Friday, January 9, 2015

The Blockade Runners by Jules Verne

A competent but bland adventure
Jules Verne is best known for his science fiction novels, but he wrote plenty of down-to-earth adventure fiction as well. While his most famous works tend to lean toward the fantastic visions of H. G. Wells, The Blockade Runners, originally published in 1865, has more in common with the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Vincent Playfair is a wealthy merchant of Glasgow. The American Civil War has put a damper in his profits because he is unable to get his hands on enough cotton to keep his mills running. The Union has blockaded all the major ports of the Confederacy, prohibiting the trafficking of goods in or out. Playfair comes up with a plan to run through the blockade at Charleston and exchange a shipload of guns and provisions for a fortune’s worth of cotton. He commissions the construction of an ultra-fast steamship, The Dolphin, and assigns his nephew and protégé James Playfair to captain the mission. Young Playfair sets out for the New World to test his mettle against the American fleet.

As far as adventure stories go, this one’s pretty tame. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Blockade Runners, but there’s nothing exceptional about it either. Verne goes through the formulaic motions and pens a competently constructed piece, but there’s few if any surprises and no instances of edge-of-your-seat thrills. A mysterious crew member named Crockston introduces one major complication into the proceedings, but this new problem is resolved in such an effortless manner it barely registers as a plot point. This is a brief work of ten short chapters. It feels as if Verne was writing to fit the word-count restriction of a periodical, and therefore didn’t put much effort into the development of plot and characters. Opportunities for suspense are squandered in favor of brevity.

The story provides an interesting Frenchman’s perspective on America’s Civil War. Verne doesn’t take sides in the conflict, but through the Playfairs he approaches the subject from the detached point of view of a European businessman only concerned with how the war effects his bottom line. While the characters mostly display indifference to America’s political and military affairs, they do briefly debate the morality of slavery. Different viewpoints on the subject are expressed, but ultimately the argument is inconclusive. This is meant to be a lighthearted novel of nautical adventure and not a serious political or historical commentary.

Verne was a great writer who could work skillfully with just about any setting or subject matter. The Blockade Runners is no exception, but this is clearly not one of his more imaginative or memorable works. Unless you’re really interested in Civil War stories, you’d be better off skipping this one in favor of one of the sci-fi novels for which he’s famous, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. If you’re interested in sampling some of his non-sci-fi adventure fiction, I would suggest Michael Strogoff.

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