Off on a Comet
(Originally titled Hector Servadac)
By Jules Verne
Translated by Anonymous
Published by LibriVox
Read by Various
The title of this entry might not be entirely fair. Jules Verne was renowned for the meticulous and exacting research that he put into his stories to make sure they fit perfectly with scientific knowledge as it stood in his day. This worked quite well in his popular classics such as Mysterious Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Five Weeks in a Balloon. Unfortunately, he was definitely in over his head on this imaginary trip on a comet.
It is difficult to not compare Verne’s knowledge and understanding of comets and planetary physics to what we now know to be true. There were some rather eccentric notions being batted around in the Nineteenth Century about such things, but I believe it would be unfair to judge Verne’s science based on knowledge we have gained since then.
Where Verne fails in this book is, sadly, in his failure to work out many of the consequences of the conditions he posits in the story. For example, very early on Captain Servadac notices that while he might normally see over twenty miles at sea, now the horizon appears to only be six miles away. And yet this educated man never even considers the fact that maybe he is not on Earth any more. A little while later it is revealed that the local air pressure is roughly what should be expected at thirty-five thousand feet and no one is having trouble breathing. Instead, they are just breathing faster to make up for the lack of oxygen. Even if it is possible to survive such a sudden transition, it seems to me I would notice it before anything else… as I lie on the ground (or deck) panting for breath.
Also they do not seem to notice that the local gravity is 1/7th of Earth’s until the second half of the story and then it’s really only because they find that while walking up a steep hill it is no more difficult than walking across a level plain. Given the seas on the comet, apparently picked up along with a few bits and pieces of land and the thin atmosphere (not to mention a few dozen people) during a collision with Earth, I wonder if sailing in a wooden ship would even be possible. Would the vessels need more ballast just to stay in the water? And why aren’t they all jumping around the landscape like John Carter on Barsoom? Did our understanding of gravity change that much in the forty years between Verne’s Off on a Comet and Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars?
Another problem that I find hard to believe is that somehow this comet manages to pass closely by all the major planets and no one seems to think this is amazing. More modern writers are careful to point out that just because you are at Jupiter’s orbit from the sun, the odds that the big planet will be in the general neighborhood is slim unless you were aiming at it in the first place. But the story was a sort of travelogue of the Solar System so it would have been quite dull if there had been nothing to see wherever they went.
Okay, I can let some of the absurdities go. For instance Verne’s comet (Gallea) was, aside from the pieces picked up at random from Earth, composed of an alloy of tellurium and gold. Well, there were stranger theories about comets back then but I think the gold part was tossed in there to accentuate what turned out to be the worst controversy of the book.
Even with the first publication, there was outraged expressed about the blatant anti-Semitism represented by the character of Isac Hakhabut, a German-Jewish merchant, miser and usurer, and later revealed to be a very dishonest one as well. He is a classic racial stereotype feeding on hatred of and fostering the belief that all Jews are like this. I mean this caricature is so extreme that the Grand Nagus of Star Trek’s Ferengi Alliance would take one look at him and say, “Dude… chill!”
The two-dimensional stereotype is almost as insulting as his treatment at the hands of Servadac and his Algerian sidekick Ben Zoof. However, as distasteful as I find the Hakhabut character and his use in this story, I note that Verne’s ability to draw a three dimensional character is entirely non-existent in this story. In fact, every character is a common stereotype.
Servadac, being French is portrayed by Verne as wise and noble. Ben Zoof is a boot-licking lackey. The British officers Murphy and Oliphant are the archetypal British officers (as seen by those who do not like them, of course) being phlegmatic, territorial martinets with steel rods up their butts. And the Spanish are written off with, “Only give them a guitar and their castanets, and they will soon forget all care and anxiety.” So while some of the caricatures are more flattering than others, all of them insult the intelligence of the reader even as they insult the people being depicted.
I have read that it had originally been Verne’s plan to kill off the entire cast of character at the end, as evidenced by the fact that “Servadac” is actually the French word for “corpses” spelled backwards, but that the publisher did not like that ending, so instead Verne came up with the highly improbable (even to him, I suspect) and inconsistent solution that eventually saves them, without any adequate explanation.
So want to read Jules Verne? Might I suggest Around the World in Eighty Days?
I recently reviewed the LibriVox recording of H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking and I think my response was quite favorable. This time I find it rather difficult to sum up an actual quality rating as there were quite a few different readers. LibriVox runs on volunteer power although I had not realized that each chapter of a book is farmed out. In the case of Space Viking the entire book was read by the same person. This time some readers read several chapters, some only read one. The result was that some chapters were pretty good and others, not so much> it was also difficult to get into the story at first although later the inconsistency of readers was over-powered by the flaws in the actual book.
Even so, the book was free and I have heard worse from commercial publishers. The only flaws in the readings is that none of the readers had a sense of acting out the story so there was no vocal variance from one character to the next. This really is not as great a flaw as I make it sound and in sometimes, acting out a book totally ruins the performance when the reader makes entirely the wrong vocal choices.
So this is the amateur hour, so to speak, but you know… Sometimes amateur performances are all the more enjoyable for their raw and unenhanced nature.
Summing it all up, this was far from Verne’s best work of fiction and the performances of the readers varied by the reader. I would not avoid those readers in the future, but I am not likely to be tempted to read or listen to this particular story ever again.