Sunday, August 05, 2018

Jules Verne, The Begum's Millions [with Paschal Grousset]; Robur the Conqueror; Master of the World


Opening Passages: From The Begum's Millions:

"These English newspapers are really quite well written!" the good doctor murmured to himself as he settled into a large leather armchair.

All his life Dr. Sarrasin had indulged in such soliloquies, no doubt a sign of a certain absentmindedness. (p. 1)

From Robur the Conqueror:

Bang! Bang!

The pistol shots were almost simultaneous. A cow peacefully grazing fifty yards away received one of the bullets in her back. She had nothing to do with the quarrel all the same.

From Master of the World:

If I speak of myself in this story, it is because I have been deeply involved in its startling events, events doubtless among the most extraordinary which this twentieth century will witness. Sometimes I even ask myself if all this has really happened, if its pictures dwell in truth in my memory, and not merely in my imagination. In my position as head inspector in the federal police department at Washington, urged on moreover by the desire, which has always been very strong in me, to investigate and understand everything which is mysterious, I naturally became much interested in these remarkable occurrences. And as I have been employed by the government in various important affairs and secret missions since I was a mere lad, it also happened very naturally that the head of my department placed in my charge this astonishing investigation, wherein I found myself wrestling with so many impenetrable mysteries. (p. 11)

Summary: 'Begum' can mean a number of different things, but in general it is an honorific title for a woman of very high standing and wealth. The occasion that sparks The Begum's Millions is the discovery that there are two living heirs to the vast fortune of a begum who has recently died in India and whom the British government has been trying to find for some time. One is Dr. Sarrasin of France, and the other is Professor Schultze of Germany. Dr. Sarrasin, a hygienic enthusiast in a time in which hygiene enthusiasms are rampant, proposes to use his part of the fortune to build a perfectly hygienic city, one that will be run on medical principles and avoid nasty, disease-breeding appurtenances of city life, like carpet and wallpaper. Professor Schultze takes the whole idea as not only absurd but as somehow personally offensive as a proposal coming from a degenerate Frenchman, and so decides to build another city devoted to destroying Dr. Sarrasin's city and proving the superiority of Germans over the rest of the world. They make deals with the United States to buy significant portions of the Oregon Territory, and thus in the Pacific Northwest there are soon built two cities: hyperhygienic France-Ville and hyperindustrial Stahlstadt. It is not, I think, an accident that the major powers -- France, German, Britain, and the United States -- all contribute to the crisis that will result. Professor Schultze makes his city a giant weapons factory, building the best weapons in the world, eagerly sought out by all the militaries of the world; his arsenal includes a secret bomb that will kill while leaving buildings standing and the most powerful cannon that has ever been made. Will the friends of Dr. Sarassin be able to stop him from firing his cannon in order to destroy the City of Well-Being? The answer is No. But Professor Schulze is playing with some dangerous toys, and not just dangerous to his enemies.

The other two works are more closely related to each other than to Begum, but Robur explicitly refers back to it, since the strange phenomena that are being seen in the sky are suggested at one point to be Professor Schultze's never-ending shot; they also share with it a theme of the problems that can come with new technological advances, if turned to personal grievance rather than the good of all. The Weldon Institute is full of aficionados interested in dirigibles, and they are trying to invent the best dirigible of all time. But a man named Robur attends who insists that what will really conquer the air is not the lighter-than-air dirigible but the heavier-than-air flying machine. When he is humiliated by Uncle Prudence and Phil Evans, the major figures in the Weldon Institute, he retaliates by kidnapping them and forcibly taking them on a journey around the world in his flying machine, The Albatross. They eventually escape, and The Albatross is destroyed, and they attempt to go on as if Robur hadn't changed the nature of flight forever; but Robur is not dead, and appears again in a new flying machine as they are testing their new dirigible. Once invented, it is out there.

