When I was young, I read most of the works of Jules Verne with enthusiasm. Thinking that my own children might one coming day also start doing this, I recently started looking again at some of the books I remember particularly, to check whether this infatuation was something to hide shamefully, or if instead I could only hope that my boys would develop a liking for them too. (As an aside, it should be said that in the Standard Model of French Literature, it is indeed a shameful thing to like Jules Verne; if I remember right, not a single line of his was included in the textbooks of French literature that I used in high-school — which, it must also be said tangentially, only had a single short excerpt from the terrible Vicomte de Bragelonne to represent the whole output of Alexandre Dumas père and his many “collaborators”, a book so bad that only a professor of literature with a spoilt and perverse mind would read it entirely to select parts of it instead of picking instead one of the many outstanding pyrotechnic displays of Les trois mousquetaires or some of the quite deep psychology of Le comte de Monte Cristo).
Thanks to the internet (and the fact that the works of Jules Verne, including many translations, belong to the public domain) it is fairly easy today to survey the whole Voyages extraordinaires without moving from one’s armchair. I recommend (for French-reading readers) to look at the versions in the French National Library archive since, being original versions, they contain the drawings which were part of the charm of the books for me (though I would typically read them in second-hand modern paperbacks, those always included the same drawings to illustrate the most suspenseful parts of the action).
The previous paragraph probably already reveals that my conclusion is that there is a lot to like in Jules Verne. The most obvious (and the most attractive force for me then) is that Jules Verne is, if not the only one, then certainly the best known writer in French literature of the 19th Century to show some interest in science. This must have been rather striking at that time (and must explain partly his success). It is not even simply that he has a positive attitude to science (which after all can be argued endlessly to be a misguided viewpoint), but the simple fact that science exists at all in his work isolates him from all of his equally-remembered contemporaries (I have no idea if there existed similar writers at the time who just never became successful enough to be remembered). He certainly conveys a strongly positive idea of science overall, and manages in his books to present aspects of it in very different styles: mineralogists, natural scientists, physicists, mechanicians, aeronauts, all appear somewhere. These scientists are not always mad or paranoiac or even absent-minded (though those also appear!), and can be very fascinating and attractive for children or teenagers interested in scientific matters. There are touches of humor which are also very pleasant (another quite un-French trait at that time), as for instance the deadpan description of the “Gun Club” and its artillerists disappointed by peace at the beginning of De la Terre à la Lune (“From earth to the moon”).
How far he was ready to include science in his plots can be seen from this equation appearing in the sequel to De la terre à la lune, where it plays the role of a thunderbolt showing to the three brave men in the cannonball that the amount of powder was miscalculated and would prevent them from reaching the moon. Even more impressive is the final chapter of Sans dessus dessous (“Topsy-turvy”) — with the charming subtitle Dont peu de personnes prendront connaissance (“That few people will acquaint themselves with”) — where M. Badoureau, Ingénieur des Mines, gives full and complete details of the computations explaining how a gigantic cannon, firing cleverly at the right point and time, might change the orientation of the earth so that its axis of rotation would become perpendicular to the ecliptic plane (i.e., bringing the axial tilt to zero). It is revealed in the book itself that the characters again miscalculated, underestimating the size of the earth by a factor of one thousand, so that their cannon shot barely moved the earth by the amount of three microns…
It has to be admitted that (as far as I remember) the scientists of Jules Verne are always male. He was not particularly progressist in many respects, as can also be seen from the many occasions when colonial questions and settings arise (in Africa and India in particular), but in one other aspect his world is strikingly different from the one that might be inferred from reading other 19th Century French novelists (beside containing those strange characters, scientists): it includes other countries besides France (!). In fact, his heros originate from a remarkable variety of places, and are portrayed with a remarkable display of sympathy. There are Frenchmen, of course, but also Englishmen (the heros of Trois semaines en ballon, for instance, though one is a Scotsman), Americans (from both North and South America, as in La Jangada), Russians (in Michel Strogoff), Germans (professor Lidenbrock in Voyage au centre de la terre, where the old Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussem also plays an important role…), Dutchmen, Turks (both in Kéraban le têtu, “Keraban the stubborn”), etc.
Here are a few of the books which I remember with pleasure, and which are not among his best known works:
(1) I already mentioned Kéraban le têtu; the plot device here is quite bizarre: the Turk merchant Keraban, who is visited by a Dutch friend, refuses to pay a new tax to cross the Bosphorus to go back to his house on the Oriental side of Istanbul; being moreover prone to sea-sickness, he chooses to go back home by going around the Black Sea on land. At the very end, finally arrived after much delay and subplotting, pressing circumstances require that he cross the Bosphorus in the opposite direction without losing a minute. How will he do it without paying the iniquitous tax?
(2) The little-known La Jangada is the story of a big log-raft going down the Orinoco river over 800 miles. I don’t remember much of the plot, except that there is a secret message that is only decrypted in the nick of time to save an innocent man at the end, and that a crucial part of the plot involves an amusing game of following an almost infinitely long liana in the surrounding jungle — of course, at its end is found a poor young fellow trying to use it to hang himself, and who, being saved, will find love during the remainder of the work…
(3) In Le testatement d’un excentrique, a rich millionaire leaves a last will where more or less randomly chosen strangers will play a gigantic Game of Goose with the States of the Union taking the place of the spaces of the board. (This type of idea has apparently been used in other books afterwards). Who will win?
(4) In Les aventures d’Hector Servadac, one of the strangest, a comet just barely touches the Earth tangentially around Algiers and takes with it a small part of land including atmosphere. After one orbit that takes it and its unfortunate inhabitants far from the Sun in the coldness of space, the comet comes back and brings the heros back in the exact same spot (though they do have to escape in a balloon; amusingly, the “vilain” in this tale is the French astronomer who tries to stay on the comet to continue exploring space…)