- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

Jules Verne wrote books which will be long remembered after they are nearly unread. "Around the World in 80 Days," "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," "Voyage to the Center of the Earth" such brilliant simple and irresistable new ideas for fiction were all bestsellers. Other works of Verne, however never made it out of France.
The great originator of "science fiction," it appears from the publishing history, suffered from his own vast energy. "In one sense," writes Arthur B. Evans, the editor of Wesleyan University Press' first English translation of 'Invasion of the Sea,' "he was a victim of his own success." The book is translated from the French by Edward Baxter.
The more he wrote, the more readers wanted something even more bizzare. Competing authors, H.G. Wells and others, were able to capitalize on Verne's "novel of science" with ideas of their own. By the time he wrote his final novel, "Invasion of the Sea" in 1905, (the year of his death), he was lost in the torrent he had started.
Acknowledged as the inventor of a new fiction genre, which was to reach full bloom in the 1920s, he continued to crank out two to three novels per year after his early great popularity, while fickle readers, their taste whetted by Verne's original literary brew, passed him over for newer flavors, more exotic condiments. The result was that much of Verne's prodigious output (60 novels encompass the series of which "Invasion of the Sea" is the last) has never been translated into English.
Perhaps this falling off is due to the fact that Verne's formula of exotic lands and action adventure is based in rational science and seldom ever varied. But in the case of "Invasion" the publishers have selected a theme and a story which is closely entertwined with pressing current events. The book involves a European plan to use vast areas of African desert controlled by primitive Arab tribes to create an inland sea and thus bring agriculture and western "progress" to what appears to be a waterless wasteland.
Guess what? The locals react strongly against the arrogant French engineers and their machines, and begin a guerilla war it could almost be described as a terrorist campaign against the incursive civilization. It would be unfair to reval how this conflict is resolved; Verne is, after all, a weaver of action mystery stories. Yet what is fascinating here is to see how exactly the turn of the century conflict between West and East, between Christian and Muslim, between capitalist and tribalist, between science and tradition remain the same.
Verne's plot pits cool and organized Europeans (French military and engineering types) against wild Berber tribesmen who for centuries have lived in the desert. The methodical French have a scheme fantastic in its scope (flooding the North African desert); yet to them it seems merely logical, a way to bring prosperity, jobs, education and civilization to benighted "Wogs." (Yes, that is the term Verne frequently puts on the tongues of the cruder of the French soldiery).
These French and Belgian professionals totter across the searing landscape in neatly clipped moustaches and full uniform, completely alien creatures. One secondary character repeatedly worries about getting a clean shave each day will the expedition reach a satisfactory oasis in time?
To the Arab tribesmen (described as superstitious, violent and subject to "irrational fanaticism") the western experiment is a threat and an oppression. Verne cannot deny them sympathy; they are fighting not only for their way of life, but against sacrilige. Loyal, fatalistic, disorganized, they are impossible for the French to understand, and are dismissed.
Yet the Arabs melt into the landscape in their flowing robes, appearing like deadly ghosts, attacking without notice, living off the land, easily taking hostage the leaders of the well armed European invaders. Shades of our own headlines!
"What we're up against," complains the French commandant, "is not only hostility but a kind of irrational fanaticism. For the moment, it remains latent, held in check by Islamic fatalism. But at any time it could erupt into widespread violence."
At times. Verne's earnest drama could qualify for the broad satire of the politically incorrect. He is at times anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, almost Fascist in his belief in the perogatives of progress. Yet the final cataclysm which abruptly closes the story leaves the reader wondering if, in this last literary effort, Verne was not questioning the inevitable march of science.
Verne's characters from 1905 now appear as mere caricatures. And yet, he was able to accurately presage the same seething hatred of the new and the modern which we believe inspired the suicide flyers and bombers of our own terrorist era. It may be fascinating to see history repeat itself, if only in the fiction of a pioneering literary genius. But it is also appalling. It would appear that we have, for all our science, learned nothing of true importance in the last 100 years.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.


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