Monday, May 7, 2012

Jules Verne: The Unforeseen Does Not Exist

Jules Verne is a must read if you are a serious fan of near future science fiction.  As Michio Kaku points out in his book Physics Of The Future, Verne’s 1863 novel Paris In The Twentieth Century is prophetic:

“...Verne predicted that Paris in 1960 would have glass skyscrapers, air conditioning, TV, elevators, high-speed trains, gasoline-powered automobiles, fax machines, and even something resembling the internet.  With uncanny accuracy, Verne depicted life in modern Paris.”

Kaku asks, “How was Jules Verne able to predict 100 years into the future with such breathtaking accuracy?”  The answer, though Verne was not a scientist, is that he “amassed a vast archive summarizing the great scientific discoveries of his time.” 
Most near future science fiction gets it so wrong, from the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey  with the U.S. making a mission to Saturn by 2001, to the 1985 sci fi comedy Back To The Future II with its prediction of flying cars by 2015 (at least I don’t think our cars will fly within three years).
In 1872 Verne took his powers of prediction and applied them to the nearest future possible - the time it takes to go three hundred and sixty degrees around Earth.  In Around the World In Eighty Days the reader is treated to the art of prediction itself.

The story is in keeping with Kaku’s belief that the “key to Verne’s vision and profound insights was his grasp of the power of science to revolutionize society.”  With recent completions of the Suez Canal, the connection of railways in India, and the Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S., Verne shows the world how it is possible to use these technological break-throughs to travel the whole world, much like Space X is now demonstrating the possibility of space tourism.

The novel’s protagonist, Phileas Fogg, is the embodiment of predictability with his regulated schedule from which he never deviates: “...the tea and toast at twenty-three minutes past eight, the shaving-water at thirty-seven minutes past nine, and the toilet at twenty minutes before ten.”  Moreover - “Each pair of trousers, coat, and vest bore a number, indicating the time of year and season at which they were in turn to be laid out for wearing; and the same system was applied to the master’s shoes.”  Even Fogg’s valet, Mr. Forster, is let go for allowing Fogg’s shaving water to fall two degrees below the desired warmth of eighty-six degrees.

Verne’s clinic in developing a predictable character extends to Fogg having an exact count of steps to the Reform Club where he plays the card game whist.  Fogg bets his fellow gentlemen twenty thousand pounds that he can travel the world in eighty days.  When confronted with the possibility that a single accidental delay could cost him the bet, Fogg replied, “The unforeseen does not exist.”  More skepticism ensues, and when told that eighty days might not be a sufficient estimate, Fogg replies, “A well-used minimum suffices for everything.”  The disbelief is immense, for how could Fogg keep within this minimum from trains to ships, etc.  Fogg’s answer, “I will jump - mathematically.”

Fogg’s attitude reminds me of the book Chances Are...Adventures In Probability by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan.  They write, “We may talk of things as simply happening, obeying their own laws - but our involvement changes the conditions so radically that we would be far more accurate talking about ‘beliefs‘ rather than ‘events,‘ and ‘degrees of certainty‘ rather than ‘degrees of likelihood.’”

This is the world Fogg lives in.  He believes the “unforeseen does not exist,” and his degree of certainty is so high that he bets half his fortune.   

The Kaplans go on to write, “Probability, once applied to the human world, ceases to be the study of occurrence; it becomes the study of ourselves.”

Verne’s study of Fogg as “exactitude personified” gives us an insight into a scientific mind in which going Around The World In Eighty Days is a hypothesis, and Fogg will conduct a grand experiment to confirm it.  His involvement changes conditions so radically that even the ultimate obstacle of the Henrietta running out of coal before reaching Liverpool is overcome.  Fogg buys the ship and has all the wood on the metal hull ripped up and burned, from masts to chairs.  Despite the robotic routine of Fogg’s life, he demonstrated an impressive ability to problem solve, a cornerstone in any scientific enterprise.   

