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The strange work of French pulp writer Serge Brussolo is finally available in English

The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome is the first of Brussolo's novels to be translated – and, happily, it's also one of the best.

The improbably prolific Serge Brussolo is the author of well over 150 books in his ­native France, in genres including science fiction, thrillers, horror, fantasy, war, police procedural, historical drama and young adult fiction. He has written weird tales influenced by J G Ballard, books set in ancient Egypt, in Viking Europe and during the Hundred Years War, techno-thrillers à la Michael Crichton, werewolf novels (under the pseudonym Akira Suzuko), medieval interstellar adventures (as Kitty Doom) and a series of bestsellers about an American teenager with magic ghost-o-vision glasses, Peggy Sue et les fantômes. Brussolo publishes up to three books a year, a rate at which even a team of writers working overtime might be hard-pressed to maintain stylistic consistency, and this, coupled with his unapologetic recycling of plots and ideas, goes some way towards explaining why his literary reputation hovers between guilty pleasure and national treasure. Even so, one might expect to have had a sniff of his work in English before now. Mais non.

That is about to change with The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome, the first of Brussolo’s novels to be translated into English and, happily, also one of the best. The premise will be distantly familiar to readers who have seen Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (released in 2010), though the book appeared in France 18 years earlier, as Le syndrome du scaphandrier: its protagonist, David, leads a gang of metaphysical burglars who enter a dreaming mind and pull daring heists to retrieve its treasures.

In the wonderful opening pages, David and his two sidekicks leap out of a long, black car that keeps obstinately trying to turn into a shark, and on to a pavement that desperately wants to become a beach (“Fix your stability,” one character warns, “take a consistency pill”), and use a jeweller’s eyeball and severed hand to gain entry to his shop. Their quarry is a huge black safe – “No matter the shop, the safe was always the same” – which belches, gives out “intestinal gurgles” and the thuds of a beating heart, and recites random numbers and mocking slogans as the cracksman sets about his work.

Once opened, it reveals crunching bagfuls of loose stones (“He came across bags like that in every heist. The psychologist said it was negative thinking”), which the protagonist seizes as his dream begins to disintegrate and he is sucked helplessly towards the surface. As first chapters go, it takes some beating.

But Brussolo’s novel is even stranger than these opening fireworks suggest. Unlike the dream-agents of Inception, who fish for industrial secrets in the minds of their drugged subjects, David is a sole trader and the brain he plumbs is his own. Objects brought back from a dream are mysteriously converted upon waking into flesh-like sculptures, “palpitating faintly like frightened animals” until someone comes and takes them away: they are, we soon discover, the new artworks of a world in which Picassos and Klees have become the province of rag-and-bone men (“Paint applied to a canvas with a stick topped by animal hair? How crude!”) and where collectors scramble for “ectoplasmic curios” manifested by dreaming prospectors.

The overheated pulp heists in which David specialises, as his psychiatrist observes crossly, are just “a magic formula that allows you to concentrate”; another dream-diver spends his nights on endless safari, where he is the great white hunter Majo-Mako, “He-Who-Slew-Like-Lightning”. In most cases, indulging in too much of this kind of introspection ends badly: although the public loves dreamers’ work, they often slump into endless comas, poison their inscapes with tranquillisers, or die of porcelain brain tumours in which the pathologists discover “tiny, exquisitely chiselled figurines”.

It doesn’t take a very alert reader to spot the metaphorical dimension in all this, but the anarchic surrealism at work in Brussolo’s novel is such that it can never quite be reduced to a parable about the artist and society. Like Burroughs in his cut-up fictions, or Ballard in the mad Californian dreamscapes of his Vermilion Sands stories, he is coolly at home in the deranged landscape he creates, in which hypnotists whisper cryptically to security cameras, dead dreams lie frozen in special vaults lest they explode when they thaw and flowers sprout wildly in cityscapes of the mind as the dreamers’ bodies decay.

His book is sometimes silly (there is some awkward dialogue, the odd dramatic longueur and altogether too much banging on about “ectoplasm” for my taste) but it is also totally, unapologetically compelling. What an introduction, then. And there’s plenty more to come.

The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome by Serge Brussolo, translated by Edward Gauvin, is published by Melville House (220pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist