DISCLAIMER: There will be nothing about WWII in this post, though a certain kind of airman might be mentioned. Sorry, wrong great escape.
There are certain stories that we relegate to the kiddie library without really thinking what we’re doing. There are the typical toned-down Grimm’s tales that were made by adults for adults to contextualize their worlds. There are the Roald Dahl stories with only slight undertones of his creepier adult fiction. There are the much-edited mini-versions of classic tales: Frankenstein, Oliver Twist, Macbeth. One of the key ingredients to the acceptability of such stories for children is their unreality, whether or not they are based on actual events or could be.
One of the authors that directly disturbs this illusion of fantasy is Jules Verne. Ok, so we haven’t made it to the center of the Earth and discovered a whole new world full of weirdo people and strange dangers. But a submarine? We live on ’em. Around the world in 80 days? Way less, probably about 3. I’m guessing here though, and using commercial flights. Evidently his Paris in the Twentieth Century was fantastically accurate, but I haven’t read it. In fact, other than the three I’ve mentioned, I haven’t read any of his 55 ‘known’ full-length works. I couldn’t tell you what they’re about. But probably they give a depressingly accurate of the way our own advancement has trapped us in closer contact with each other and the broad world. We can’t downplay these as fantastical, and it’s hard to ignore the gloom and doom attitude even the most positive versions show.
Of course the most clear example is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Nemo is the bad guy of the tale in many ways, mostly because he’s living his dream, away from the tainted world of man. We identify with this. We want this, in a world that seems to press in against our personal freedoms and allows us few choices. Why else do so many intelligent young people switch professions or linger in higher education, seeking fulfilment? Why else are there so many wanderers across the now highly connected globe, seeking something else in a different place just over the horizon? Why the lust for adventure, for danger, for some montain-climbing, river-riding rush? We are looking for our measure, which is hard to find in a world with no barren places, no hidden corners to really explore.
As Verne struggled with this, as he struggled with the idea of the scientific mind as a means and a tool for such escape, I wonder if he actually came to any conclusions. Nemo dies, his dream failing. Fogg and Lindenbrock both achieve their goals, get some acclaim, and supposedly live happily ever after, but who really buys into that? As a scholar noted at a recent speech, “Verne is not intent on saving the world, but on creating a secondary world where he’s in command.” Isn’t that hat all writers do? It is enough?