Under the Influence: Jules Verne



     Jules (Gabriel) Verne is a household name throughout the Western world, and a well-known one even outside of it. Versions of his stories have been turned into movies, TV series, video games, anime, and any other form of entertainment imaginable.


     For me, he was one of the original sources of wonder.


     I first encountered the work of Jules Verne in a hardcover abridged (probably for children) version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Even the abridged version was fairly heavy going (I think I was about 7 when I first read it) but it grabbed me with its tale of a hunt for a sea monster that turned into an adventure in a fantastical submarine that took the heroes around the world's seas, from duels with warships on the surface to excursions to the very deepest depths of the ocean. I later found and read less abridged versions, culminating with the Naval Institute Press translation which restored the 25% which was cut from the French version when it was originally translated to English.


     Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is still an amazing work of fiction, astoundingly visionary for its day – and even more so if one reads the full version, which shows that many instances of Verne apparently misrepresenting some scientific fact is due to mistranslation or poor editing on the part of the earlier translators. Verne drew on the science of the day and then extrapolated from the most recent inventions to create scientific wonders that had a ring of plausibility – sometimes even of inevitability – to them. While Verne could not, of course, have envisioned "nuclear power" as we know it today, he did power his Nautilus entirely by electrical energy. He created advanced self-contained diving suits, underwater reinforced lighting, effective undersea weapons, and more.


     Jules Verne is thus, to me, the father and patron saint of hard science fiction stories. His precise designs and theories may be outdated, but one can see the nuts-and-bolts work that went into his stories and they hold up – as "hard" SF – far better than, say, H.G. Wells' work. This isn't to say anything against Wells – I'll have another entry on him – but to point out that Jules Verne had his own specialty which he devoted immense effort to.


     I happened to read The Mysterious Island next, without any awareness that it would turn out to be a (difficult-to-reconcile) sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues, but that didn't matter; I was quickly drawn into the story of the small group of castaways, refugees from the American Civil War, and their struggle to survive with scarcely anything to hand. I have to admit that I found Swiss Family Robinson much less inspiring, for reasons the narrator of The Mysterious Island pointed out; the Robinsons started out with quite a large assortment of supplies, and often were suddenly supplied with something they needed by a providential discovery. While the castaways of The Mysterious Island certainly get their share of lucky breaks (and, occasionally, a mysterious intervention), for the most part they worked a lot harder to get ahead and keep going.


     Besides hard SF, Jules Verne could probably be considered the father of the Technothriller or super-spy novel. How else could we reasonably describe, for instance, Master of the World, in which our intrepid reporter hero must discover the truth behind the appearance of an apparently infinitely flexible, omnienvironment supervehicle and the intentions of its mysterious creator and captain? (No link for this one -- I can't find any way to tell which translations, if any, are decent)


     Verne left few areas of scientific endeavor untouched. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, he tackles geology, paleontology, and various aspects of biology and physics. The journey itself is ludicrous today, and was probably ludicrous in its own era to any one specializing in the fields, but it still has the hard edge of something real, because Verne spent considerable effort to depict every detail he knew as realistically as possible. He deals with astronomy and space travel in From the Earth to the Moon – again with some ludicrous details, yet with much more hard-edged realism to bolster the otherwise fabulous and unlikely portions.


     Less well-known is his later work Paris in the Twentieth Century, in which he predicted a number of facets of modern life which are astonishingly accurate – ranging from glassy skyscrapers and gasoline-powered cars to a worldwide telecommunications network!


     Verne was also not averse to writing adventures which were not science-fiction in nature; Around the World in 80 Days is more a (then) modern adventure story, in which gentleman Phileas Fogg accepts a wager that he can, in fact, travel around the entire world in 80 days, a very considerable feat in the late 1800s even if it's nothing at all to accomplish today.


     I discovered, later, that I might well not have liked his work nearly so much were it not for the input of his editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel; it turns out that the technological and spiritual optimism that permeates many of Verne's most popular works was due in great part to Hetzel's editorial input. Hetzel moderated Verne's natural pessimism and Verne, happy to be published, acquiesced to most of Hetzel's changes. Thus, I am grateful to Hetzel for this service as well!


In addition, this is one of the examples I like to keep in mind for my own career; editors serve a powerful and useful function, and a good editor isn't just telling you to change your stuff for the hell of it. Their job is to look at your story and tell you how you can tell your story better.


My early experiences with Verne strongly influenced me; the image of the mighty Nautilus, the courage of the castaways of Lincoln Island, the awestruck wonder of the explorers of the interior of the earth, these are some of my earliest and most powerful touchstones of the marvelous.


I am, of course, far from alone in this. Verne's works have inspired many, many people over the years, and have been not only directly adapted but used as inspiration for many other works. One of the best anime ever made, Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, draws strongly from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Thomas F. Monteleone wrote a wonderful book titled The Secret Sea, which brilliantly built upon the mythology of Captain Nemo (and incidentally provided a possible explanation for all the contradictions between Twenty Thousand Leagues and The Mysterious Island). Philip Jose Farmer included much of Verne's work in his "Wold Newton" universe, including writing a quite interesting essay purporting to prove that "Captain Nemo" was, in fact, the man later known to the world as "Professor James Moriarty".


His work, of course, remains dated – written in language and style very different from that of modern stories. Yet, at least to me, they still retain their wonder and power. If you are the sort who can set your mind back, to view things through the eyes of someone born a hundred years ago and more, the work of Jules Verne is still filled with enough wonder to set the heart to racing and the eyes to widening.


Come back to see the future that was.






Your comments or questions welcomed!