This is where paleofiction started.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne was first published in 1864. The famous story is the first major work of fiction to feature prehistoric creatures surviving to the modern day.* Ironically, there are no true dinosaurs in the novel, since the beasts hadn’t captured the public’s imagination at the time the book was written.
The novel is narrated by Axel, a young man who is apprenticing under his geologist uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock. The two come across a cryptic manuscript alleging that a passageway to the center of the Earth exists inside an extinct volcano in Iceland. It’s a crazy claim, but Lidenbrock is open-minded — or gullible — enough to mount an expedition to the volcano in hopes of making the greatest scientific discovery of his time. The two are joined by a guide, and together the trio descend into the bowels of the Earth, finding a lost world hidden for millions of years. Getting out will be a different matter, however.
That’s admittedly a short description of a novel that has had a profound influence on science fiction, but the story is so well-known that most people know it by heart. A Journey to the Center of the Earth has been adapted into comics, cartoons, video games and movies numerous times, although few have been faithful to the source material. The best-known adaptation is probably a 1959 movie starring James Mason and country gospel star Pat Boone.
The book itself is one of Verne’s more famous titles, but I’ve never really considered it one of his better works. It’s a bit sluggish in parts, and it lacks any particularly memorable characters such as Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The humor seems forced by modern standards, and the whiny narrator can come across as annoying rather than funny.
Nonetheless, it would be unfair of me to leave you with the impression that this is a bad book. While it may not be Verne’s best, it’s still fun. There is a terrific sense of wonder in it missing from most of today’s science fiction. Verne just throws wonder after wonder at the reader, so much so that it isn’t until you’re near the end of the novel that you realize it doesn’t have much of an actual plot. No adaptations have really captured the full extent of Verne’s imagination, so even if you have seen two or three versions of the story, you’re still likely to be surprised by what the explorers find in the underground world they discover.
Also, how many science fiction novels are there where the authors write so lovingly about geology? It’s a topic that most writers find drab compared to quantum physics or space travel, but is just as fascinating in its own right. Paleontology really isn’t the central focus of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it’s pretty clear from reading the novel that Verne considered it a branch of geology rather than a separate science. The prehistoric creatures here are just window dressing, although when Verne does use them, he does so for maximum effect.
The novel is available for free on many places on the Internet, including this Web site.
* Some of the above information about the novel came from Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction by Allen A. Debus.