The Fantastic Voyages of Jules Verne

Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1870) is the sequel to his famous tale From the Earth to the Moon (1865), though of the two I think the later book must be the more interesting because the first story deals only with the preparations for a space journey. In Around the Moon we actually experience the launch of the projectile—a giant bullet shot out of an enormous cannon named the “Columbiad.”

The sequel is a short book and much enlivened by humor. By comparison, Verne’s epic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), though interesting, suffers from tedious descriptions of aquatic life, and I was unable to finish The Mysterious Island (1875). It is one case where the Hollywood treatment—the 1961 film with special effects by Ray Harryhausen—was a decided improvement. This also true, to some extent, of the Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), made into a movie in 1959 with James Mason as the leader of the expedition; though the original story is still quite readable.

To return to Verne’s lunar journey, for all the scientific acumen of the American scientists and common sense of their French sidekick, the astronauts form a comic trio. When it is announced by Captain Nicholl that they have exactly twenty-six minutes thirteen seconds until firing, Michael Ardan, the Frenchman, exclaims

“Well!… much may be done in twenty-six minutes. The gravest questions of morals and politics may be discussed, and even solved. Twenty-six minutes well employed are worth more than twenty-six years in which nothing is done. Some seconds of a Pascal or Newton are more precious than the whole existence of a crowd of raw simpletons——”

“And you conclude, then, you everlasting talker? asked Barbicane.

“I conclude that we have twenty-six minutes left,” replied Ardan.

I think what I enjoy so much about older science fiction, or what used to be more accurately termed “scientific romance,” is its naivety and childlike sense of wonder. Consider Verne’s discussion of lunar exploration:

The travellers, now so near their goal, kept incessantly observing this new world. They imagined themselves walking through its unknown countries, climbing its highest peaks, descending into its lowest depths. Here and there they fancied they saw vast seas, scarcely holding together under so rarefied an atmosphere, and watercourses emptying the mountain tributaries. Leaning over the abyss, they hoped to catch some sounds from that orb for ever mute in the solitude of space.

Even until the mid-twentieth century it was possible for writers to seriously propose that other planets were inhabited or inhabitable. As it turns out, space is a much harsher place than ever imagined and the ease with which novels populated other worlds simply does not hold up outside of entertaining fantasy. We may regret that. But in the meantime, we can still turn to writers like Verne for old-fashioned adventure uncomplicated by many of the questionable themes that clutter so much modern fiction.

Readers interested in Verne’s stories of lunar exploration will find both tales republished in the Wordsworth Classics edition.

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