Sci Fi Classic Book Review: Verne’s Master of the World

I like to read up on the authors as I go through these classic Sci Fi works off of John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Reading List. Reading up on Jules Verne, I discovered that many of the English translation of his novels were rushed and abridged, as American and English publishers thought they could most quickly cash in on Verne as an author of children’s books. While better translations have long been available, these abridged editions seem to make up a good portion of Verne’s works available for free on the web. Now I’m left to wonder what, if any, Verne I’ve actually read, and how many watered-down and condensed English versions I’ve instead plowed through.

Book Cover

Dead give-away: the translation/condensation of Master of the World I’ve just finished lists no translator, and is only about 140 pages long. I spent a few minutes conducting a by no means thorough search for an unabridged translation for free on the web, to no avail. Serious, non-abridged English translations of Verne began shortly after his death in 1905, so they’re out there and out of copyright. Amazon offers this collection at a $1.99, which says it’s ‘unexpurgated’.

So until I get a chance to read the full novel, this review of the kiddy version will have to do.

One of the things I enjoy about Verne is that he treats Americans as the exotic species we really are. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne gives Americans fanciful names and absurd behaviors which I imagine were very amusing to his continental readers back in 1865. The one thing he latched on to, and a thing he might well have intended as a rebuke to his countrymen, is America’s can-do attitude: a bunch of American artillery men, fresh off the ‘glories’ of the Civil War, turn their attention to firing humans to the moon out of a giant canon, because why not? Master of the World is likewise a tale of audacious Americans.

Our narrator John Strock is presented as the great detective working for the (mythical?) Federal Police, who have time, budget, and portfolio to pursue odd events in rural North Carolina. Peculiar happenings have been observed atop a lonely mountain called the Great Eyrie. This inaccessible peak is topped by a sheer 100′ cliff that completely encircles it, such that no one has ever surmounted it. Yet over the course of days, fires, lights, and noises originate from its hidden peak.

Strock gets a team together to go investigate, but they are stymied by the cliffs. He needs the funding and permission to get some more extensive climbing or tunneling equipment to access the peak. His boss isn’t ready quite yet to commit, as another series of strange phenomena have since drawn attention away from the Great Eyrie. One or more strange monsters or perhaps vehicles has been sighted in Boston Harbor as a boat, in Wisconsin as a car, in a mythical lake in Kansas as a submarine. The nation’s and eventually the world’s attention is riveted.

So Strock is sent to investigate, but not before he receives a very threatening letter telling him to back off from the Great Eyrie, or else. He takes it as a joke, and does not discuss it with his boss.

Eventually, the conviction grows that these sightings are of a single machine, an incredible contraption that is faster than any automobile, faster than any ship, and can dive as a submarine to escape any pursuers. The Government of the US, followed by the governments of all the major powers, publish offers to buy the technology from its inventor for fabulous sums. A letter is sent to the Federal Police declining the offer, taunting the world’s powers, and claiming to be impervious to any means they have of stopping him. Signed: The Master of the World.

From there, the story follows Strock and his team as they try to track down and capture, or, if necessary, destroy the inventor and his machine.

Not as scientifilicious as some of Verne’s other works. The contraptions are no more fantastic than the Nautilus, of which he conceived decades earlier. This is the earliest use of a super villain of which I am aware. His ideas about heavier than air flight are not much advanced on da Vinci’s, and had already been superseded by the Wright Brothers by the time this book went to press.

A good, entertaining story, even in its condensed form.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Sci Fi Classic Book Review: Verne’s Master of the World”

    1. Verne expressly wanted to help spread science through his stories, especially geography and geology, which makes him positing a large, deep mountain lake in western Kansas particularly weird – but that’s what he does.

  1. A while back, over a few years, I read all of the Voyages Extraordinaires in English translation (mostly):

    The translation issues were utterly exasperating. A few of them have never been translated, so I had to struggle through them in French. (Verne’s French is not generally difficult, and is enjoyable, but it’s much more flowery than you would usually suspect based on the common English translations.) The early translations are sometimes just completely awful. The Vernian character sometimes shines through, but the translation choices are often inexplicable. The most easily accessible translations of Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mysterious Island change all the names for no discernible reason. Titles are changes (apparently to make them more exciting). The translators often strip out dates and exact descriptions, and indeed, sometimes strip out descriptions that are important for the story because (I suppose) they thought that less description would make it more exciting.

    Part of the problem was also that Verne is a much more versatile writer than we usually think, so, having liked some of the big successes, like Journey to the Center of the Earth, or Around the World in Eighty Days, people expect all his stories to be science-centered adventure stories, whereas most aren’t. So publishers felt themselves justified in torturing Verne’s tales into a shape that would meet book-buyers’ expectations.

    The overall result is that the Verne stories everybody knows are the ones that have plots that retain their interest even when mutilated in drastic ways.

    Master of the World is explicitly a sequel to Robur the Conqueror; they pair fairly well together, if you can get a good translation of both; Robur the Conqueror (about planes and dirigibles) is the origin story for the villain in Master of the World. (The Begum’s Millions occurs in the same ‘literary universe’ as both of these, as we say, since a passage in Robur explicitly mentions the story in The Begum’s Millions, but Begum has otherwise very little in common with the other two. All three of the stories, however, have a somewhat allegorical tinge to them and deal with the moral dangers of advanced technology.)

    1. Wow, that’s excellent. That’s a pretty impressive chunk of reading. Poking around on the web, it seems like much of Verne has been translated properly since about the 1960s, and a lot of it was translated properly starting in around 1915.

      Alas! What little French I had back in college has been pruned by time and neglect.

      I’ve enjoyed Verne, and may return to him at some point, but for now I’ve set myself the task of reading through John C. Wright’s list. Still have a way to go.

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