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The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on February 18th, 2014

#7 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #19
Published by Hetzel in 1879
Pages: 340
Location: China
Mode of travel: Ship, Walking
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three-stars
Kin Fo is the man who has everything, youth, health, riches and a beautiful fiancee. Despite all this, life barely seems worth living. When Kin Fo discovers he's lost all his money he's convinced things can only get worse so he decides to commit suicide. He sets up a desperate pact with his friend, the philosopher Wang, to kill him in such a way that he will at last feel a thrill of emotion before he dies. But will he change his mind?

Verdict: OK.

NB: It seems this book was only recently translated into English, the only free copies I could find were in French. I read the book in French, so I can’t comment on the quality of the translation.

Tribulations is not too bad. Actually, it’s better than I thought it would be. The plot idea of an over-pampered rich man who has everything except an idea of what to do with his life still resonates today. Kin Fo’s friend, the philosopher and reformed assassin Wang, is sure a bit of serious hardship will bring Kin Fo to his senses so he sets about providing it. It works, although I couldn’t help noticing that Kin Fo, upper class gent that he is, took care to bestow much of the physical hardship on his manservant and his American bodyguards – but that’s all part of the comedy.

Remembering that Voyages Extraordinaires had a didactic mission, I think Verne gave a fair representation of Chinese history and geography within the limits of his understanding. He displays some unfortunate ideas about racial purity (his hero is pure Han and all but white, none of that Manchurian interbreeding – sigh!), and western superiority (Kin Fo is entirely respectable and sympathetic, because he’s a fan of western technology in all its forms). Verne manages to convince himself that the exotic Chinese diet might not be so bad if you’re used to it but he can’t handle the music at any price…

On the other hand, his descriptions of poverty in China leading to mass emigration, the negative effects of imperialism, especially regarding the importation of opium and the political unrest within China probably do reflect major issues of his day quite accurately. His geographical knowledge of China is a bit limited  – I assume he relied on reports coming in mostly from the westernized trading posts. Consequently, his ‘tour of China’ when Kin Fo takes to the roads and rivers is only worth just so much.

Veronika decides to dieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho: a modern version of the same plot – I think Tribulations of a Chinaman is a worthy book because of its plot, rather than because of the Chinese backdrop so no wonder it reminded me of this more modern version. Veronika has everything but life feels empty so she decides to take a lethal  overdose. When she comes round, she’s informed that while she didn’t kill herself instantly, she caused enough damage that, just like Kin Fo, she has only a few days in which to savor life. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

Round the World in 80 Days, #11 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on February 9th, 2014

#6 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

Round the World in 80 Days, #11 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #11
Published by Hetzel in 1873
Pages: 240
Location: International
Mode of travel: Elephant, Ship, Sledge, Train
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One ill-fated evening at the Reform Club, Phileas Fogg rashly bets his companions £20,000 that he can travel around the entire globe in just eighty days - and he is determined not to lose. Breaking the well-establised routine of his daily life, the reserved Englishman immediately sets off for Dover, accompanied by his hot-blooded French manservant Passepartout. Travelling by train, steamship, sailing boat, sledge and even elephant, they must overcome storms, kidnappings, natural disasters, Sioux attacks and the dogged Inspector Fix of Scotland Yard - who believes that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England - to win the extraordinary wager.

Verdict: more twists and turns in the plot than expected.

Around the World in 80 Days must be one of Verne’s most famous stories but since I never read it before, it actually managed to surprise me. That was quite exciting. Unlike several of the other Verne books I’ve read so far, this one has character arcs. Although Verne relies on stereotypes as usual, both Passepartout and Fogg evolve a lot during the book, especially Passepartout. He didn’t start off a very keen traveler but by the time he got back, it was possible to wonder if he’d really settle back into his old peaceful habits again.

