Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Jules Verne Roundtable

Early in the summer of 2004, during the initial stages of our planning for this special issue, I sent out a letter to all SFS consultants and several other scholars who had an interest in Jules Verne. In this letter, I invited them to participate in a roundtable discussion by writing a short response (250 words or less) to the question: "What is Jules Verne’s relevance to the twenty-first century?" The following comments are the result of this query. I offer my grateful thanks to all those who participated.—ABE

I think of Jules Verne as an essential stage in the evolution of science fiction from the fantastic voyage, fantasy satire, and utopia of earlier literature. Although he was addicted to a version of the fantastic voyage (voyages extraordinaires), he mixed it with his fascination with new technology to create a believable adventure into unknown lands. It is the believability of his submarines, cannons, and powered balloons that created an appetite for the bolder extrapolations of his successors, as well as the idea-centered speculations pioneered by H.G. Wells. But it was Jules Verne who jump-started the genre, proving that this visionary literature had a world-wide readership and the potential to support a variety of writers, and it is difficult to imagine what science fiction would have been without him. One example of his significance is that his novels are the first sf works translated into countries just beginning their industrial transformations, such as China and India. A second is that his work, along with that of Wells and Poe, was featured on the cover of Amazing Stories for its first nine issues; these were the writers whom Gernsback pointed out as the examples of what he proposed to publish. A third is the inspiration he provided for a generation of inventors and explorers such as Igor Sikorsky, Simon Lake, Norman Casteret, and Admiral Byrd. In The Road to Science Fiction, I called Verne "the indispensable Frenchman." He still seems indispensable.—James Gunn, University of Kansas

The many stories of Jules Verne are proof positive that the Zeitgeist is the true begetter of science fiction. His most memorable characters—Nemo, Robur, Phileas Fogg, Barbicane—are culture heroes from the first age of progress. Promethean figures all of them: solitary achievers in a tomorrow’s world where the dearest ambitions of the nineteenth century are shown to have been realized.

His heroes contribute in extraordinary ways to the splendid record of achievement that runs from James Watt and Bessemer to Edison, Westinghouse, and Pullman. In 1869, by a prodigious act of engineering, de Lesseps had transformed terrestrial communications when the Suez Canal was opened; and one year later Verne continued the history of engineering with a look-ahead to the next advance in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Far away, on a desert island in the Pacific, Captain Nemo "established his dockyard, and there a submarine vessel was constructed from his design. By methods which will at some future date be revealed he had rendered subservient the illimitable forces of electricity, which, extracted from inexhaustible sources, was employed for all the requirements of his floating equipage."

Nemo, Robur, Barbicane, and Cyrus Smith remain forever embedded in the last age of innocence. Time and many technological advances have turned them into museum pieces of bygone ideas and long vanished hopes—elements in the Victorian dialogue between today and tomorrow. The self-confident antici-pations of the Verne stories have given place to tales of despair and destruction. The Lord of the Flies had foreseen "that men would be made so overwhelmingly bumptious by the miracles of their own technology that they would soon lose all sense of reality."—I.F. Clarke, Milton under Wychwood, Oxon, UK

Verne still matters because he was a master storyteller whose tales challenge our moral imagination while also feeding our insatiable hunger for vicarious adventure. Unlike Aronnax, once we have boarded the Nautilus we cannot escape. Nemo’s submarine forever prowls in the depths of our minds and sometimes surfaces in ways as unexpected and disconcerting as it was to Verne’s contemporaries. It is at once an oddment of early technological fantasy receding into history books, and also an enduring and all too appealing symbol of utopian longing to flee the mundane world ashore which so often puts the far more marvelous real technology of the twenty-first century to uses that are infuriatingly trivial or unjust. Who that has ever enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea does not sometimes long to sail like Nemo to lost Atlantis, appreciate art or music as he does in unsocial solitude, and torpedo as viciously as he does some ship of fools? But to imagine Nemo as more Robin Hood than Bin Laden, even though right, may tempt us to a dangerous path. So too for many of Verne’s other voyagers. To adventure vicariously with them and their alluring machines is to suspend belief in our own moral certitudes no less than those of the nineteenth century which Verne’s novels so often loudly endorse while quietly subverting. He remains worth reading because to do so properly is to pass judgment, not only on Nemo, Aronnax, Robur, and the rest, but on ourselves.—Paul Alkon, University of Southern California

