Remember those nights under the covers with a torch reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and his other masterpieces? There were no more, unless you knew French and could read Sans Dessus Dessous, which Verne wrote in 1889 or, perhaps, its clumsy and only partial translation, Topsy-Turvy (1890). Now you can read the book properly, elegantly and wittily translated by Sophie Lewis, and with a much better title — The Earth Turned Upside Down (Hesperus Press, £12).
Here again are the loopy members of the Gun Club of Baltimore, the heroes of Verne’s earlier From the Earth to the Moon, who circled the Moon after being shot from a 900-ft-long cannon. Loonier than ever, they now intend to fire another cannon, stuffed with 400,000 pounds of gun cotton and a projectile weighing 180 million kilograms, to knock the earth off its axis, thus moving the North Pole and its surrounding 407,000 square miles to a warm southern parallel.
After the ice melts, they assume, vast seams of coal will be handy to mine, alleviating — Verne was always a century ahead of his time — the oncoming global energy shortage. Helped by a love-struck millionairess, the adventurers buy the polar region at auction in order to jolt it south and get their hands on the coal. They don’t care that their hoped-for success will distort the Earth’s climate, draining the Atlantic and flooding other regions.
One of these dafties is Major Donellan, “tall, thin, bony, nervous, angular, with the neck of a woodcock… the legs of a marsh-wader”. Another is J.T. Maston, a reclusive genius who calculates the mathematics for the great shot. A “worthy gunner, lacking a right hand, [he] had also been fitted with a skull made of rubber, following one of those accidents that are all too common in war.” He had been barred from the Moon voyage because “showing him to the Moon-dwellers would have given them a poor impression of the earth’s inhabitants”.
Even though the North Pole remains where it has always been, until the last few pages of Verne’s terrific tale I wondered if the mad scheme would work. The giant cannon is installed and then, as teenagers say, OMG. But so it goes in Verne-world.