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bruces@well.sf.ca.us
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CATSCAN 1  "Midnight on the Rue Jules Verne"

	A kind of SF folk tradition surrounds the
founding figure of Jules Verne. Everyone knows he was
a big cheese back when the modern megalopolis of
SFville was a 19th-century village. There's a bronze
monument to him back in the old quarter of town, the
Vieux Carre. You know, the part the French built, back
before there were cars.
	At midnight he stands there, somewhat the worse
for the acid rain and the pigeons, his blind bronze
eyes fixed on a future that has long since passed him
by. SFville's citizenry pass him every day without a
thought, their attention fixed on their daily grind in
vast American high-rises; if they look up, they are
intimidated by the beard, the grasped lapel, the
flaking reek of Victorian obsolescence.
	Everyone here knows a little about old Jules.
The submarine, the moon cannon, the ridiculously
sluggish eighty days. When they strip up the tarmac,
you can still see the cobbles of the streets he laid.
It's all still there, really, the village grid of
SFville, where Verne lived and worked and argued
scientific romance with the whippersnapper H.G. Wells.
Those of us who walk these mean streets, and mutter of
wrecking balls and the New Jerusalem, should take the
time for a look back. Way back. Let's forget old Jules
for the moment. What about young Jules?
	Young Jules Verne was trouble. His father, a
prosperous lawyer in the provincial city of Nantes,
was gifted with the sort of son that makes parents
despair. The elder Verne was a reactionary Catholic,
given to frequent solitary orgies with the penitential
scourge. He expected the same firm moral values in his
heir.
	Young Jules wanted none of this. It's sometimes
mentioned in the SF folktale that Jules tried to run
away to sea as a lad. The story goes that he was
recaptured, punished, and contritely promised to
travel henceforth "only in his imagination." It sounds
cute. It was nothing of the kind. The truth of the
matter is t

hat the eleven-year-old Jules resourcefully
bribed a cabin-boy of his own age, and impersonated
his way onto a French merchant cruiser bound for the
Indies. In those days of child labor, the crew
accepted Jules without hesitation. It was a mere fluke
that a neighbor happened to spot Jules during his
escape and informed against him. His father had to
chase him down in a fast chartered steam-launch.
	This evidence of mulishness seems to have thrown
a scare into the Verne family, and in years to come
they would treat Jules with caution. Young Jules never
really broke with his parents, probably because they
were an unfailing source of funds. Young Jules didn't
much hold with wasting time on day-jobs. He was
convinced that he was possessed of genius, despite the
near-total lack of hard evidence.
	During his teens and twenties, Jules fell for
unobtainable women with the regularity of clockwork.
Again and again he was turned down by middle-class
nymphs whose parents correctly assessed him as an art
nut and spoiled ne'er-do-well.
	Under the flimsy pretext of studying law, Jules
managed to escape to Paris. He had seen the last of
stuffy provincial France, or so he assumed: "Well," he
wrote to a friend, "I'm leaving at last, as I wasn't
wanted here, but one day they'll see what stuff he was
made of, that poor young man they knew as Jules
Verne."
	The "poor young man" rented a Parisian garret
with his unfailing parental stipend. He soon fell in
with bad company--namely, the pop-thriller writer
Alexandre Dumas Pere (author of _Count of Monte
Cristo_, _The Three Musketeers_. about a million
others). Jules took readily to the role of declasse'
intellectual and professional student. During the
Revolution of 1848 he passed out radical political
pamphlets on Paris streetcorners. At night, embittered
by female rejection, he wrote sarcastic sonnets on the
perfidy of womankind. Until, that is, he had his first
affair with an obliging housemaid, one of Dumas'
legion of literary groupies. After this

, young Jules
loosened up to the point of moral collapse and was
soon, by his own admission, a familiar figure in all
the best whorehouses in Paris.
	This went on for years. Young Jules busied
himself writing poetry and plays. He became a kind of
gofer for Dumas, devoting vast amounts of energy to a
Dumas playhouse that went broke. (Dumas had no head
for finance--he kept his money in a baptismal font in
the entryway of his house and would stuff handfuls
into his pockets whenever going out.)
	A few of Jules' briefer pieces--a domestic
farce, an operetta--were produced, to general critical
and popular disinterest. During these misspent years
Jules wrote dozens of full-length plays, most of them
never produced or even published, in much the vein of
would-be Hollywood scriptwriters today. Eventually,
having worked his way into the theatrical
infrastructure through dint of prolonged and
determined hanging-out, Jules got a production job in
another playhouse, for no salary to speak of. He
regarded this as his big break, and crowed vastly to
his family in cheerful letters that made fun of the
Pope.
	Jules moved in a fast circle. He started a
literary-artistic group of similar souls, a clique
appropriately known as the Eleven Without Women.
Eventually one of the Eleven succumbed, and invited
Jules to the wedding. Jules fell immediately for the
bride's sister, a widow with two small daughters. She
accepted his proposal. (Given Jules' record, it is to
be presumed that she took what she could get.)
	Jules was now married, and his relentlessly
unimaginative wife did what she could to break him to
middle-class harness. Jules' new brother-ln-law was
doing okay in the stock market, so Jules figured he
would give it a try. He extorted a big loan from his
despairing father and bought a position on the Bourse.
He soon earned a reputation among his fellow brokers
as a cut-up and general weird duck. He didn't manage
to go broke, but a daguerreotype of the period shows
his mood. The extended Verne

