A century and a half later, Jules Verne’s enthusiasm for adventure remains infectious. I suspect it always will. From daring hot air balloon escapades to dazzling submarine odysseys, his speculative stories are some of the purest I’ve ever read in terms of science, curiosity, and imagination.
His didactic approach to any subject he tackles fascinates as much as it sometimes overbears; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea often reads like an oceanographer’s handbook rather than a work of dramatic fiction, while From the Earth to the Moon isn’t so much a story as a bold how-to prediction of the method by which we might achieve that goal. I’d say Verne’s a visionary more than anything. His characters are often broad and grandiose, his stories high-concept, even pulpy, but he’s able to bring to life these amazing journeys with an almost juvenile passion for escapism, and a teacher’s passion for gathering and imparting knowledge.
He builds these stories from the ground up, detail by detail, the way his castaway survivors in Mysterious Island cobble together the resources available to them, first into necessary tools, then into ever more elaborate and daring experiments to recapture the civilization they left behind. He’s hoping, dreaming, planning ahead for us. We buy into Verne’s speculations because of his building block approach to them; leaps of logic are rare; usually if there’s a gap in his explanations, it’s because he’s waiting for science to catch up with him.
A few of my favourite Verne novels I’ve read recently are:
Journey to the Centre of the Earth — One of his most naive science fictions, but it’s still a great example of Verne’s infectious appetite for exploration, sprinkled with geology, geography, cryptology, and just plain old addictive adventuring. I re-read this one quite a lot.
Five Weeks in a Balloon — Like most of the classic Victorian adventures set in Africa, it hasn’t aged well in terms of racism–in fact, it’s one of the most offensive I’ve read. But that aside, I enjoyed the heck out of Five Weeks in a Balloon. It’s a simple, pure, high-concept extravaganza featuring a voyage over some of the most remote regions of the Dark Continent.
Mysterious Island — An epic Robinson Crusoe-esque survival tale featuring a group of Civil War escapees marooned on a desert island. The ingenuity of the hero, Cyrus Smith, and his frankly mind-boggling engineering skills is what made this a page-turner for me. I loved seeing what he’d come up with next! Then there’s the Granite House, the pirates, the touching relationships, the return of Nemo, the volcano. This one has it all. It’s an absolute keeper.
I start writing Subterranean Clock, Book 3 of The Steam Clock Legacy tomorrow, and I can’t think of a better way to get me in the mood. Verne is king!