Comment: The worlds that PBS’s reimagined ‘80 Days’ forgot

The updated Jules Verne classic addresses colonialism, racism and sexism, but ignores energy and technology.

By Joyce Chaplin / Special To The Washington Post

During a global pandemic, the ultimate fantasy may be to travel around the world without worrying about any material constraints. The PBS series “Around the World in 80 Days” — which just completed its run on “Masterpiece Theatre” but will return for a second seasons — sates this escapism. An adaptation of Jules Verne’s serially published story “La Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingts Jours,” (1872), the series updates the adventure, but ignores the themes that made Verne’s work resonate in the first place: how new technologies and energy sources were changing human experience and knowledge of the world.

Occasionally, most daringly, Verne considered how these new material ways of being had implications for societal relations. In contrast, the PBS series implies that there’s no connection. This may be the wrong kind of escapism. Rethinking technology and energy will be crucial for imagining and making a better future for ourselves.

Jules Verne (1828-1905) was a prolific French author who wrote everything from poetry to science essays, but is best known for his speculative fiction, and especially his “Voyages extraordinaires.” These 54 novels — among them “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” “From the Earth to the Moon,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “The Mysterious Island” and “Around the World in Eighty Days” — are fantastic yet also meticulously realistic. Verne was fascinated with tangible things: the steel, iron, telegraph cable, gases, rubber and pressure gauges that made possible (or at least plausible) his extraordinary voyages.

He wasn’t naive about the energy costs of such ventures, even in his most realistic tale, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” When the novel’s central character, Phileas Fogg, bets that he can circle the world in 80 days, he is banking on steam-powered ships and railways, and an environment built for them, including railroad tracks, coaling stations and the newly opened Suez Canal. Verne played on the contrast between the coal-fired segments of the journey and its charmingly archaic interludes: an elephant, an ice sledge rigged with sails, and, toward the end, a steamship Fogg purchases midway across the Atlantic so he can cannibalize its wood to feed its coal-starved boiler.

Verne cleverly showed that the voyagers are always burning fossil fuel; his era’s new technologies took a constant, global toll. As Fogg and his French valet Jean Passepartout board a night train, leaving London, Passepartout cries out in desperation: “In the rush … my state of confusion … I forgot … to switch off the gas lamp in my bedroom.” “Well, my dear fellow,” Fogg replies, “you’ll be paying the bill.” That bill stands in for all the resources, primarily fossil fuel, consumed to go around the world as fast as possible in the 1870s.

The illustrations for the full novel’s first edition (1873) made that point three times. A small image on the title page showed Passepartout rushing to blow out the neglected gas lamp. A page-size illustration toward the end of the book showed him sitting in his bedroom, sullenly aghast, holding a long bill that scrolled down to his feet. Most evocatively, the novel’s frontispiece presented Passepartout and Fogg staring up at an image of the planet they’ve circumnavigated, its center studded with a burning gas lamp. Verne’s contrast between coal and elephants displayed a world on the verge, both newfangled and not.

He also explored the steam age’s changing social relations. This was a more tentative speculation. Verne was no advocate for social equality; his novels are notorious for their racist and cultural stereotypes. Passepartout is never represented as Fogg’s equal or friend. In India, when Fogg rescues a widow condemned to be burned on her husband’s funeral pyre, the episode supplements a long imperialist campaign to stigmatize Hinduism and declare European moral superiority.

But the widow, Aouda, turns out to be the story’s most consequential character. After she, Fogg and Passepartout arrive in London, they think Fogg has lost his bet, his fortune and all his friends. Aouda proposes marriage to him, offering herself as friend and family. It’s when Fogg accepts, sending for a clergyman to marry them, that they discover they’ve gained a day going around the world; the bet is won. By making Aouda’s choice and action key to the plot, Verne inserts a topsy-turvy element, defying the novel’s prevailing social conservatism.

He also, as a Frenchman, made a statement about the British Empire, by subjecting quintessential Englishman Phileas Fogg to Aouda’s power. In a sped-up, coal-fired world, a woman of color turns out to be as mighty as a steam engine.

The PBS series is most invested in that element of the story, and far more forthright than Verne in targeting racism, colonialism and sexism. The series casts a Black actor as Passepartout and invents a new character, a white female companion, journalist Abigail Fix. The widow-burning episode is replaced with a village wedding in India. But in putting the new character of Fix in place of Aouda, and thereby centering a white woman’s ambition and actions, the series appears less daring than Verne’s original story line. In the end, it’s Fogg’s white valet back in London who reveals the day gained. The romance between Fix and a Black Passepartout, on the other hand, is more radical than anything Verne proposed. An episode focused on a Black U.S. marshal hauling a founder of the Ku Klux Klan to justice may best approximate the novel’s outsider criticism of a morally compromised global power, in this case a British perspective on the United States today.

The series’s awareness of the material costs of global travel is more uneven. It embeds some pre-steam forms of travel — a balloon across Europe, camels overland to Aden, a stagecoach out of San Francisco — within the chain of steamships and railways. Occasionally, coal shares the spotlight, as when a train’s supply must be jettisoned and its wooden body cannibalized to burn instead.

But there is no constantly burning gas lamp and no hint that the tale’s era’s fossil-fuel demands configured our own. Instead of a lamp-pierced globe, the series’s central icon is a round, ticking clock, whose mechanical movement is pre-steam, in fact, from the Middle Ages.

And this is a missed opportunity. Verne has inspired countless fantastic reconsiderations of steam-age technology and society. In the genre of retrofuturism, authors have explored past prophecies of the future, and in steampunk, they have hypothesized that the material dimensions of the Victorian era were unintentionally liberationist, the means by which colonized people and women can fight oppression. Some authors have thrown in speculation on alternative energy, as in the subgenre of solarpunk.

The PBS series comes closest to this speculation when it presents the telegraph system — what’s been called “the Victorian Internet” — as a source of liberation. When the telegraph system is working, for example, Fix can file her newspaper stories and affirm her autonomy. When telegraph lines are cut or telegrams are delayed, they threaten and impede the travelers. Yes, modern media have offered new opportunities, though not without risk, and this began with the telegraph network of wires coated with gutta percha (latex) and encased in metal that was installed around the world in the 19th century. More hints about those material particularities and their social costs and opportunities would have added greatly to the series.

It’s essential for us to imagine more equal social relations, to undo the damage of colonialism and to confront racism and sexism. But, in 2022, in the middle of a climate crisis plus a pandemic, 150 years after Jules Verne speculated on coal, imperialism and the state of the world, it’s naive to speculate about social justice without reconsidering energy and technology, and especially ways to extract ourselves from the heavy legacies of steam power. Without alternatives to fossil fuel, the fantasy won’t go anywhere, let alone around the world.

Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips professor of Early American history at Harvard University.

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