Verne provides a lot of information about the possibilities for international travel in the 1870s. As the chronology just below shows, it was the development of trans-continental railways (and the Suez Canal) which made Fogg’s journey possible. It was dependent of four very recently opened routes. Nevertheless, it was the steamship which seemed most likely to prove the weak link, even though it had been around for some time. This was still the era of steam-sail hybrid shipping in which crossings were a lot faster with a favorable wind, and slower in rough seas.

1825 – First public transport railway opened in Britain
1838 – Regular Transatlantic crossings by steamship begin (previously passengers crossed the Atlantic in sailships).
1869 – The American Transcontinental Railroad connecting San Francisco with the eastern networks was completed
1869 – Opening of the Suez Canal
1870 – The Indian Peninsular Railway connecting Mumbai to Calcutta was inaugurated (earlier than announced in the story)
c.1870 – a Transalpine rail connection had been opened within the last couple of years.
1872 – Fogg’s journey

One of the things which fascinated me most about Around the World in 80 Days is the globalization Verne refers to already at this stage. His protagonist, Passepartout frequently notes the buildings and streets in Asia might easily be in Europe and that the populations in each of the cities he visits is strikingly multiracial and multicultural. The reason is that a large part of the tour travels through the outposts of the British Empire, or its cultural descendant, the United States. Only in Yokohama or, arguably, in the depths of the Indian and American continents, does Fogg stray off this westernised territory. I remember from my history studies that there was a lot about this situation which wasn’t ideal and if it could fairly be said that 19th century Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.. resembled Victorian London in terms of living conditions, it wouldn’t be a compliment.

Fogg himself wants nothing to do with sight-seeing anyway,and only participates in the adventures the author arranges for him out of sense of duty. Although the author makes fun of him for it, the main point of the book is to explore the possibilities of the new means of transport themselves.

I put together an itinerary of Fogg’s tour round the world below in several sections. It contains dates, times, mode of transport, starting point and end point, but if you feel some of it may constitute minor spoilers, don’t click on the arrows!

London to Bombay (Mumbai) in India – days 1-18, Ch3-Ch9

RTW-Steamer point

Verne doesn’t dwell on the crossing of the European and Mediterranean, possibly considering it too well-known to his readers.
Wednesday 2nd October 1872
20:45 – Departure of train from London to Paris
Thursday 3rd October 1872
07:20 – Arrival in Paris by train. Fogg certainly took the London-Dover train and boarded a cross-channel steamer around 23:00. He would then have taken a train Paris by around 05:00, probably from Calais.
8:40 – Departure from Paris on train bound for Turin.
Friday 4th October 1872
06:35 – Arrival in Turin
07:20 – Departure from Turin on train bound for Brindisi
Saturday 6th October 1872
16:00 – Arrival by train in Brindisi
17:00 – Departure of the Mongolia steamship bound for Bombay via the Suez Canal. Fogg and Passepartout spent a total of 14 days on the Mongolia.
Wednesday 9th October 1872
10:30 – The steamship Mongolia arrives in Suez.
Sunday 13th October 1872
The passengers can see Mecca from the ship.
Monday 14th October 1872
14:00 – The Mongolia stops at Aden to take on fuel
18:00 – The Mongolia leaves Aden
Sunday 20th October 1872
16:30 – arrival of the Mongolia in Bombay (Mumbai)

Crossing of India by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway – days 18-23, Ch9-Ch15

RTW-India

Sunday 20th October 1872
16:30 – arrival of the Mongolia in Bombay (Mumbai)
20:00 – departure of the train from Bombay to Calcutta
Monday 21st October 1872
12:30 – brief stop at Burhampour for lunch
Tuesday 22nd October 1872
8:00 – the line is unfinished, 15 miles before Rothal. Despite the announcement of the line’s completion in the newspapers, passengers are obliged to make their own way over the 50 miles between Kholby and Allahabad.
c.9:30 – departure towards Allahabad by elephant.
Wednesday 24th October 1872
10:00 – arrival at Allahabad after numerous adventures
10:30 – departure of train from Allahabad to Calcutta
12:30 – brief stop at Benares (Varanasi)
Thursday 25th October 1872
5:00 – arrival of the train in Calcutta
12:00 – departure of the ship Rangoon from Calcutta to Hong Kong

