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The speculative fiction of Jules Verne

Updated on September 3, 2014

Personal life and heritage

Verne lived like a recluse and this great inventor of fantastic voyages rarely travelled. Apparently the pioneer delineator of air travel made a single balloon ascent from the provincial city of Amiens where he lived for the last 33 years of his life until his death in 1905.

His preferred mode of transport was his imagination and was essentially fascinated by the possibilities opened by the scientific advances of his era. By projecting forward he was able to conjure remarkably far sighted visions of the future.

He subsequently helped to inspire genuine pioneers like Charles William Beebe, the American ocean explorer who reached a depth of 3028 feet (923m) in a bathysphere in 1934. He was evidently a great admirer of Verne’s 1870 novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. There was Admiral Richard Byrd, who claimed to have made his first flight over the North Pole in 1926 who said, “It is Jules Verne who guides me here.”

Jules Verne predicts the future

Verne has quite an extensive list of predictions and some of them are yet to be realized. His first novel “Five Weeks in a Balloon” which was published in 1863 was essentially inspired by the potential of flight. His “The Clipper of the Clouds”, published in 1886, heavier-than-air machines were utilized and its hero not only successfully builds one, he also devises another machine that can travel with equal ease on air, land and water. The ocean-going submarine in the “Nautilus” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” was imagined decades before the technology existed to make such a reality and a century before the emergence of the first nuclear-powered submarines.

Further innovations include members of a town council communicating with each other from home by a system suggestive of both the telex and e-mail. He envisioned elevators and moving walkways and described air conditioned skyscrapers 980 feet (300m) high in which the “temperature was always equable”. He also prefigured future technology-driven plot devices, in his novel “The Brothers Kip” (1902), a murder is solved by massively enlarging a detail of a photograph. This was subsequently revealed 65 years later in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s celebrated film “Blow-Up”.

His most remarkable predictive success came with his third novel, “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865) and its successor “Round the Moon” published five years later. This account came much closer to the realities of the 1969 Apollo II flit than anything his predecessors had managed. Verne imagined the moon shot started from Tampa, Florida less than 125 miles (200 km) from Cape Kennedy, where the Apollo lift-off occurred. He correctly visualized rockets being used to shift the craft in and out of lunar orbit. This was almost four decades before the Wright brothers had made the first powered flight! The spacecraft had also splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on its return to earth. Verne also calculated that the travelers reached the moon in 97 hours and 13 minutes where as the Apollo 11 astronauts took 97 hours and 39 minutes.

His imagination was, however, ultimately bound by the technological limitations of his time. For example, his spacecraft was a projectile fired from the barrel of a 900 foot (275 m) long gun and his astronauts travelled in smoking jackets and took along two dogs for company.

Toward the end of his career

Verne became more concerned with the misuse of technology during this period. In the “Propeller Island” and the posthumously published “The Borsac Misiion” he imagined totalitarian worlds in which technology was used not to liberate people but to enslave them. Fragmentation bombs, remote-control drones and electric torture instruments were common themes though but just as relevant as those in his idealistic mode.


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