Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Master of the World

In 1904, Jules Verne, one of science fiction's founding authors, wrote a book called Master of the World.

This is one of the worst books I have ever read.

I expected better; this is Jules freaking Verne, after all. But let me explain my problems with this book, in the hopes of saving some other reader a few valuable hours.

The book starts out in a relatively interesting fashion: citizens living close to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina notice some unusual and disturbing phenomena from high up on one particular summit: the Great Eyrie. The locals are concerned that volcanic activity -- or possibly some supernatural event -- is to blame. The protagonist, a police detective, is sent to investigate.

The top of the Great Eyrie is like a bowl; it has high sides, concealing a depression in the center that no one has ever seen. The detective and a small team climb up the mountain and attempt to find a way to cross over the seemingly-impassible barrier wall that shields the secrets of the interior.

They fail, give up, and go home. This is the first of many incidents in the book where there's a lot of build-up and no payoff.

The book then describes a seemingly completely unrelated series of nationwide sightings of some strange, impossibly fast vehicle. Not only is this vehicle able to travel in excess of two hundred miles per hour (pretty speedy for the time), but it can apparently travel by road, by sea, and underwater as well.

The nations of the world immediately want this contraption. Just think of how it could be used to advance the state of warfare -- I mean, the state of the human condition! World governments begin to publish a series of open letters to the unknown inventor of this vehicle, offering increasingly attractive sums of money for the secret of the craft. The inventor, eventually, responds with an open letter of his own, in which he rejects all of these offers, and announces that this vehicle represents an unstoppable force, greater than any nation, and that power of this vehicle will remain his alone. So there.

This is somewhat provocative, and our friend the detective is sent out again. With the help of an eyewitness, he is able to catch up to the strange vehicle while it is tied up at a secluded lake shore. The occupants of the craft spot him; some gunshots are exchanged; the hero's coat gets caught up in a mooring line; the hero is dragged off into the water as the craft motors away.

The hero nearly drowns, but is rescued by the boat's operators, who then subject him to a horrifying fate.

They give him the silent treatment.

There are apparently only three occupants of the craft: its captain and his two assistants. They continue about their business, driving their super-vehicle around the countryside, refusing to say a word to their captive. The police detective retaliates primarily by sulking. He makes no attempt to overpower his captors; he just rides around in the vehicle for a few days. The craft is pursued by a couple of destroyers; it evades them by going over Niagra Falls and taking to the air; it flies back to its home base, which is (surprise!) the Great Eyrie.

The hero is let off the ship for a little while, during which time the pilots resupply their vessel again. The hero gets to stalk around the bowl of the Eyrie for a little while, and then he gets herded back into the ship for another dose of the silent treatment and another seemingly pointless voyage.

I cannot emphasize enough the fact that, apart from a scant few words in the middle of it all, during this entire long section of the book, there is no conversation between the hero and his captors. They don't threaten him or gloat or boat or even explain why they're keeping him. They just drive/fly/sail him around.

Eventually, while the ship is at sea, it sails into a great storm. The captain, not being a sane man, orders his assistants to unfold the ship's wings and take to the air, and fly into the center of the storm. The hero finally decides that this is a bit much. He resolves to put an end to this; he grits his teeth; he turns to lay hands on the captain and arrest him -- and a lightning bolt hits the ship and destroys it.

The detective survives somehow and is rescued from the sea, and tells his story to his superior officer, and goes home.

The end.

I was shocked at how very, very little happens in this book, particularly since I knew that there was a movie based on it starring Vincent Price. It wasn't until after I finished the book that I found that the Master of the World movie isn't actually based entirely on this book; the movie is based on a combination of Master of the World and Robur the Conqueror, which is an earlier book that Master of the World is a sequel to. In fact, in the middle of the book Master of the World, reference is made to the events of Robur the Conqueror, which even in this brief synopsis is a much more interesting story than anything that occurs in Master of the World.

I'd still like to see the Vincent Price movie at some point, but the only good thing I have to say about the book Master of the World itself is that it's free to download at Project Gutenberg, and so I didn't actually spend a penny on it.