Le Naguen, by Jean Hougron, is one of the strangest sf books I’ve ever read. And obscurest— it doesn’t seem to be in print even on amazon.fr, and I don’t think it’s ever been translated.
La Roue (the Wheel), a union of 28 planets dominated by la Terre, has been fighting une guerre (a war) with les Vors (the Vors) for 32 years. An officer named Dreik, the first to be captured by the Vors and the first to ever see a Vor, reappears in le système solaire with a proposal for a truce from his captors.
For the first 200 pages or so, the book seems to function as a heavy-handed satire of the Vietnam War. (Hougron mostly wrote novels about Indochina.) The Wheel is imperialist— it has an explicit ideology of Unavoidable Expansion— and democratic on the surface though its social system encourages conformity and conservativism. Their enemies are virtually unknown, fighting a defensive war; Dreik describes his captors as benign and it’s emphasized how alien their culture is. All this goes on and on, mostly through interminable interrogations of Dreik, punctuated by new outrages (they try to kill him! they try him for treason!).
Then— for about a sixth of the book— it turns into space opera. We finally get a clear description of the Vors, indeed a new set of Vor characters. It turns out Dreik has been outfitted with a “naguen”, a sort of mental parasite which allows him to be partially controlled, and which allows the Vors to observe him from any distance. This gets destroyed by his companion, a Slur, a sort of near-invulnerable trilobite with great powers of perception.
The Vors turn out to be divided. One faction, the Permanents, believes in non-interference, but is also afflicted by sterility. However, they’ve more or less taken over a more primitive alien race, the Cessaqs, who serve as their warriors and technicians. The other faction, the Positifs, has learned how to use human woman as surrogate wombs to raise new Vors. Yes, Vors need women! It’s the Positifs who have prosecuted the war.
The Terrans believe that they have the enemy on the run, but their non-human allies are tired of the war, until the Vors attack a mostly-nonhuman planet. They accelerate the war and fight star-by-star for a section of space called the Red Archipelago, which they win at the cost of losing nearly all their fleet.
(This section is made more confusing by Hougron’s quirky terminology. He refers to galaxies, for instance, but apparently means nebulas. He talks about unités Val rather than using any real astronomical measure, and refers to regions like “Space IV”. He rather gives the impression that he thinks the stars are not much further than the planets, and talks about billions of sentients as if that was an impressive figure.)
And then the Vor ships surround Earth and the other planet of the Wheel, and the war is over— they’ve conquered totally. The rest of the book concerns the assimilation of humans and the desperate attempts by small number of humans to resist. The Vors use naguens to control most of the population, and take human women as brides. We’ve suddenly gone from Vietnam to Nazi Europe.
Ultimately Dreik and a few hundred thousand others escape and establish a new colony far away— though, as it turns out, not far enough. The Vors (now run by the most aggressive of the Positifs) are pursuing their expansion and run into the new colony. But the humans have an ace— a local superintelligent xeno! And then, incredibly, Hougron ends the book thus:
— […] We’ll see what happens.
Indeed, many things happened. But that is another story.
Srsly. He just ends the book, vaguely promising a sequel, which he never wrote.
The book is Exhibit A, I think, of what happens when you write without a plan. At least, it’s hard to believe that Hougron sat down at his typewriter with this book in mind. It rumbles from satire to space opera, from paranoid spy story to political intrigue to pseudo-history, covers about four different kinds of war, and then it just stops. What’s most bothersome is that there’s nothing in the book you can trust. The Union is built up as a huge imperialist enterprise, and it just collapses and disappears. The Vors are depicted as fighting defensively, only they end up taking over everything. Dreik struggles to understand his predicament, seems to have a breakthrough, and it doesn’t matter. The conflict between the Vors leads to a scene where one Vor predicts that the Positifs will crumble into animalism— only that doesn’t happen. The younger Positifs depose their leader and seem to pursue a policy of enlightened helotry toward the humans— only it turns out they don’t need the humans after all. The humans escape, only they didn’t really.
The same problem occurs in miniature with Dreik’s trilobite-like companion. He’s one of the most interesting characters in the book, and more than once proves surprisingly capable. Yet his personality is almost entirely passive, and all his interventions really accomplish is to keep Dreik alive a little longer.
How does Hougron do at world-building? Well, the middle sixth of the book is the best part; the Vors are an interesting construction and he’s good at showing up conflicts within the two sides. But many passages hint that he’s trying to show the Vors as highly alien beings whose mentality humans can’t fathom, and this entirely fails. When he uses them as viewpoint characters, they just talk French like everyone else and their politics, though interesting, are perfectly comprehensible. The Permanents are hands-off utopians; the Positifs are neo-primitive imperialists— nothing really strange or numinous there.
One cute though macabre detail: he refers to Apocalypse I and II in Earth’s history. There’s a certain dark humor in the world ending twice.
How does he do as a writer? Well, the first 200 pages are a slog; he insists on long conversations between Dreik and the human authorities which are as tedious for us as they are for the parties involved. The prose stays dry and calm, almost never presenting a vivid image or turn of phrase. There’s one bit of everyday novelistic detail— the hero’s mother is a magician, but not a very good one— that stands out precisely for its rarity.
I don’t mean to be entirely negative. Overall the problem is that it seems like three different books mashed together: an antiwar satire, a space opera, and an apocalyptic horror story. Though maybe it’s just cultural: these seem like three different things to an American, but I can see how they’d fit together for a 20C Frenchman. France also experienced a pointless colonial slog and an apocalyptic defeat, just not in that order.
(If you’re wondering, I picked this book up in Montréal in the ’90s and never read it till now.)