Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Jules Verne's 1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth is a classic adventure story with a scientific leaning. Three dissimilar characters—a stubborn old professor, a curious young kid, and a stoic Icelander—join forces to explore a subterranean world hinted at in an aged Icelandic manuscript. The emphasis in this book is on what the characters discover rather than what they feel.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne bookRead more reviews on AmazonAt some point in the story the sense of discovery becomes truly captivating. Verne really grasps the imagination as he describes the team stumbling across biological organisms of immense proportions, some of which hail from the seafaring monsters of the Jurassic period. Perhaps the apex of the journey is the sighting of primitive human beings hunting a herd of mammoths, a scene Verne apparently added after the original story was finished.

These possibilities are exciting not for the interior of the Earth, but for the vast unexplored cosmos ahead of us. I can't help but wonder whether intelligent beings lead lives greatly different from own, but with similarities as well—a need for food and drink, a desire for leisure, a fascination with nature.

Unfortunately, the explorers in Journey don't actually go underground until page 99 (out of 232). A number of scientific details have also not held up well with time, the most obvious being Verne's fabrication of an enormous open cavern with temperatures and pressures suitable for a diverse ecosystem. There's also a vague reference to an electrical phenomenon responsible for lighting the entire cavern and supporting photosynthesis. Finally, the plausibility of the story is further degraded when the team falls through a passage and rides a magma flow, on a flimsy raft, all the way through a volcano in Italy. It is perhaps unfair to judge Verne with the lens of scientific history; a better measure might be the impact Journey has had on inspiring scientists and explorers over the last 150 years—people who were motivated by Verne to go out and actually discover what's out there.

4 comments:

  1. "Unfortunately, the explorers in Journey don't actually go underground until page 99 (out of 232). A number of scientific details have also not held up well with time, the most obvious being Verne's fabrication of an enormous open cavern with temperatures and pressures suitable for a diverse ecosystem."

    I doubt Verne, thought a hollow center to the Earth was possible, it's simply a leap in imagination to build the story around, and of course, it's still usable in a Brendan Fraser movie even today.

    Andrew W

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  2. It struck me when I was reading the novel that the sled ride upward in the volcano was a deus ex machina device, that Verne had simply reached a limit in how far he wanted to take his simple exploration story and cynically decided to cut it off quickly with a nice dramatic ending that his readers would remember.

    Of course, it's been 50 years. I might be more charitable or more forgiving if I gave the thing a second read today. It's on my list ...

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  3. I remember Verne spent considerable time talking about the temperatures the crew encountered as they descended. If he wasn't trying to the make the story plausible, he was at least prompting the reader to think about it. He must have struggled with a lot of this.

    It seems the sled ride upward is indeed a deus ex machina, which I think weakens the literary value of the story.

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  4. Great review, very insightful, I can't wait to read the book

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