Crossing  of the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea – days 23-35, Ch15-Ch20

RTW-Singapore

Thursday 25th October 1872
12:00 – departure of the ship Rangoon from Calcutta to Hong Kong
The Rangoon passes within sight of Great Andaman
Wednesday 30th October 1872
The Rangoon enters the straits between Malacca and Sumatra
Thursday 31st October 1872
04:00 The Rangoon arrives in Singapore
11:00 The Rangoon leaves Singapore, having loaded fuel
Sun 3-Mon 4 November 1872
Storm at sea, making the Rangoon late.
Wednesday 6 November 1872
c.6:30 – Arrival of the Rangoon in Hong Kong, having missed the expected connection to Yokohama
20:00 – Departure of the Carnatic for Yokohama, ten hours early, inadvertently carrying Passepartout.
Thursday 7 November 1872
15:00 – Fogg and the rest of his party embark on the small schooner Tankadere, bound for Nagasaki.

From Hong Kong to San Francisco – days 35-62, Ch20-Ch25

RTW-Japan

Wednesday 6 November 1872
20:00 – Departure of the Carnatic for Yokohama, ten hours early, inadvertently carrying Passepartout.
Thursday 7 November 1872
15:00 – Fogg and the rest of his party embark on the small schooner Tankadere, bound for Nagasaki.
Monday 11 November 1872
19:00 – Fogg’s party board the steamship for Yokohama, directly from the Tankadere.
Wednesday 13 November 1872
Passepartout arrives in Yokohama, Japan on the Carnatic
Thursday 14 November 1872
Fogg arrives in Yokohama, Japan on the
18:30 – Departure of the General Grant steamship for the United States, carrying the reunited group.
Monday 2 December 1872
07:00 – The General Grant arrives in San Francisco

From San Francisco to  London – days 62-80, Ch25-Ch34

RTW-rockies

Monday 2 December 1872
07:00 – The General Grant arrives in San Francisco
18:00 – Departure of the train from San Francisco (Oakland) towards New York
Thursday 5 December 1872
14:00 – The train calls at Ogden for Salt Lake City
16:00 – The train leaves Salt Lake City
c.11.30 – The train is stopped at Kearney and the passengers are delayed
Sunday 8 December 1872
08:00 – Sail sledge from Kearney to Omaha
c13:00 – Departure of the train from Omaha to Chicago
Monday 9 December 1872
16:00 – Arrival of the train in Chicago
c.1630 – Departure of the train from Chicago to New York
Tuesday 10 December 1872
22:30 – Departure of the steamship China for Liverpool
23:15 – Arrival of the train in New York
Wednesday 11 December 1872
09:00 – Fogg ships on the Henrietta, across the Atlantic
Friday 20 December 1872
01:00 – The Henrietta enters the port of Queenstown in Ireland
01:30 – Departure of the train from Queenstown to Dublin
The times of the connections in Dublin are unspecified
11:40 – Arrival by steamship in Liverpool
15:00 – Departure of the train from Liverpool to London
20:50 – Arrival in London
Saturday 21 December 1872
20:45 – Deadline of the bet

 

The Green Ray, #23 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 27th, 2014

#5 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Green Ray, #23 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysThe Green Ray by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #23
Published by Hetzel in 1882
Pages: 128
Location: Scotland
Mode of travel: Boat
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two-stars
Rarely, and only under the right conditions, a flash of green light can be seen over the setting sun. It is said to bring special powers of discernment to its lucky observers. Helena Campbell is determined to be one of them, especially since the quest might distract her uncles from marrying her off to the pedant, Aristobulus Ursiclos. The search for a suitable observation point takes her to the western coast of Scotland, then out into the Hebrides.

Verdict: boring.

I’m forced to say that if The Green Ray is mostly harmless, it’s also terribly boring. It’s a shame, and I think it’s largely caused by Verne giving himself a female protagonist at a time when the possibilities for female protagonists were limited.

