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"The Meteor Hunt is quite simply a work of the foremost literary importance. In the translation and accompanying commentary you have lucid, expert work by the foremost authorities in the field."
—Brian Taves, coauthor of The Jules Verne Encyclopedia
"To read Jules Verne is one of the great treats of childhood. To read Jules Verne later in life is to discover a writer just as satisfying but even richer, one who is not only a natural storyteller but also a mythmaker, a social critic and an innovative artist. . . . There's a lot more to Jules Verne than what you find in those old, albeit quite wonderful, Disney movies."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
— Michael Dirda
“The Meteor Hunt is a charming novel, and the translators have gone to great lengths to keep it authentic and fun. . . . In this winning edition, The Meteor Hunt will surely add to the Verne renaissance currently underway.”—Rain Taxi Review of Books
“Darn good entertainment; excellently annotated, too.”—Booklist
— Ray Olson
All right reserved.
For seven decades, in both France and the Anglophone world,
Michel's version was assumed to be the master's original work. But
scholars of the Société Jules Verne finally uncovered the sordid details
of a conspiracy to deceive the public. In 1886 they issued for the
record a limited edition of Verne's own La Chasse au météore. Since
1994 French readers have enjoyed commercial editions. Now the English-speaking
world can also appreciate its own version of The Meteor
Hunt by "the real Jules Verne."
Unfortunately, that phrase "the real JulesVerne" is all too familiar
to savvy Anglophone devotees of the founder of science fiction.
For a century and a half, they've been subjected to phony, adulterated,
incomplete translations of the Great Romancer's other novels.
As Brian Taves, Library of Congress expert on Verne, tells us, WJM
"first vividly exposed" these crimes in his 1965 essay "Jules Verne in
America." He "elaborated on these problems in [his] Annotated Jules
Verne series, and other scholars have since followed his lead."
Actually, scores of scholars, whole troops! This edition of The Meteor
Hunt is a small albeit important part of a massive effort to give
Anglophone readers the world over "the real Verne." Thanks to publishers
like the University of Nebraska Press, Wesleyan University
Press, the United States Naval Institute Press, Prometheus Books, and
Oxford University Press, this historic project should be completed in
the first quarter of the twenty-first century ... six generations after
the first criminally slapdash versions of Verne appeared in English.
But several commercial publishers still reissue the old frauds! So
editors and translators of post-1965 versions take pains, in annotations
and other commentaries, to explain the differences between their
genuine articles and the old counterfeits. And of course Verne's stories
deserve and evoke critical commentaries on literary and scientific
grounds alone. Hence this edition will provide you with all such buffet
services, to be sampled or ignored as you see fit.
If you've been provoked by these opening remarks to learn more
about the Meteor Hunt scandal and about the Verne translation mess
in general, you'll find more details in this foreword. This curtain raiser
(to augment rather than mix the metaphor) also supplies you with
general background information about Verne and his oeuvre, the origins
of Meteor, and our policies and priorities in translating it.
While you're reading our English equivalent of the rediscovered
book, words tagged with an asterisk may prompt you to consult our
notes on the text (e.g., "because she was female" on p. 5).
And we hope, after you enjoy The Meteor Hunt proper, that you'll
want to compare your own reactions with ours. We discuss Verne's
style, plotting, characterization, and themes in greater detail in our
BOLTS FROM THE BLUE
The Meteor Hunt poses this question: What might happen if a large
body from outer space hits the earth and it proves to be gold? Verne had
first considered this possibility in his original ending for Hector Servadac
(1877). In that novel a comet grazes our planet and carries off
Gibraltar, a slice of Algeria, and the sea in between. Some Frenchmen,
Spaniards, Englishmen, and an Italian girl spend two years on
a journey through the solar system. In spite of their diverse backgrounds,
most of them get along well with each other, except with the
Englishmen, whom they regard as too aloof. As the comet in its new
orbit heads back to earth, it shoots off a splinter of itself. The main
characters use a balloon to escape the coming collision, landing back
in Captain Servadac's French military post in Algeria. But the English
remain on the splinter, which is captured by the moon's gravity and
becomes a "satellite of a satellite"!
The comet proper sinks into the squishy bottom of the Caspian
Sea. Chemists analyze its protruding parts and find that it's composed
almost one third of gold, with a total value of 245 sextillion francs
(49 sextillion dollars). Hurray-this now increases tremendously the
world's supply of gold on hand. But wait-this also decreases its value!
Gold now becomes worth "exactly nothing, deserving, more than
ever before, to be dubbed 'a vile metal.'"
