Few are able to deny the significance of French novelist, playwright, and poet Jules Verne and his literary contributions. Largely responsible for instilling young and adult readers alike with a passion for exploration, mystery, and adventure, Verne’s most widely recognized works include cherished classics such as Professor Pierre Aronnax’s voyage aboard the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas and the search for the missing Captain Grant In Search of the Castaways, both of whom were inspirational for my own love for science fiction while growing up.
Despite his status as a renowned author of fiction in the English-speaking world, Jules Verne’s image in his home country of France was quite different due to the more accurate manuscripts of his work not having been altered in their translations, revealing a writer who was more in tune with portraying the world in a colorful stylistic fashion. Nevertheless, his influence on the literary world was undeniable, having been described by Ray Bradbury as the “progenitor of all science fiction authors.”
We wish to use this opportunity to present enthusiasts of his work and the science fiction genre alike with a selection of some of Verne’s novels that may have gone unnoticed from behind the shadow of his more widely recognized books.
Our first entry takes us to Imperial Russia during the reign of Tsar Alexander II. Michael Strogoff is considered by critics of Verne to be one of his finest works and incorporated both historical figures and locations of the late 19th century. Published in 1876, the title draws its name from its protagonist, Michael Strogoff, a courier for the Tsar who finds himself embroiled in a rebellion by the Tartar prince Feofar Khan. Michael is sent on a mission to Irkutsk to warn its presiding governor of a traitor amidst their ranks and along the way meets the young Nadia Fedor, the daughter of an exiled political prisoner held in Irkutsk. Together they make their way across Siberia to their destination, unaware of the imposing dangers they were exposing themselves to.
Despite his best attempts at remaining covert during his courier assignment, Michael is captured by the Tartar troops during an attack on the city by the enemy forces. With the traitor aware of Michael’s mission to inform the governor of his involvement with the Tartar rebels, he attempts to have Strogoff killed by portraying him as an Imperial spy. With his life on the line, Strogoff must find a way to escape his captors and reunite with Nadia if he wishes to fulfill his obligations as a courier. The question then becomes, will he be able to?
Initially published in 1863 but later released as an English translation six years later, Five Weeks in a Balloon was described by Jules Verne as the moment when he had finally mastered the art of his craft, which he would go on to demonstrate in the rest of his literary publications. This adventure novel places us in the company of Dr. Samuel Fergusson, a scholar and avid explorer who sets out on his hydrogen-powered balloon to traverse the unexplored regions of the African continent. Accompanied by his servant Joe and friend Richard Kennedy, the group embarks on an aerial voyage from the eastern coast of Africa to the far reaches of St. Louis to discover the source of the Nile River.
Along the journey, Fergusson and his crew face perils and numerous obstacles, ranging from tribal hostility to outright struggle for survival as the balloon’s hydrogen supply begins to dwindle throughout their expedition across the savanna. Will Verne’s protagonists persevere in the coming storm as they seek to accomplish their goals? Due to the relatively unknown status of the African lands during the book’s release, the novel became an instant success and paved the way for Jules Verne to continue publishing more stories throughout his life.
Taking a step back from his usual style of work, The Green Ray presents its readers with a more romantic and humorous story rather than the usual slice of science fiction. First published in 1883, the novel derives its namesake from the real meteorological event known as the green flash; a burst of light that appears in the atmosphere during the refraction of sunlight on the horizon. However, in Verne’s book, this phenomenon is considered nothing more than a myth known as the Green Ray. According to this legend, those who gaze upon the green flash of light are said to peer into their own heart as well as within the hearts of others.
The novel’s two protagonists, brothers Sebastian, and Samuel Melville, desperately seek to marry off their niece, Helena Campbell, to the scientist Aristobulus Ursicles. Yet, much to their chagrin, Helena learns of the legendary green ray and refuses to marry Ursicles until she has personally witnessed this phenomenon. Helena embarks across the country with the hope that she will track down this mysterious ray of light in order to be sure of her decision. With little choice, Samuel and Sebastian join her cohort; unbeknownst to them, Ursicles is not far behind.
We return from our brief detour to examine another of Verne’s classic science fiction novels. Robur the Conqueror has the world in awe over mysterious occurrences of light and sound heard across the globe. Reports begin to come in of strange flags appearing atop famous landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, as if to demonstrate to the people a show of dominance by an unseen entity. It is later revealed that the perpetrator of these events is a brilliant inventor by the name of Robur. After making his debut to a group of flight enthusiasts at Weldon Institute, Robur makes his escape following a heated exchange aboard a sophisticated flying machine to the bewilderment of onlookers who were unfamiliar with this level of technology.
It seemed that Robur had truly become a conqueror over the skies. The appearance of Robur’s aerial vessel shares a striking similarity to the Nautilus, the infamous submarine from Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, a machine of awe-inspiring wonder which had also surpassed the level of technological progress demonstrated by the rest of the world. Intent on proving his air superiority to the defiant members of Weldon Institute, he kidnaps its president along with the secretary and valet. He embarks on taking them around the world in his flying machine to prove his point. However, the kidnapped members remain indignant and quickly begin to plot a method of escape and, if possible, a way to sabotage Robur’s invention for good.
Following the aftermath of the events in Robur the Conqueror in 1886, The Master of the World is a direct sequel to the events of its predecessor. Initially published in 1904, the novel would also prove to be one of Verne’s last, with the author passing away the next year. The book’s overarching theme is one of darker tones as Verne warns against the dangers of rising totalitarianism, portrayed through the story’s antagonist, Robur. Indeed, the brilliant yet tyrannical inventor returns in his latest creation, a new and improved vessel with expanded land, aquatic, and aerial capabilities.
After numerous reports of strange sightings, much like the events that transpired in Robur the Conqueror, the US federal authority becomes intent on capturing Robur for his criminal acts. Robur leads his pursuers on a thrilling chase while demonstrating unbelievable feats of technological ingenuity, giving weight to his self-proclaimed status as a conqueror.
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