Off on a Comet


The reputation of Jules Verne is so firmly tied to science fiction—a genre people tend to associate with space rockets and fly-eyed aliens and robots with biscuit-tin-shaped heads—that it is a striking thing to realise how infrequently the standard features of that genre occur in his writing. There are no aliens anywhere in any of his books; no automata; and, perhaps most striking of all, he almost never wrote stories about space exploration. This last point is rather strange, because the one thing that Verne’s novels all have in common is a fascination with travel and exploration. His series of “voyages extraordinaires”, “extraordinary voyages”, detail strange and wonderful adventures all across the world. He sends characters into the bowels of a hollow Earth in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), through the submarine world in Twenty thousand leagues under the seas (1869-70), all the way around the globe in Around the world in eighty days (1872).

But in all his eighty (or so) novels, there are only two in which characters leave the Earth. One, Around the Moon (1870) concerns a number of adventurers who are fired out of a giant gun in a cannon-shell shaped spaceship; they hurtle through space to the moon but do not land upon it. Instead they swing round the dark side and return safely to Earth. This adventure does not even include a rocket ship, since Verne’s craft flies ballistically the whole way.

In all the remainder of Verne’s many technologically inventive and fantastic voyages only one other takes us away from the Earth. It is Hector Servadac (1877), and it is one of Verne’s strangest and, I think, most powerful works.

The story is as follows: heroic French army captain Hector Servadac and his faithful orderly (an example of what used, before the DC Comics hero rendered the usage comically inappropriate, to be called a batman) Ben Zoof are stationed in Algeria. A violent earthquake leaves them relatively unharmed, but seems to have depopulated their world. They meet up with a Russian Count, who also survived the quake aboard his private yacht; and together they explore the Mediterranean.

The world has changed in peculiar ways. Most of the famous landmarks have gone. Gravity has been reduced, and the sun is rising in the west and setting in the east. They sail eastward and land at what they think is Corfu, only to discover that it is actually Gibraltar—the Western Mediterranean is now the whole world, and they have sailed right round it. They pick up a few further survivors, amongst them a group of Spaniards, a young peasant boy and a young girl, a Jewish trader, and an eminent astronomer.

The truth is soon revealed. A comet has shot through the Earth like a bullet grazing a grapefruit, and has carried away several portions of the Mediterranean world. As it continues on its interplanetary way, swinging out towards the further reaches of the solar system, it becomes colder and colder. The sea freezes, and eventually the surface of the planetesimal becomes too cold to support life. Of the thirty-six humans still alive on board the strange asteroid, most huddle together in a volcanic cave (the British garrison at Gibraltar nobly and rather pig-headedly stick to their posts). By perseverance and human ingenuity the survivors endure this freezing cold. The comet’s two year parabola brings it, eventually, back sunwards; the world thaws; and the survivors make plans to return themselves to Earth. These are makeshift and rather hard to credit—two ships are broken up and made into a hot-air balloon, the sails being sewn together to make the canopy and the timber the car. At the crucial moment the population climb into this and rise above the surface of their little world. As it crashes through the Earth’s atmosphere (missing, this time, the ground) they are sucked free and float back down to their terrestrial home.

The last chapter is one of the strangest. Verne wanted to portray a world still reeling from the devastation caused by the comet’s impact; but his publisher Hetzel persuaded him that readers would rebel against so glum a conclusion.

In almost all Verne’s novels, travellers go out, have a series of wild and astounding adventures, and then return to find the world precisely as they left it. But in the case of Hector Servadac, after a preliminary catastrophe that clearly must have wrought the most appalling destruction on world civilisation, it is hard to see how Verne is going to manage this return to the status quo ante, and so satisfy Hetzel and his happy-ending-loving reading public. In fact what Verne writes is a hallucinatory final scene, where the returning travellers come back to a world that, it seems, was never struck by the comet at all—nobody remembers the catastrophe, the world seems wholly unaffected, and the travellers themselves begin to doubt the veracity of their own experiences.

