Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Verne, Wells and Star Wars

Verne vs. Wells by Marcel Mercado.

One of the enduring fictions about the dim, misty origins of Science Fiction is that Jules Verne wrote stories about technology while H.G. Wells wrote stories about society. Robert J. Sawyer, for instance, employs this fiction in his scathing review of Star Wars. I agree with his fundamental points about Star Wars, but disagree with his demonstrably false assertions about Verne. He says that Verne merely wrote about technology, and nothing is more boring than reading about outmoded technologies. Wells, he asserts, is widely read and studied while the second most translated author of all time languishes in obscurity, citation pending.

Not that Verne helps his case much when, in a 1903 interview with R.H. Sherard, he says things like:
Je pensais bien que vous alliez me demander cela... His books were sent to me, and I have read them. It is very curious, and, I will add, very English. But I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. There is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli... but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

It appears that Verne concedes the social ground by objecting merely to how Wells conducts his science. Wells, in the mean time, is happy to oblige the Frenchman whose first works were already 30 years old by the time Wells put pen to paper. In the preface to a collected edition of his works, the Englishman said:
His work dealt almost always with the actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts. The interest he invoked was a practical one; he wrote and believed and told that this or that thing could be done, which was not at that time done. He helped his reader to imagine it done and to realise what fun, excitement or mischief would ensue. Many of his inventions have "come true." But these stories of mine... do not pretend to deal with possible things; they are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field.

Appearances can be deceiving. Though Sawyer quips about his "Gallic disdain", Verne fixated on Wells' science because that was their genres diverged. It wasn't that Verne wrote about technology and Wells wrote about society. Both authors wrote about quite a lot about society. Verne's point, I believe, was that Wells was mercenary when it came to science. He utilized it as a new magic, a new fantasy, a new just-so-story through which he could peddle his particular social criticisms.

Someone who says that Jules Verne wrote about technology rather than society is someone who has not read Jules Verne. Perhaps they have only some vague memories of Disney movies with Kirk Douglas and a seal. Possibly they recall the star-studded romps of Around the World in 80 Days or Pat Boone singing his way through Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It's highly unlikely that they ever saw Vincent Price's Robur in Master of the World, or else their hypothesis might begin to unravel.

Suffice it to say that it is impossible to actually read the novels of Jules Verne and arrive at the conclusion that he was a mere techno-fetishist. For example, while Verne criticizes Wells' Cavorite, the actual moon launch in From the Earth to the Moon occupies a very small portion of the novel. The great Columbiad does not even fire until the last chapter, reserving the celestial voyage for a sequel entitled Around the Moon. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to the material and cultural infrastructure of a space launch.

Therein From the Earth to the Moon descends into a burlesque of American society worthy of Mark Twain. The novel opens with the members of the Baltimore Gun Club lamenting the fact that the War Between the States is over and there are no more glories to be had or advances in weaponry to be made. As they do so, Verne makes conspicuous mention of how many limbs each member is missing. In the wake of Gun Club president Barbicane's announcement, the streets are in an uproar:
It is impossible to describe the effect produced by the last words of the honorable president-- the cries, the shouts, the succession of roars, hurrahs, and all the varied vociferations which the American language is capable of supplying. It was a scene of indescribable confusion and uproar. They shouted, they clapped, they stamped on the floor of the hall. All the weapons in the museum discharged at once could not have more violently set in motion the waves of sound. One need not be surprised at this. There are some cannoneers nearly as noisy as their own guns.

Barbicane remained calm in the midst of this enthusiastic clamor; perhaps he was desirous of addressing a few more words to his colleagues, for by his gestures he demanded silence, and his powerful alarum was worn out by its violent reports. No attention, however, was paid to his request. He was presently torn from his seat and passed from the hands of his faithful colleagues into the arms of a no less excited crowd.

Nothing can astound an American. It has often been asserted that the word "impossible" in not a French one. People have evidently been deceived by the dictionary. In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. Between Barbicane's proposition and its realization no true Yankee would have allowed even the semblance of a difficulty to be possible. A thing with them is no sooner said than done.

The triumphal progress of the president continued throughout the evening. It was a regular torchlight procession. Irish, Germans, French, Scotch, all the heterogeneous units which make up the population of Maryland shouted in their respective vernaculars; and the "vivas," "hurrahs," and "bravos" were intermingled in inexpressible enthusiasm.

