12 January 2008

Robur the Conqueror

Robur the Conqueror
by Jules Verne (1886)

As I began reading Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror (a.k.a. The Clipper of the Clouds; A Trip around the World in a Flying Machine), I found it impossible not to make comparisons between it and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The plots are nearly identical, only the individual elements have changed. The first chapter details mysterious sightings across the world that suggest a strange animal or unusual phenomenon. One scholar suggests it is a vehicle, but nobody buys into that. Then two men and a servant are abducted by the mystery object, which is a vehicle. A trip around the world begins, and the three prisoners wonder about the enigmatic nature of the chilly genius at the helm of the great vehicle.

The difference? Switch the submarine the Nautilis for the propeller-driven airship the Albatross. Change the names. Make the servant character an unfortunately stereotyped black man. And there you have it: Robur the Conqueror.

Oh, you’ll also have to drain much of the intense mystery and suspense. Robur the Conqueror is an enjoyable piece of Victorian steampunk fantasy, but it can’t compete with Twenty Thousand Leagues. Robur lacks Nemo’s charisma, and his mystery feels shallow in comparison. Robur doesn’t have the obsessive quest of Captain Nemo, only a megalomania to fly around the world and look impressive. He does look impressive—the Albatross is boss—but he can’t back up his inventiveness with the force of personality.

The racist attitudes around the black servant, Frycollin, are upsetting to discover in Verne, and I would wager that the reason Robur the Conqueror shows up infrequently today has to do with this. Modern readers are used to viewing the great Frenchman as a progressive thinker, far ahead of his time; but this stereotypical racism reminds us that Verne was still mired in the society of his day. (He also politically took a very conservative turn at the end of his life.) H. G. Wells was the master of the sociologically forward-looking science fiction, but Verne here exercises technological innovation only. Frycollin is portrayed as simple-minded and a coward, and the relentless “comic relief” at his expense won’t sit well with anybody except klansmen. (And they aren't going to read anything by a Frenchman, for pity’s sake. I doubt they’ve progressed pass second grade reading level anyway.)

The two "heroes," Uncles Prudent and Phil Evans, have a cavalier attitude toward Frycollin's life as well—although here are least Verne pops in some of his dry cynical humor:
“And Frycollin,” said Phil Evans, “have we the right to dispose of his life?”

“He must die with the others,” responded Uncle Prudent.

Frycollin would doubtless have styled this reasoning defective.
Really, ya' think?

The Albatross is an irresistibly cool invention, however. It's an ideal example of how Verne could foreshadow the technology of the future, and yet create a strange and uniquely Victorian rendition of it that retains its charm long after the innovations have become commonplace. Most of Verne's "scientific marvels" are speciously uninteresting today: an airplane, a submarine, a rocket to the Moon, a fast boat. But his sense of awe in these inventions and their period idiosyncrasies still can inflame the imagination. The Albatross is a massive ship shaped like an aquatic clipper made from hydraulically pressurized paper (?) that keeps afloat by masts topped with propellers both above and below, and is powered on an electric turbine. Robur can send it down from the clouds close enough to harpoon a whale or disrupt a savage sacrificial ceremony. Verne explains all this in detail in a chapter hilariously titled: "A Chapter Which Both Scientists and Dunces Had Better Omit." Because it won't make sense to either. For the rest of us, it sounds nifty and we'll just go with it.

What exactly Robur plans to do with the power that his magisterial galley bestows on him isn't made clear, but perhaps that will wait until the sequel, Master of the World, written almost twenty years later. Here Verne leaves Robur as a symbol of science too advanced for the minds of the day to grasp, both the promise of the future and the menace of the future:
“My experiment is premature. Science should not precede the mental capacities of the times. There should be evolution, not revolution. I have come too soon and find that the time is not yet ripe for my work. I therefore take my leave of you, and I bear my secret with me. But it will not be lost to humanity. It will be found when the world is wise enough to profit by it and prudent enough never to abuse it.”
* * *
The future of aerial locomotion belongs to the air-ship and not to the balloon, and it is for the Albatross that the conquest of the air is definitely reserved.
Once again, Verne was dead-on in his prediction. (Goodyear Blimp excepted, of course.)