What is going on here? It is, certainly, more than the exigencies of a commercially minded publisher disinclined to alienate his readership. It articulates something essential about Verne’s appeal. His novels range widely over and under the world, and are stuffed with the latest (nineteenth-century) discoveries in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, social geography and technology. The reader of a Verne novel encounters a wide variety of wonders, strangenesses and othernesses; and yet his fictions are grounded at all points in a series of fundamentally comforting bourgeois social and cultural certainties. The books are often built around marvellous machines that threaten radically to change the world: Nemo’s supersubmarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the moon-ship in From the Earth to the Moon, Robur’s flying battleship in Robur the Conqueror, the enormous cannon in Anti-Topsy-Turvy. This last is a particular favourite of mine: the Baltimore Gun Club (the same boys who fired the crewed projectile at the moon in From the Earth to the Moon) have built an even larger cannon, and plan to fire it such that its massive recoil will jolt the world out of its axial inclination, thereby bringing millions of acres of previously barren polar and Antarctic land (which they have purchased at bargain rates) into pleasant cultivatability. But in all these cases the threat is averted. The Baltimore gun club get its calculations wrong; Robur’s flying fortress and Nemo’s submarine are destroyed, the lunar craft travels around the moon and comes back to Earth. Everything at the end of these books is exactly as it was at the beginning. One of the many pleasures of reading Verne is exactly this skill at giving his readers a controlled excursion into strangeness, a sort of package tour that guarantees our safe return to the world with which we are familiar. In other words, and despite the ceaseless to-ing and froing in his books there is a sort of stasis at the heart of Verne’s imaginings.

In no book is this principle more plain, or more fantastically elaborated, than in Hector Servadac. The protagonists of this novel travel much further than any other of Verne’s travellers; their circumstances seem to entail the wholesale destruction of the old world. And yet at the end they are all returned safely, with happy endings for all of them.

Travel, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, is at the heart of Verne’s enduring appeal. It’s no coincidence that the great age of exploration was, in fact, coming to an end by the last stages of the nineteenth-century, and was being replaced by the age of tourism. Verne’s books combine the satisfactions of the latter with the excitements of the former. Our world has gone from terra incognita to terra cognita; and by the end of the nineteenth-century it had, pretty much, been entirely discovered and explored. In such a world, Verne’s fictions tap into the substratum of human yearning for undiscovered mysterious voyages. In other words, Verne created an imaginative space into which the exploring urge could relocate itself, a fictive recreation of the world as unknown and full of hidden marvels. This space was grounded at all times in contemporary discourses of what was possible, and was bounded at all times by what contemporary scientists told him was known: unlike other writers (the more imaginatively freewheeling H. G. Wells, for instance) Verne almost never extrapolated or speculated. In an important sense his imaginative realm was not escapist; it was very particularly continually being brought back to the world with which his readers were familiar. Travel is more enjoyable if we know that the comforts of home remain as something to which, finally, we can return.

At the same time, Verne was too good a writer—too expert in the actual way the world is—fully to believe this attractive fantasy. By and large we don’t, and can’t, simply go back to the way things used to be.

What the almost surreal final chapter of Hector Servadac does is put as much strain on our readerly willing suspension of disbelief as possible; so much, indeed, as effectively to break it. By doing so, Verne neatly unpicks the escapist weave of his genre.

What are we to make of this novel? It presents us with a wholly fantastical premise (carried away from the Earth on a comet? And the protagonists survive this collision? And the comet carries with it air, water and land as well as humans, animals and birds? Surely not!), and then carefully and meticulously embroiders actual scientific detail in such a manner that we actually begin to believe the fantasy (perhaps, just perhaps all these events are only fantastically improbable rather than impossible)—only to pull the rug out from under our feet right at the end. It is playing a complex and enjoyable game with its readers; showing them wonders, making them think, and above all confronting them with the nature of fiction, of belief itself.

This is why the novel is my favourite in the whole Verne canon. Not just because it contains the highest proportion of hyper-terrestrial wonders (although it does). Because it makes plain what I take to be the actual nature of science fiction.

At the beginning of this brief introduction I mentioned, in passing, the dismissively caricature version of SF that many people hold in their heads: silver cigar-shaped rockets riding a strawberry coloured blast of flame; aliens like bugs and slugs, or else green-skinned Playboy pinups (circa 1955) in metal bikinis. But this is a deep misunderstanding of what SF is. It may be that SF writers choose to employ these clichés— perhaps in a joyfully tongue-in-cheek manner, perhaps in a grumpily satiric acknowledgement of the way most people regard their genre. But these are the trappings, not the heart, of the genre. Shakespeare is not a handful of stage props, and science fiction is not the half-dozen familiar tropes (space exploration, time travel, alien encounter, cybernetics, virtual reality, alternate reality) that its writers sometimes reuse. SF is at heart a commitment to a fully imaginative literature; a reaching out of the mind towards alterity, newness, to the strange and the wonderful. SF writers and fans have access to an eloquent phrase, “sense of wonder”, to describe what they are about. Wonder, which is the operative element in beauty, in joy, and in intellectual fulfilment, is the most precious resource at any artist’s disposal.