 family sits stiffly
before the camera. Jules is the one in the back, his
face in a clown's grimace, his arm blurred as he waves
wildly in a brokerage floor "buy" signal.
	Denied his longed-for position in the theater,
Jules groaningly decided that he might condescend to
try prose. He wrote a couple of stories heavily
influenced by Poe, a big period favorite of French
intellectuals. There was a cheapo publisher in town
who was starting a kid's pop-science magazine called
"Family Museum." Jules wrote a couple of pieces for
peanuts and got cover billing. The publisher decided
to try him out on books. Jules was willing. He signed
a contract to do two books a year, more or less
forever, in exchange for a monthly sum.
	Jules, who liked hobnobbing with explorers and
scientists, happened to know a local deranged techie
called Nadar. Nadar's real name was Felix Tournachon,
but everybody called him Nadar, for he was one of
those period Gallic swashbucklers who passed through
life with great swirlings of scarlet and purple and
the scent of attar of roses. Nadar was involved in two
breaking high-tech developments of the period:
photography and ballooning. (Nadar is perhaps best
remembered today as the father of aerial photography.)
	Nadar had Big Ideas. Jules' real forte was
geography--a date-line or a geodesic sent him into
raptures--but he liked Nadar's style and knew good
copy when he saw it. Jules helped out behind the
scenes when Nadar launched THE GIANT, the largest
balloon ever seen at the time, with a gondola the size
of a two-story house, lavishly supplied with
champagne. Jules never rode the thing--he had a wife
and kids now--but he retired into his study with the
plot-line of his first book, and drove his wife to
distraction. "There are manuscripts everywhere--
nothing but manuscripts," she said in a fine burst of
wifely confidence. "Let's hope they don't end up under
the cooking pot."
	_Five Weeks In A Balloon_ was Jules' first hit.
The thing was a smash for his publisher, who

sold it
all over the world in lavish foreign editions for
which Jules received pittances. But Jules wasn't
complaining--probably because he wasn't paying
attention.
	With a firm toehold in the public eye, Jules
soon hit his stride as a popular author. He announced
to the startled stockbrokers: "Mes enfants, I am
leaving you. I have had an idea, the sort of idea that
should make a man's fortune. I have just written a
novel in a new form, one that's entirely my own. If it
succeeds, I shall have stumbled upon a gold mine. In
that case, I shall go on writing and writing without
pause, while you others go on buying shares the day
before they drop and selling them the day before they
rise. I am leaving the Bourse. Good evening, mes
enfants."
	Jules Verne had invented hard science fiction.
He originated the hard SF metier of off-the-rack plots
and characters, combined with vast expository lumps of
pop science. His innovation came from literary
naivete; he never learned better or felt any reason
to. (This despite Apollinaire's sniping remark: "What
a style Jules Verne has, nothing but nouns.")
	Verne's dialogue, considered quite snappy for
the period, was derived from the stage. His characters
constantly strike dramatic poses: Ned Land with
harpoon upraised, Phileas Fogg reappearing stage-right
in his London club at the last possible tick of the
clock. The minor characters--comic Scots, Russians,
Jews--are all stage dialect and glued-on beards,
instantly recognizable to period readers, yet fresh
because of cross-genre effects. They brought a proto-
cinematic flash to readers used to the gluey, soulful
character studies of, say, Stendhal.
	The books we remember, the books determined
people still occasionally read, are products of Verne
in his thirties and forties. (His first novel was
written at thirty-five.) In these early books, flashes
of young Jules' student radicalism periodically
surface for air, much like the Nautilus. The character
of Captain Nemo, for instance, is often linked

to
novelistic conventions of the Byronic hero. Nemo is,
in fact, a democratic terrorist of the period of '48,
the year when the working-class flung up Paris
barricades, and, during a few weeks of brief civil
war, managed to kill off more French army officers
than were lost in the entire Napoleonic campaigns. The
uprising was squelched, but Jules' generation of Paris
'48, like that of May '68, never truly forgot.
	Jules did okay by his "new form of the novel."
He eventually became quite wealthy, though not through
publishing, but the theater. (Nowadays it would be
movie rights, but the principle still stands.) Jules,
incidently, did not write the stage versions of his
own books; they were done by professional theater
hacks. Jules knew the plays stank, and that they
travestied his books, but they made him a fortune. The
theatrical version of his mainstream smash, _Michael
Strogoff_, included such lavish special effects as a
live elephant on stage. It was so successful that the
term "Strogoff" became contemporary Paris slang for
anything wildly bravissimo.
	Fortified with fame and money, Jules lunged
against the traces. He travelled to America and
Scandinavia, faithfully toting his notebooks. He
bought three increasingly lavish yachts, and took to
sea for days at a time, where he would lie on his
stomach scribbling _Twenty Thousand Leagues_ against
the deck.
	During the height of his popularity, he
collected his family and sailed his yacht to North
Africa, where he had a grand time and a thrilling
brush with guntoting Libyans. On the way back, he
toured Italy, where the populace turned out to greet
him with fireworks and speeches. In Rome, the Pope
received him and praised his books because they
weren't smutty. His wife, who was terrified of
drowning, refused to get on the boat again, and
eventually Verne sold it.
	At his wife's insistence, Jules moved to the
provincial town of Amiens, where she had relatives.
Downstairs, Mme. Verne courted local society in
drawing rooms crammed

