-hero in this Pygmalionesque tale of perfect passion. high technology, and the best of intentions.
Stanislaw Lem wrote in his theoretical study Futurology and the Fantastic that L'eve future is merely proto-SF, anachronistic in its naive technical descriptions of the mechanisms of android construction (or worse, the entire absence thereof, i.e., how mechanical sight could function). Sophisticated automata had been known to the West for centuries, beginning with the fantastical inventions of the medieval Islamic engineer al-Jazari, and while the legend of Roger Bacon's brass talking head has never been proved as more than such, the idea of androids and artificial life had been incubating in the Western imagination for centuries, if not millenia (the golem is arguably the first of such).
However, Soviet critic N. Rykova called L'eve future a science fiction fairy tale, in which belief in the power of a dream enables automata to acquire independent existence and free will. Rykova even suggests that there is a resonance between Lem's Solaris and L'eve future - as both works feature a heroine created by powers combining the metaphysical and the scientific. Contemporary cyberpunk author Richard Calder's Dead Girls reads well as a kind of sequel about the long-term consequence of the world imagined by Villiers, if it had come to pass.
L'eve future was written between 1877 and 1879, appeared in periodical form in 1880, and was published in final version in 1886. It was reprinted in France in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and finally translated into English as Tomorrow's Eve in 1982 by Robert M. Adams. Nevertheless, as a work of science/speculative fiction, the novel is set when Edison is 42, making the year 1889. Also included in this pioneering work are inventions still to come, such as the loudspeaker and technicolor cinema with sound - both described in detail and as a kind of early virtual reality machine. The role of these technologies in this 19th century novel predicted Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation from a distance of almost a hundred years.
Villiers: the reluctant technophile
The posture taken by Villiers in his previous work, Cruel Tales, was antagonistic toward technology, reprehending the increasing inauthenticity of a world in which illusion and artifice supplant genuine life - and in which expressions of emotion have been supplanted by self-conscious and deliberate theatrics in which the general populace have been instructed by grace of the increasing popularity and consumption of theater. Technology, he muses, will worsen the drive toward inauthenticity. Life is readily staged and simulated. As an aristocrat, Villiers had a natural hatred for progress - and yet, was also fascinated by the machines of progress, and their ability to copy and forge with such skill that artful illusion becomes a seductive substitute for "vulgar" reality.
Villiers ultimately took the plunge, declaring: "I hope that there will soon be four or five hundred theatres in every capital, where the ordinary events of life are acted far better than in reality, so that nobody will take much trouble any more over living for himself." Villiers also declared in one Cruel Tale that whenever we feel a strong emotion we should hire an actor to express it well for us. In other Cruel Tales, advertising slogans are projected into the sky - once a screen for heavenly signs and portents. In another, a device is patented for chemical analysis of the final sighs of the dying.
Phenomenal reality is acknowledged as illusion by Villiers. He further suggests in his work that even communication with others is a crude consensual illusion made possible via a limited number of programmed words and gestures - words and gestures which are best produced by finely crafted machines, actors, and other automata, though others make their own invariably feeble attempts.
The novel begins with Lord Celian Ewald (a young, handsome aristocrat) preparing to kill himself over despair at the paradox presented to him in the form of his fiancee. Alicia Clary, a beautiful actress, also has a crass, banal soul that fills him with revulsion and dampens his desire. As an idealist enamored with the absolute, the infinite, and longing for the transcendant, Lord Ewald is appalled to discover that her perfect physical form is the vehicle for a foolish, materialistic, bourgeoise spirit typifying the soulless mechanical world of the 19th century. It's the last straw - he's ready to throw the whole thing over.
He pays a farewell visit to his old friend, Thomas Alva Edison, at the inventor's home in Menlo Park. Learning of the young man's desperate decision, Edison offers to provide Lord Ewald with an electric woman that will be twin to Alicia in every sense, but without her offensively vulgar soul.
"Since our gods and our aspirations are no longer anything but scientific, why shouldn't our loves be so too?" asks Edison - who then sets out to demonstrate the superiority of artifice over nature and the necessity of illusion in the face of an unknowable external reality.
Edison's technological advances in recording, reproduction, and duplication were shifting Western paradigms relating to the perception and representation of the material world at the time of the novel's writing. Similarly, the protagonists of the novel become obsessed by epistemological questions, and struggle to keep their balance on the blade's edge separating the rational and the spiritual as they work on their creation.
The android will be "photosculpted" on the body of Alicia Clary, and the copy will be more "real" than the original itself, as it will be fixed, certain, unchanging, permanently defined. Her mechanico-anatomical components are close cousins to actual inventions of Edison - namely the telephone, the microphone, and the phonograph. For example, the lungs of the android are "two golden phonographs" which play a loop of player-piano type on which are recorded (by Alicia Clary) the words poets and philosophers. Hadaly, the perfect mechanical woman, can speak only the words of the dead poets. The novel's recurring theme of replication is carried one step further by this reinscription of old gods, myths, beliefs, poetry, and philosophy into the gleaming heart of the machine.
When Lord Ewald objects that this mechanical lover will have only a limited number of possible responses, Edison points out that "real" conversation is infinitely more restricted in its narrow circle of cliches.
Interestingly, for all the detailed technical discussion of the construction and functioning of Hadaly, there is never any mention of sexual organs. This is internally consistent with the novel's intention to concern itself with reproduction as replication, while rejecting reproduction as procreation. L'eve future moves relentlessly into a cyborg epistemology - even against the grain of the desire which instigated the entire quixotic quest.
The young lord decides to live in happy isolation with Hadaly on his ancestral estate, and has her shipped to England in an ebony coffin lined with black satin. Edison has packed the instruction manual in same, detailing how she can be "awoken" by manipulating the rings on her fingers, how to feed her special pills, and how to oil her joints with an extract of roses. During their Atlantic crossing, a fire breaks out in the hold and immolates the android (despite the young lord's efforts to reach her). The ship goes down to a watery and primordial grave. The young lord is saved against his will. The real Alicia Clary drowns when her lifeboat overturns.
Net result: the pursuit of the ideal ends in the destruction of both the ideal and the real. Grim, but nobody ever accused Villiers of being a sunny optimist.