Verne and Wells: the Two Sides of Sci-Fi

Verne's Wonders
Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) are both sci-fi writers, the earliest serious writers of that genre. They represent two sides of the sci-fi equation: nineteenth century sci-fi travelogue and twentieth century sci-fi story.

Verne writes the sci-fi travelogue, a sub-genre that has largely gone out of style (although Arthur C. Clarke could be similarly classified). Verne is the heir of proto-sci-fi writers Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels) and Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe). Both books have problems and characters but no definitive narrative arc.

Verne likewise focuses more on "stuff happens" than on a problem followed by rising action followed by a climax. The first part of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea establishes the problem which is then shelved for approximately thirty chapters until the very end. Stuff definitely happens! But the stuff is almost entirely disconnected from the problem. And hints about Nemo's extracurricular activities are never really paid off, probably because Verne didn't care (this explains why every director feels compelled to give Nemo some type of backstory).

Journey to the Center of the Earth is so devoid of a narrative arc that the 1959 film resorted to throwing in a villain (who eats Hans's bird! really, who does that?!). Oddly enough, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D (the most recent version) backs off from a narrative arc for a series of adventures. Although I generally deplore this type of approach in modern movies, it is touchingly close to the original (the one arc that I was sure was going to be paid off in Shirley Temple maudlin fashion wasn't, which was more than slightly impressive).

Wells's narrative has a modern theme: under duress,
individuals may depart tragically from their normal behavior.
In comparison, H.G. Wells is writing story. War of the Worlds is related entirely as a narrative. There is no objective narrator--or even objective scientist character--to stand outside the action and inform the readers of its meaning or purpose. The reader is caught inside a point of view, including a problem that may or may not resolve itself. The distinction may appear subtle but relating an event from a point of view is radically different from relating a series of events as they happen to people. For example, although the reader knows how this particular event ends (germs kill the Martians; yes, it is a spoiler, but really, everyone should know that!), actually experiencing the result is awesome--in the biblical sense of the word--precisely because it is seen through the character's eyes.

Consequently, the book War of the Worlds is nearly impossible to render on film. The 1953 movie does a fine job. But it fails to capture the story (this event is happening to someone). The big picture (What is happening around the world? What is the military doing?) is too tempting to pass up. (Independence Day attempted to solve this problem by getting the audience to invest in multiple characters).

The end sequence where the hero searches desperately for Sylvia comes the closest to matching the book's unnerving tone and pace. But only a book could deliver the final sequence in which the hero, wandering seemingly deserted London, hears the far-off, monotonous cries of the dying Martian and does not yet understand what they mean. Even when he stumbles across a dead Martian, he fails to comprehend the "why?"--no third party steps in to explain what he is seeing in that exact moment.

I don't fault any movie for not being its book, by the way. The requirements of the medium dictate that a deserted city be shown from an aerial vantage, an omniscient (and non-story-like) viewpoint used to devastating effect in the 1953 film. The point is that STORY provides a differing approach to travelogue. And Wells delivered story while Verne delivered travelogue.

Not only do the two authors highlight changes in sci-fi, they highlight changes in fiction generally. Defoe gives us travelogue (Robinson Crusoe). Richardson gives us polemic mixed with story (Pamela). Austen gives us story with a semi-omniscient, wry narrator (Pride & Prejudice) as does Dickens. Conrad comes along and shatters the world with prose delivered from a single viewpoint.

But Wells got there first (barely).

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