Friday, January 16, 2015

Review of Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea by Adam Roberts

I imagine it’s something of a minor surprise to readers of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea to finish the book without ever having dipped a mile or two beneath the surface.  At least it was to me.  (It’s worth noting, however, the adventures of Captain Nemo and Aronmax onboard the mighty Nautilus are more than enough to make the reader lose sight of the fact ‘across’ is the more suitable adjective.) Apparently more inspired than surprised, in 2014 Adam Roberts dipped into the lexical impasse by penning a waterverse adventure in honor of Verne that holds true to its verbiage.  Oh, and he added a few zeroes to the depth meter—Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea (2014 Gollancz UK, 2015 St. Martin’s Press US) where the needle ultimately rests.

But in what spirit these leagues are traversed is what gives Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea its character.   Largely eschewing the hard sf mode of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and utilizing the underworld adventure mode of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the combination results in an underwater fantasy that pays homage to both Verne novels while telling its own vintage-esque tale of imaginative fancy.  Thus, hard sf purists will undoubtedly call out Roberts for his less than rigorous application of scientific knowledge when Verne went so far to make his Leagues as realistic as possible.  But they would be missing the point.  Twenty Trillion Leagues is as much homage to the original novel as it is Verne’s oeuvre and the era’s overall storytelling.

Overseen by a pair of Indian scientists and their government liaison Lebret, the nuclear submarine Plongeur is set to take its first test dive off the coast of France in 1958.  Commandeered by the indomitable Captain Cloche, no problems appear in the first drop to 1,000 meters.  It’s when attempting to halt descent that something strange happens: the submarine just keeps going down.  No lights blinking on the system board, the only indicator something is amiss is the depth gauge twirling downward through the meters.  Cloche taking strong command, he begins ordering the crew about in an attempt to halt the descent.  Their efforts failing, however, crew comradery begins to crumble as repairs take no effect.  Inexplicably encountered, the events which transpire for the crew of the Plongeur transcend material time and space, all to arrive in the neighborhood of Trillion.

Thus, the happy chant “We all live in a yellow submarine…” holds little sentimental value to the crew of the Plongeur.  Their inexplicable descent challenging the beliefs and worldviews of each member, the manner in which some crack is unique to the man.  Cloche is forceful, demanding, decisive, authoritative—like Nemo, but in a different, more direct, less mysterious fashion. Roberts builds no mystery about Cloche, instead letting his strong character speak for itself.  If there is an equivalent to Aronmax it would be Lebret, but loosely, very loosely.  Lebret a much darker personality, his fate nevertheless proves the most intriguing of the various crew as they sink lower and lower.

But for as imaginatively the crew’s story is unveiled, it feels like a semi-rushed effort.  Roberts’ more ambitious Bete also released in 2014, Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea at times seems as though it did not go through a strong editing process, perhaps only a first draft, proof edit, and off to the printers.  This is not to say there are numerous typos or punctuation errors, rather that the writing is not as tight as Roberts has shown he can produce.  Much of the narrative an attempt at re-creating the style of yesteryear genre adventure novels, there are times Roberts slips and slides into the waters (ha!) of contemporary style, something that undoubtedly could have been re-directed had the novel gone through another one or two edits.

But in the end, Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea remains an imaginative homage to Jules Verne. Roberts not trying to imitate Grandpa Hard SF, he instead mixes and matches Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and fiction of the time to tell the fantastical adventure of the crew of the Plongeur and its unwilling descent into the mysterious, fantastical depths of the ocean.  The plot unpacked with Roberts’ trademark attention to detail, the resulting story is a lot of fun but lacks much of the conceptual outlay some of his more ambitious works possess.   Like Jack Glass, it features Roberts dipping into the less serious side of literature.  It should be noted though, Trillion is far from the parodies he produced earlier in his career.  It’s also well worth noting that the novel is wonderfully illustrated by Mahendra Singh.  Adding to aura, it helps the reader feels they’ve truly gone ‘under’.

As a side note, I am a regular reader of Roberts’ blog Sibilant Fricative.  His reviews are clever, often laugh-out-loud funny, and most importantly, not afraid to take mediocre genre to task for its lack of ambition.  I greatly enjoy it.  Roberts sometimes nitpicks, so in the spirit of fun here are a couple of things I noticed in Trillion: 1) “…a cone of light no bigger than a baseball bat spilling from…”  Simply put, I highly doubt a Frenchman in the 50s, let alone the modern era, would create a simile using a baseball bat. (Perhaps the British edition has a cricket bat?  Either way…)    2) “…a beard…  as thick as a beaver tail…”  Poor analogy.  Beaver tails are not as thick as even my beard, let alone the Santa Claus chin wig Cloche is depicted as sporting. 3) “’I heard the bone snap,’ Avocat gasped. ‘Like a stick burning in a fire.’”  Sticks in a fire do snap, but usually many times over a period of time, unlike a breaking bone.  Reading this simile I imagined fractures like slow burning popcorn.  But given later descriptions, the intent was one *snap*.  Weak simile.  4) Cloche says “for’ard” at one point, yet “forward” at another: no consistency of voice.  Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let me never nitpick again…

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