Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873) 198 p.

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I had a bunch of long plane and car trips recently, and got around to downloading Inkle’s acclaimed iOS interactive fiction game 80 Days. As you’d imagine, it’s loosely based off the famous novel, but is set in an alternate steampunk world and lets you take more or less any route you please; on various playthroughs I ended up at the North Pole, aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine, or stranded on Pitcairn Island. It’s a great little game that made me more interested in the original novel, and as it turned out I had the public domain copy sitting around on my ereader, so I figured I’d give it a read.

It’s not good! It starts out well enough, with the classic set-up of the excitable, emotional Frenchman Passepartout becoming valet to the ludicrously rigid Englishman Phileas Fogg, a gentleman of leisure with a mysterious fortune who does nothing with his days but read the newspaper and go play whist at the Reform Club. On literally the first day of his employment, Passepartout is dismayed to learn Fogg has taken on an expensive wager with his friends at the club, after an argument about a newspaper article which claims it’s now possible to travel around the world in eighty days. The point of contention is that the newspaper published it merely as a hypothetical, based on train timetables and steamer routes; Fogg’s friends claim that delays and mishaps would inevitably throw the schedule off track, while Fogg claims that no delay or mishap is insurmountable. Personally I found this far less interesting than if Fogg had merely been putting his faith in the transport marvels of the modern age and was striking out blind, but whatever: off they go, pursued by a Scotland Yard detective named Fix who’s convinced Fogg is responsible for a £20,000 Bank of England robbery and is taking a circuitous route to flee justice.

As the book goes on, it’s just really dry and dull. There are perfunctory adventures in there, but Verne sort of skips over them, telling rather than showing. One of the core offenders is a Sioux attack on a train in the Midwest, in which Passepartout is abducted and Fogg leads some American soldiers off to rescue him; Verne for some reason decides to convey this scene from the perspective of Fix, who’s sitting around at the train station waiting for them to return. Enthralling stuff. It’s also very much a product of its time, marvelling at the accomplishments of the British Empire and falling in lockstep with the White Man’s Burden. (The game 80 Days, penned mostly by black science fiction writer Meg Jaynath, takes a more even-handed view.) Fogg is not a particularly interesting character beyond being a stereotype of English reserve – it would have been far more interesting if Fix turned out to be right and he really was the bank robber – and the actual facts of his accomplishment are uninspiring. Of course delays and mishaps won’t put a spanner in the works when you’re rich enough to just buy a boat if you miss your departure. On the whole I don’t recommend it, though I very much do recommend 80 Days.