The Essential Question

Over the past year and a half, I have been gradually working my way through Kelly’s Essential Science Fiction reading list (I like to think she made it because I requested it, but the truth was she had been working on it already). Anyhow, we have discussed each book as I’ve read it, reaffirming that work’s place on the list. I have recently read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Since she hasn’t actually read it (Yes, sometimes I actually read a book before Kelly has. Not often, but it does happen.), Kelly asked me to determine whether it stood up to snuff. Sadly, I must say that Journey to the Center of the Earth does not belong on the Essential Science Fiction list.

“But Chera,” you may protest, “it chronicles a voyage of discovery and there is the undeniable use of geological science throughout.” Indeed, Verne makes liberal use of geological science, to the extent that the terminology is lost on the layman, and can actually be more of a detriment than an aid to the reader, but that is beside the point. The point is, that as I was reading the book, I was distracted by something remarkably missing. What was it that this book lacked that prevented it from being essential science fiction?

At first I thought, “Well it must be because they do not go to space, or there aren’t any extraterrestrials.” But a quick review of other books on the List, especially of Verne’s contemporaries, proved this to be false. There is no mention of aliens of the extraterrestrial sort in Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or The Time Machine. Nor are there aliens in the later 1984. Obviously, aliens and space travel are not necessary to science fiction, even if they are a common characteristic.

My focus then turned to the characters themselves. Harry, the narrator, used a tone that reminded me of Jerome in Three Men in a Boat, which at first endeared the book to me. Those witty Victorians, with their use of understatement and exaggeration. But as the book went on, Harry was too much like Jerome, indeed, the characters were as static in Journey as they were in Three Men. Despite all their adventures, their sensibilities do not adapt, evolve, change.

Perhaps I was on the right track in my investigation, for another thing that I noticed was Harry’s patronizing opinion of their dear and faithful guide, Hans, and later his opinions of the antediluvian man whose remains they encounter. At first it was mildly endearing, as I, too, patronizingly said, “Oh Victorians.” Despite my New Historicist bent and ability to place the text in its historical context, it is Harry and the Professor’s inability to face the Other that renders this book unworthy of the esteemed title Essential Science Fiction, for the essential question that science fiction must ask is, “What does it mean to be human?”

The Other does exist in the novel, most notably in the figure of Hans, but he is deplorably one-dimensional. Harry, perhaps even Verne himself, dismisses Hans without any attempt to understand him, and this does not cause conflict. Indeed, we may say that this is typical in literature of the period—a world at the height of colonialism, the positive belief of the white man’s burden, the rise of ethnography as an attempt to preserve the noble savage—but this does not excuse Verne. Journey was published in 1864; his contemporaries therefore are Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818), R. L. Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886), and H. G. Wells (The Time Machine, 1895). Each of these works also includes a striking Other: the Creature, Mr Hyde, both the Eloi and the Morlocks. The existence of these Others produces conflict and forces the narrator, and the reader, to grapple with why the Other is otherized, how are they different, and are we really so better or superior than they?

This essential question has been picked up in the generations of science fiction authors that followed. Owell’s Winston, in 1984, struggles with himself as the Other, what to do about it, and the consequences that result. Ransom, in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, meets the inhabitants of Malacandra, and must completely reorient his worldview, and humans hold not so privileged place as they did before. Ender, in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, also is the Other, and yet ultimately faces the horror that he is the Xenocide. Most brilliantly, Ursula K. Le Guin and Mary Doria Russell explore the Other in their books Left Hand of Darkness and The Sparrow, respectively.

However, Andre Norton, the editor of my edition of Journey, may have a rebuttal:

“Verne’s characters go through their adventures rather stolidly, the accent is placed on their learning, rather than their feeling. From this approach there has sprung the type of story known today as ‘hard’ science fiction, as opposed to the stories in which action or interaction outweighs knowledge or the discovery of knowledge alone. The discovery is more important than development of character. […] Verne’s people, for all their physical participation in exciting action, were, at heart, only spectator-reporters, while Well’s were subject to inner stress.”

Very well, this would seem to support my assertion that Journey to the Center of the Earth does not address the question of the Other nor that of humanity. The characters are purposefully undeveloped because the plot drives the story, the knowledge, and not the characters. And the characters are not changed by their new knowledge. But of course, Norton must go on to say:

“These two very different approaches became a combined foundation in time. Later writers fused into one pattern both ways of handling futuristic and fantastic material. The quests of Verne were for the new men who might have been shaped by such knowledge. Two gifts appearing to differ were really complementary to each other.”

