's first published (in 1863) novel, which immediately propelled him to fame.
Set in the times when Darkest Africa
was still not fully explored, the novel follows Dr. Samuel Fergusson, who intends to fly across Africa in a balloon called "Victoria". The vehicle is equipped with Fergusson's ingenious invention which allows him to control the altitude without ballast or releasing gas. On his way, he is accompanied by his old friend, the Scottish hunter Dick Kennedy, and by the manservant Joe. Naturally, throughout their trip they have a lot of dramatic adventures, interspersed with musings about Africa's geography (as it was known at the time.)
A couple of film adaptations were produced, including a 1962 adaptation with the same title.
The novel provides examples of:
- Applied Phlebotinum: The "powerful Bunzen battery". It's been electrolyzing water several hours every day for five weeks and still has a lot left by the end. Yet it's small enough to be carried in hand. Modern technology still cannot create anything as powerful and portable. This is the only SF element in the novel.
- On a related note: such impossibly powerful batteries are the staple of many stories by Jules Verne and his contemporaries. But hey, it was the era that culminated in The Gay Nineties, the scientific progress seemed unstoppable and for all they knew such devices could appear any day. Sadly, they didn't.
- Balloon-Bursting Bird: The "Victoria" is attacked by a flock of condors and its shell pierced. Thankfully, it has a secondary, spare shell on the inside, but they still need to frantically toss stuff overboard to avoid a catastrophic fall.
- Chekhov's Gun: "Victoria" contains a secondary, smaller balloon on the inside, in case the external one gets damaged. Of course, it eventually sees its use.
- Cool Airship: "Victoria" is a balloon, not an airship, but hey, that's the closest trope we have. It probably counts as "cool" thanks to its advanced steering system.
- Darkest Africa: The setting of the book.
- God Guise: At one point, the protagonists find themselves in an African village whose inhabitants are certain that "Victoria" is the Moon, and the passengers are "Moon's sons". The jig is up when the real Moon rises in the sky.
- Great White Hunter: Dick does a lot of hunting throughout, and is very protective of his guns.
- Greed: Deep in Africa, the travellers come upon rocks with gold deposits, and take some as ballast. Joe is entranced by the gold and is very reluctant to throw any overboard.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Joe invokes this twice—first, when the protagonists are stranded in the desert, he announces that he's going to pick a direction and keep travelling, to get help—or, it is implied, to die trying. Later on he actually jumps out of the balloon to help it rise above immediate danger, though by luck he ends up unscathed.
- Hope Spot: When the protagonists are desperately trying to find anything to drink in the desert, they spot two palm trees in the distance, which implies an oasis. Turns out, the palm trees are long dead and there's no water around.
- Interrupted Suicide: Dick Kennedy almost shoots himself after he goes insane from thirst and heat in the desert, but is stopped by Joe.
- In Which a Trope Is Described: The chapter titles are a brief run-down of the contents.
- Misapplied Phlebotinum: Fergusson uses an unrealistically powerful battery to break water into oxygen and hydrogen, then burns hydrogen to heat hydrogen in the balloon to ascend. Also he burns hydrogen to cook. It would be much more energy-efficient and safe to simply use the battery and an electric heater. Though the balloon would still need to carry the electrolyzer for refilling in case of a repairable puncture. Even his complex height maneuvers to catch a favoring wind wouldn't be necessary. With such batteries he could just as well build a dirigible.
- The Missionary: The protagonists rescue a missionary who witnessed to the local tribes, but had the misfortune of being accused of witchcraft and was going to be sacrificed to their gods. He dies soon after relaying his story.
- Plucky Comic Relief: Joe cracks a ten jokes a minute.
- The Pollyanna: Joe retains a cheerful attitude throughout, except for when he is very close to death.
- Thirsty Desert: The protagonists end up stuck in one for several days.