As a result of the fact that SF is determined by an imaginative reengagement with the facts of the world—because SF sets out to represent the world without reproducing it—the genre as a whole tends to be a metaphorical or symbolic literature. The space ships and aliens exist, in SF, both as themselves (in terms of the storyline) and as something else (in terms of the emotional or aesthetic resonance of the whole). The Matrix is both an internally consistent part of a particular story, and a metaphor for the sense of social alienation and anomie many people feel in the modern world. The one complements, rather than contradicts, the other.

So, in Hector Servadac, the journey on the comet is on the one hand a fantastic voyage, worked through with characteristic Vernean thoroughness and detail. And it is, at the same time a symbolic narrative, something that works not by means of rational discursive explanation, but a more oblique and resonant set of thematic co-ordinations.

Part of this second field of interpretation is that sense, which occurs several times in Verne’s writing, that we are reading about a world in miniature, a modular recreation of the world. This, it hardly needs to be said, is something deeply science fictional: the creation of a smaller model of our world in order to explore one aspect of life, or to try the experiment of changing one aspect of our lives. Small does not mean trivial, here; and the best science fiction addresses central questions—of sex, gender, identity, technology, otherness. Verne is no different. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus is one such, manmade world, entirely selfsufficient; and, mobile in the mobile element of the sea, it becomes a way of talking about the fluidity of the nineteenth-century Imperial world (a world that the idealistic Nemo opposes). The narrow corridors and luminous sea-filled caves of Voyage to the Centre of the Earth is another, larger world; and by making their painstaking way through this subterra, Verne’s characters are also groping their way through the resonances of the subconscious mind, filled with the wonders and terrors of dreaming.

Hector Servadac isolates a large-scale model of the world: the Mediterranean Sea, or more specifically the western portions of it, split off and set to function as a world in its own right. Verne’s method of isolating this world for his dramatic purposes is, of course, the passing comet; but even here, and despite all Verne’s painstaking research into the state of cometary research in the 1870s, all of which gets carefully reproduced in the novel—even here the comet is both itself and a symbol for something else. Late in the novel we discover that the comet is actually what we would nowadays call an asteroid; which is to say, its composition is not water-ice and dirt, but, strikingly, 69% “tellurite”and 31% solid gold.

This enables Verne to use his tale as a means of exploring some interesting questions of money. Some of his characters define themselves as idealistically removed from the world of filthy lucre: Servadac himself by his sheer and rather stiffly consistent sense of honour; Palmyrin Rosette by his obsessive dedication to pure science. But other characters in the book, like the down-to-earth Ben Zoof, or the sketched-in group of Spaniards, have a more realistic sense of the importance of money; the small group of Spaniards, it turns out, rather venally sold Ceuta to the British for gold just before the catastrophe. And this thematic of money explains the surprising extent to which the novel focuses on the character of Isaac Hakkabut.

Hakkabut makes for uneasy reading nowadays; Verne treats him purely as a caricature of the grasping, money-grubbing Jew, an antiSemitism that is all the more dangerously virulent for being nowhere in the novel explicitly spelt out, but which figures rather as the cultural background noise of the whole story, as if it is something Verne assumes his readers will necessarily share. Rather than share his supplies with the community as a whole, Hakkabut insists on selling them at monstrously inflated prices; he is villainous, craven, unprincipled and repulsive. The rest of the community shuns him.

There’s no call to defend the racism of this novel, and no basis upon which a defence could be made (as, for instance, those people who argue that anti-Semitism was less deplorable in the nineteenth-century because it was a more widely held belief—a spurious argument if ever I heard one). But it is worth asking why Verne perseveres with this character, why he gets so much time in the novel centre-stage. Some of this has to do with a dubious comic principle; as for example in the scene in which (for instance) Servadac cheats the cheating Hakkabut by using the fact that gravity on the comet is one-seventh of Earth’s by, much to the trader’s anguished chagrin, buying seven kilograms of goods from him at the price of one.

I think there is something more important happening here. Verne’s story is of a fantastical journey throughout the solar system aboard a golden comet—a body literally made of gold. In such an environment, the gold is so ubiquitous as to become worthless (worthless to everybody except the hoarding Hakkabut). Servadac and his companions explore a cave, but Verne reports that they did not “have the design of making any further examination as to the nature of the rock—for although it might be true enough that it contained thirty per cent gold, it was as valueless to them as granite.” And yet, the group eventually does return to Earth, where a goodly chunk of this gold would have made them wealthy. In the light of this improbably happy ending, Hakkabut’s assiduous savings look more prudent than foolish, and Servadac’s insistence that he leave his money behind (supposedly because it would weigh down the balloon) looks more vindictive than defensible.