But Verne's publisher, Pierre Hetzel, couldn't accept this "ruin of
the capitalists," as Dr. Olivier Dumas, president of the Société Jules
Verne, has termed it. Hetzel forced Verne to rewrite chapter 20, the
ending, so that in the published book the title character now lamely
"realizes" that his solar journey must have been just a "dream." As
Dumas sees it, Verne got his revenge by waiting until Hetzel died before
writing La Chasse au météore. Dumas published the original chapter
20 and discussed it in his society's Bulletin in 1985.
In addition to revealing the source of the scientific idea behind The
Meteor Hunt, Servadac foreshadows two social and economic questions
that also figure in Meteor: To what degree do nations create distinctive
national characteristics in their respective citizens, and why does
humanity venerate an essentially useless substance, gold, as a monetary
standard? The artificial-no, as Verne sees it, the fictitious-value
we accord to gold excites Verne's disgust from his first novels to his
It was in his amazingly productive seventies that Verne wrote La
Chasse, his second try at problems caused by an invading body from
outer space. But this time he confined all the human action to Mother
Earth. Two amateur astronomers, Dr. Hudelson and Mr. Forsyth,
neighbors and at first friendly rivals, both discover, independently but
apparently at the same time, a new meteor orbiting over their home
state of Virginia. They now become bitter enemies-each wants the
meteor to be named after him alone. The competition heats up to the
point where Jenny, Hudelson's daughter, and Forsyth's nephew, the
young lawyer Francis Gordon, fret that they might not be able to
marry as planned.
In his superbly constructed story, Verne includes a strong contrapuntal
subplot: the adventures of an aristocratic couple who have a
lot to learn, the hard way, about love and marriage. Conflicting views
about what the woman-man relationship is and should be spice up
all strands of the plot. As usual, in the middle-class level of Verne's
world, servants provide provocative interaction. Mrs. Mitz, Forsythe's
housekeeper, supplies him with stiff and badly needed loyal opposition.
The bachelor Judge Proth also has a domestic manager, Kate,
who raises serious philosophical questions about the nature of property.
And a sassy, nosy, and perspicacious teenager, Loo, makes bright
assessments of the situation that differ from the judge's but are equally
arresting. Large groups-from crowds of commonfolk to meetings
of world diplomats-give Verne plenty of opportunities to test out
popular stereotypes about nationalities. Throughout, his masterful
dialogue reminds us of his long experience with the theater.
Like many professional authors, Verne was as much a rewriter as
a writer. He finished a second or third draft in 1904 and put it aside
for a final checkup whenever the publisher might call for it. When he
died a year later, he had a total of six recently drafted novels ready
for final editing. In the case of The Meteor Hunt, we now know that
all that really remained to be done was to crosscheck dates, addresses,
and names; correct a few blurs in Verne's scribble; and delete a few
commas and capital letters.
A SON'S CHICANERY
For decades the Verne family insisted that this was all that Verne's
son Michel did do, back in 1908: he just edited those posthumous
works-"guided them into print"-for Hetzel's son Jules, now the
publisher. Many serious and respected books-like Jean Chesneaux's
The Social and Political Ideas of Jules Verne and Jean Jules-Verne's
biography of his grandfather-based their accounts of Verne's later
intellectual development on this simple assumption: the posthumous
works were authentic.
But in 1978, the Italian scholar Count Piero Gondolo della Riva,
visiting the home of Hetzel's descendants, discovered several of
Verne's original, hitherto unknown manuscripts-including that for
The Meteor Hunt, along with a telltale list of changes to Meteor to be
made by Michel! Comparison of Verne's original version with that
published by Michel in 1908 revealed that the son had actually made
thousands of major and minor changes, many more than were on the
To Verne's seventeen chapters Michel added four more. He created
a dominant new character, Zephyrin Xirdal, who in effect takes
over the action and the outcome. To succeed in this, Xirdal invents a
"neuter-helicoidal current" and "atomic howitzers." Gregory A. Benford,
science professor at the University of California, Irvine, flatly
calls these inventions "wholly imaginary physics." Verne's original
La Chasse extrapolates only from the known and accepted science of
his day. Michel violated one of his father's basic principles in his "hard
science" works: scientific integrity.
Michel also muted Verne's fascinating discussions of American
mores and of marriage in general. He changed poor Mrs. Mitz into
an American Mrs. Malaprop. For his own thematic purposes, Michel
deletes one of Loo's most significant efforts-an attempt to reconcile
the rival astronomers. He deleted, too, a coy section in which his father
anticipates the postmodernist technique of self-reflective narration.
