Jules Verne: Father of Science Fiction?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Reviewing four of Jules Verne’s later works leads John Derbyshire to question his title as the father of science fiction:

You could make a case, in fact, that Verne was not really interested in science at all, so much as in technology. Certainly he was a magpie for curious technological and biological factoids, and had a fairly good head for numbers. The imaginative side of science, though — the side that actually propels science forward — was a thing he had no acquaintance with. I am sure he would have been baffled by Vladimir Nabokov’s remark about “the precision of the artist, the passion of the scientist.” The great pure-science advances of his time made no impression on him. I do not know of anything in Verne’s works that would be different if Maxwell’s equations had not appeared in 1865. About Darwin’s theory he seems to have been utterly confused, employing a sort of crude pop-Darwinism in books like The Aerial Village (1901), yet declaring himself “entirely opposed to the theories of Darwin” in an interview he gave at about the same time. This was not likely an opposition based on religious belief. Though he always, when asked, described himself as a “believer,” this was part of the bourgeois façade that Verne chose to live behind after some youthful dabbling in la vie Bohème. He actually gave up attending Mass in the 1880s, and probably died an agnostic.

Though a gifted storyteller, in fact, at any rate in his early years, Verne had not sufficient powers of imagination, or scientific understanding, to rise to true science fiction. Here the contrast with his much younger (by 39 years) competitor for the “father of science fiction” title, H.G. Wells, is most striking. The concept of a fourth dimension, for example, first took mathematical form in the 1840s. By 1870 it was, according to the mathematician Felix Klein, part of “the general property of the advancing young generation [of mathematicians].” Wells grasped the imaginative power of this notion and used it to produce one of the greatest of all science fiction stories, The Time Machine (1895). Verne never used it at all, and would probably have found the notion of a fourth dimension absurd.

Gifted storytellers are rare enough that we should welcome them when they appear, especially if they have a strong appeal to young readers. The Mollweide projection of the earth’s surface in my grandfather’s 1922 Atlas-Guide to the British Commonwealth of Nations and Foreign Countries still has a jagged blue-ballpoint line running across it, made by the hand of a fascinated small boy circa 1956, to trace the progress of Phileas Fogg on his eighty-day journey. The point of science fiction, however, is something more than to offer engrossing narrative. As was stated by Kingsley Amis in his survey of the field (New Maps of Hell, 1960), science fiction exists “to arouse wonder, terror, and excitement” in its readers. Verne rose to this challenge once or twice in his early books, but it is not met, nor even glimpsed, in these four Wesleyan translations of later works.

“Father of Tech Fi” is a title for which I would rate Verne a very strong contender. One of the blurbs on the Wesleyan edition of The Mighty Orinoco, taken from the New York Times, calls Verne “the Michael Crichton of the 19th century,” which I think is very precise, and conveys the same idea. True science fiction, however, began twenty years later than the masterpieces of Verne’s youth, and on the other side of the English Channel. I can’t say that I found it visible at all in these four later books of Verne’s.

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