To verify Fogg’s eighty day tour he has his passport stamped at all major destinations.  This is but one example of Fogg’s keeping meticulous data.  When he travels on the Mongolia, he bribes the captain to run the steamer at full speed.  They arrive two days ahead of schedule.  Fogg has a spreadsheet and enters the extra hours into his column of gains.  Then when the train from Bombay to Calcutta runs out of track, one of those “accidental delays,” he buys an elephant and has to subtract the gained hours from his ledger.  Overcoming these obstacles are all part of the experiment.  In the U.S. when a train bridge is unsafe but the conductor believes it can be done by going full speed, Fogg’s valet, Passepartout, believes “...the experiment proposed a little too American.”

The story is full of these small experiments, but in the end Fogg loses his bet--or does he?  The reader is amazed to learn that Fogg returns to the Reform Club in time, with only seconds to spare.  How does he do it when the night before he gave up the enterprise when he believed himself to be five minutes late?  As Verne wrote:

“The cause of the error is very simple.  Phileas Fogg had, without suspecting it, gained one day on his journey, and this merely because he had travelled constantly eastward; he would, on the contrary, have lost a day had he gone in the opposite direction, that is, westward.”

This is not only the resolution of the story, but also the final brushstroke in the art of prediction.  As Verne informs the reader, “Phileas Fogg, going eastward, saw the sun pass the meridian eighty times, his friends in London only saw it pass the meridian seventy-nine times...”  Verne demonstrates how human error afflicts prediction.  Fogg overlooked the foreseen, the firm projections from the math of longitude - a scientific dilemma that had been solved a century prior with clocks that kept precise time at sea.

Verne’s classic story is a continuation of the clockwork universe which dominated science at that time.  If you go to London and take the light-rail to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, you will find a painted line known as the Prime Meridian, otherwise known as Longitude Zero.  It is the starting point for the International Time Zone System known as Greenwich Mean Time.  Perhaps Verne began his story in London as the ultimate starting point for understanding the mechanics of the Prime Meridian.  As Dava Sobel writes in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time:

“Since the Earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full revolution of three hundred sixty degrees, one hour marks one twenty-fourth of a spin, or fifteen degrees.  And so each hour’s time difference between the ship and the starting point marks a progress of fifteen degrees of longitude to the east or west.  Every day at sea, when the navigator resets his ship’s clock to local noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and then consults the home-port clock, every hour’s discrepancy between them translates into another fifteen degrees of longitude.”

It is no accident that at the 180 degree meridian (15 degrees @ 12 hours = 180 degrees) on the Pacific Ocean, the watch that Passepartout set to London time comes into play.  He tells himself after refusing to change it to any of the home-part clocks, “I was sure that the sun would some day regulate itself by my watch.”  His timepiece finally agreed with the ship’s chronometers, but he did not realize the AM/PM difference with London.  At halfway around the world from the Prime Meridian, noon on the Pacific would actually be midnight in London.  A gain of twelve hours.  Though Passepartout misses this fact entirely, the Frenchman proves to be a foil for the predictability of time.  His watch would not agree with the ship’s chronometers again until they traveled another 180 degrees and thus gaining another twelve hours going east, but by accident he realized they had gained a full day.

Poor Passepartout, a “true Parisian of Paris,” was hired just before the bet, and quite happy to work in an environment where his employer proved to be so predictable.  After all, the Frenchman never wanted to reset his watch.  But then Fogg turns around and does the unpredictable, he comes home early from the Reform Club.  “Monsieur is going to leave home?” Passepartout said.  “Yes,” replied Phileas Fogg.  “We are going around the world.” 

Perhaps this is Verne giving a wink to the future, that the clockwork universe where the “unforeseen does not exist” is actually unpredictable after all.


  1. Very good piece.

    Though I really enjoyed reading "Around the World in 80 Days" when I was a kid, I felt it was somehow "inferior" to "20.000 Leagues Under the Sea" or "From the Earth to the Moon". Fogg's adventures were more prosaic, they lacked, for me, that "scientific prediction" which seemed so amazing in Verne's other works.

    Your article made me see for the first time how this book doesn't rely on technological devices but in a general mastery of human ingeniousness over nature's challenges. That's Verne's sci-fi in its most basic form.

    Also, now that you've mentioned "Back to the Future": don't you think that the relationship between Emmet McBrown and Clara Clayton (and the changes she makes him go through) mirror that of Fogg and Aouda?

