In 1830, Henry De la Beche drew his famous Duria antiquior, which featured a pre-history scene based on the findings of now rightly acclaimed fossil hunter and first woman of palaeontology, Mary Anning. It features great beasts on land, fantastic flying monsters and a wondrous collection of sea-creatures, including a terrific central battle, just breaking the water. It is without doubt that Jules Verne witnessed, and perhaps admired, this famous picture before he started writing Voyage au centre de la Terre.
The short novel was first published in 1864, although not published in English until 1871. It is the 3rd in Verne’s series called Voyages Extraordinaires, although the first that could be called science fiction. Although there is a contention in my eyes with that label. I read the Wordsworth Classic edition from 1996, complete and unabridged – although it does contain editorial notes and corrections from the translator, who is unnamed in this book.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, despite being only just over 180 pages long, is in approximately 3 sections. The first introduces us to German professor Otto Lidenbrock, and his narrator nephew, Axel. They are mineralogists – score one for the science bit. Lidenbrock returns to his Hamburg home with a new book, an Icelandic saga. In it, he finds a coded message, which he becomes obsessed upon cracking. Axel does crack it, but we don’t find out what it says, as he dreads the consiquences. During this early part of the story, we also find out that Axel is engaged. All he wants is a quiet life. But of course, the Professor must crack the code in order for the story to progress. As soon as he realises that its author has found a way into the centre of the Earth, he must follow in his footsteps.
And so part two is the preparation and journey to the volcano in Iceland, Snaefell. In this, we learn a little about life in Germany and Iceland, as Lidenbrock drags his reluctant nephew on an adventure, which the latter believes will end in doom. The coded message suggests that there is only a specific week when the entrance can be revealed, and so they make haste to Snaefell’s summit, with Hans, a hired guide. If they fail, they would need to wait another year and the Professor is an impatient man. They wait a few cloudy days with no reveal, and Axel’s hopes that the mission might fail increase. But then there’d be no book.
The plot, then, happily reveals the entrance to the path, as we begin the final and largest segment of the book. The Professor, Axel and Hans decend into the crator and explore the tunnels and passages. They eventually find themselves in a subterranean world with a light source, forests, lightning storms, giant mushrooms, and prehistoric animals. They struggle in their descent. There are trials of thirst and of wrong turnings. They study the crust as they go down. There is odd combustable gas in one cavern and perculiar acoustic properties in a passageway. They even find a sea, which might just be the size of the Mediterranean, and build a raft so they can cross. It is at this point they witness a battle between a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur; a literary description of De la Beche’s art. Disaster strikes, however, and after a series of unfortunate events, they find themselves ejected out of Stromboli, a volcanic island in southern Italy. They eventually return home so Axel can marry his entended and return to a quiet life.
This is a proper story, unlike some of the previous attemts at the fantastic voyage genre that made up potential proto-science fiction. In those, such as Utopia or Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator simply goes to a fantastical place and describes the society, which is a satire on their current way of life. What Verne does, however, is to present an adventure and a mystery. Clues need cracking, obsticals need overcoming, pitfalls need recovering from and characters need to grow. In the end, although Hans is still the same (although he smiles for the first time in the conclusion), both Lindenbrock and Axel learn about themselves; the Professor is impatent and arrogant – and quickly flees at the first sign of danger, while Axel isn’t the coward he’s portrayed early on. Character development also moves the plot forward, which is the sign of a good narrative. When Axel becomes separated from his uncle and Hans, his personal realisations, and the rescue are required to move the plot forward.
Verne’s tale is about science; but while it gentle criticises, it is not a satire. In the early stages of the book, we learn facts about minerals. We learn about the scientific method of collecting, identifying and cataloguing (which isn’t as dry as it sounds). Verne wrote this at a time when gentleman geologists where very fasionable. Zoologist Georges Cuvier had been one of the most famous men in France, while Charles Darwin had not long published On the Origin of Species. Charles Lyell, the most famous geologist of his day, came from a very prosperous background. Geology, palaeontology and evolution were all big news. The characters in Journey… debate science and scientific theory. They discuss them as part of their adventure – as plot points, and show that these theories are in their infancy and there is room for experiementation and proof. They debate, for example, Davy’s theories about temperature within the Earth’s crust, and Lindenbrock wants to prove the theory. There is a great line from Axel when his uncle is teaching him some vulcanology: “My uncle had beaten me with the weapons of science”. This is because he explains his ideas with rationality, and “exact observations”.
How many great works of fiction have a chapter called “Geological Studies in Situ”? And yet I maintain that Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not really science fiction. Even though he seems to predict the discovery (or at least the naming) of Pluto, and despite much of the science being wrong (errors in science of the time always creep into fiction, and shouldn’t be judged harsly – it is the theories and intentions that matter, not the thoughts of the day), this is an adventure using science and not science fiction. There are few science fiction themes. Science is held in high regard but there are little comments every now and then that care must be taken. Frankenstein addresses the fear of scientific progress. Journey… does not. Both the pre-history and palaeontology are messed up in order to tell a story, and not to reflect thinking at the time. No-one believed that giant mushrooms lived alongside Mastadons, ichthyosaurs and others. And then there are the humanoids! Man-like apes or ape-like men? Twelve feet tall! Shakes head. Of course, science fiction doesn’t need to be in the future, or to have aliens or AI or ray guns, but it needs to have an undercurrent, a sub-text. This doesn’t have enough of one.
What Journey to the Centre of the Earth is can be argued with no real right or wrong. Science fantasy. Fantastic voyage. Science romance. Of course, the term science fiction wasn’t used until the twentieth century, but that doesn’t mean you can apply it to Frankenstein. Verne wrote a decent book with interesting characters who describe the scientific method and the thinking of the era in which it was conceived. Maybe he was too much into the adventure to consider the consiquences?