Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne / The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells

IMG_1553 Clive James once suggested that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, writes with an ‘exulted stupidity’. It is a beautiful phrase. Jules Verne writes, I think, with a sort of ‘exulted simplicity’. Motivation and characterisation don’t really come into it as far as he’s concerned: he just wants to keep his episodic, fantastic narratives barrelling along to their next destination. A pearl diver here, a shark attack there, some goings-on with sunken treasure – and, oh look, the ruins of Atlantis. It is like listening to a story told by an enthusiastic child and we all secretly want to get to the bit where Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus is attacked by giant squids. Maybe we just like children’s books – because for all the Vintage Classics packaging (complete with outsize calamari), that is what Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea is. And not a very demanding one, at that. And yet…for comfort reading, it does invoke a sense of wonder. Pages don’t turn themselves, after all. By the way, a mystery solved: I always assumed that ‘20,000 leagues’ referred to the Nautilus’ depth under the ocean. But – geek alert – I have discovered that 20,000 leagues would be around 60,000 miles. Given that it is only around 4,000 miles to the centre of the earth, this doesn’t make sense – unless you recast the title in the following way: ‘I travelled 60,000 miles round the world, sometimes not very far below the surface of the water’. Not as catchy, admittedly, but then Verne has a flair for titles which (assumptions of depth permitting) tell you exactly what you’re getting: Journey To The Centre Of The Earth is another one. H.G. Wells realised the value in this too, hence: The Invisible Man, The Time Machineand The War Of The Worlds, of course, which sounds more elegant than Earth v Mars. But Earth v Mars it certainly is: the Martians land near Woking and, after a slow start, begin laying waste to all and sundry. Heat-rays, poison gas, you name it. Chapter headings like: ‘What I Saw Of The Destruction Of Weybridge And Shepperton’ have a shivery quality to them, even now, and it is lucky that Thorpe Park and Legoland were not yet in existence or they would have bought it too. The carnage does not produce quite panic or full-scale military response you might expect: in London, about 20 miles away, no-one really knows about the extra-terrestrial invasion for two days. The capital’s inhabitants are still going to the theatre and promenading in the royal parks before the first refugees from Surrey start arriving.  Say what you like about social media, but Twitter would have ensured that lives were saved. Of course, no lives were lost because this is fiction. But Wells makes you believe: the descriptions of ‘boiling’ lines of refugees heading north out of town are real enough. Even if it’s caused by fictional bug-eyed monsters from another planet, there is something innately disturbing about the sudden breakdown of polite society. On the day of the 7/7 bombings, a dot matrix sign on the M25 orbital motorway spelled a simple, startling message to motorists: ‘DO NOT ENTER LONDON – SWITCH ON RADIO’. This is about as chilling as it gets. When Stephen Spielberg made his (rather good) movie version of Wells’ story, the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York were an obvious visual reference point. Spielberg’s film, despite its relocation away from Woking, wisely takes in many of the key points of Wells’ original narrative. However, the film differs in one major respect: Spielberg likes humans whereas Wells’ novel is profoundly unsympathetic. The ghastly Martians are admirable, their superior evolution having apparently conquered disease: humans, meanwhile, are constantly compared to animals, not least in their bovine rush away from danger. In this respect, among many others, Wells’ writing differs hugely from that of Verne. The French author is happy to hint, very belatedly, at some terrible personal tragedy that drives Nemo. But Verne’s heart isn’t really in it: he just wants to get to the squids. Wells, on the other hand, was a scientist by trade and loves a bit of  detail. It’s interesting to reflect that The War Of The Worlds appeared 16 years before the outbreak of World War One. The idea of mass, mechanised slaughter was not yet in the public consciousness, but maybe something was changing under the surface: there’s victory of sorts but it’s not a particularly heroic picture.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s