Off on a Comet

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Off on a Comet
'Off on a Comet' by Paul Philippoteaux 001.jpg
Author Jules Verne
Original title Hector Servadac
Translator unknown (1877), Ellen Frewer (1877), Edward Roth (1877-78), I. O. Evans (1965)
Illustrator Paul Philippoteaux
Country France
Language French
Series The Extraordinary Voyages #15
Genre Science fiction, adventure novel
Publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel
Publication date
1877
Published in English
1877
Media type Print (Hardback)
ISBN N/A
Preceded by Michael Strogoff
Followed by The Child of the Cavern

Off on a Comet (French: Hector Servadac) is an 1877 science fiction novel by Jules Verne.

Plot summary[edit]

John Herschel observes Comet Halley from his observatory in Cape Town in 1835 (illustration from the book).

The story starts with a comet called Gallia, that touches the Earth in its flight and collects a few small chunks of it. The disaster occurred on January 1 of the year 188x in the area around Gibraltar. On the territory that was carried away by the comet there remained a total of thirty-six people of French, English, Spanish and Russian nationality. These people did not realize at first what had happened, and considered the collision an earthquake. They first noticed weight loss: Captain Servadac's adjutant Ben Zoof to his amazement, jumped twelve meters high. Zoof with Servadac also soon noticed that the alternation of day and night is shortened to six hours, that east and west changed sides, and that water begins to boil at 66 degrees Celsius, from which they rightly deduced that atmosphere became thinner and pressure dropped. At the beginning of their stay in Gallia they noticed the Earth with the Moon, but thought it was an unknown planet. Other important information was obtained through their research expedition with a ship, which the comet also took. During the voyage they discovered a mountain chain blocking the sea, which they initially considered to be the Mediterranean Sea and then they found the island of Formentera (before the catastrophe a part of the Balearic Islands), where they found a French astronomer Palmyrin Rosette, who helped them to solve all the mysterious phenomena. They were all on the comet which was discovered by Rosette a year ago and predicted a collision course with Earth, but no one believed the astronomer, because a layer of thick fog at the time prevented astronomical observations in other places.

As found by a new research expedition, the circumference of Gallia was 2320 km. The mass of the comet was calculated by Rosette. He determined it at 209,346 billion tonnes. For the calculation he used spring scales and forty 5-frank silver coins, the weight of which on earth equalled exactly to one kilogram. However, the owner of the scales, Jew Hakhabut, had rigged the instrument, so the results had to be cut by a quarter.

Involuntary travelers through the Solar system did not have any hope for long-term colonization of their new world, because they were lacking arable land. They ate mainly the animals that were left on the land carried away by Gallia. One strange phenomenon, they met was that the sea on the comet did not freeze, even though the temperature dropped below the freezing point (theory that the stationary water level resists freezing level for longer than when a rippled by wind). Once a stone was thrown into the sea, the sea froze in a few moments. The ice was completely smooth and allowed skating and sleigh sailing. Despite the dire situation in which the castaways found themselves, old power disputes from Earth continued on Gallia, because the French and English officers considered themselves the representatives of their respective governments. The object of their interest was for example previously Spanish Ceuta, which became an island on the comet and which both parties started to consider an unclaimed territory. Captain Servadac therefore attempted to occupy Ceuta, but was not successful. It turned out that the island had been occupied by Englishmen, who maintainined a connection to their base at Gibraltar through optical telegraph.

Gallia got to an extreme point of its orbit and then began its return to Earth. In early November Rossete's refined calculations showed that there will be a new collision with the Earth, exactly two years after the first, again on January 1. Therefore, the idea appeared to leave the comet collision in a balloon. The proposal was approved and the castaways made a balloon out of the sails of their ship. In mid-December there was an earthquake, in which Gallia partially fell apart and lost a fragment, which probably killed all Englishmen in Ceuta and Gibraltar. When on January 1 there was again a contact between the atmospheres of Gallia and Earth, the space castaways left in the balloon and landed safely two kilometers from Mostaganem in Algeria.

Main characters[edit]

The 36 inhabitants of Gallia include a German Jew, an Italian, three Frenchmen, eight Russians, 10 Spaniards, and 13 British soldiers. The main characters are:

  • Captain Hector Servadac of the French Algerian army
  • Laurent Ben Zoof, Servadac's aide
  • Count Wassili Timascheff of Russia
  • Lt. Procope, the commander of Timascheff's yacht, Dobrina
  • Isaac Hakkabut, a Jewish trader
  • Nina, a young Italian goatherd
  • Pablo, a Spanish boy
  • Colonel Heneage Finch Murphy and Major Sir John Temple Oliphant of Britain's Gibraltar garrison. In the French original Murphy is actually a Brigadier (General), a rank too high to be the butt of Verne's joking description as playing an interminable game of chess without a pawn being taken. The translator accordingly demoted him to the rank of Colonel, a rank less likely to cause offense.
  • Palmyrin Rosette, the French discoverer of the comet and previously Servadac's teacher.

Publication history[edit]

The book was first published in France (Hetzel Edition, 1877).

The English translation by Ellen E. Frewer, was published in England by Sampson Low (November 1877), and the U.S. by Scribner Armstrong[1] with the title Hector Servadac; Or the Career of a Comet. The Frewer translation alters the text considerably with additions and emendations, paraphrases dialogue, and rearranges material, although the general thread of the story is followed. The translation was made from the Magazin pre-publication version of the novel described below in Antisemitism.

At the same time George Munro[2] in New York published an anonymous translation in a newspaper format as #43 of his Seaside Library books. This is the only literal translation containing all the dialogue and scientific discussions. Unfortunately the translation stops after Part II Chapter 10, and continues with the Frewer translation.

The same year a still different translation by Edward Roth was published in Philadelphia by Claxton, Remsen, and Heffelfinger[3] in two parts. Part I (October, 1877) was entitled To the Sun and Part II (May, 1878) Off on a Comet. This was reprinted in 1895 by David McKay.

Occasional reprints of these books were published around 1900 by Norman L. Munro, F.M. Lupton, Street&Smith, Hurst and Co., and Federal Book Co.

In 1911, Vincent Parke and Company[4] published a shortened version of the Frewer translation, omitting Part II, Chapter 3. Parke used the title Off on a Comet, and since that time the book has usually been referred to with that title instead of the correct one, Hector Servadac.

In 1926 the first two issues of Amazing Stories carried Off on a Comet in two parts. In 1959, Classics Illustrated released Off on a Comet as a graphic novel (issue #149).

In 1960 Dover (New York) re-published the Roth translations, unabridged, as Space Novels by Jules Verne, including reproductions of the original engravings from the first French editions. In 1965 the I. O. Evans condensation of the Frewer translation was published in two volumes as Anomalous Phenomena and Homeward Bound by ARCO, UK and Associated Booksellers, US. University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, re-published the Frewer translation in 2000. In September, 2007, Solaris Books (U.K.) published Off on a Comet as an appendix to Splinter by Adam Roberts; a slightly edited version of the Parke edition.

In a September 11, 2007 blog post on The Guardian, Adam Roberts reviewed the 1877 translation. Roberts felt that the translation was inaccurate and incomplete.[5] However Roberts' criticism is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the version of Hector Servadac he was criticizing was the corrupt version of the original Frewer translation found on Project Gutenberg (based on the Parke edition, above) made from a different French original than the one he was using.

In October, 2007, Choptank Press published an on-line version of Munro's 1877 Hector Servadac, Travels and Adventures through the Solar System [6] edited by Norman Wolcott, followed (December, 2007) by Hector Servadac: The Missing Ten Chapters from the Munro Translation[7] newly translated by Norman Wolcott and Christian Sánchez. In 2008 the Choptank Press published a combined book version Hector Servadac: Travels and Adventures Through the Solar System containing (I) An enlarged replica of Seaside Library edition #43 as published by George Munro, New York, 1877; (II)A typeset version of the same in large readable type; (III) A new translation of the last 10 chapters from the original French by Norman Wolcott and Christian Sanchez in the literal style of the remainder of the book; and (IV) 100 illustrations from the original publications enlarged to 8½" × 11" format.[8]

Antisemitism controversy[edit]

From the beginning Verne had problems with this novel.[9] Originally he intended that Gallia would crash into the earth killing all on board. This may have been the motivation for his ghoulish and rather unfunny joke naming the hero "Servadac" with the mirror of the French word cadavres ("corpses"), predicting all would die on the "return". His publisher Hetzel would not accept this however, given the large juvenile readership in his monthly magazine, and Verne was forced to graft a rather unsatisfying ending onto the story, allowing the inhabitants of Gallia to escape the crash in a balloon.

