Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Jules Verne: The man who saw tomorrow

People find being in zero gravity an exhilarating experience. No wonder so many people go for bungee jumping and the less adventurous to amusement park rides. It is a feeling of absolute freedom as well as a scary feeling. There is a similar zero gravity feeling in life also. Like how we spend most of our physical life bound to the ground by the physical force of gravity, our social life is spent bound by the social forces that bind us to organizations and social structures. At the age of four it starts – a school, then college, then a workplace. Your very identity is defined by these organizations that you feel an identity crisis when you are finally rid of these organization at the time of your retirement. Usually one has a spell of excitement when one is out of one such organization and not yet moved on to the next. I had such an experience when I had finished my schooling and yet to join college. I had finished my board exams and all my college entrance exams. Still two months remained for results. Meantime I was unattached and totally free. During that time I would head for the local library after lunch and be there till dinner time. It was during this time that I happened to read my first science fiction – ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ by Jules Verne.


Well, it was a science fiction in its own time. But it is no longer science fiction today as most of his vision has already come to pass. But that’s what makes it exciting. Seeing how somebody could predict what technology would bring 100 years later. We may never live to see if predictions of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke ever come to pass. And it was not just empty speculation. He actually gets into the details. The technology introduced in this book is underwater travel. He goes on to explain how the submarine manages to stay under water, how it manages its energy needs, how human needs are maintained inside the submarine etc. His other books may not seem that visionary when viewed in the light of modern discoveries. For instance using a spring to power a vessel to moon may even seem ludicrous today. But one cannot but admire the depth with which he explores the possibilities and valiantly tries to make his theories sound plausible and consistent with the discovered scientific facts of the time.

In terms of structure, most of his books read like travelogues. One can see this especially in ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. All his narratives are usually in first person and try to maintain an impersonal tone more like an official report. Whereas this steals the drama and emotions, it gives a feeling of authenticity as if one is really reading some reports filed from a real scientific expedition. Usually there are a limited number of characters in most of his books. And these limited characters remain more like acquaintances or office colleagues. We just graze their surface and never get to see what goes on inside their heads. And rarely do the characters ever do something exceptional to reveal their unique characters. But ironically one of the fictional characters I admire most is from ‘2000 leagues under the sea’ – Captain Nemo. Not that we get to see really deep into this character either. He is somewhat like a super hero - larger than life - an infallible, invulnerable, crusader for justice. Probably Jules Verne’s technique of keeping his characters at an arm’s length from his readers works well for Nemo. One does not want to get too close to his superheroes and know their failings. Then they lose their aura and begin to seem more mundane. It is best super heroes remain distant and mysterious – an ideal a normal man can never hope to achieve. The common man can only stand afar and hero worship the super hero. That’s the kind of hero Nemo is.

From a science fiction perspective, one must say Jules Verne’s work is single dimensional. A good science fiction must explore the aspects of technological progress along with the changes in the social, political, economic and legal landscape that must accompany the technological progress. But Jules Verne’s books focus exclusively on the technological aspect turning a blind eye to the other aspects. This alone would prevent Jules Verne from standing up to his modern counterparts. But one must definitely give Jules Verne his due as a pioneer of the science fiction genre. 'Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea' is of course the pinnacle of his mastery in terms of exploration of technological possibilities. If one needs some amount of drama and adventure, 'Around the world in eighty days' is the one for you. 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' almost takes you out of the realm of science fiction and into that of fantasy. 'From the Earth to the moon and around it' is one I wouldn't recommend.

Coming up next Tuesday: Jonathan Swift's Alien societies on Earth

8 comments:

  1. Jules Verne definitely deserves his due as a science fiction pioneer. I read “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” many years ago, enjoyed them both. That so many of his visions have now come to pass does make it exciting, you are right about that. I liked his use of first person narratives. I never thought of Jules Verne’s work as one dimensional but looking back, I can see how it can be perceived that way. He was quite the visionary in his time.

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  2. Thanks for your comment JerseyLil. Even I loved Jules Verne when I read him. But somehow later felt the story lacked the richness of say a Foundation Series or a Dune Series.

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  3. I was both struck and amused by the comparison of society with gravity, Karthik. That was a stroke of genius. I enjoyed the excellent write up on Jules Verne's writing. His themes, style and characterisation have been captured vividly. Without doubt, he has passed the baton of science fiction to the likes of Asimov and Clarke who have furthered it to the farthest boundaries of imagination.

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  4. Verne was fun. In a way, there was reason for why his tales did not encompass the changes in the rest of Society. His was a time of individual achievement and the extent of impact science could make on Society was not expected. (They thought that pure science was an expansion of knowledge of the universe AND anything that was of routine use to Society - applied science and engineering - was looked down upon). Also, Science was seen as a means of exploring the universe much like Amundsen's exploration of the Poles and was not expected to change the world, merely to increase the knowledge of the universe.

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