The Return to the Frontier in the Extraordinary Voyage: Verne's the Mysterious Island and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

By Rieder, John | Extrapolation, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Return to the Frontier in the Extraordinary Voyage: Verne's the Mysterious Island and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey


Rieder, John, Extrapolation


The importance of Jules Verne's voyages extraordinaires for any construction of the history of science fiction seems beyond dispute. As James Gunn put it in a recent roundtable discussion of Verne's relevance to the twenty-first century, "It was Jules Verne who jump-started the genre, proving that this visionary literature had a world-wide readership and the potential to support a variety of writers, and it is difficult to imagine what science fiction would have become without him" ("Jules Verne Roundtable" 172). Nonetheless, some prominent Verne scholars hold that "Jules Verne is not quite the father of science fiction that he is so often claimed to be" (Unwin 6). Timothy Unwin insists on the historical distance between Verne and twentieth-century sf: "when he writes of global travel and technological wizardry, it is firmly in the context of nineteenth-century values and expectations" (6). Arthur B. Evans has persuasively demonstrated the formal and narratological differences that separate Verne's "scientific fiction" from the science fiction of a later generation ("Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France"). William Butcher, too, argues that Verne's "reputation as father of science fiction is erroneous," calling it an anachronistic misconstruction that has "distracted attention from serious literary study of his novels" (43).

I agree with Unwin, Evans, and Butcher that Verne is not the father of science fiction, but my reasons for saying so are quite different from the ones they have advanced. Verne is not the father of science fiction because the history of sf is not a matter of parents begetting children, but rather, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari say about rhizomatic assemblages, it is a process that "operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.... [I]t has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills" (21). Gunn is quite right to emphasize Verne's crucial role in establishing sf's milieu, and Verne's place in the sf canon, conferred upon him in Gernsback's Amazing, has been solidified, rather than shaken, by the efforts of the current generation of scholars. But that centrality need not entail the formal continuity Evans correctly shows not to exist, nor need it erase the historical differences Unwin correctly insists upon.

The topic of Verne's centrality to sf raises two complementary but dissimilar questions, then, one about the historical continuity that holds Verne in place as a canonical figure, the other about the shape and the construction of the genre and the status of canonical texts themselves within it. My formulation of the first, inspired by the recent Eaton Conference on Extraordinary Voyages: Jules Verne and Beyond, has to do with the way the extraordinary voyage--and so, of course, Verne's voyages extraordinaires--has served "as a narrative and ideological model that resonates in world SF down to the present day" ("Call for Papers"). (1) I will approach it by, first, reiterating a thesis I've previously advanced about science fiction, colonialism, and the motif of the extraordinary voyage; and then by showing how the figure of the frontier makes two rather dissimilar but canonical extraordinary voyages, Verne's The Mysterious Island and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, resonate with one another. The second question concerns the relationship of canonical texts to genres and genre formation. What do canonical texts actually have in common with one another? In what way, to what extent, does their canonicity exemplify, establish, or testify to the form and character of the genre? I will suggest that canonical texts, without in any way embodying the essence of the genre, may nonetheless tell us something important about its shape.

The resonance of the extraordinary voyage in world sf depends largely on the lasting relevance and power of the scientific and ideological discourses of political and economic colonialism and imperialism. …

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