So it might be, that because Verne did introduce the element of quests and fantastic journeys, and the importance of scientific fact during such adventures, he should remain on the List, with this addendum: he himself may not be a true science-fiction author, but he helped open the door through which greater sci-fi authors might pass. I would propose that his other works be examined, that there might be a better example of his contribution to replace Journey on the List, or also to have Journey’s superiority proved in comparison to his other writings.

Thoughts are continued in a later post, Essentials.

8 thoughts on “The Essential Question

  1. Kelly says:

    Well, friend, you argue most convincingly. Because I too believe that an exploration of the connotations of the word ‘human’ is what ought to be at the core of a science-fiction work, I shall remove Journey from the list. Thanks for your critique!


  2. Sarah says:

    Well, I can’t say much about the book, as I haven’t read it, but I can say that the Victorians were very good at “Otherizing” but not very good at examining WHY they were doing that. They (stereotypically) believed that White, Protestant, and English equaled Civilized and everything else needed the light of the British Empire…so Hans and the antediluvian man could be dismissed because they were not Civilized.
    Frankenstein can be seen as an argument against the idea that Man can be a sole creator (he does not have the capacity to love and nurture). Perhaps Shelley is suggesting that the Creature would not have been a monster if he had been loved….he would not have been “other” if he had had a mother/female influence (isn’t that missing from Journey as well?)
    However, I think the editor’s ideas are interesting as well…the fact that the quests were even possible, that the adventurers were even open to such fantastic ideas and events suggests a depth of character that is not, perhaps, revealed in the novel.

    (There, I commented, Happy?;) )


  3. singnoel says:

    So, I’m not not commenting about your actual post because I don’t know much about science fiction (though that is Ltrue), but because I’ve been told I must get ready for bed, and my friend is right, since I’m getting up early for breakfast with a national family. So, I will have to read this one later.
    However (my comment is becoming long considering my lack of time to read), I will say that the S and Z issue has led to a discussion on the silliness of the English language as well, including Q and X, but I still end up in the same place- the excessive number of S and Z options is just annoying. 😛
    PS: Fireworks are going off, and I can finally actually see them instead of just be annoyed by the noise!


  4. Chera says:

    Kelly: You’re welcome. I will keep an eye out for a classic book to replace Journey, since the element of adventure is a key one to have somewhere. Can you think of any?

    Sarah: I agree about Victorians and their skill at Otherizing. And the funny thing, Hans was a Caucasian European. But he was also completely one-sided. Harry even said at one point that Hans wouldn’t care about anything so long as he got paid every Saturday! He didn’t speak more than twenty words in the entire novel, and always through the Professor as an interpreter. You’re right, there was also a decided lack of female influence: the housekeeper and Gretchen (Harry’s fiancee) were the only female characters, and they served to exist only in the opening chapters. Gretchen served as a good Christian 19th century woman by inspiring Harry to go on the quest even though he didn’t want to. But again, the New Historicist in me understood this and wasn’t bothered by it. And to your last comment: alas, that their sense of adventure would be depth of character! On the contrary, the Professor is depicted as a madman, Harry is dragged along by his heels, and Hans is the silent, sturdy guide whose opinion counts for nothing. And according to Norton’s foreward, these characters are types that Verne uses again and again. While formula writing does exist in the sci-fi genre… it is not Essential. We can imagine depths for the characters on our own, but such lengths should not be done by the reader entirely, the author and reader must work together to create this effect.

    Megan: Ltrue? And, do you actually use all of the different S’s and Z’s?


  5. Chera says:

    Hm, Coraline… No, it isn’t SF, it’s Gaiman. If we have to put a name to it other than his, I’d call it more surreal, or horror, than SF. Namely because its fantastic elements are not rooted in science but in the surreal. I have, however, only read it once, and may be mistaken.

    I’ve been trying to think of another author to include. What about Hawthorne, for “The Birth-mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter”?

    In what genre would you put Poe? He and Gaiman are of the same mold, especially with Coraline, and parts of Neverwhere.


  6. Kelly says:

    I would call Poe horror. And I think Hawthorne does not ask the essential question: he does a lot with the Other, but he is not so much exploring the definition of humanity as playing with psychology.

    I suppose Coraline is magical realism (which, although tempting, isn’t science fiction and can’t go on the list). If it could, I would immediately include Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez too. Alas.


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