Invasion of the Sea (Early Classics of Science Fiction)
Translator: Edward Baxter. Introduction: Arthur Evans. Editor: Arthur Evans. Middletown,
CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2001. xx+258 pages, ?? ill.
Hardcover — ISBN-10: 0819564656, ISBN-13: 978-0819564658
Softcover — ISBN-10: 081956558X, ISBN-13: 978-0819565587
Of all Jules Verne’s novels, none has a more unusual translation history,
or has appeared with greater quality and timeliness, than The Invasion of the Sea.
Sales in France of the late Verne works declined in the 1890s, but they remained
profitable in England and the United States, as indicated by the steady issuing
of new editions of even such minor novels as Claudius Bombarnac. From the
1870s, and for a quarter century, every new Verne novel was translated. Abruptly,
in 1898, American and British publishers broke this tradition with The Mighty Orinoco
(Le Superbe Orénoque), although its plot bore similarities to other
Verne stories, centering on a perilous journey of three rival explorers in South
America. Other aspects may have been less palatable. A woman searching for her lost
father disguises herself as a man, and the portrayal of colonial depredations reveal
the growing anti-imperial sentiment embedded throughout the narrative of Verne novels.
It went beyond the descriptive passages that could be edited in an English appearance,
such as the anti-American or anti-British comments that were excised from the 1896
translation of Propellor Island [L’Ile à hélice]].
In 1899, American and British publishers were unable to resist Verne’s next
novel, The Will of an Eccentric (Le Testament d’un excentrique),
an attempt to recapture the magic of Around the World in 80 Days (Le Tour
du monde en quatre-vingts jours) with a tale of competitive travel, this
time set entirely in the United States. Yet, Verne’s following book, his sequel
to Swiss Family Robinson, was not published in English until 1923.
I have suggested in The Jules Verne Encyclopedia that ideological factors
were pivotal as English-language publishers were unprepared to faithfully present
Verne’s views. Censorship grew beyond the long-standing practice of changing
or removing controversial passages until eventually entire books were suppressed
by simply not translating them into English. British publishers were fearful of
offending their readers in the empire, and the anticipated taste of this market
largely governed what appeared on either side of the Atlantic. Every subsequent
new Verne book that appeared in France was avoided. The reasons in some cases were
obvious. The Aerial Village (Le Village aérien, 1901) told
of a “missing link,” an African creature more man-like than ape. The
Kip Brothers (Les Frères Kip, 1902), a masterpiece of sea
adventure, is sympathetic toward the struggle of Irish Catholics for independence.
Scholarships for Travel (Bourses de Voyage, 1903) are won by a
group of boys who are abducted by pirates in the Antilles in a satire of alternating
colonial rulers among the islands. At this point The Invasion of the Sea
(L’Invasion de la mer) was serialized as Verne died in France in
1905. Posthumous books under Verne’s name continued to be published, but only
one of those, The Hunt for the Meteor (La Chasse au météore,
1908), was simultaneously brought out in English.
The Invasion of the Sea was “translated from the original French
and edited by Oswald Mathew” for the American-Journal-Examiner newspapers
as Captain Hardizan, serialized in late summer 1905. Many Verne translations
brazenly changed character names and motivations, deleted passages and invented
new ones, but none so unabashedly rewrote the source. After the opening chapters,
Mathew departed from the original plot to substitute a focus on a European heroine
taken hostage by Arabs, led by a woman with apparent supernatural powers in situations
reminiscent of Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She.
For many years, Captain Hardizan was, mercifully, forgotten. Other late
and posthumous Verne novels were finally translated (many of which proved to have
been written by the author’s son) and new, authentic texts were discovered.
Nonetheless, The Invasion of the Sea and three other books (The Mighty
Orinoco, The Kip Brothers, Scholarships for Travel) from
the twilight of Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires” series languished.
As the shortest novel of this quartet, in 1992 Verne collector Dana Eales personally
sponsored a translation of The Invasion of the Sea. Although it lacked
necessary expertise and was never published, Eales’s effort helped to focus
attention on the book.
The Invasion of the Sea is unusual for its time in its political complexity
and temporal setting, looking ahead to the 1930s. Indigenous customs and colonial
opportunism clash as plans are made to irrigate the Sahara desert, opening the inland
to new commerce and ports for the French navy. Verne’s writing is modern in
his immersion in multiple points of view, opening from the native perspective, then
shifting to that of the French colonists. Verne had no illusions about the overseas
power plays of his own country.
Verne makes clear how the respective sides view the situation; the West seeks to
remake nature to its advantage, while the East has adapted to their surroundings.
The West wants to change the land, failing to realize that the desert is home to
the tribes of Bedouins. Flooding the land and changing its fundamental purpose becomes
the ultimate form of imperialism. While recognizing its political shortcomings,
Verne still valorizes the heroic aspect of the human attempt to harness nature.
The first half of the book establishes the region and the dimensions of the conflict,
comparing the different cultures of the Arabs and the Europeans. During the last
half, Verne foreshadows the final outcome as nature asserts its own primacy over
human plans. A monstrous earthquake shifts the land, allowing the sea to flood the
Sahara, overwhelming even the designs of the French. The characters in The Invasion
of the Sea are men (and an Arab woman) in action—bandits, French
soldiers and an engineers—but the novel is not as exciting as the general
reader might hope.
The translation by Edward Baxter is ideal; he fluently transfers Verne’s French
into readable, contemporary English. Having translated two other Verne novels, a
short story, and Verne’s sole science fiction play (not yet published), Baxter
has become one of the experts in the field. (I should note that Baxter was a valued
contributor to the volume I edited, The Jules Verne Encyclopedia.) All
of the 43 engravings and photographs from the original French edition are included,
bringing to life the scenery and action of the story in the context of their time
(although unfortunately the reproduction quality is not always what would be desired).
This edition benefits substantially from a 13 page introduction and 50 pages of
endnotes and other supplementary material by one of America’s leading voices
in Verne studies, Arthur B. Evans. He is to be commended for the depth of his research
on the background of The Invasion of the Sea. However, his translation
bibliography makes a few factual errors (for instance, Janice Valls-Russell is the
translator of Backwards to Britain, not William Butcher, on page 239) in
an important section that is, regrettably, not as complete or as user-friendly as
would be desired.
The Invasion of the Sea is the first volume in a series edited by Evans,
“The Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction,” and an appropriate
beginning. For years it has seemed that this novel could not be more timely, considering
confrontations between Arabs and the West, yet its appearance in English comes at
a historical moment whose aptness could not be exceeded. While scarcely a lost masterpiece,
The Invasion of the Sea is a worthy and important addition to the Verne
canon and science fiction literature. Several of the remaining untranslated volumes
in Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires” are promised in the Wesleyan
series, with The Mighty Orinoco due in the fall, while a new translation
of The Mysterious Island has already appeared. Wesleyan deserves gratitude
for this important, ongoing effort.
-- Review by Brian Taves, Reviews of Books: Jules Verne, The Invasion of the Sea. Extrapolation, 43 (Summer 2002) : 229-232.
review obtained 12 Jan 2009