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The Begum's Millions (Early Classics of Science Fiction)
The Begum's Millions (Early Classics of Science Fiction)
Jules Verne
Wesleyan, 2005
304 pp., $29.95

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Ross Douthat


A Tale of Two Utopias

Jules Verne sans Captain Nemo.

Memory forgives a multitude of literary sins. Middling prose, wooden characterization, boilerplate dialogue—all of these will be overlooked, if a writer can only seize upon one great story and carry it off reasonably well. James Fenimore Cooper's novels are bathed in bathos and bad writing, but he has survived two centuries of critical disdain because of five thrilling words: The Last of the Mohicans. H. Rider Haggard churned out 69 books that are forgotten by everyone save scholars of Victorian arcane—but King Solomon's Mines ensured his immortality even so. Bram Stoker wrote 12 terrible novels, but nobody cares, because the thirteenth was Dracula.

Then there is Jules Verne. He is remembered by the critics as "the father of science fiction" and hailed for his uncanny technological forecasts: submarines and skyscrapers, rocket ships and long-range missiles. But in the popular imagination, it doesn't matter much anymore that Verne wrote about space flight 90 years before it happened, or that his descriptions of a deep-diving submarine inspired inventors to improve upon the primitive designs of the 1860s. What endures are his stories, not his prophecies: Phileas Fogg racing around the world and against the clock; Captain Nemo, the deep-sea revolutionary, plotting his course through depths where even Ahab feared to tread.

Without a Fogg or a Nemo to carry the reader along, prescience turns quickly to pedantry, and the thrill of science fiction gives way to the tedium of the lecture hall. Nothing proves this point so well as The Begum's Millions, one of four Verne novels recently translated for Wesleyan's Early Classics of Science Fiction series. Penned in 1879, after the success of his "voyages extraordinaires"—Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and From the Earth to the Moon—had made his reputation and his fortune, The Begum's Millions belongs on the kind of college syllabus that privileges ...

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