#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 by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #29
Published by Hetzel in 1886
Location: Philadelphia, RTW Journeys, USA
Mode of travel: Airship
Read it on Gutenberg
Read it on Wikisource
*** Contains racially offensive material ***
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:
|Everybody 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.
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.
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.
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
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.