Today on Project Gutenberg #46

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Master of the World by Jules Verne

AW YEAH, IT’S VERNE TIME, Y’ALL. Wait, is it even legal to use “Verne” and “y’all” in the same sentence?

Out of all the 19th-century authors that I enjoy, I must admit I have a soft spot for Jules Verne. Throughout his long writing career, he gave us thrilling, fantastical adventure tales like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days and many more. His unique, very Victorian brand of sci-fi became the defining influence on the subgenre of steampunk. In short, he’s pretty much essential reading for any lover of science fiction, fantasy and classic lit.

The Master of the World is one of Verne’s lesser known works. It was actually one of his last novels, published in 1904. Verne’s health was failing as he wrote the book, and he would pass away the following year. As you may expect from a story written by a dying man, it concerns itself with the possibilities of the future — and the fears of what the future may bring.

In 1903, the town of Morganton, North Carolina is thrown into chaos and panic when a nearby mountain, the Great Eyrie, begins to spew fire. On the roads outside Philadelphia, eyewitnesses glimpse a vehicle moving so fast that it kicks up whirlwinds of dust and barely appears visible. A similar machine is spotted in Milwaukee. What does it all mean? John Strock, a police inspector from Washington DC, is sent out to unravel the mystery. And what he discovers is that all these strange occurrences — even the volcanic activity — are the work of an inventor as brilliant as he is tyrannical.

This book is actually one of Verne’s few sequels, as it’s a follow-up to his earlier novel Robur the Conquerer. The titular Robur is also the titular Master of the World. In his first appearance, he was a bold, arrogant inventor/aviator who showed up to prove that heavier-than-air travel was the way of the future. But when he shows up in this novel, however, he’s a violent megalomaniac who seems to have a grudge against humanity, declaring his plans to terrorize the nations of the world as he pleases with his latest invention. Said invention is the Terror, the mysterious and impossibly fast vessel from earlier. It’s a remarkable machine indeed, because it has the ability to change into a car, a speedboat, a submarine and an airplane!

In truth, did not the possession of so complete and marvelous a machine justify the name of Master of the World, which Robur had taken to himself? Certain it is that the comfort and even the lives of the public must have been forever in danger from him; and that all methods of defence [sic] must have been feeble and ineffective.

But the pride which I had seen rising bit by bit within the heart of this prodigious man had driven him to give equal battle to the most terrible of all the elements. It was a miracle that I had escaped safe and sound from that frightful catastrophe.

Chapter 18

For those who are familiar with Verne’s most famous works, the tone of this story may come as a surprise: it’s much more dark and cynical than almost everything else he wrote, especially in regards to the technology being presented. In Twenty Thousand Leagues, for example, the narrator is able to sympathize with the antagonist even after seeing his ruthless side, as well as see the beauty and wonder in the antagonist’s inventions. But in this story, the great invention fills the narrator with a sense of dread, and the readers are supposed to react that way also. It’s enough to make you wonder how Verne would have reacted had he lived to see the real-life inventions and weapons that the twentieth century had in store.

If you haven’t read Verne before, I wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. Start with something like Around the World in Eighty Days, which is more in line with his usual fare (and also a blast to read). And I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading the Project Gutenberg version of this, either: some of the older English translations of Verne are notoriously inaccurate. But you should give this one a shot if you’re familiar with Verne already and want to compare this story to his later, more optimistic works. It’s a striking contrast.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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