Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Fur Country by Jules Verne

Monotonous homage to the Hudson’s Bay Company
The French pioneer of science fiction Jules Verne strove to encompass a comprehensive breadth of scientific and geographic knowledge in his fictional works. This resulted in the 54 novels of exotic travel and adventure known as his Voyages Extraordinaires (Amazing Journeys), a series which includes such famed titles as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. In the tenth novel in this series, The Fur Country, Verne takes the reader on an adventure into the Arctic. The novel was originally published in 1873 under the French title of Le Pays des fourrures.

The story begins in 1859. The Hudson’s Bay Company is losing money because it has overhunted its prey, so it decides to expand its operations further into Northwestern Canada and Alaska. A party of explorers is dispatched to establish a new fort on the Alaskan coast above the Arctic Circle. After having reached their destination, the group becomes trapped in the Arctic and must find a way to escape their predicament. Although Verne acknowledges the environmental damage done by the fur industry, he simultaneously glorifies the romance, efficiency, and profitability of the company’s hunting operations. One admirable aspect of the book is the inclusion of a woman explorer who is treated with just as much respect and deference as the male officers.

Part of the fun of wilderness adventure is that being in the wild allows for freedom from societal laws and conventions. Unlike later authors of Klondike Gold Rush fiction, however, you won’t find any roughhousing in Verne’s work. Everyone in this novel observes the rules of Victorian propriety, and all the characters have the same prim and proper personality, so there’s never any conflict between them. The dangers and hardships of the North are never adequately conveyed. Even when they are building a fort, boat, or raft, these men of the Hudson’s Bay Company never seem to break a sweat, and the cold hardly seems to bother anyone. With the exception of a couple of scenes involving polar bears, all the perils faced by the travelers are the result of meteorological and climatological causes, meaning the novel is often about as exciting as watching ice melt. Verne tries to liven things up by having icebergs bounce around like magic bullets and working in more failed rescue attempts than an entire season of Gilligan’s Island.

There is one major plot point that just doesn’t make any sense. An astronomer accompanies the expedition so that he can observe a total solar eclipse that must be viewed above the seventieth parallel. Without spoiling too much of the plot, an argument develops over the coordinates of the party’s location, whether they are above or below the seventieth parallel. They have measured their latitude twice, and there is a discrepancy between the two measurements. However, the coordinates given from the first measurement (70° 44’ 37”) and the second measurement (73° 7’ 20”) are both above the seventieth parallel, so what’s the problem? This should have had no effect on the viewing of the eclipse. If anything, the second set of coordinates should have been advantageous to the astronomer. The whole story hinges on this one plot element, yet it seems an obvious error. Hasn’t anyone else noticed this in the past 150 years?

Before science fiction was called “science fiction” it was called “scientific romance,” which is a more fitting description of this work by Verne. The Fur Country is romantic adventure fiction that deals with scientific phenomena, but all within the realm of physical possibility. With this book Verne applies his “Extraordinary Voyages” treatment to meteorology, oceanography, and glaciology. One must have a very avid interest in those fields to enjoy this book because the characters and plot are not sufficient to captivate the reader.

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