Just at this crisis, as though she comprehended all this agitation regarding herself, the moon shone forth with serene splendor, eclipsing by her intense illumination all the surrounding lights. The Yankees all turned their gaze toward her resplendent orb, kissed their hands, called her by all kinds of endearing names. Between eight o'clock and midnight one optician in Jones'-Fall Street made his fortune by the sale of opera-glasses.


From that day forward Impey Barbicane became one of the greatest citizens of the United States, a kind of Washington of science. A single trait of feeling, taken from many others, will serve to show the point which this homage of a whole people to a single individual attained.

Some few days after this memorable meeting of the Gun Club, the manager of an English company announced, at the Baltimore theatre, the production of "Much ado about Nothing." But the populace, seeing in that title an allusion damaging to Barbicane's project, broke into the auditorium, smashed the benches, and compelled the unlucky director to alter his playbill. Being a sensible man, he bowed to the public will and replaced the offending comedy by "As you like it"; and for many weeks he realized fabulous profits.

Verne was not himself immune to "invention". What allows the Gun Club to make the lunar attempt is a "new type" of gun cotton with exponentially more power than any type existing at the time. With that gun cotton, the Gun Club makes an even grander attempt at something that puts the exclamation point on Verne as a social commentator.

In the third book of the series, The Purchase of the Pole, the Baltimore Gun Club forms a corporation that buys up the vast, useless tracts of the North Pole. Soon their reason is leaked: they plan on using their explosive to alter the axis of the Earth, rotating the poles to the equator so that they can exploit the mineral wealth heretofore locked beneath ageless ice. The whole novel is spent with citizens and governments in panicked attempts to stop a private, unaccountable corporation from destroying civilization and the planet in their shortsighted grab for profit. Rarely is Wells even this timely.

Verne's most famous character was a revolutionary. Originally, Nemo was supposed to be a Polish reactionary against an aggressive Russian empire, but Verne's publisher - Jules Hetzel - felt that was too controversial (and would have impacted sales Eastern European sales). Thus the mariner was altered to an Indian prince suffering at the hands of the British. Hetzel also put the breaks on one of Verne's very first novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Describing a future society where the arts and letters have fallen into disuse in a society devoted capital, Hetzel felt that this bleak extrapolation of the effects of industrialization and modernization on the human psyche was too depressing for a marketable novel. The manuscript was finally published in 1994 and became a best-seller in France. In Facing the Flag, adapted by Karel Zeman into the magnificent film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, a rouge band of terrorists acquire a weapon of mass destruction.

Verne criticized Wells' science because Verne's was a far-reaching, polymathic form of Scientific Romance. Within 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea alone, one gets the tortured tale of a failed revolutionary and an oceanographic survey of marine life studded with historical interludes about various shipwrecks and events. Not all of Verne's "Voyages Extraordinaires" can technically be described as Science Fiction. Around the World in 80 Days and In Search of the Castaways are fantastic adventures without a single fantastic contraption. He also wrote non-fiction books about history, nature, science and exploration.

Verne, ultimately, is comprehensive. In regards to Wells - who he did think was an accomplished writer - Verne prefigured the lament of every scientist who sees their discipline mutilated on the silver screen: "My God, it is so easy to get it right if you just did the research!" Being comprehensive was not Wells' concern.

Wells is much more focused and bears more in common with the likes of a George Lucas than Robert J. Sawyer may care to admit. Verne wrote about science and history and nature and society, making careful observations and extrapolations, delivering in technological treatises and uproarious satires. He placed his characters into settings to work out their dramas. Wells wrote about his vision of a socialist, technocratic, secular, eugenic, universal utopian government. The Scientific Romances for which he is most famous now were little more than extended allegories for his political views, often crudely symbolic and without characters to speak of, and by the end of his career he had largely abandoned them. In a shared interview after that fateful Halloween broadcast, the elder Wells congratulated the younger Welles for inflating the sales of one of his more obscure old novels.

Like Lucas' lightsabres and Death Stars, the technology in Wells' novels is a handwaved gesture, a bit of drag dressing up a story that is not necessarily about technology and its effects on civilization. His Cavorite is no more scientific than de Bergerac's bottles of dew. War of the Worlds is no more about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life than is The Island of Doctor Moreau a treatise on the possibilities of vivisection. Rather, the former speaks more to Wells' disdain for imperialism mixed with some cosmic nihilism and the latter is admittedly "an exercise in youthful blasphemy." In that same preface, he acknowledges that these stories are fantasies.

