February 8, 2013

Verne's Journey into the Earth

        Today is Jules Verne's birthday (he'd be 185), and in preparation for it I felt that I really ought to read one of his books.  I chose Journey to the Interior of the Earth.  Apparently that's the title of the more accurate translation.  Journey to the Center of the Earth, the better known translation, is allegedly only a rough approximation of Verne's book.  And "Interior" is definitely a better choice for the title, since (Spoiler Alert!) they never even reach the center!  In any case, this is an odd sort of proto-science-fiction.  It's fiction, of course, and it's the account of scientists engaged in a scientific journey of exploration, but it's a funny sort of sci-fi, and I can really see how it's pointing toward a genre that didn't exist yet.  The genre it really fits into is actually the Traveller's Tale.  Like the tales of Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo, the point of the story is not really to explore how new technologies and discoveries might affect humankind, but rather to entertain the reader with amazing sights and oddities.  The science is included more to create a veneer of verisimilitude than because it's important to the story in its own right.  That was okay with me, since I'm not especially into hard sci-fi anyway, but I think it's an interesting distinction.
        As for the story itself, I find it somewhat unsatisfying.  I feel as if there is no real plot arc.  The incidents are simply strung together, and the final surge is somewhat anticlimactic as it seems like simply the next incident.  The characters are not particularly engaging, although I had to like Hans, the utterly unemotional Icelandic guide.
        My son P has seen the 2008 movie "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and recommended that the rest of us should see it some time.  It looks like rather than trying to recreate the book, they've made a story about modern characters who discover that Liedenbrock (or Lidenbrock, in the more common translation) was an actual person, and follow in his trail.  I don't know whether the movie's any good, but it seems like a promising way to frame the story, in any case.  That way they can use some of Verne's concepts (not to mention his name recognition) without being tied to his old-fashioned characters and plot progression.
        All in all, Journey to the Interior of the Earth was a quick read and it was interesting to see how it fit into the development of a new genre, but I don't think it's a book that would grab and hold the attention of most modern readers, whether juvenile or adult.  But if you'd like, you can read it yourself at Project Gutenberg.

[Pictures: Subterranean crystals;
Underground sea, engravings from illustrations by Édouard Riou, from Voyage au centre de la Terre by Jules Verne, 1864 (Images from Wikimedia Commons).]

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