Jules Verne was born in 1828—that is, three years before Michael Faraday demonstrated the principle of induction, the discovery that made possible the invention of the electric generator—and he died in 1905, a decade after the large-scale distribution of electric energy was inaugurated when the water flowing over Niagara Falls was diverted to power two 5000-horsepower generators. Or, to put it another way,Verne was born three years after the first public railway line opened (England’s Stockton and Darlington Railway), and he died during the year that saw the completion of the first continuous route of the great Trans-Siberian Railway, which stretched some ten thousand kilometers across the vastness of Russia.

A pair of dates, then, establishes that Verne’s lifetime encompassed the most consequential era of technological advance since the origins of civilization itself in the agricultural revolution more than ten millennia ago. His novels remain of enduring interest in the twenty-first century because of the practically unparalleled sensitivity with which he responded to technological change. What is crucial here is less the technical details—the submarine of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, the space cannon of From the Earth to the Moon, the hollow planet of Journey to the Center of the Earth—than the general understanding that science and technology were remaking everyday life in radical ways. But must not this insight have been obvious to any major novelist of the nineteenth century? You might guess so, yet the literary record proves otherwise: think of Jane Austen, think of Dickens, think even of Flaubert. Comprehension of the impact of scientific technology on human feeling was Verne’s special gift, and he will be an indispensable guide and inspiration as long as new technology continues to reshape our lives.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University

One aspect by which Verne remains relevant to our time is in our loss of illusions, at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, about science and our increased awareness about how science and its miracles may be used for selfish ends. This is especially visible in Verne’s less familiar works. His most popular novels are naively optimistic, propagating the model of the heroic engineer (Nemo, Cyrus Smith, Barbicane) or taking the form of a bildungsroman (A Captain of 15 or A Two Years’ Vacation). Verne’s "minor" works, in contrast, are often very different. Consider, for example, Propeller Island, which portrays the destruction of the technological marvel of its title—depicted as the epitome of progress—by feuding billionaire American capitalists. Or look closely at how, in Topsy-Turvy, Verne brings back the protagonists of the Baltimore Gun Club and then subverts those qualities that made them the famous heroes of From the Earth to the Moon. Barbicane and his friends represent the financial interests of the stockholders of "The North Polar Practical Association" and have no moral qualms about wreaking havoc upon the human populations of the world by altering the axis of Earth in order to gain access to rich coal deposits. This giving priority to the interests of stockholders over the interests of people seems to me very characteristic of early twenty-first century capitalism. In these novels, Verne shows himself to be an author of sociological speculation, a trait rarely attributed to him.—Roger Bozzetto, Université d’Aix-Marseille I

Real scholarly research about Jules Verne only began in the last thirty or so years of the twentieth century. Some astonishing discoveries have been made: for example, that the first and most important Verne biography (by Allotte de la Fuÿe, 1928) was full of errors, omissions, and outright lies. She misrepresented events in Verne’s life, modified letters, and invented others in trying to portray Verne as a good French bourgeois—well within the political and religious mainstream—with just a touch of marginalism which might be expected in an artist. This flawed biography is still used today by many journalists and pseudo-specialists in promoting the traditional image of Verne. An even more surprising discovery was that those Verne novels published after his death by Hetzel fils were modified and sometimes completely rewritten by Michel Verne, Jules’s son.

After these discoveries, the original Verne versions of the posthumous novels were published, the correspondence between Verne and his publisher Hetzel was published, and the letters between the author and Hetzel’s son are to be published in a year or two. Today, we have an almost complete and true corpus available of all of Verne’s works, more accurate biographies, and a host of new and better translations, not only in English but in the other principal languages as well.

