The Extraordinary Journeys of Jules Verne

19 Mar

Jules Verne (1828-1905) is sometimes called the ‘father of science fiction’. He was born in Nantes in France, and studied law before turning to writing both plays and stories. In 1863 he published in a magazine the first of his Voyages Extraordinaires (literally ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ or ‘Extraordinary Journeys’), a sequence of fifty-four novels, originally published between 1863 and 1905. Entitled (in English) Five Weeks in a Balloon, this was an immediate success, so he decided to write more exciting stories of speculative fiction. Although his stories had fantastic settings, Jules Verne was careful to put in a good deal of realistic detail, so making the story more convincing. He had a remarkable imagination. In Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea he wrote about submarines and aqualungs (neither of which had then been invented), and in From the Earth to the Moon he predicted the birth of space travel – long before the first aeroplane had even taken to the air. His other books include A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. First published as a serial, this tells how an Englishman called Phileas Fogg attempts a round-the-world journey to win a bet. Jules Verne remains to this day the most translated science fiction author in the world as well as one of the most continually reprinted and widely read French authors. Though often scientifically outdated, his Voyages still retain their sense of wonder that appealed to readers of his time, and still provoke an interest in the sciences among the young.

According to Verne’s editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, the goal of the Voyages was “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format … the history of the universe.” Verne’s meticulous attention to detail and scientific trivia, coupled with his sense of wonder and exploration, form the backbone of the Voyages. Part of the reason for the broad appeal of his work was the sense that the reader could really learn knowledge of geology, biology, astronomy, palaeontology, oceanography and the exotic locations and cultures of world through the adventures of Verne’s protagonists. This great wealth of information distinguished his works as “encyclopaedic novels”. The first of Verne’s novels to carry the title Voyages Extraordinaires was The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, which was the third of all his novels. The works in this series included both fiction and non-fiction, some with overt science fiction elements (e.g. Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or elements of scientific romance (e.g., Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea).

In a late interview, Verne affirmed that Hetzel’s ambitious commission had become the running literary theme of his novel sequence: “It is my intention to complete, before my working days are done, a series which shall conclude in story form my whole survey of the world’s surface and the heavens; there are still left corners of the world to which my thoughts have not yet penetrated. As you know, I have dealt with the moon, but a great deal remains to be done, and if health and strength permit me, I hope to finish the task.” However, Verne made clear that his own object was more literary than scientific, saying “I do not in any way pose as a scientist” and explaining in another interview: “My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe… And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style. It is said that there can’t be any style in a novel of adventure, but it isn’t true; though I admit it is very much more difficult to write such a novel in a good literary form than the studies of character which are so vogue to-day.”

In the system developed by Hetzel for the Voyages Extraordinaires, each of Verne’s novels was published successively in several different formats. This resulted in as many as four distinct editions of each text. Most of the novels in the Voyages series (except for Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Purchase of the North Pole) were first serialized in periodicals, usually in Hetzel’s Magasin d’Éducation et de récréation (‘Magazine of Education and Recreation’). Almost all of the original book editions were published by Hetzel in octodecimo format, often in several volumes. Even now, the Voyages are frequently adapted into film, from Georges Méliès’ fanciful 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune (aka A Trip to the Moon), to Walt Disney’s 1954 adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to the 2004 version of Around the World in 80 Days starring Jackie Chan. Their spirit has also continued to influence fiction to this day, including James Gurney’s Dinotopia series and softening Steampunk’s dystopianism with utopian wonder and curiosity.

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