Jules Verne is one of the foremost writers of what we today know as science fiction. From his desk, he crafted tales of intrigue, mystery, and above all, adventure, many of which feature whimsical characters travelling the world in wonderful inventions; the submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or the hot air balloon in Around The World In 80 Days.
Born at a time of revolution, Verne was a man with radicalism in his blood. His protagonists, usually men of science, are often rebels in their own way. Take Captain Nemo, the charismatic lead in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, who opposes Britain’s imperial project in India. At the same time, Verne was fond of playing on national stereotypes, emphasising the obsessive punctuality of English clubmen and the hot-headedness of American engineers.
But perhaps the aspect of Verne’s work that has aged the best is his description of landscapes. While his stories incorporate fantastical elements, the settings for his tales are rooted in the strict scientific accuracy of his contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, who he admired greatly. Despite often being lumped in with H.G. Wells, Verne often criticised the English sci-fi writer for his broad imaginative strokes, preferring to choose his words wisely and conjure up settings his readers would feel able to inhabit, to step inside. And that is precisely what we’re about to do. So, comb your moustache, put on your breeches, and join us as we take a trip around the world with Jules Verne.
Travel the world with Jules Verne:
Let’s begin with the city where it all started, the city of Nantes in upper Brittany. It was here that Jules Verne was born in 1928 on L’île Feydeau, which was then an isolated island on the Loire River. He spent his youth at the local boarding school, where his teacher told tales of her seafaring husband, whose ship had disappeared during a voyage some 30 years earlier.
In these stories, her husband was not dead but had simply been shipwrecked on a desert island. One day, she said, he would come back to her. These tales ignited the six-year-old Verne’s imagination, planting a seed that would reach fruition in novels like The Mysterious Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Today, Nantes bares the mark of Verne’s legacy: whether it’s the giant steampunk elephant, the museum dedicated to his life and work, or the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, which documents a controversial past belonging to both Verne and his ancestors.
Fingal’s Cave, Scotland
From Nantes, we head North to an astonishing 270-foot deep sea cave off the coast of Scotland. What makes Fingal’s Cave so jaw-dropping is the huge columns of basalt, which form hexagonal pillars that seem to hold up its interior walls. These columns are positioned in such a way that they form a walkway just above water level, meaning that visitors are able to step inside the cave and explore.
The cave has been known since the days of the ancient sagas, in which this site plays a key role. Among the Celtic tribes, it was known as Uamh-Binn or ‘The Cave of Melody’. For centuries, it was known only among locals until 1772 when it was rediscovered by naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who named it after the Ancient Irish Epic called Fingal, which was very popular at the time. The site went on to inspire everybody from Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote his The Hebrides Overture after visiting the site; artist J.M.W Turner, who painted Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, establishing the cave as a popular Victorian tourist destination; and Jules Verne, who mentions it in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.
One of the most important geological protagonists in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth is located in the frozen northlands of Iceland. Snæfellsjökull is a stratovolcano located in the West of the island and, at 5,000 feet above sea level, is impossible to miss. The volcano last erupted in the third century A.D. — a relatively recent event when you consider that it’s more than 700,000 years old. Its name ‘Snæfell’ literally means snowy mountain, owing to its glacier-capped summit. Beneath this blanket of snow and ice, a creator to the depth of more than 650 feet plummets down to the earth’s mantle
In Jules Verne’s 1871 adventure novel, this crater serves as the entrance to the earth’s hidden core. After decoding an ancient Icelandic manuscript, professor Otto Lidenbrock’s expedition travels to the volcano to begin their long descent: “We were now beginning to scale the steep sides of Snæfell. Its snowy summit, by an optical illusion not unfrequent in mountains, seemed close to us, and yet how many weary hours it took to reach it! The stones, adhering by no soil or fibrous roots of vegetation, rolled away from under our feet, and rushed down the precipice below with the swiftness of an avalanche.”
The Milk Sea, Northwest Indian Ocean
The Milky sea, otherwise known as The Great Glowing Sea, is one of the greatest natural wonders on earth. For centuries, seafarers told tales of glowing stretches of ocean, where the water seemed to shimmer with the sapphire iridescence of a spiral galaxy. For just as long, these tales were dismissed as hallucinations.
As fantastical as it sounds, today, we know that these glowing oceans are created by microscopic bioluminescent sea life, something Jules Verne hinted towards in his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: “It is called a milk sea,” I explained. “A large extent of white wavelets often to be seen on the coasts of Ambouna, and in these parts of the sea… the whiteness which surprises you is caused by the presence of myriads of infusoria, a sort of luminous little worm”. To this day, however, scientists have little evidence to explain how and why milky seas form.
Boasting an incredible variety of endemic flora and fauna, the island of Socotra, nestled between the Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea, is one of the most isolated non-volcanic landforms on the planet. It’s little wonder, then, that this hidden enclave inspired Jules Verne’s dinosaur-inhabited landscapes in Journey To The Centre of The Earth.
Socotra has changed hands many times. It was once occupied by Indians, and later by Greeks, while the current inhabitants are of Sub-Saharan African origin. Seafaring Arabic peoples, in ancient times, used the island to store supplies. Later, it was occupied by the English and subsequently abandoned – left in the hands of the South Yemen communist dictatorship. 825 of Socotra’s plant species and 90% of its reptilian life don’t live anywhere else on the planet. With its Dalian dragon blood trees, lofty peaks, and casts of brightly-coloured blue and red freshwater crabs, wandering through Socotra really does feel like venturing through a land lost in time.