In Dumas' view, Michel "destroys the moral of the story," which
Dumas sees as the overwhelming influence of the god Chance on human
affairs. Michel certainly tampers with several main themes. In
the eyes of most critics, Verne's smooth, graceful narrative is lost in
Michel's lumpy expansion. (FPW has penned a fuller account of Michel's
"rewrites," which you'll be ready for only after you've finished
Verne's work proper: you'll find it in an appendix at the rear.)
One of the many ironies here is that both the author's son and the
publisher's son were motivated, in "improving" Verne's original, by
the hope of selling more books and making more money, while The
Meteor Hunt itself is a strong indictment of human greed. It has been
clear since the late 1970s that Michel transformed substantively all
the works published posthumously under his father's byline-even,
as Taves points it up, "originating two of the books himself."
Michel's basic cynicism was exposed by the German scholar Volker
Dehs when he found, in the Bibliothèque National, a letter from
Michel to Hetzel fils in which Michel actually gloats that there had
been "no question from anybody about the authenticity of these posthumous
works ... [Rather one critic] praises a portion of the novel
of which there is not a trace, not even a rough draft in the handwritten
manuscript (the Xirdal character and the ending)" [italics ours]. So
Dumas reports in his preface to the 1986 edition. And, as he mused in
1989, "The novels that Jules Verne left were a sacred trust." To which
Herbert R. Lottman, in his "exploratory biography," adds, " His son
should not have touched them; in doing so, even at the publisher's request,
he committed a literary crime. In distorting his father's work,
he changed its spirit." But is this forgery only a literary crime?
VICTIMS OF DECEIT
Unwittingly, as one of Michel's victims, the London publisher Grant
Richards bought the rights to produce, in 1909, an English translation
(by Frederick Lawton) of Michel's version under the title The Chase
of the Golden Meteor and-of course!-"by Jules Verne"! The two
sons' handiwork was really paying off. Not only had they deceived
the British publisher and his translator, but, unhappily, Bison Books
was also misled into reissuing this version in 1998.
Taves was outraged. The following summer he poured forth his
fury in a long diatribe in Extrapolation, one of our leading journals
about science fiction. His first sentence set the tone: "It's happened
again." And he expertly reviewed Verne's tragic publication history.
But the parent press of the Bison imprint, the University of Nebraska
Press, is now more than atoning for that mistake. Nebraska has gained
the right to publish new translations of several of the posthumous
works, including (as you can see in your own hands) the real Meteor
And we can now understand the strange dilemma that the UC Irvine
physicist Gregory A. Benford was grappling with when he wrote
the introduction for the Bison edition. In first reviewing Verne's overall
history, he of course praised Verne's record for using mainly hard
science. Yet, as we have seen, Benford still had to admit that the inventions
in The Chase are just "wholly imaginary." How could he possibly
have resolved the telltale contradiction? Not knowing the true
story, Benford joined Chesneaux and many others as a sufferer from
A HISTORY OF WRONGDOING
Discoveries in Europe about fraudulent editions of late Verne were
matched by discoveries in America about phony editions of the early
In 1963 WJM started work on a new edition of "the standard translation"
of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. This was the 1872 version
by Mercier Lewis, one of the pseudonyms of the Rev. Lewis Page
Mercier, MA from Oxford. WJM's suspicions were aroused when he
read, in the second chapter, that Professor Aronnax "had just returned
from a scientific research in the disagreeable territory of Nebraska."
Checking the French, WJM found that Verne had simply said les mauvaises
terres, the badlands! This gaffe was just the beginning. WJM
uncovered hundreds of sophomoric misinterpretations (like confusion
of dix with six, or ten with six, channels with canals, and wrench
with key), ghastly scientific errors (Captain Nemo says his steel is 0.7
to 0.8 the density of water!), and so many omissions that WJM figured
the English reader could have known, at best, only seventy-seven
percent of Verne's novel. Many of the cuts seemed politically or
religiously motivated: Lewis left out a famous passage about Nemo's
political heroes, his denunciation of British imperialism, and the professor's
talk about Darwin. The net result: "the standard translation"
(still published by at least five houses) features a haphazard storyline,
shallow characterization, an intellectual depth of near zero-a book,
as one critic put it, "fit only for boys." But even most boys know that
the specific gravity of steel is a good deal greater than that of water:
While working on a new complete version, WJM made other, maybe
even more ironic discoveries. In 1961 Galaxy magazine had run an
article that sneered at Verne for creating steel so light that chunks of
it would fl oat, for not giving specifications for his batteries, and for
additional foolish blunders. Like other American critics, the article 's
author, T. L. Thomas, blamed Verne himself for his translator's errors!
Even such a science fiction expert as Damon Knight had been deceived
until WJM's editor at Washington Square Press asked Knight
to evaluate WJM's work.
Excerpted from The Meteor Hunt
by Jules Verne
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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