A FANTASY OF DR OX
by Jules Verne
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1872, Jules Verne published Une fantaisie du docteur Ox, now translated by Andrew Brown and published as A Fantasy of Dr Ox. Although Verne is now known primarily for his voyages extraordinaire, many of his story do not rely on science fiction at all, or, in the case of this tale, only peripherally.
The story is set in the fictitious Flemish village of Quiquendone, a place where nothing happens quickly. Verne attempts to use the phlegmatic nature of the town to hang his story and humor, although the humor generally does not work and the story, such as it is, is neither engrossing, nor particularly unsurprising. In fact, as soon as Verne introduces his “mystery,” the resolution is abundantly clear.
Characterization in A Fantasy of Dr Ox is carried out by the simple expedient of caricature. Each of the village’s personages are sketched out with a couple of simple traits which dictate all of their future actions, whether they are under the influence of the strange (but predictable) phenomenon to hit Quiquendone or not. While some of these caricatures are interesting, such as Burgomeister van Tricasse and his generations old lineages, none of them come across as real individuals.
In a foreword written to the book by Gilbert Adair, Adair comments that “A Fantasy of Dr Ox is [designed] to make the reader laugh out loud (which, incidentally, it does more than once).” (p.viii-ix), which indicates how subjective humor is. On the other hand, Adair also notes in his introduction that he believes the primary purpose of science fiction (in which he categorizes the novel) is prophetic, thereby demonstrating that he also does not understand the purpose of science fiction and making him a questionable selection for writing the introduction to this work.
Despite being the title character of the book, most of Dr Ox’s activities take place off stage. Verne chooses instead to focus on van Tricasse and his comrade, Councillor Niklausse, two men whose characteristics and thought processes mirror each other to a fault. The descriptions of their conversations, which may seem comic, tend to the repetitious as they continue to hold debates in which nothing is actually said or agreed upon, despite their being in complete agreement.
What conflict arises in the novel is born out of the completely nonsensical situation which Verne has constructed, in both the town in which nothing happens, and the sociopathic scientist (Dr Ox) who attempts to inflict his own version of civilization upon Quiquendone. In some ways, Dr Ox resembles Verne’s great sociopathic scientist, Captain Nemo, who appeared at the helm of the Nautilus only two years prior to the publication of A Fantasy of Dr Ox. However, Nemo was better fleshed out that his successor and surrounded by more human characters.A Fantasy of Dr Ox is not a major work by Verne, which is why it is not known as well as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, or Around the World in Eighty Days. It presents a satire of a world which seems tremendously dated, given Quiquendone lingering ties to the Medieval period. However, it does represent a work by Verne which many of his modern readers will find new.