Five Weeks in a Balloon – the lesser known of the Voyages Extraordinaire – was published in 1863. Beginning my reconnaissance into the genre of science fiction, I thought it only venerable and appropriate to start with the novels of the man coined one of, ‘The Fathers of Science Fiction’. To start with its primordial form makes it possible to realize the full evolution of the genre from its inception to its modern forms. (More to come on that in subsequent articles.)
As an interesting side notation, Jules Verne garnered significant disapproval from the French literary community during his lifetime. Verne was type-casted as a singular genre writer; his works unworthy of academic study. Verne was attempting a new type of adventure novel – a genre that literary critics claimed could not be done. He was also regarded as a children’s fiction writer, popularized because of the circulation of abridged reprints of his novels. Sadly, it was only posthumously that Verne received the recognition he deserved.
It is curious to wonder why his novels were type-cast as science fiction (or more accurately during that time, scientific). Especially since Verne did not associate his writings with the genre of science fiction, but rather consistently denied any scientific pretext in his stories.
It was ambiguous territory then, and also now for myself as I began reading. I was unaware of the requirements of science fiction novels. A science fiction buff eloquently put it as follows: science or technology, in some form, must be integral to the plot. Now, this is a broad definition, but for the intent of this article, it will suffice.
Through that lens, Five Weeks in a Balloon is indeed a science fiction novel if only by today’s standards and definitions. Verne had written about scientific inventions before they were ever fully realized in society. He wrote, with surprising accuracy, of the innovations of hot air balloons, space travel, submarines, airplanes, rocketry, Polar exploration, and African exploration. At the time of publication, little was known to Europe about the latter.
It would be crude not to mention his goal in his unconscious creation of the science fiction genre. He wanted to “depict the earth [and] at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style”. He wanted his readers to traverse the global terrain through his novels – a noble campaign indeed.
The style of Five Weeks in a Balloon is subtly tongue-in-cheek from sentence structure to chapter organization. I attribute run-on sentences as lending themselves to comic or ironic content. Something in the monotony and ridiculous repetitiveness of someone constantly rambling on-and-on-and-on that is inherently comical. Five Weeks in a Balloon is, fundamentally, a compilation of epic run-ons, with the occasional splash of structural variation for that resounding punch line.
We have always been cautioned against the excessive use of run-on sentences. I tip my hat to Verne for ignoring the stigma attached to run-ons. Run-on sentences, when used correctly, can be a powerful literary device. This novel is the best example I have seen yet. At no point did I feel that the long-winded run-ons distracted from the plot or the fluidity of my reading. However, what I did find terribly distracting was the amount of British vernacular and science-related words used. I found myself consistently cracking open my dictionary. Does anyone really know the difference between syenite and loam? Who knew ‘caleb’ is the Hebrew term for dog? Or that ‘grog’ is/was known as a very distinct and strong concoction of alcohol, popular among sailors. My point being, though distractive, I learned a great deal about that period in history. There is no real complaint from my end.
The other point I’d like to address is Verne’s controversial portrayal of the African Tribes. His depictions can be described in one of the two ways. To our politically correct modern society, the first description of Africans being ‘barbaric’ is jarring. His implications appear to be a product of old-world views of inferiority based on the caste system.
As for what Verne had to say about the novel was this: “I wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon, not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about Africa. I always was greatly interested in geography and travel, and I wanted to give a romantic description of Africa.”
The usage of the term ‘romantic’ gives me pause as to typecasting him as an old racist.
One such commentator suggested that the novel was a satire of African exploration and the ‘traveler’s tale’. I believe this second theory of portrayal to be the more likely candidate as to how Verne meant to convey Africa, according to his sentiments.
What the commentator indicated by the ‘traveler’s tale’ is a story of ludicrous occurrences (though rooted in truth) that becomes inevitably embellished for the entertainment and esteem of the ego. We are all guilty of hyperbole in some capacity; whether it is promoting your career in the most optimistic light for a judgmental family member, or exaggerating a courageous feat (a small fire became a conflagration where two children and four kittens were rescued from the eighth story of a building).
This theory lends itself to my interpretation of Verne’s very tongue-in-cheek style of writing. I am not discrediting the first theory; I am in fact merging them. His African characters were written in a prejudiced light though I do not believe this prejudice is reflective of Verne’s opinions or want of slandering the African race. It is more likely reflective of the view of the scientific communities of that era. Looking at this novel as a product of old-world views is doing literature an analytical discredit. When the emphasis is placed on how the prejudice was used as a literary device, this novel becomes a forebearer of modern thinking. The effect of this literary device is satire, and by satirization, the author is making a commentary on society; all these homeboys on their scientific high-horses are ridiculous, and bigots to boot.
The lesser known novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, does not disappoint. I recommend this book (and this author) to every science-fiction enthusiast, but also to those who aren’t. While major plot points are intrinsically scientific, it is, first and foremost, an entertaining read.