Thursday, 5 July 2012

Safia Ketou - The Mauve Planet

"- Why should I change? My personality does not vary according to my residence."
"- As for me, I adapt to all environments."
The Mauve Planet

by Safia Ketou

Safia Ketou (of her real name Zohra Rabhi) is an Algerian short story writer who wrote in French. Born in 1944. She committed suicide in 1989.
Safia Ketou wrote short stories, and children story books.  She also published a collection of poetry, Citar Friends (Amie Cithare), and a play called Asma.

The wonderful fact about this young Algerian writer is that she is (probably) the first contemporary Algerian writer to have written science-fiction. I'm glad to say that our first sci-fi writer post independence was a woman. 

Her short story collection The Mauve Planet and Other Stories (La Planete Mauve et Autres Nouvelles) is a series of tales set in space, or outside of space and time, in mythical places and were written between 1962 and 1978.

Safia Ketou's style is simple, nude in a sense. Her texts and her vision of an outer world remind me of Neil Gaiman's sense of the fantastic (see his collection Fragile Things). The stories start simply enough, and the reader follows the tone of a tale that echoes childhood memories, until suddenly the story has edged towards something bordering on horror.

Because The Mauve Planet is practically forgotten altogether in Algeria and unknown abroad, and because it has not been republished anywhere (nor has not been translated in English, as the rest of Ketou's work), I thought I'd bend the rules of authors estates' rights and translate one of here stories to publish it here.

She deserves to be remembered, these stories deserve to be known, in Algeria and abroad particularly in English because I never want to have to sit again in a lecture hall listening to a MENA literature specialist telling me that North Africa, for all its glory, hasn't yet managed to produce science-fiction work ....

In honor of your memory ya Zohra Rabha-Safia Ketou.

"The Mauve Planet :

Together, Ryad and Alym had checked shuttle Faiza 7’s flight deck.

They had filled up on fuel and bought restoratives in the astronauts’ shop.

Their new space-suits had just been delivered. Their material was resistant to everything.

Finally ready, the two astronauts had waved to the commander of Base 88 before climbing into their unit.  

They had left the earth just as the first snowflakes were landing on the ground.

The first part of their voyage went perfectly smoothly.  The galaxies bore splendid hues and their shimmer filled the screen with scintillating poetry.

Ryad was singing in his cabin looking at the stars, while Alym kept an eye on the steering needles chewing on vitamin pills.

To calm his nerves, Ryad put his seat in semi-horizontal position and took a nap.

Alym’s attention was suddenly aroused.  He noticed that the steering needles had begun to dance while the ignition levers were flashing, signalling an alarm.

Worried, he began to try stabilizing the needles but in vain.  Instinctively, his team mate had awoken and was radio-calling the Air Base.  He was only receiving a kind of muddled, rustling sound impossible to decipher. 
The waves were scrambled.  He thought out loud:

- We are cut off from earth.

- We are changing direction, said Alym who was observing the control panel.

The space-shuttle was supposed to go towards the moon where a new base had been built in 1980; but a mysterious phenomenon was altering Faiza 7’s trajectory.  The direction the shuttle was now on followed an irresistible force attracting it towards Shipwreck-Space.

Greatly distressed, Alym called out:

- The Tenth Space !

- We’re finished, said Ryad, his eyes fixed on the control panel.

But the main needle stabilised on 90 degrees, and the alarm signals stopped flashing.

- Our shuttle seems auto-guided, noticed Alym.

- Who is this super pilot leading us by the nose, asked Ryad intrigued.

This question, somewhat premature, relaxed the atmosphere.  The two astronauts looked at each other, and a burst of laughter began to fill their chest, up to then constricted by anguish.


Soon, a large purple planet appeared on Faiza 7’s front screen.  A surprise whistle escaped Ryad.  His companion hurried to switch the system’s powerful cameras on.

- Photo souvenirs for my wife, he said with a cheeky wink.  Ryad pulled a skeptic face:

- You are very optimistic, to hope to see her again.

- Why shouldn’t I be?

