Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #15: Hector Servadac

“Nothing, sir, can induce me to surrender my claim.”

“I am sorry, count, but in such a matter your views cannot modify mine.”

“But allow me to point out that my seniority unquestionably gives me a prior right.”

“Mere seniority, I assert, in an affair of this kind, cannot possibly entitle you to any prior claim whatever.”

“Then, captain, no alternative is left but for me to compel you to yield at the sword’s point.”

“As you please, count; but neither sword nor pistol can force me to forego my pretensions. Here is my card.”

“And mine.”

This rapid altercation was thus brought to an end by the formal interchange of the names of the disputants. On one of the cards was inscribed:

Captain Hector Servadac,
Staff Officer, Mostaganem.

On the other was the title:

Count Wassili Timascheff,
On board the Schooner “Dobryna.”

Of all the stories in the Voyages extraordinaires, Hector Servadac (often titled in English, Off on a Comet) is probably the wildest. Hector Servadac is a competent French army captain in Algeria, spending his days in administration and trying to woo a widow (the occasion for the challenge with which the book opens). Suddenly one day, however, the whole world seems go crazy -- the earth shakes; gravity changes; the coast of Algeria, and, indeed, most of Europe, vanishes; the sun rises and sets in the wrong places and at the wrong times. With the help of Ben-Zouf, who is his Algerian aide, and Count Timascheff, he learns that a comet has grazed the earth, tearing off a strip, which is now wrapped around the comet itself and speeding far away from earth on a two-year voyage, the temperature slowly but steadily cooling as they go. The thirty-six people on the comet will have to survive. And how will they get back to earth?

The story has what is probably the most baffling endings in Verne's works. Verne originally wanted a catastrophic ending in which everybody dies, but his publisher nixed that, on the grounds that his magazine was a family magazine. Given the premise, though, the options were quite limited, and what Verne chose leaves everything unexplained and inexplicable.

The story was sharply criticized by Jewish authorities for its comic relief character, who is a patchwork of Jewish stereotypes. Verne and his publisher publicly apologized, and attempted to tone the characterization down a bit, but translations had already begun to be made; almost all translations into English that have ever been done, for instance, have been based on the book as originally published. This controversial aspect, combined with the wildness of the premise, may be why the book did quite poorly, despite following after Michael Strogoff, which is one of the greatest successes in Verne's lifetime. It is in some ways a pity. Hector Servadac himself, for instance, is one of Verne's most likeable characters. But more than that, one wonders what the relatively weak sales closed off. In Autour de la lune Verne had raised the possibility of seeing the planets and even the stars. Hector Servadac's wildness is partly because the difficulty of visiting the planets is massively greater than even going to the moon (how, for instance, could you supply it?), and requires a correspondingly bolder approach. In that light, Verne's solution is quite as logical as could be found in the nineteenth century. Had Hector Servadac done much better than it did, one can well imagine Verne thinking about the next step in the kinds of voyages mentioned in Autour de la lune: interstellar travel. It would have been interesting to discover how he might have handled it; but he never went that direction again.

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