Amazon: 2.7. Mode: Only three reviews! (5, 2, and 1 star.)
Goodreads: Average: 3.46. Mode: 3 stars.
"Let no one attempt to seize or stop me. It is, and will be, utterly impossible. Whatever injury anyone attempts against me, I will return a hundredfold.As to the money which is offered me, I despise it! I have no need of it. Moreover, on the day when it pleases me to have millions, or billions, I have but to reach out my hand and take them. Let both the Old and the New World realize this: They can accomplish nothing against me; I can accomplish anything against them. I sign this letter: The Master of the World." Jules Verne's classic "The Master of the World" originally published in 1904. A true literary gem.
First, a confession: the only reason I read this book was because, while digging through a box of old paperbacks, I found an old, old copy of Jules Verne's Master of the World with this slip of paper inserted inside the cover:
Apparently, it was originally a library book at Bob Jones University. Yes, that Bob Jones University, the folks who think Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is overrun with liberals. Wow, this book must have some really controversial views to get that kind of warning label slapped on it. Maybe it mentions (gasp!) evolution! I had to find out what radical, godless nonsense Jules Verne was espousing!
Jules Verne was the original "hard SF" writer. Verne liked his science to be as accurate and plausible as possible, given the time he was writing, whereas contemporaries like H.G. Wells, E.R. Burroughs, Edgar Allen Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft made up whatever science they needed for their stories. But ironically, Jules Verne was also a religious man -- albeit a Catholic, which means to the folks at BJU he had horns and a tail, so maybe that's what made his writing suspect. Master of the World is actually one of his less fantastic stories: there are no strange creatures, no journeys to secret islands or hollow worlds, and certainly no mention of evolution. Instead, what you get is a rather dark and futile tale about a genius inventor driven mad with his own arrogance. It was published in 1904, just a year before Verne's death, and by this time Verne had become pessimistic, particularly about the role of technology in the future, and that shows in this book.
Master of the World is actually a sequel to an earlier novel, Robur the Conquerer. The arch-nemesis of Robur returns in this one, to terrorize the world with his new vehicle.
The idea of a vehicle that can turn into a car, a boat, a submarine, or a helicopter was quite fantastic in 1904, as was its amazing speed of 150 miles per hour. But that's basically all the Master of the World does with his machine -- he drives or flies around really fast (in the book, it's so fast it's almost invisible, for which we can't really blame Verne because it's not like he could see what a vehicle traveling at 150 mph actually looked like) and writes threatening letters. Now, the fact that this technology obviously could be turned into a superweapon for whichever nation got hold of it made the potential threat obvious, but the "Terror," Robur's craft, isn't even armed and he never actually carries out any of his threats.
The protagonist of the story, John Strock, the "chief of the federal police in Washington" (an organization that never existed) is assigned to hunt down the Master of the World and capture him and/or destroy his vehicle. He is the one who gets captured, and proves to be a completely passive protagonist. He never does anything to escape, the Master of the World and his henchmen all but ignore him, and basically he's just along for the ride for the rest of the book.
Despite these narrative failings (and the stiff, melodramatic writing and the wooden dialog), I enjoyed it, but I don't think it's Verne's finest work. The ending, in particular, was both abrupt and implausible. It's a fine early sci-fi classic, but Robur is basically a pale copy of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Jules Verne on Film
The 1961 film combined Robur the Conquerer and Master of the World.
It stars Vincent Price and Charles Bronson and was written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), and it's cheese-tastic! Visually, it bears a striking resemblance to the Wild Wild West TV series that came along a few years later.
Thumbs-up from me for using the insult "blaggard." The movie also made Robur more of a threat, as I believe Matheson realized that the protagonist just sitting on the deck watching his captors fly around would have bored audiences. Plus, there's a woman (women basically didn't exist in Verne's novel), and characters who were slightly more than cardboard cut-outs, with an interesting debate about pragmatism vs. honor. Not a great movie, but like the book, it's fun, light entertainment.
(The quote at the end of the movie, however, is not from Master of the World, it's from Robur the Conqueror.)
Verdict: Some classic sci-fi stands the test of time, and some doesn't. Master of the World is a quick, entertaining adventure with a somewhat flimsy plot. Not Verne's best or most imaginative work, but I enjoyed the glimpse at what was fantastical and futuristic in 1904.
Master of the World is not on the list of 1001 books to read before you die, but Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Centre of the Earth are, along with 999 other books in the books1001 challenge. Come join us -- the first round starts on January 1!