Steampunk Book Review: The Poison Belt
One of my all time favorite literary characters is Professor Challenger, who I’m afraid is forever doomed to be overshined by Conan Doyle’s better known protagonist, Sherlock Holmes. Challenger is every bit as smart as Sherlock, but is both more pompous and more energetic than the great detective, and I find myself laughing out loud at his over-the-top confidence and sharp wit on a regular basis while reading.
The Poison belt came out in 1913, and centers on the same cadre of adventurers from the first book. They are having a reunion at Challenger’s country home a few years after their great discovery of the The Lost World. Unfortunately, what is meant to be a lovely weekend is interrupted by nothing less than the end of the world as we know it. It begins with what appears to be an infectios disease, but Professor Challenger riddles out the truth, that aether is to blame.
The prevailing theories during the “steam era” about the medium that makes up our universe all centered on aether. It fills those empty spaces between everything, and influences the effects of light and gravity. During the story our planet passes through a belt of this mysterious substance that is totally antithetical to animal life, and there is no telling how long we will be subject to the effects of the this poison belt. Our heroes watch as one by one the people in the fields, the birds in the sky and the horses pulling carriages all drift into their final rest, while they attempt to prolong their own lives for a few precious hours within an oxegenated environment.
I don’t usually like to give away the endings or twists in the books I review, but it is evident that the human race must somehow survive considering the reader is in fact both human and alive, but while reading the protagonists see no means of escape and spend much of their time reflecting on the meaning of life and human beings’ place in the universe. This may seem a depressing subject matter, but Conan Doyle does a good job of keeping the meloncholy in check and balancing it with the banter of the characters and the giddiness that comes from the aether entering one’s system.
It’s a nice, short little book which is widely available for free download because it is no longer in copyright. The Mister and I read it in a matter of hours and we both really enjoyed it. I can’t wait to read the next Challenger title, The Land of Mist.
Steampunk Sourcebook: Jules Verne
Fun Facts and Context
- Jules Gabriel Verne was born on Feb. 8, 1828 and died from complications of diabetes on Mar. 24 1905.
- He was on track to become a lawyer when he started writing articles and fiction for magazines, as well as penning plays.
- In the English speaking world he was regarded as a children’s writer during his lifetime, probably because of the popularity of his genre fiction, which was often abridged when translated. Nowadays of course he is considered one of the “fathers of science fiction,” along with H. G. Wells. As far as I could find, the two of them never met in person, which isn’t too surprising consider their age gap (Verne was 38 years old when Wells was born).
- Verne’s imagination was captured by travel and the trope of the “castaway” early in his life. As a child, he had a teacher whose husband had been lost at sea and believed he would some day be found living life like Robinson Crusoe (published 1719). He often stranded his characters on islands during their adventures, such as in In Search of Castaways (1867-1868), The Mysterious Island (1874), and Two Years’ Vacation (1888).
- Verne made lots of famous friends during his lifetime. His close relationship to Alexandre Dumas Jr. and Sr. helped him as a playwright early in his career. He was also a buddy of the noted French explorer and geographer Jacques Arago whose accounts of his travels around the globe helped to lead Verne to his path as a travel writer.
- He fell in love with Honorine de Viane Morel, the sister-in-law of a good friend, in 1856. In order to provide enough financial security to marry her, he went into finance. But there was no way Verne was going to totally abandon his first love, his literary career. He woke early in the morning to write before heading to the office.
- Two years later, at the age of 30, Verne got his first chance to leave France. That year he traveled to the British Isles, and upon returning to Paris he wrote a semi-biographical novel called Backwards to Britain, but it was not published until 1989. In 1861 he visited Sweden, Norway and Denmark and missed the birth of his son, Michel the same year. After he found literary success, he purchased a succession of larger and larger vessels which he used to travel all around Europe.
- Unfortunately traveling became difficult for Verne after an incident in 1886. His nephew, Gaston, suffered from paranoia and shot his uncle in the leg (or foot, depending on the account) and Verne never fully recovered. Luckily for his fans, this did not stop him from continuing to write sometimes two novels a year.
- According to one article I found, there is a lot of evidence the Verne plagiarized large portions his most well-known work, Journey to the Center of the Earth. He was sued by Leon Delmas in 1863, and the court case was not resolved until 1874.
- With the help of Verne’s son, some of his books were published posthumously.
- Several of Verne’s manuscripts and plays were found in a safe 1989, so have only recently seen the light of day. Among these was a novel called Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was initially rejected by Verne’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, because of its pessimistic view of the future. The story is set in a dystopian 1960 (97 years after it was written), and predicted the invention of many things that ended up being absolutely correct such as gas-powered cars, fax machines, elevators and sky scrapers.
