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The latest offering from PS Publishing in the U.K. is The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne, a handsome little chapbook running to just under 140 pages, with an entertaining introduction by Ian Watson, who compares and contrasts the (for its time) hard science fiction of Jules Verne with the pseudoscientific fantasy of H. G. Wells.
There’s an interesting similar exercise to be performed in contrasting the career of the book’s author, Eric Brown, with that of his fellow Brit Stephen Baxter. Both made their debuts in 1987. Both—together with many British SF writers—built their early careers around appearances in Interzone, before publishing their first novels within a year of each other. Baxter wrote The Time Ships, a sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine. Now Brown has written a novella to commemorate the centenary of Verne’s death.
After a promising start, Brown's career seems to have stalled to an extent. While Baxter has racked up a half dozen Hugo and Nebula nominations, and has appeared in two-thirds of the various Year's Best anthologies over the last decade, Brown has yet to be selected by a single anthologist or for a major award. This stall is comparative, of course. Writers don't necessarily measure themselves by these tokens, but they are a useful barometer of public perception.
I think the disparity in recognition is partly because, whereas Baxter is perceived as a scientist whose work primarily focuses on the core science-fictional values of quantum physics and big space battles, Brown is perceived as a romantic. His early work especially, which often featured washed-up heroes and beautiful-but-doomed heroines in exotic settings, often felt as if it were written more for the 1960s New Writings in SF and Ted Carnell’s pre-Michael Moorcock New Worlds than for modern magazines.
In some ways, this romantic streak makes Brown the perfect author for a scientific romance about one of the grandfathers of SF. What this novella also illustrates, however, is what a chameleon-like and undervalued writer Brown is.
The story is straightforward enough: on the last day of July 1855, Jules Verne is a struggling young writer working two jobs to make ends meet when he meets a stranger who enlists his help on a mysterious errand.
Verne is lured by the stranger into the distant past, where they are captured by aliens. He then meets a beautiful young woman who gives him the means to escape his predicament, but who then abruptly and mysteriously leaves him. On escaping, Verne and his companion travel forward in time to the twenty-sixth century, where the apparent utopia Verne is shown gradually reveals a darker side.
Brown so completely adopts Verne’s writing style that not only does this feel like a Verne novel, it even shares what to modern tastes might be perceived as the weaknesses of nineteenth-century fiction: the—to modern tastes—languid introduction to the story; the villain who, due to the rigid nineteenth-century convention of first-person narrative, we only ever see through Verne’s eyes, and who therefore seems one-dimensional and unsuccessfully fleshed out; the gosh-wow exclamation marks that! pepper! the! narrative.
On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable read. Brown not only manages to successfully evoke a convincing retro-futuristic feel, but also introduces an engaging—if at times suspiciously contemporary-sounding—heroine. There are a lot of scenes in which I thought I detected nods to earlier works by writers as diverse as Moorcock and Brian Aldiss; there is also pleasure to be derived from the overt references to Verne's other works, such as Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Mysterious Island. There are several times when, rather than name-check stories, Brown makes a passing reference to an idea like travelling to the centre of the earth, or to a brave submariner called Captain Omen, and leaves the reader feeling pleased to have worked it out.
The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne won’t win any awards, but then, I don’t think it was ever intended to; it should be taken for what it is, that most neglected of phenomena, a simple but fun read.
In that respect, it’s entirely successful.