Written by Kat Jivkova
Jules Verne’s novels have long been considered quintessential works in the development of modern science fiction. A French novelist in the nineteenth century, Verne has since become one of the most influential authors of all time, his writings ranking the second most translated in the world at present (Agatha Christie holding first place). His corpus of literature, which collectively make up the Voyages Extraordinaires series, address the possibilities of change and progress in the nineteenth century, as scientific innovation sky-rocketed throughout Europe. However, the perception of Verne as the father of science fiction is incorrect. His writings, following the Realist tradition, were so scientifically accurate that they cannot be considered science fiction, but scientific fiction. The difference between the two lies in the way that science is used in the structure of the text – while science fiction uses science, often pseudoscience, as a tool to drive along its story, scientific fiction uses its story to disseminate factual scientific knowledge to a wide readership. Verne’s novels did not include spaceships, time travel or magical superpowers; they were based on the real sciences of physics, astronomy, chemistry, geography, and zoology. In revealing various examples of scientific accuracy in Verne’s stories, this popular misconception will be further challenged.
Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea offers important insights into the subject of chemistry. Published in 1870, it tells the story of a sea creature that has been spotted in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. French scientist Professor Aronnax and his servant, Conseil, lead an expedition to hunt the creature down, but are quickly thrown overboard and find themselves in the submarine of Captain Nemo. Aronnax tries to explain the ability of Nemo’s submarine in maintaining air quality through chemistry:
“How would the commander of this floating dwelling proceed? Would he obtain air by chemical means, in getting by heat the oxygen contained in chlorate of potass [potassium chlorate], and in absorbing carbonic acid by caustic potash [potassium hydroxide]?”
In other words, he believes that a combination of heat and potassium chlorate will generate oxygen. Instead, Nemo’s submarine replenishes its air supply by resurfacing above water, however this chemical observation is nonetheless interesting. Another instance in which Verne digresses on chemistry is when explaining how the submarine is powered. Nemo explains that the power source of the submarine is chemical storage batteries – this coincides with the period in which Verne was writing, the 1870s, when electricity was viewed as the power source of the future. Three types of chemical storage batteries had been developed in the nineteenth century: the Grove cell in 1839, the Bunsen cell in 1841 and the bichromate cell in the same year. These cells, however, used different reduction processes to Nemo’s submarine, which used sodium metal as opposed to zinc “since their motive force is twice that of zinc batteries.” Verne’s estimated value for the relative strength of the submarine’s cell is notably very similar to that of the bichromate cell, suggesting that he held impressive knowledge of electrochemistry.
Verne’s sequel novel, The Mysterious Island, also incorporates chemistry into its writing. Set in the period of the American Civil War, a group of prisoners escape a Confederate prison and are blown onto Captain Nemo’s island. The novel provides commendable descriptions of the decomposition of limestone on the island, mineralogical discoveries and the construction of an electric telegraph using chemical batteries once again. It is clear from both novels that Verne believes electricity to be the best power source and constantly favours its use. He also condemns the use of fossil fuels several times in the novel, suggesting that increasing demands of coal will soon begin to impede the advance of science. Cyrus Harding, engineer and the protagonist of the novel, suggests that coal will be replaced in the future with water:
“I believe that when the deposits of coal are exhausted, we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future”
Even in present times, coal remains the largest source of electricity generation, therefore the future that Verne describes here through Harding is even more distant than he realised. However, he predicts the rise of water as a source of energy that is now currently a popular method – the process of water-splitting produces hydrogen that is used to generate electricity. Verne’s awareness of the possibility of a shortage of coal, and the prospect of water as an alternative power source, is incredibly hard-hitting and emphasises the realism that is present in The Mysterious Island.
