Born February 8, 1828, Jules Gabriel Verne is truly the father of science fiction writing. This prolific author’s meticulous research on every subject he covered, combined with grand story-telling ability, created stories filled with wonder, whimsy, and truth about the natural world of his time.
As a child in Madame Sambin’s dame school in his home town of Nantes, France, young Verne was impressed by the widow’s fantastic stories about her husband’s adventures. Eternally hopeful for her husband’s return even after 30 years, she wove many tales about the naval captain being shipwrecked and living as a castaway just like Robinson Crusoe. The themes of these tales stayed with Verne through his life, and inspired stories and novels including The Mysterious Island, Second Fatherland, and The Robinson Crusoe School. Later vacations spent with his uncle, a ship owner who had sailed the world, also spurred his imagination and desire to travel. Verne memorialized the time spent with his uncle in two of his later novels: The Will of an Eccentric and Robur the Conqueror.
Verne later attended Catholic school, and wrote poetry and stories, even a memoir of sorts which contained humorous anecdotes about the school. He was greatly influenced by the writing of Victor Hugo, which can be seen in his writing style.
His father expected him to take over the family law practice, so Jules was sent to Paris to take exams, a requirement of all provincial law students at that time.
In 1847, 19-year-old Verne entered war-torn Paris shortly before the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as President of France. The apartment he lived in was in close proximity to several salons – meetings of intelligent, artistic minds in various locations. Using his family’s influence, he soon rubbed shoulders with Alexander Dumas, senior and junior, among others, and by 1850, he was writing and producing plays with the younger Dumas, which were partially financed by the elder. Verne was later hired as secretary of the Theatre Lyrique, and while it didn’t pay much, he was able to write and produce several comic operas.
His father waited for Verne to return to Nantes to take over the law practice, but the younger Verne had discovered that he enjoyed writing much more than practicing law. He soon worked for Musees des families, a family magazine that contained both realistic and truthful information written in a plain, accessible prose. Verne was a natural, writing travel stories which he researched thoroughly. He later stated that these tales were “the first indication of the line of novel that I was destined to follow.”
Verne’s father began to pressure him to abandon his writing and return home to take over the family law practice. In January of 1852, Verne finally responded by saying, “Am I not right to follow my own instincts? It’s because I know who I am that I realize what I can be one day.”
While researching in the Biblioteque Nationale de France, Verne met Jacques Arago, a world traveler who, despite losing his eyesight completely several decades before, was still an intelligent and witty man. It was through his friendship with Arago that Verne began working in the new genre of travel writing.
After breaking with the editor of the Musees de families, Verne continued to develop his idea for a “novel of science,” which would incorporate science and geographical facts in a fictional story. In 1862, he sent his first such manuscript, Voyage en Ballon, to Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who published Balzac, Sand, Hugo, and many other well known authors. Hetzel had long been planning to launch a high-quality family magazine in which entertaining fiction would combine with scientific education. He recognized Verne’s talent in this area, and in January of 1863 the story “Five Weeks in a Balloon” was published by Hetzel.
Verne’s habit of researching everything he wrote as completely as he could meant his work was based in reality. His goal was to “depict the earth [and] at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style”.
Later in 1863, Verne had written a novel called Paris in the Twentieth Century, about a young man who lives in a world of glass skyscrapers, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network, yet he cannot find happiness and comes to a tragic end. Hetzel thought the novel’s pessimism would damage Verne’s then-blossoming career, and suggested that he wait 20 years to publish it. Verne stored the manuscript in a safe, where it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989. The long-lost novel was first published in 1994, around the same time many other Verne novels and short stories were also published for the first time; these are gradually appearing in English translations.
Due to the popularity of Verne’s plays and novels, his literary reputation gradually was reduced among his peers, until he was seen as a mere spinner of yarns, and not a serious author worthy of academic study. After his death in March of 1905, Verne began to accrue a cult following in his homeland, especially among the surrealist and avant-garde artists of the time.
Despite Verne’s statements that he was not a scientist and did not invent anything, his work has inspired many scientists and inventors, from Robert Goddard to Igor Sikorsky, even Jacques Cousteau. His ability to create entertaining and wonderful tales about mysterious far off places while infusing them with actual scientific and geographical information definitely qualifies him as one of the earliest writers of true science fiction.
Today, Jules Verne is the second most translated author in the world, between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Jules Verne may have been the most translated author in the world. In the past, his works were adulterated and watered down to a level that publishers thought children would understand and relate to. Many of us as children have read (or watched movies based on) the works of Jules Verne. However, the unabridged versions of his works are more suited to adults, with the full weight of his scientific research intact. If you can find newer, complete translation of his works, treat yourself to an entirely new Jules Verne!