The_Green_Ray' - Helena at croquetHelena Campbell: In many ways, Helena Campbell strangely resembles Professor Liedenbrock of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Like him, she has a domineering personality and when some text inspires her to leave home on a voyage of discovery, her nearest and dearest say ‘How far?’ Like Liedenbrock, she is tenacious, willing to risk her own life and those of other people in the pursuit of her interest. Like Liedenbrock, she fails at the end, thwarted by the rise of molten… well, in his case it was lava, in her case it’s passionate love for – I hardly consider this a spoiler – the man she intends to marry, who is not Aristobolus Ursiclos!

The_Green_Ray-Oliver to the rescueThe thing is that while the professor’s journey is monumental, that of the young lady from Scotland can only be a miniature, a little tourist outing to the Hebrides where the main object of suspense is the British weather. Same personality, different social conditions. It’s the social conditions, especially as they relate to gender, that make Helena Campbell come across as spoilt, bossy, obsessive and irresponsible whereas Liedenbrock… well, he has his faults, but look at his achievements! It’s the social conditions that inspired Verne to have his heroine lean on her suitor for everything from expedition planning to getting her life saved in a daring rescue, and have her triumph at the end consist of getting married.

Green Ray Fingal's CaveFingal and Ossian: Needless to say, the Hebrides are beautiful and the descriptions are so accurate, you could find your way around Iona and Staffa on the basis of them. And I suppose Jules’ Voyage Extraordinaires achieved their purpose since I learned some things about Scotland that I never knew.

The characters talk a great deal about James MacPherson’s Poems of Ossian, once so popular the whole of the western world was reading them. It’s the overwhelming attraction of its mythological associations with Fingal’s Cave on Staffa that causes Helena Campbell to risk her life. In Ossian, MacPherson claimed to have collected and arranged elements of old Scottish folklore. His detractors maintained he made the whole thing up except for the bits he stole from Ireland. These days he’s almost forgotten, but in the 19th century, he looked set to be the Homer of the North.

Green Ray Ossian receiving french heroesI had a glance at Ossian and was puzzled to understand what the Victorians and their foreign contemporaries saw in it, but it certainly inspired them to make some of their most fantastical art. This one is by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson and shows Ossian, for reasons best known to the patron, Napoleon, greeting some French heroes in Valhalla!

The Underground City, #16 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 23rd, 2014

#4 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Underground City, #16 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysThe Underground City by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #16
Published by Hetzel in 1877
Pages: 196
Location: Scotland
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four-stars
*** Also known as The Child of the Cavern or The Black Indies ***

The last piece of coal has been brought up from the mine of Aberfoyle and the miners who worked together all their lives are dispersed. All except Simon Ford and his family: refusing to give up hope, they set up their cottage inside the abandoned mine and spend their days wandering its tunnels, looking for new seams. One day, James Starr, onetime chief mining engineer at Aberfoyle receives a letter from Ford summoning him to an urgent meeting. He is sure the old miner has found coal at last, but just hours later, another, more mysterious letter calls the meeting off. Naturally, Starr won't rest till he discovers the truth...

Verdict: bewitching in a slightly disturbing kind of way.

I enjoyed The Underground City a lot, partly because I decided to make abstraction of all kinds of things that are potentially quite disturbing. Everything about it, its ambiguities and strangenesses are embodied in that hesitation between three possible titles in English. The original French book was called The Black Indies, but let’s start with Child of the Caverns, which is perhaps my favorite aspect of the book.

