SciArtist Profile: Jules Verne

Jules Verne was the first “classic” (AKA old) author I fell in love with. I read the Great Illustrated Classics edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a child and was thrilled by the adventures of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus.

Cover for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Illustrated Classics edition.
The book that started it all!

That edition was highly simplified of course, which is something I love about that series. It makes classic novels digestibly for young children. But it was only a few years later I read the real thing, and I fell in love all over again.

Jules Verne was born in 1828 on on Île Feydeau in France. While his father wanted him to pursue a career in law, the young Jules fell in love with literature and theatre. Though he was never a practicing research scientist, he was an obsessive reader of science, and this extended naturally into his writing. He strove in his work to create a new type of novel: one that combines scientific fact with high-adventure storytelling. This vision came to pass in his largest body of work – the Voyages extraordinaires (“Extraordinary Journeys”). These contain all of Verne’s classic novels, and a great many that are less famous. The set included fifty-four separate novels in total and vary wildly in setting and subject: hot air balloons, space voyages, arctic adventures, and underground digs to name a few.

Verne is often credited as the inventor of modern science fiction. His works have been translated into hundreds of languages. He is the second most translated author of all time after Agatha Christie.

Two things about Jules Verne have always struck me as extraordinary. First, his incredible capacity for future visioning. Much of the action in 20,000 Leagues is perfect feasible with modern submarines. But in 1870 this was the height of science fiction. Jules Verne had a knack for envisioning the possibilities of the world and presenting them to his audience as logical and feasible.

Many of his visions came true. Submarines, moon landings, and even televised newscasts featured in his fiction works long before they ever existed in real life. Jules Verne was not merely a man with an incredible imagination; he was possessed of a unique capacity to see the world as it is and how it could be.

The other thing that always strikes me about the work of Jules Verne is his attention to scientific detail, particularly since he was not a practicing scientist himself. 20,000 Leagues is almost as much a work of marine taxonomy as it is a work of literature. The depth to which Verne describes existing marine species the characters’ encounter on their journey is just extraordinary. To some readers this may dry up the story a bit, but for a budding biologist like me it was a whirlwind of thrilling detail.

Though Jules Verne was never a scientist, he has earned a rightful space in the hall of SciArtists for revolutionizing the presence of science in literature. The legacy of his work is undisputed, and without his efforts there would be no science fiction as we know it. Something to think about the next time you rewatch a Star Wars film.

Black and white photo of an ageing Jules Verne.
In all his glory!
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