I am a Melbourne based writer, primarily of speculative fiction. I find the writing process fascinating; the links below include examples of my work, fiction and non fiction, but also another story. How has a chapter evolved? How have places and the fictions of others informed and inspired my own. How do I research, develop ideas and turn them into narrative? Each page offers a different insight into the work and the story behind the work.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jules Verne and Ripples in the pond of the imagination

A Nautilus Shell. The Nautilus as a species depending on your viewpoint, either emerged in the Late Triassic era, approximately 200 million years ago, or was created somewhat more recently by more supernatural means. It is one of the oldest creatures to evolve and still have like living descendents in current times.

A model of 'Nautilus', Robert Fulton's 1800 submarine that inspired Jules Verne to imagine an improved version as depicted in his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870),   

An early illustration of The Nautilus in Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Alphonse de Neuville and (1835-1885) Édouard Riou (1833-1900)
USS Nautilus SSN-571

The Nautilus design from the 1954 Disney film of the novel, as reconstructed in small scale in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, a former attraction at Walt Disney World Resort. This is one of numerous designs inspired by Jules Verne's original description in his 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues under the sea, over the past 150 years.

Alex, my housemate currently absent in Tasmania, recently sent me a link to a site called The Vernian Era  that I wanted to share. The site, created by Jules Verne enthusiast, Michael Crisafulli, includes a catalogue of drawings and illustrations of 'the Nautilus', the advanced submarine constructed by Captain Nemo, in Jules Verne's early science fiction novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The site originally started as a collection of illustrations of the craft that had been primarily been created for reprints of the novel or films versions over the past 150 years. Many were acquired through direct contact with the artist. With time, other artists and Verne enthusiasts found the site and its popularity grew. Further searches by Crisafulli added more contemporary designs to the archive, and as more and more were added, he noticed that some new entries appeared to develop, echo or "cross pollinate" from designs he had previously published. Some of these developments were informed or influenced by visits to the site.
It was thus transformed from a kind of passive historical catalogue, into a living online record of the development of an implicit creative community of media professionals and enthusiasts, producing ever evolving visions of the craft.

In Crisafulli's commentary, accompanying each design of the submarine, he offers the opinions of himself and others on the various ways that some variations echo or build upon previous designs, or depart from them, including best estimations of Verne's original concept. He also discusses the rationale behind the designs, the circumstances of their genesis and any mass medium in which they appeared.

This could be seen, in a sense, as a fairy innocuous site apparently only of interest to enthusiasts, but I found, as my housemate suggested when he sent it to me, that it might have quite a range of powerful conceptual and philosophical dimensions and pose some interesting questions about creativity, the imagination and even notions of reality and experience. There were so many possible avenues of enquiry I found, after musing on this for a couple of days, that I realised writing a post that addressed them all with a reasonable degree of justice, could easily turn into a small thesis.
So I decided to limit my exploration in this post to one question, out of at least a dozen or so possible candidates, with a view to exploring some of the other issues in further posts, mostly likely using other examples from around the web to ensure variety and the introduction of other website gems I have found or others have recommended to me.

My chosen line of enquiry is:  Can something imagined by a writer and expressed through words ever be authentic or definitive?
The Nautilus is described in the original text of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but prose descriptions can never create definitive representations of what is in the writer's imagination. Indeed, unless the writer draws or models something they are describing in their stories in considerable detail (and they may well get engineering or other aspects details wrong in a real world sense if they lack technical expertise), it seems unlikely most writers even have a precise image of what they are describing in their minds. Very few human beings have the capacity to imagine something with that level of precision.

Also, writers typically do not attempt to imagine intricate visions of every scene, character and object prior to describing them. They don't even need to; a good writer will probably have developed far more detail about a scene or object in their mind than ever reaches the page, but they know that they only need to offer a few key details to invoke an image in the readers mind, leaving the rest up to the reader's imagination.
Indeed, if you look at the original description of the Nautilis, Verne leaves considerable license to the reader for interpreting the finer details of his creation.

"Here, M. Aronnax, are the several dimensions of the boat you are in. It is an elongated cylinder with conical ends. It is very like a cigar in shape, a shape already adopted in London in several constructions of the same sort. The length of this cylinder, from stem to stern, is exactly 70 meters, and its maximum breadth is eight meters. It is not built on a ratio of ten to one like your long-voyage steamers, but its lines are sufficiently long, and its curves prolonged enough, to allow the water to slide off easily, and oppose no obstacle to its passage. These two dimensions enable you to obtain by a simple calculation the surface and cubic contents of the Nautilus. Its area measures 1011.45 square meters; and its contents 1,500.2 cubic meters; that is to say, when completely immersed it displaces 1500.2 cubic meters of water, or 1500.2 metric tons."

Some of the designs on The Vernian Era site are very faithful to this description, but all add details, connective structures or design variations Verne did not describe. Indeed, Verne could not have communicated sufficent details for someone to draw or model the craft with resonably accuracry, without filling several pages with description the reader does not require to understand what he is imagining. Also - with expanding length and detail - such a description would undoubtedly reach a point where a reader would not be able to hold all the details in their mind as a coherent whole and might abandon the story in frustration. Anyone who has read the full text of Moby Dick, will know the challenges of wading through pages of information on the Whaling industry that not infrequently punctuate the narrative of the novel.
Other designs on the website depart from the original description in various ways. They may not be entirely true to the original Nautilus, yet they invoke or develop Verne's conception of the craft and perhaps even create something more effective, evocative or simply realistic from an engineering perspective. All I think, are recognisable as 'The Nautilus" or something like it, at least for anyone vaguely familiar with the book or film versions of it.

Similar issues arise when filmmakers bring books to the screen and in the process necessarily or unnecessarily depart from many different aspects of the book, usually because of the challenges of translating material that works in a literary form but may not translate so well into a primarily visual medium or for a cinema audience or because material must be condensed or simplified to be effective in a two hour presentation.
Departures from an author's literary visions can be a practical matter, such as when director George Pal's effects technicians tried to construct the Martian tripods from HG Wells' War of the Worlds for the 1953 film, and found that it was very hard to create a three legged machine that has a practical means of locomotion (tripods are very stable, but as soon as you move a leg, they become unstable and tend to fall over). It can also be a matter of creating a vision of something a writer wrote about in a different era, that might seem cumbersome or unconvincing to a contemporary audience. Verne's concept of transport to the moon via a canon, for example, would not be convincing to a modern audience who know roughly how travel to the Moon was actually achieved. Or it may be to fulfil the filmmaker's particular vision or stylistic interpretation of the source material.

Films of course also get remade, sometimes multiple times in different eras. Each film can end up re-imagining or further evolving upon the vision in a previous film, which in turn builds upon the original literary vision.

I saw an example of this recently in the remake of Total Recall. Both the 1990 and 2012 film interpret aspects of the original Phillip K Dick short story 'We Can Rememberit for You Wholesale", but the contemporary remake also reinterprets aspects of the vision and narrative departures from the original short story to be found in the 1990s version.

So, can something imagined by a writer and expressed through words ever be authentic or definitive? I don't believe so. And that in itself raises another interesting question, one of the dozen or so I could have written about in this post: does the writer really have total authority over the ideas, scenes, objects and characters they describe when so much of the fuller realisation of their visions takes place in the mind of the reader?

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