Master of the World, like Robur the Conqueror, begins with a series of events, each more mysterious than the last, as strange things keep happening. Finally people start piecing together the evidence to form a picture: the strange happenings are due to a machine that can somehow go on land, on water, under water, and (as they discover later) through the air. Every nation in the world wants it, because it would give an insuperable military advantage to anyone who had it. John Strock, a federal detective, manages to hunt down the machine, which he discovers is called The Terror, and captained by its inventor, Robur, who has taken to calling himself the Master of the World. Can John Strock destroy or capture The Terror in time to save the world from a man who will unleash terror on any nation in the world, as he pleases? The answer is No. But Robur's diabolical pride will go before a fall; devils are cast down from heaven.

One of the difficulties with technological advance is that it destroys as well as builds, and it cannot really be undone; if someone can invent a supercannon or an amazing flying machine, it is now proven to be possible for anyone with sufficient ingenuity and resources. The attempt of Uncle Prudence and Phil Evans to pretend that dirigibles are still the future of air travel when they have seen The Albatross is nothing but folly. But at the same time, pride and malice can do terrible things with the technology. There is no significant technology that militaries do not attempt to turn into weapons of war -- if there is a way to use it, they will find it. People may use technological advances to perpetrate new and horrendous criminal acts, and perhaps even to do it with impunity. The only things that prevent this from spiraling entirely out of control into a dystopian nightmare are concern for public welfare (Begum), ordinary human compassion (Robur), and humility (Master). But in dealing with human beings, none of these can simply be assumed. Every technological advance gives us new and almost divine power; and every technological advance is a test of our humanity, because it can tempt us to act like devils until we destroy ourselves and others.

In addition to the books, I watched the Master of the World movie with Charles Bronson and Vincent Price, which was great fun -- a low-budget movie, but excellently done. It is only semi-faithful as an adaptation; it collapses Robur and Master (although it draws mostly from the former), works to build up more sympathy for Robur than the books do, and of course creates the inevitable love triangle, but it also obviously makes an attempt to capture elements of both books and never loses sight of the fact that Robur's invention is wonderful as well as terrible. Price is excellent and Bronson fairly good; the writing is quite decent and makes up for a lot of the obvious budget limitations; and they unabashedly play up what we would call the steampunk elements in a way that works. Cinemeatic adaptations of Verne tend to be very bad, but this, while making the usual Hollywood 'improvements', actually results in something worth seeing.

Favorite Passages: From The Begum's Millions, part of our introduction to Professor Schultze, which must be a record for German stereotypes per word:

The professor set his newspaper on the edge of the table and continued working on an article that was to appear two days later in the periodical Annalen für Physiologie (Annals for Physiology). There would be no indiscretion in revealing that this article had for its title:

Why Are All Frenchmen Stricken in Different Degrees with Hereditary Degeneration?

While the professor pursued his task, the dinner composed of a large plate of sausages and sauerkraut, flanked by a gigantic stein of beer, had been discreetly served on a round table by the corner of the fireplace. The professor set down his pen to eat his supper, which he savored more than one might expect of a man so serious. Then he rang for his coffee, lit a great porcelain pipe, and returned to his work. (p. 34)

From Robur the Conqueror:

In an instant a majestic sound, a roar as of the tempest, mounted towards them and, as if a humid fog had been projected into the air, the atmosphere sensibly freshened. Below were the liquid masses. They seemed like an enormous flowing sheet of crystal amid a thousand rainbows due to refraction as it decomposed the solar rays. The sight was sublime.

Before the falls a footbridge, stretching like a thread, united one bank to the other. Three miles below was a suspension-bridge, across which a train was crawling from the Canadian to the American bank.

"The falls of Niagara!" exclaimed Phil Evans....

From Master of the World:

"Now, sir," said she, "now--was I wrong?"

"Wrong? About what?"

"In saying that the Great Eyrie was the home of the devil?"

"Nonsense; this Robur was not the devil!"

"Ah, well!" replied the old woman, "he was worthy of being so!" (p. 127)

Recommendation: Recommended, all.


Jules Verne, Master of the World, Airmont Publishing (New York: 1965).

Jules Verne, The Begum's Millions, Luce, tr., Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CN: 2005).

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