Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beating Verne

I just finished Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, and am currently reading the sequel, Round the Moon. It only took me a week or so to read the first one, which sort of surprised me. I've been in a Victorian phase for a while here, having read Kipling's Kim (which was much better and completely different from what I expected) and H.G. Wells's First Men in the Moon (which I had read in high school and therefore missed much of the nuance of).

Verne's book itself is hailed as one of the first, if not the first, true science fiction novels. That is to say, instead of inventing some magical pseudo-scientific device to enable the characters to explore space, like Cavorite or warp drive, Verne attempts to explain the practical problems and their (possible) practical solutions. He therefore predicted with amazing prescience the launch of the first moon mission from Florida, as well as discussed in some detail the astronomical movements that would have to be calculated and the velocities it would be necessary to achieve and stuff like that there.

Of course, he also has the characters planning to establish an outpost on the moon, intending to stay in the deep valleys where the breathable air and the water are, so it's not as if the science is really all that hard.

If this does not sound like the stuff of thrilling drama, you are so right. The plot, in brief: The members of the Gun Club of Baltimore, a collection of artillery enthusiasts and inventors, find themselves with nothing to do because, the War Between the States being over, there is no more use for artillery at the moment. So the Club's president, Impey Barbicane, announces a new challenge: to prove the superiority of American artillery, they will build a huge cannon and shoot the moon.

Such an audacious proposal captures the imagination of the nation and much of the world, so donations come pouring in. After consulting with Cambridge Observatory, Barbicane decides to build the cannon in Florida and construction commences. As preparations continue, however, a telegram arrives from a Frenchman named Michel Ardan, telling them to redesign the projectile, because Ardan plans to ride inside it to the moon.

Ardan convinces Barbicane and Barbicane's arch-rival, Captain Nicholl, to ride along with him (which they do without any hint of hesitation or trepidation at the idea that, having once left the earth, they can never come back), and once construction is complete, the three men get inside the projectile and the cannon is fired. The fate of the three men is unknown.

There's very little in the way of dramatic tension or character conflict in the book. For the first half, Barbicane acts sort of as the book's Doc Savage, which is to say he's better at everything than everybody else. For instance, at a meeting in which they are to discuss and decide how to make the cannon, the other members make their suggestions, then Barbicane says, "Actually, I was thinking this," and his idea is better, so everyone agrees with him. They encounter no opposition or difficulties at any stage of the plan, with the exception of Captain Nicholl, who is literally the only man in the world who opposes the moon shot, and then only because he's jealous. And Nicholl ends up joining the expedition.

Verne tries to make up for the lack of conflict or tension or plot by writing in a sort of wry, humorous style which takes gentle jabs at stereotypes of all nations. It's not exactly a good book, but it's mostly inoffensive, though animal activists might take exception to the scene where they test-fire a cat and a squirrel from a smaller mortar to see how they survive the acceleration.

The reason I say I was surprised to finish the book so quickly is that my only previous experience with Verne was attempting to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (twice) and being beaten by it (also twice) by the same incredibly boring passage. In the book, the narrator goes to sea on an American warship in search of a sea monster which has been sinking American ships. The monster appears from under the water and rams the ship, sinking it. The narrator then finds himself being rescued by the monster, which turns out to be a submarine captained by Nemo. The narrator and Nemo become friends of a sort, having many conversations (translated in the book as having much "intercourse," unfortunately), and then Nemo allows the narrator to look out the window as he turns on the lights.

At which point the book stops dead and turns into a catalog of all the kinds of fish the narrator sees. As a child, it was this section which stopped me from finishing the book (and perhaps established my youthful habit of not finishing books I had started). When I was an adult, having read through all the begats in Genesis and Matthew and Luke, having read The Lord of the Rings at least three times, having read The Iliad and The Mists of Avalon and Interview With the Vampire and The Stand three times (which is not especially boring, but really fucking long), and having even gotten all the way through the incredibly boring The Witching Hour, I figured there was no way Verne could beat me a second time.

But the fish catalog beat me again.

So I figured that was it for me and Verne. And if it weren't for the fact that I'm still toying with a custom prop idea I hinted at last year, I wouldn't have attempted From the Earth to the Moon. But now that I've gotten through it rather easily, I'm actually starting to think about trying to best Nemo again. I mean, lots of other people have managed to read this book. There's no reason I can't succeed someday.

Is there?

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