Academic journal article Extrapolation

Jules Verne's Dream Machines: Technology and Transcendence

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Jules Verne's Dream Machines: Technology and Transcendence

Article excerpt

In the history of world literature, there is probably no writer whose reputation has been more associated with machines, technology, and the future than Jules Verne. From the 1860s to today, Verne has been repeatedly celebrated as the "Prince of the marvelous in literature" (Anon. 33), "the first great progenitor of science fiction" (Amis 28), the "prophet, foreseer, and foreteller of our mechanical age" (Home vii), and the prescient novelist whose "dreams of yesterday have become realities today" (Souday 34).1 In contrast to his younger British rival H. G. Wells-often cited as the other founding father of science fiction-Verne's technical extrapolations have always been viewed as being more scientifically plausible, more grounded in the real. Verne himself made this point during two separate interviews in 1903 and 1904 when he discussed Wells's scientific romances in the following terms:

"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 [s/c] in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c'est très joli," cried Monsieur Verne in an animated way, "but show me this metal. Let him produce it." (Sherard 589)

"Some of my friends have suggested to me that his work is on somewhat similar lines to my own. But here, I think, they err. I consider him, as a purely imaginative writer, to be deserving of very high praise, but our methods are entirely different. I have always made a point in my romances of basing my socalled inventions upon a groundwork of actual fact, and of using in their construction methods and materials which are not entirely beyond the pale of contemporary engineering skill and knowledge. [...] The creations of Mr. Wells, on the other hand, belong unreservedly to an age and degree of scientific knowledge far removed from the present." (Jones 669-71)2

It is well known that one of Verne's goals-as mandated by his editor and publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel3-was to teach science through fiction. And, at least until Hetzel's death in 1887, Verne never strayed very far from the facts. Wells's goal, on the other hand, was to develop fiction through science, and the role of the latter served more often as a convenient means for building verisimilitude for his storylines.4 In the considerable mass of scholarship devoted to these two authors during the past century, Verne seems invariably portrayed as the writer of "hard" sf-more technical, empirical-based, and didactic-whereas Wells is described as the writer of a "softer" brand of sf- more social, philosophical-based, and speculative.5

In contrast to these neatly polarized (and admittedly stereotypical) characterizations, I would like to offer a somewhat different picture of Verne and his romans scientifiques. In my opinion, an important and often overlooked trademark of the Vernian text is the extent to which the science and technology portrayed is mythologized and poeticized, creating a kind of "mechanical mysticism." That is to say, the iconic significance of the many futuristic transportational vehicles and other extrapolated technologies in Verne's work lies not in their value as technological predictions, however accurate these may be. And it does not lie solely in the former's usefulness as a plausible means to transport the protagonists and the reader to those magical points suprêmes of the Earth, once discussed by Michel Butor. The real originality of these "dream machines" lies, rather, in their role as powerful stepping-stones to a sense of wonder. They are the textual objects that bridge for the reader the industrial with the artistic and the scientific with the sublime-objects that add not only a certain verisimilitude to Verne's narratives but also an element of poetry. …

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