Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm reading the odd genre classic from time to time in between more contemporary books. This one was enjoyable, though it definitely had its issues.

I got the edition I read from Amazon; it's part of a bundle of all Verne's books called The Collected Works of Jules Verne. It's been created by scanning a print edition, and has the usual issues that result when someone does that and doesn't give it a really thorough proofread. Usually it was clear enough what it should have said, but once or twice the distortion was bad enough that a sentence made no sense.

The text itself was surprisingly amusing. The narrator, Axel, is the nephew of a professor of geology who discovers a reference in a sixteenth-century manuscript to a passage to the centre of the earth which starts in an Icelandic volcano. The professor holds to a minority view of the earth's structure which doesn't include a high-temperature core, so he equips an expedition and drags his reluctant nephew along on it.

The characters are well-drawn: the obsessive, impatient, inadequately risk-averse professor; the anxious, excessively risk-averse Axel; the completely imperturbable and laconic Hans, an Icelandic hunter who accompanies the other two. Their interactions are enjoyable and believable.

The science, sadly, is not, and is inaccurate even for the time (as the translator takes pleasure in pointing out in footnotes). Verne plays extremely fast and loose with scientific fact, despite his Professor's declaration: "Science, my lad, has been built on many errors, but they are errors which it was good to fall into, for they led to the truth". He even (according to the translator) gets things like distances between places wrong, and exaggerates other key numbers. This would be more forgiveable if there were fewer long passages of sciencebabble breaking up the action.

There are also what I can only call continuity errors, like the 10th of July apparently occurring before the 6th and 7th. At one point the longest rope is, if I remember rightly, 200 feet long, and later they have a rope that's 200 fathoms (a fathom being six feet).

The logistics are also dubious. Three men manage to carry an incredible amount of gear, including more than four months' supply of food.

Finally, the narrator is not really a protagonist. He's carried along in his uncle's wake, pining for his fiancee (his uncle's ward, whose role is mainly to be pined for, though she is described as intelligent at least), and never really makes a decision for himself and carries it through. The final rescue that returns them to the surface occurs through a thoroughly unlikely sequence of events and entirely out of good luck, despite rather than because of anything the characters do.

I should also mention a nasty piece of racism, not in Verne's text but in one of the translator's notes, in which he explains a passing reference to measuring the angles of a skull and states that the facial angles of black people "and the lowest savages" show that their intelligence is less than that of whites.

So, plenty of issues. Still mostly an enjoyable read, for what it is: a nineteenth-century genre work which isn't among the best even of its author's.

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