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Issue #125 - January 2006

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Verne the Unknown

By Cheryl Morgan

There are times when I think that Jules Verne is one of the least understood science fiction writers. To start with most people outside France are more familiar with Verneís work through Hollywood, cartoon and comic adaptations of his work than through the books themselves. While I read a lot of Verne books when I was a kid, I now know that the translations I read were often, shall we say, inventive. With the release of The Begumís Millions by Wesleyan University Press I now discover that even the popular view of Verneís attitude to science is suspect.

Not long ago we discovered that Robert Heinlein, far from turning into a bit of a crank late in his life, had some very strange views on politics right from the start. You could see the roots of Stranger in a Strange Land and its successors very clearly in For Us the Living. It took Heinlein a long period of writing what his editors wanted before he could produce the sort of books he preferred. The same could be said of Verneís "lost" first novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. That book was rejected for publication, not because of unconventional politics, but because it was too depressing. Verne wasnít at all convinced that technological development was a good thing, and his grim vision of a future Paris was deemed too downbeat to sell. One of the reasons that Wesleyan is interested in The Begumís Millions is that it is the book in which Verne was finally allowed by his editor to portray science in a potentially negative light. His work was never wholly upbeat again.

The other reason that The Begumís Millions is interesting is that it isnít actually Verneís book at all. It was written by a Corsican revolutionary called Paschal Grousset. Having fought alongside the Paris Commune, Grousset had been living in exile in the USA and London. His book was bought, probably illegally, by Verneís editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, but the manuscript needed polishing. As the book contained elements of SF, Verne was brought in to spruce it up. The arrangement worked, and Grousset ghost-wrote two other novels for Verne before he was pardoned and allowed home to write under his own name again.

But why, you are asking yourself, would a respectable and successful Paris editor like M. Hetzel risk his career buying a novel by a political exile? The answer to that is in the nature of the narrative, and the fact that France had just suffered the extreme embarrassment of the Franco-Prussian War.

Before we get to the plot, however, what is a Begum anyway? Verne (or possibly Grosset) tells us that it is the title given to the wife of a Raja. But Raja is a Sanskrit word and Begum is Urdu. My dictionary says that Begum is a title given to a Muslim woman of high social status. Maybe someone from that part of the world can give us a definitive answer on this.

So, there was this Begum, and she was very rich. When she died without obvious heirs, a firm of London solicitors was engaged to find someone to whom the money could be given. Eventually two men were found. One was Dr. Sarrasin, a French physician and scientist. Being a gentleman of good breeding and great intelligence, he vowed he would use the money to create a scientific utopia. The other beneficiary was one Dr. Schultze, a German chemist. He was unimpressed with Sarrasinís ideas.

This enterprise seemed absurd to him and, to his way of thinking, was destined to fail since it stood in opposition to the law of progress which decreed the collapse of the Latin race, its subservience to the Saxon race, and, as a consequence, its total disappearance from the face of the globe.

In order to prove his point Schultze resolves to build his own utopian society, run with perfect German efficiency. Not only will his community prove fitter than Sarrasinís, but it will also destroy it utterly. For Schultze, the purpose of science is to allow Germans to build better weapons, and thereby enforce their superiority over all other races.

Both men buy tracts of land in the wilds of Oregon territory where the US government, somewhat implausibly, allows them to build self-governing cities. Ville-France, Sarrasinís creation, is devoted to peace and prosperity through the application of science, in particular medicine. Sarrasin is determined that his citizens will be the healthiest in the world (even if he has to force them to be). In some ways Ville-France is scarily reminiscent of the city of Quaint from Steven Eriksonís hilarious The Healthy Dead. But living in Ville-France is infinitely preferable to living in Schultzeís Stahlstadt ("Steel City").

In this remote corner of North America, surrounded by wilderness, isolated from the world by a rampart of mountains, five hundred miles from the nearest neighboring town, one could search in vain for the smallest vestige of that liberty which formed the strength of the republic the United States.

It would be easy to dismiss Verne and Groussetís portrait of Herr Scultze as sour grapes on the part of a recently defeated, not to say humiliated, people. Except that their vision of a militaristic state dedicated to weapons production and led by an ambitious, racist madman proved scarily reminiscent of something altogether more real. Indeed, in his introduction Peter Schulman makes reference to a book from 1933 by Gaston Leroux that attempts to warn France about Hitler. When one character expresses concern about German ambitions another replies with the French equivalent of, "Oh, thatís just science fiction, I read it in Verne."

Not that Verne and Grousset are entirely free of opinions that are a product of their time. One of the reasons that Verneís work tends to get heavily edited in translation these days is that the originals are shot through with racist and sexist commentary that a modern audience would find uncomfortable. The belief that each countryís people had national characteristics that made them more or less fit for evolutionary competition with their fellow members of the human race was common throughout the West in Verneís day. It is also quite bizarre to hear one of the few female characters complain that it was terrible being a woman because there was nothing she could do to help defend Ville-France from Schultze. Tell that to Rosie the Riveter, love.

My overall impression was that The Begumís Millions is not a very good book. Certainly Verne has written much better, and he himself thought that Groussetís scientific ideas were implausible (but was persuaded not to change them by Hetzel). The only element of the book that seems genuinely Vernian is the telephone conference call system by which the council of Ville-France holds their meetings. But the quality of the book as a piece of science fiction is not the reason why it is being re-issued. The Begumís Millions is an important book, not only in shedding light on the history of Jules Verne, but also in the picture it gives us of Western Europe at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

The Begum's Millions - Jules Verne - Wesleyan University Press - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
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Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee