Journey to the Centre of the Earth is the kind of story that would be hard to tell today, not without sounding like a conspiracy nut. It begins in 1863 in Germany at the home of the eccentric professor Otto Lidenbrock, who discovers a runic cryptogram hidden inside an old manuscript, which will send him and his reluctant nephew Axel on a journey to… well, you read the title of the book.
Professor Otto Lidenbrock is not just eccentric, he’s as unhinged as he is brilliant. When he finds the cryptogram, he becomes obsessed with it, locking everyone up in the house and forcing himself and Axel to go without food until he cracks the code. This is not what you would call a stable genius.
Of course, Axel isn’t without blame. The man is unable to stand up for himself or refuse his overbearing and stubborn uncle. At best, he tries to hide information in the hopes of avoiding whatever course his uncle has set for them, and it never works.
Once the cryptogram is deciphered, Lidenbrock organizes a journey to Iceland, where he believes a tunnel leading to the centre of the earth exists in the heart of one of its dormant volcanoes. And Axel is along for the ride, whether he likes it or not.
There are comparisons to be made between this book and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. But while The Lost World is a ripping yarn and adventure, Verne takes a far slower and methodical pace to revealing his wonders, and the tone is more akin to Michael Crichton’s approach to fiction, where it feels like a list of references should be included at the end.
There are some comparisons to be made between Professor Lidenbrock and Professor Challenger these two books. Both could be called eccentric and bloody stubborn, but this is mostly a character trait designed to allow them to withhold information for as long as they like, and to not listen to reason when other people probably would.
Likewise, Axel and Malone are similar in that they are intelligent but easily cajoled into doing things they might otherwise not want to. Of the two, Axel is by far the greater doormat, just as Lidenbrock is the more obstinate borderline sociopath.
While The Lost World concerns itself mostly with being an exciting adventure, this novel is much more about paying attention to details and verisimilitude. I mean, it takes nearly half the book just to get to the cave entrance that will take them down into the earth! And once they’re down there, a lot of time is spent dealing with the mundane details of travel. It’s as if it’s very much concerned with convincing you that all the proper research was done, and none of it had gone to waste.
In many ways, all of Verne’s most famous stories share one thing in common: they are all travel literature. Whether it’s travelling to the centre of the earth, going 20,000 leagues under the sea, racing around the world in 80 days, or being shot from the Earth to the moon, the core interest is the journey involved. And his attention to detail along the way is what helps sell the verisimilitude of these stories.
But for all the attention to detail and research that Verne did on one level, on the other, it really tests your suspension of disbelief. After all, the core premise is the idea that the earth does not have a molten core, but a “cold” one, with vast underground caves and wide oceans being illuminated by natural phenomenon similar to the aurora borealis.
The thing to remember is that these were not simply flights of fancy. These were actual theories in the 19th century, and what seems ridiculous to us now was considered unlikely but still plausible then.
It’s kind of like how Jurassic Park can’t possibly happen—you can’t get intact dino DNA, even in fossilized mosquitos—but we still buy into it. But a hundred years from now, that story might seem just as ridiculous.
And that’s where the enjoyment of this story really comes from. Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a window to another age of speculative thinking. In some ways, it reminds me of The Martian Chronicles, which still held out the possibility that life existed on Mars, and had no concept of how difficult a trip from Earth to Mars would really be. Right now, while NASA considers the possibility, we’re reminded constantly of the dangers and difficulties involved.
You could think of these books as coming from a simpler time, but what Verne did was no different than what many speculative writers do now—push the limit of the known, but keeping one foot grounded while doing so.