Shortly after Sherard's interview with Verne, the Englishman does begin to overlap with the Frenchman. The heady fantasies occupying the earliest days of his career give way to the serious scientific speculation of books like The Shape of Things to Come and The War in the Air. The War in the Air may be the closest novel to Verne's, imbued with the same spirit of extrapolating the effects of a technology and its implicit possibilities. Yet it is The Shape of Things to Come that compasses this stage of Wells' work.

Verne asked what cultural effects these new technologies might have and let it play out with little in the way of commentary. Nemo's own redemption in The Mysterious Island comes not through reshaping the world, but through finding peace within himself. Not so with Wells. Wells is perfectly content to raze the world and rebuild it in his image. Verne spoke of how technology may be used, Wells spoke of how it ought to be used. Verne observed, Wells prescribed.

In The Shape of Things to Come, Wells writes a future-history textbook; these are the recollections of men living beyond our own time and reflecting back on the creation of their utopian society. The first chapter of the fifth book recapitulates the task at hand for the newly formed world government:
Then the World Council had set itself to certain tasks that had been so inconceivable hitherto that not the most daring sociologists had looked them in the face. They had contented themselves with pious aspirations, and taken refuge in the persuasion that, if they were sufficiently disregarded, these tasks would somehow do themselves. They were tasks of profound mental reconstruction, reconstruction going deeper into the substratum of the individual life than anything that had ever been attempted before. In the first place traditions of nationality had to be cleared away for good, and racial prejudice replaced by racial understanding. This was a positive job against immense resistances. Next a lingua-franca had to be made universal and one or other of the great literature-bearing languages rendered accessible to everyone. This again was not to be done for the wishing. And thirdly, and most evaded of all three obstacles that had to be surmounted, issue had to be joined with the various quasi-universal religious and cultural systems, Christianity, Jewry, Islam, Buddhism and so forth, which right up to the close of the twentieth century were still in active competition with the Modern State movement for the direction of the individual life and the control of human affairs. While these competing cultures remained in being they were bound to become refuges and rallying-shelters for all the opposition forces that set themselves to cripple and defeat the new order of the world.

On genetics, Wells' regime does express a few misgivings with regards to human flesh that it does not to nature:
"The particular field in which we propose a continuation of restraint is in the application of the rapidly advancing science of genetics to the increase of variability so far as human beings, and probably some other of the higher mammals, are concerned. We believe that the general feeling of the race is against any such experimentation at present. Under the Second Council the painless destruction of monsters and the more dreadful and pitiful sorts of defective was legalized, and also the sterilization of various types that would otherwise have transmitted tendencies that were plainly undesirable. This is as far, we think, as humanity should go in directing its racial heredity, until our knowledge of behaviour has been greatly amplified. For an age or so we can be content with humanity as it now is, humanity no longer distressed and driven to cruelty by overcrowding, under-nourishment, infections, mental and physical poisons of every sort. There is a rich mine of still greatly underdeveloped capacity in the human brain as it is, and this we may very happily explore by means of artistic effort, by scientific investigations, by living freely and gaily, for the next few generations. Normal human life can be cleansed, extended and amplified. With that we propose to content ourselves. Even upon this planet we have millions of years ahead before there can be any fundamental change in our environment.

"Directly we turn from humanity to other forms of life it is manifest that a most attractive realm is opening to us. We may have new and wonderful forests; we may have new plants; we may replace the weedy and scanty greensward of the past by a subtler and livelier texture. Undreamt-of fruits and blossoms may be summoned out of non-existence. The insect world, on which so much of the rest of life depends, may be made more congenial to mankind. The smaller fry of life and the little beasts and the birds can be varied now until they all come into a tolerable friendship with ourselves. As our hands lose their clumsiness we may interfere more and more surely with the balance of life. There is no longer fear of abundance now that man is sane.

There are good things within Wells' system, to be sure. The appropriate "organization of plenty", for instance, creating a post-scarcity economy. With the abolition of want comes the associated diminution of violent crime and opportunity for using the intellect in other pursuits. Nevermind that the society itself is predicated on the crime of cultural genocide and proscribes what one may intellectually pursue. It is Wells' distasteful means that are in question, the dictatorship of the test-tube and the enslavement of humankind to efficiency.