Verne returned to the idea of a golden asteroid in a later novel (this one may, say scholars, actually have been written by Verne’s son under his father’s name): La Chasse au météore, “The Hunt for the Meteor”(1908). In that novel a large meteorite composed of solid gold crashes into the polar wastes, and various groups rush to recover it, even though (as several characters note) so enormous a quantity of gold would collapse the financial systems of the world. In the event the meteor, still superheated from its collision, melts through the polar ice and is lost forever at the bottom of the ocean. But it seems to me illuminating to consider Hector Servadac from the more nakedly mercenary perspective of the later novel.

One of the features of bourgeois life is that, whilst material affluence is taken for granted and enjoyed, any reference to the business of actually making or spending money is considered vulgarly infra dig. It is a mode of life simultaneously steeped in money and superstitiously averse to any reference to money. The bourgeois dream is that the trappings of an affluent life—a big house, lovely clothes, fine food, and (of course) lots of varied and interesting holidays, travel to all the most interesting portions of the globe—are simply the natural lot of certain people. Verne certainly lived as affluent and comfortable a bourgeois life as any; his father was a lawyer, his novels made him rich; he had several houses, a large private yacht. But he knows that these things are not facts of existence like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics. Money is an everpresent feature of modern life, however much we wish it away.

Travel, after all, is expensive. Explorers like Columbus spent as much time raising funding for their expeditions as they did actually expediting. Now that the cultural logic has shifted to tourism, we understand more directly that it costs money to see the sights, and costs considerably more money to see the more exotic sights. In his novels Verne generally elides this consideration: his travellers are, like Phineas Fogg or Captain Nemo, drawn from that nebulous class of the Super Rich, who are able to indulge their fancies without worrying about how to pay for them. Hector Servadac has one such character, the Russian count Timascheff; but Servadac himself is a military man of no family. More, in the prominent character of Hakkabut the novel possesses one individual who refuses to accede to the social fiction that money doesn’t really exist. Isaac is constantly aware that money must be made; and by giving him so much space in the novel Verne is including a tacit critique of the purely escapist and (paradoxically) more fantastical Earthbound volumes in his library of extraordinary voyages. It is a nod to the economic (as well as the geological, physical and astronomical) realities of the situation his characters find themselves in. Riding an asteroid of gold through the killing chill of deep space becomes, I think, a potent metaphor for the numbing refusal to acknowledge the way the logic of trading and monetary exchange shapes, and can crush, our lives. It is a mode of dying, and one brilliantly and hauntingly spelt out in this novel: the odd name Servadac, after all, is cadavers (“cadavres” in French) backwards. Dying is figured here as a long-drawn out process of attrition and cold; and the bizarre final chapter—in which, after a perilous crossing, the protagonists find themselves in a happy kingdom—reads as a deliberately supernatural gloss on its inevitability. And no amount of money, not even a world made of gold, can buy you out from this fate.

But this is only one reading. The joy of this novel, of any Verne fiction, is that it doesn’t need deeper interpretation, even when such interpretation is available to us. His prime virtues as a storyteller are his iron grip of the logic of plot; his ability to keep a reader turning page after page to find out more about this extraordinary world, the heroic or villainous characters, about the slowly unfolding explanation of events and, above all, about what is going to happen next. You open the book; and then Verne, the master storyteller, will whisk you away on a story as solid gold and as unstoppable as his central asteroid.

Adam Roberts



A Note on the Text

The English translation of Hector Servadac that follows is based upon the version by Ellen E. Frewer, published in 1877 under the rather cheesy title Off on A Comet. It is a basically sound piece of translation, although in common with most nineteenth-century English versions of Verne, it takes a number of liberties with the source text, most of which have been corrected in the present edition. These include: the condensing of Verne’s dialogue into much briefer prose summaries of what was said; the omission of Verne’s original chapter titles; shifting around elements in some chapters, and a free hand with others (for instance, I found Frewer’s treatment of the character of Isaac Hakkabut to be markedly more anti-Semitic than Verne’s original). Worst of all is the tendency to omit Verne’s scientific digressions altogether. Chapter XXVII of the original French novel is simply cut out of Frewer’s Off on A Comet, and a number of other passages were silently removed. These passages, including chapter XXVII, have been restored to this edition, and the whole thing has undergone a process of titivation.—A.R.

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Introduction Copyright © 2007 Adam Roberts
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:43 $