I discovered Verne years ago, reading the newly re-translated edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was amazed not just at the thrilling story, but the science and political philosophy that motivated the characters.
Captain Nemo – a vengeful Indian who declared war against the British Empire – is a far more fully-rendered character in the book than in James Mason’s cinematic rendition, and whether or not the reader supports his bloodthirsty crusade to scuttle the Royal Navy stems makes for a great philosophical discussion.
Of course, such things were Verne’s stock-in-trade. His less well-remembered novels, like Paris in the 20th Century, had similarly thought-provoking themes; like how Verne lamented that technology and business were eclipsing literature and culture (with obvious parallels to society today.)
Likewise, Dick Sand, a Captain at Fifteen was a condemnation of the slave trade which, uniquely, criticized the African nations that sold their countrymen in addition to the traditional white ‘bad guys’ who shipped them into subservience in colonies worldwide.
But more people remember Jules Verne because of the technology he envisioned; like the incredible submarine Nautilus, which preyed on shipping from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the cannon which would send explorers From the Earth to the Moon and his revolutionary hydrogen blimp that stayed aloft for Five Weeks in a Balloon.
Verne meticulously researched each of his inventions, and envisaged many technologies that would be adopted in real-life application decades later. Although many of this concepts would later be proven not to work (like his battery-powered hydrogen balloon) many others did – or inspired more practical applications of the same technology.
Of course, Verne’s writing doesn’t always stand up well to politically-correct scrutiny – a scene in Five Weeks in a Balloon is particularly cringe-worthy from a modern perspective. It sees our heroes attacked by ‘natives’, who they slaughter with rifle fire – only to realize after examining the bodies that the ‘African tribesman’ were actually monkeys.
But that’s historical perspective for you; and in many ways, Jules Verne was as forward thinking about life and society as he was about technology. Today, we live in a world of electronic calculators and high-speed trains – the same world he envisioned in Paris in the 20th Century.
Only it doesn’t look as cool.