Verne’s most note-worthy works
I’ve been writing about Verne off and on since I started this website, so I won’t reproduce all of my reviews and info again verbatim.. Here are links to those articles:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Steampunk Sourcebook: Captain Nemo
Around the World in 80 Days book review, Steampunk Sourcebook and review of the Steampunk reinterpretation The Other Log of Phileas Fogg.
Journey to the Center of the Earth book and 2008 movie
The Mysterious Island movies in 2005, 2012 and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island 2012, which actually served as a sequel to the Journey to the Center of the Earth film. I have not yet read the book myself, but plan to some time in the future and will add a link then 🙂
Are you a fan of Jules Verne? What’s your favorite book?
Steampunk Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
It’s time to return again to our regularly scheduled Jules Verne programming. It doesn’t look like I will make my original writing goal for this weekend, but I will hopefully get to 10,000 words by the end of the month, so I will keep posting things after my tribute to Verne is over.
Voyage au centre de la Terre is the third Verne novel I have read, and so far it is my favorite. There are multiple translations and the names of the main characters are different depending on which one you read. I read the version where the narrator is called “Harry Lawson” rather than Axel Lidenbrock. According to Project Gutenberg, this 1871 translation is the one that is most widely circulated, but it is also not as true to the original text as the 1877 version. Apparently what I read was somewhat abridged, but was still about 470 pages.
So here’s a very brief synopsis: Harry starts his story by setting the scene of his life with his eccentric uncle, whom is most often referred to as “the professor.” But the story really gets going when the professor discovers a coded message scrawled in an antique text he has just purchased. The former owner was a 16th century alchemist named Saknussem who left behind directions to the finding the exact center of the Earth.
The enthusiastic professor drags the reluctant Harry along for the ride to Iceland, where Saknussem’s tunnel is located. With the help of a taciturn Icelandic hunter, they embark on an incredible journey of discovery into the depths beneath our feet. Along the way they encounter living fossils from bygone ages, a huge subterranean sea and a multitude of other wonders.
There were two main reasons that I liked this book more than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. First, the first-person narration by Harry was often very humorous, especially when it came to his own misgivings and cowardice. Second, this story was not bogged down by minutiae. There were only a few Latin names dropped in here and there, and because Verne was pulling this place out of his imagination rather than reporting on a real locations, it freed him to be able to drive the action any way he pleased. It would be nice to read a version that has gone through a modern editing process to get rid of the redundancies that so often occur in these old serials. For instance, the phrase “my uncle, the professor” occurs several times, and the Icelander is referred to as “Hans, our guide” almost without fail, as if there would be some other Hans wandering around hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust. I am sure it helped readers of the original serial over the course of the year it took to read the whole thing, but it does get to be a bit repetitive when reading it as a novel.
The science in this book doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as others from this period, but for when it was written it was right in the middle of the scholarly debate concerning the origins of life on Earth. In the 1860s, academics had only recently abandoned the straight Biblical interpretation of our origins in light of the discovery of fossil hominids in unexpected strata. There were also distinct schools of thought concerning the nature of the planet itself, the inner workings of which were not fully explained until the theory of plate tectonics was put forth almost a century later.
Perhaps this is the reason, not to mention the enormous sets that would be required, that Journey to the Center of the Earth has only rarely been adapted to film and television compared to Verne’s other works. The first film was made in 1959, but it wasn’t remade in English again until the 2008 re-interpretation which put a contemporary uncle (Brendan Fraser) and nephew (Josh Hutcherson) on the path described in Verne’s novel rather than following the narrative as it occurred in 1864.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out some of my others!
The Time Machine
The First Men in the Moon
The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
The Iron Jackal
The Monster Hunter
Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (2012) Adds Time Travel to the Classic Tale
In this made-for-TV flick part of the mystery of the island comes from relocating it from off the coast of New Zealand to the Bermuda Triangle. According to the movie, ships regularly disappear from this spot because of a rift in time that sucks in travelers. This allows the story to include not only 17th century pirates and refugees from the American Civil War, but also some ladies from the present. I really enjoyed this twist because it was a chance to call attention to how much has changed in the last century and a half. There are culture clashes even between fellow Americans because of advances in technology and social norms.
Ever since the 1961 version, the trend with movie adaptations of The Mysterious Island seems to be to add some kind of creepy critter to up the ante when it comes to danger and action to what is really a pretty subtle story about a group of castaways. In both the 1961 the 2005 version, all of the animals on the island grew to huge proportions. In this one, in addition to a giant octopus blocking their escape by sea, the island is overrun by apelike creatures who (spoiler alert) turn out to be Nemo’s disenfranchised crew.