- That’s true, Ryad admitted, I am being dramatic.

- Let’s take the Y pills, advised Alym.

- We will need all our faculties, indeed.

- Take pills R also.

- Ok, but…

An unexpected crackling sound interrupted him mid-sentence.

The two pilots jumped in fear, their anguish was reaching culminating levels when a voice made their back microphone vibrate.

- Earthlings, do you hear me?

Utter fright.  The two men were barely breathing.  A heavy silence punctuated the question.  Ryad tried to break from his suffocation but emitted no sound.

Pale, Alym had the presence of mind to remark:

- He spoke in Esperanto.

Straight away, the mysterious voice explained:

- We know every language.

Ryad was now back in control of himself. He was carefully listening while keeping an eye on the voice recorders which had just kicked in.

Completely back to his usual self-control now, Alym asked:

- who are you?

- I am the leader of the XYRYX.

Meanwhile, Faiza 7 had softly landed like a falling leaf on an autumnal ground.

- Where are we? Ryad said.

The voice with no face replied:

- You are on the Mauve Planet.

- I’ve never heard of it, admitted Ryad.

- Take off your protective suits and come out of your shuttle.

- Is there oxygen on this planet? Alym worried.

- There is, yes, you will not need your helmets.

Without waiting, the two men took off their space suits and proceeded to leave their respective communicating units.  Then, they crossed the outside barrier leading them to the exit.

Unfamiliar fragrances tickled their noses.

Having reached the bottom of the ladder, they stopped to breathe and fill their lungs with the sweet breeze playing with their hair.  Awaiting instructions from the XYRYX’s leader, they exchanged their first impressions in code. 

The two companions were no longer anxious.  Fear had turned into curiosity, the pair had always been fond of new experiences and suspense.

Almost impatiently, they awaited further instructions. Nothing. The strange voice had stopped.

The two men began to walk on the mauve sand, spread as far as the eyes could see.

According to their earth-watch, they had walked for only a few minutes when they saw a green city raising from the ground, about a hundred meters from where they stood.  Thinking he was being tricked by a mirage, Alym asked Ryad:

- are you seeing what I’m seeing?

-  what are you seeing?

- A city. It has just sprung up from the desert.

- then it’s not a mirage, concluded Ryad with an comical accent which made Alym laugh nervously. He felt he was losing grip of his senses.

- Go on, grumbled Ryad, we are both lost in a mauve desert, with mobile cities popping up the ground, and Mister Happy Alym finds it possible somehow to crack up with laughter.

- What ... Alym was trying to explain but was again shaken with irrational laughter.

- Don’t choke yourself, I haven’t taken my first aid kit.

- To butcher me with ! No thanks.

The two men were making their way on the green city’s main avenue while arguing.

- I really could do with a coffee, said Ryad seeing a drinking area through the transparent city walls.

- Let’s go in, Alym decided, pushing the door.

A hubbub welcomed the two men who saw about twenty people in metallic clothing, sat or standing near the bar.  They were completely flat and wore a number on their chest.  Their heads had two faces, they did not need to turn to examine the two new faces and in a second, the realisation of their arrival froze the assembly.

All noises stopped.  Ryad felt that a threat was floating over them and became pale.

Alym did not hesitate. In a measured tone, he spoke to the room in these terms:

- “we are earthlings and, by accident, we have arrived on your planet.” A few exclamations were heard. One of the men raised his hand to call for calm. He came to meet the two men and declared:

- It was not an accident.

Ryad whistled and Alym said:

- How so?

The man was wearing number 318 and made an appeasing gesture:

- Your deviation was provoked.

- Why? Ryad asked.

- You will know in good time.

Upon hearing this evasive answer, the two men looked at each other, not in the least enthusiastic about this news.

XYRYX 318 invited them to sit down and signalled the barman. As soon as he did so, the two guests saw before them glasses containing a whitish liquid with an undefinable taste.  They had a difficult time hiding their cringes while drinking.

XYRYX 318 was keeping an eye on the content level.  Seizing an opportune moment, he amiably offered:

- do you want some more?

