Thursday, February 28, 2013

Raiding the Stacks: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne

Well it's the last week of the month again, so that means I dig into the old and dusty public domain books to find something to talk about. This time I return to the works of Jules Verne and his fairly short novel, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is exactly what it says on the tin. There are some people, and they take a journey to the center of the Earth. As it's been mentioned on Wikipedia, this book really does not work as well as some of Verne's other stories. In the case of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Verne imagined a lot of what a modern submarine might look like with its electric appliances. In the case of Journey to the Center of the Earth the story relies on geological hypotheses which are definitively proven incorrect today and so it makes for a rather unbelievable story. As a work of science fiction, ignoring the inaccuracies, I am not sure if this story is strong enough to endure.

The story follows the adventures of Professor Lidenbrock, a renown German geologist who has obtained a note from an Icelandic alchemist of the sixteenth century who claims to have gone to the center of the world through an extinct volcano in Iceland. Taken along with Professor Lidenbrock is his nephew, Axel, and their Icelandic guide, Hans. (I should point out that in my translation Professor Lidenbrock's name to Professor Hardwigg and Axel's name to Harry.) Despite Axel fully expecting them to encounter terrific heat as they delve into the depths of the earth, they find countless tunnels and galleries which are all at a very comfortable temperature. Eventually they even find an entire ocean over a hundred miles beneath the surface of the earth and evidence that a number of creatures from previous time periods may still exist in the bowels of the earth.

This book is definitely a work from Verne. There are a couple of almost fanboy-glee passages dedicated to the wonders of electricity and its superiority over gas and coal which is a very distinct Verne fingerprint in the stories I have read. Furthermore, a lot of the story seems to focus on the fantastic and almost impossible things that Professor Lidenbrock, Hans, and Axel encounter on their journeys. Several chapters are dedicated to the wonders of Iceland (which is a pretty cool place and I think I'd like to go someday) to the countless mineral treasures observed within the bowels of the earth. Verne even works in what was some cutting-edge paleontology in 1864 with a number of fossils, including human fossils discovered rather recently in Europe. While much of this is rather fascinating it bears the very distinct marks of being from the nineteenth century and suffers as a result.

First of all, the premise is, of course, fanciful at best now because we know beyond a doubt that the center of the earth is filled with lots of lava at thousands of degrees in temperature which is impossible for humans to breach. Hell, we haven't gotten further than about 1.2 kilometers into the earth's crust and that still leaves roughly another four kilometers to get to the mantle, at its thinnest point! Getting further within the earth appears to be simply impossible because temperature increases to a point where humans cannot survive. As a result, Verne's story looks rather foolish by comparison. In regards to Verne's foray into paleontology he is, once again, proven wrong by the advance of time and research. Unfortunately Verne constantly refers to the Great Flood, you know, the one in the Bible with Noah. The one that didn't happen. I understand that Verne is merely a product of his times when people, well a larger number of people, thought Genesis really happened, but when your entire understanding of geology and paleontology is dependent on separating time between before and after the great flood, it casts some serious doubts onto your understanding of the fields.

Among the other issues was a mention of a race of giants apparently thought to exist in the fossil record during the 1860's and the characters discovering one such member of the species during their adventures. I am not really sure where such ideas originated but obviously such humans never existed, at least according to our knowledge of today, besides which twelve foot high humans are impractical because of the square-cube law. Finally there was the problem with our characters' escape through a volcano with the description that they were surrounded by boiling water during their ascent. Aside from the fact that lava is, as I mentioned, thousands of degrees in temperature, but if our characters were exposed to temperatures very close to water's boiling point they would very definitely be dead. It is an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of Verne, but completely shatters any suspension of disbelief for the reader.

Ultimately I would advise passing this story up for my readers. It simply has not aged well and its scientific foundation is rocky at best. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is much better in comparison to how its research has stood the test of time and is probably the better of Verne's classics.

- Kalpar

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