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The Begum's Millions
Jules Verne, translated by Stanford L. Luce
Wesleyan University Press, 304 pages

The Begum's Millions
Jules Verne
Jules Verne (1828-1905), French writer and pioneer of science fiction, is best known today for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). He was born on February 8, 1828, in Nantes, France. As a boy, Jules Verne ran off to be a cabin boy on a merchant ship, but he was caught and returned to his parents. In 1847, Jules was sent to study law in Paris. While there, however, his passion for the theatre grew. Later in 1850, Jules Verne's first play was published. His father was outraged when he heard that Jules was not going to continue law, so he discontinued the money he was giving him to pay for his expenses in Paris. This forced Verne to make money by selling his stories. He published his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

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The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was a small war (the last of the French army had surrendered by February 1871), but it had a big effect. It led to the unification of Germany, and it scared the other European powers into an arms race and a system of alliances that would lead directly to the First World War. In Britain a succession of stories, such as Chesney's 'The Battle of Dorking,' prophesied German invasion, and were instrumental in the invention of the scientific romance (via H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds) and the spy novel (via Childers's The Riddle of the Sands). And, in France, it led their most successful novelist to create this peculiar dystopia.

Actually, Jules Verne did not create Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum. It was written by Paschal Grousset (under the pseudonym André Laurie), in exile following the failure of the Paris Commune. The publisher Hetzel did not think he could produce the book as it stood, and sent it to Verne so that he could work his magic on it. Verne worked such magic that the book was published as by him alone (Laurie was apparently happy with this arrangement and would produce two further novels that would go through exactly the same process, only the third being published as a collaboration).

The spine of Laurie's novel, which survives, is the story of two scientists, one French and one German, who inherit an immense fortune. The Frenchman uses his money to create a utopia devoted to public health; the German creates a dystopia devoted to creating ever larger armaments, and to attacking the French utopia. Verne seems to have contributed many of the names, much of the adventure plot, the entirety of the romantic sub-plot, and his very effective storytelling skill. This new translation is the first new English-language version since two which appeared in the same year as the original French edition. Since those early translations seem to have been particularly clumsy -- one changed the hero's name from Marcel to Mureel, which suggests to me that the translator was working from a not very legible manuscript, while the other rendered Marcel's entry into the hurly-burly of Paris as him taking part in a boxing match -- this is our first real opportunity to assess the novel.

The conclusion has to be that while Verne's storytelling makes this as entertaining as ever, and as a first hint of the darkening of his vision that would affect later works it is interesting, nevertheless this is far from being one of the immortals.

The main problem is that The Begum's Millions is a novel replete with racial stereotypes. Sarrasin, our utopian French doctor, is noble, honest, determined to do the best for all humankind; by contrast Schulze, our dystopian German chemist, is bombastic, forever spouting nonsense about the inherent superiority of the Saxon race, and dedicated to destroying his French rival. He would be a joke were he not so clearly a proto-Nazi, and it is significant that this book was banned in Germany during the 30s. The English are wily capitalists whose principal interests are wealth and social status. Although the rival cities are sited in the American West, Americans themselves don't actually get a look-in, but the Chinese coolies who built the trans-American railway are employed to build the French utopia on the Pacific north-west coast, and then hurriedly dispatched back to San Francisco since they are not fit to reside in this best of all cities. One gets the impression that Verne is satirising the racist nonsense of the villainous Schulze, then blandly dispensing exactly the same nonsense throughout the rest of the book. Every German who appears is irredeemably committed to the inevitable victory of the Saxon over the Latin races; every Frenchman who appears, even the dissolute (Sarrasin's son, Octave), is eventually shown to be noble and redeemable. Given the racial overtones that are inescapable throughout this book it is, of course, significant, that our hero, Marcel, is from Alsace, that part of France seized by Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

And if you get through the casual racism, you find a story that is, to say the least, unbalanced. The story opens with the good Dr Sarrasin in Brighton for a medical conference discovering that he has inherited a fortune. Then, just as he begins to make plans for the good works he will do with his wealth, up crops a rival German claimant. An English lawyer cleverly negotiates a compromise (while securing several millions for himself). To this point Sarrasin and his good works have been the clear focus of the novel, but now the scene abruptly shifts. It is five years later and in a remote corner of the American West the grim, clangorous city of Stahlstadt (Steel City) has arisen, a vast armaments factory staffed only by people of German descent. Now we focus on Marcel, the poor but noble friend of Sarrasin's wastrel son, who, in disguise, tricks his way into Stahlstadt. Through his eyes we are given a tour of the place, noting the casual inhumanity, the high walls dividing the place into concentric rings, the restrictions on movement, the guards at every corner. But Marcel is, of course, a mechanical genius and soon comes to the attention of Schulze, who invites him into the sanctum sanctorum. Here Schulze proudly shows off his secret weapons: a cannon an order of magnitude greater than any yet made and trained upon Sarrasin's utopia, France-ville, just a few leagues hence; and a gas that will freeze and suffocate its victims within seconds.

Now Marcel must escape and warn Sarrasin, and the scene shifts again, this time to France-ville. But where we have been given a detailed tour of the dystopia, so we can feel it as a lived place, its utopian parallel is merely described in a magazine article, and little effort is made to breathe life into the place. The generally excellent critical apparatus that enfolds this new edition of the novel points out that France-ville is itself a place of restriction (no wallpaper, no carpets) and suggests that it is another form of dystopia. To our modern eyes it certainly is, but within the novel it is never presented as anything other than an ideal city. Like villains, dystopias are always interesting, but utopias are less so, and Verne certainly shows little interest in the place. We get a few technical wonders, and a farcical conclusion to Schulze's attack when his super cannon fires its shell at such velocity that it goes into orbit, but the novel loses momentum here.

Finally strange rumours arise of financial failure at Stahlstadt, and the mysterious disappearance of Schulze. Now Marcel must leave utopia for one more journey into dystopia. Suddenly The Begum's Millions comes alive again in its final chapters, as Verne has something dark and dangerous to describe. There is more than enough story here to keep you reading, but I suspect there is not enough interest to make you come back to the book.

One final feature worth noting: the illustrations by Léon Benett which accompanied the original French edition of the book are re-used here, and they add much to the book. One wonders why we so rarely illustrate our novels these days.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and reviews for most of the critical journals in science fiction, as well as contributing to numerous reference books.


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