The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 41 Speaking Science to Fiction: The Present Future of Jules Verne

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Speaking Science to Fiction: The Present Future of Jules Verne

The line between hard and soft science fiction is the word how. In Star Wars, we accept artificial gravity, warp drive, and The Force and don’t particularly care how they work—in fact, we get downright scuffly when explanations are offered (midichlorians, you know what you did). And for the first century of its existence as a genre, that was the only way science fiction writers thought it could be. Eighteenth-century tales of marvelous invention delighted in depicting wondrous machines and advanced societies without worrying much about the scientific how of it all.

JulesVerneThat all changed with one book and one man—Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne (1828-1905). Suddenly, the how was the whole game, and for decades thereafter Verne kept a whole planet riveted by his masterful and believable extensions of current technology in the service of conquering the insurmountable. Chemicals, materials, and forces are as much the heroes in these tales as Verne’s valiant explorer-engineers. Through Verne, a world learned that scientific knowledge, daringly applied and wed to a determination to work hard on the practical overcoming of the popularly impossible, could accomplish well-nigh anything.

For a man who wrote over a hundred works, an easy half dozen of which rank as assured literary immortals, Verne was a decidedly late bloomer. In school, he was noted for his singing and recitational memory, and that was basically it. His father, a lawyer, wanted him to follow in the paternal footsteps and sent young Jules off to Paris for that purpose, ignoring or unaware of the maxim: “Never send a son with even moderate literary inclinations to nineteenth-century Paris.”

Inevitably, Jules got caught up in the excitement of the French theatrical scene, and set about writing a series of remarkably average plays to feed the Parisian need for unchallenging light comedic novelty. He supported himself through fifteen lean years on allowances from his father and a position as an intermediary for a stock brokerage. He suffered from wretched digestion problems, occasional facial paralysis, and the quiet indignity of a prolapsed rectum, all while fighting the temptation, greater with each year of unprofitable literary failure, to hang up writing after all and become a lawyer, or a stock broker, or whatever it was that adults did after they gave up on doing what they loved.

But at last an idea came to him—not only a notion for the subject of a book, but a revelation about a whole new type of book, one that would require massive research in order to tell an impossible adventure story that, in every detail, had a reference to something that actually existed in the here and now. He conceived a story about a set of bold scientific adventurers using a balloon to explore Africa by air, utilizing trade winds, chemistry, and physics to unveil the undiscovered country that brute terrestrial-bound grit had yet to conquer.

Fanciful stories about magnificent balloon voyages had been told before, most famously by Edgar Allen Poe, whose tales Verne adored, but authors had always used the novelty of the transport as a license for unchecked fantasy. Verne took a new path—his book introduced readers to all the expeditions that had been taken to Africa up to that point, then carefully explained the workings of a hot air balloon and how its performance might be enhanced by a few believable and scientifically sound alterations. Reading Five Weeks in a Balloon, one wasn’t just treated to an exciting adventure story of survival against the odds, but to the wonders of current, of actual science. So convincingly were they mixed, contemporary readers often couldn’t tell where the fact left off and the fiction began.

The book sold and sold (and continues to sell), and Verne was picked up by the master showman of modern publishing, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, to provide two books a year to be serialized in his educational periodical and released in book and deluxe gift illustrated formats. The contract Hetzel offered was grotesquely advantageous to himself, in particular keeping Verne from earning anything from the illustrated editions (his best-selling items), but the income was sufficient to allow Verne a comfortable provincial existence for the rest of his life. And with that stability came the flood.

Let’s do the roll call:

From the Earth to the Moon (1865). From the Florida launch site to the preliminary animal splashdown testing, to rocket-assisted course adjustment and carbon dioxide air scrubbers, this book eerily anticipate the US space program a century later. This was the book that all the major innovators in rocket propulsion, from Tsiolkovsky to Goddard to von Braun, voraciously devoured and sited as a major inspiration in their career choices. It might be the perfect combination of science, humor, and adventure.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869). As enigmatic as From the Earth to the Moon was open and humorous, Verne’s characterization of Captain Nemo is perhaps his masterpiece: a mysterious and humane but occasionally ruthless genius who has designed a submarine that utilizes every ounce of existing electrical and hydrodynamic technology to create an underwater palace away from the madness of civilization.

Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). A romping lark, his bestseller, it’s a hyper-detailed analysis of travel at the height of the locomotive era. The hero, the unbreakable Phineas Fogg, serves up the world in a frothy flash of steam and pluck that, when recast as a stage play, proved Verne’s most enduring source of revenue.

What’s that? Not enough? All right, how about Journey to the Center of the Earth (1865), or The Mysterious Island (1874), or Michel Strogoff (1876), or Around the Moon (1869), or, or, or….?

And yet, in spite of having not only invented a genre, but written some of the world’s most popular novels, he was given scant recognition in his own country. His books were considered “children’s literature” because of their educational and adventuring content. He inspired generations of rocketeers, deep sea explorers, and aeronauts, but, because his books lacked compelling romance or characters stumbling under the weight of bourgeois neuroses, he was denied acceptance into the literary elite.  Emile Zola openly mocked his work and the French Academy failed to include him in its ranks on forty-four separate occasions.

Life had its other complaints as well. His son, Michel, was a spendthrift loose cannon who had to ultimately be put out to sea for two years after all other attempts at discipline and reform failed. Verne’s nephew, for reasons that are still unclear, shot him, and the bullet lodged in his leg, giving him a permanent limp. Partial blindness and hand pain fogged his last decade, through which he somehow still managed to pen a couple of novels a year, works greeted with increasing indifference by a public that had moved on to other things.

And now that we’re all feeling good and sorry for our friend Jules, it’s a fine time to mention all the truly awful things about him. Like, hey, fun fact: he was a horrible anti-Semite, responsible for some of the most grotesque, stereotyped portrayals of profit-obsessed, treacherous Jews in world literature, and who still believed Alfred Dreyfus’s guilt even after he was demonstrably proven innocent. He was also an adulterer and, search as you may, you’ll be hard pressed to find a contribution to charity among his outlays, though he did buy three very fine yachts, for himself.

He was a Royalist conservative and a Catholic, but both in that nostalgic but effectively meaningless way that so many adopted in the unsure years of revolution, empire, commune, and their various mingled descendants. In spite of his avowed Catholicism, his account of the universe’s evolution is purely mechanical, his manuscripts express ironic scorn for religion that his editor ultimately excised, and he worked conscientiously and well with the Republican, anti-religion mayor of his provincial town as a city councilor.

Sometimes our heroes don’t bear close scrutiny. Usually, in fact. Wagner was awful in every aspect that didn’t involve his superlative music or his dog. Voltaire would throw you under the bus in a panic. Giordano Bruno was a backstabbing, insulting jerk to just about everyone he met. And Jules Verne, so inspiring and inventive at his best, had a cold and domineering nationalist streak that allowed him to somehow rage against American slavery while perpetuating awful portrayals of Jews and Englishmen.

And really, after all that, there should be no but.


Jules Verne created the scientist hero, the person who, through an obsession with detail, a clever use of the resources at hand, and his own hard-won knowledge of the natural world, overcomes all difficulties. For nerdy kids like Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Goddard (or, obviously, me), those characters were everything—the first time we saw people with our particular obsessions and quirks doing massive things boldly.  Preparation and calculation, long study and big dreams all came together in a way that was so real you could just touch it. And those heroes bred new heroes—time-traveling Dr. Emmett Brown and star-spanning Mr. Spock who in turn inspired a new generation of detail-oriented problem solvers to invent Internets and smartphones and ion propulsion. Verne started the vast relay of science inspiring fiction inspiring new science that has not let up since 1863. He gave us our first glimpse at how, and for that, perhaps just this once, we can gift him a but in return.


Further Reading

I enjoy Herbert R. Lottman’s Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography (1996) a great deal. He pulls no punches in describing Verne’s anti-Semitism, self-pity, deplorable parenting, and familial imperiousness, but also makes the excitement of Verne’s fiction snap to life in a way you might have thought impossible given the passing of time and trend. For fiction, any one of the books above is pretty marvelous, but you sort of have to start with the kind of science you’re most into. I love physics and chemistry, and love ichthyology a smidge less, so From the Earth to the Moon‘s detailed accounts of cast iron’s heat capacities is that much more enthralling to me than 20,000 League‘s paragraphs upon paragraphs of fish names and descriptions. The lesson is, there’s pretty much a perfect Verne novel for every shade of science geek—you just need to find yours.