The world above the caverns - Loch Lomond from the West Highand Way by Michael GrantThe world above the caverns – Loch Lomond from the West Highland Way by Michael Grant

Child of the Caverns – someone should really rewrite this book as a fairy story, taking out all Verne’s didactic stuff and keeping the magic, because in this form, it would be beautiful. Verne introduced some Scottish ‘superstitions’ deliberately but when he gets to Nell, the child of the caverns, I think the connection may be accidental. A naturalistic explanation is given for Nell’s presence but there is something completely unreal about her. She evokes all those old stories of human children raised in underground kingdoms, and supernatural children adopted by humans. Child of the Caverns is partly a love story between Nell, who has never seen the light of day and Harry, who prefers life underground. After saving each others’ lives, Nell is taken in by Harry’s family. Their love is obvious but he wants her to experience the world above before they commit. It’s very 19th century, but still… it would make a great Disney animation.

 

FiremanIt was sometimes hard for me to tell which parts of the story were real and which were made up. There is a character in Underground City who is a ‘grag’ straight out of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Pratchett’s grags are fanatical religious leaders of the dwarfs. They really get out of hand in his recent book, Raising Steam which I just reviewed, but their origins lie in a dangerous but once vital mining role. Their human counterparts were the Firemen who set off controlled explosions of gases accumulating in tunnels. Generally, they didn’t live long and in some times and places, the job was given to condemned men. They dressed rather like Pratchett’s grags, in damp, hooded sacking and leather. I doubt they ever used Snowy Owls in their work, as Verne’s ‘grag’ does. Instead, miners kept canaries and no doubt they were fond of them, even though the bird’s job was to drop dead from poisonous gases before they did.

The Black Indies – if we British ever called our mining industry the Black Indies, as Verne says, we’ve largely forgotten it but it does seem to call up the right picture of exploitation by elites. Verne blithely admits the harsher side of mining, he even notes that miners were once slaves and later, as mere laborers, could be disbanded and evicted from their homes as an unquestioned necessity. He accepts the then common child labor without a murmur – his hero, Harry, was clearly at work in the mines from the age of ten or eleven, and none the worse for it, in Verne’s portrayal.

Children 'struggling heroically' during the Industrial RevolutionChildren ‘struggling heroically’ during the Industrial Revolution

Verne depicts the life of a miner almost as a knightly one of willing and heroic struggle with the elements.Miners are one big, happy family across the whole mine hierarchy, so obsessed with mining work that they look on the world above ground with active distaste and are particularly revolted by the sight of a ‘desolate’ landscape, lacking smoking chimneys and coal dust on the leaves. I could have got really annoyed with Verne here. Instead, I chose to go with his flow, then found this little site, which tells a rather different history of mining in Scotland.

The Underground City – Here we get to the ‘science fiction’ part of the book. At the beginning, we might regard miner Simon Ford’s insistence on living underground as a mere eccentricity, but before long a whole mining village grows up, on the shores of an underground lake. Lit by electricity in the day time, it is a kind of utopia for the community of workers and a tourist attraction for the locals. Verne doesn’t hesitate to suggest that the poorer classes of Britain might like to take to the caverns more often. It keeps you out of that dreadful weather, don’t you know!

It’s a fascinating idea and I suppose Verne didn’t know humans require sunlight (or supplements?) to live and that Nell, the child who never saw daylight, couldn’t have survived to sixteen in such conditions. I couldn’t imagine British miners really choosing to live underground in the coal dust, gas fumes and darkness and as far as I know none ever did. They lived in these instead:

 S_Miners_Rows. 5 coatcrop

Journey to the Center of the Earth, #3 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 13th, 2014

#2 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

Journey to the Center of the Earth, #3 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysJourney to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #3
Published by Hetzel in 1864
Pages: 254
Location: Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Underground
Read it on Gutenberg
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five-stars
In an ancient and cryptic note, Professor Lindenbrock discovers the location of a passage leading to the center of the earth. He sets off immediately for Iceland with his unwilling nephew Axel in tow. In the end, Axel enjoys his visit to Copenhagen, the sea-crossing to Rekjavik and the pony trek along the barren Icelandic coast. But the Snæfellsjökull rises ever higher ahead of him. Even supposing his uncle can find a way into it, what will they find there and can he bring them out alive?

