Monday, April 13, 2015


Though like most fantasy-fans I've been entertained by the films based on the works of Jules Verne, I've been somewhat more ambivalent about the author's fiction. I have sampled more of his oeuvre than many modern readers, largely the "usual suspects" like JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, though I also have sampled some obscurities like OFF ON A COMET and THE CARPATHIAN CASTLE. But I had never come across the two novels that gave rise to his character Robur the Conqueror, entitled ROBUR THE CONQUEROR and MASTER OF THE WORLD. Elements from these novels were used in their most famous cinematic adaptation, 1961's MASTER OF THE WORLD, starring the redoubtable Vincent Price.

Recently I was able to correct that situation, as I came across an Ace combination of both novels, originally issued to take advantage of the then-current movie.  I crossed my fingers before reading them, for although I'd enjoyed some sections of both LEAGUES and EARTH when I recently re-read them, I found that Verne's tended to be over-indulgent with his copious research of places and physical phenomena, often at the expense of his characters.

The first of the two novels, "Robur" (published 1886), was a heady surprise. Verne starts slow, with a lot of detail about the state of manned flight-craft in his era, and introduces a whole society of balloon-specialists. Two members of this society, young hero Evans and his mentor Uncle Prudent, become the novel's heroes as they encounter the arrogant engineer Robur, who predicts that "heavier-than-air" flight will soon eclipse the "lighter-than-air" type. When the balloonists reject his claim, Robur kidnaps both men and their Negro valet (more on whom later). He takes them aboard his fantastic craft, the Albatross, and shows them how easily he can confound the military resources of every nation by simply sailing beyond their reach.

Verne is never great with characterization, so it's not clear what Robur gains from the kidnapping beyond a big "told you so," nor is it clear as to why he wants to keep the three men prisoners once he's accomplished this. Robur is clearly in the mold of Verne's earlier Captain Nemo, but Robur is more arrogant, in contrast to the way Nemo is mostly minding his own business when he's forced to take Professor Arronax and his companions aboard the Nautilus. While Nemo and Arronax enjoy each other's company as men of science, Robur does not socialize with his captives, though Verne may have meant to suggest that down deep, Robur wanted from them some validation of his accomplishment. Yet the fact that Evans and Prudent are unremittingly hostile toward Robur endows the novel with more tension than I found in LEAGUES: I read ROBUR with the same excitement I get from the best adventure-pulp.

Robur is in some ways a more compelling character than moody Captain Nemo, but unfortunately he's also more inconsistent. Sometimes he goes about mocking the authority of the European countries, but he also goes out of his way to prevent an African tribe committing a mass ritual murder of several innocent subjects. Evans and Prudent succeed in escaping the Albatross, and they also damage it with an explosive charge. However, when the two men and their crew are in danger during the test-flight of one of their balloons, Robur brings in the Albatross to rescue his rebellious guests, and then sets them free. He then issues another mocking declaration of the inevitable superiority of "heavier-than-air" flight, and vanishes into the sky. It's as if Robur, like his author, was just keeping Evans and Prudent in his company just to build tension, when his long-range aim was actually to catch the balloonists in an embarrassing situation, the better to prove publicly the superiority of his concept-- and indeed, the last we hear of the novel's protagonists is that the citizens of the U.S. are mocking them for their craft's failure.

MASTER OF THE WORLD (1904) lacks any of the virtues of the previous novel. Wikipedia notes that Verne's health was failing when he wrote MASTER, and indeed he passed in 1905, so one can understand if this was something less than a triumph.

However, this doesn't make MASTER any more fun to read. It's outrageously padded with tourist-like descriptions as the protagonist John Strock investigated strange phenomena in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Strock eventually finds out that Robur has holed up in one of the mountains while perfecting a new device: a triple-threat vehicle, "The Terror," which can convert from an air-craft to a land-vehicle to a submersible. Toward the short novel's end Robur captures Strock but never gives any reason as to why he chose to convert his Albatross into this new "Transformer-style" vehicle. Whereas a character named John Strock is instrumental to Robur's defeat in the 1961 film, here Verne takes the lazy way out and has Robur's craft struck by lightning. Strock survives the debacle but Robur's body is never found in his miracle-craft's wreckage.

I said that I would comment on Verne's character of Uncle Prudent's Negro valet, who goes by the name "Frycollin." I haven't read enough Verne to know of his general attitude toward characters of color, but Frycollin has got to be one of the worst minstrel-show Negroes of all time. In my commentary on the first two Tarzan books, I remarked that although Edgar Rice Burroughs was somewhat ambivalent on African Blacks, he found it expedient to heap cruel humor on a Black African-American character, a maid named Esmerelda. But at least once or twice Esmerelda seems like a human being, while Frycollin is just a concatenation of every minstrel-show trope in existence: he's witless, he eats like a pig, and he's a complete coward-- so much so that even when Prudent and Evans lay plans to escape, they know they can't confide in Frycollin or he'd reveal their plans, either out of stupidity or cowardice.  For that matter, given the unimaginative way Verne uses the tropes, I can't imagine them being even modestly funny to those who like racist humor.

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