Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1872)

Ok so this has taken a while to write up, conferences and the like interfering. However, we did get round to discussing this book a few months ago. One question which came up while discussing this book was over Verne’s use of science. In chapter 3 Verne describes the Nautilus and the technologies behind it. The Nautilus is most definitely a futuristic Submarine and far in advance of the technological capabilities of its day. Indeed submarines did not reach a similar level of technological ability until the advent of nuclear powered submarines in 1951 with the launching of the appropriately named USS Nautilus, even today modern submarines are unable to achieve the speeds or depths attributed to Nemo’s vessel. The principles used were well known to scientists and engineers of the day, the main problem being that the technology of the time was not yet capable of achieving the results demonstrated by the Nautilus. A case in point is Verne’s use of electricity which is well in advance of even the more optimistic hopes of electrical enthusiasts of the day. To quote Captain Nemo,

“There is a powerful, obedient, swift and effortless force that can be bent to any use and which reigns supreme         aboard my vessel. It lights me, warms me, it’s the soul of my mechanical equipment. This force is electricity.”

By the 1870s the Bunsen cell used by Nemo was already an old technology and Verne was clearly aware of its limitations. However, rather than trying to explain how these problems were overcome, instead he sidesteps the issue by choosing to let Professor Aronnax acknowledge the results without trying to explain them.

“I’ll rest content with marvelling. You’ve obviously found what all mankind will surely find one day, the true dynamic power of electricity.”

Verne appears to see technology, and especially electricity as providing freedom and independence. By means of electricity the Nautilus can move at will, faster and farther than any other craft of the day. It provides Nemo with a means of withdrawing from a society which he has rejected and to focus on a way of living in harmony with the oceans rather than exploiting and destroying resources; again this draws on contemporary visions of electricity as a non-polluting source of energy.

One other aspect of the story is the mystery of the oceans. The initial speculations of the Nautilus being some previously unknown sea monster reflect the lack of knowledge of the oceans depths, both in terms of animal and plant life as well as actual geography, for example his supposition of an “Arabic tunnel” connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, something which we now know to be an impossibility.

In general Verne appears to makes us of his knowledge of contemporary science and technology to predict possible advances and discoveries and the potential consequences of these developments.


Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus


Text available on Project Gutenberg

Written by the Young Mary Shelley at the age of 18 and first published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein is sometimes considered to be the first true science fiction story. Brian Aldiss argues that in contrast with previous similar stories containing fantastical elements, Shelley’s main character, Victor, makes a deliberate decision to pursue his work using modern experiments in a laboratory to achieve fantastic results.[1] However, a re-reading of Frankenstein in light of Ellis Marksman’s 1999 paper, Fictions of Science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, reopens the question of whether Victor was actually engaged in science or if his work was more alchemical in nature.

Of particular interest was the idea that science was public in nature, Markman argues that Victor’s work and discovery could not be considered science because;

‘Scientific knowledge … was knowledge that was verifiable in public. … Knowledge that is not shared is not science. But Victor’s discovery is secret and is a secret. Indeed, in his later explanations, he celebrates how his discovery remains a secret even to him.’[2]

The story can almost be said to trace the development of modern science in Frankenstein’s life as he begins with the study of alchemy before moving on to ‘modern science’. However, Frankenstein partially rejects modern science as being too limited and the scientists themselves as unimaginative and unambitious, instead, encouraged by one of his lecturers, Waldman, Frankenstein continues to gain inspiration from the work of the earlier alchemists and philosophers as their work could be said to form the foundation of modern knowledge.

Ultimately Frankenstein’s monster, like his work can be said to be something of a chimera, while the monster was made up of parts of both humans and animals, his work was in part scientific and in part alchemical.

The story could be described as a cautionary tale, but it is unclear whether it is a warning against science in general or possibly the dangers of ‘science’ being carried out in secret. The novel itself lends to this air of secrecy by never revealing the means by which Victor achieves his breakthrough. As a result of the early film and theatre adaptation’s we often associate electricity and lighting with bringing the monster to life. However, beyond the mention of some early studies in electricity and batteries and the mention of the ‘spark of life’ there is no indication of this, while we are apt to imagine this moment taking place on a stormy night Shelley’s description merely states that it was a dreary night with rain pattering against the windows.

One thing is certain, Frankenstein has had a significant influence over subsequent film, literature and in popular culture, spawning a complete genre of horror films, stories and plays. It forms a fitting beginning to this groups studies and the question as to what constitutes science is one which I feel is likely to make a return appearance.

[1] Aldiss, B. (1995). The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy. New York: Syracuse university Press .

[2]Markman, E. (1999). Fictions of science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sydney Studies in English, 25, 1-20.

A quick introduction

This blog will for the most part be recording the discussions of a reading group examining the portray of science, technology and philosophy in literature during the 19th and 20th Centuries. While the group only meets on a monthly basis it is hoped that we can generate sufficient interest in this topic to run a full workshop at some point over the next year. I also hope to get a few guest posts from other members of the reading group and will myself try to add some extra posts related to my own reading when the inspiration strikes me. If you find that this interests you and feel you might be interested joining in the discussions, I will be posting the next book on our list after each meeting and any thoughts or comments you have can be added to the comments on these pages.