Thursday, August 4, 2016

Doctor Ox’s Experiment by Jules Verne

Comic antiflemitism
In America you occasionally hear jokes about Canadians—how they’re always so polite, passive, quiet, and reasonable. Apparently, in the 19th century, the French used to make the same jokes about the Flemish (the inhabitants of Flanders, or northern Belgium). Now imagine basing an entire novel around that stereotype. That’s exactly what Jules Verne does with his 1872 novella Doctor Ox’s Experiment. Verne is best known as a science fiction writer, but he was also somewhat of a geography nut. In all of his works, he goes to great pains to establish the settings of his stories in great detail, no matter in what exotic locales they may take place. In this book, Verne paints for us a picturesque village in the mountains of Flanders named Quiquendone, where the citizens never fight, complain, or raise their voices in anger. They are so prim and stuffy that couples even require a decade of courtship before they get married. Verne renders the scene with a broad brush and lays it on pretty thick.

Have no fear, there’s also a science fiction story going on here. Doctor Ox, a mysterious scientist, arrives in Quiquendone and donates his expertise in a scheme to technologically advance this backwater town. To elaborate further on his plan would be to spoil the surprises (and this is a pretty short book, so surprises are few). There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the science here, and the story is pretty predictable. The sci-fi component of the plot just serves to reinforce the dumb joke upon which the whole story is based. The anti-Flemish ridicule is by no means offensive (at least I don’t think so, and I’m 1/4 Belgian), but it’s just not all that funny. After the initial chuckle it gets old fast. Nevertheless, Verne delivers a lively fairy-tale story that does manage to keep the reader interested. I enjoy his adventure novels a lot more than his comedies, but he’s a great writer who rarely if ever bores. Needless to say, he has a lot of better and better-known works than this one, but if you’re a Verne fan looking for a quickie then you might find this novella mildly entertaining.

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