Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne


Axel Lidenbrock, nephew of the dedicated scientist and professor Otto Lidenbrock, is pressured by his uncle to join him in a fantastic voyage from their Germany to Iceland, and thence into the belly of a volcano, where he hopes to trace the footsteps of a medieval alchemist who claims to have traveled to the center of the earth.  Axel reluctantly parts ways with his beloved Grauben (the Professor's god-daughter) and heads off into the unknown with his uncle and their preternaturally proficient and uber-reliable Icelandic guide Hans.  But will they really be able to travel into the center of the earth?  How will they get there?  What will they find?  And how will they ever get back?

This is a decent enough story (which makes sense, given its reputation as a classic work of science fiction).  the three main characters--the Professor, Axel (the narrator), and Hans)--are well drawn, and good thing too, since we spend almost the whole book with these three.  The Professor is dedicated to the point of mania and unfailingly optimistic about the success of their mission.  Hans, who speaks only Danish (and thus is unintelligible to the narrator and to us) is conveniently capable and willing to follow the Professor into any danger or seemingly hopeless situation, provided he is paid his weekly wages.  Indeed, more than once, he functions as a sort of deus ex machina to get the other two characters out of a tight spot.

As for Axel . . . well, he belongs in a Lovecraft story.  By which I mean, he is prone to fits of despondency and gloom and has a tendency to faint when things get too intense.  He waxes eloquent about Grauben, is devastated to be parted from her, is convinced the journey will be a failure, then becomes elated at its possible success, only to bemoan their certain demise when things go poorly.  He is the perpetual pessimist poking holes in the Professor's upbeat certitude.  Until, of course, he decides that they might just succeed, at which point he becomes positively giddy.  Not, perhaps, the most scientifically minded individual.

Still, for all that, it's a pretty enjoyable read.  The voyage drags on a bit--first they have to get to Iceland and make arrangements for their descent, which takes a while, then they're in tunnels for quite a while, then sailing on an underground sea for a while longer, and so forth and so on.  They do find some interesting things, but it takes a while before the reader gets that payoff.  The focus really is the journey, as the title suggests, and the reader spends a veritable eternity with the trio as they navigate the bowels of the earth.

Definitely worth picking up if you enjoy old-school adventure stories, or if you just want to catch up on the classic science fiction that paved the way for the flashier, faster-paced stories we love today.  No sex or violence, really, though there's plenty of 'danger'--this should be fine for younger audiences, if they can pay attention through all the long and occasionally monotonous passages.  Though at 160 pages, give or take, even the monotonous bits don't drag on for too long.  The audiobook, narrated by Simon Pebble, is quite good (there is another version narrated by Tim Curry, which I suspect is also worth checking out).

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