December 29, 2005


The Begum’s Millions. By Jules Verne. Translated by Stanford L. Luce. Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.

     The Begum’s Millions – a more accurate translation of the French title would be “The Begum’s 500 Millions” – is one of the less-known novels of Jules Verne and is not one of his best.  It is nevertheless a fascinating work, especially for scholars of Verne and of early science fiction, but also for readers who are familiar with such Verne classics as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days and are looking for something different that still bears Verne’s unmistakable stamp.

     First published in 1879, The Begum’s Millions is the first novel in which Verne’s generally optimistic view of technology starts to darken.  It is also the first in which his later thorough distrust of the Teutonic temperament begins to come to the fore.  It is the story of the unexpected bequest of 500 million francs to two scientists by an Indian rajah (the “begum” of the title) – and what the two do with the money.  The French scientist, François Sarrasin, creates a city called France-Ville that is focused entirely on the health and safety of its inhabitants.  The German, Herr Schultze, builds Stahlstadt, the City of Steel, in which he manufactures weapons with which to take over the world.

     This may sound prescient to our post-World War II world (or even a post-World War I one), but it is more likely the result of simmering French resentment over the nation’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.  The book is ably translated by Stanford L. Luce (this is the first complete and correct English translation, though two others appeared the year the novel was first published).  The free-flowing prose makes it clear that Verne is mostly interested in the negative uses to which technology can be put – not in making specific political points.  Verne lavishes more attention on Stahlstadt and its evils than on France-Ville, showing the underhanded and overbearing ways Herr Schultze competes with his well-intentioned French counterpart.  Eventually, in the sort of event that would later become typical of movie climaxes, Herr Schultze is spectacularly undone by the untimely explosion of one of his weapons of mass destruction – though this climax also has its laughable moments, as the evil scientist is expanded to giant size instead of being blown to tiny pieces.

     The biggest problem with The Begum’s Millions is that Verne does not present an attractive alternative to Stahlstadt.  At the end, Sarrasin and France-Ville take over Stahlstadt and turn its productive capacity to good ends, but France-Ville itself is not the sort of city in which modern readers would likely want to live. It looks like a huge housing project, with detailed rules for building its rigidly uniform houses, which are constantly under observation by sanitation police.  The city is a place of rules and strictures, all designed to ensure citizens’ health (to be sure, a greater worry in the 19th century than in the developed world today).  France-Ville comes across as nitpicky, communistic and unpleasant (“idle lives will not be tolerated,” notes one part of one rule).  In the absence of a real-seeming (or at least interesting-seeming) utopia, the Stahlstadt dystopia becomes more of a rant and less of a genuinely interesting exploration of technology gone awry.  Verne’s pacing is, as always, swift and sure, but The Begum’s Millions is a book of more interest to specialists or those seeking something different for its own sake than for the general reader or typical Verne fan.

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