Jules Verne: Five Weeks in a Balloon
1863’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, the first of Jules Verne’s famous Voyages Extraordinaires, follows the adventures of three explorers as they attempt to be the first men to traverse Africa from the east to the west utilising a hydrogen filled balloon to make the journey in a far shorter time than normal. The beginning of the book details the plans of the trips architect, Dr Ferguson, and contains what is essentially a justification of the idea including details of how the balloon would work, including the mathematics for its much vaunted ‘ascensional force’, and it is from this first section that true scientific fiction draws its origin.
The book also functions in part as a history of the exploration of Africa. Verne gives detailed descriptions of the extent of the various expeditions into Africa, including who they were made by, where they reached, and various ways in which the explorers died, usually in an unpleasant manner at the hands of either angry natives or nasty diseases. These tales serve to place the story in history in a believable fashion, and also to remind the reader that the outcome of the journey is far from certain, lending the tribulations the adventurers undergo an air of genuine danger.
The characters in the balloon are all different enough to give a sense of reality and engagement to the novel and make it stand apart from a merely didatic text with a plot thrown in. The Doctor is initially annoying and preachy. Kennedy the ‘sportsman’ appears to be a bloodthirsty and cynical character, whilst Joe the manservant is as toady and lickspittle as can be. However, over the course of the book, the group meshes together wonderfully, each performing their various roles with aplomb and honour. By the end of the book the set of characters that initially appeared so unpleasant have become familiar and well liked companions, so much so that the understated conclusion is both typical of the unassuming and modest heroism of the three, and a slight letdown as they dissapear with barely a trace or plaudit. The feeling one gets when one finishes the book represents a remarkable turnaround from such unpromising beginnings.
The book is pacy to say the least. After the initial slow start the action fairly cracks along with little time spent on each adventure. If a criticism were to be made, it could be said that the plot was unremittingly linear with the odd tedious lecture thrown in, but the sheer pace of the action keeps the reader travelling along with the balloon. There are certainly some dubious attitudes taken towards Africans by the characters but there appears to be no genuine malice there, and they are happy to get along with the natives whenever possible, and merely to defend themselves when they are attacked at regular intervals by hostile tribesmen, so in relation to many empire tracts of this period I found the level of racism stays just above a historically tolerable level.
I found this book to be surprisingly well written, if a little dry in places where Verne’s didatic instincts take over. It is highly episodic, but this partially helps to drive the story forwards and adds to the sense of discovery, as if one is actually joining the three friends in their balloon. A few criticisms could be made regarding Verne’s grasp of the science of hydrogen balloons, but that would be missing the point of what is essentially a rollicking adventure novel suffused with the spirit of the age of reason. A definite must-read for anyone who is either interested in the birth of science fiction, or those who enjoy tales of the dark heart of pre-colonial Africa a la Rider Haggard.