Hurriedly and revealingly, Ryad quickly replied:

- No thank you.

Alym tried to repair his companion’s rudeness.

- It’s tasty but, he said, but …

Not waiting to hear more, XYRYX 318 called the waiter once more who brought the same drink in larger glasses. There was enough to refresh a whale.

Ryad gave Alym with a sarcastic look.

- It’s delicious isn’t it? He riled.

Alym glared at him while smiling diplomatically for those around him.  Then, he took advantage of XYRYZ 318 being distracted to empty his glass in a flower pot. “I hope this will not harm them” he thought.

Very relaxed, Ryad began to question his host.

-          Why, he wondered, is this city moving?

-          It’s a preventive measure, against an atomic war, explained XYRYX 318.

-          That’s astute.

-          This way, during the day, soldiers guard the city, weapon in hand. At night, we make the city go down below ground so that everybody can rest running no risks.

-          So why do you not continually live underground?

-          Because the air system does not work at night.

-          Really?

-          Yes, this planet’s air is called Pleasure Air, it stops old age.

-          And what effect does it have on earth men?

-          That’s what we’re going to find out, declared XYRYX 318 standing up, come with me.

The two men followed XYRYX 318 outside. There, the latter took out of his pocket a device not bigger than a matchbox.  Pressing the only control on it, he asked:

- You do know this, don’t you?

- No, admitted Alym.

- It’s a car radio-control device. With it, wherever I am my vehicle can find me as soon as I call for it.

And indeed, the rolling engine stopped neatly before the two surprised men who exclaimed:

- With no driver!

XYRYX 318 smiled:

- it’s radio-controlled. The engine works everywhere; in the air, under water or on the ground.

- That’s wonderful, Ryad exclaimed while going around the multiform machine.

- Do you want to go in? offered XYRYX 318, opening the doors.

- With pleasure, the two men replied, climbing in the strange car.

XYRYX 318 got behind the wheel. Starting it up, he said:

- Even though it is automatic, I prefer to drive it myself as in the good old days.

The auto-boat-shuttle rode for a bit before taking off.  Through enlarging glass-windows, the two men could look at the cities and the fields of the Mauve Planet. A symphony of colours charmed their dazzled eyes.

The landscape was so harmonious that Ryad felt his painter’s fingers tickle. Faced with this illustrated book, he felt he had become a child again, just for an instant.

Next to him, Alym was taken by a sweet drowsiness rocked by the machine’s regular movements.  XYRYX 318 was a very good driver.

Suddenly, a sort of a brontosaur-shape rose up on the horizon, almost touching the windshield. Seeing the monster, the two men screamed with fright.

Their host began to laugh:

- you are scared, he noted.

- It’s …. It’s a monster, stuttered Ryad.

- Not at all, XYRYX 318 said.

- What is it? Stammered Alym.

- A castle, that’s all.

- That’s all, repeated Alym ironically.

After the beauty of the landscape, it was a peculiar sight.  Blue with fright, Ryad murmured:

- Gloomy…

- This is where our leader resides, the driver said.

“He’s got tastes” thought Alym, while his companion was elbowing him in the ribs, lightly, with common understanding.  With a critical eye, the two men began to examine the aspect of this strange residence.  It seemed to be made out of materials unknown to them.

A true aesthete, Ryad was profoundly shocked.  He could not help but observe:

 - Strange architecture. Who could have conceived such a thing?

- Me, quietly replied XYRYX 318.

- Oh, do forgive me, sputtered Ryad blushing.

- That’s quite all right, it's nothing.

- You are not offended?

- No, because your opinion matters little to me.

Alym was waiting for this opportunity.

- Ha! Take that! He triumphantly punctuated.

Ryad raised his shoulders. The XYRYX touched a handle. The vehicle lost altitude and softly landed on the main roof.

Opening his door, XYRYX 318 explained:

- this residence is also a spaceship.

- A spaceship? Exclaimed Alym who was passionate about mechanics.

