First published in French in 1904 and in English in 1911, The Master of the World is another of Jules Verne’s adventure novels with an SFF twist. It’s a sequel to Robur the Conqueror, though it’s not necessary to have read that book first (I didn’t). The story is set in 1903 and, as so many of Verne’s novels do, features fantastical machines and gadgetry. It should be of particular interest to those who love steampunk and to Verne’s fans who want to read one of the author’s last novels.
Verne’s hero is John Strock, a brave and clever man who investigates mysteries for the government. Currently there are a few strange occurrences going on in the United States. In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina there is a mountain that nearby residents claim has been heard to rumble and seen to smoke. It acts like a volcano, but our investigator knows that a volcano in that area is unlikely. When he tries to explore the mountain, he finds nothing peculiar, but he discovers that an unknown airplane has also been in the vicinity. Meanwhile, in other areas, an extremely fast car has been sighted — or actually, not very well sighted since it’s going almost too fast to be seen. Citizens are worried about such a hazard on the roads. And in various bodies of water around the country, a mysterious submarine-type vessel has also been spotted. Are all these strange events related? Well, of course they are! And it’s up to our daring hero to figure it all out….
Except he doesn’t really figure it out. While snooping around, he gets captured by Robur, the famous inventor who is at the heart of the mystery. Robur is obviously mad so, like the scientists who encountered the inventor in Robur the Conqueror, Strock feels the need to escape. Which he doesn’t really do, either.
The Master of the World isn’t one of Verne’s best novels. It’s got a couple of great scenes (including an exciting chase at Niagara Falls), but it’s slow to wind up and then the end is quick and anticlimactic. John Strock, despite his supposed talent, has little agency in the story, which I found disappointing. He doesn’t really accomplish anything he sets out to do. Instead he just stumbles upon the answers. The “science” is particularly bad, but that’s partly explained by the age of the novel. Mainly, the story just isn’t as much fun and adventurous as we’d expect from Verne.
Written shortly before Verne’s death, The Master of the World has a dark and pessimistic tone. After creating so many fantastical inventions in his previous novels, perhaps this short novel serves as Jules Verne’s warning to us about the danger of technology in the wrong hands. If I think of it that way, I like The Master of the World a little better.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s recent version of The Master of the World which was nicely, but not brilliantly, narrated by Jim Killavey.