Prophets of Science Fiction

Last night’s ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ featured one of the most imaginative and perceptive science fiction writers of all time: Jules Verne. It’s not until you truly see the world that he lived in and how precise his science “fiction” theories were in his books, than you can truly appreciate his works. Verne was able to accurately predict innovations in technology and has often been described as the first Futurist.

In 1851, Verne had dropped out of law school. While visiting a family friend, Verne was told of his friend’s tales travelling around the world. This made him wonder…what else can be explored that hasn’t been before?

From the Earth to the Moon

Jules Verne From the Earth to the MoonIn 1865, Verne imagined a manned lunar mission. He began to create a way (and even made calculations) on how a man could travel to the moon that helped inspire the scientists who actually made it possible to travel there nearly a century later.

What makes this novel so amazing is that Verne’s calculations in it were so eerily accurate as to what was needed in order to get to the moon (he was about 10% off in his calculations). He wrote about how big the capsule would have to be, how many days it would take, he even managed to be within 50 miles from where the launch would have to take place for the moon to be in the right path to land. In the book, he had the characters splash down in the ocean and experience weightlessness (which at the time was only considered a theory, a guess at best). What Verne did get wrong in his book was that the space capsule would be launched via a large powerful cannon. But did he really get it wrong?

Only today has science finally managed a way to shoot cargo into space that could orbit the earth. Currently Quick Launch Inc. in San Diego is testing a “modern day space gun designed to launch fuel supplies into outer space.” Their goal is to provide propellant for orbiting fuel depots that would have a low orbit around a planet. This ‘gas station’ would help enable manned space exploration to Mars possible as fuel would be accessible for return trips.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaSpace was not the final frontier for Verne as he took the imagination to the depths of the sea in 1867 after attending the World’s Fair in Paris and found inspiration during a Naval presentation about a submersible. From the drawings, Verne studied the submersible and created what we now know as the Nautilus from the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

At the time, no one had ever travelled to the bottom of the sea. Who knew what would be found? In the novel, the Nautilus was captained by Captain Nemo who circled the globe and had nonstop adventures that only Verne’s mind could create.

At the time, the Nautilus was powered “all by electricity” which was a unique concept as the electricity was not widely used at the time. The concepts seen in this book (the beginnings of nuclear energy, the use of submarines for warfare and exploration, the use of pressure in an enclosed space under water) were way beyond the concepts scientists had then. It wasn’t until almost a century later that the first nuclear powered submarine was actually produced. In honor of the book that inspired the creation of this vessel, the US Navy named this oceanic wonder ‘The Nautilus.’

Some of Verne’s most memorable concepts in ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ were also some of his most dangerous. For example, the men of the Nautilus were armed with high tech electrical emission weapons which coincide with today’s version of the Taser Gun. Taser International is now boasting the prototype of Verne’s latent bullet concept from the book with their new Taser ammunition. It is a 12 gauge shot gun shell equipped with an extended range electronic projectile capable of electrocuting someone at far distances with a bullet instead of having to be connected to a wire as in traditional Taser guns. When the bullet strikes the human body, it separates into 2 connected components. The top part, where impact occurs, releases an electrical charge. Tiny barb wires connected to the bottom component create a positive-negative separation. The charge that occurs can incapacitate a person for 20 minutes and leaves no side effects left on the person tased.

The Mysterious Island

Jules Verne The Mysterious IslandIn 1874, Verne is now a considered a world-renown author in science fiction. Verne’s success in the genre was attributed to his studies of the latest scientific knowledge of his day and his interests in the science. He was known to really research the ideas in his head in order to see if it was a possibility given what was known at the time.