    1. Hi Marcos. Your comments are greatly appreciated. Doing the review of "The Other Log Of Phileas Fogg" forced me to give "Around The World..." another look. I find it amazing how the perspectives we had as kids can change so dramatically. And yes I agree with the connection you make to McBrown/Clayton and Fogg/Aouda. Now I want to rent "Back To The Future III." I haven't seen it since the early 1990s. Did Clara, as a school teacher, mention Verne? I can't remember. By the way, sorry for the slow response. I had no wifi yesterday.

  2. Yes, she does. McBrown and Clara are both Verne readers (one of the things they delightfully learn to have in common) but he almost gets himself in trouble when quoting books not yet published in 1885.

    1. That's right!!! I just went to Wikipedia to read a synopsis. I had also forgot that McBrown/ Clara's children are named Jules and Verne. Nothing was mentioned about a marriage proposal. When Aouda proposed marriage to Fogg, that caught me by surprise. Did Clara do the same?

  3. Jen, that was a lovely article on Jules Verne, and in particular your analysis of Around The World in Eighty Days was a delight. It reminded me of the hours of enjoyment I had reading it.

    Your opening comment is so true, i.e. “Jules Verne is a must read…” I wouldn’t even add “…if you are a serious fan of near future science fiction.” I would, however, say that if someone hasn’t read Jules Verne, and indeed H.G. Wells, they cannot consider themselves serious fans of science fiction.

    I consider these two writers to be the Godfathers of Science Fiction; one, Verne, the Godfather of Hard Science Fiction and the other the Godfather of Soft Science Fiction.

    You very accurately describe Verne’s approach of extrapolating the use of real science into the future. Wells, on the other hand, gave scant regard for the limitations of reality, if he needed time travel it was invented. Let’s not bother ourselves with mere reality and never let facts get in the way of a good story.

    Wells’ real strength was in his predictions of social trends and his science was, as in The Time Machine, merely the mechanism he used to demonstrate the social trends he believed would develop through industrialisation.

    In "The Sleeper Awakes", Verne is very accurate with his social predictions. The plot is based on a man sleeping for 203 years and on his awaking he discovers a very different world from that in which he falls asleep. Wells discussed the social structure in great detail and described the social unrest that was fomenting under the surface. The issues Wells’ protestors were demonstrating about were the same issues that caused the anti-globalisation protests of a few years ago and the more recent Occupy Wall Street/The World protests.

    On the technology side Wells got some things very right and others very wrong in "The Sleeper Awakes". On the plus side he predicted television, video recorders, and travelators. On the wrong side he predicted pedal-powered aeroplanes, and his travelators didn’t merely take one from one end of an airport to the other, but they were the main mode of transport in the city’s main thoroughfares.

    He also mentioned the use of the telephone but I won’t give him credit for predicting this as the telephone had been invented about two years prior to the book’s publication.

    Having digressed to Wells, let me return to Verne.

    Verne also made at least one error in his books. When reading “From Earth to the Moon” I noticed an error in the kinematic equations he used. Despite his error his story was totally internally consistent, i.e. all parts of the story that depended on the equations followed the erroneous equation.

    I thought he was using the equations as they were known at the time. Apparently I was wrong. When discussing books with a French acquaintance I mentioned Verne and he was disgusted. He said he hated Verne ever since his science teacher made his class read “From Earth to the Moon” so that they could identify the error made by Verne. Apparently it was a real error.

    I love the fact that Verne and Wells’ works were described at the time as Scientific Romances. This was of course, more to do with the original meaning of the word “romantic” being “something different” rather than today’s more amorous interpretation.

    I apologise for such a long, rambling response to your article. In essence I am agreeing that it is essential for the science fiction enthusiast to read the early classics, especially Verne and Wells as they set the scene for everything that followed.

    1. While I wish I could claim credit for this essay, I cannot--Mark Schelske is the author of this remarkable piece.

      That said, I completely agree with you about Verne and Wells--in fact, I'm preparing to teach a class this summer that's a survey of scifi and fantasy, and one of our units is dedicated to these two authors. The rest of the history of the genre simply doesn't make sense without them.