Wednesday 19 April 2017

Jules Verne's The Hunt for the Meteor

Written in 1901 but published in 1908, The Hunt for the Meteor is one of Jules Verne's last, great, posthumous novels. Like many of those novels, the original French publication (and most subsequent English translations) was altered by Verne's son Michel, but nevertheless, what peeks through is a final novel reiterating the elder Verne's status as a first-class satirist.

The themes and ideas bear a passing resemblance to my favourite of Verne's novels, From the Earth to the Moon. Both are stories in which a mania for the celestial spheres provides opportunities for satirical examinations of life on Earth. In the case of The Hunt for the Meteor, two amateur astronomers from Virginia both spy the same meteorite at the same time on the same day, both laying claim to the discovery and being utterly intolerant of having to share the distinction with the other. Though friendly enough to have their respective nephew and daughter engaged to be married, the meteor quickly inflates the pet rivalry into virtual warfare. The war waged primarily in the press and between the affections of the younger family members reaches a fever pitch when it is discovered that the meteor is made of gold!

The feud between the two amateurs, which spirals out of control to swallow up the town and the media, offers Verne plenty of opportunity for social satire. For example...
What was its volume? Its mass? Its nature? To these questions the Whaston Standard replied:
"Judging by the meteor's apparent height and dimensions, its diameter must be over five hundred yards; this, at any rate, is what the observations so far made seem to indicate. But its nature no one has yet been able to determine. Seen through instruments sufficiently powerful, it shines with great brilliancy, this no doubt being due to atmospheric friction, although, at such an altitude, the density of the air is not great. Could it be nothing more than a mass of gas? Or, on the other hand, might it not be composed of a solid nucleus with a luminous coma? If so, what is the size and nature of the nucleus? We do not know, and probably never shall.
"In short, this object is nothing out of the ordinary, either by its volume or by its velocity. Its only peculiarity is that is revolves in a closed orbit. For how long has it revolved round our globe? The most skilled astronomers of our observatory would not be able to tell us, as they would never have perceived it through their official telescopes but for out two fellow-townsmen, Mr. Dean Forsyth and Dr. Sydney Hudelson, to whom has been reserved the glory of the magnificent discovery."
In all this, as the paper had so judiciously pointed out, there was nothing out of the ordinary - unless it were the writer's eloquence. So they did not trouble to notice the innuendo placed at the close of this atrcle. And outside Whaston the unscientific world manifested pretty much the same indifference. Perhaps even the town's citizens would have soon grown tired of this cosmic incident, which the Punch insisted on calling "comic," if certain newspapers had not begun to hint more and more plainly at the dispute simmering between Mr. Dean Forsyth and Dr. Hudelson. No sooner was this made public than the town began to split into two opposite camps.
Meanwhile the date of the marriage drew near. Mrs. Hudelson, Jenny and Loo, on the one hand, and Francis Gordon and Mitz, on the other, lived in a state of growing anxiety. They were in constant fear that a meeting between the two rivals might provoke some outbreak, just as the meeting of two clouds charged with contrary electricities produces thunder and lightning. It was well known that Dean Forsyth's anger still burned and that Hudelson's wrath needed only an occasion to manifest itself.
But now this pacific competition no longer satisfied their feelings. Not content with having broken off diplomatic relations, they wanted open hostilities, with an official declaration of war. 
One day there appeared in the Whaston Standard a somewhat aggressive paragraph against the doctor, which was attributed to Mr. Dean Forsyth. The paragraph said that some people's eyes were good only when they looked through other people's glasses, and that they were too good at seeing what had been seen already. To this a paragraph in the Whaston Evening replied that object-glasses were sometimes badly wiped, and that spots left on them were east to mistake for meteors. At the same time Punch published a caricature with striking likenesses of the two rivals who were represented with gigantic wings and flying to catch the meteor, shown as having a zebra's head and putting out its tongue at them. 
A public clamour!
As long as the meteor of gold remains aloof in orbit, its wealth and ability to upset the gold standard are moot points. However, when a mysterious force supplied by an absent-minded inventor (who was himself invented whole cloth by Michel Verne) begins to drag the meteor Earthward, it becomes time for the world's governments to act. In a series of conferences, the following exchanges occur...

