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For my Honours Project I read two books by Jules Verne, who is popularly regarded as the father of science fiction; Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. In this thesis, I explore the author’s literary style of delivering scientific notions, terms and facts to the reader through the art of storytelling or fiction. Through a comparative analysis of the two books, I explore how the author presents scientific notions and integrates scientific terms and facts in the narrative as well as how he tries to establish the authenticity of the scientific facts presented in the fiction.
Each of these two books is based on a theme or a subject matter which deal with a specific scientific field. In both books, the scientific notions and terms are presented to the reader as the story unfolds. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, the author focuses on the subject of geology and palaeontology through a story of a voyage of discovery undertaken by an uncle and nephew who are both geologist and their Icelandic guide.
The three Imen undertake a hazardous journey through an Icelandic crater which is dormant to find the centre of the Earth. Despite their effort and many discoveries later, the group does not reach the centre of the Earth but are spit up to the surface of the Earth during a volcanic eruption. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the author explores the world of marine biology, oceanography, geography and submarine technology through a story of a group of men who go through a journey of discovery under the sea in an advanced submarine.
These men were on a mission to find and destroy a sea monster and in course of their mission get hurled into the sea only to be captured and imprisoned by the eccentric owner of the submarine who roams the depth of the ocean. The story narrates their thrilling and often dangerous experience of the subterranean world under the sea, myriad sea life as well as land they had never set foot on.
In both these books, the author has given detailed and scientific information through the narrative of the central characters within the larger framework of a gripping adventure story. In both the books the author has adopted a literary style which seeks to authenticate the scientific terms, notions and explanations presented in the story. Both stories are narrated through a character who is well versed in the field the book explores or in other words an ‘expert’ and thereby an authority figure n the subject matter the story is based on. For instance, Journey to the Center of the Earth is narrated by Axel a scholar of geology and laboratory assistant to his uncle the well known geologist Professor Otto Lidenbrock, while in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the narrator is Professor Pierre Aronnax an expert on natural history and also author of a book on submarines.
Apart from the narrator, the other central characters are also presented as experts on the scientific subject matter the story is based on, whether it is the German professor of geology, Otto Lidenbrock in Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Captain Nemo of Twenty League Under the Sea as an expert on submarine technology, oceanography and geography, thereby lending a voice of authenticity to the facts presented. What further authenticates the scientific terms and facts in the mind of the reader is the narrator or other characters referring to works of well-known scientists or scholars while explaining a natural or scientific phenomenon encountered by them. The literary style adopted by the author is to present an exciting story of a world beyond the immediate natural world visible to human observation and presenting the scientific facts and information as a part of the narration as the adventure unfolds. In Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the story is narrated by Axel who describes himself as an ardent geologist …“I freely confess that I exceedingly fond of geology and all the kindred sciences …the blood of a mineralogist was in my veins, and in the midst of my specimens I was always happy” (e-book, pg 6 Verne).
This establishes in the reader’s mind that the narrator has substantial knowledge and passion about the geological facts and phenomenon. Through Axel’s narration, the reader gets information on various rock and mineral formations. For instance, when Axel descends into the volcano he notes the successive beds forming the primitive foundation, “As fast as we descended, the succession of beds forming the primitive foundation came out with increasing distinctiveness. Geologists consider this primitive matter to be the bad of the mineral crust of earth …..composed of three different formations, schist, gneiss, and mica schist resting upon that unchangeable foundation, the granite” (ebook, pg 123, Verne). At another point, they find a perfectly preserved specimen of a human ancestor, and the professor educates the reader on the history of the specimen.
“Gentlemen, I have the honour to introduce you to a man of the quaternary or post-tertiary system. “(e-book, pg 208, Verne) and “I will affirm that this specimen of human family is of the Japhetic race…” (e-book, pg 209, Verne). The authentic feel of the scientific facts presented to the reader is further strengthened not only by the presence of a central character in form of a renowned geologist Professor Lidenbrock but also by frequent reference to the work of actual scientists. For instance, Professor Lidenbrock frequently refers to the hypothesis of the famous English chemist of 1800s, Sir Humphry Davy regarding the gravitational pull of the moon on the Earth’s liquid in its core. “Well, Humphry Davy did call upon me….. We were long engaged in discussing among other problems the hypothesis of the liquid structure of the terrestrial nucleus.”(e book, pg 35, Verne)
Again, in another place, Professor Lidenbrock mentions the name of another contemporary French Physicist Joseph Fourier. “…science is eminently imperfectible; every new theory is soon routed by a newer. Was it not always believed until Fourier that the temperature of the interplanetary spaces decreased perpetually”(e-book, pg 34, Verne) In a similar way in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the narrator is presented as a well known naturalist working in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. “In virtue of my office as Assistant Professor in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the French Government had attached me to that expedition”(e-book,pg 7, Vernes). The expedition referred to is the mission to find out about an alleged sea monster also speculated to be an advanced submarine. Being chosen by the French Government for the important mission at once establishes Professor Arronax as a person of repute. His expertise in natural history including submarine studies is further established when he mentions that, “…several people did me the honour of consulting me on the phenomenon. I had published in France a work…, entitled Mysteries of the Great Submarine Grounds. The book…. gained for me a special reputation….” (e-book, pg 8 Verne).