 with Second Empire bric-a-brac,
while Jules isolated himself upstairs in a spartan
study worthy of Nemo, its wall lined with wooden
cubbyholes full of carefully labeled index-cards. They
slept in separate bedrooms, and rumor says Jules had a
mistress in Paris, where he often vanished for weeks.
	Jules' son Michel grew up to be a holy terror,
visiting upon Jules all the accumulated karma of his
own lack of filial piety. The teenage Michel was in
trouble with cops, was confined in an asylum, was even
banished onto a naval voyage. Michel ended up
producing silent films, not very successfully. Jules'
stepdaughters made middle-class marriages and vanished
into straitlaced Catholic domesticity, where they
cooked up family feuds against their scapegrace half-
brother.
	Verne's work is marked by an obsession with
desert islands. Mysterious Isles, secret hollow
volcanoes in the mid-Atlantic, vast ice-floes that
crack off and head for the North Pole. Verne never
really made it into the bosom of society. He did his
best, and played the part whenever onstage, but one
senses that he knew somehow that he was Not Like The
Others and might be torn to pieces if his facade
cracked. One notes his longing for the freedom of
empty seas and skies, for a submarine full of books
that can sink below storm level into eternal calm, for
the hollow shell fired into the pristine unpeopled
emptiness of circumlunar space.
	From within his index-card lighthouse, the
isolation began to tell on the aging Jules. He had now
streamlined the production of novels to industrial
assembly-work, so much so that lying gossip claimed he
used a troop of ghostwriters. He could field-strip a
Verne book blindfolded, with a greased slot for every
part--the daffy scientist, the comic muscleman or
acrobat, the ordinary Joe who asks all the wide-eyed
questions, the woman who scarcely exists and is
rescued from suttee or sharks or red Indians.
Sometimes the machine is the hero--the steam-driven
elephant, the flying war-machine, th

e gigantic raft--
sometimes the geography: caverns, coal-mines, ice-
floes, darkest Africa.
	Bored, Jules entered politics, and joined the
Amiens City Council, where he was quickly shuffled
onto the cultural committee. It was a natural sinecure
and he did a fair job, getting electric lights
installed, widening a few streets, building a
municipal theater that everyone admired and no one
attended. His book sales slumped steadily. The woods
were full of guys writing scientific romances by now--
people who actually knew how to write novels, like
Herbert Wells. The folk-myth quotes Verne on Wells'
_First Men In The Moon_: "Where is this gravity-
repelling metal? Let him show it to me." If not the
earliest, it is certainly the most famous exemplar of
the hard-SF writer's eternal plaint against the
fantasist.
	The last years were painful. A deranged nephew
shot Verne in the foot, crippling him; it was at this
time that he wrote one of his rare late poems, the
"Sonnet to Morphine." He was to have a more than
nodding acquaintance with this substance, though in
those days of children's teething-laudanum no one
thought much of it. He died at seventy-seven in the
bosom of his vigorously quarrelling family, shriven by
the Church. Everyone who had forgotten about him wrote
obits saying what a fine fellow he was. This is the
Verne everyone thinks that they remember: the
greybearded paterfamilias, the conservative Catholic
hardware-nut, the guy who made technical forecasts
that Really Came True if you squint real hard and
ignore most of his work.
	Jules Verne never knew he was "inventing science
fiction," in the felicitous phrase of Peter Costello's
insightful 1978 biography. He knew he was on to
something hot, but he stepped onto a commercial
treadmill that he didn't understand, and the money and
the fame got to him. The early artistic failures, the
romantic rejections, had softened him up, and when the
public finally Recognized His Genius he was grateful,
and fell into line with their wishes.


	Jules had rejected respectability early on, when
it was offered to him on a plate. But when he had
earned it on his own, everyone around him swore that
respectability was dandy, and he didn't dare face them
down. Wanting the moon, he ended up with a hatch-
battened one-man submarine in an upstairs room.
Somewhere along the line his goals were lost, and he
fell into a role his father might almost have picked
for him: a well-to-do provincial city councilman. The
garlands disguised the reins, and the streetcorner
radical with a headful of visions became a dusty
pillar of society.
	This is not what the world calls a tragedy; nor
is it any small thing to have books in print after 125
years. But the path Young Jules blazed, and the path
Old Jules was gently led down, are still well-trampled
streets here in SFville. If you stand by his statue at
midnight, you can still see Old Jules limping home,
over the cobblestones. Or so they say.




Популярность: 16, Last-modified: Sat, 23 May 1998 08:07:41 GMT