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Literature / Robur the Conqueror

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Robur the Conqueror (Robur-le-Conquérant in the original French), also known as The Clipper of the Clouds or A Trip Round the World in a Flying Machine, is a pioneering early science fiction novel by Jules Verne.

In a World… where repeating sightings of an unidentified flying object are confusing the heck out of everybody, the balloon enthusiasts at the Weldon Institute are more concerned about finishing their Cool Airship. Just as their plans are reaching fever pitch, two of their top bigwigs are kidnapped by the mysterious Robur, who takes them around the world on his outrageously sophisticated flying machine Albatross,note  just to prove that heavier-than-air travel is the way of the future and that lighter-than-air, balloon-style airships will never catch on. Adventure, intrigue, and (in classic Verne style) gobs and gobs of lovingly detailed scientific and geographic exposition all ensue.

Like most of Verne's work, Robur the Conqueror is now in the public domain. Copies of the book are hosted by Project Gutenberg, including the original French text and an English translation. (Warning: like many public-domain Verne translations, the old English translations of Robur take considerable liberties with the story, and make numerous errors. A university press finally published an accurate translation in 2017.)

Followed by a sequel, Master of the World, and made into a movie, although in the movie, the Albatross is turned into a Cool Airship, not a Cool Plane.

Robur the Conqueror displays these tropes:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The novel is very clearly set around the time it was written, but it also casually mentions the existence of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and several other innovations that were still in the planning stages at the time.
  • Anti-Hero/Anti-Villain: Robur. (That's right, he could be described as either one. It's surprisingly hard to tell which trope describes him better.)
  • Artistic License – Geography: The Albatross is carried by storm between Mount Erebus and Mount Terror and narrowly misses by a lucky helm handling the flames spewing from Mount Erebus' crater. The tone of the story makes people think of it as some dashing flight through a canyon of fire. In Real Life the mountains are separated by more than 15 miles, Mount Terror has been extinct for at least 800,000 years and Mount Erebus' flames never jump for thousands of yards into the atmosphere.
  • Author Tract: Verne belonged to a "Heavier-Than-Air" innovation society when he was young, so it's no surprise that one running theme of this book is a continual deconstruction of the Cool Airship trope. At the end, when the kidnapped bigwigs escape, return home and finish their airship, the Albatross suddenly shows up at its launch and circles the dirigible menacingly. The latter tries to escape upwards, but its balloon ruptures from low pressure at high altitude. Robur saves the airship's entire crew, safely carries them back to the audience, makes a little speech about the awesomeness of heavier-than-air machines and flies away, leaving the group of airship fanboys completely embarrassed. (See also "Fantastic Aesop" below.)
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Robur evokes this trope in his final speech.
  • Canon Welding: The first chapter mentions the cannon from The Begum's Millions. (Insert inevitable joke about "Cannon Welding" here.)
  • Captain Nemo Copy: Like Verne's earlier character, Robur possess a unique (at the time) heavier-than-air craft called the Albatross constructed on a secret island with which he travels the skies, flaunting his superior technology, and eventually uses it to exact revenge on the people who tried to destroy his work. He's more or less an airborne Captain Nemo.
  • Celebrity Paradox: The book name-drops a whole bunch of French scientists and celebrities who had, in Real Life, supported aviation research by joining a Heavier-Than-Air Society in the 1860s. However, Verne carefully avoids mentioning one particularly enthusiastic member of that Society: himself!
  • Chekhov M.I.A.: See "Shoo Out the Clowns" below.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A minor aversion; early on, the Albatross is described as carrying all sorts of equipment, including an actual 6 cm deck gun and a printing press. The gun comes briefly in handy for a scene about rescuing political prisoners, but does nothing to further the main plot. And the press is never mentioned again!
  • Cool Airship: Subverted. The Go Ahead is an impressive airship in itself, but it looks absolutely pathetic next to the heavier-than-air flying machine Albatross.
  • Cool Plane: The Albatross, of course.
  • The Dividual: Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans are pretty clearly a Syndividual.
  • The Dragon: Robur's first mate, Tom Turner (whose first name is inexplicably changed to John in Master of the World).
  • Eagleland: A mixed-flavor example. The Americans are boorish, but the landscape itself is awesome, not to mention that the Americans are not any more boorish than the Europeans.
  • Fantastic Aesop: The main point of the whole novel is that, if somebody finds a way of making heavier-than-air travel practical, then all the people who are trying to make balloon travel more practical will look pretty silly. (Of course, that was a highly researched hypothesis on Verne's part, and it's been largely supported by history. That doesn't make it any less of a Fantastic Aesop in historical context, though.)
  • Future Copter: Albatross. Strictly speaking, lift and thrust are produced by separate rotors, making it a gyrodyne.
  • Genius Bruiser: Robur.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans spend most of the book getting a Fantastic Aesop about flying machines proven to them in every possible way…but, as the narration points out near the end, both of them are just too stubborn and narrow-minded to let it alter their actions much.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Robur intends to imprison Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans on his secret hideaway island for the rest of their lives…but first, he takes them on a long trip in a flying machine stocked with ropes, tools, and explosives. The inevitable escape ensues.
  • Mad Scientist: Robur.
  • Meaningful Name: Robur is Latin for "strength," and the albatross is a very big, extremely efficient bird of flight.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Robur's cook, François Tapage, has a different explanation of Robur's backstory every time you ask him. None of which are compatible with any of the others.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The Albatross, as this miniature model shows, is a sort of giant helicopter with a ship-like hull, built from a Steampunk analogue of modern laminate/composite materials and powered by batteries far better than what we use today.
  • Serious Business: The airship enthusiasts at the Weldon Institute.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Frycollin, who's given the burden of supplying most of the comic relief, is notably absent during the two most dramatic moments in the book. The first time, his absence is itself Played for Drama and turns out to be a minor case of Chekhov M.I.A.; the second time, it's just explained that he's tired of all the hullaballoo and decided to stay home.
  • Shown Their Work: This is one of the hallmarks of Verne's style, and he doesn't disappoint here.
  • The Sky Is an Ocean: This book may well be the Trope Codifier. Not only is the Albatross essentially a ship with propellers instead of sails, but the narration keeps using nautical terminology and phrases like "aerial sea," and the balloon Go Ahead is actually compared with an airborne whale.
  • Sky Pirate: This novel is among the earliest Trope Makers, if not the Ur-Example.
  • Stealth Sequel: Robur has a surprise sequel in the form of a later Verne novel, Master of the World.
  • Those Magnificent Flying Machines: What the novel is all about.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: The black servant Frycollin, portrayed as an abject coward who's not particularly bright, is the victim of some of the most uncomfortably racist humor in Verne's entire oeuvre.
    • Interestingly, this is far from typical behavior for Verne. While he did use some non-white characters as Plucky Comic Relief, and they often served as a Token Minority, he almost always portrayed them in a positive light and as resourceful, intelligent and equal to white characters. Frycollin is just a very unfortunate exception.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Played straight with some of the American characters (Jem Cip? Bat T. Fynn?), but averted with others (William Forbes, Phil Evans).
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Majorly subverted by the heavier-than-air design of the Albatross, and by the whole premise that lighter-than-air travel is hopelessly outmoded.