Thursday, November 1, 2007

Journey to the Center of the Earth, without spacesuits

One of my new year's resolutions was to read one book every month that I would not otherwise have read. I've kept that resolution, too, and I've read some wonderful books and discovered some wonderful authors as a result. For October I was planning to use Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or whatever it's called (I keep wanting to make it Dr. Strange), but it's 1,000 pages long and while I like it so far, I'm only twenty pages in and keep getting interrupted by shorter books.

I almost decided not to do an October New Book, because I've read lots of other books this month. Mostly Terry Pratchett. But then I decided that skipping a month would simply make a mockery of the whole resolution, and on Monday I grabbed the thinnest book on my "to read" pile (which I keep carefully stacked up all over the house). That happened to be A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Vernes. I loved the movie when I was a kid and I thought maybe the book might evoke the same dreamlike sense of being lost somewhere unlike any other place in the world.

Monday night I read the first 50 pages. Tuesday night I read the next 100 pages. And I am proud to relate that last night I read the last 100 pages and finished my October book in October!

I didn't dislike the book--it was interesting, if kind of sloppy. The characters were, well, just types. The main character was a hysterical coward, the uncle was a lunatic, and the "imperturbable Hans" of course was a robot--nothing else could explain how he acted. It's easy to smile indulgently at the silly science, but that's not fair; it's not like the author could get online and look up the Wiki article on plate tectonics and volcanoes. I confess, though, that I kept thinking, "How did this get to be such a classic?" Especially when the writing was slipping from past to present tense and back within the space of a few sentences.

Oh well, I'm glad I read it. But it wasn't a bit what I expected. My vague memories of the movie involve: someone tapping Morse code through a network of strange white tunnels in response to sounds that turn out to be made by a duck, dinosaurs fighting each other, and a volcano that was induced to blow up with gunpowder. The movie apparently was only loosely based on the book, because there were no ducks, no land-walking dinosaurs, and--well, the gunpowder and volcano are sorta kinda linked in the book, only not really. But my real confusion was the book's cover.

I wish I could scan the edition I have. It's a paperback that I picked up at a library sale. I'm (ahem) posting from work so I don't have the book to look at, and I couldn't find this particlar cover online, but I'm guessing it's a late 1950s, maybe early 60s edition. The cover shows four men in white spacesuits on the bow of a futuristic-looking boat--it's got antennas that sort of look like rayguns and things--and the boat is sailing through a cavern, on lava. I mean the boat is sailing on lava, through a cavern. That is also filled with lava. In the background are some shadowy human figures apparently watching the spacesuited men.

Where did the artist get all this? From another book, I suspect, because in this book there are only three men on the expedition, and they don't meet any other people. Well, except for a glimpse of a gigantic caveman watching a herd of mammoths. (Really.) They don't have spacesuits. They don't have a boat, although they build a raft of semi-fossilized wood to sail across the underground sea. (Really.)

I kept wondering, as I read, when I would get to the part where they meet the center-dwellers who live in lava caves and wear spacesuits and sail lava-ships. Instead, the party walks through a lot of empty lava tubes, sails across the sea despite a raging storm and sea monsters, blows up a rock blocking their way, and end up--well, I don't want to spoil it for you. Spacesuits are not involved.

I'm glad I was able to share this with you now, because the second I get home I'm all over my NaNo book. Word count to be posted late tonight.

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