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Jules Verne, Storyteller and Harbinger of the Future

Portrait of Jules Verne

Even though Around the World in 80 Days was published in 1873, people still refer to Jules Verne’s fictional adventure each time someone comes close to breaking a record for circumnavigating the globe.

A Fruitful but Afflicted Life

Born February 8, 1828, Verne wrote more than 60 novels, launching the modern-day genre of science fiction. That’s an impressive accomplishment for any author but Verne also published several plays, poems, song lyrics, short stories and many scientific essays.

Verne dreamed of being a writer from an early age but his father insisted that he study law – which he abhorred. After obtaining his degree, he refused to enter the legal profession but struggled to make ends meet as an author. At about 30 years old, he worked as a stockbroker to support his family, but he found that this too was an unfulfilling profession. Finally, aged 35, his persistent writing endeavors appeared to pay off when he published his first novel, Cinq Semaines en Ballon.

He lived to be 77 but historians now realize that Verne probably suffered from a form of colitis, Bell’s palsy, high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, and type-2 diabetes throughout much of his life. When Verne was 58 years old, his nephew shot him during a psychotic episode and left him with a painful limp for the rest of his days. Considering all the obstacles that the man had to surmount, the extent of his creativity and output is even more impressive.

An Auspicious Harbinger

Perhaps more than any other author, Jules Verne’s writing was remarkably predictive of where science and technology were heading. The astonishing frequency at which imaginary contraptions and devices from his novels became realized inventions earned him the sobriquet of “the man who invented the future.” During his 20s and early 30s, Verne spent countless hours in the Bilbliothèque Nationale de France, poring over scientific journals and keeping up with the latest advances.

He occasionally produced his own scientific papers and managed to get them published but his dream was to become a playwright. These early scattered efforts, coupled with a life-long interest in new discoveries informed every chapter of his eventual bestsellers.

By the end of his life, Jules Verne had conceived and described myriad unrealized vehicles, devices, techniques, foodstuffs, and survival strategies. His imagined creations included submarines, helicopters, armored vehicles resembling tanks, air conditioning, diving chambers, oxygen tanks, and electric-powered devices such as pumps, water heaters, clocks, lights, and barbed-wire. Verne also envisaged skyscrapers, moving sidewalks, internal combustion engines, elevators, and mechanical calculators that could communicate with each other over a network.

In his book De la Terre à la Lune, Verne imagined a rocket-like spaceship that broke into several stages to make the trip. He even placed the rocket’s launch site in Florida and described test flights with animals before human lives were put at risk. The inventive author dreamed up a massive telescope to track the rocket’s path and located it in California, a state which almost a century later became home to many ground-breaking astronomical observatories. He anticipated elements of space travel such as breaking the sound barrier, air friction heating the rocket’s exterior to unbearable temperatures, retro-rockets to cushion the spaceship’s landing, a mechanism to escape a planetary object’s orbit, and returning to earth via an ocean landing. His breath-taking ability to picture the future, if not prescient, was certainly thorough.

Journey From the Earth to the Moon

One of Verne’s early adulthood friends and source of inspiration was Félix Tournachon, known by the pseudonym Nadar, a successful photographer, cartoonist, and balloonist. They both believed that the modern era would be defined by the triumph of science and human intellect over nature. In the 1860s, Nadar became obsessed with building a colossal balloon, Le Géant, capable of hoisting a two-story cabin skywards. Verne devoted every minute of his free time to working on the project. He became an expert on all known aspects of balloon flight. On the day of the launch, however, Verne was unable to attend. He was heartbroken upon hearing that the monstrous inflatable had failed to lift its cargo, broken from its tethers, and ruptured into shreds.

Verne had been counting on writing about the balloon’s voyage. When it failed, he decided to create an imaginary logbook that would dramatize a successful trajectory. He realized that a few hours of flying over Northern France where he lived, did not make for a gripping plot. Around this time, reports from Africa, describing the exploits of European adventurers, were regularly in the news. The English explorers, Burton and Speke, had recently discovered Lake Victoria during an expedition to locate the source of the Nile River. These events gave rise to the idea for Verne’s first successful novel Cinq Semaines en Ballon, which describes a 5-week balloon flight over Africa in search of the mysterious continent’s secrets.

