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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Reading List: Hector Servadac

Verne, Jules. Hector Servadac. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1877] 2014. ISBN 978-1-5058-3124-5.
Over the years, I have been reading my way through the classic science fiction novels of Jules Verne, and I have prepared public domain texts of three of them which are available on my site and Project Gutenberg. Verne not only essentially invented the modern literary genre of science fiction, he was an extraordinary prolific author, publishing sixty-two novels in his Voyages extraordinaires between 1863 and 1905. What prompted me to pick up the present work was an interview I read in December 2016, in which Freeman Dyson recalled that it was reading this book at around the age of eight which, more than anything, set him on a course to become a mathematician and physicist. He notes that he originally didn't know it was fiction, and was disappointed to discover the events recounted hadn't actually happened. Well, that's about as good a recommendation as you can get, so I decided to put Hector Servadac on the list.

On the night of December 31–January 1, Hector Servadac, a captain in the French garrison at Mostaganem in Algeria, found it difficult to sleep, since in the morning he was to fight a duel with Wassili Timascheff, his rival for the affections of a young woman. During the night, the captain and his faithful orderly Laurent Ben-Zouf, perceived an enormous shock, and regained consciousness amid the ruins of their hut, and found themselves in a profoundly changed world.

Thus begins a scientific detective story much different than many of Verne's other novels. We have the resourceful and intrepid Captain Servadac and his humorous side-kick Ben-Zouf, to be sure, but instead of them undertaking a perilous voyage of exploration, instead they are taken on a voyage, by forces unknown, and must discover what has happened and explain the odd phenomena they are experiencing. And those phenomena are curious, indeed: the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and the day is now only twelve hours long; their weight, and that of all objects, has been dramatically reduced, and they can now easily bound high into the air; the air itself seems to have become as thin as on high mountain peaks; the Moon has vanished from the sky; the pole has shifted and there is a new north star; and their latitude now seems to be near the equator.

Exploring their environs only adds mysteries to the ever-growing list. They now seem to inhabit an island of which they are the only residents: the rest of Algeria has vanished. Eventually they make contact with Count Timascheff, whose yacht was standing offshore and, setting aside their dispute (the duel deferred in light of greater things is a theme you'll find elsewhere in the works of Verne), they seek to explore the curiously altered world they now inhabit.

Eventually, they discover its inhabitants seem to number only thirty-six: themselves, the Russian crew of Timascheff's yacht; some Spanish workers; a young Italian girl and Spanish boy; Isac Hakhabut, a German Jewish itinerant trader whose ship full of merchandise survived the cataclysm; the remainder of the British garrison at Gibraltar, which has been cut off and reduced to a small island; and Palmyrin Rosette, formerly Servadac's teacher (and each other's nemeses), an eccentric and irritable astronomer. They set out on a voyage of exploration and begin to grasp what has happened and what they must do to survive.

In 1865, Verne took us De la terre à la lune. Twelve years later, he treats us to a tour of the solar system, from the orbit of Venus to that of Jupiter, with abundant details of what was known about our planetary neighbourhood in his era. As usual, his research is nearly impeccable, although the orbital mechanics are fantasy and must be attributed to literary license: a body with an orbit which crosses those of Venus and Jupiter cannot have an orbital period of two years: it will be around five years, but that wouldn't work with the story. Verne has his usual fun with the national characteristics of those we encounter. Modern readers may find the descriptions of the miserly Jew Hakhabut and the happy but indolent Spaniards offensive—so be it—such is nineteenth century literature.

This is a grand adventure: funny, enlightening, and engaging the reader in puzzling out mysteries of physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and, if you're like this reader, checking the author's math (which, orbital mechanics aside, is more or less right, although he doesn't make the job easy by using a multitude of different units). It's completely improbable, of course—you don't go to Jules Verne for that: he's the fellow who shot people to the Moon with a nine hundred foot cannon—but just as readers of modern science fiction are willing to accept faster than light drives to make the story work, a little suspension of disbelief here will yield a lot of entertainment.

Jules Verne is the second most translated of modern authors (Agatha Christie is the first) and the most translated of those writing in French. Regrettably, Verne, and his reputation, have suffered from poor translation. He is a virtuoso of the French language, using his large vocabulary to layer meanings and subtexts beneath the surface, and many translators fail to preserve these subtleties. There have been several English translations of this novel under different titles (which I shall decline to state, as they are spoilers for the first half of the book), none of which are deemed worthy of the original.

I read the Kindle edition from Arvensa, which is absolutely superb. You don't usually expect much when you buy a Kindle version of a public domain work for US$ 0.99, but in this case you'll receive a thoroughly professional edition free of typographical errors which includes all of the original illustrations from the original 1877 Hetzel edition. In addition there is a comprehensive biography of Jules Verne and an account of his life and work published at the height of his career. Further, the Kindle French dictionary, a free download, is absolutely superb when coping with Verne's enormous vocabulary. Verne is very fond of obscure terms, and whether discussing nautical terminology, geology, astronomy, or any other specialties, peppers his prose with jargon which used to send me off to flip through the Little Bob. Now it's just a matter of highlighting the word (in the iPad Kindle app), and up pops the definition from the amazingly comprehensive dictionary. (This is a French-French dictionary; if you need a dictionary which provides English translations, you'll need to install such an application.) These Arvensa Kindle editions are absolutely the best way to enjoy Jules Verne and other classic French authors, and I will definitely seek out others to read in the future. You can obtain the complete works of Jules Verne, 160 titles, with 5400 illustrations, for US$ 2.51 at this writing.

Posted at February 5, 2017 00:24