Friday, March 25, 2016

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

A dismal abyss
Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in 1864. The first English translation, published by Griffith and Farran, appeared in 1871. A second English translation of 1877, usually titled Journey to the Interior of the Earth, is said to be more faithful to Verne’s original work. The 1871 version, however, is the one that I got my hands on, so that’s what I’m reviewing here. One alteration the 1871 translator made was to change the names of the characters. In this version, the narrator is named Harry. He is a young scientist following in the footsteps of his uncle, Professor von Hardwigg. Paging through an antiquated Icelandic book, Uncle Hardwigg finds a coded note describing a passage to the center of the Earth. He immediately ropes his nephew into a scientific expedition, and the two head for Iceland. Once there, they enlist the services of Hans, a local eider down hunter, as their guide, and the three set off into the crater of an extinct volcano.

As is often the case with 19th-century sci-fi, Verne takes his time getting to the marvels and monsters. The book starts out as a typical scientific expedition, with all the usual discussion of gear and preparations. Then, as is often the case in Verne novels, he segues into a travelogue, giving us a tour of Iceland worthy of National Geographic. When the adventurers enter the crater, they explore the depths of the earth much like the passengers of the Nautilus explore the depths of the ocean in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Harry, Professor Hardwigg, and Hans wander through various strata of the earth’s crust, marveling at the crystals, the granitic formations, and the fossils of prehistoric life that have been deposited through the ages. As hard as Verne tries to jazz up the rocks and minerals, however, the scenery and science is nowhere near as interesting as the marine wonders presented in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

Something else the book lacks is its Captain Nemo. If you’re going to write a book with only three characters, they better be good characters, but as protagonists the three voyagers leave a lot to be desired. The running joke with Hans is that he’s extremely stoic and barely utters a word. Professor Hardwigg exudes a satisfying Professor Challenger-esque vibe with his indefatigable mania for scientific pursuits. Harry, however, makes for a frustrating narrator. It’s usually a good strategy to tell an astonishing adventure story from an everyman’s point of view, but Harry is a far wimpier than your average everyman. Throughout the book he constantly moans about how frightened, tired, and uncomfortable he is, and I lost track of all the times he was sick, injured, or unconscious. If I were leading the expedition, I would have left him behind.

Our three heroes spend most of the book coasting through the subterranean passages on a sort of caveman carnival ride that so defies belief it enters the realm of fantasy. Often all they can do is comment on their surroundings as they whiz by. Toward the end, even Verne seems to grow tired of his story and has to resort to a flashback and a dream sequence. If there isn’t enough interesting stuff to talk about beneath the earth, what are we doing there? I usually enjoy Verne’s work, and I loved Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but apparently geology doesn’t make as interesting a fictional narrative as oceanology or marine biology, and other sci-fi books have covered paleontology to better effect. Five years separated the publication of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues. It’s amazing how much Verne improved as a writer over that half-decade, because the latter is a masterpiece while the former is mediocre at best.
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