Sunday, November 22, 2015
Jules Verne's Science In Romance 1903
Jules Verne's SCIENCE IN ROMANCE, article in the Saturday Review 1903
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JULES VERNE was not exactly the creator of the romance in which a certain treatment of science constitutes the chief interest, but he was its best known exponent. Edgar Allan Poe's handling of pseudo-science was prior in time to Jules Verne, and he was probably the father of that kind of literature which has its still living practitioners in Dr. Conan Doyle and Mr. H. G. Wells. Poe was infinitely the superior of any of his successors in genius and literary power, and he employed such science as he wanted for his purpose with more grotesquely horrible effects even than Mr. Wells has done in some of his psychological stories. He certainly surpassed Dr. Conan Doyle in his employment of it in the detective story, as will be admitted by all who remember his elaborate inferences from physical facts in one of his cases where the victim of a murder is found in the river, and the question is whether or not she was murdered before being cast into the water. He also has a balloon story as impossible as the famous one of Jules Verne, but in it again there is more of the serious import and the real issues which we look for in literature than anything which Jules Verne ever did or could have done. The almost life-long metier of Jules Verne was the pseudo scientific novel, but he was the most superficial of all who have practised the art. Not that he got up his science less carefully than others; but it was always a physical and mechanical set of facts with which he dealt that did not expound or illustrate the really interesting problems of life with which some branches of science are so closely associated in every thinking person's mind. If Swift had devised a journey to the moon as he devised Gulliver's journeys to Lilliput or Brobdingnag his chief concern would not have been in the mechanical or physical difficulties to be overcome before the start could be made, or with difficulties en route, or with the perils which awaited the traveller by the mere fact of his reaching the end of his voyage. That is to say, Jules Verne left out of his scheme the human, the moral, the political, the religious, the social questions which are of real importance to thoughtful men and women.
Even Mr. Rider Haggard suggests, in such characters as "She", which appear wholly fantastic, certain speculations; for example, as to the means and influences, spiritual or otherwise, which are or may be used for the acquisition of power by men over their fellows in society. And so Mr. Wells has definite and serious purposes in writing his stories such as the "Wonderful Visit" or "The Time Machine " or "The Island of Dr. Moreau". He is didactic, or satirical, or reflective, on the larger topics of human nature or society, on ways of living or thinking, and his science positive or pseudo is only a means to an end. Dr. Moreau's experiments have much more significance as prophecies than that vaguely prophetic notion of Jules Verne as to the possibility of the submarine.
So that Jules Verne's stories were essentially boys' and girls' books. There was no moral; and if sometimes the science, or the impossible science suggested cleverly by the ingenious writer, were too difficult for the young reader, he or she would take it for granted and pass on, not the less interested in the story because the technical difficulty had not been grasped. A French lady has informed us that at eleven years of age she had a "rage" for Jules Verne and read fifteen of his books in a month. Evidently the interest there was not in the anticipations of a future science founded upon the positively ascertained facts of the present. Nor in any other of the serious questions which alone can furnish mental pabulum to the mature. It was simply in a world of wonders, the wonders of the fairy and gnome world, though without the personality of the little people and the analogues of the passions and virtues and failings of humanity which make fairy-stories interesting to the adult. There was nothing in this that was above the intellect of a boy or girl except the difficulties of the scientific facts or pseudo-explanations, which were just about as puzzling to upgrown readers unless they happened to be particularly well read in science.
As many men and women as boys and girls have been puzzled, we are sure, by the meridian difficulty in the "Voyage Round the World". And yet Jules Verne's treatment of the scientific romance puts his books in the category of those suitable for boys' reading; while it is difficult to conceive young people; taking interest in the other books we have mentioned or in such a modern Utopia of the electric era as "The Coming Race". It is curious that a Frenchman should have treated science with such naivete, and that he should have been content to turn it to no other purpose than amusement and the delectation of boys and maidens. It was not in this mood that some other novelists of his nationality turned their attention to the science of physiology or psychology, and studied the abnormal manifestations of the nervous system under the conditions of modern life. In such topics as: heredity, the gruesome stories of the destinies of families determined by physical and mental organisation, Jules Verne was not interested. In the novels of this class there is perhaps more science, some of it very doubtful, than romance. Verne's stories as adventures were at least not spoiled by being over-weighted with detail pseudo or serious. And here we may notice the great difficulty in certain scientific romances, from, which Jules Verne escaped by his method. We can. never be sure that a novelist who writes for own entertainment principally, or he had better not write at all, is duly qualified to observe, portray, and make the deductions he does make from the facts he studies or professes to study. We have to take that on trust in the characters in which he embodies his ideas. Moreover we cannot know whether he has not manipulated his observations to suit the purposes of his story. The writer of a psychological romance is in the same position as the writer of the historical novel so-called. He may deem himself at liberty to alter wherever it is necessary either for his plot or for the interest of his characters. This process is easier to detect in the historical novel that in that which professes to study the secret workings of the mental or physical functions as the clue to the actions of the characters and the denouement of the story. It is not easy in such a realm of mystery as the physiological and psychological sciences to check the author, and to convict him of insincerity in dealing with his material if his attitude has really been more literary than scientific.
What seems at first sight a lesson in the mysteries of human nature and life may be merely a trick of the author from which we have no profit, and which may indeed seriously mislead us if we should take our science from novels. There is very good reason for holding that the less the stage or the novel has to do with the material of the medical profession the better. The writers are not competent in the first place, they are not to be trusted to know what they describe; and their method is not trustworthy, because the exigencies of story-telling always tempt to falsification of the material. But Jules Verne may be read without any doubts or hesitancies. He deals with the physical and the superficially physical as we may say; with such notions of matter and physical action as are familiar to the ordinary man. The more modern and refined physical mysteries perhaps were not familiar to him; or they were all too new for him to have mastered the secret of turning to account in fiction such conceptions as the electron, or the latest theories of the ether, or such matters as radium or the X-rays, and so on. Perhaps these ideas are too recondite to serve as a basis for fictional manipulation. The ordinary reader has grasped the idea of the bacilli and bacteria, and they have figured in several stories; but even wireless telegraphy has not yet apparently accustomed him to the subtler physical mysteries. Gravity and attraction everyone thinks he understands and the romancist like Jules Verne can start from a familiar topic and a jumping-off place. What is fact and what is fiction can be recognised at a glance. It is a simple form of art, and requires no profundities of scientific knowledge. When one thinks of the serious incongruities, the mixture of fact and fancies which are not much better than distorted facts, and therefore of a low order of imagination, we cannot think that the scientific romance is a thing to be cultivated. On the whole it is better when we want science to read science; and when we want fiction not to read a composite thing in which the science diverts us from the fiction, and the fiction is not more imaginary than the pseudo-science. The scientific romance is therefore crude and we do not think it has much of a future. We hope not.
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