The writing had a few holes and the acting was pretty hit or miss, but it was a fun movie all the same. I, of course, like “bad” movies so I will probably put with more than your average movie viewer. You can watch it on Netflix or through youtube below.
This mockbuster was made to piggyback on the major motion picture release the same year of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which was a sequel to the big budget Brendan Fraser movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth that came out in 2008. I’ll bring you reviews of those as well, so stay tuned during March for even more Verne and adaptations!
March is Jules Verne Month
Jules Verne died in March of 1905, so to commemorate his many contributions to the science fiction canon that have inspired myriad interpretations within Steampunk, I am devoting all of March to Verne-themed books, movies, artwork and characters.
Here are few things to look forward to this month:
Steampunk Sourcebooks for Around the World in 80 Days and Jules Verne himself
Reviews of two adaptations of The Mysterious Island
Unveiling a brand new 3D paper illustration by yours truly
Book reviews of two classic Verne tales
But there is still space in my editorial calendar for a few more things, so feel free to make suggestions! Have you ever dressed as a character from a Verne novel and you’ve got a photo you want to see on my blog? Do you know some fun facts you think others would enjoy? Let me know : )
Already Feeling the Effects of Asylum-itis
Major Tinker, the MC for Weekend at the Asylum opened the convention today with a bit of ceremony (and cheer). But he did give one piece of advice to Asylum “virgins” and I am happy to report I am feeling the effects of what he called “Asylumitis.”
1. My feet are feeling it! It started with a trek up the aptly named “Steep Hill” street with my backpack strapped on, but today I also moved between sessions on the lovely cobbled streets of Lincoln. There were so many awesome session today that I haven’t been shopping yet, but tomorrow traders here I come!
2. My face hurts from all the smiling 🙂 It was delightful to be around so many Steampunks, and I can’t wait to go to the burlesque shoe tonight. I am sure more smiling awaits.
The lighting in the Assembly rooms was wonky so I had some trouble with pictures, but I think I got some good ones of the costume competition so stay tuned for those! I need to rest my eye for awhile before the fun tonight.
Cheers from Lincoln!
Steampunk Book Review: First Men in the Moon
I have yet to meet an H. G. Wells book that I didn’t like, and First Men in the Moon is no exception. His scientific romances are always full of interesting concepts and he was all for turning Victorian ideals on their heads even during his own time.
When I was making my list of books to read I repeatedly called this one First Men on the Moon by mistake, but truly it is a tale of going deep inside the Moon to visit a strange, insect-like race that inhabits its Swiss cheese like interior. During Wells time, astronomers already knew that the Moon was made up of material similar to that of the Earth, but they also knew it was only about 1/3 the density. Their highly logical, though we know now totally wrong, conclusion was that the moon must be filled with tunnels that ran deep into the sphere. (In case you are interested, we know now that the Moon was basically made from an impact way back in Earth’s infancy, long before water had condensed on the surface. A large portion of the crust of the Earth was thrown into space and reconglomerated into a new sphere, leaving our iron core behind. The core of the Earth accounts for the difference in density.)
People first reach the moon thanks to an ingenious new metal called Cavorite, which is so named for the Doctor Cavor who creates it. His concept is that there are materials that are “opaque” to difference electromagnetic forces like light, and gravity is another such force. By combining different metals and chemicals, he is able to create a metal sphere that carries himself and the narrator off on their adventure to a Moon far different from what the Apollo astronauts found. Wells explanations of the natural history of the moon and its various species is especially enchanting if you have any biology in your background because the system of their society holds together with a totally inhuman but wonderful logic all its own.
I would definitely recommend this book, it was a fast and interesting read. I thought his portrayal of the detached and socially inept scientist Cavor was especially interesting, as well as seeing how the narrator and Cavor both interpret the same events differently.
By the way, did you know that many of Wells books are no longer under copyright, so you can get them for free? I read my copy on a Free Books app for my Surface, but you can also find them many places online.
Want to read more of my book reviews? Check out these: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, The Iron Jackal, The Clockwork Angel, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau.
The Noble Art of Tea Dueling
Yes, you heard right, I said “tea dueling.” I just found out about this sport because a friend of mine took second place at CONvergence this past weekend in MN (Congrats Michael Sherman!). I am gutted that I had to miss it and MN Comic Con this year because of traveling, but maybe I will get to see some tea dueling at Weekend at the Asylum in September.
Basically, a duel is a game of chicken between two competitors who have dunked cookies into hot tea. Their challenge is to be the last person to get the whole cookie into their mouth before it breaks, so they try to pysch-out the competition before their biscuit ends up in their laps. Sounds like good old civilized fun. Here is a video from DragonCon 2013.
Find out more at the website for the American Society of Tea Dueling at https://www.facebook.com/americanteaduelling