The International Conference convenes.
On 14th July, the International Conference came to a deadlock. Every possible combination had been discussed and rejected in turn. The delegates looked at each other in embarrassment. How were they to re-open a qestion which had been already threshed out to no purpose?
In the first sittings the proposal to divide the meteor's wealth in proportion to the superficial area of the various countries had been voted down, in spite of its equitableness. Although the countries of larger area might be supposed to have greater needs, and although, as a matter of fact, they sacrificed their more numerous chance in consenting to a division, no account was made of their forbearance by the other countries, whose population was dense and whose area was relatively small.
These latter wish the distribution to be in proportion to the number of inhabitants. This system, which also was not altogether unjust, as it respected the equal rights of individuals, was opposed by Russia, Brazil, the Argentine Republic, and several other sparsely-inhabited countries. Mr. Harvey's casting vote enabled the non-contents to have their by twenty against nineteen. 
The governments whose finances showed large annual deficits then suggested it would be equitable to divide the gold fallen from the sky so that the lot of all the inhabitants of the earth should be equalised. Objection was immediately offered on the score that this system was of a socialistic tendency, that it would put a premium on idleness, that it wold involve a distribution so complicated as to be practically impossible. Certain speakers then brought forward amendments, taking three factors into account: area, population, wealth, to each being assigned a co-efficient conforming to equity.
Equity! The word was in every mouth. Whether it was in every heart is less certain, which was probably why these solutions were rejected like the others, each and all of the delegates hoping for some particular advantage. 
In the face of the deadlock, Russia and China deemed the movement opportune to revive the proposal first voted down by its adjournment, and to try to get it adopted with some little modification. These two states, therefore, suggested that the milliards should be handed over to one of the nations, to be chosen by lot, the winner to pay the losing countries an indemnity calculated at a thousand francs for each citizen. 
Perhaps, through lassitude, this compromise would have been accepted, if the Republic of Andorra had not objected. Its representative began an interminable speech that might have been going on even now if the chairman, seeing that every seat was vacant, had not adjourned the discussion till the next day. 
Although the Republic of Andorra believed it was pursuing a good policy in thwarting the immediate acceptance of Russia's proposal, it made a grievous mistake. Whereas the proposal assured the Republic appreciable advantages, there was now a great probability of its receiving nothing at all, a result not forseen by its representative who would have done better to hold his tongue. 
During the morning of 15th July, something was going to happen which would discredit the International Conference and definitely compromise its chances of success. If it had been possible, as long as nobody knew where the meteor would fall, to discuss every conceivable manner of distributing the milliards, such discussion was useless when the place of the fall was known. No country thus favoured, whatever it might be, would consent to share its booty voluntarily. 
And, indeed, there was one delegate, Monsieur de Schnack, the representative of Greennland, who deserted the sittings of the Conference. 
The representative of the Republic of Andorra
closes things down.
In the version of the story altered by Michel, the inventor buys the exact property in Greenland where the meteor is to crash. Unfortunately he discovers that the right of private property is only as good as the physical force behind the person who owns the property. First the representatives of Greenland set up a "security perimeter" around the downed meteor, to the inventor's chagrin. Then come the Americans, the British, the French, etc. to "assist" with their own marines. Given that the meteor is perched precariously on the cliff overlooking the abyss of Baffin Bay, there seems to be only one course of action left to the disgusted inventor.

Crowds close in on the golden meteor.
Greenland gets its own representative because, in the timeline represented in Verne's novel, it was an independent state. He also made a near-future prediction by describing the flag of the United States of America as having 51 stars (there were only 45 states at the time of Verne's death). These are cases where Verne's futurism may not have born fruit - the USA only has 50 states and Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark - but his preoccupation was with social satire and his critique of wealth. Another posthumous novel of Verne's, The Golden Volcano taking place during Canada's Klondike Gold Rush, also lampoons and criticizes the human obsession with that yellow metal and the wealth it brings.

Contrary to his reputation and legacy, Jules Verne's original version lacks the inventor and the edge of Science Fiction that he brings. This original manuscript has been more recently translated and published by the University of Nebraska Press as The Meteor Hunt. Without the inventor, Verne's social satire comes across ever more clearly.

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