Pierre Barbet, “The Napoleons of Eridanus” (1970) and “The Emperor of Eridanus” (1982) (translated from the French by Stanley Hochman) – I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when it features robots in napoleonic garb, has that DAW yellow spine, and costs two dollars, you just pick it up. That was the situation with prolific French scifi writer Pierre Barbet’s “The Napoleons of Eridanus” (original title: “Les Grognards d’Eridane”) when I found it on some used bookstore spree or another. I was also jazzed by the back cover, calling on the war-gaming subculture — and this was the seventies, real motherfucking cardboard-pusher hours — to embrace this novel of ultra-civilized aliens recruiting Napoleonic soldiers to lead them against space invaders.
Well, I read it, and it was… fine! Not quite as fun as I was expecting. The aliens — sybaritic brains-in-robot-suits — use telepathy to smooth out most of the bumps that came after they jacked eight or so French soldiers from the retreat from Moscow. The grognards, led by Captain Bernard, stomp everyone’s ass at space war, first their hosts’ enemies, then their hosts. They’re Napoleonic badasses, they’re not gonna take orders from a bunch of robo-wusses forever. Everyone else makes war following the orders of computers, but Bernard and company have good old human initiative and brutality. They basically don’t lose, and even when one of them dies, the hosts just clone him. This is a thing you see in pulp scifi, sometimes- the ubermenschen too uber to lose a round, except maybe once, through treachery, as the climax… and they usually come back and win that round, too.
The first one was still reasonably fun. I made a classic mistake and ordered the sequel before I read the original (it was pretty cheap). I had the idea I would try to dust off my French and read the third one, which hadn’t been translated into English. Well, the second one might explain it. Published twelve years after “Les Grognards,” Barbet is really phoning it in for “L’Empereur.” Bernard’s in charge! But the whole galaxy unites against him. He gets arrogant. Rival space empire Itain uses its space navy, led by Lenson (yes, it’s that lazy), to contain him, really breaking down the metaphor because, like, it’s space… it’s mostly fleet actions? It’s just beat for beat the Napoleonic Wars in space. Bernard invades some space-Russia and it’s all over. He can’t beat the weather! His last act as space-emperor is to have the host send him and his posse back to where they were on Earth when they got picked up, and wipe their memories of the whole thing. Done and done! It was pretty lame.
I’m still curious about Barbet. He wrote a lot! Including a story where aliens show up during the Middle Ages, only to piss off the Knights Templars so bad that the knights learn to do space stuff to convert the galaxy to Catholicism, etc. They have another involving a Carthaginian empire that left Rome in the dust, and that idea always intrigued me too. The “Cosmic Crusader” books are translated, the Carthage ones aren’t. We’ll see what I can do- when I read French, I usually wind up writing a lot of it down anyway, so maybe I can produce some “quick and dirty” translations. Stick it on the job queue! *** (Les Grognards)/* (L’Empereur)