- Yes, it’s practical, our leader frequently takes off on last minute trips.

Having left the plane to the care of technicians, the three of them entered the place via electric stairs.

Amazing! While the exterior of this rocket-palace was plain looking, its interior was delightful, welcoming: a jewel case.

In the first room, the walls were luminescent, the draperies were perfumed, and convertible furniture boasted an ultra-modern decor.

XYRYX invited the two men to sit down. He checked the time on his ring-watch and left.

Alym and Ryad went round the room, discovering previously unimaginable objects.

As their host was taking some time to come back, they began to smoke nourishing-cigarettes.

- Exquisite! Ryad said approvingly, inhaling a second time.

- Indeed, agreed Alym, they are much better than ours.

After having quickly browsed through a comic-strip left in the room, Ryad laid down on the air-conditioned sofa and fell instantly asleep.

Soon after, Alym did the same, unable to resist the call of the soft pillows singing calming melodies.


When they woke up, the two men realised they had been moved to a bedroom with two beds.

Ryad stretched himself for a long while before he spoke to his friend who had buried himself in fur.

 - We are really being treated like princes, said he.

- Or like hostages, finished Alym.

- Don’t be such a pessimist, begged Ryad while readjusting  his perfumed pillow.

-  It is not pessimism but realism, corrected Alym.

Ryad laughed brushing it off:

- Look at this luxury.  Isn’t it an ideal place to regain some strength?

Alym scratched his head perplexed:

- I don’t see what XYRYX’s aim is.

- Nor do I, confessed Ryad, we will soon find out …

- You are a patient disciple of madame Waiting.

- Let us rather say that I let myself live.  And as long as there is life, there is hope.

- The theory is defensible, but if I must give you some advice, don’t believe in fairy stories.

- You are always so full of suspicions. You haven't changed.

- Why should I change? My personality does not vary according to my residence.

- As for me, I adapt to all environments.

- As you wish. But do recognise that we have not been brought here for our looks.

Ryad burst out laughing.

- Why not? He said. Maybe there is a lovely XYRYX princess who has fallen in love with one of us.  She ordered her technicians to alter the trajectory our spaceship and …

Alym interrupted him:

- Stop dreaming, our reputation has not crossed to the Tenth dimension.

Seeing that his friend was taking this to the first degree, Ryad tapped on his shoulder saying calmly:

- You are so credulous Alym, you take everything I say at first value.

- Of course I do, you never stop joking.

While they were talking, the two men examined the place with attention.  They noticed several devices the use or handling of which they did not recognise.

The window was slightly ajar, opening onto a well-kept garden, filled with luminous flowers of unknown species.

About an hour after they had freshened up, a woman’s voice surprised the two pilots:

- Would you like something to eat?

They noticed it was coming from the intercom on the wall. They replied yes.

Immediately, a young woman, wearing number 1,000 on her chest, entered the bedroom. She was pushing a rolling table full of beautifully presented dishes from which floated a delicious aroma.  Every pieces of her clothing was made of embroidered aluminium.

With a lovely smile, she welcomed them and introduced herself as their guide-interpreter.  Then, she sat at the table in front of them to show them how to eat the Mauve Planet's food.

While making sure they were not lacking anything, she questioned them and feeling at ease they answered.  XYRYX 1,000 was really a charming and cultivated hostess.

The two colleagues tasted the dishes she was serving them and noticed her thin fingers were adorned with gold filaments. Under her spell, they were letting themselves be rocked by her crystalline voice.  She insisted:

- Do take more fruits, they are very light.

Alym couldn’t stop asking questions.

- Are there schools here? He asked.

- No, we are all autodidacts.  Each one of us has a small device he can consult at any moment, anywhere.

- What do you call this instrument?

- We call it the Professor.

- Professor?

- yes, because we have the possibility to ask it any question and it has the ability to answer all of them with exactitude.

- But who teaches you the basics?

- Our parents. When we are born, they provide us with food, accommodation, and clothing.  At the same time, they become our educators until we acquire this teaching device, that is, the Professor.

- do you get practical classes?

