Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Book: 'The Voyage Of The Beagle' (1839) by Charles Darwin

Finally, it is finished. The odyssey is completed, which through various lengthy interruptions and other lapses has taken literal years to be read in its entirety. The voyage is over, and Darwin showed as much relief at the conclusion as the reader would, as it is a lengthy journal, and one in which a lot of attention is paid to detail. There is a lot of detail, shown somewhat indiscriminately at times, to politics or social geography and the natural world. For Darwin, the journey lasted many years, and consumed a significant portion of his life.

The value of 'The Voyage Of The Beagle' is perhaps more valuable for its picture of a world long gone than for its contribution to natural history. We get snapshots of lots of the more remote cultures of the early nineteenth century and of the world before industrialisation. At least, it was before the grand bulk industrialisation that created the modern world. There is a certain honesty in how Darwin views the primitive peoples, sometimes agreeable and sometimes slightly distasteful, but always honest. In a world where we are almost gagged by peer pressure against saying anything honestly, that is more interesting than you might imagine.

The famous interlude in the Galapagos Islands takes place far past the mid-point of the narrative, on the far side of South America, where the bulk of the journal's entries take place. If you had to choose to describe the main locale, it would indeed be South America (and its islands), followed by Australia and Tazmania. The Galapagos Islands form a small part indeed. Darwin did quite a lot of hiking in the interiors, spent a lot of time on horses, completely ignored the sea travel in his published notes, and didn't pay as much attention to the wildlife as I thought he would. He also spared time for geology, landscape and longer-term processes.

There are only very occasional flashes of what Darwin would later come to be known for in 'The Voyage Of The Beagle', mainly in pursuing theories on incremental geological changes. If you're looking for a mass of evolutionary theory, then this is not the book to read, but if you're looking for a historical travel-log then this might be for you. Yes, there are some tedious episodes, especially in the earlier phases of the book, but it is worth the effort. Is it hypocritical to say that after stopping so many times? Uh-oh. There could be a problem here. The Quirky Muffin might implode from the contradictory pressure.

Okay, one note: This is definitely a book you need to work at. It is very prone to being put down and then left for a while. Bear that in mind. Darwin could string a few sentences together with skill.


Saturday, 15 December 2018

Books: A Trio Of Verne Novels

As a prelude to the next book-related post, which will be another official addition to Project Catch-Up, it is now time to jabber on about the three Jules Verne novels re-read during this awful Year Of Sickness. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 8, the first manned trip to lunar orbit, and next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, the actual first Moon landing. Apollo 10 and Apollo 12 also flew in 1969. It was a big year, but Jules Verne wrote about such a voyage more than a hundred years earlier. A whole century earlier, when steam-powered locomotion was the grand innovation. Anyway, let's get on to Mr Verne.

'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' (1864) by Jules Verne
What would happen if you found an ancient message from a noted alchemist, telling you that it was possible to travel down to the centre of the Earth? What would you do? That's the core of this, my favourite and most read Verne novel. It's a grand and old fashioned adventure, which starts with a puzzle, continues with a grand journey, and never features an antagonist. It's all about the journey, the legacy of the alchemist Arne Saknussen, geology, and the exploration of a nice 'what if?'. What if the world didn't have a hot core, and instead featured a great subterranean lake, fringed with primitive lands and inhabited by prehistoric beasties? Well, it's mostly geology, with one quite harrowing sequence when our protagonist Axel is separated from the party and gets trapped in the dark. Being lost without light in a cave hundreds of miles from the world we know is one of the most horrific things I've ever read.

'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' is a recommended read, even though I think some people would get bored by the geological references, which I find rather endearing. Verne mostly incorporated his 'scientific content' within the descriptions and prose rather than in the story or dialogue, but it works well here, for me. The puzzle at the beginning is lovely, and finding runes in an adventure story is amazing. How many times does Iceland feature in an adventure or a science-fiction story? How often does an eccentric geology professor drive the plot? It's wonderful and charming, and the ending is so daft as to be endearing.

'From The Earth To The Moon' (1865) by Jules Verne
'Round The Moon' (1870) by Jules Verne

I didn't re-read these for a long, long time. Now, after going through them a second time, it's half clear why. 'From The Earth To The Moon' is by far the better story of the two, but it is entirely about organising the great journey of the title. It's all the setup, with the final moments being the launch. 'Round The Moon' is essentially three men in a space capsule, conducting a passive survey of the Moon's geography when their landing is fouled. It's very hard to get interested in three people watching scenery through a porthole for the vast majority of the reading time. The journeying time to and from the Moon is much better though, except for some moments involving one of the dogs, which are very disturbing to my mind.

Getting back to 'From The Earth To The Moon', we find a wonderful exercise in imagination, pre-dating the Apollo program by almost exactly a century. Yes, the capsule is shot out of a gigantic cannon sunk vertically into the ground, but the genesis of the whole endeavour is fascinating and endearing. The machinations and details of how exactly it is going to work (it would kill the astronauts in the real world) is less so. Cities rise, economies are forged, political influences determine sites, industries are built up, and there are many meetings. Some of it works, but we mostly wait to see what happens to the president of the Baltimore Gun Club's great project, and whether he will come into conflict with his rival in the armory world, while being vaguely annoyed at the late introduction of the 'motivating' European character.

In contrast to 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth', where geology is mixed in fairly well, the lunar geography and space travel mechanics is incorporated quite clumsily in 'Round The Moon', which is in principle a three-way dialogue over several days. It doesn't work as well, sadly, and does become dull for a moderately long time. Perhaps it's just me. However, a lot of the things built in to the journey itself were very prescient, foreshadowing the great events that followed a hundred years later.

Whether voyaging to the centre of the Earth or to our own natural satellite, Jules Verne was an incredible prophet of things to come. How did he do it? We haven't even covered nuclear submarines in 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea'! What a mind he must have had. He conjured it all up, or put it all together from the scientific speculation of the day.