Coal and Fuel Alternatives in the Novels of Jules Verne

This article analyzes the function of coal in a selection of novels by Jules Verne. Certain novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series depict successful, if utopian, coal-based electrical technologies as well as an efficiently run global travel and trade system powered by coal; other works in the series, however, engage contemporary nineteenth-century discourses about future coal scarcity. Still others deploy a lack of coal to create narrative tension before an alternative energy source—walrus oil, wood, geothermal energy—arrives as a temporary fix. These literary approaches to coal in Verne’s narratives testify to both the possibilities and anxieties surrounding fuel in the late nineteenth century and show that if Verne is cognizant of debates about impending coal shortages, he ultimately reinforces the promises—and delusions—of a nascent fossil fuel economy.

Anne O’Neil-Henry
Georgetown University