I have meant to read some Jules Verne for many years, because his books are classics (though they were intended more for boys, originally). In the latter half of the 1800s, Verne wrote prolifically on his Voyages Extraordinaires series (he was French) and those fifty-four novels (and novellas) include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, and—what I just read—Journey to the Center of the Earth. These adventure stories earned him the (sometimes) title of the father of science fiction. And while he wrote as a playwright, poet, etc. as well, it’s these adventure books that endure, continuing to capture the imagination even today, though more often through movie versions of these pretty outdated books.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is old-fashioned, that’s for sure. It’s not just that people before our current times had better attention spans (though they did) or that they didn’t have similar tastes to our own; it’s also that they had limited options for entertainment and edification and, most importantly, they had very little to fill their leisure time or together time with. If you had a copy of one of Verne’s books back in the day, you might read it aloud in the evening to your family for nights on end, savoring each word and each twist of the story… and then you would use your imagination as a complement to the story. The point is, by today’s standards Journey is a little slow, strange, meandering, and calm, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t inspire generations of kids and even adults or that it didn’t inspire writers to come away bearing future-books in their lit-up minds (which then inspired other books, etc.). But give this novella to a middle grades kid these days, and you will likely found it unread and covered in dust-bunnies when you journey to the underside of their bed, someday (oh, brave and worthy explorer!).
The language is cumbersome to modern people, for one, but it’s not too crazy. I was surprised that I lol-ed throughout this book, though mostly in the first third or so. The narrating character is sarcastic and an excellent foil to the wacky, needlessly optimistic Professor Lidenbrock, and his comments and thoughts about things are often hilarious. But then the pacing gets in the way. I could not believe it when I was more than half way through the book and—surprise!—no one had taken one, measly step below the Earth’s uppermost crust. Not. One. Centimeter. And as it took longer and longer and longer to get anywhere, I became confused. I was holding a novella (at 155 pages) and how was I going to explore if I wasn’t going to arrive until the last chapter? Wasn’t that the point of this book? The adventures in the center of the earth? Nope. Apparently it is more aptly named than I gave it credit for: this is a journey TO the center of the earth. Deal with it.
There were other oddities about the pacing. Sometimes the story lingers too long on thoughts or a random scene or scientific factoids, but it rarely stands back and paints a picture and does very little to mine the characters in any depth, which I guess fits with the whole classic adventure thing. Also, through the time we spend with the narrating character, I found him to be inconsistent and eventually just obnoxious and neurotic, decreasingly wry or funny. It’s the voice, I think, with the pacing. Verne doesn’t really develop characters or their relationships, so we are dependent on huge adventures and a sweeping, engaging world, neither of which are really driven home, here. Little scientists—especially geologists—might find this book interesting just for all the enthusiasm and contemplation of that, but would also, I’m sure, find some of it outdated and perhaps confuse fact with fiction (or I’m underestimating the intelligence of these kids and readers. Could be). In the end, too, the adventure takes the strangest turns (and I mean that in a bad way) and I felt whiplashed, like wait, what? Did we just come all the way here for that? Did we just do so many ca-razy things to react to the greatest adventure like that? And then it ends like that? What the heck?
Though I can appreciate some things, like the imagination that brought so many of us humans down into the bowels of the earth, mixing science with fantasy in order to explode both the imagination and the wonder of the natural world. The reason I picked up Journey right now is that I have written a Hollow Earth book and I wanted to see what had already been done to this topic, across time. What is the tradition, here? Verne doesn’t use the term Hollow Earth in his book and he is not the originator of the idea (which came from more than one ancient tradition), but he did contribute in an important way to how modern culture interacts with this fantastical concept. What I can’t appreciate is the classism, ethnocentrism, and sexism that sits just below the surface of some of the scenes. I mean, the female character is talented, brave, blah-blah-blah, but duh she’s got to sit at home and fill her sole role as the source of Axel’s infatuation so that he’ll want to come home. And several random scenes are awkward as butt about servants, etc. One of the three main characters is this hulking, peasant brute who is a combination of strength and zen with codependency and brainlessness that hearkens back to the attitudes of the days of the transatlantic slave trade and arguments given to justify such practices. While not much is overt (and is aimed largely at the lower-socioeconomic and less-educated agrarian people of Iceland), it is there. Oh, historical context. Be forewarned.
In case you don’t know (I didn’t, really, somewhat because the newer movies don’t really follow the original plot line from what I can remember), Journey to the Center of the Earth is narrated by a teenage orphan, Axel. He has been raised in the quirky household of his even quirkier (and sometimes unpredictable to the point of hurtful) uncle, Prof Lidenbrock. A Frenchman in Germany, he is a genius who is also frequently a laughingstock. Meanwhile, his nephew, who has some intelligence but not genius, is apprenticing with him. And somehow this uncle also ended up raising a girl of about the same age as Axel. She is perhaps the genius and the adventurer here, but she is shunted to the background because she is a girl, and we barely see her except as the motivation for Axel. (There’s a historical fiction book here; I know it: Left Behind on the Crust of the Earth. I kid about the title, but not the story.) Lidenbrock discovers some strange writing in an ancient book and—despite Axel’s immediate panic and all the energy he will put in during the whole book to stop the foolhardy journey—Lidenbrock whisks Axel and a local tour guide (such as it was) across Europe and down into the crater of an extinct volcano in search of the center of the earth. A few things happen along the way, mostly explorers in peril and Axel trying to convince Lidenbrock to turn around and the servant (Hans) shuffling along like a pack mule who clearly utilizes some breathing techniques.
So would I recommend it? It’s a pretty quick read, but not as quick as you might think because of the slowness of the plot and the dullness of all the old, scientific musings (and maybe a little the language). Also, there isn’t enough world-building or character development to pull you in. Despite that, it’s a classic that might get the juices flowing, so who’s to say? And you should laugh. I kinda feel like this book will fall into the far background of the literary landscape in the next few decades, but I have been wrong before. It’s fine. I’ll still be checking out a couple other of Verne’s adventure stories at some point. And no, my book isn’t really anything like Journey to the Center of the Earth, so big sigh of relief.
“’All the theories say so?’ replied the professor good-humoredly. ‘Ah! Those tiresome theories! How they hamper us, those poor theories!’” (p21).
“’This is what I settle,’ replied Professor Lidenbrock, mounting the high horse; ‘that neither you, nor anyone else, knows anything certain that is going on in the center of the earth, seeing that we scarcely know the 12,000th part of its radius, that science is eminently perfectible, and that each theory has constantly to give way to a fresh one’” (p21).
“’Enough. When science has spoken, it is for us to hold our peace’” (p54).
“’You have only a few hours to try your fortune, so let us start at once’” (p78).
“I could not but think what riches are hid in the depths of the earth, which covetous humanity will never appropriate” (pp78-79).
“…facts, as usual, give the lie to theories” (p87).
“External objects have an actual influence on the brain” (p89).
“’Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes; but of mistakes which lead to the discovery of truth’” (p105).
“…however vast the wonders of nature, they are always referable to physical causes” (p127).
“’Uncle,’ said I, ‘when that bit of meat is gone, what have we?’ / ‘Nothing, Axel, nothing. But what good does it do you to devour it with your eyes?’” (p144).