The Englishman does write himself a critic, the artist Theotocopulos railing against progress some 70 years after Verne's Michel did the same in Paris in the Twentieth Century. What Wells prescribed as a goal, Verne observed - a generation before - as a misery. Compared to Wells, George Lucas' apparent belief in the divine rights of genetic god-men is merely incidental thoughtlessness. Wells has clearly given his oppressive regime a great deal of reflection.

Either way, it is no longer tennable to suggest that Verne merely wrote of technology while Wells wrote of society. The Frenchman, a polymath, is unencumbered by the need to peddle such specific social dogmas and is therefore often more insightful than the Englishman. If there is anyone really worth comparing Verne to, it would be to the great chain of French authors like Dumas, Hugo, Voltaire and de Bergerac. Meanwhile, Wells was more preoccupied with internecine conflicts amongst the Edwardian English intelligentsia, namely George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Indeed, comparing them may be a case of apples and oranges.


ediFanoB said...

What an excellent and extraordinary post! You must have spent days for it.

I do not have any preference. I think we are lucky because we can enjoy such two great authors.

grouchomarxist said...

I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon.

Except that it's a rather shoddy physics -- even in the mid-1800s -- which doesn't take into account the fact that by the time said cannon-ball left the muzzle of Verne's Columbiad, the tremendous acceleration involved in going from zero mph to escape velocity in a second or two would have reduced its occupants to a layer of meat paste. So much for a "very scientific base" to that story. (Actually, it's quite clear that Verne was aware of this problem, since he has Barbicane design some laughably inadequate means of coping with the "shock".)

Which doesn't excuse Wells from writing a space cannon into the film version of Things to Come, either. If anything, he had even less justification, because by the mid-1930s he should have been aware of Tsiolkovsky's and Goddard's work on rocket propulsion, not to mention certain German enthusiasts who were technical advisors to Frau im Mond. (Of course, for all I know, he may have intended it as kind of homage to Verne, as well as a dramatic plot device.)

And don't even get me started on the physics behind Off on a Comet. Verne really should have known better than to say what he did: Both authors were quite capable of fudging their science in the pursuit of a narrative.

Rarely is Wells even this timely

I suggest you go back and re-read When the Sleeper Wakes. Seriously: It gets more relevant with each passing year. And imperialism (The War of the Worlds) and class divisions (The Time Machine) are no longer timely issues?

The heady fantasies occupying the earliest days of [Wells'] career give way to the serious scientific speculation of books like The Shape of Things to Come and The War in the Air.

First, I have a big problem with the implication that Wells' earliest works were characterized by a dearth of serious scientific speculation. I think that needlessly shortchanges the thought Wells put into the civilization of the Selenites, for instance, or the future evolution of humankind, or high-tech weaponry.

Second, the two books you've chosen for your examples are IMO a rather odd pairing, especially when listed in that order. TSoTtC was published in 1933, while The War in the Air was first serialized in 1907, over a quarter of a century earlier. They represent very different points in Wells' career, and very different objectives. The War in the Air does involve some scientific speculation, but TSoTtC is essentially a treatise on the shortcomings of the League of Nations and the political/economic order of the early 30s, followed by a sketch of near-future history and an outline of Wells' notions of a saner, more just society which emerges after the next war.

It's not even a novel in the conventional sense, and differs from the movie in many important respects. For instance, Theotocopulos gets scant mention in the book, and then not so much as a neo-Luddite rabble-rouser, but as someone whose rebellion brought a needed balance to the overly rigid and (in a non-religious sense) puritanical sensibility of the new world order.

TSoTtC was written when Wells' tendency toward polemics mostly overwhelmed his talent as a storyteller, while The War in the Air comes from a far more balanced and creative period in his writing.

grouchomarxist said...


Verne observed, Wells prescribed.

I'd call that an oversimplification which applies far more to the latter two-thirds of Wells' career than to his early output. I think it's also worth noting that while Verne had some tragic experiences in his life, he never witnessed the sort of civilizational catastrophe that Wells did, in the First World War. If he had, he might have taken a very different direction in his writing.

