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Prescient and Accounted For

A century after his death, novelist Jules Verne, who imagined Moon flight and deep-sea voyages, looks more prophetic than ever

Science fiction fans generally recall From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel, Around the Moon (1870), as a prophetic adventure. In the saga, a three-man aluminum capsule lifts off from central Florida, orbits the Moon, then returns to Earth by splashing down in the Pacific—a perfect dry run for Apollo 8 a century later, even if Verne's craft was launched from a cannon. The novelist consulted a cousin, a mathematician, to make the action plausible. "He actually specifies the speed you have to achieve to escape gravity, which is incredible for the time," says Miller.

New translations of the novels show that Verne's originals, far from being just kid-friendly science fiction, wickedly satirized American militarism. Verne was inspired to write From the Earth to the Moon after reading Civil War dispatches describing unprecedented carnage and a Union cannon 20 feet long that could hurl a half-ton shell five miles. In the novel, the space voyage's backers aren't noble scientists seeking new frontiers but arms merchants idled by the end of the Civil War. Under a clubhouse chandelier fashioned from revolvers, they make plans to test their latest superweapon by using the Moon for target practice; perhaps they'll claim it afterward as the 37th state of the Union. The idea of allowing passengers aboard their giant projectile is an afterthought suggested by the story's one idealist, a Frenchman.

Verne was never as grim as Orwell or Kafka, but a darker, more cynical tone is evident in many of his later novels, especially after Hetzel's death in 1886. In 1889, Verne brought back his trigger-happy arms merchants in The Purchase of the North Pole. Callous and money-mad, the Americans plot to tilt the Earth's axis with the recoil of a giant cannon placed on the Equator. This will melt the ice cap over the North Pole (which they've bought) and expose fabulous coal deposits lying underneath. That climatic catastrophe will follow concerns them not at all. Luckily, their plot fails.

By the late 1880s, Verne was disillusioned by world events—the Western powers' empire-building spree, the rise of robber baron plutocracies, even the slaughter of elephants and whales, all of which figure in his later books. Verne was a fierce individualist who had come of age during the political upheavals of 1848, when popular uprisings toppled governments across Europe. Verne, his grandson suspected, was a closet anarchist.

But he was a rebel in print only. In person, he was a respectable conservative, like his parents. His mother, Sophie, was a descendant of Breton seafarers. His father, Pierre, was an obsessively punctual lawyer who kept a telescope trained on the clock of a nearby monastery and who knew the number of paces from his home to his office. Small wonder his son peopled his novels with emotionless, comically precise characters. Eventually, Jules Verne came to resemble the punctilious oddballs he'd so often mocked. Into his 70s, he wrote in his study each morning from 5 to 11 and read 15 newspapers each afternoon—"always the same 15," he told an interviewer, "and I can tell you that very little in any of them escapes my attention."

Though Verne declined to have a telephone, his knack for anticipating future trends was intact till the end. Not long before his death from diabetes at age 77, Verne expressed little interest in automobiles ("One goes so many miles faster than the railway trains, but is that real progress?"), yet he predicted that the car would prompt an exodus of wealthy urbanites to the countryside, where they would be "free from the reproachful gaze of the poor." The last book published in his lifetime was The Invasion of the Sea, about a French plan to flood the Sahara that was opposed by Islamic militants. To call Jules Verne merely the Father of Science Fiction somehow doesn’t do him justice.

 

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