Whoops. I read this book for my challenge back in August, but never wrote up my review. Better late than never! Let’s talk about Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, first published in 1864.
This is a novel that has permeated popular culture through movies adaptations that don’t always closely resemble the original work. I tried to go all the way to the true original and read it in French (I’m trying to learn the language), but sadly I just didn’t have the vocabulary to handle this book in anything other than English.
It is quite densely packed with the scientific understandings of the day. Sometimes these were quite wrong, while others were accurate. The one that surprised me the most was the mention of how fossil fuels like coal are limited resources, and one day humanity was going to have to figure out what to do when they run out. It’s something that has been understood by scientists for a long time, but it was almost shocking to see it in a novel this old! This was counterbalanced by some truly unfortunate notions about facial structure, race, and intelligence. I can’t be surprised, given when this was published, but it is still never fun to encounter racism pretending to be science.
The story is basically what it says in the title. It is written from the perspective of Axel, nephew and research assistant of Professor Liedenbrock. It details how the professor found a scrap of text, written in runes and code, that claimed to show the way to enter to the center of the earth. The professor, a geologist, becomes obsessed with finding this passage and reaching the earth’s core. He drags his poor beleaguered nephew along with him. They have to travel from Germany to Iceland in a rush so they can arrive on the correct day to see the shadow of a specific mountain point out the correct tunnel.
Throughout the story Axel is constantly trying to counter his uncle, both to try to give up on the voyage and return home, and to try to challenge his theories about the nature of the earth’s interior. The majority of the book is fairly dry description of their voyage and the environments they see. Mostly it consists of darkness and rocks. This still presents some perils, as the explorers face running out of supplies, and failing light sources.
Although various adaptations tend to spend lots of time focused on encounters with dinosaurs and early humans, in the text these events are rare and brief. It helps keep the tone from becoming too ridiculous or silly, but it also leaves the story feeling a bit unexciting. In fact most of the action in the book is strangely passive, as our protagonists are buffeted by high winds on their underground sailing excursion, or forced up out of a volcano at the story’s climax.
TL;DR: I enjoyed this look at early science fiction, and would recommend it for anyone who is interested in the roots of the genre. If you are only going to read one 19th century sci-fi novel, though, I would look elsewhere for more excitement.
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Rating: 4/5 stars
Next up: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson