Saturday, May 26, 2012

Review: A Journey to the Center of the Earth


The best of science fiction starts with contemporary scientific ideas and asks, “What if?”  Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are some of the greats when it comes to historical science fiction novels.  Surely you’ve heard of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days (Verne), The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds (Wells)?  With some exceptions – The War of the Worlds the most notable – their novels aren’t concerned with aliens and space travel, like a lot of modern-day science fiction authors.  Instead, they ask questions about the world in which we live.  Starting with the science of their day, these authors asked “What if?” and explored questions of geography, geology, oceanography, time, optics, ecology, natural selection, microbiology, and more.  Many of these books feature fantastical journeys in which the characters experience some possible answers to these questions firsthand.  The fact that these books’ prose is relatively unelegant is beside the point: these books helped to shape not only future science fiction, but also future scientific endeavors, and they are now a collective part of the Western psyche.  They have been adapted and referenced in countless cultural works.  And sadly, like most people, I am familiar with these works only through these cultural references.  I intend to read all of six most famous (listed above).

I picked up a copy of Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth at a fantastic used bookstore in the airport (how often do those appear these days??) on my way back from a trip out to Duke to meet the music department.  It’s a good thing I did – I finished D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the plane and was glad to have another book for the rest of the flight.  Somehow, it got set aside when I got home, and I’ve only recently returned to it and finished the novel.

As I mentioned, it doesn’t have the most elegant prose.  In fact, I would venture to say that compared to some of the great literature I’ve been reading lately, it’s quite poorly written.  The focus in this novel is on the story, not on how it was told.  And what a story!  Completely fantastical.  There are so many aspects of physics that Verne gets wrong.  It makes me wonder, though: what was the state of the field of physics when he wrote it?  I think it would be fascinating to research the relationship of science to science fiction at this point in history.  What aspects of science did these fiction authors get right?  What ideas that they thought they were completely making up turned out to be true?  What wrong ideas sparked further investigation by real-life scientists?  As the novel writes, ““Science – great, mighty, and in the end unerring,” replied my uncle, dogmatically, “science has fallen into many errors – errors which have been fortunate and useful, rather than otherwise, for they have been the stepping-stones to truth”” (233).

In this novel, Harry (the narrator) and his geologist uncle, Professor Hardwigg, undertake a journey deep into the earth after finding a note from a sixteenth-century alchemist reading: “Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the calends of July, audacious traveler, and you will reach the center of the earth.  I did it.  Arne Saknussemm”  Professor Hardwigg cannot pass up the lure of adventure, the possibility of success and academic fame, and so, despite his nephew’s sensible protests, demands that the pair descend into the Icelandic volcano, accompanied by an eider-duck hunter named Hans and vast quantities of supplies.  The brave trio faces labyrinthine tunnels, thirst and starvation, imagined psychological terrors, and the perils of rock, water, heat, sea, and storms in their quest.

Harry’s passivity baffled me.  At nearly every step, he makes it known to his readers how little he wishes to continue on the journey, and his fears that they cannot succeed and will never return to the surface of the earth, where his fiancée is waiting.  And yet, Harry obeyed his determined uncle’s every demand to continue.  “I was fairly launched on a desperate course,” he wrote, “and all I had to do was to go forward hopefully and trustingly” (123).  The subliminally tempestuous relationship between these two men kept the story absorbing, even when several chapters are spent retracing their steps when their chosen course reaches a dead end.  Despite his fear, Harry is constantly amazed by the wonders discovered in the interior of the earth.  He finds beauty in his surroundings, and surprise and wonder in the instrument readings and even prehistoric bones that prove or disprove current scientific ideas.

In contrast, Professor Hardwigg’s motivation is purely selfish.  His single-minded focus on the task to be accomplished creates (pun intended) a tunnel vision that prevents him from admiring any of their discoveries.  After coming upon a vast inland sea, which Harry calls a “magnificent spectacle,” one “worth the whole journey to have enjoyed,” his uncle responds, “I care nothing about seeing, nor about magnificent spectacles.  I came down into the interior of the earth with an object, and that object I mean to attain.  Don’t talk to me about admiring scenery, or any other sentimental trash” (253).  I can’t help thinking that Professor Hardwigg is neither a good scientist nor a good teacher!  Blinded to questions of science, he is a single-minded traveler who cannot find satisfaction in anything but the completion of his quest and is indignant at the thought that anything might hold him back.  He represents the eternal struggle between man and nature.  Will human ingenuity and stubbornness, aided by tools, be able to overcome the implacable indifference of the elements?  In response to an extreme setback, Hardwigg says grimly, “So, fatality will play me these terrible tricks.  The elements themselves conspire to overwhelm me with mortification.  Air, fire, and water combine their united efforts to oppose my passage.  Well, they shall see what the earnest will of a determined man can do.  I will not yield.  I will not retreat even one inch, and we shall see who shall triumph in this great contest – man or nature” (295).

The theme of light and darkness is pervasive, both in a physical and metaphorical sense.  The group often struggles to make their surroundings lit.  Harry is careful to detail all uses of lanterns, torches, and an ingenious light-creating device called a Ruhmkorf’s coil.  In several instances, the electrical properties of the rocks themselves create light – sometimes so much light, in fact, that all shadows are dispelled.  In another case, Harry finds himself lost, and with no source of light to guide him back to his uncle and Hans, Harry gives himself up for dead.  The emphasis on light echoes the scientific search for knowledge that this novel embodies.  At several moments, Harry and his uncle make discoveries that would completely overturn the scientific world, if and when the pair survives to relate them.  For all the questions answered during the course of their quest, even more arise.  Isn’t this the way of all academic inquiry?  But Harry remains confident that in time, all questions can be answered: “This lucid explanation of the phenomena we had witnessed appeared to me quite satisfactory.  However great and mighty the marvels of nature may seem to us, they are always to be explained by physical reasons.  Everything is subordinate to some great law of nature” (299).

You may be wondering how this trio of intrepid adventurers expected to get back to the earth’s surface.  I did too!  At times, their return by the same route seems impossible.  And yet, Harry stresses that his narration takes place after the journey has concluded.  As the group descended deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth, I constantly wondered how the novel could end.  I won’t spoil it for you here, but I will tease you with the fact that Verne invented quite a clever (if not entirely believable) conclusion.

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