- There are science laboratories as well as pedagogical museums equipped with the most sophisticated tools.  You can meet the planet’s greatest scientists, and go and talk to them without asking for an appointment first.

- And what about language teaching?

- We rely on the audio-visual method.  Our recorders and televisions have a great recognition power. We can be present and assist to all interplanetary conferences.

Ryad also wanted to question the young woman.

- How are marriages done here? He asked.

- Unions have nothing problematic about them, as they occur by number.

- What do you mean?

- Couples are formed very simply. For example, woman 120 will marry man 120.

- How odd, grunted Ryad, and are there divorces?

- Never.

- Why not?

- Because for us, no problem is insoluble. A physical or moral discord is a disease we treat. There are remedies for all ills, a solution to all problems.

- It’s rational, but are you really happy?

- Happy? As much as one can be. I confess that personally, I aspire to nothing else if that is what you mean…

- Are you married? Asked Ryad.

She blushed but nonetheless replied:

- When Man 1,000 comes back from his mission, we will get married.

So as to stop his friend embarrassing their hostess further, Alym asked:

- Could I ask what doctrine have you opted for, on this planet?

- We have opted for scientific socialism. No one is needy here.  We eliminated private property and state capitalism a long time ago.  Social justice is a concrete reality. Our leader is not a dictator but a guide for us.

- So it’s a success, admitted Alym.

- Perfect, confirmed Ryad with a sneer.

Alym understood that his friend was making fun of him. He said to the interpreter:

- You know, my friend Ryad is a thorough capitalist.

- It shows, she said.

Suddenly, the mural intercom crackled and a man’s voice called out:

- Hello XYRYX 1,000?

- Yes, I’m listening.

- Bring the earthlings to our leader.

- Ok, over and out.

This brief discussion had taken place in a language foreign to the two men. XYRYX 1,000 translated it in these terms:

- Our leader is waiting for you.

Alym and Ryad followed the hostess through the flowery corridors of the spaceship-city.  At the end of the last corridors, an asbestos door suddenly opened to let the four armed men accompanying the earthlings and the guide come in.

All seven of them ascended in an elevator taking them to the private chambers of the XYRYX’s leader. Two ugly giants were guarding the entrance. XYRYX 1,000 spoke to them in a tongue unintelligible to the two men.  After talking with each other, the guards signalled to the soldiers who were standing very straight and immobile.  Promptly, they abandoned their military posture and searched the newcomers before letting them go through what was for them a threshold of mystery.

As soon as they took their first step inside, the two men were spellbound.  A bewitching music had welcomed them. The beauty of the place was beyond worldly imagination. All sense of time had vanished, the atmosphere’s density seemed heavier to them, almost unbearable.  Close to fainting, they were nonetheless walking behind a smiling hostess who kept turning around to check on them and reassure them.

Finally, she succeeded in dissipating the anguish that had engulfed them.  With one movement of the hand, the music stopped.  She had dismissed the spell and she announced:

- Here is the leader of the XYRYX.

The earthlings’ eyes rested on the same spot.  They saw a being with no head, lying on a round bed.  He spoke in Esperanto:

- Sit down, earth men.

They obeyed keeping their eyes fixed on the leader who continued:

- I diverted your ship because I need you.

Ryad exclaimed :

- Us!

- Yes, I am about to die.

When he said these words, a woman’s voice coming from some place hidden, a voice intensely sad, began to recite.  The leader of the XYRYX heaved a long sigh and proceeded:

- Death is nigh.

A shudder froze the atmosphere.  Alym tried to be warm and said:

- Well, one is never sure.

- It is alas, said the leader of the XYRYX, because when the people of this planet are about to die, they become invisible for a little while, just before.

Frowning, the two men nodded dubiously.  As if to convince them, the leader added:

- Can you not see that my head is no longer visible?

During these long moments, no comforting sound of life could have made the fear which had taken over the room go away.  Ryad could no longer stand this oppressive silence.  He stood up screaming like a mad man:

- Speak! Oh would you just speak!

