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Off On A Comet: A Journey Though Planetary Space

Jules Verne

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     I love the writings of Jules Verne! They are not only fun and entertaining, but educational. He must have been a very smart man! We never know quite where he's going to take us, but we can count on a wild ride. This one takes us way out into space—on a comet, as the title implies, but we don't know that until Book 2. Incidentally, the introduction to the Project Gutenberg edition says that, though the beginning and ending of the story—the connection to, then departure from—the comet, and the measurements and characteristics of the comet itself are pure fantasy, the other scientific information is true, based on what was known at the time (1877).
     The story begins on December 31, as a Russian, Count Wassili Timascheff, and a French officer, Captain Hector Servadac, agree to a duel the next morning. We later discover it is over a woman, but that is inconsequential, because it never happens. Servadac is stationed in a French holding off the Algerian coast, between Mostaganem and Tenes. He and his faithful orderly, Laurent Ben Zoof, live on a cliff in a mud and thatch gourbi, where they are engaged in topographical work. Though the living conditions are rough, the men feel quite free and happy in the open air. The Count resides on his yacht, the Dobryna.
     But as Servadac is in the process of composing a poem for his lady, something violent occurs to their surroundings, although they are not sure what, because they remain unharmed. An extremely bright radiance comes over them, there is an upheaval of the Mediterranean, and just as suddenly, it passes. The gourbi collapses, leaving the two men under a pile of thatch, but the stone hostelry to which it is attached, remains unharmed. They have no idea what has happened and Servadac says it was only a waterspout. But from then on, things get strange. Suddenly water boils at sixty-six degrees Celsius. Then they realize that the gravity is much reduced and they can make leaps of thirty feet. The sun now traverses the sky from west to east, and days are only half as long. They look out onto the sea, and the view is vastly different. They are forced to assume, at least temporarily, that something has hit the earth and immensely changed the landscape. They begin to explore in order to determine just what happened. They find that travel on horseback, with the reduced gravitational force, goes much faster!
     The little cliff which is now their only habitation has fortunately left them with an abundance of produce and livestock. Meanwhile, Ben is stationed at the edge, watching and watching and watching for a vessel on the sea. Finally, after weeks of waiting, a ship does appear. It is the Dobryna. The Count and Servadac have forgotten their duel, and team together to ascertain their situation. Timascheff has an excellent Russian crew, and loyal commander of the yacht, Lieutenant Procope. Ben Zoof is left to guard their island, and Captain Servadac sails off to explore with the Russians.
     They find that their world now is in fact, very tiny, and discover a small British regiment on what they are shocked to learn is Gibralter. The two in charge, Colonel Heneage Finch Murphy and Major Sir John Temple Oliphant are involved in a long, drawn-out chess game, and are oblivious to the danger of the situation. They believe England will rescue them, and care nothing for what the Frenchman and Russian have discovered. In fact, they are quite rude. The Count and Servadac leave their island.
     Throughout the book, Verne gets quite politically incorrect. Here, he portrays the Brits as, well, assholes. You know, the thing between France and England . . . . It is humorous, and Verne inserted humor wherever he could, even in his most serious adventures. According to Wikipedia, Murphy was, in the French edition, a Brigadier General, but that was:

"a rank too high to be the butt of Verne's joking description as playing an interminable game of chess without a pawn being taken. The translator accordingly demoted him to the rank of Colonel, a rank less likely to cause offense."

     Meanwhile, they find what appears to be a telescope case containing a cryptic message naming their new abode "Gallia," and also find a little Italian girl, a goatherd named Nina. She and her pet goat, Marzy, come on board the Dobryna and they make their way back to the island where Ben awaits them. But he is not alone. A bunch of lazy Spaniards have invaded the premises, along with a young Spanish boy named Pablo, and a Jewish merchant named Isaac Hakkubut, who also owns a vessel filled with supplies.
     Here, however, Verne goes a bit too far in his insults for my comfort, because the Jewish stereotyping goes beyond humorous into seriously offensive. I realize that Jews throughout literature have gotten pretty rough treatment, from Shakespeare and Marlowe (and probably before that), and on up through the centuries. A Frenchman poking fun at England is one thing, but Verne's treatment of Hakkubut is really terrible, cruel, and wrong.
     But, anyways, they soon realize that whatever they are riding on, it is going way out into space, as the sun recedes and it gets colder and colder. And colder. They have gotten another message from their anonymous sender, so they know that at least one more person is alive than has been accounted for, adding up to 36 inhabitant all together. They set to work to make themselves a protective dwelling and stock it with food. The Jew's ship is full of supplies, but he won't share. Servadac, however, is the supremely tactful arbitrator and "Governor" of the colony, and keeps things in safe order. To their dismay, they discover that the material upon which this terrain is built is too hard and solid to even dig a dwelling. Then they discover something even better: A Volcano! It is gently spewing lava, and quite warm inside. They shift all their supplies to their new dwelling, which they have named Nina's Hive before the water freezes, and reside in relative comfort. Even though it is terribly cold, they have made warm clothing, and there is no wind, so they take exercise on the ice in the form of skating.
     They finally receive one last message, this one by carrier pigeon, from their cryptic writer. Servadac and Procope take off to find him in the Dobryna's yawl, with the sails to propel them as a sledge. They do find him, on the island of Formentera, part of the Balearic Islands. He is old and near dead with cold. They bundle him up, gather his notes and equipment, and off they go. It turns out he is an obnoxious professor, Palmyrin Rosette who once taught Servadac as a child. But he can give them precise information as to what is going on and what will most likely happen. They are on a comet, which he has named "Gallia," and most likely, the Earth has barely noticed them missing. And then begins Book 2.
     As mentioned above, Verne typically inserted lots of scientific data into his novels, what was believed to be correct at the time. Lots of it wasn't correct, however. He says the lowest temperature out in space is 70 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Whoa! That's really wrong. Space.com says temperatures can vary from millions of degrees, to -455 degrees Fahrenheit! I don't think our travelers would have survived that!!
    Verne also describes the beauty of space, as perceived through Rosette (who really has no desire to return to Earth), and his telescope. They pass perilously close to Jupiter, and close enough to Saturn. Verne includes lots of information as to distance from the sun, orbits and revolutions of most of the planets, which may or may not be correct (I did not check those out). Of Saturn, Verne says that it is 735 times larger than Earth, and a day lasts ten hour and twenty-nine minutes. It has eight satellites (moons, I believe). But it is of the rings that Verne gives the most lengthy description:

Another most important contribution to the magnificence of the nights upon Saturn is the triple ring with which, as a brilliant setting, the planet is encompassed. To an observer at the equator, this ring, which has been estimated by Sir William Herschel as scarcely 100 miles in thickness, must have the appearance of a narrow band of light passing through the zenith 12,000 miles above his head. As the observer, however, increases his latitude either north or south, the band will gradually widen out into three detached and concentric rings, of which the innermost, dark though transparent, is 9,625 miles in breadth; the intermediate one, which is brighter than the planet itself, being 17,605 miles broad; and the outer, of a dusky hue, being 8,660 miles broad.

     And I will leave it to you to read the rest, and you should, because Verne's books are just so readable. Incidentally, another tidbit from Wikipedia. Supposedly Verne was going to kill off his entire cast as the comet returned to Earth, but that was not accepted by his publisher, Hetzel. In fact, the original French title of the book was Hector Servadac; Or the Career of a Comet. Servadac is cadavres spelled backwards, the French word for "corpses," indicating that all would die. Hmmm. I'm glad they didn't.

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