Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jules Verne: father of steampunk, science fiction icon or educator?

NOTE: This is the first part of a piece I did on Jules Verne. The whole piece was written for the Beyond Victoriana blog, but the I managed to develop two ideas and the piece splits perfectly into two shorter ones. The exploration of what sort of genre Verne pioneered didn't exactly fit with the Beyond Victoriana's focus on steampunk, so I'm posting it here. I'd like to warn that this is the accumulation of what I've read from Verne and about Verne.


When I embarked on reading Jules Verne for the first time, I wanted to trace steampunk’s root in literature. Verne has been, more often than not, hailed as steampunk’s father, a claim I find to be suspicious, considering how Verne lived through the Victorian era. Essentially he had witnessed every technological and scientific advance. What he wrote run [mostly] parallel to what happened in the world. In this article, I hope to examine – or at least try to – what can be considered steampunk, what not and what exactly Verne wrote as a genre.

The problem is that Verne didn’t write genre as we understand genre today because today’s concept of genre did not exist during his time. The stories Verne wrote were classified as “scientific romances”, and that term had a very different defitnion from what we would classify as “science fiction” or even “hard SF”.

When I hear steampunk, my first association is with steam. I think about an alternative Earth with a well-defined Victorian-inspired aesthetic and atmosphere, serving as a background for an adventurous tale filled with steam-powered technological wonders. The elements I’m listing are cosmetic, sure, but also the first logical connections a reader makes when hearing steampunk. Accent, however, also falls on technology’s inherence to the genre and its role as a girder for the secondary world.

Reading “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” confirmed that Verne didn’t write steampunk. No, his fiction comes closest to hard science fiction in terms of how science has been incorporated in the story. Both “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island” present the reader with an impressive amount of detailed information; the result of Verne’s devotion to and passion for scientific detail. Verne goes at great length to maintain an accurate scientific representation in both text; a defining theme for hard science fiction as a genre.

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” comes closest to fulfilling steampunk’s definition as science and technology are vital in the book. Perhaps one sixth of the text explains and clarifies how the Nautilus operates. If there is no Nautilus, there is no story.

However, the Nautilus runs on electricity and not on steam. Small, but significant difference. During the 1870s, electricity remained untapped and still undeveloped as a resource, while submarines ran on mechanical energy. Verne’s Nautilus, at the time, was a far-fetched design, both in scale and sophistication. In fact, it was after the success of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” when submarine design and construction underwent considerable developments and electricity became a commodity rather than a luxury. Since Verne lived during the Victorian era, it’s obvious that he looked into the future, creating a singular machine, which constituted the new technological era in human history.

However, it would be unfair to classify Jules Verne as a hard science fiction writer or science fiction writer in the purest sense. The most typical hard SF tropes are missing. Verne’s writing – save for some exceptions such as “From the Earth to the Moon,” its sequel “Around the Moon” and “Off on a Comet” – doesn’t deal with intergalactic voyages or the explorations of other worlds, even though the undersea voyages in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” can be considered as the exploration of a foreign world. His interest lies more in the natural sciences rather than the potential for technological progress.

This particular theme in Verne’s fiction can be explained by the purpose of his Les Voyages Extraordinaires ("The Extraordinary Voyages" in English). While Verne wrote to entertain, he also wrote in order to educate the average French family as during his lifetime illiteracy about geography and other natural sciences. Countering ignorance is also Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s, the editor and publisher behind Verne, objective behind the foundation of his the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation [Magazine for education and recreation] in 1863. The facts I’ve read about Verne’s life don’t indicate whether Hetzel had to convince Verne to take his own writing in this direction or whether Verne himself was eager to do something about this then-serious social issue. However, reading about how close both men worked with each other and how their business relationship grew into a lifelong friendship, it’s safe to assume that Verne was willing to accept the concept.

His technique to incorporate science in his writing was to discuss science with acquaintances and scientists that he knew. Jules Verne, himself, wasn’t a scientist. Nor had he traveled the world. His research didn’t come from past experience, but from reading all the available at the time literature. Essentially, what this translates to is that Verne wrote textbooks with plots and characters.

If one is to look closely at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” it becomes apparent that this is as much an adventure story as it’s a textbook on geography [the constant updates on the ship’s route with generous descriptions of the scenery], on marine life [the countless hours professor Pierre Aronnax spends cataloguing fishes, mollusks and other marine life forms], on history [as Nemo tutors Aronnax about sunken ships and battles] and on oceanography, art and also a great deal on engineering.

Verne attempts to amp the adventurous spirit of the story, referencing to Homer’s Odyssey and effectively evoking the sense that this is an extraordinary journey. To a point, he achieves to keep my attention with the discovery of a sunken Atlantis, underwater hunts and vicious squid attacks. However, the book’s true purpose to act as a learning tool shines through and

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” reads like a travelogue. There is no central goal to give the voyage any purpose, until Ned Land devises a plan to liberate Aronnax, Conseil and himself from the Nautilus. This moment occurs in the last third of the book and is barely developed to satisfy my expectations. The ending is rather rushed.

