Cannonball Read IV: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a science fiction/fantasy novel from 19th Century author Jules Verne. Our protagonist is Axel, the nephew of the acclaimed Professor Liedenbrock, who unwillingly breaks a code detailing directions to the center of the Earth. The Professor immediately drags them on an expedition to a slumbering volcano in Iceland, where their guide, Hans, will lead them down into the vast series of caverns beneath the Earth’s surface.
Filled with technical jargon and a love for debating the merits of translation, Journey to the Center of the Earth holds up better as a novel of defying expectations than a traditional work of science fiction. It’s a given that the assertions of another world hidden within the core of our own are preposterous on face value. Verne even acknowledges this again and again throughout the novel. In spite of this impossibility, the book compels you to keep reading.
One thing I found absolutely fascinating is how easily this could have turned into one of the first non-Gothic horror novels. Take, for instance, the chapters where the trio of explorers wander for days without enough water down a dead-end path thousands of feet under the earth.
In fact, we had to ration ourselves. Our provision of water could not last more than three days. I found that out for certain when supper-time came. And, to our sorrow, we had little reason to expect to find a spring in these transition beds.
The whole of the next day the gallery opened before us its endless arcades. We moved on almost without a word. Hans’ silence seemed to be infecting us.
A handful of times, the characters are driven to the brink of utter madness by the Professor’s refusal to return to a safer area. From scalding hot water sources to monstrous creatures battling each other, Verne pushes the characters into literally and metaphorically darker territory. The further they descend into the Earth’s crust, the further they remove themselves from reason. It becomes impossible for them to just turn around and leave their expedition because they no longer know a goal beyond finding the center of the Earth.
With the exception of the super-tidy ending, I liked Journey to the Center of the Earth quite a bit. It has this great sense of life and energy. Verne’s prose, translated from French by Professor Von Hardwigg, is beautiful. Long passages of scientific discourse read like melodies and the repeated punctuation of measurements-temperature, angle of descent, depth, and direction-become the earmarks of the novel. It’s a lovely piece of science fiction that transformed to pure fantasy once science conclusively proved Verne wrong.
(Header image by Wally Wood, for Bell Records audiobook LP.)
For more of Robert’s reviews, check out his blog, Sketchy Details.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
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