I agreed with the world at large and gave this particular Jules Verne top marks. Even though it’s the longest Extraordinary Journey I’ve read so far, it has just the right amount of suspense, fascinating settings and amusing characters. It’s actually the second time I read it. The first was just before I went to Iceland and I really enjoyed the Icelandic travelogue at the beginning.

Iceland in Journey to the Center of the Earth – I wonder how many people who’ve only seen the film realise that rather over a third of this book is dedicated to deciphering a mysterious Icelandic manuscript and getting to and through Iceland.

Snorri Sturluson-EddaSnorri Sturluson and Arne Sakmussen
Sakmussen, the 16th century Icelandic alchemist who precedes our heroes into the center of the earth doesn’t exist, but the book in which his cryptic note was found is real. Snorri Sturluson was a 12-13th century Icelandic historian, poet and politician. The Heimskringla mentioned in Journey to the Center of the Earth is a history of real and legendary Norwegian kings. He also wrote the interesting sounding Prose Edda on Norse mythology.

Just for fun, I thought I’d throw in some photographs from my own trip to Iceland alongside a few illustrations from the book. I have been wondering how much Verne and/or the illustrator traveled and how else they did their research, but I’m putting that question off for another time.

   400px-Voyageaucentrederekjavik  H - Abandoned farm  400px-Voyageaucentredeicelandic landscape and ponies snaeffelsyokulthumbnail

The images show a view of Rekjavik, an abandoned home of the kind that was typical in the 19th century, Icelandic landscapes and a view of the Snæfellsjökull.

400px-VoyageaucentredetunnelInside the earth – the underground parts of the story are nicely dramatic. Basically, anything you’d expect to go wrong on an extended caving trip does go wrong, with a side-order of lost world peril to boot. I was reminded of every underground fantasy I ever read: the journey through Moria in Lord of the Rings, part of The Silver Chair (#5 of the Narnia books), Bluebear lost under the Gloomberg Mountains (#1 of Zamonia) and last but not least a frightening real life report I once read on an experiment to see just how disorientated a human being could become underground!

VoyageaucentredeAxels dreamThe history of life – Jules Verne seizes the opportunity of this book to discuss not only geology but the history of life as it was understood at the time. Much of what he had to say on either subject is now outdated or known to be flat out wrong, but I was fascinated to read a popularisation of what seems to be an evolutionary view of life only eight years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Still, he was utterly ignorant of the theory of continental drift, which didn’t come along until 1912.

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
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Goodreads
four-stars
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)

Robur the Conqueror, #29 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 2nd, 2014

#1 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge and #1 of 80 in my Round the World in 80 Books Circumnavigator Challenge

Robur the Conqueror, #29 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysRobur the Conqueror by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #29
Published by Hetzel in 1886
Pages: 148
Location: Philadelphia, RTW Journeys, USA
Mode of travel: Airship
Read it on Gutenberg
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Goodreads
two-stars
*** Contains racially offensive material ***

Mysterious lights and sounds in the sky, unknown banners floating from the top of the worlds' monuments... Robur the genius inventor of the 'heavier-than-air' ship seems determined to draw attention to himself. He stops at nothing to gain recognition, even going so far as to kidnap his greatest rivals, the President and Secretary of the Wheldon Institute of Philadelphia, proponents of lighter-than-air flight. The captives are unwillingly dragged off on a round-the-world air cruise of epic proportions. But even with the wonders of the world spread out below them, these two remain as stubborn as Robur himself. Their only thoughts are of escape and revenge...

Verdict: of historical interest only.

Actually I was a bit disappointed. I thought I would kick off the Jules Verne Reading Challenge with a totally fantastical adventure, all the while avoiding the unpleasantness that will inevitably arise when Verne starts describing China or Africa. So what went wrong?

It’s didactic in a dated way. Eight out of eighteen middle chapters are essentially given over to a narrative atlas, a description of our planet as seen from a wandering airship. I suppose that parts should fascinate me.When people traveled less and had fewer documentary films or coffee table books, it must have been great, but I live in the world that has this:

The Earth from the AirEverybody already knows this book is amazing and knocked our socks off when it first came out. Now it comes in a lot of editions and variations. Too much choice! (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

Consequently, the most interesting things to note are the changes. Antarctica has been explored and mapped, and we have skyscrapers! And radar, or course. It’s instrumental to the plot of Robur the Conqueror (what there is of it) that there is no radar.

