This year is the Centenary of the birth of Ayn Rand, the author who envisioned a new renaissance for humanity once it discovers the morality of rational egoism. This year is also the Centenary of the death of Jules Verne, the author who envisioned a bright future for humanity once the power of science and technology is unleashed unhindered.
Verne exemplified the Nineteenth Century’s fascination with technology and its power to shrink the globe, enable long-distance communication, facilitate construction, and when necessary, precipitate destruction — ultimately, the power to improve man’s life on earth.
Verne viewed technology with the confidence of Nineteenth Century values and expectations, projecting its aspirations into the near future. In Robur the Conqueror, the tale of the invention of a heavier-than-air flying machine that forecasts the helicopter, Verne fuses the inventor with his invention, concluding the story with the exclamation:
And now, who is this Robur? Shall we ever know? We know today. Robur is the science of the future. Perhaps the science of tomorrow. Certainly the science that will come.
Verne lived in France during the turmoil of the 1848 Revolution, the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and the 1899 Dreyfus Affair, yet his sixty-four adventure novels did not focus on the social and political issues of his time. (Emile Zola wrote in 1878 that Jules Verne was “simply of no importance to the contemporary literary movement.”)
Verne’s action-packed novels, which he aptly named “extraordinary journeys,” take the readers beyond the here and now, to the center of the earth, around the world in a balloon, up to the moon in an aluminum projectile launched by cannon, or twenty thousand leagues under the sea in a futuristic submarine. Although Verne has been known as the “father of science fiction,” his work is not fantasy per se. By and large, his futuristic machines adhere to the scientific laws known in his day. He skillfully combined the exotic with the technical, creating an imaginative vision founded on precise scientific data, which proved to be remarkably prophetic.
A fan of Atlas Shrugged is likely to draw a parallel between Verne’s futuristic inventions and John Galt’s motor — a motor that draws its power from atmospheric electricity. Galt’s invention is impossible in today’s technology, but it is not a fantasy either, and Rand provides hints about how such a motor could work. In the case of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, however, the similarity between Galt’s motor and Captain Nemo’s Nautilus extends to their inventors as well.
Like John Galt, Captain Nemo withdraws from the world because of the oppression and injustice he encounters. With a crew of outcasts like himself, he hides his revolutionary underwater technology from the world, subsisting exclusively on materials harvested from the sea. Unlike John Galt, however, Captain Nemo’s driving power is revenge, and he uses the Nautilus to attack and sink the ships of the oppressors — not as a means to defeat them, as Ragnar Danneskjold does, but for the sake of revenge. And, unlike John Galt, Captain Nemo has no plan to regain the world from which he withdrew. The ending of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea leaves Captain Nemo’s fate open. His last spoken words are an expression of repentance: “O Almighty God! Enough! Enough!” The narrator ends the novel with the hope “that the dispenser of justice will die, and that the man of science will prosper to continue his peaceful studies of the sea.”
The conclusion of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is indicative of Verne’s inability to provide his staunchly independent protagonists with a moral code. His vision remains confined to the conventional morality of religion, of accepting God’s justice rather than attempting to dispense it. In Magellania, the hero Kaw-djer is an unyielding independent recluse whose motto is: “Neither God nor Master!” He leaves civilization to live on a remote island like Robinson Crusoe, but is drawn back to society and religion by the shipwrecked passengers whom he rescues. When the story ends, Kaw-djer renounces his motto for the one word he speaks with an irresistible burst of faith: “God!”
When Verne wrote about economic issues, he tended to censure the pursuit of material wealth, particularly gold. In Magellania, the discovery of gold turns a community of law-abiding, hard-working, kindly colonists into deranged, greedy gold seekers. In The Hunt for the Meteor, a scientist invents a device that forecasts the laser beam in order to intercept a meteorite made of gold, but the meteorite falls into the ocean and explodes into tiny particles. In The Purchase of the North Pole, callous merchants purchase the North Pole with the intention of melting its ice cap and mining the rich coal deposits underneath. Overall, Verne presents the pursuit of commercial profit as the hallmark of senseless, disastrous greed.
When Verne’s publisher urged him to inject some romance into his stories, Verne aptly responded: “Love is an all-absorbing passion. My heroes need all their wits about them, and the presence of a charming young lady might now and again sadly interfere with what they have to do.” His protagonists are single-mindedly immersed in their pursuit of exploration and scientific discovery. They have no room for sentimental diversions. When they allow greed to interfere with their work, they fail.
With unyielding buoyancy, the inscription on Jules Verne’s tomb reads: “Onward to immortality and eternal youth.” It is a fascinating coincidence that Ayn Rand was born on the same year that Jules Verne had died. The tenuous optimism of the Nineteenth Century had run its course — it was time for a new morality to be created to substantiate and preserve this optimism.
Sources: Smithsonian, March 2005; Science Fiction Studies, March 2005, North American Jules Verne Society.
Gravesite photo courtesy of Zvi Har'El.
Michelle Fram Cohen, a native of Israel, has lived in the United States since 1981. She holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature and works as a computer programmer, as well as a freelance translator and writer. Her writings have been published in Navigator, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and Full Context. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and son.