We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne - Depicting real life • 1855–1900

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
Depicting real life • 1855–1900




Scientific romance


1818 Frankenstein, by the English author Mary Shelley, is published; it is often seen as the first fictional work with a scientific focus.

1845 The term “scientific romance” is used for the first time, in a review of the anonymously authored 1844 work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, to describe its unorthodox scientific ideas as literary fiction.


1895 The Time Machine, H G Wells’s first science fiction novel, popularizes the concept of time travel and offers a dystopian view of the future.

1912 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World extends the genre of scientific romance by envisioning dinosaurs in contemporary South America.

The term “scientific romance” originated in the 19th century to describe speculative writings about natural history or to condemn scientific ideas as fanciful. But over time, as scientific knowledge meant that ideas about the future grew more plausible, the label came to be applied to fictional works that incorporated aspects of scientific wonder in the plotline.

This was an era in which Europeans — now obsessed with technology, social progress, travel, and adventure — dominated the world, and it was hoped that science could help to transform an era of grime and squalor into one of comfort and wealth.

Science and exploration

Frenchman Jules Verne (1828—1905) is the best remembered of the 19th-century scientific romance writers, demonstrating in his works a prescient and imaginative taste for futuristic travel. Verne’s travelogue Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) established his style of action-packed adventure, playing with the possibilities of exploration. From journeying into the air, Verne turned terrestrial with Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), but it was in the oceans that he achieved his greatest success in the genre.

In the 1850s Verne began to develop the idea of an underwater boat, which became Nautilus, the ship of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne’s narrative relates the fabulous tale of Nemo and his crew; of their spectacular submarine adventures finding kelp forests and giant squid in the watery regions of the world. The wonderfully creative Verne gave his travellers diving suits and “air-guns” to use under water — an amazing vision of the potential power of scientific development to enable exploration of the furthest reaches of the world.

In the early 20th century, “scientific romance” was largely superseded by the term “science fiction”, and the focus shifted to outer space and the future rather than “terra incognita”.

See also: Frankenstein