Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Journey to the Moon

In 1865, the young French novelist Jules Verne published his third major work, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The tale recounts the journey of Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel through Iceland, toward an extinct crater, across a sunless sea and into the inner most recesses of the earth. Verne’s continuous provision of metereological and geographical detail in the novel is for the most part an accurate record of the Icelandic environs. Although Verne never travelled to Iceland personally, he familiarised himself with the territory via written descriptions and artistic impressions in scientific journals and periodicals of the time. It is also highly possible that Verne collaborated with librarians and geologists in the making of his text. The contract from Verne’s French publisher stipulates the services and employment conditions for geologists and librarians, who were to provide Verne with the data needed to “validate” his fictional landscape. The crater into which the travellers descend is still known today as the Snaeffelsjokull volcano, located south west of Reykjavik in the Snaeffelsjokull Peninsula National Park. For Verne’s contemporaries, this area provided an unearthly spectacle of sublime desolation. Its exoticism was matched only by accounts of Antarctica, at this time just entering public discussion in France. Marked with jagged, rocky outcrops and rivers of molten lava, Snaeffels Jokull is the perfect backdrop for an expedition into the unknown.

A century after the English translation of Verne’s book, the site again proved catalytic for the production of science-fiction. A year before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic steps on the moon they trained at a NASA base in north-east Iceland, not far from the site of Verne’s fiction. It was here that the first shots of a be-suited Neil Armstrong bounding across a rocky, lunar-like landscape were captured. Verne’s fictional account of the conquest of the earth’s interior was refashioned as a projection of extra-terrestrial activity. When the footage from Apollo 11 was broadcast back to Earth on July 20, 1969, its choreography had already been mapped out on that same desert of Icelandic lava. The aesthetic of history was determined by fictional parameters.

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