No. 3 – Jules Verne, From The Earth To The Moon, and Space Opera.

Jules Verne hovers between number two and number three on the list of the most translated books worldwide and I think it’s deserved. He became one of the earliest science fiction writers to make it financially from book sales. He is frequently referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction,” a distinction he shares with H. G. Wells and Amazing Stories founder and publisher, Hugo Gernsback. Also note that Société Jules Verne is still alive and well, one hundred and eight years after his passing. Okay … you want vitals? Born: February 8, 1828. Died: March 24, 1905. Yeah … an early start for a SF writer.

This speaks volumes (pun intended) about the quality of his writing style and ability. Good writing transcends today’s social conventions and Verne meets the two essential criteria I offered in last week’s blog on Edgar Rice Burroughs: re-readability and the power to attract a new generation of readers. Verne also has the distinction of being a progenitor of Steampunk. I might jump into that in another blog with both feet, but for the present, let’s just say Verne depicts a forward thinking culture. It is slipping off the chains of the past and making the future its home.

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Several of his books have been made into movies: some more than once. One of those adaptations, Around the World in 80 Days, popularized Phileas Fogg into a historic, albeit fictional figure. This character enjoys a certain status as a gentleman inventor, but really desires royal academy acceptance. To prove his place in the world, he accepts a challenge to prove his claim that he can circum-navigate the globe in eighty days. If he fails, he loses all hope of ever becoming an academy member and must renounce his avocation of invention forever. While I happen to enjoy the Jackie Chan movie adaptation of this book, I suspect Verne’s intent wasn’t primarily comedic. His publisher, Pierre Jules Hertzel, had to coach Verne into making his works a bit more light-hearted with happier endings.

Verne was interested in how technology was changing the world and wanted to share his vision of the future. Several of his visions became practical products like the use of skywriting, newscasts, teleconferencing, tasers, lunar modules, solar sails, electric submarines, and spacecraft that splashed into large bodies of water. Of course, nobody is saying that people STOLE his ideas. I mean, just because you have an idea, doesn’t mean it’s yours. Right?

Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863, may further illustrate Verne’s prescient abilities. This protagonist lives in a world where people get about in high-speed trains and gas-powered automobiles. Glass-covered skyscrapers are a common sight. And everyone uses calculators and has access to a worldwide communications network.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea takes a reader into the great sea and makes you breathe the salt. You feel the danger of living under the sea and you dream and wonder: “How would I feel with no sun for days? Can I trust any of the crew or passengers onboard?”

Captain Nemo, and his submarine, the Nautilus, resurfaced in popular culture when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (another Steampunk spinoff) hit the movie screens. Captain Nemo now enjoys a status as a historic figure in his own right. He is historic, or mythic, if you prefer, because this character now becomes a topic of “fair use” in copyright arguments. Perhaps unknown to some, The Children of Captain Grant, (1868), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1870), and The Mysterious Island (another very popular book adapted to movies) are parts of a trilogy.

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In The Mysterious Island, civil war combatants, all northern prisoners-of-war in Richmond, Virginia, escape by hijacking a balloon. A storm blows them across the sea, landing on an island that hosts Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus. Well, this trilogy is great fun in any age.

Verne has an impressive list of published works, many that were resurrected, after his death, by the Société Jules Verne. Amongst his lesser known works is The Hunt for the Meteor, published in 1986. When a meteor is discovered to be enriched with gold, disputes arise over its ownership … and the ability to lay physical claim upon it.

From the Earth to the Moon may have been Verne’s greatest contribution to the development of space exploration, given how space crazy our entire planet’s become. It may have been done as a laugh, but Verne brought the possibility of space flight to entire populations. Verne’s early fans didn’t just dream about space travel, but started debating how to actually do it. His contemporaries began the difficult work of developing practical designs. What percentage, I wonder, of future rocketry engineers started reading Jules Verne and suddenly confronted their future occupation—as rocket scientist?

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The book has been translated into so many languages, I have to wonder what impact Verne’s had on the development of scientists. If you’re one of the planet’s early astronauts who launched into space and didn’t read Jules Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon beforehand, all I can say is–your education is incomplete! You should have taken a page from “The Father of Rocketry,” Robert Goddard, who was a fan of Verne’s work.

An intriguing percentage of Verne’s novels and shorter works involve captains and their ships. With this work we have many of the elements in place for the eventual development of the Star Trek franchises, Star Wars, and space opera in general.

Space opera is not often associated with Jules Verne. Much of his writing was about adventure, but with a technical twist. Additionally, Verne expressed concerns about the misuse of technology. His fear of science in the hands of evil people, or its use to destroy native populations or animal species, is the subject of several of his works. His works were, and remain, popular adventures and he established many of the elements that later become standard components for our common space opera.

Space opera no longer inspires the same disdain it once did, but it’s certainly had its share of detractors and still does. It does have a place in SF since how human beings deal with technology, with all its politics and unintended consequences, will remain a central element in mainstream SF works.

I’m sure this is debatable. It’s the difference in our opinions that puts the heat in our hearts, that drives our passion for SF … sufficient to fuel our stellar furnace, do doubt, so please feel free to indulge yourself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is certainly a candidate for early space opera, at least in the planetary romance category. Jules Verne…not so much. For one thing, Verne’s style is more robust in his characters’ use of the technical and fans don’t usually think of his works that way. He manages to niftily dodge that category.

Still, Verne’s legacy is remarkable. His works, while dated, can still be enjoyed by modern readers, confirmed by his influence in the development of Steampunk as an established category of SF. I suppose that his legacy ultimately cannot be known since there’s no foreseeable end to his influence.

Even if you’re on a budget, you can become a “Vernian,” by checking out Many Books (dot) Net and picking up a free Ebook of his works.

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    1. That's the kind of response I was actually fishing for. There's a lot to be learned from re-reading classics. Plotline, structure, and character development all rise to the surface after a re-read of a classic.

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