The first appearance in French was in the serial magazine Magazine d'Éducation et de Récréation, commencing on 1 January 1877 and ending on 15 December 1877. It was in June, 1877 when chapter 18 appeared with the introduction and description of Isac Hakhabut — "He was a man of fifty years, who looked sixty. Small, weakly, with eyes bright and false, a busked nose, a yellowish beard and unkempt hair, large feet, hands long and hooked, he offered the well-known type of the German Jew, recognizable among all. This was the usurer with supple back-bone, flat-hearted, a clipper of coins and a skin-flint. Silver should attract such a being as the magnet attracts iron, and if this Shylock was allowed to pay himself from his debtor, he would certainly sell the flesh at retail. Besides, although a Jew originally, he made himself a Mahometan in Mahometan provinces, when his profit demanded it, and he would have been a pagan to gain more."

This prompted the chief rabbi of Paris, Zadoc Kahn, to write a letter to Hetzel, objecting that this material had no place in a magazine for young people. Hetzel and Verne co-signed a reply indicating they had no intention of offending anyone, and promising to make corrections in the next edition. However Verne left the salvage work to Hetzel, asking Hetzel at the end of the summer, "Have you arranged the affair of the Jews in Servadac?" The principal change was to replace "Jew" with "Isac" throughout, and to add "Christian countries" to those where Hakhabut plied his trade. The anti-semitic tone remained however, sales were lower than for other Verne books, and the American reprint houses saw little profit with only a single printing by George Munro in a newspaper format. Even the Hetzel revised version has never been translated into English, as both Victorian translations were made from the magazine version. This has caused some modern reviewers to unfairly criticize the early translators, assuming that they had inserted the anti-semitic material which Verne actually wrote.

Film Adaptations[edit]

Valley of the Dragons at the Internet Movie Database
Na Komete at the Internet Movie Database
Off on a Comet at the Internet Movie Database

A 1962 version of the novel was to have been filmed by American International Pictures but the film was never made. Various 1962 issues of Charlton Comics offered a contest where a winner would visit the set of the film.[10]

Influences[edit]

Off on a Comet was the inspiration for a 2007 novel by Adam Roberts, Splinter.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Library of Congress catalog record". Retrieved 2008-08-31. 
  2. ^ "Library of Congress catalog record". Retrieved 2008-08-31. 
  3. ^ "Library of Congress catalog record". Retrieved 2008-08-31. 
  4. ^ Charles F. Horne Ph.D., ed. (1911). "Works of Jules Verne 9" 9. New York: Vincent Parke and Company. Retrieved 2008-10-04. 
  5. ^ Roberts, Adam. "Jules Verne deserves a better translation service." The Guardian. September 11, 2007.
  6. ^ Norman Wolcott, editor (October 2007). "Hector Servadac, Travels and Adventures through the Solar System". Choptank Press. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 
  7. ^ Norman Wolcott and Christian Sanchez, translators (December 2007). "Hector Servadac: The Missing Ten Chapters from the Munro Translation". Choptank Press. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 
  8. ^ Norman Wolcott and Christian Sanchez, editors/translators (2008). Hector Servadac: Travels and Adventures through the Solar System. St. Michaels, MD: Choptank Press. p. 554.  [1]
  9. ^ Material in this section is described in the book by Herbert R. Lottman (1997). Jules Verne: an Exploratory Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press. 
  10. ^ Charlton, Reptisaurus The Terrible, Vol. 2, No. 3, Charlton Comics Jan 1962

External links[edit]