‘The Mysterious Island’ was considered Verne’s most fantastical stories and brought back the character of Captain Nemo. The Island had become Nemo’s personal utopia complete with a revolutionary source of energy, hydrogen power derived from sea water. Captain Nemo reveals that he believed that water would someday be considered a fuel and that the hydrogen and oxygen in water would provide an inexhaustible source of heat and light. This concept is just now being explored in our day with the use of hydrogen cell engines.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell engines are now being explored. These cells allow the engine to be powered by hydrogen which is obtained through the process of electrolysis. Hydrogen would then be stored much like gasoline is at gas stations. The technology is close to being marketable that by the year 2020, fuel cell cars will be mass produced.

Robur, the Conqueror

Jules Verne Robur the ConquerorWhen a fellow society member introduced Verne to the concept of propeller driven air craft, Verne’s imagination took off and he created the Albatross. (Remember, the first successful plane flight didn’t occur until 1903 by the Wright Brothers.) This book contained Verne’s ultimate villain, Robur, who is thought to be the first fictional supervillian. Robur masterminds the concept of world domination and is able to conceive his evil plans in the Albatross, a massively sized propelled flying machine, where he can look upon the world below.

(Here’s were ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ is at its best. As they show a conceptual artist drawing of the Albatross in Verne’s story, it morphs into the Marvel Comics S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrrier!)

In 2006, the idea of a flying command center is brought back to life by the Aeros Corporation. The Aeros Craft is a heavy hybrid aircraft that uses 6 turbo fan engines. The air ship is held aloft by helium and hydrogen fuel cell power propellers. It can travel the globe weeks at a time without landing and can land in any location. The next generation of the Aeros Craft is called the Aeros Cruiser, an airborne hotel with suites, spas and restaurants.

The Begums’ Fortune

In 1876, Verne was shot in the knee by his nephew Gaston. A week later, his long time friend and publisher, Pierre Hexel passed away. A lot of the optimism in Verne’s books had been attributed to Hexel. Hexel knew what the public wanted and steered Verne’s writing to reflect that.  When Hexel died, his son took over the business but was more of a laid back editor than his father and did not oversee Verne like his dad did. This accounted for a change in Verne’s writing and his dark side to become more prevelant.

In 1879, Verne writes a book called ’The Begum’s Fortune. The book was much darker than his previous works and spoke of racial hatred, nationalism and impeding war and was thought of as akin to a blue print to World War I. In this book, he introduces the concept of poison gas and airborne missiles use to deliver the gas which became an integral part of the German war machine in WWI.

Paris in the 20th Century

Jules Verne Paris in the 20th CenturyBy 1889, Verne’s descent into darkness continued. As he became more and more invalid, his sense of adventure and travel had waned due to his health and the coming war. His faith in the sciences is questioned as he sees it being used not for the benefit of mankind, but for destruction. In his depression, he begins to burn his unfinished and unpublished stories, but oddly decides to keep one to finish.

At age 35, Verne had submitted the manuscript for ‘Paris in the 20th Century’ to Hexel but he refused to publish it as he thought the story of a dystopian society was not exciting enough for the public. Verne decides to keep it untouched for the future where it stayed in a vault for over a century.

In 1996, his long lost novel was finally published. ‘Paris in the 20th Century’ was Verne’s vision of the future of technology and how he thought it would not end nicely. The story is about the last classical scholar who tries to establish a meaningful life and find love in a cold futuristic society. France has become a materialistic mechanized world filled with glass skyscrapers, gasoline powered cars, fax machines, television and something resembling the internet.  In the end, the scholar is pushed out of the community and eventually dies in the snow.

What made the book so amazing were the concepts Verne had written about while living in the 1870’s. The fact that a book written in the 19th century could still be insightful in the 20th serves to show how profound a writer Verne was.

The accuracy of Verne’s insight and imagination reflected in this episode was astounding! Although his other popular works like ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ were not touched upon, it doesn’t lessen the impact of what he has accomplished. Verne leaves a legacy for other science fiction writers to aspire to and proves that the most prolific writers of the genre are those who truly study the science around them and then allow their imagination to fly.

Next week, ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ will focus on the writings of Robert Heinlein.

If you missed last week’s episode, check out the recap of ‘Prophets of Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov.’