Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Voyages extraordinaires #34: Sans dessus dessous

"So, Mr. Maston, you claim that women are incapable of even advancing either the mathematical or the experimental sciences?"

"I'm afraid that is what I am forced to think, Mrs. Scorbitt, said J.-T. Maston. "It's certainly the case that there have been, and even are now, a few astonishing lady mathematicians, particularly in Russia. But, with the type of brains females have, no woman could ever become an Archimedes or still less a Newton."

"Oh, Mr. Maston! I protest in the name of our sex...."

[Jules Verne, The Earth Turned Upside Down, Sophie Lewis, tr., Hesperus Press (London: 2012), p. 3.]

Mr. Maston, of the Baltimore Gun Club, should perhaps be a little less self-important; as we discover, despite his prodigious algebraic ability, he's not quite an Archimedes, either.

Sans dessus dessous, often titled in English, Topsy-Turvy, or The Earth Turned Upside Down, or The Purchase of the North Pole, is the third of the Baltimore Gun Club books. Twenty years after the historic trip to and around the moon, President Barbicane, Captain Nicholls, and J. T. Maston are hatching a new scheme for the next generation of artillery engineering, one that, with the help of Captain Nicholls's new explosive, melimelonite (literally, 'mish-mash-ite') or dyna-mix (as Lewis decides to translate it), will shake the world. On the basis of some evidence that there are coal deposits in the Arctic, they purchase it in an auction. But how are they going to get to the coal? Well, since it involves the Baltimore Gun Club, you know that it will involve a very, very big cannon.

The work is highly comical; Verne's full satirical vein is seen here (my favorite is when the British try to organize a collective effort among the Europeans to lock the Americans out by outbidding them and it fails because none of the nations are willing to promise more than a few dollars for fear that it would put them on the hook for more than their neighbors, a beautiful symbolic caricature of most European efforts to stop Americans from doing whatever they want), and the buffoonery that often came out in From Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon is taken to the limit. It's a fun romp, but it also touches on a number of serious themes that are common in Verne's works. Verne remarks more than once, that nobody consults any of the people who actually live in the Arctic, or any of the poor nations that will be affected by the scheme. The work presents a picture of single-minded devotion to 'scientific progress', regardless of the consequences, as if real scientific progress was not progress by being a benefit to all humanity rather than a juggernaut rolling over anyone who stands in its way. And it is also a commentary that these big, boundary-breaking ventures in 'scientific progress' are often themselves based on a wholly unwarranted confidence.

Sans dessus dessous is interesting with respect to the whole series of Voyages extraordinaires, because it binds together a number of them. It is, of course, an explicit sequel to De la terre à la lune (#4) and Autour de la lune (#7), but it also explicitly mentions in the course of the story two other works: Hector Servadac (#15) and L'École des Robinsons (#22). I find it interesting that Verne did this, in part because it puts a number of his crazier and more satirical stories in the same 'fictional universe', as we would call it -- a universe in which one of the least crazy things is a billionaire spending absurd quantities of money to buy an island to play a practical joke.

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