Jules Verne: The man who saw tomorrow
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