Way back in the 1920s, when Hugo Gernsback created science fiction as a literary label, he didn’t frame it just in terms of stories being written at the time. Legitimacy comes through legacy, after all, and so he looked back to stories from the past. H. G. Wells is one name he picked, whose tales of time travel and alien invasion are now clearly recognisable as science fiction. But Gernsback looked back further still, to a man whose works influenced Wells. Science fiction (or scientifiction, as Gernsback originally envisioned the label) started as a very American label, but at its roots is a European. A Frenchman by the name of Jules Verne.
Verne was at his peak during the latter half of the nineteenth century, so clearly had never heard of the term science fiction. But if we take Gernsback’s lead, it’s easy to see how Verne’s extraordinary voyages and tales of adventure laid the bedrock for science fiction to truly begin construction of a new genre. The most famous of these stories are gathered in the collection Seven Novels, my recent read of which forms the basis for this article.
Like a lot of stories from the time in which they were written, these novels were not originally released as single volumes. Instead they were serialised in newspapers. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the history of print media, but in this regard Verne’s tales are a clear part of the publishing trends that would eventually give rise to the Golden Age of the pulp magazines. Like the short stories that became the basis for what we now recognise as science fiction, Verne’s stories rely on immediacy and punchy storytelling. The gathered books are told over the course of dozens of chapters, often only a page or two in length, with each part being a clear and distinct entry in its own right.
Of course, short and punchy chapters doesn’t always make for a tense narrative. In fact, pacing is one of my major struggles with Verne’s writing. These stories are also known as the Extraordinary Voyages, with the seven novels in this collection all focusing on some great adventure, be it a balloon trip over the African continent, or being fired at the Moon by a massive cannon. To rip a phrase from a well-known fantasy series, ‘journey before destination’ is the name of the game here. Verne was clearly in love with the idea of travel. Not because his characters go to wonderful locations, but because of what they encounter along the way. Five Weeks in a Balloon is about a trip over Africa, but it is not the discovery of the source of the Nile that forms the core of the story. It’s the scrapes and misadventures had along the way. The attacks by (to be expected from the period rather racist caricatures of) local tribesmen gets just as much attention as the scientific discovery of the climax. Likewise, From the Earth to the Moon is barely a hundred pages long, and ostensibly about going to the moon. Yet only in the last handful of pages is the lunar mission actually launched. The rest is all build-up. And I must say, Verne adores his facts and figures. If there is a chance to apply a number to something, Verne will take it. Calculations and inventories sprawl across the page. It’s all proof that Verne knows what he is talking about, because though some of the science is clearly outdated, it was ground-breaking stuff at the time. For the nineteenth century, this is practically Hard SF. As educational as it is entertaining. If you need further proof, look at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with its startlingly prescient depiction of the destructive power of the submarine, and one driven by electricity at that.
Coming full circle, a hundred and fifty years after these books were first written, Verne’s creations have been swept up by the legacy they helped create. Prior to reading this collection I, like many others, would have thought of Verne only in terms of how how his works have been liberally pilfered by modern writers. How many steampunk novels feature thrilling balloon chases, or monstrous submarines. But to make these creations part of an alternate history does them a disservice. If authors are inspired by Verne’s works, they shouldn’t just reimagine his past. they should follow his example and look to the future. Because more of it came to pass than you might first suspect.