Jules Verne was one of the most influential popular writers in modern history. A forerunner of the science fiction genre, Verne took inspiration from the explosion of technological progress during the Industrial Revolution. He crafted adventure stories where daring, intelligent people commanded the forces of the universe. He published 54 novels in his lifetime (collectively known as Voyages Extraordinaires). His characters built amazing machines, traveled to fantastical places, and indulged their curiosity about the world. It’s safe to say the speculative genres would not be the same without him. If you’re looking for an introduction to his work, here are the 10 best Jules Verne books.
Published in 1870, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea remains an iconic adventure story. When a mysterious “sea monster” attacks a series of ships, marine biologist Pierre Aronnax joins expert harpooner Ned Land on a mission to track and kill it. The monster turns out to be the submarine Nautilus, commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo. Taken aboard, Aronnax and Land are comfortable prisoners as Nemo travels through the world’s oceans (the 20,000 leagues refers to distance, not depth), mourning his family and pondering revenge. Through several heart-pounding adventures, Aronnax comes to admire and fear Nemo, leading to a final, daring escape that still packs a punch. Verne anticipated many technologies, most notably submarines, in a story that echoes Homer’s Odyssey as it offers readers a glimpse of an underwater world that remains mysterious to this day.
Verne’s third published novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of his most popular and influential works. The story of Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who leads a small team into an Icelandic volcano and travels down into a subterranean world, retains its hold on our imagination. It’s been adapted for film and television multiple times, in part because Verne’s adventure story is evergreen, relying on the thrill of the unknown. But it also features well-drawn characters, especially the driven and maddening Lidenbrock, whose desperate need to uncover the world’s mysteries translates into an almost suicidal mission to explore, whatever the risk. While the science part of this fiction is a little wonky by modern standards, there’s still an air of verisimilitude around the story that makes for a thrilling reading experience.
One of Verne’s most popular and critically-acclaimed books, Around the World in 80 Days benefits from an exciting, evergreen premise. The wealthy and precise gentleman Phileas Fogg reads about a new rail line in India that now makes it possible to travel around the world in record time and makes a bet that he can do so in just 80 days. Encountering a rising number of barriers and setbacks (including being misidentified as a famous wanted criminal and pursued by police), Fogg’s journey takes him through many adventures. He and his band of travelers deal with circuses, Sioux warriors, and hurricanes as they race to win the bet. What sets this novel apart is the sheer joy of the prose, the sense of unbridled discovery and plain old-fashioned fun. Underlying that fun is the faith in technology, the idea that man’s endless innovation and restless invention had conquered traditional barriers—and will continue to do so.
A standalone sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island conceals this until the end of the story. Five Union soldiers escape a Confederate prison in a balloon and crash onto a seemingly deserted island. Using their engineering knowledge and hard work, they build a comfortable life for themselves—augmented by mysterious gifts of supplies that appear out of nowhere. Directed to rescue a stranded man (a character from another Verne novel), they battle pirates and eventually discover the secret of the island. It’s a great, effective plot twist that both explains what’s happening in a satisfactory way and establishes a “Verne Universe” in which all of his stories exist. This novel is a prime example of what makes Verne’s work timeless: A focus on adventure and on risk rewarded with knowledge as opposed to treasure.
Despite its title, no one actually gets to The Moon in From the Earth to The Moon—that was left for the inferior sequel, Around the Moon. Instead, Verne’s fourth novel focuses on his real passion: Invention and adventure. Impey Barbicane, president of the Baltimore Gun Club, announces he’s calculated that a cannon large enough to fire a capsule all the way to The Moon is possible. Money is raised, and the cannon is constructed. An adventurer named Michel Ardan announces he plans to enter the capsule and travel to The Moon, and after some adventure (including a duel) he’s joined by Barbicane and Barbicane’s nemesis, Captain Nicholl. Although the idea of shooting people to The Moon using a huge cannon might seem quaint, Verne got a surprising amount of the science right, including the choice of Florida as an ideal launch site and many of the details of the capsule itself.
A sequel to Verne’s 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror, The Master of the World eclipses that earlier novel and stands out among Verne’s work for its dark and foreboding tone. A series of inexplicable events is explained by the invention of The Terror, a vehicle capable of moving so fast it becomes nearly invisible to the naked eye. A federal investigator tracks The Terror but is captured by its inventor and taken on a terrifying suicide trip into the eye of a massive storm. Written towards the end of Verne’s life when the writer was suffering a number of physical ailments, the story lacks the wonder and excitement of Verne’s earlier work. It also focuses on the potential danger posed by brilliant people who pursue their own agenda, as opposed to seeing their brilliance as a gateway to adventure. Its surprisingly dark tone elevates the story’s tension, however, making it a remarkably effective late entry in Verne’s bibliography.
Verne’s first published novel, the story was inspired by Verne’s friend Felix Nadar, who attempted to construct an enormous balloon in order to travel around the world. Invited to join Nadar, Verne bowed out but was inspired to imagine what such a trip might be like. In Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne tells the story of Dr. Samuel Fergusson, his servant Joe, and Richard “Dick” Kennedy, a professional hunter. The trio set out to explore Africa in a balloon filled with hydrogen and designed to give them control over their altitude. Episodic in nature, the story follows the adventurers as they encounter threats both human and natural, escaping each time more by luck than anything else. It’s a bit ragged—Verne would perfect his formula in later novels—but it stands the test of time as an exciting story of daring and the scientific application of knowledge.
Often overlooked because it’s the least speculative novel that Jules Verne wrote, Michael Strogoff is a story of intrigue and adventure that echoes the work of Verne’s friend Alexandre Dumas. A rebellion cuts off the eastern Russian empire, and the Tsar’s brother, governor of Irkutsk, is trapped when the city is besieged. The Tsar’s courier, Michael Strogoff, is ordered to somehow enter Irkutsk with vital intelligence for the governor. He’s captured along with hundreds of others, and a tense cat-and-mouse game ensues as the rebels know a spy is in their midst but have no idea what he looks like. It’s a taut spy thriller at its core, with surprisingly accurate depictions of the politics and culture of the region in the 19th century. The book could be published today and modern readers would still find it an exciting, well-paced adventure.
Many of Jules Verne’s plots spring from a premise that’s really just an excuse for a lengthy adventure, and In Search of the Castaways is in that category. Captain Grant is believed lost at sea when his ship, the Britannia, is wrecked. When a message from Grant is found in a bottle floating on the ocean, Lord and Lady Glenarvan finance a rescue mission. Key information missing from the damaged note means the search party must cover a huge area, leading to many adventures and discoveries as they search for Grant. Another rare Verne story to have almost zero speculative elements, it relies entirely on a well-paced story of discovery and adventure. Although it has aged a bit over the years, Verne’s scientific and geographical knowledge was spot-on at the time, lending the story a sense of realism that heightens the reading experience.
Considered a bit of an outlier in Verne’s works, The Castle of the Carpathians sees him working in another speculative genre: Horror. In a remote town in Transylvania, a haunted castle towers over everything. The owner, Baron de Gortz, vanished decades before, but strange lights and sounds can still be heard from within. When an old romantic rival of de Gortz, the Count de Telek, visits the castle to debunk the ghost stories, he finds the Baron alive and well. He also finds the castle decorated with the visage of the beautiful singer they both courted, and hears and sees her ghostly presence. It’s an effective Gothic horror story, but Verne offers a non-paranormal explanation for everything that de Telek experiences. The end result is a different sort of adventure, but it’s still a story focused on exploring the unknown—and applying rational thought to everything you encounter.