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Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
review by Andrew Darlington
Did Jules Verne invent science fiction? Perhaps, but there are other contenders, as far back as Mary Shelley... What Verne did do was seize upon the era's taste for mechanical miracles, social progress and limitless optimism, opening up the world, and the places beyond the world, as playgrounds for predictive adventure. Of course, there had been lost island tales before, there would be again, hidden valleys and inaccessible plateaus where strange tribes carried out lives isolated from the societal mainstream. There were voyages across unknown seas and journeys of exploration into new continents.
Jules Gabriel Verne was a provincial Frenchman born in Nantes in 1928, he grew up in the beautiful Loire valley from where he launched his own imaginative 'Les Voyages Extraordinaires' based around his childhood reading, with The Swiss Family Robinson being a particular favourite. And while he lived in the valley there were still voyages to be made across unknown seas, and continents still awaiting exploration. He first began by writing regular travellers' tales for Musée Des Familles magazine, and the reception they received suggested to him the popular and commercial potential that existed for imaginative travel fiction.
From that point he merely nudged it all a little further. His characters would enter not just a cave-system, but a subterranean realm extending nearly to the planet's very core. They would go not just ocean adventuring, but on submarine sea-treks to the ocean's deepest depths, even to Atlantis. And by anticipating the next technological barrier, they would go into the air - in a flying 'Propeller Island' city, through mechanised aerial warfare, and beyond - fired from the Baltimore Gun Club's huge space-cannon embedded in the Florida earth, as far as circumnavigating the Moon.
At one prescient point in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, young Axel experiences a nightmare in which "I was shot into interplanetary space in the shape of an eruptive rock..." While his dream of prehistoric Earth dissolving back into nebula almost suggests Olaf Stapledon's cosmic breadth of vision (page 180). At the time Verne was writing, the mass-market novel itself was still a 'novelty', with his prophetic far-sightedness equally adept at seizing its potential for sensation as few others had dared. His audience would only expand, his exploits continuing through the new medium of pulp magazines in the early 20th century.
Hugo Gernsback selected Verne for the honoured 'father of science fiction' position for the world's first SF magazine - Amazing Stories, with an image of 'Jules Verne's tombstone at Amiens portraying his immortality' on the masthead. From the April 1926 launch issue - with cover-story Off On A Comet, Or Hector Servadac, and #2 running a serialised A Trip To The Centre Of The Earth, he astutely recycled Verne's 'scientific romances' alongside those of H.G. Wells - who raised the speculative game as a finer and more visionary writer, and Edgar Rice Burroughs - who took fantasy adventure to its most ludicrously enjoyable extremes. All three were also translated into endless variants through the moving films Verne didn't live to see. Lionel Barrymore starred in the first celluloid Verne adaptation - Mysterious Island in 1929.
Jules Verne's second novel, Voyage Au Centre De La Terra, opens at precisely 13:30 on Sunday, 24th May 1863, within no.19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the old quarter of Hamburg. As related by Axel, his irascible uncle Professor Otto Lidenbrock was - ""rummaging about in that Jew Hevelius' bookshop" - when he happened upon the runic manuscript of 'Hans Kringla' by Shorro Turleson. Enclosed within its pages he finds a 5 x 3 inch parchment, a cryptogram hidden there by the 16th-century Icelandic alchemist, savant and executed heretic Arne Saknussemm. Despite his uncle's long and methodical attempts, it is Axel who discovers the key to the code, quite by accident, and knowing what divulging its secret will entail, is loath to reveal it to the Professor. For Otto Lidenbrock is the archetype of all eccentric obsessive scientists to come, in novels, movies, TV and comic-strips.
It's been accused that Verne is more interested in technology that he is with people - and certainly such later novels as The Purchase Of The North Pole are virtually devoid of recognisably human characters. But with Journey To The Centre Of The Earth he's still careful to get the balance correct. With a gentle wit and sly humour, usually at the expense of Axel's sceptical reluctance to follow his fearless uncle's unwavering lead, until finally, with some trepidation, Axel bids farewell to the lovely Gräuben (although in the 1959 film version there is a female companionship on their extraordinary travels), and the two of them set off together to investigate Saknussemm's claims. The slow progress into wonder is deliberately exploited as a means of establishing the initial reality of the undertaking, the sheer mundane progress of taking the railway from Hamburg and steam-ship to Copenhagen via Zealand, and only then on the sail-schooner 'The Valkyrie' to Iceland to meet the specified 31st June dateline.
Here, there's a curious time-capsule record of undeveloped Icelandic society, one totally unrecognisable as the sophisticated Reykjavik familiar to modern travellers. Yet, despite this vividly detailed account, Verne had merely taken pains to research his locations well, primarily referring to an 1857 account of Iceland by writer Charles Edmond, and talking to geographer Charles Sainte-Claire Deville who had some experience of volcanoes, and specifically Stromboli, where the adventure would climax. But it is not until page 104 that the chapter 17 heading finally informs us that 'Our Real Journey Begins'. Slow pacing to modern readers more used to abrupt immersion into action from the start, to whom the expectation of weirdness is a given. That was not so in 1864. Yet, despite the passage of time, the narrative remains enjoyably and powerfully readable.
