15 January 2008

Why so much Jules Verne

Welcome to the All-Jules Verne, All the Time blog.

No, not really, but you might wonder at the preponderance of posts about M. Verne that have cropped up at the beginning of the year. I’m on a bit of a Verne-reading binge right now to inaugurate my official 2008 Reading Season, but there’s more to my blog’s current “Vernicity” right now than just that. There’s some philosophy behind it as well.

Almost everyone has read Jules Verne at some point; he’s easily the most read French author in English, and probably around the world. You did a book report on him in sixth grade, I know you did. You’ve seen the Walt Disney 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. You know that he’s one of the three “Fathers” of science fiction. (Can you name the other two?*) and had a monumental impact on the genre.

But I think that Verne is also an author that we take for granted, and it’s probably because the last time most folks picked up one of his books was in elementary or middle school. There’s a tendency to think of Verne as a children’s author. Because he was a progenitor of a major popular genre, people also tend to see him as a gateway to more mature work. Once you’ve got Verne out of the way, you can “get on” with the science fiction that followed him, and you don’t come back to him or explore his non-genre work.

Children do often enjoy Verne, and it’s wonderful that a French Victorian writer of travelogue novels has such appeal to the young. But that doesn’t make Verne specifically a children’s author. And his work is not lesser because it was the first of its kind. The style of the Victorian novel is long out-of-fashion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t comparable on the level playing field of literature. In fact, Verne’s more ‘quaint’ techniques, like using an authorial third person voice and halting the story to give a lecture about tropical fish or the fascinating religious customs of an African nation, have a tremendous appeal to me because they could not be done today without painful irony and critics screaming “infodump!” (the hobgoblin of all SF workshops). Reading one of Verne’s infodump chapters is a thrilling experience, much like listening to a chummy and friendly high school teacher who knows how to make learning fun.

And that’s why I’m giving Verne plenty of love right now… he’s taken too much for granted in Western literature even though we know how superb he is and his importance to genre writing. Our culture embraces so much that’s mediocre and brain-dead, but we still read Jules Verne, and it would be great if we would acknowledge that occasionally and say, “This Jules bloke is one amazing entertainer.”

So skip tonight’s American Idol. Ephemeral pop, soon gone. Read some Jules Verne instead. You know you want to.

*H. G. Wells and publisher Hugo Gernsback. “Fathers of Science Fiction” isn’t an official designation of course, but these are the three most often mentioned.