419px-'Robur_the_Conqueror'_by_Léon_Benett_14   398px-'Robur_the_Conqueror'_by_Léon_Benett_06   407px-'Robur_the_Conqueror'_by_Léon_Benett_47   413px-'Robur_the_Conqueror'_by_Léon_Benett_35

Large chunks of the other chapters summarise the history of flight and 19th century controversies regarding its future. Some people still really appreciate this stuff, but I skimmed it a bit. I was fascinated by the fact that we never did invent airships like The Albatross, as maneuverable as a helicopter and plane combined, almost silent, capable of staying in the air for weeks at a time…

____________________   UPDATE   ____________________

After a few days, I decided I could do better than this. I do have an obsession with itineraries so here is the schedule for Captain Robur’s Round the World Tour for the Unwilling, complete with on board entertainments. Click on that little arrow thing to see it.

A-map-for-Robur-the-Conqueror

  • 12 June Day 1: Philadelphia, USA.
    Meet in Fairmount Park at midnight for your kidnapping experience.
  • 13 June, Day 2: Central Canada – The Great Lakes – Niagara Falls.
  • 14 June, Day 3: Midwestern United States – Chicago – The Great Plains
  • 15 June, Day 4: Yellowstone – Rocky Mountains – Salt Lake City – California.
    Opportunity to race a steam locomotive -
  • 16 June, Day 5: Crossing of the North Pacific.
    Try your hand at air whaling from the deck of the Albatross.
  • 17 June, Day 6: Crossing of the Behring Straits: Alaska – the Aleutian Islands.
  • 18 June, Day 7: Kamchatka – the Sea of Okhotsk.
  • 19 June, Day 8: Strait of La Perouse: Siberia – River Amoor
  • 20 June, Day 9: Japan.
  • 21 June, Day 10: Japan, Tokyo.
  • 22-23 June, Days 11-12: Gulf of Pechelee.
  • 24 June, Day 13: China, Beijing.
    Interfere with a traditional kite flying event.
  • 25 June, Day 14: Flight over China – the Great Wall.
  • 26-7 June, Days 15-16: Flight over the Tibetan highlands.
  • 28 June, Day 17: Crossing of the Himalayas – India.
  • 29 June, Day 18: The Valley of Kashmir – Srinagar – valley of the Hydapses -
  • 30 June, Day 19: Central Asia: Cabulistan and its capital – the Kingdom of Herat.
  • 1 July, Day 20: Crossing of Persia.
  • 2 July, Day 21: Baghdad – the Caspian Sea.
  • 3 July, Day 22: The Caspian Sea.
    Enjoy a day of fishingCaptain’s Choice: a chance for the captain to torment his least favorite passenger by lowering him from the Albatross in a swing chair and dunking him.
  • 4 July, Day 23: Crossing of Russia: Astrakhan – the Volga valley – Moscow
  • 5 July, Day 24: St Petersburg – the Baltic Sea – Scandinavia
  • 6 July, Day 25: Crossing of the North Sea – Dunkirk – Paris.
    Passengers’ outbound mail may be deposited here.
  • 7 July, Day 26: South of France – Italy – the Mediterranean – Tunisia.
  • 8-9 July, Day 27-28: Crossing the Sahara.
  • 10 July, Day 29: Wargia Oasis – Niger River – Timbuktu.
  • 11 July, Day 30: Crossing of the mountains of Guinea – Kingdom of Dahomey.
    Participate in a traditional coronation ceremony by using an airstrike to free the sacrificial victims.
  • 12 July, Day 31: Atlantic crossing.
  • 13 July, Day 32: Crossing of the equator.
  • 14-22 July, Day 33-41: Continue sailing south across the Atlantic.
  • 23 July, Day 42: Straits of Magellan – Patagonia – Tierra del Fuego – Cape Horn.
  • 24 July, Day 43: Crossing of the Southern Ocean.
    Chance to take part in a reconstruction of a rescue at sea.
  • 25-6 July, Day 44-45: Special activity, dependent on weather conditions. Passage over the Antarctic wastelands under cyclone power.
  • 27 July, Day 46: Landing at Chatham Island for repairs. Passengers are welcome to spend a few days on this pristine island before transferring to the nearest major port in any passing ship. Your onward journey to your final destination will be assured by passenger liner and railway.

