The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Robur the Conqueror (1886)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Robur the Conqueror (original: Robur le Conquerant) was written by Jules Verne and first appeared as a serial in Journal des Débats politiques et littéraires (June 29-Aug 18, 1886). Its sequel, Master of the World (original: Maître du Monde), was published in 1904. The French Verne (1828-1905) is, with H.G. Wells, the man responsible for modern science fiction. In some ways Verne’s work was surprisingly accurate in its predictions, and his prose can still be read with pleasure. Robur’s two appearances are different in tone, reflecting changes in Verne’s outlook on technology. Both books are entertaining, if not quite classics.
Robur the Conqueror begins with a variety of strange events taking place: odd lights and noises in the sky and a black flag being hung on the Eiffel Tower. A debate among members of the Weldon Institute, an organization of self-important flight enthusiasts, over heavier-than-air versus lighter-than-air flight is interrupted by a strange figure, calling himself Robur, who claims to have solved the problem. Robur is bodily thrown from the meeting by the lighter-than-air lobbyists, who are building the Go Ahead, an enormous dirigible. That evening the president of the Weldon Institute, the Institute’s secretary, and the secretary’s servant are all kidnapped by Robur, who takes them onboard his heavier-than-air ship, The Albatross, and keeps them there as his prisoner. Robur takes them around the world, passing over Canada, the western half of the United States, Peking, Tokyo, India, Russia, northern Europe, France, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Antarctica, and the South Pacific. This trip takes around five weeks, with the only thing of significance occurring is that the prisoners come to hate Robur and no longer speak to him. The Albatross is headed toward Robur's secret base in the Marquesas Islands when The Albatross runs into a storm and is badly damaged. Robur puts in at a small island for repairs and the three captives escape, leaving a time bomb behind in The Albatross' cabin. The bomb explodes while The Albatross is in flight, dropping it and Robur and his crew into the sea.
The three make their way back to America and then continue work on the Go Ahead, even though they've already seen that The Albatross was the dirigible's superior. At the launching of the Go Ahead an airship appears, zooming toward the Go Ahead. It is The Albatross, and it rams the dirigible, but at the last moment Robur changes his mind and saves the lives of the Go Ahead's pilots and safely deposits them on the ground. (Robur, it is explained, went with his crew to another secret hideout, where they built a second ship). He then leaves, saying to the crowds who have gathered around him
Citizens of the United States, the conquest of the air is made; but it shall not be given into your hands until the proper time. I leave, and I carry my secret with me. It will not be lost to humanity, but shall be entrusted to them when they have learned not to abuse it. Farewell, Citizens of the United States!1
The Master of the World resumes several years later. The narrator of the story is John Strock, the chief of the Washington (D.C.) Police Department. He is also a highly ranked Federal agent and is empowered to conduct investigations across the United States. A number of strange events occur: there is a volcanic eruption in the Great Eyrie, an inaccessible mountain in the North Carolina Appalachians; a super-fast automobile leaves tracks on various roads in the U.S.; a strange automobile speeds through a Wisconsin road race at 150 mph and then disappears into Lake Michigan; a submarine is seen in Lake Kendall, in Kansas. Strock and his superior, Mr. Ward, eventually piece together that the same craft has been seen in each event. Various European and American governments make an offer to buy the vehicle, and in response each gets a brusque, vainglorious refusal from an individual calling himself the “Master of the World.” (Strock had previously tried to scale the Great Eyrie and been threatened by the “Master of the World”). Strock hears about the craft being near Toledo and attempts to capture it, but instead is dragged along behind it as it takes off through Lake Erie. He passes out and awakens as a prisoner of the craft’s captain. The captain refuses to speak to him, despite Strock's egging him on. The ship, which Strock calls The Terror, is pursued across Lake Erie by American naval destroyers. The ship’s engines seem to give out as it is being carried over Niagara Falls, but then the ship sprouts wings and flies away. As the ship heads toward the Great Eyrie Strock confronts the captain again, and the “Master of the World,” reveals himself to be Robur. The Terror leaves the Eyrie and is flying over the Caribbean Sea when Robur deliberately flies it into a storm. The Terror is struck by lightning and plummets a thousand feet into the sea. Strock awakens after having been rescued from the wreckage of The Terror, and Robur is presumed dead, although his body is never found.
