This year marks the centenary of Jules Verne’s death. In the current Smithsonian, Doug Stewart lays blame at Hollywood’s doorstep for Verne’s U.S. reputation “as a lightweight.” Poor translations and a formula-happy editor also helped pigeonhole him as a writer of simplistic sci-fi, Stewart argues:
Verne’s most popular novels, written in the 1860s and ’70s, seem to be upbeat paeans to scientific progress. But this may have more to do with the narrative recipe he cooked up with Hetzel than with Verne’s own feelings. His tale of Paris as a 20th-century horror isn’t the only clue that his worldview wasn’t entirely sunny. A lot of his heroes find happiness in remote refuges (a ship, an uncharted island) by escaping the dreary conventions of ordinary society, with its hypocrites and heartless capitalists. (In 1892’s Propeller Island, Verne’s floating utopia is mostly off-limits to doctors and lawyers, to protect its citizens from malpractice and litigation.)…
New translations of the novels show that Verne’s originals, far from being just kid-friendly science fiction, wickedly satirized American militarism.
Although I read Around the World in 80 Days as a child, it didn’t leave a lasting impression, and I haven’t read anything else by Verne. But I’m hoping to get around to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which inspired my favorite (now defunct) Disney ride and taps into my fascination, no doubt induced by a Miami childhood, with all things aquatic. (This week I’ve resumed my love affair with octopi (well, actually, octopuses, but I like the way “octopi” sounds). They’re really fucking smart and cool. Mr. Maud directed me to this video of one disguising himself as a coconut and running on two tentacles. But I digress.)
20,000 Leagues opens like this:
The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumors which agitated the maritime population, and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several states on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.
For some time past, vessels had been met by “an enormous thing,” a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.
The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various log books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question, the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a cetacean, it surpassed in size all those hitherto classified in science.