Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Review: Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne

A curious experiment in probing the minds of fans

More or less a year and a half ago, the North American Jules Verne Society posted a call for submissions to a planned anthology of short stories inspired by Verne's oeuvre. These could be sequels, prequels, sidequels, or original pieces using the same vibe or setting. The result is the book Extraordinary Visions, which contains thirteen stories from across the Anglosphere.

What this collection contains is the purest form of fanfiction—and here I must be very clear that by "fanfiction" I don't mean anything derogatory. These stories consciously seek to honor and perpetuate Verne's style, buttressed by the state of scientific knowledge that existed during his lifetime. This is the highest form of flattery Verne could have hoped for from his readers; indeed, one can read Extraordinary Visions as a historical register of the state of English-speaking Verne fandom at this moment of the 21st century. However, in terms of literary quality, the success of the experiment is mixed.

The Dominion of All the Earth, by Joseph S. Walker, a belated epilogue to Journey to the Center of the Earth, suffers from too much loyalty to the original text. The dialogues try for antique but come off as stilted and verbose. The protagonist has done all his actions prior to the story proper, leaving him only with the role of sitting and listening to seven pages of exposition, and that's the end. If we judged this text by today's narrative conventions, the first criticism would be that this is not a protagonist propelling the action; this is a protagonist having the action dumped onto him.

However, when considered as what it really tries to be, an epilogue to the original novel, it fits perfectly. On its own, this story can't boast much in the way of structural quality (nor can the novel), but if we imagine this story printed at the end of the novel, extending the plot beyond its original non-ending, it helps it reach the completion Verne couldn't give it.

To Hold Back Time: A Baltimore Gun Club Adventure, by Michael Schulkins, more a stealth remake than a true sequel to The Purchase of the North Pole, also shows the limitations of prioritizing faithfulness to the original. In speech, mannerisms, personalities and interests, this story achieves a credible recreation of the Baltimore Gun Club, one of the most suffocatingly ultramasculine creations of literature. However, this outdated vision of scientific progress still finds resonance. The scenes where the Club's entrepreneuring gentlemen meet to plan the improvement of human life via the all-purpose power of firearms bring to mind today's equally overconfident tech bros, obsessed with moving fast and breaking things.

This time, the Club's big idea is to give themselves more free time each day "for extended gunnery practice" by slowing down the rotation of Earth. How, you ask? With huge, carefully positioned cannons, of course. The story delivers the bits of humor that can be expected from such a premise, but the plot follows the beats of The Purchase of the North Pole so closely that the reader will not be surprised to find a similar ending that happens for similar reasons, with the added disadvantage that this ending requires experienced cannoneers to commit an elementary mistake about how recoil works.

A Drama in Durango, by Alison L. Randall, is a more original story, even if it's partly inspired by A Drama in Livonia and less directly by Master Zacharius. Its protagonist is a fan of Verne's books who lives in the age of cowboys and uses the same logical methods of Verne's characters to solve the case of a wandering bank robber who turns out to be linked to a much larger conspiracy. The plot is woven impressively tight, with each step in the chain of secrets, betrayals, plans and counterplans fulfilling its function in harmonious order.

Old Soldiers, by Gustavo Bondoni, is rather problematic. It's set decades after the ending of The Steam House and deals with the reconstruction of its mechanical elephant so that it can be used in World War I. Although the idea of defending France from the Kaiser's troops with a steam-powered robot is a potent premise, that adventure is only reported in a late flashback by a minor character; we don't see it happen. The focus of the story is centered instead on an Indian man who worked as a servant of the British pilot of the Steam House, and who even in his last years continues to feel for his old master a reverence that is disturbing to read. The abusive power dynamic between colonizer and colonized is never addressed, and the rightness of arming the British Empire with a huge metallic fighting machine is simply taken for granted, as it was in the original novel. Add to these problems the two lead characters' fixation with manly emotionlessness and the story's unquestioned pro-militarism, and the result is a deeply uncomfortable read.