Verne is the master of the slow reveal – as the Steampunk Scholar explains in his exquisite take on the novel – and this storytelling technique worked to his advantage given that he was educating first and entertaining second [the almost crawling pace and lack of general direction testify for this arrangement for priorities]. However, compared to modern steampunk novels such as “Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld and “Boneshaker” by Cherie Priest, which invest in a dynamic and fast-paced story, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” appears static.

“The Mysterious Island” also heavily relies on science for the story’s foundations, but Verne neither goes for steam, nor does he envision anything futuristic. I think it would be accurate to say that Verne pays tribute to Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”. Much like Robinson, the five colonists restart civilization on their island. What’s different is how Verne views the task at hand and manages to transform it into a textbook.

I was treated to charting expeditions in order to record and name all the various geographic formations, which is the continuation of how important geography is to Verne. I didn’t care for the geography of the island or how Cyrus Harding, resident engineer and miracle worker, estimated both the latitude and the longitude of Lincoln Island, though I imagine how useful and valued those skills at the time were. Through the young and unnaturally well-read Herbert, the reader encounters all the possible land animals, fowl and plant life. Much like Aronnax’s obsession with fish and mollusks, Herbert clarifies species, genus and whatever else can be said about any said organism. Through Pencroft’s efforts to maintain a more domesticated food source, the reader learns about agriculture. Then come lessons in how to fashion hunting tools, bricks, pottery, glass and even nitroglycerine.

Here, the focus falls on creation and gradual evolution rather than on adventures, and steam is nowhere to be seen. I realize that I’m very steam-centric, but steam technology defines this as a genre and the absence of steam in Verne’s work only disproves the claim that Jules Verne fathered steampunk.

The definition of steampunk as “a novel incorporating steam technology” is currently in flux, however. The best definition I’ve come across is in Surridge’s article on Black Gate magazine, where he defines a steampunk novel was one that addresses the tensions between industrialization & technology. And technology that was growing in prominence at the time simply happened to be steam, but he proves how the friction of technology is the keystone of steampunk novels.

The same crawling pace defines “The Mysterious Island”. As mentioned Verne is inspired by Robinson Crusoe’s tale and therefore he treats readers to a more slice-of-life approach rather any defined story arc. As with “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” the major goal - this time to leave the island - manifests near the end of the book, when the colonists’ lives are physically threatened. At the same time, the marooned convicts – the opposition to the colonists – are more or less a manifestation of chance rather than integral to the plot.

As established, Verne wrote educational science fiction [if I can use such a term] in order to promote awareness among adults and children. However, it’s exactly the didactic content that publishers in Europe and in the United States overlooked and chose to focus on the fictional, thus watering his work down, and presenting Verne as an adventurous science fiction writer. Modern adaptations of Verne from comic books to movies and to television reinforce this idea and most likely led to his title as ‘father of steampunk’. Inserting Mara as Nemo’s daughter [when in fact Nemo’s wife and children have been murdered] and changing Aronnax’s age in the made-for-television movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” [starring a young, appealing Patrick Dempsey] in order to fit a romantic subplot, contributes to the illusion that Verne did father steampunk—for who doesn’t want a bit of romance mixed with their adventure?

However, Verne’s writing and steampunk share several themes and tropes. The most obvious is the Victorian era, which for Verne was the present, while for steampunk a bringer of a very desirable atmosphere and aesthetic [I’m allowing my personal bias shine here]. Of course, the adventurous spirit also should be noted. Although, Verne overloaded his manuscripts with an array of facts and bogged down the pacing, the stories he told in Les Voyages Extraordinaires are nothing short than amazing flight of fantasy, which later on translated to steampunk titles now [I’m risking to insert George Mann and his series as an example].

In conclusion, what did Verne write? The best I can say is that Verne is Verne. At best, I can say that he pioneered with crossgenre, because he crafted stories, balancing between the fantastical fiction and the practical nonfiction.


Charles Gramlich said...

Great article. This deserves a wider audience. You could try submitting this to the Illuminata perhaps, or some other magazine.

T.S. Bazelli said...

I agree with Charles. Excellent analysis, Harry. You know, I never realized that the nautilus ran on electricity. If I read Verne now, I'd probably pay attention to things like that (which I never noticed before) since the Steampunk genre came around.

Harry Markov said...

Guys, I think it's a bit late now that people have read it, but thanks for the good words. :)

Juliette Wade said...

I very much enjoyed this article, Harry. It's well thought out and I can definitely see your point. I've heard many times about the poor early translations of Verne into English. Very thought-provoking.

Harry Markov said...

Thank you, Juliette. I loved writing it. It clicked, when I read about his purpose to educate.

Lili Angelika Corsets said...

You wrote this with great respect and a progressive spirit, certainly a new look to the works of Jules Verne, congratulations.