All these elements should help to make Jules Verne an even more recognized novelist in the twenty-first century, one whose life and works will be studied by future generations of scholars.—Jean-Michel Margot, President of the North American Jules Verne Society

That Jules Verne is of relevance for the twenty-first century seems undoubtedly true in view of the many new editions, both of old favorites and lesser known works, appearing in various countries. In Germany, some works are appearing now in modern translations and with scholarly commentaries, and other works that had been available only in the form that Verne’s son Michel gave them are now being prepared for the first time in their original form. While I have never studied Verne’s works in detail, his main relevance for our time seems to be the boundless curiosity that his characters show about the world; they are always eager to explore and to learn new things, which is in marked contrast to the jadedness of much modern science fiction, in which the most fantastic things are taken for granted and used most often only for killing. And Verne managed to convey the idea that knowledge, and the striving after knowledge, can have and does have an aesthetic quality, and that large amounts of information can be a thing of beauty. While humankind has learned a good deal, it should not be forgotten that the realm of things not-yet-known is infinitely larger and that, before the vast cosmos, we are still like little children who have just embarked on the path to knowledge; achieving wisdom is quite another thing.—Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna, Austria

For a century after the 1863 publication of Five Weeks in a Balloon, Jules Verne served as the spiritual father of pimply would-be engineers who sought, not to reform the world, but to escape via technological transcendence from countries with too much history and not enough geography. Verne’s paradigmatic acolyte was Hugo Gernsback, precocious electrifier of a convent in Luxembourg before his inevitable translation to the vaster transatlantic realm of Edison, le sorcier de Menlo Park. With his fellow émigré Frank R. Paul, equally steeped in the great Frenchman’s dreamy literalism, Gernsback went on to invent modern sci-fi, American as apple pie. As for today’s spotty wannabe software designers with their twitching joysticks and nanosecond attention spans, it seems hardly possible that they or their descendants will ever have time or patience for Verne, the epic encyclopédiste of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Most of Verne seems destined to remain the province of the academic sf specialist, though the oeuvre will always be a rich resource for the adaptor with a postmodern thing for retro futurology. Indeed, he who takes up Verne anew today is likely to be a tired middle-aged homme moyen sensuel seeking an escape hatch from the Matrix into a simpler age of steam and rivets. To him we can reveal that when in such novels as Survivors of the Chancellor or Michael Strogoff Hetzel allowed the darker side its due, Verne was a superb adventure writer.—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina

A century ago, in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) and its sequel/remake Voyage à travers l’impossible (1905), Georges Méliès captured (in what now seems like miniature, but then was epic and spectacular) two key elements of Verne: production and circumnavigation. A century later, in Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion (2004), Jack Shaftoe goes around the world in rather more than eighty days; as he journeys across Hindoostan, he has reason to stop on Diu Island, off the coast of Gujarat, and distil the phosphorus out of countless gallons of piss—a procedure described in detail and at length. In China Miéville’s Iron Council (2004), circumnavigation becomes revolution as a transcontinental railroad still under construction is seized by proletarians teetering on the brink of class consciousness; building the railroad with tracks taken from behind the train, which it then runs over in an ongoing cycle, they flee New Crobuzon, only to return years later, having traversed the continent (but unlike Phileas Fogg’s train, the Iron Council’s does not leap a gap—instead, it endlessly produces a gap, the moment of revolutionary transformation). The protagonists of The Confusion and Iron Council map their worlds, sending and bringing back information. They produce. They return.

Regardless of any particular indebtedness to Verne that Stephenson and Miéville might have, both show us the importance of Verne as the initiator of a literature that is always already about capitalism-modernity. Verne’s obsessive focus on the current moment, his general refusal to extrapolate futures, repeatedly captures a bourgeois epoch (described in the opening pages of The Communist Manifesto) of constantly revolutionized production in which social relations are constantly on the verge of transformation. For Verne to go beyond the moment would have required a less conservative investment in progress, but he nonetheless recognized, partially and inconsistently, that the transformation of the world after the image of the bourgeoisie carried tremendous costs, not least for those being transformed. This too is evident in some of the best sf/fantasy being produced today: not just by Stephenson and Miéville (who also share something of Verne’s encyclopedic totalitarianism), but by Gwyneth Jones, Kim Stanley Robinson, M. John Harrison, and others, including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, whose (post)cyberpunk has spent twenty years learning this lesson.—Mark Bould, University of the West of England, Bristol

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