Jules Verne: Five Weeks in a Balloon
1863’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, the first of Jules Verne’s famous Voyages Extraordinaires, follows the adventures of three explorers as they attempt to be the first men to traverse Africa from the east to the west utilising a hydrogen filled balloon to make the journey in a far shorter time than normal. The beginning of the book details the plans of the trips architect, Dr Ferguson, and contains what is essentially a justification of the idea including details of how the balloon would work, including the mathematics for its much vaunted ‘ascensional force’, and it is from this first section that true scientific fiction draws its origin.
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The feeling one gets when one finishes the book represents a remarkable turnaround from such unpromising beginnings.
The book is pacy to say the least. After the initial slow start the action fairly cracks along with little time spent on each adventure. If a criticism were to be made, it could be said that the plot was unremittingly linear with the odd tedious lecture thrown in, but the sheer pace of the action keeps the reader travelling along with the balloon. There are certainly some dubious attitudes taken towards Africans by the characters but there appears to be no genuine malice there, and they are happy to get along with the natives whenever possible, and merely to defend themselves when they are attacked at regular intervals by hostile tribesmen, so in relation to many empire tracts of this period I found the level of racism stays just above a historically tolerable level.
I found this book to be surprisingly well written, if a little dry in places where Verne’s didatic instincts take over. It is highly episodic, but this partially helps to drive the story forwards and adds to the sense of discovery, as if one is actually joining the three friends in their balloon. A few criticisms could be made regarding Verne’s grasp of the science of hydrogen balloons, but that would be missing the point of what is essentially a rollicking adventure novel suffused with the spirit of the age of reason. A definite must-read for anyone who is either interested in the birth of science fiction, or those who enjoy tales of the dark heart of pre-colonial Africa a la Rider Haggard.
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Journey to the Center of the Earth (French: Voyage au centre de la Terre, also translated under the titles A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and A Journey to the Interior of the Earth) is a classic 1864 science fiction novel by Jules Verne. The story involves German professor Otto Lidenbrock who believes there are volcanic tubes going toward the centre of the Earth. He, his nephew Axel, and their guide Hans descend into the Icelandic volcano Snæfellsjökull, encountering many adventures, including prehistoric animals and natural hazards, before eventually coming to the surface again in southern Italy, at the Stromboli volcano.
From a scientific point of view, this story has not aged quite as well as other Verne stories, since most of his ideas about what the interior of the Earth contains have since been disproved, but it still manages to captivate audiences when regarded as a classic fantasy novel.
The story begins in May 1863, the Lidenbrock house in Hamburg, Germany, with Professor Lidenbrock rushing home to peruse his latest purchase, an original runic manuscript of an Icelandic saga written by Snorri Sturluson ("Heimskringla"; the chronicle of the Norwegian kings who ruled over Iceland). While looking through the book, Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel find a coded note written in runic script. (This is a first indication of...