A New Kind of Hero

After difficulty finding a publisher who found his work worthy, Verne eventually showed it to Pierre-Jules Hetzel who represented Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. Hetzel liked the premise of the book, but he wanted Verne to add more details. Verne at first resisted but when the publisher offered him a lucrative contract, he decided to comply.

The book was published in January 1863 and was immediately successful. Verne’s readers were excited about technology and sensed they were on the cusp of a new era where man’s ingenuity would deliver many exciting technological advances. The new details that Verne had added to the storyline were so comprehensive that some people mistakenly assumed the book described one of Nadar’s actual undertakings. The heroes of Verne’s bestseller were atypical, to say the least. Rather than chivalrous swordsmen, courageous freedom-fighters, or devoted paramours, they were unflappable adventurers and calculating scientists who made careful preparations, put faith in their own resourcefulness, and revered the power of nature.

A Credible and Hailed Celebrity

According to a biography by Franz Born, Verne’s stories were so well-formulated that in the spring of 1864, “five hundred persons of the male sex” appeared outside Hetzel’s office hoping to join Verne on a trip to the moon. The astonishing turnout was due in no small part to Hetzel’s brilliance as a promoter. In addition to representing several great novelists, Hetzel published a family magazine, called Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation. All but the first of Verne’s novels were serialized in this periodical before being printed in their entirety.

Verne became adept at leaving his characters on the brink of disaster or the edge of victory at the end of each installment. In Les Aventures du Capitaine Hatteras, a tale about the first expedition to reach the north pole, Verne kept even his central characters in the dark regarding the nature of their mission for as long as possible and exposed readers to the real dangers of crossing the arctic wasteland. While the book was billed as a story for children, many adults, including sea captains and geographers were enthralled.

The Inspiration for Many an Adventurer

Verne’s fictional conquest of the North Pole was published 45 years before Captain Peary actually set foot there. In Verne’s version, the British Captain Hatteras and his men are in a race to reach the pole before an American team gets there first. Hatteras succeeds and returns to England but the strain of the voyage has rendered him deranged. Meanwhile, the American team succumbs in the icy landscape.

Nearly 50 years later, a similar rivalry played out when a Norwegian expedition to the South Pole, led by Roald Amundsen, triumphed over an English expedition led by Robert F. Scott. In the real-life saga, Amundsen survived the trip while Scott, along with all of his men, perished. Both Amundsen and Scott, as well as the polar explorer Admiral Byrd, were young fans of Verne’s novels.

American news reporter Nelly Bly was inspired to take a journey round the world in 1889 with an aim to do it in less than 80 days. She did – she covered almost 25,000 miles in 72 days! Nelly even stopped off in Amiens, northern France to meet Jules Verne in person at his home there.

An Advocate of Preparedness and Collaboration

The research that Verne put into his novels made them not only plausible but reliable sources of information. People enjoyed reading them in part to hear a good story but also to learn about other regions of the world, exotic species, geographic wonders, indigenous peoples, and practical survival skills. Verne populated his expeditions with well-informed experts, each member a specialist whose knowledge and skills complemented those of his fellow teammates. Just when all seemed lost, and a mission hung on the brink of failure, collective efforts would succeed in moving the narrative forward.

Today, the notion of forming teams of experts seems fundamental to the success of most endeavors. But, in the mid-19th-century, the concept was refreshingly novel.

A Lasting Popularity

Verne wrote in French but his books quickly gained worldwide popularity. They have been translated into roughly 150 languages – even more than Shakespeare.

During his life and up until today, many critics have described Verne’s works as commercially successful but not worthy of serious academic consideration. One of Verne’s deepest regrets was never being nominated for membership in the Académie Française. Yet, his stories have continued to influence popular culture for nearly 200 years, appearing in movies, television series, theme parks, radio shows, Broadway productions, children’s cartoons, musical scores, graphic novels, and computer games. To this day, adventurers, authors, inventors, and scientists continue to herald Verne’s name.

Carol Seidl is an entrepreneur, writer, translator, and avid consumer of French media, culture, history, and language: casdinteret.com

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