Les Voyages Extraordinaires

If Mary Shelley gave birth to the science fiction genre, then Jules Verne is the father that took it on Sunday outings to the country… and to Africa, to the centre of the earth, to the moon, and to a host of other remarkable places.  He was also a scientific author and visionary who predicted, among other things, submarines, helicopters, skyscrapers, space exploration and the use of hydrogen as a major energy source.

Born in the port city of Nantes, France in 1828, Jules Verne was obviously inspired to travel and explore by the many schooners and other ships that frequented the local harbour. Like his father, Verne trained to be a lawyer and obtained his degree at the age of 22, but rather than writing dissertations Jules preferred to write short stories, plays, poems, and operettas on which he collaborated with his good friend and musician Jean Louis Aristide Hignard enjoying some small measure of success.

When it came to novels however, Verne had a hard time getting published. This was largely due to a somewhat pessimistic view of the world he held at the time which inevitably showed in his writing.  Fortunately for him, and science fiction readers everywhere, he developed a relationship with publisher Pierre Jules Hetzel who took him under his wing and helped him to realize that people preferred happy endings and humour in their casual reading. Verne readily took his new friend’s advice and rewrote a number of stories which Hetzel published as the lavishly illustrated “extraordinary adventures” series.

The series began with Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) – the adventures of an English explorer who, with his servant and best friend, attempts to traverse Africa in an inovative design of balloon; Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) – the account of a German professor’s attempt to retrace the steps of a previous explorer who claims to have visited the centre of the earth; and From the Earth to the Moon (1865) the highly detailed story of the attempt by members of Boston’s infamous ‘Gun Club’ to fire a projectile at the moon carrying three adventurers, which inspired Verne to introduce to the genre what would become another great science-fiction mainstay – the sequel – All Around the Moon (1870).  Verne’s stories were largely well received in France and other European countries (after extensive assistance from Hetzel –  listen to your publishers people) but were not as readily received by the English-speaking markets. In general there are two reasons given for this.

More often than not, among the travellers in Les Voyages Extraordinaires, you will find an individual whose vocation or class in society deprived them of sufficient education to fully understand either the science and/or the history of what is transpiring around them. When this happens Verne’s protagonists (Dr. Samuel Ferguson, Professor Otto Lindenbrock and Gun Club president Impey Barbicane, in the case of the aforementioned titles) would be more than happy to provide the required exposition. These expositions covered a variety of subjects from the lifting properties of hydrogen to the need for America’s lunar exploration efforts to be launched from the Florida peninsula.  By the use of this literary device it could truly be said that Jules Verne put the ‘science’ in science-fiction; however, British publishers, unlike their European counterparts, found these expositions exeedingly dull and since they didn’t see any benefit in educating their readers along with entertaining them, edited such passages out of the English translations of Verne’s work, taking entire chapters along with them.

The second reason was akin to the first in that British publishers also thought Verne painted the English in a bad light and did not entirely appreciate his characters’ tendency to form friendships across class and racial boundaries. Again, these offending passages were heavily edited in the English translations and as a result many, especially in North America, considered Verne to be highly racist and anti-Semitic.  Even today scholars continue in their efforts to reveal the authentic Jules Verne that the world may truly appreciate his extraordinary vision.

One thing that did survive translation though are a number of indications that Jules Verne was, in all likelihood, a man of faith; which brings us back to the subject of this series of posts. Consider for a moment these three passages from Les Voyages Extraordinaires.

“My God! my God!” exclaimed the dying apostle, “have pity on me!”

His countenance shone. Far above that earth on which he had known no joys; in the midst of that night which sent to him its softest radiance; on the way to that heaven toward which he uplifted his spirit, as though in a miraculous assumption, he seemed already to live and breathe in the new existence.

His last gesture was a supreme blessing on his new friends of only one day. Then he fell back into the arms of Kennedy, whose countenance was bathed in hot tears.

