Les Portes Sans Retour (1976) by Julia Verlanger

cvt_les-portes-sans-retour_1962Years ago when I began investigating French science-fiction one name that always popped up was Julia Verlanger. Author of over 20 novels, Verlanger was one of the most prolific and influential writers of French SFF, often publishing her work under the pseudonym Gilles Thomas — Julia Verlanger is also a pseudonym, her real name being Éliane Taïeb, née Grimaître. In 1985 she passed away at the age of 55 and the following, in ode to her work and legacy in the genre, her husband, Jean-Pierre, founded the Julia-Verlanger Foundation, and the Prix Julia-Verlanger, which is awarded by jury to an author for a science-fiction or fantasy novel of high quality. Notable winners are Yoss for Planet for Rent, in 2011, and Neil Gaiman for Neverwhere in 1999.

The French-language publisher Bragelonne released the entire works published by Verlanger/Thomas in a five-volume set, curated by French SF author Laurent Genefort (more about him in the future).

Recently I took out one of these massive volumes from my city’s main library: Volume 2: Récits de la Grande Explosion (Tales of the Grand Explosion). The first volume, which the library unfortunately has misplaced, contains the novels Verlanger wrote in her “Savage Highway” setting, a sort of Mad Max setting published three years before the first Mad Max film. Most of the rest of the novels that she wrote are set in the same universe, where humanity is no longer confined to Earth and has colonized innumerable planets throughout the galaxie.

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For someone who was as prolific a writer as Verlanger, and who has had such influence over the French speculative genre, there exists no English translations of any of her novels and only one instance — that I could scrunge up — of a short story in a French science-fiction anthology published in 1976.

Due to the success that Verlanger has had I think that she deserves the same exposure as her English-speaking contemporaries. I intend to read as many of her novels as I can and write a summary and review when I can.

Les Portes sans Retour (The Gates of No Return) follows Gyall Darra, a transporter of goods and owner of a starship. During a stopover on the planet Allègre and while he’s enjoying an old-fashioned, honest-to-God, homemade dinner at his favorite diner he notices a strikingly beautiful, young woman at a neighboring table. When a brawl breaks out after the woman rebukes a bunch of brutes who were hitting on her Gyall stands up for her. After the fight ends and they flee the scene together Gyall discovers the woman’s identity: Missie Oléone, daughter of one of the richest and most powerful men in the galaxy. She’s in search of her trouble-making, attention and adventure-seeking twin brother, Axin. She claims to be able to feel him, through some unknown sense, and knows that he has passed one of the Gates of No Return, and she’s looking for help to find him and bring him back. She insists that Gyall is the one who’ll help her. When he refuses she uses her wealth and father’s influence to have Gyall arrested and put in jail and tells him that he’ll remain there until he agrees to help her. Her influence, not to mention her beauty, proves to be too much for him and he concedes. Together they find the Gate and pass through it.

The gates are called the Gates of No Return because, obviously, anyone who’s ever entered them has ever returned. Once one the other side they are confronted with a series of long-lasting, frustrating and always dangerous trials. During one such trial they are sent back in time, to Paris in the 2050s, where the fashion style and general populace’s social behaviors are absurd. The danger for them during this time is the fact that many of the world’s nations are fascist and that in three years most of the world’s population will perish in biological warfare.

They come to believe, through their series of trials, that they are being manipulated by a higher being which they come to call “Le Salaud” (the Bastard). Gyall and Missie, after weeks upon weeks of suffering the mental and physical trauma of the Bastard’s trials, swear that they will kill him, if they ever find him.

The book definitely felt like a sci-fi novel of the 1970’s. Fantastical alien creatures, strange settings, and typical sci-fi gender roles. I often pictured one of those pulpy sci-fi covers while reading this book. Gyall fighting a giant spider with a knife with Missie’s arms wrapped around his bulging, naked chest.

Regardless, this was Verlanger’s first published novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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