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Saturday, 21 September 2013

A new kind of novel

Jules Verne brought something new to fiction and his influence is still felt to this day...

In the latter part of the nineteenth century an author emerged whose novels predicted submarines, flying machines, skyscrapers and even the moon landing. His works inspired some of the world’s scientists and, with H. G. Wells, he fathered the literary genre of science fiction. His name was Jules Verne. He died in 1905.

Best known for his books in English translation Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days, he in fact published 65 novels, 20 short stories and essays, 30 plays, some geographical works and even opera librettos.

Jules Gabriel Verne was born 8 February1828 in Nantes. So that he could follow in his lawyer father’s footsteps he was sent to study law in Paris. Here, he became fascinated with the theatre and, influenced by Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, he wrote plays; his first one-act comedy was performed when he was 22.

He abandoned law and over the next ten years continued to write plays but to support himself he became a stockbroker which gave him a modest financial stability, sufficient in 1857 to marry a widow, Honorine de Viane, acquiring two step-children. In 1861 they had one child, Michel Jean Pierre.

The following year his career took off in a new direction after he met a publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who offered insightful editorial suggestions to improve Verne’s writing. Verne was a devoted admirer of Edgar Allan Poe’s works and was clearly inspired by the American. After spending hours in the Parisian libraries studying geology, engineering and astronomy, Verne wrote his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon.

This was a new kind of novel. Because of Verne’s narrative style, many readers believed the story was true. It was an immediate success.

These days we think of Verne as an optimist and an unswerving supporter of scientific progress. Yet, like many writers using science as their fictional springboard, he harboured doubts about the effects of too much technology.

In 1863, at the beginning of his successful writing career, he wrote Paris in the Twentieth Century, a novel about a young man living in a future world with skyscrapers of glass and steel, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators and a worldwide communications network. But the hero cannot find happiness in this highly materialistic environment and comes to a tragic end.

However, Hetzel declined to publish the book as he feared it would damage Verne’s career, adding, ‘Nobody today will believe your prophecy, nobody will care about it.’ The manuscript gathered dust until 1989 when it was discovered by a relative and finally saw print; an English edition appeared in 1997.

From the Earth to the Moon (1865) has many uncanny similarities with the Apollo space programme of a century later. The characters first test the idea of a manned flight by launching a cat and a squirrel (NASA later used monkeys), recovering them at sea. Three men are launched (the same number of astronauts in the Apollo craft) from Florida, a location just a few miles from the Kennedy Space Centre. When they returned, they splashed down in the Pacific...

In his Clipper of the Clouds (1886) the evil genius Robur threatens the world from a flying ship utilising rotors. At the time, it was hotly debated whether the future of air travel was with heavier-than-air craft or balloons. Verne supported the airplane concept.
In his later years Verne wrote about the misuse of technology and its impact on the environment. In Propeller Island he lamented the destruction of the native cultures of various Polynesian islands. In the story The Ice Sphinx he predicted the decimation of the whale population.

And in The Begum’s Fortune he warns that technology and scientific knowledge in the hands of evil people can lead to destruction. In a story entitled ‘The Eternal Adam’ a far-future historian discovers the twentieth century civilisation was overthrown by geological cataclysms and the legend of Adam and Eve become true...

In 1871 Verne settled in Amiens and was elected counsellor in 1888, two years after surviving a murder attempt by his paranoid nephew, the bullet in Verne’s leg disabling him for the rest of his life.

Verne died on 24 March, 1905, aged seventy-seven. But he left behind a legacy which can still excite the imagination even today. The late Ray Bradbury said, ‘We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne.’
Explorers and scientists will often cite their interest in their careers first took hold after reading Verne. In 1886 the first all-electric submarine, built by two Englishmen, was named Nautilus in honour of Verne’s creation in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The first nuclear-powered submarine, launched in 1955, also carried the name Nautilus.

The website is an excellent bibliography of Verne’s works, many of which even to this day are not translated into English.

While will give you the opportunity to read all his works in the public domain online, for free, and also the French editions if you’d prefer to read them in their original language. And of course you can enjoy the various movie versions of his most popular books.

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