“Dead!” said the doctor, bending over him, “dead!” And with one common accord, the three friends knelt together in silent prayer. [1]

Lost at an immeasurable depth! Thirty leagues of rock seemed to weigh upon my shoulders with a dreadful pressure. I felt crushed…
… When I saw myself thus far removed from all earthly help I had recourse to heavenly succour. The remembrance of my childhood, the recollection of my mother, whom I had only known in my tender early years, came back to me, and I knelt in prayer imploring for the Divine help of which I was so little worthy.
This return of trust in God’s providence allayed the turbulence of my fears, and I was enabled to concentrate upon my situation all the force of my intelligence. [2]

“Ardan, dear friend,” interrupted Barbican, in a grave tone, “a serious
moment is now at hand. Let us meet it with some interior recollection.
Give me your hands, my dear friends.”

“Certainly,” said Ardan, with tears in his voice, and already at the
other extreme of his apparent levity.

The three brave men united in one last, silent, but warm and impulsively
affectionate pressure.

“And now, great God, our Creator, protect us! In Thee we trust!” prayed
Barbican, the others joining him with folded hands and bowed heads. [3]

I would like to point out at this juncture that I have watched film versions of all these novels and can attest to the fact that not one of these three scenes appears in any of them! Which leads me the first of my general assertions:

1 – It is not science-fiction that has a problem with God and spirituality,  but rather Hollywood.

Throughout all of Jules Verne’s writing there a numerous references to God and to spirituality in a number of various contexts. At no point is it presented as a blatant evangelical outreach, as so often happens in Christian literature, but rather as simply the natural inclination of the characters in the story. But for some reason, in all the cinematic renditions of these novels that I have seen anyway, that inclination is either removed completely or reduced to a single token acknowledgement of the attitudes of the era in which the story is taking place. Which brings me to my second assertion:

2 – Many of science-fiction’s most vocal critics are likely basing their opinions upon what they observe on movie and television screens and not on the pages of the original literature.

Let’s face it, all of us have at one point or another been disappointed at the results when our favorite book has been made into a movie.  Movies have a variety of constraints placed upon them which literature need not adhere to; the greatest of which being, to quote Alfred Hitchcock, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” As a result scenes are cut, dialogue shortened and simplified, and narration all but eliminated.

In addition, while a good book can make a living for it’s author with a relatively narrow audience, a film, no matter how good, often needs a much wider market. For this reason elements are often added to widen a story’s appeal. For example, to increase the audience of Journey to the Centre of the Earth the 1959 film adds two characters into the mix that do not appear in Verne’s original story; the widow of a rival professor to add sexual tension and antagonize Lindenbrook along the journey, and a distant relative of Arne Saknussemm’s who is bent on creating an underground empire for himself.  Now I’ll admit, I loved the film – a lot, have seen it many time (so many that as I reread the novel for this post I had a hard time not hearing the voice of James Mason in my head); but if you are intending to evaluate the spiritual value of Verne’s writing by watching the movie, you will be severely ill-informed, and I strongly suspect this is often the case among many of science-fiction’s critics.

Ferguson's ballon is towed along by an elephant

Image curtesy Arthur B. Evans

As we continue this journey through my memories of a life reading science-fiction, I hope to provide additional evidence to back up these assertions, along with others I shall make along the way. But for now I think I’ll leave things as they are. There is however, one thing more.

In All Around the Moon, there are a few statements made that relate not only to the science-fiction debate but the the larger debate of science vs faith that is so much a part of modern media debate. However, this post is already long enough and to try and deal with the topic here would hardly do it justice. There is also the fact that I would like to include additional resources before I delve into the subject so it will have to wait for another time.

I mention this because I am certain some of you will, upon reading the story for yourselves, make note of the statements and wonder why I did not include them in this post. Well, now you know. Trust me, they are not overlooked.

Until next time then…  Shalom.

  • Many of the works of Jules Verne can be read online at The Literature Network
  • Some of the lavish illustrations that appeared in the original publications can be viewed HERE.


[1] Five weeks in a Balloon, Chapter Twenty-Third, http://www.online-literature.com/verne/five-weeks-in-a-balloon/23/

[2] Journey to the Center of the Earth, Chapter 27, http://www.online-literature.com/verne/journey_center_earth/27/

[3] All Around the Moon, Chapter 1, http://www.online-literature.com/verne/around-the-moon/1/

One thought on “Les Voyages Extraordinaires

  1. I’m so glad to have come across your blog. As a Christ-follower who writes speculative fiction with a spiritual dimension, I know that the only reason any division exists between sci-fi and religion is simply because we put it there. What a treasure to know someone is showing how that did not exist in classic works. Keep it up!

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