Master of the World, #53 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 8th, 2014

#2 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

Master of the World, #53 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysMaster of the World by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #53
Published by Hetzel in 1904
Pages: 317
Location: North Carolina, Ohio, USA
Mode of travel: Multi-purpose vehicle
Read it on Gutenberg
Read it on Wikisource
The events of Robur the Conqueror are long forgotten, but once again, strange lights and sounds are observed high over the United States, an unidentified vehicle hurtles along its roads, another (or is it the same one) lurks off its coast and in its lakes. The owner of these wonders is surely in a position to dominate the world and the government of the United States is determined to be that owner, at all costs. Can Inspector Strock of the federal police bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion?

Verdict: Fun to read.

I liked this so much better than it’s prequel, Robur the Conqueror. For one thing, it manages to be inoffensive, by dint of sticking to the United States and white male protagonists (with the exception of one old female servant, race unknown). For another it’s very short, only 40,000 words to Robur’s 60,000. That’s 20,000 words of plot-free geography lesson that got left out.

I’m not sure about Robur’s transformation from arrogant but high-minded genius to mad terrorist. Strock finds it perfectly believable, but I wanted to see it happen. The novel does have some interesting and quite topical political features related to Robur. He asserts the supremacy of private individuals of means over the jurisdiction of any nation state, simply because he can. He is the owner of the Terror, the almost unimaginably powerful craft which the superstitious say must belong to the devil himself. On land, on water or under it, even in the air, it’s the fastest and most technologically advanced vehicle in the world.The United States government is determined to buy said Terror, by force if necessary, making no bones about the fact that they intend to use it to assure their own domination. Now, brace yourselves and if you dare, click on the little arrow and view the monstrous engine that will reduce all our governments to nothing.

440px-'Master_of_the_World'_the Terror

So cute! It’s little wings really flap!

440px-'Master_of_the_World'_CarolinaStrock isn’t much of a hero, but I didn’t mind. Have you seen that episode of The Big Bang Theory where Amy destroys Sheldon’s life by pointing out to him that ‘Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of (Raiders of the Lost Ark). If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same.’ Inspector Strock, first person narrator of Master of the World is in exactly the same position. He doesn’t contribute much except observation and he’s painfully slow at putting two and two together. What saves him is his love of the Appalachian landscapes of North Carolina, his knowledge of Lake Erie and his precise attention to unusual geological features. The description of rural Carolina is beautiful and so different from our expectations today. Those parrots in the picture, which are mentioned quite often in the text are the Carolina Parakeet, now thought to be extinct. Thing is, they were in serious decline when the book was written, so their abundance highlights the isolation of the area.

Master of the World is written as a police detective story which might have been a original in the early 20th century, but these days, it’s amusement at the retro cliched plot devices that make it work. To be fair to Strock, he’s given to some unusual assignments for a detective: a touch of alpinism with a view to finding out if an Appalachian mountain might be an active volcano? Hmmm…. never mind. His ascent of Mount Eyrie is still a major highlight of the book – which, to be honest, means I liked the first few chapters the best.

440px-'Master_of_the_World'_AscensionThe fascinating absence of modern mountain climbing techniques – there are so many contexts in which we understand there have been huge technological developments. That’s really the whole point of reading Verne books – to capture his excitement at technological change and it’s possibilities and muse on how far we’ve come. One of the things that fascinates me is the progress we forget. In the early 20th century, to get past that cliff to the left of the picture, Strock and his associates seem to have had only two options: ladders, which wouldn’t be high enough, and blasting a hole through the cliff wall with dynamite, which would be expensive. From Wikipedia: ‘Aid climbing, climbing using equipment that acts as artificial handhold or footholds, became popular during the period 1920-1960, leading to ascents in the Alps and in Yosemite Valley that were considered impossible without such means.’

Film Master of the WorldThis is a 1961 movie, loosely based on a combination of Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World. Important disclaimer: it looks a blast if you like corny stuff, but I have not watched it myself! Cory Gross of Voyages Extraordinaires did though and I thought his review was very interesting, especially the political analysis. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

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