"When science has uttered her voice, let babblers hold their peace."
Author: Jules Verne
Publisher: Pierre Jules-Hetzel
Well, I really must say that Journey to the Center of the Earth was delightful. Book number two on my 100 Sci-Fi Stories list was a success; I had no problem getting through it quite speedily. I feel the above quote captures the essence of the story (although, there were several good one- and two-liners from which to choose) very well.
Journey is actually part of a series of novels written by Verne called the Voyages Extraordinaires. The stories 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days are among Verne’s more famous works included in that series. According to Pierre Jules-Hetzel, the publisher, the goal of the series was to amass in fictional format all the scientific knowledge of the day.
Plot & Narration
Here’s the rundown of Journey:
The story begins in 1863 in Hamburg, Germany, where Professor Otto Liedenbrock and his nephew Axel discover a code written in an old runic script. The code holds the location to the entrance of a tunnel to the center of the Earth. Since Professor Liedenbrock is a geologist and mineralogist, this obviously is super exciting for him. Axel, being less manic and passionate than his uncle, has his reservations about undertaking such a journey. But the Professor will have no nay-saying against this amazing scientific opportunity. The entrance is in an extinct volcano in Iceland, to which the pair journey, hiring a guide to help them traverse the underground world. And so begins their adventure.
As you can imagine, wonderful, scary and crazy things happen underground as the trio make their way to the center of the Earth. They almost die several times, obviously, but then survive just in the nick of time, also obviously. All in all, it was a really fun story!
I liked the narrative style as well. The story is written from the point of view of Axel after the journey has already taken place. It has the same feel as Frankenstein, in that it’s told with a believe-me-or-not-the-story-is-true attitude.
The one thing I didn’t like was that they never actually got to the center of the Earth! Ha! So the title is a bit misleading. I was so looking forward to it too, thinking to myself what kind of grand descriptions Verne will have concocted, but, no such luck. Though at the end they got close to the center, our adventurers ended up returning to the surface instead (about which, technically, they couldn’t do anything).
Theme: Hard Science
What I liked about JTTCOFT was Verne’s inclusion of scientific descriptions in the dialogue between the Professor and Axel. The entire journey underground they discuss the different aspects of the geologic formations they see as well as various theories of heat and how hot the center of the earth should be, if at all. The theories discussed are now, of course, known to be incorrect, but they gave the story a nice depth. At the same time, Verne apparently always denied the “science-fiction”-ness of his novels, so he might disagree with Journey‘s inclusion in the canon.
I’d like to read more of Verne’s works. One of the reasons I enjoy these early science fictions is because they are still about things happening on this planet (with a few exceptions, of course). Today, when we hear “sci-fi” we generally think of outer space, aliens, robots, wormholes, post-apocalyptic worlds, conspiracies, and so on. But the first four stories on my list aren’t about any of that. They look down, not up, if I can describe them that way (or maybe “pre-space”?). It makes me wonder what kind of sci-fi I’d write if I couldn’t use any of those “modern” sci-fi elements (I sense a good free writing exercise coming on). But then again, science fiction doesn’t begin and end with spaceships and AI, it’s simply taking the science of your day to its limits. That’s what Shelley did and that’s what Verne did, and that’s why I like Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Up next: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).
Quotations: Verne, Jules. Journey to the Center of the Earth. Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy, 2014. Kindle Edition.