THE CHASE OF THE
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In this year, which saw the release of two meteor-striking the earth films as well as several similarly themed novels, it is, perhaps, fitting that Bison Books has elected to reprint Jules Verne's novel The Chase of the Golden Meteor, originally published as Chasse au meteore in 1909. The novel tells the story of two friends, Dr. Sydney Hudelson and Mr. Dean Forsyth, both of Whaston, Virginia, who simultaneously discover a celestial body which seems to be in orbit around the Earth. Throughout the book, Verne examines the stresses this discovery places on their families as each man views himself the proprietor of the object. Matters are not helped by either the impending marriage of Hudelson's daughter to Forsyth's nephew, nor by the revelation of the Paris Observatory that the object is made of solid gold.
As is typical with Verne's writing, his characters are defined less by characterization as they are by expository paragraphs which are included immediately after the characters' introductions. In this manner, Verne introduces Seth Stanfort and Judge Proth within the first six pages. Other, more important characters, are introduced in similar manner in subsequent pages. In fact, Seth Stanfort and his wife, Arcadia, are introduced at the beginning of the novel, and at a few places throughout, with very little effect on the narrative as a whole. Instead, Verne focuses, as much as he does, on Dean Forsyth and Sydney Hudelson. Even these men take a backseat in Verne's story. The real star of the novel is the titular golden meteor and the feud it engenders between Hudelson and Forsyth.
The Hudelson-Forsyth feud over who discovered the bolide first, seems to be based on such nineteenth-century feuds as the one between Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope. Although the men begin the novel as friendly rivals, their scientific interest escalates the rivalry to the point where they cannot abide the other man's presence. Because so much of the novel is told at a distance, relying on narration of events rather than dialogue between character, the reader is rarely shown any of the Hudelson or Forsyth households really attempting to reconcile the two men. Even when Francis Gordon, Forsyth's nephew, and Jenny Hudelson, Gordon's fiancee, attempt to reconcile their elders, the action is only described without any of the details.
The feud is exacerbated when the meteor suddenly changes course, due to the influence of Parisian genius Zephyrin Xirdal. Originally, Verne claims that the meteor is in a stable orbit, although the bolide's actions in the early chapters seem to have it whizzing around the sky at random. Xirdal is a French eccentric genius whose work is lost because he has no interest in exploiting it. If asked at the right time, he'll give someone his researches, otherwise they wind up in a heap around his flat. When he turns his attention to the meteor, he decides he wants to own it, not for the money, but for the purpose of fulfilling his own ego.
While Verne has shown that he can create unique as memorable characters (i.e. Captain Nemo), he has proven, time and again, that characterization is not his strong suit. Instead, his novels usually rely on a novel scientific idea portrayed in a clever and exciting way. . . journeying to the center of the earth, submarines, flights to the moon, etc. While The Chase of the Golden Meteor includes a novel concept at its center, the idea is so implausible, and done in such a pedestrian manner, that the novel does not hold up particularly well, even in this year of asteroidal disaster films.
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