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Conceptual Fiction: Round the Moon by Jules Verne

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

At the conclusion of his book From Earth to the Moon (1865), Jules Verne left his readers — and his astronauts — hanging in the starry ether. The readers had it the worst, since Verne forced them to wait five years before he resolved the plot complications in his sequel Round the Moon.

If the first book was Verne’s equivalent of the Apollo 11 mission, then his follow-up effort was the predecessor of Apollo 13. The lunar expedition goes wrong soon after launch, and the three astronauts not only face the prospect of failing in their original plan of landing on the moon, but are unlikely to survive the trip. No one actually says: “Houston, we have a problem,” but otherwise this story is ready for Tom Hanks' treatment on the big screen.

But here’s a surprise… none of Verne’s space travelers seem at all put out by the danger. Their commitment to science trumps concerns for personal safety, and while the rest of us would be scheming how to get back to terra firma, they are studying lunar geography, debating hypotheses and taking notes. This undercuts much of the natural drama of Verne’s tale, and makes the book seem far more dated these days than would have been the case if the author had published a more conventional narrative. Round the Moon has the makings of a fine adventure story, but the author too often forgets the pacing and prefers to show off his grasp of scientific concepts.

Of course, drawing on the best ideas of the Ulysses S. Grant administration, Verne makes a few blunders. Although he spends a lot of time explaining how the reduction in gravity impacts the travel of his projectile, he doesn’t have a good grasp of how weightlessness might disrupt the journey of his astronauts. They are pouring glasses of wine, and cooking up meals as though they were back on Mother Earth and aiming for three stars in the Michelin Guide.

Verne brings back the same cast of characters from his earlier book, and populates his spaceship — really more a giant projectile with room inside for a small crew — with President Barbicane, Captain Nicholl , Michel Ardan, two dogs and some other small farm animals. It is not quite Noah’s Ark – although Nicholl laments the absence of more creatures. “The fact is," he notes, "that cows, bulls, and horses, and all ruminants, would have been very useful on the lunar continent.” Clearly these ambitious travelers have big dreams for their new home.

But as their trip goes off course, the passengers temper their zeal for colonization and devote more energy to… trying to get back home? Guess again! They now become absorbed in studying the topography of the moon from afar. The only thing Verne liked better than writing about science, it seems, was writing about travel. His most famous works were invariably about journeys – to the center of the earth or the bottom of the sea or around the world. So he comfortably switches gears from adventure story to travelogue, and lets us look over the shoulders of his protagonists as they observe mountains and craters and other geological formations.

This guide to lunar landmarks comprises a substantial portion of Round the Moon, and is the slowest-moving part in a book that is more lethargy-provoking than is necessary – a surprising state of affairs given the life-or-death situation of his three heroes. Fortunately for the reader, Verne recovers his sense of pacing and narrative development in the closing pages, when he recounts the final stages of his intrepid passengers’ adventure. He pulls out a few surprises, and even adds an undersea exploration angle – perhaps due to his work concurrently on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Round the Moon is not what readers call a “page-turner.” Yet Verne does an impressive job of mustering the technological know-how of his day in crafting his tale. By comparison, H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901) is far less plausible (if more artfully written) despite the advantage of having 30 more years of progress at the author’s disposal when it was written. For this reason, Verne’s work, for all its limitations, remains a milestone in the genre.

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