One of my goals for this year is to read more classic science fiction, and I wanted to begin with one of the pioneers of the genre. I debated between H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but unlike the former, I have never had the pleasure of reading a novel from Mr. Verne despite having a number of his works on my shelves. When you think of the term “science fiction” your mind often imagines stories set in the far future travelling into the furthest reaches of space where alien creatures abound. This is not that type of book. While 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a journey tale of exploration, its focus is on the wonders that reach the furthest depths of this planet. During the 1860’s, Jules Verne recognized the possibilities of discovery right here on planet Earth. The result is a book that is pure adventure, while still containing a strong literary and scientific presence.
During the year 1866, several countries from around the world witness a mysterious entity that appears briefly out of the ocean, sometimes causing destruction in its wake. Believed to be a sea monster, specifically a giant narwhal, the United States government assembles an expedition on the ship the Abraham Lincoln. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist, receives a last minute invitation to join the hunt for the elusive creature. An adventurer at heart, Aronnax is accompanied on this mission by his faithful servant Conseil along with the master harpooner Ned Land. While the initial chapters echo another famous story about the hunt of a giant cetacean, an encounter with the “creature” results in Aronnax and his companions embarking on a journey they could never imagine. Rather than some type of sea monster, the entity is a submarine unlike no other captained by a man like no other. For the next ten months the Nautilus becomes the professor’s home with the mysterious Captain Nemo as his guide. Aronnax witnesses marvels from around the world, such as the South Pole and the lost city of Atlantis. However, it is the interesting relationship with his captor Nemo that truly guides this adventure tale.
“This monster, this natural phenomenon that had puzzled the learned world, and overthrown and misled the imagination of both hemispheres, it must be owned was a still more astonishing phenomenon inasmuch as it was simply human construction.”
I cannot even begin to imagine life in the 1870’s. While new empires were growing in both Europe and Asia, the United States was attempting to recover from the bloodiest war of its life. Despite the political instability, it was also a time of spectacular innovation. Inventions such as the telephone, the motion picture, and the windmill came into being as well as Verne’s modern classic. I call 20,000 Leagues a “modern classic” because it truly was a work ahead of its time. When it was first published, submarines were quite small and primitive, prone to sinking to the bottom of the ocean. This book presents a fantastic underwater ship that is truly a world within itself. The capabilities of the Nautilus along with its aesthetic features make this novel a precursor to the world of steampunk.
Although this is a work of thrilling adventure in the spirit of a Robert Louis Stevenson tale, I could not help but note how different the narrative structure of 20,000 Leagues is in regards to modern adventure stories where the tension gradually builds to a climax. Verne maneuvers this story like a series of waves with small adventures that reach a crescendo before starting all over again in a brand new location. Perhaps this was due to how the story was originally published as a serial, but considering this is a tale of the sea, I thought the wave format was interesting. With giant sea creatures, underwater passages, and exotic locations, the action components of this book can often be quite gripping. There is also a poetry embedded here as demonstrated from this passage:
“The light produced a thousand charming varieties, playing in the midst of the branches that were so vividly coloured. I seemed to see the membraneous and cylindrical tubes beneath the undulation of the waters. I was tempted to gather their fresh petals, ornamented with delicate tentacles, some just blown, the others budding, while a small fish, swimming swiftly, touched them slightly like flights of birds.”
Jules Verne was an author whose strength was in his attention to detail; however, I found this scientific accuracy to be a little tedious at times as there are pages comprised of numbers along with scientific names. Reading a laundry list of each species, genus, and family names would often become exhausting. While these facts are relevant to the scientific community, I found myself getting bored at times.
While a lot of attention is placed on the spirit of adventure along with the scientific wonders found in this book, not enough credit goes to the character development. Professor Aronnax is a likable enough narrator as he is torn between his desire to no longer be a captive aboard the Nautilus with his yearning to learn. Captain Nemo serves as the seducer here, as initially Aronnax cannot help but marvel at all of these opportunities that would otherwise not be available to him. I found the friendship between these two men to almost parallel someone in a possessive relationship. Aronnax is technically a prisoner aboard the Nautilus, but often there is this illusion that he is aboard voluntarily.
While Nemo himself appears to be a learned man as evidenced by his extensive knowledge but also his collections of books and art, there is a darkness that slowly penetrates his presence throughout the book. At times, he can appear quite unhinged with his hatred of civilization. His madness grows slowly throughout the story culminating into a final act that transforms the eccentric captain into the stuff of nightmares, reminding me of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness.
“For him, he was a misunderstood genius who, tired of earth’s deceptions, had taken refuge in this inaccessible medium, where he might follow his instincts freely.”
Although the closing chapters bring some light into his life prior to the Nautilus, I like that the motivations and hatred of Captain Nemo remain a mystery. Although I was curious, I think that not knowing everything added an additional layer of uneasiness to the character. It is my understanding that the background of Nemo is revealed in a later work by Verne, The Mysterious Island, so I may have to pick that one up at some point. I am also curious about the Disney film version of this story as I want to see if any of the darker aspects of this story are retained.
Despite my enjoyment of it, I did have some issues with Verne’s masterpiece. Similar to many of the works of Stevenson, there is a strong lack of female characters. Verne’s attempts to be scientifically accurate along with his wordiness can become boring. Although I enjoyed the relationship between Aronnax and Nemo, the other principle characters were forgettable.
Although not always as riveting as more contemporary science fiction works, I think this book will always be considered a classic as it reminds us that there are still plenty of amazing wonders on Earth. Reading this novel filled me with that Victorian sense of curiosity for discovering the unknown. Perhaps 20,000 Leagues will no longer be important once the seas have nothing left to teach us, but I believe that will not happen for quite some time.