Is it SF, or fantasy? The existence of the interior world they discover must surely be regarded as fantasy - despite the continuity of Fortean-style conjecture to support such a notion. The crackpot geology of John Cleves Symmes first proposed the theory of polar openings leading to a succession of inner worlds in 1818, and Edgar Allan Poe seized on the idea for his remarkable 1837 tale The Narrative Of A. Gordon Pym. Although he didn't take the idea as far as Verne, Verne knew Poe's work - through Baudelaire's French translations, and Verne would later supply his own completion to the story in Le Sphinx Des Glaces in 1897. By then, in 1870 Cyrus Reed Teed had shoved the concept still further, not only is the Earth hollow, but we actually reside on its inner shell! Into the next century Richard Shaver perpetrated a series of 'Shaver Mysteries' through the pages of Amazing Stories in the 1940s, about a series of technologically-advanced subterranean civilisations.
Yet Verne's approach to the question remains scientific, rather than mystical or supernatural. He firmly rejected the term 'fantasy', while deliberately straining against the limits of fact. There's a chapter devoted to dialogue between Axel and his uncle in which they construct and dismiss theories concerning the nature of the world's interior, encouraged by Humphrey Davy's theories of the thermal properties of the core, leading to the rational analytical conclusion that "science is eminently perfectible, and each new theory is soon disproved by a newer one." Fantastical it may be, but it is one that has been methodically thought through. And it is the rigorous methodology of this approach that makes his work 'science fiction'.
At 13:13 on 28th June 1863 the descent begins. With Axel, his uncle, and tall auburn-haired Hans Bjelke (their Icelandic eider-hunter guide), entering the crater of Sneffells Yokul "where the shadow of Scartaris touches the crater of Sneffells." The journey down through the various strata is an excuse for learned discourse on each phase of the planet's evolution - with a prescient warning that "the industrial nations will exhaust (resources of coal) within three centuries unless they limit their consumption." Guided by periodic clues from Arne Saknussemm, by Sunday 9th August, they are 88 miles beneath the surface. Then, after a terrifying period when Axel wanders lost and alone in total subterranean darkness, they discover the vast 'Lidenbrock Sea' illuminated by electrical activity in its 12,000ft 'sky'. "I felt as if I were on some distant planet. Uranus or Neptune," he comments - again, a highly contemporary reference, as Neptune had only recently been visually identified, in 1846 by J. Galle and H. D'Arrest in Berlin, following mathematical calculations made by Briton John Crouch Adams and French Urbain Le Verrier. With its shore-side forests of giant mushrooms and blind fossil-fish, the inner world they have discovered already looks forward to Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Pellucidar'.
Now the pacing accelerates, building plausible expectation while incrementally preparing the reader for the eventual sight of living ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, mastodons, and finally a teasing glimpse of a giant humanoid in the lost prehistoric realm - or, as Verne terms it, the Tertiary and Quaternary periods. All of this was, after all, recent data, and still fiercely contested. So soon after the appearance of Charles Darwin's Origin Of Species: By Means Of Natural Selection (1859), geology and palaeontology were viewed as radical, even dangerous sciences, with their fossil-evidence providing blasphemous symbols of change, challenging established belief-systems. Verne was a progressive, a technophile, fastidiously keeping abreast of new scientific developments and conflicting currents of thought. And his explorers experience wonder upon wonder, even if they don't quite reach Atlantis - as they do in the 1959 movie, or in its picture-strip adaptation serialised in the weekly Film Fun comic from 5th March 1960. Nevertheless, their confrontation with prehistoric reptiles must be considered the first such encounters ever to occur in fiction (the May 1957 'Classics Illustrated' graphic-novel adaptation - #138, by artist Andrew Nash, stays truer to the source material.)
Finally, the adventurers emerge from erupting Stromboli in Sicily - 13 weeks later and more than 3,000 miles from Sneffels. Their return "created a tremendous sensation all over the world." In this, at least, Jules Verne's prediction was vindicated, for his manuscript was indeed 'translated into every other language, and the leading newspapers competed with one another in order to publish the most interesting passages, which were commented on, discussed, attacked, and defended with equal conviction on the part of believers and sceptics'.
Five Weeks In A Balloon - published the previous year, had brought Verne's name into public awareness, but with this novel his future as an extraordinary literary sensation was assured. Later, other such fictional enclaves would be discovered in other hidden locations. John Wyndham would locate his The Secret People in cave-complexes beneath the Sahara. Conan Doyle's The Lost World on its South American plateau - replicated by Steven Spielberg through a DNA sleight of hand into Jurassic Park, Edgar Rice Burroughs on his South Pacific island of Caspak; and even the Skull Island domain of King Kong. But Verne's adventure stands at the theme's point of primal detonation, easily fulfilling his stated intention 'to carry incredulity to its uttermost limits'.
Meanwhile, questions remain. Was the subterranean realm they'd discovered destroyed in the ensuing volcanisms? Did the entire Lidenbrock Sea and its prehistoric denizens drain into the abyss following their explosive detonation? Was there to be a return, better equipped to catalogue and document the flora and fauna of the cavern? No, Verne didn't deal in sequels. At least, not this time.
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