The other central character Captain Nemo is an expert in technology having built the electric powered submarine Nautilus with technology far advanced of its time. This is affirmed by Professor Aronnax, “… Captain Nemo – certainly an engineer of a very high order…” (e-book, pg 68, Verne). The character of an expert like Professor’s Aronnax’s placed in the subterranean world under the sea becomes a perfect setting through which the author gives detailed information to the readers on geography and oceanography among other things. Professor Aronnax’s narration of his experience in the submarine not only informs the reader about various forms of sea life, “ Among the molluscs and zoophytes, I found …..several species of cnidarians, echini, hammers, spurs, dials, cerites and hyaline” (e-book, pg 113), and the depths of the ocean,“…a depth of 8,000 yards …in North Atlantic, and 2,500 yards in Mediterranean….South Atlantic, near the 35th parallel, …12,000 yards, 14000 yards and 15000 yards…” (e-book, pg 100, Verne) but also about geographical facts like calculating distance and position through latitude and longitude, “..the tropic of Capricorn was cut by 105d of longitude, and the 27th of the same month we crossed the equator on the 110th meridian.” (e-book, pg 23, Verne) and remote inhabited places like the Antarctic.
As in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the author make references to the work of actual scientists in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as well, to make the information authentic and plausible. Referring to the German scientist Robert Bunsen, the inventor of Bunsen burner, Captain Nemo says, “I use Bunsen contrivances, not Ruhmkorff. Those would not have been powerful enough. Bunsen’s are fewer in number, but strong and large.”(e-book, pg 68, Verne). In another instance, Professor Aronnax while talking about madrepores off the shores Island of Claremont refers to Charles Darwin’s theory, “The walls are the work of madrepores… These polypi are found particularly in the rough beds of the sea…with debris of secretion that support them. Such is at least, Darwin’s theory…” (e-book, pg 105, Verne). The frequent cross-references to actual scientific theories and work immediately establish the authenticity of the facts presented. While researching on the author, I learnt that at a young age Jules Verne was deeply attracted to theatre and literature and started publishing short stories and scientific essays in Musée des Familles. His dream was to ultimately write a new genre of novel that would combine scientific facts with adventure. This dream was eventually realized and he went on to publish several novels in what got established as the genre of science fiction. (Encyclopedia Britannica).
In fact, this idea of combining science and adventure in form of fiction is well demonstrated in both these books. As can be gathered from the biographical information on the author, he wrote these books in the early 19th century. Perhaps the intellectual and scientific pursuit of that era in Europe influenced Jules Verne to push the boundaries of scientific quests to explore what exists beyond the natural world visible to human observation. As mentioned by John Derbyshire, Jules Verne’s prolific works of fiction had “plots either hinged on some extrapolation, or untried application, of the science of Verne’s time, or at a minimum used some unresolved scientific issue (and here you have to include geography among the sciences) as a “hook” on which to hang an adventure story.” (Jules Verne: Father of Science Fiction?. The Atlantis: Journal of Science and Technology). This evident in both the books.
The literary style adopted by the author is to present authentic scientific facts and development in the contemporary science of his time through an exciting story. While Journey Through the Centre of the Earth can be placed in the background of new discoveries made in the late 18th century about minerals and other components of the Earth’s crust and therefore takes the reader to depths of the Earth with its rich geological formations, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea presents to the readers the wonders being discovered by the relatively new science of oceanography. Verne lets the reader get information on the science behind natural phenomenon without losing track of the story. Often the author moves off the main story and delves into a lengthy discussion on a topic, to explain a fact or phenomena and effortlessly go back to the main plot.
The presentation of scientific terminologies and facts are not overt as in a science text but presented as a requirement of the story itself. So whether it is Axel or Professor Lidenbrock giving information on the formation of different strata of the Earth, various minerals and rocks, names of prehistoric animals and sea life as in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Captain Nemo explaining how various nautical instruments work and Professor Aronnax lecturing on “zoophytes’, kelp’ distinction between ‘madrepore and coral’ or ‘how pearls are extracted from oysters’ as in Twenty Thousand League Under the Sea, the reader is always well informed about the science in the background of the story. Some may argue that Verne’s method of presenting scientific facts and ideas through fiction is ineffective. This argument holds that the medium of fiction dilutes scientific facts, giving equal weight to a fact, speculation, and fiction so that it is hard for the layperson to distinguish one from another.
For instance, in Journey to the Center of the Earth, the preserved human body is well validated by Professor Lidenbrock, with the same authority as giving information on actual geological facts about the layers of the Earth. Some may argue that such mix of actual facts with fantasy dilutes the authenticity of scientific facts and makes it difficult for a reader to distinguish. This argument has merit, but it can be countered with the fact that the book is supposed to be a science fiction where there is some science and some speculative or futuristic science. Many of the scientific facts and theories that Vernes gives in his book was the cutting edge scientific discoveries and discussions of that time. What seems like fantasy or fiction to today’s readers may have been speculative theories of an unresolved scientific phenomenon that intellectuals and scientist were seeking answers to.
So while towards the end of the Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea the description of the giant squid which attacks Nautilus shooting out its tentacles may seem too far-fetched and imaginary, the author’s vision of an advanced electric submarine was a highly plausible one judging by the fact that ‘the world’s first electrically operated submarine was built by Isaac Peral y Caballero within a few decades of Verne’s book.’ (paraphrased from Peral Submarine – The World’s First Electric Battery Powered Submarine.MI News network) Verne’s literary style focuses on delivering scientific knowledge and futuristic vision through the art of storytelling. Within an exciting storyline, he gives information on a particular scientific subject matter through the voice of a narrator who is established as having an expertise on the subject. Verne pays attention to meticulous scientific details often taking a break from the main story to explain the science behind the phenomenon with several references to works of established scientists of the time. Even when in certain parts of the story the narrative seems to border on fiction, the author goes to great length to logically explain the phenomenon or incidents that may seem surreal or unreal to make it convincing and in tune with a scientific temper.
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