A term employed by Voltaire to describe a series of fictions in which he used various fictional forms—the dialogue, the fantastic voyage, and especially the exotic tale of wonder, as popularised by Antoine Galland’s Les milles et une nuits (1704–1717)—in the satirical extrapolation of various philosophical issues of his day. Although he devised the term by analogy with the conte populaire (folktale), the works to which he attached the label were very various in length; what he meant to emphasise was that the works had to be read as fabulations, their artificiality plainly manifest. ‘‘Le Monde comme il va, vision de Babouc’’ (1746; trans. as ‘‘The World as It Is’’) describes an educational excursion under the tutelage of the angel Ituriel, and many of Voltaire’s subsequent contes philosophiques were similarly fantastic. Some, however, were much closer in substance and spirit to modern speculative fiction. ‘‘Zadig, ou la Destine´e’’ (1748) tracks the misfortunes of a master of logical deduction whose brilliance is unappreciated by various interrogators—a significant precursor of detective fiction as well as a comment on the popular reception of scientific discoveries. ‘‘Microme´gas’’ (1752) is a fierce assault on religious vanity whose apparatus—involving giant visitors from Sirius and Saturn—established it as a foundation stone of speculative fiction. Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759; trans. as Candide) is a scathing juxtaposition of the Leibnizian insistence that ours is the best of all possible worlds—here credited to Dr. Pangloss—with a cynical analysis of the world as it is. ‘‘Les Oreilles du Comte de Chesterfield, et Le Chapelain Goudman’’ (1775) subjects an anatomist’s views on the immortal soul to a painstaking thought experiment.
The term was borrowed by Camille Flammarion as a description of science-based speculative fiction—as in his collection Contes philosophiques (1911)—but it did not catch on as a generic description. Speculative fiction made its most significant early advances in a period when the principal model of fiction was the novel, cast in a mimetic rather than a diegetic *narrative mode, and in which self-consciously artificial contes/ tales were being gradually displaced by re´cits/ stories that replaced ‘‘telling’’ with ‘‘showing’’ to the extent permitted by their restricted word lengths. Because the themes of speculative fiction tend to be broad and abstruse, however, they are often better fitted to the format of the conte philosophique than to the mimetic short story, whose primary artistic triumph was the development of a ‘‘slice of life’’ format dependent on the reader’s ability to invoke and skillfully deploy stocks of knowledge used in the interpretation of everyday experience.
The frequent use of conte philosophique methods by modern science fiction is one of the features that makes it seem ‘‘crude’’ to critics who consider the mimetic mode intrinsically superior. However, any serious attempt to investigate and display ‘‘the world as it is’’ (as revealed by the enhanced perceptions of science rather than the everyday traffic of mundane experience) is obliged to go beyond the limitations of mimetic presentation into the realms of diegetic *narrative. For this reason, the conte philosophique continues to survive and thrive in modern speculative fiction, assisting it in the exploration of the ways in which conceivable innovations might transform future society and in the use of nonhuman viewpoints—aliens, artificial intelligences, and so on— to illustrate and illuminate philosophical questions. The main sequence of classic science fiction short stories—key examples include John W. Campbell’s ‘‘Twilight’’ (1934), Isaac Asimov’s ‘‘Nightfall’’ (1939) and his robot stories, Clifford Simak’s ‘‘City’’ series (launched 1942), Daniel Keyes’ ‘‘Flowers for Algernon’’ (1959), and Bob Shaw’s ‘‘Light of Other Days’’ (1966)—exhibits a clear pattern of increasingly ingenious adaptation of their philosophical substance to a more conventionally mimetic mode of presentation. Kingsley Amis’ characterisation of such Works as ‘‘idea-as-hero stories’’ stresses their conte philosophique functionality, recognising that ideas can no longer function as ‘‘heroes’’ when they are consigned to the background of a text in order that its ‘‘human interest’’ may take precedence. The adaptation of Voltairean contes philosphiques to mimetic modes of narration by science fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century was a compromise with reader preference rather than literary fashion, but the even balance between ideas and characters contrived by the most sophisticated contes philosophiques of that period helped to maintain the tradition of hard science fiction against conspicuous and powerful softening tendencies.
Writers from outside the commercial genre have often felt freer than writers within it to indulge in the production of blatant contes philosophiques. American writers eager to avoid the stigmata of science fiction have mostly avoided similar imagery, but several high-profile European fabulators have taken a strong interest in the intellectual produce of science, including Primo Levi, whose relevant work from the 1960s is sampled in translation in The Sixth Day and Other Stories (1990); Italo Calvino, in the collections translated as Cosmicomics (1968) and t zero (1969); Josef Nesvadba, in Vampire Ltd (1964) and In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman (1970; aka The Lost Face); and Stanislaw Lem, in such collections as The Cyberiad (1974) and Mortal Engines (1977)