The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Facing the Flag (1896)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Facing the Flag (original: Face Au Drapeau) was written by Jules Verne and first appeared in Magasin (1 Jan-15 June 1896). The French Verne (1828-1905) is, with H.G. Wells, the man responsible for modern science fiction. In some ways his work was surprisingly accurate in its predictions, and his prose can still be read with pleasure. Facing the Flag, though not up to Verne’s usual level of quality, is representative of Verne’s late pessimism.
In Facing the Flag the insane French inventor Thomas Roch creates the “fulgurator.” The fulgurator is a flattened disc with a tube in its back. It is filled with a powerful explosive of Roch's invention and a special detonator, also of Roch’s invention, and aimed at targets. The fulgurator is an “auto-propulsive engine”1 which “flies through the air of its own power and accelerates its speed until the goal is reached, thanks to the properties of a certain powder of progressive combustion!”2 In other words, Thomas Roch invents the guided missile.
Roch is willing to sell his invention to his native France. But he is not willing to give any demonstrations or experiments, instead demanding millions of francs before he would give the fulgurator to the French government. The French government refuses, seeing Roch as crazed. His patriotism soured, Roch approaches the Germans and British, who both turn him down. Roch approaches the American government, which is initially willing to negotiate with him but later decides to imprison him in an insane asylum.
Roch is then kidnapped by the notorious Ker Karraje, an infamous pirate of the Western Pacific. Ker Karraje had committed several evil acts before disappearing. But as Roch discovers, Karraje had an inventor create an electric submarine for him. He intends to use the fulgurator to make himself master of the seas, and imprisons Roch on Barcup, Karraje’s secret island lair in the Bermudas. Karraje's plans are foiled, though not after two naval cruisers are sunk by the fulgurator. Roch dies, but the novel leaves open the possibility that Karraje himself may have escaped.
Facing the Flag is not particularly good (though of course Verne’s English translators usually butchered Verne’s texts). Although the lead character is neither stiff nor a prig, he is one-dimensional and rather bland, which is why his narration robs the book of the vigor it should have had. Moreover, the narrative style–continually set in the present tense–ends up distracting the reader's attention from the ideas of the novel, which are actually rather interesting.
However, Facing the Flag does stand in as representative of Verne’s dour mood in his seventies.
In Facing the Flag (1896), the pirate Ker Karraje, pursuing a series of almost random acts of aggression against merchant ships or nation states, builds weapons of mass destruction that include a missile-carrying submarine. His mission is not ultimately to create, but to destroy, to replace order with anarchy. Scientifically, none of the technology is described in very sophisticated terms, and we are a long way from the more fanciful descriptions of modern science fiction. But there is here the clear foreboding of conflict between nations and of terrorist activity that is the more extreme and negative result of the theories of utopian socialism that had influenced Verne in the aftermath of 1848. It has often been said that Jules Verne becomes increasingly pessimistic about the world as he gets older, and these novels show him pursuing social and political speculations to almost nihilistic conclusions. It is true that, whereas in his early works Jules Verne tends to describe the more liberating aspects of travel, as his career progresses he focuses increasingly on the political problems caused by exploration and its technologies, and he comes to some dispiriting conclusions about the progress of humanity.3
Print: Jules Verne, Facing the Flag. Paderborn, DE: Salzwasser-Verlag, 2018
1 Jules Verne, Facing the Flag (New York: Lupton, 1897), 10.
2 Verne, Facing the Flag, 147.
3 Timothy Unwin, “Jules Verne: Negotiating Change in the Nineteenth Century,” Science Fiction Studies 32, no. 1 (Mar 2005): 10.