Verne was also guilty of crude stereotyping, sometimes in the service of deeply repugnant beliefs (Exhibit A being the ferocious anti-Semitism on display in Off on a Comet). In The Begum's Fortune, Chinese migrant workers are allowed to build Verne's Utopian community of Frankville, but not to settle there. And really, Frankville only looks good in comparison to the dystopian Steel City. Any normal person would probably end up running screaming from the regimented, ultra-hygenic sterility of Verne's Utopian city.

I'm in complete agreement with you that "Someone who says that Jules Verne wrote about technology rather than society is someone who has not read Jules Verne." (And of course it didn't help that his earliest translators into English excised some of that social commentary.) Verne was without a doubt a far better and more interesting writer than he's been given credit for in some sectors of the sf community (cough*Sawyer*cough) and the public in general. For me, one of the few bright spots of the last decade has been to rediscover Verne, in decent translations.

Still, comparing Wells to the guy who could inflict Jar-Jar Binks on an unsuspecting world is kind of a low blow, if you ask me. Star Wars has never been anything but a jumped-up Flash Gordon serial cobbled together from a grab-bag of sf influences, a sprinkling of New Age goofiness and (in the later movies) pretensions to profundity and relevance. (Which isn't meant to denigrate the highly imaginative visuals of these films, just the plot and characters.)

Not to put too fine a point to it, Lucas is a hack, whose only spark of real creativity died when THX-1138 was put in the can. But Wells was an original and sometimes daring thinker, for which the indisputable evidence is the lasting, widespread influence he's had on the genre. Both Verne and Wells were obviously gifted with tremendous, wide-ranging and above all disciplined imaginations, but I've yet to read anything written by Verne that's as poignant and chilling as The Time Machine, or as gripping as The War of the Worlds.

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the replies!

First of all, I probably am harder on Wells than need be. My position on him is that his Big Five novels are certainly literary classics - War of the Worlds (which I have a great "complete" edition of with the illustrated novel, essays, and the script of the radio broadcast with a CD of the same), The Time Machine, First Men in the Moon, Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man - but that he himself is an abhorrent little man with abhorrent little ideas. As per my final paragraph I don't even think it's worth comparing Verne and Wells except that so many other people do so. I agree with Verne that there is no raport between them: even in his darkest moments Verne is a French Romantic with joie de vivre, a genuine and lively curiousity about the world and about people, while Wells is a narrow little British man who pretty much hates everything and wants to reshape the world in his own hateful image. That projects in their writing, which is why I can be far more engaged by Verne than Wells. Reading Verne is invigorating. Wells is distinctly unpleasant and reading him is a chore (to compare Wells to who he ought to be compared to, I feel the same way about G.K. Chesterton as I do about Verne).

Regardingly timeliness... Imperialism and class divisions are still timely issues because they're perennial. They've always been issues and always will be. In that respect, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine aren't even Science Fiction, any more than Star Wars. They're sort of that crude, English level of fantasy symbolism in which the Martians are us and the lion is Jesus. I pointed out Purchase of the Pole as an example of Verne's timeliness because it's so specific: technological development in the hands of private, unaccountable corporations now poses a threat to the entire physcal planet. Verne's genius of extrapolation was not in the bullshit gun cotton, but in predicting that (the only fault of it is the implicit message of his conclusion that humanity will never have quite that much power... I'm not so sure of that).

I'm not so sure about whether Verne might have changed his tune had he seen WWI either. While he didn't see that, he did see the Franco-Prussian War and the falls of both the Second Republic and the Second Empire. If I was to guess - and someone more versed in Verne is welcome to chime in - I would wager that he could foresee the impliments of industrialized warfare (I actually just recently finished reading Facing the Flag) but wouldn't allow himself to utilize them fully because to do so would be anti-human and Verne is more or less a Romantic humanist. Wells was not hampered by any sort of healthy love of humanity which would prevent him from A) imagining their application or B) advocating their application. But even in this respect, Verne is prescient because he nevertheless predicts that life goes on... As it did after the collapse of two government, the loss of one of the first modern wars, and WWI (and WWII!).

The underhanded comparison of Wells and Verne was more a reaction to Sawyer's piece. Of the two, I would say that Wells is closer to Lucas by way of penning unscientific fantasies filled with odious philosophy. Talentwise, Wells is infinitely superior to Lucas. If I were to compare Verne to a more modern and equally inferior author, it would probably be Michael Crichton.

Thanks again for posting! I love the exchange of ideas and views, regardless of whether or not they agree with mine! ^_^