Want of Air, by Janice Rider, is another story about Verne fans. With a gentle touch over the wounds of grief, the author draws a poetic parallel between a widow and a son comforting each other during a winter night and an episode in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas where Nemo and his crew are trapped with only a few hours of oxygen left. This story gets the closest to the stated spirit of the anthology in that, instead of playing with Verne's fantastic machines, it goes straight to the more vital topic of readers' shared love for Verne and what that shared love can bring to your life.

Nellie and Jules Go Boating, by David A. Natale, alludes to a real-life incident. In 1889, American journalist Nellie Bly embarked on a solo trip around the world, in an (eventually successful) attempt to complete it faster than Verne's imagined 80 days. During one of the stops in her itinerary, she happened to be close to Verne's house in France, so of course she took the opportunity to meet him and discuss the adventure she was undergoing. No one knows what they said to each other. This story imagines what might have happened in those brief hours.

The premise is a good one, but the dialogues suffer from the frequent appearance of untranslated French in the middle of lines supposed to be transcribed in English for the reader. Also, for a story about a woman's determination, independence, and accomplishments, there's a bit too much of focus on Verne's relationship with his father. Those sections distract from the events that are actually of interest, and are written with less technical finesse than the rest of the text.

The Highest Loyalty, by Mike Adamson, is a standard rescue adventure starring Captain Nemo. He receives a call for help, he helps, the end. The briefly mentioned backstory, where the Nautilus was part of the Underground Railroad carrying Black people to freedom, would have been far more exciting to read than the plot that is instead told here.

Embrace of the Planets, by Brenda Carre, is a surreal potpourri of Verne references, as well as a multilayered dramedy about the stories we keep about ourselves and that not everyone deserves to hear. Bonus points for Doctor Who vibes.

Rust and Smoke, by Demetri Capetanopoulos, plays with the possibility that Captain Nemo's diaries might have been found ashore in Norway, but not recognized for what they were. This story carries a bittersweet aftertaste of how quickly the most precious memories can fade into the indifference of time.

Gabriel at the Jules Verne Traveling Adventure Show, by Joel Allegretti, captures with the sincerity that can only come from first-hand knowledge that primordial experience of being a child who meets the worlds born of Verne's imagination for the first time and naturally, as we all once did, wants to become part of them.

Tyranny Under the Sea, by Christopher M. Geeson, presents a terrifying scenario: what if a fragment of the Confederacy had survived in a secret city on the ocean floor? And what would a slave revolt look like in such a place?

Trumpets of Freedom, by Kelly A. Harmon, merges the plots of Robur the Conqueror and The Lighthouse at the End of the World into something less tragic than either. Vasquez, the lighthouse keeper, has built mechanical workers to help him with his daily tasks, which makes him exactly the type of unconventional thinker that Robur is eager to befriend.

Raise the Nautilus, by Eric Choi, is the blood-pumping adventure you want a collection like this to end with. The British Empire has its hands full, what with fighting the Kaiser in Europe, so what good would it do to send warships to the South Pacific in an improbable attempt to salvage what could remain of Captain Nemo's shipwrecked invention from the ruins of the Mysterious Island?

It is to be commended that this story takes the time to consider the moral tensions inherent to having British soldiers steal the life's work of an enemy of the British Empire. Unlike in World War II, the Great War had no good/bad divide: all parties were criminally culpable. The single-minded, never-ending pursuit of bigger and bigger guns is hinted at in some dialogues. However, the story stops short of attributing any tactical advantage to possession of the Nautilus; one central character explicitly predicts that, in the new kind of war that the 20th century has brought, even Nemo's advanced weaponry will make very little difference regardless of who captures it. So, in the end, the core question this story hinges on is not whether the British will remain unconquered by the Germans, but whether Nemo will remain unconquered by the British.

Extraordinary Visions is a worthy read despite the uneven selection it's composed of. It especially piques my curiosity that the most innovative, thoughtful and creative of its stories are those written by women. If I may be allowed a very rough generalization, the men wrote about interacting with Verne's settings and characters, while the women wrote about what Verne means. Verne himself might have felt more at home with the first style of writing, but both are compelling ways of exploring the legacy of one of science fiction's biggest forefathers.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Southard, Steven R. and Hardesty, Matthew T. [editors]. Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne [BearManor Media, 2023].