Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future (1964)



Coming hot on the heels of an overabundance of films based on his works, Franz Born's Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future perfectly taps into the mystique around the Victorian prophet. "Rockets zooming faster than sound from Florida toward the moon," the dustjacket reads.
submarines slithering under the North Pole, skyscrapers looming over moving sidewalks - all these things are part of our lives today, or will be in the near future. Yet, in the nineteenth century, they were the fantasies of Jules Verne's fertile imagination.
The book, intended for younger readers, begins with an exciting episode from modern headlines: the voyage of the U.S.S. Nautilus beneath the North Pole in 1958. Verne, Born insists, did not merely foresee the accomplishments of latter days, but actually invented them. The first nuclear submarine was named for Captain Nemo's and polar explorers were inspired by Captain Hatteras. The French author was a self-fulfilling prophet.



What follows is a brisk biography of the great author, with particular focus on his meteoric success with Five Weeks in a Balloon, From the Earth to the Moon, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, In Search of the Castaways, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. At each stop along the way, Born informs us of the ways in which Verne inspired true-life adventures from polar explorers and nautical pioneers to world tourists and the upcoming moon launch a few years hence.

Though Born adheres mostly to the paradigm of Verne as the prophetic techno-optimist - which isn't entirely true, and latter chapters are devoted to his eldery cynicism - he does have gems of genuine insight into the appeal of the master's work. The following excerpt could easily be a thesis statement for this very weblog:
His characters are not dressed like monsters of technology in fantastic space suits, helmets, and oxygen masks. They travel in everyday clothes. They eat ordinary food. Michel Ardan sees to it that they are served a good breakfast and an even more delicious dinner every day. They drink wine and smoke cigars.

They travel through the air in a drawing room, just as in another Verne novel, Professor Pierre Arronax and his companions will travel through the depths of the ocean in an even more sumptuous salon.

Yet even though these luxurious quarters seem quaint to us today, they served a purpose in Verne's novels. Jules Verne's readers, sitting in their own drawing rooms, felt they were sharing in the experience of space travel. It was as if they had only to look out of their own windows to see the meteors passing by and the huge disk of the moon coming closer.

From their armchairs, Verne's readers received a detailed "guided tour" of the moon from very close up. The fascination of Verne's description lies entirely in the factual information we are given about the moon! Unlike so many pseudo-scientific novels, Jules Verne does not need to resort to moon people or similar nonsense. He describes only what had actually already been observed - but only with the help of telescopes. These "facts" proved more overwhelming than the fantasies of other writers.


Perhaps the real highpoint of the book is the suit of illustrations by Peter P. Plasenica, which have illustrated this article. He foregoes full Victorian detail to opt instead for clean Atomic Age, Googie style. The full set can be seen at the blog Ward-O-Matic.

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