Robur the Conqueror and The Master of the World are both good light entertainment, suitable for whiling away a day at the beach or a bout of insomnia. But neither is more than that, which is unfortunate, because Verne demonstrated in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea that he was capable of fascinating fiction. Sadly, both Robur the Conqueror and The Master of the World can accurately be described as Twenty Thousand Leagues with the best parts taken out. Verne is always readable. He has a clean and unaffected style which reads quickly and easily. But the characterization of the protagonist, which was much the best thing about Twenty Thousand Leagues, is for the most part absent in both Robur the Conqueror and The Master of the World. Likewise, the plots of both Robur novels are surprisingly scanty and thin. There is a lot of description in both novels, but not much actually happens. They have Verne’s usual preoccupation with providing real world details as the framework for his more fantastic extrapolations, but the story hooks are different, and inferior to that of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The humor of Robur the Conqueror is dated and labored. The character of Frycollin, the servant of Uncle Prudent, is a racist caricature. The beginning of Robur the Conqueror, with its series of mysterious occurrences, reads like a repeat of Twenty Thousand Leagues, but Robur never becomes as intriguing to the reader as Captain Nemo did. And Robur’s motivation for kidnapping the men of the Weldon Institute is murky and never satisfactorily explained.
However, Robur the Conqueror’s most important flaw is its age. The novel is over a century old and was written at a time when heavier-than-air flight versus lighter-than-air flight was still being debated. Verne is a partisan in this argument, using Robur to argue for heavier-than-air flight and using realistic and achievable details to make his case. At the time it was written Robur must have seemed powerful. But today the rhetorical lifting and lecturing asides Verne includes on behalf of the heavier-than-air side are likely to seem pointless. Verne essentially argues a case which is long since settled. Similarly, when Verne wrote Robur the idea of traveling around the world by air was entrancing. Much of the charm of Around the World in Eighty Days is its global setting, which held a great deal of appeal to its readers, who were unlikely to ever see the places which Phileas Fogg visited. Verne repeats the travelogue in Robur, this time from the air, and in 1887 such a trip would have been interesting to the reader. But in the twenty-first century these locations are just another plane ride away. The modern, jaded, cynical, and romance-free approach to air travel destroys much of the appeal which Robur the Conqueror no doubt initially had for its readers.
The Master of the World was written at the end of Verne’s life, when he had lost his faith in technology. The novel lacks Verne’s usual attention to detail and accuracy and his concern with realism and reads more like a standard adventure novel. Robur himself is no longer the sympathetic megalomaniac of Robur. He has become besotted with his own power and is threatening–he has made the shift from a Nemo-esque Romantic anti-hero to a full-fledged villain. But for the most part Verne keeps Robur’s character in The Master of the World opaque to the reader, and so the reasons for his change are never explained.
One notable aspect of Robur is his portrayal as a rogue engineer and inventor, relatively benign in Robur and then dangerous in Master. The engineer/inventor as a powerful and threatening creator is a variation on the mad scientist theme, but it is a departure from the Faustian (see: Faust) aspect of the mad scientist. The Faustian mad scientist, best typified by Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein (see: Frankenstein), is dangerous because he is not equipped to handle his new knowledge; the Things Man Was Not Meant To Know are inherently dangerous. This is a typical attitude of the early Victorians. After mid-century, however, attitudes toward science began to change, so that it was not the knowledge itself which was dangerous, but rather what was done with the knowledge. In the last half of the nineteenth century portrayals of inventors generally fell into one of two types: the heroic adventurer or the megalomaniac. The Edisonade boy inventors, like Frank Reade (see: The Frank Reade Adventures), were the former; characters like Robur were the latter.
Print: Jules Verne, Robur the Conqueror, transl. Alex Kirstukas. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017.
 Jules Verne, The Clipper of the Clouds, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1908), 190.