Monday, December 01, 2014

Book Review - Around the World in Eighty Days

Jules Verne is considered one of the early authors of the sci-fi genre. While Around the World in Eighty Days may not immediately fit our mold of "science fiction", when you figure that this was originally written in 1873, the science involved is pretty significant even if it is all based on accurate science rather than fanciful imaginations. Prior to reading, I knew the basic story and characters but not much more than that. Eccentric and meticulously orderly Phileas Fogg places a bet with members of his social club that he can travel around the world in 80 days. The date is chosen based on a loose claim listed in the newspaper based on the outlined timetables for trains and ships.

The first thing I found interesting was the character of Phileas Fogg. Based solely on my knowledge of the plot, I had expected him to be some wild and crazy madcap character with all sorts of outrageous behavior. Instead, Verne spends the first many pages showing us that Fogg is very much a creature of habit with ordinary behaviors. If anything, Fogg is a bit boring as a character. He has a precise daily and weekly schedule dictating when he wakes, when he sleeps, when he eats and everything he does in between. He doesn't have any extravagant hobbies or pastimes and doesn't do much of anything to engage in social events of the day. His flippant and sudden placing of the bet seems out of character and is quickly followed by quick adaptation to a new schedule as he immediately rushes home from his club, packs a quick bag, grabs his servant and proceeds to his first destination. Even in his quick trip, we seldom see him Fogg rushing or impetuous in any way. He is the picture of calm even as his trip faces adversity.

As a contrast to Fogg, his servant Passepartout is a very emotional character full of as much passion and frustration as Fogg is full of calm. Passepartout is stymied by his master's wager but rushes along with him on the adventure, excited to see the world. He is dismayed as he realizes that the whirlwind tour will result primarily in him seeing the cabins of ships or trains and very little of the world they're passing through. With each obstacle that comes their way, Passepartout practically shrieks in frustration and really adds to the sense of suspense and tension in the adventure. He is a great counter to Fogg's character and really helped make the book more entertaining.

Beyond the effects of nature or problems with transportation, the main obstacle facing Fogg is Inspector Fix from Scotland Yard. The Bank of England has recently been robbed by a man matching Fogg's description. When set alongside Fogg's erratic change in behavior and his willingness to throw insane sums of money at ship's captains and train engineer's, there is a very strong argument that Fogg could be the thief. Verne very carefully keeps details of the robbery hidden and makes sure that we are closely aligned with Fix's prejudices and beliefs. I had a hard time deciding whether or not Fogg was truly the bank thief or if it was merely an unfortunate coincidence. The interactions with Fix are humorous but distanced. Fix is waiting for his arrest warrant to arrive and until then he tries to stay just out of sight of Fogg while also delaying his progress so that the warrant will catch up with them and allow an arrest to be made. The entire situation leads to some rather funny encounters.

I really enjoyed the meticulous way in which Verne outlines the voyage. We sit with Fogg as he consults timetables and records his progress. There is a very careful accounting of days, weeks and hours. Alongside this, and usually alongside Passepartout rather than Fogg, Verne presents some fun narrative and adventures that give insight into a variety of different locations and cultures. For the late 19th century this was surely a lot of the novelty and appeal of the story. Even in the 21st century I applaud his presentation of these distant cultures. The technology and ideas are a bit dated, but there is still a sense of wonder, education and enjoyment that goes beyond the years.

My biggest complaint comes in the final section of the novel.

SPOILER ALERT - this next paragraph contains a spoiler about Fogg's eventual completion of his trip

When Fogg finally returns to London after overcoming numerous obstacles in amazing ways, he is distraught. Upon consulting his trusty notebook, he finds that he is at exactly 80 days. However, the wager included a TIME of day to ensure the voyage was completed in precisely 80 days of 24 hours. Unfortunately it looks as though Fogg has arrived a few minutes late. Rather than return to the club and consult his friends and concede defeat, Fogg returns home with his companions and goes to sleep. The next day he mopes about most of the day and then later sends Passepartout on an errand. Passepartout returns frantically informing his master that an error has been made and TODAY is the end of the wager and that if Fogg hurries, he can make it to the club in time. Fogg races through the streets to arrive at the club and win the bet. The reason for the miscalculation is presented by Verne essentially as the fact that Fogg traveled Eastward around the globe and crossed the "date line" effectively losing a calendar day and traveling a full 24-hours for free. This is all well and good and scientifically sound...where the problem breaks down for me is the fact that the original bet included a DATE on which Fogg should return. And every leg of the journey, Fogg is consulting time tables many times involving identifying the day and date that a transport will depart. Even as Fogg leaves the East coast of the U.S., day numbers are presented. As such, the exact DATE is perfectly known to Fogg and his companions. Thus, even if he did tally off 81 "days" of 24 hours in his notebook, it would have been VERY clear that they were right on time simply by consulting the timetables, the newspaper or any other item that they frequently looked at. The twist/surprise ending was entertaining but the logic of it fell apart for me.


Overall I really enjoyed the story. It was a fun adventure with some great details and wonderful characters. The writing was engaging and the plot was a lot of fun. As I mentioned before, even though aspects of the science and technology are certainly dated (after all, you can now travel around the world in a single day), they are a joy to read and make me want to seek out more books from this father of science fiction.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

it is a fun adventure...been a couple years since i last read it...i love going back to those old stories though...