The young woman can over to stop him as he was about to throw himself out of the window.

She brought him back to his seat to make him drink a calming potion.  Then, she pushed on a button hidden under the table.  As soon as she did so, the calming sound of sea waves and seagulls started.  The atmosphere relaxed. Alym sighed of relief.

Very much shaken, Ryad exclaimed:

- The sea! I want to see the sea!

The hostess replied to him gently:

- There is no sea on the Mauve Planet.

- It’s a recording, isn’t it? Alym said.

- Yes.

During this interminable exchange, the leader of the XYRYX had remained composed.  Calmly, he spoke again:

- As I was telling you, my life is about to end…

- Alas…., cried the young girl.

- It will be a great loss for your people, Alym sympathised.

- You have just come to the crux of the matter.  These people, that I dearly love, have always placed their trust in me while I was living. And my death must not alter anything.

- Yes indeed, agreed Alym, indeed.

Ryad had come back to his senses. He asked:

- What can we do?

- It’s simple, I count on the two of you.

- On us? They were both stunned.

- Yes, let me explain …

He hesitated before beginning:

- Do you know that earth men become immortal when they come to this planet?

The two men opened their eyes wide and said in unison:

-          What!

Seeing he effect of his revelation, the leader of the XYRYX laughed a discreetly.

- And so? Said Alym.

- And so, you have become indestructible.

Impulsively, Ryad applauded and cried out:

- Marvellous!

As for Alym, he only smiled and observed:

- When my wife finds out, she’s…

The leader of the XYRYX interrupted him:

- You wife will never see you again.

- What? Said Alym who couldn’t believe his ears.

- You will remain here, specified the leader.

- But … what for?

- When I die, you will take my place.

- Leader of the XYRYX!

- Their eternal leader.

- Is this a proposition or an order?

- An order, the leader stressed.

Ryad felt that fear was overwhelming him. He wanted to act naïve:

- If I understand correctly, he said to his friend, you’re in real trouble.

Unperturbed, the leader added:

- You are in the same situation. You will be his deputy.

Immediately, Ryad did not feel like joking any longer.  He was certain at present. The leader of the XYRYX would achieve his goals.

Alym thought he was living a nightmare. His reason was leaving him. Ryad saw such anguish in his eyes that he decided to attempt a last plea.  Firmly, he asked:

- What about our families?

- Already, you no longer have families.

- It’s inconceivable! protested Alym.

With a calm voice, the Leader of the XYRYX explained:

- Understand me well, he said, I do not want you to reproduce.  Planet Mauve must not be submerged by little earthlings and by their descendants later.  In that event, my people would be in danger. Especially since they themselves are mortals.

Ryad discovered a breach in that speech. He declared:

- Conclusion: you should let us go.

- No, my decision is taken. Because I love my people I wanted to thank them before I die. And how? By delegating an eternal leader whose duty will be to safeguard unity and popular opinion.

- Until when? asked Alym.

- Until the end of the XYRYX.

- Isn’t that so! Ryad said sarcastically, which means that….

Alym completed:

- Which means that we will find ourselves totally alone…

- …. like two idiots

The two men looked at each other and decided together:

- We are going to leave.

At this very instant the Leader of the XYRYX decided to be firm. Sternly he said:

- I will stop you.

- What if we tried to run away? said Alym

- The signals of your spaceship are scrambled.  If you turn back you will become lost in space.

- How so? Said Ryad.

- Your spaceship would wander for ever in between planets, never able to land anywhere.
They were speechless. They looked at each other. An indescribable sadness enveloped them.


Meanwhile, on Earth, the commander of Base 88 was very worried. He had been waiting for a signal from Faiza 7 and had sent messages to every space station, but with no result.

All interplanetary transmission-posts were alerted.  No information had been received on Alym and Ryad.  Finally, the astronauts’ syndicate had to take a decision. Once the standard investigations were completed, they were declared lost.

The families of the two men were informed with great tact by an assistant-psychologist from social services on the base.  On Earth, Ryad and Alym were now considered dead.


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