____________________________________________________

It reeks of stale testosterone. Actually, I enjoyed this bit. From the opening duel, to the warring factions of air enthusiasts, a lot of the plot (such as it is) is driven by … testosterone – 19th century style! It’s all too obvious that it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong, only who will be the most assertive. The author takes the mick out of this like there’s no tomorrow and makes fools of the lot of them.

One of the things he laughs at is national rivalry, to the point of repeating all the xenophobic stereotypes he thinks he can get away with. Something happened in his lifetime which we take for granted. International ‘conversation’ on subjects sublime and ridiculous became possible almost in real time. One of the highlights of the book was Verne’s depiction of the ridiculous aspect of this new reality. His real hero is Robur, so international his origin can’t be guessed. In this book, Robur’s time has not yet come.

And then there’s the offensive bits. OK. If you’re French (I am… surprised?), you can see the manservant Frycollin coming a mile off. You just have to read the chapter headings to recognise a traditional comic manservant of the type that’s graced European literature since the Commedia del’Arte.

Pulcinella   Sancho Panza  Scapin

You know the author is going to make fun of his appearance, his accent, his moral character, his foolishness (or cunning), his dishonesty, his cowardice, his obsession with baser concerns such as eating, sleeping or sex, his peculiar lack of interest in risking his body and soul in the whims and interests of his master. He’s going to use him mercilessly for comic relief, especially since he doesn’t have a whole book’s worth of plot.

What you don’t expect, if you’re a (naive) European, is that the author will go and dump this traditional stereotype wholesale on the shoulders of his African-American character. Way to go, Jules! The fact that the wealthy old white men are practically the epitome of the Pantalone, another Commedia del’Arte type, and get ridiculed differently but just as mercilessly is scant compensation.

I think there is a general tendency for European master/servant archetypes to have been transposed in this way to racialised material in the US, and let’s call that… well, let’s call it a matter of historical interest… But the general reader may prefer not to tarnish their karma with it.

And there’s a bit more… Verne explores the new possibilities inherent in fuctional airships: transport obviously, whale hunting (not nice), rescuing people lost at sea (well yes – this is written as helicopters evacuated the passengers of ships still trapped in Antarctic ice – how topicl), rescuing sacrificial victims from primitive societies by bombing everyone in sight (oh…  if only that weren’t also topical). I was alerted to this point by the fact that Sven Lindqvist, author of A History of Bombing has apparently has an essay called Bombing the Savages taking Verne apart on this score. Unfortunately, I don’t have easy access to it.

A round-up of luxury round-the-world air travel for the 21st century.

Robur the Conqueror’s magical mystery tour isn’t all in the imagination. These days, if you have more money than time you can buy luxury round-the-world air tour, from say National Geographic, or Smithsonian Journeys or maybe from entrepreneur, Geoffrey Kent. Expect to pay at least $70,000 for a 4 week tour and I should point out that I’m not affiliated with any of these guys more’s the pity.

So what do the super-rich consider to be the eight wonders of the world these days? It would seem that Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Great Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Serengeti are top of their lists.

If you’ve got more money than you know what to do with and culture’s not your thing you could always pay your taxes join Hanseatic Air Cruise Company’s 2014 Golf Around the Globe which does what it says.

One thing you can’t do yet, please note this, Daily Mail, is this. Not even if it’s totally in the style of Jules Verne.

airship