Rating: 4 out of 5.

I had this in my head as one of my favorite Jules Verne books.  When I was in fifth grade, I went on a big kick reading Jules Verne and HG Wells books: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The War in the Air, The Invisible Man, In the Year 2889, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, and of course this book, Off on a Comet!  Rereading it recently, I did not find it quite as compelling as I recalled, although I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Most Jules Verne books are known for being rigorously, almost obsessively, accurate in their premises (at least based on the science of the time).  In our recent review for From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, we discussed at length just how realistic and accurate both the concept and the math were, and how predictive that novel proved to be for the Apollo program a century later.  Off on a Comet! is a very different matter.  It starts and ends with an utterly outlandish premise, that a chunk of the Earth should be scooped up by a comet without anyone hardly noticing, and then that it should be returned, again without anyone hardly noticing.

In speculative fiction writing, we often refer to this as a “by.”  This is shorthand for some outlandish premise that we are asking the reader to accept, usually early in a book.  (Note: it is sometimes referred to as a “buy,” meaning something the readers will buy into, but I prefer the “by” in the sense of something that that readers will allow us to bypass without detailed justification.)  This can be a lot of different things, and the specifics vary be genre.  In fantasy, for instance, you get a lot of extra “bys” by virtue of the genre: readers of fantasy expect there to be magic, talking plants, and other things that are impossible in the “real” world.  If you’re writing realistic fiction, on the other hand, you’re not going to get as many bys, and the ones you do get to use will be smaller.

There’s a lot more that we could talk about on this idea, and we could probably even do a whole post on it in the future, but let’s turn out attention to science fiction.  When I read science fiction, I give authors relatively few bys.  In other words, I expect my science fiction to be pretty scientifically rigorous, or at least well-justified.  If there is going to be an exception to this, like a poorly explained way of breaking the lightspeed barrier, it needs to be established up front, near the start of the story, or I’m not going to accept it.  I bring all of this up because Off on a Comet! starts us off with a giant by: the aforementioned premise that a chunk of the Earth can be scooped off by a comet, and the inhabitants would not even realize what was happening.

This is a pretty major ask, and it only stays within readers’ suspension of disbelief because of the rigor of all of the science between those outlandish bookends.  Once the characters are “off on a comet,” their attempts to ascertain what happened, characterize the effects, and understand their new circumstances are as rigorous as in any Verne novel.  These investigations are accompanied by some really dramatic imagery, and it was that imagery that stuck in my head from my first reading of the book all those years ago.  There was one instance in which a perfectly still body of water stays liquid far below freezing until someone throws a stone into it, when it all freezes at once.

In this reread, while I still enjoyed the book, I did not find the story quite as compelling as I remembered it.  Because I already knew the answers to all of the mysteries, the investigations did not hold my attention as much, and the characters who get swept up by the comet are not among Verne’s most compelling or iconic personages.  I still enjoyed it, but it was perhaps not quite as worthy of rereading as was From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, or some of the better-known Verne titles.  All of that being said, if you haven’t read this before, I would absolutely recommend that you give it a try soon.

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