Another example in which scientific accuracy is very obvious is in Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Its publication came seven years after Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and has become arguably the most famous of his novels. The story centres around German scientist Professor Otto Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel, who navigate the inside of an Icelandic volcano with the help of their guide, Hans Bjelke. They discover an underground world beneath the volcano, and Verne provides extensive descriptions of the geological and paleontological elements that exist there. The group manages to escape from the centre of the earth and wind up on a volcanic island in Sicily, thereafter enjoying acclaim for their discovery. Journey encapsulated a growing scientific investigation in the nineteenth century over what truly lay at Earth’s core in an accessible and somewhat absurd manner. The underground world that Otto and Axel find themselves in is so nonsensical that it is difficult to imagine that it has any scientific accuracy – however, it very much does. For example, Verne uses Humphry Davy’s theory of volcanoes throughout the entire novel to substantiate his story. When Axel fears that he will be burned inside the volcano, Verne refers to Davy’s geochemistry to explain why the characters will not experience elevated temperatures as they descend the volcano. Davy had hypothesized that volcanoes erupted due to the reaction between water permeating the surface cracks of the volcanic surface, and the alkaline metals existed just beneath the surface. The character of Lidenbrock explains this very theory in the sixth chapter:
“The Earth heated up through combustion on its surface, not from any other cause. The surface was composed of a great quantity of metals such as potassium and sodium, which have the property of catching fire as soon as they are in contact with air and water.”
Thus, Verne’s assumption in Journey that the Earth’s core does not provide central planetary heat is derived from real theories of volcanic formation and have gone even further to suggest that this can allow humans to reach the centre of the earth without boiling to death.
The paleontological aspect of Journey can be seen when Lidenbrock and Axel reach the core. Here, they encounter many fossils of plants and organisms: a number of prehistoric flora organised in stratigraphical order, the bones of Tertiary elephants, and even the remains of a mummified prehistoric man. Therefore, Verne briefly explores ideas of fossilisation, natural history, and human-primate evolution in his description of the centre of Earth. A visual representation of what Verne is referring to can be seen in the 2008 film by the same name, starring Brendan Fraser and Josh Hutcherson, which offers a great image of what Verne believed to be at Earth’s core.
There are times, however, when Verne’s novels are not as scientifically accurate, specifically in the realms of astronomy. Several examples of this are as follows: In his 1865 novel Around the Moon, he uses the incorrect theory of astronomer Frederic Petit which suggested that a meteor could potentially be the “second satellite of Earth”; His Chase of the Golden Meteor of 1908 described orbital patterns of asteroids that did not coincide with Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion; and Verne once again contradicts Kepler’s laws in Off on a Comet by describing the orbital period of a comet travelling across Venus and Jupiter with incorrect figures. All these mistakes are more of an attack of the ever-changing astronomical theories at the time that Verne, who was not formally learned in science, undoubtedly would have struggled to keep up with. His references to astronomy nevertheless emphasise Verne’s admiration for the field and for astronomers themselves, who he describes as “more than human, since he lives away from the Earth.”
Through these instances of scientific accuracy in Jules Verne’s novel, a new literary tradition can be identified that is entirely separate from science fiction. Verne was not interested in writing stories. He was interested in popularising science within fiction without compromising its accuracy. He was also interested in making science more accessible to the nineteenth century world by combining it with storytelling. This genre of writing is perhaps even more imaginative than science fiction itself, creating sometimes absurd stories, and yet still managing to contextualise them in a realistic scientific tradition. With this in mind, Verne cannot be seen as a pioneer of science fiction, but rather scientific fiction. The legacy of Vernean science should ultimately be understood in terms of redefining what the boundaries between literature and science were at the time.
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Evans, Arthur B. “Science Fiction Vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné (La Science-Fiction Contre La Fiction Scientifique En France; De Jules Verne à J.-H. Rosny Aìné).” Science-fiction studies 15, no. 1 (1988): 1–11.
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Feature image credit: An illustration from the novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne painted by Édouard Riou. http://jv.gilead.org.il/rpaul/Voyage%20au%20centre%20de%20la%20terre/. Used under fair use policy.