A Fantasy of Dr Ox
Translator: Andrew Brown. Foreword: Gilbert Adair. London, Hesperus Press Ltd.,
2003. 112 pages, ? ill.
Softcover — ISBN-10: 1843910675, ISBN-13: 978-1843910671
Mad scientists seem to begin as a theme in old science fiction films, but the roots
go much deeper. Certainly Frankenstein is one of the first examples of a researcher
run amok and other writers have investigated this subject. You may be unaware that
Jules Verne wrote one such piece in A Fantasy of Dr Ox, a satirical work
that looks at scientific ethics with a mix of warning and humor.
The town of Quiquendone is the most Flemish of towns in Flanders because there “nothing
was ever done quickly.” The natives of this burg are sleepy to the point of
ridiculousness: plays take days to perform, decisions happen only after years and
the average heart rate of the citizens rarely rises above 50 beats per minute. After
centuries of a staid, lethargic existence, Quiquendone is facing some changes. A
philanthropist, Dr Ox, is installing a new lighting system in the town, which will
be the first town in Flanders lit by oxyhydric gas. The town councilor and burgomaster
are unsure of this project, as it happened in unseemly haste, but since Dr Ox is
paying all the costs, they are loath to stop the work. In the middle of a discussion
on this topic, shocking news arrives: two of the citizens were planning to duel
each other over … politics! Violence is rare in the town, but voicing one’s
opinion on such an subject is even rarer.
Thus begins a wild ride for the previously quiet community. As we quickly learn,
the reason behind this transformation is an experiment by Dr Ox and his assistant,
Ygène. The supposedly beneficial lighting system is actually to test Dr Ox’s
theory on the nature of oxyhydric gas on people. When exposed, normally calm and
placid persons become energetic, irascible and highly emotional. And what better
group to try this out on than the most reticent of souls, the Quiquendonians? With
his lighting system in every building, Dr Ox now can control how much gas is received
by the entire population. I can just hear the evil laughter!
While gas lighting is a bit dated, the story and characters are familiar. Dr Ox
comes across as arrogant and uncaring, but sane. He does not see the townsfolk as
people, but on the level with lab rats. His assistant is a bit more humane, questioning
the experiment at one point, but never having the strength to stand up to his boss.
There is definitely a message against unethical science in this story and while
the Quiquendonians are dupes, they are also the most sympathetic characters in the
story. The community is a bit of a parody, but a lively and interesting one. The
effect of the gas is dramatic, turning the methodical and sober citizens into unpredictable
maniacs, ready to attack a neighboring town for a centuries old trespass by a cow!
Verne stories rarely are thought of with humor, but this is an oversight. There
are plenty of giggles and laughs in this story, from the comical townsmen, the way
they react to the gas and even from Dr Ox and Ygène. Verne shows a bit of
Dickens qualities in his names, as the main characters’ names make up the
word oxygen (Ox-Ygène). For scholars of Verne, this is no surprise, as the
author worked on theatrical farces before his rise as a writer and Verne certainly
shows he mastered the comic form.
I appreciated the foreword by Gilbert Adair and introduction by Andrew Brown, both
of which gave me more background on the story and Verne. A Fantasy of Dr Ox displays
another side of this master writer, one with a bit more comedy. If you like your
science fiction with a bit of whimsy, this is a story for you.
-- Review by Colleen R. Cahill, originally published in
Extraordinary Voyages, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Sep 2004).
review obtained 12 Jan 2009