A Journey to the Center of the Earth
By Jules Verne
Published by Commuters Library
Read by Stephan Cox
The book starts out with what I hope was just a really bad translation in Paragraph Two, “My Uncle was a German, having married my mother’s sister, an Englishwoman.” Until that time I never knew that being a German meant you had married someone from England. I thought it meant you were born and lived in Germany. Silly me! And this was just the start of a very long journey for me.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth has long been hailed as a classic example of early or perhaps proto-science fiction. I thought I had read it, but after having listened to the audiobook I think I must have read a Classics Illustrated comic version or just saw a movie or two. I’m sure I would have remembered how boring the exciting journey had truly been.
The story is told in the first person by a character named Harry who is the nephew of a Professor Otto Hardwigg. It involves Hardwigg, Harry, who never stops talking and Hans, their Icelandic guide who almost never speaks and their journey via volcanic tubes down into the interior of the Earth and finally back out again.
Leaving aside the scientific inaccuracies for a moment, I found the pacing of the book to be slow and cumbersome. There are long periods in which nothing happens at all. Most notably the long chapter involving the journey to Iceland in which nothing actually happens at all, and it takes half the book just to get to the start of their ascent of the mountain Snæfellsjökull (or Mount Snefells as Verne calls it).
Even after that, there is no such a thing as cutting to the chase and there are long passages in which they are walking and walking for miles on miles. At one point they become separated, with no adequate explanation as to how, and Harry suddenly realizes that neither Hans nor the professor are anywhere nearby. He is nearly dead of dehydration and starvation by the time they actually find him, but plot-wise it might have been better if he just passed out and woke up to find himself rescued, but instead we are treated to a long rambling monologue punctuated only by a conversation with his uncle who is some unbelievable distance away but able to speak (with long delays) due to the air being so much denser.
Now this brings us to scientific inaccuracies. Okay the book was written in the 1860’s so it is understandable that some of what Verne conjectured might not be accurate, but indeed this reads like a cautionary tale to modern SF writers to never rely on extrapolated hypotheses to make the entire point of a novel. There is very little in this book that turns out to be correct (so far as we know today).
I recently came across a series of You Tube videos called “Everything Wrong With (Name of Film) in (Number) of Minutes or Less” and put together by CinemaSins. In each video they show clips from the film in question in rapid fire while speaking faster than any human ought to be able to in order to list all the errors they managed to find in a video just barely short enough not to lose anyone with the attention span of a goldfish. It is a darned good thing they did not try to list everything wrong in this book as the list would probably be longer than the book itself.
It is perhaps ironic that every time Harry objects to doing something on the basis of his own scientific argument and the professor shrugs it off (and in the book is proved correct in shrugging it off) it turns out that, as we now know these things work, Harry was right. Let’s forget that it is suicidal to climb down a volcanic pipe (and darned ignorant to expect a perfectly open pipe to be there for you to climb down) but if the pipe goes down into the center of the Earth, then where does the ash and lava come from?
Well, mercifully I will not list everything wrong with this book either, laughing at all the wrong guesses on Verne’s part were all that kept me listening. I did have to wonder about some of his travelogue details. In Around the World in Eighty Days, Verne showed he could write an entertaining story about traveling, but somehow the trip to Snaefells fell flat and the journey into the interior of the Earth was mostly dull with only a few scattered moments that I found interesting. I can see how movie makers have found it a good story to make a film of. Skip past the dull narration and there’s all sort of action. It’s just that in the book you have to wade through the endless monologue/
I will give the book one major point over the recent movie with Brendan Fraser. In the movie, Fraser’s character decides he can descend into the center of the earth because his brother who went missing believed that everything Verne wrote was true. In the book Professor Lidenbrock believed it was possible because he found a medieval note written by an Icelandic alchemist named Arne Saknussemm who claimed to have discovered a passage that went into the Earth’s center. As unlikely as the whole situation is, at least in the book they had possibly written truth that it was possible. In the movie all you know is that Fraser’s brother tried and was never seen again – not exactly proof that one’s journey would be a success.
Another matter handled better in the book was the nature of their compass. In the movie the writers somehow decided that a compass would work in reverse inside the earth – that is the needle would point south instead of north. In the book, the compass malfunctioned because an electrical storm had magnetized all the metal on their raft and also reversed the polarity on the magnet.
Of course, when they later find the initials “A S” scratched into a stone wall (and the knife used to scratch it – why was the knife left there?) they got “Ah ha! See? A. S. Arne Saknussemm!” It seemed to me that A. S. could just as easily have stood for Armund Sigurdsson or Abraham Smythe for that matter, but it was not the greatest leap in the story.
I admit that I was rather annoyed when Harry kept going one about ages as being antediluvian and then even more so when I realized he meant, in a very scientific and literal way that they were from before the Biblical flood, the remnants of which they encountered in the subterranean sea. There, of course, was no thought as to how a hollow Earth could support itself against the pull of gravity but then in fairness they never actually reach the center of a hollow Earth. Then just travel through caverns that supposedly lie a hundred miles or more beneath Europe. This makes the story interesting in that it is a glimpse into the scientific mind at a time when scientists were just starting to question the literal truth of the Biblical creation account and shows how geologists, paleontologists and early archaeologists attempted to justify what they were finding with passages in Genesis.
I understand there are other versions of this book in which Harry’s name is Axel and Hardwigg is Lidenbrock and because I don’t really enjoy writing scathing reviews so sometimes I cast about for what others thought. It is possible that other editions of this book are better written/translated, but I wonder how many give this story full marks simply because it is supposed to be a classic. I have to call it as I see it, but your mileage may be different.
So go ahead and read it for yourself and enjoy their encounters with creatures and people from the “Age of Giants” which apparently was still believed in at the time. And try not to laugh too much when Verne assumes that all sedimentary rocks from a given period are going to look alike and, for that matter, be found under volcanic Iceland. Me? I am still wondering why the trio of explorers didn’t die of the Bends on their sudden ejection back to the surface world via the Italian volcano Stromboli.
Stephan Cox does a creditable job of reading this book. I may have found myself aghast at just how wrong all of Verne guesses have turned out to be, but I cannot fault Mister Cox’s reading. His Professor Hardwigg is a bit over the top, but Verne’s description paints him as gruff and impatient in an over-the-top way so the voice Cox uses fits the character well. At times the recording felt a little rushed and I am unsure if Mister Cox was just talking fast or if the recording was compressed to fit on a given number of disks for financial reasons. As his performance is otherwise pretty good I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that was the fault of his producer.
So, let’s face it A Journey to the Center of the Earth has aged poorly over the last century and a half. So much of what Verne set forth in a scientific manner has been disproven and I am fairly certain might not have stood up well even thirty years after it was published. It was written in a time when so much of what was known was changing and it got caught up in the tsunami of 19th century research and swept into the backwater of bad science. Verne was hardly the first nor was he the last to go out on a safe scientific limb only to have it trimmed out from under him. It is still happening today and will likely continue to happen so long as there are science fiction writers. Take the story as it is; a window into science as it stood in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.