Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

I had an idea bubbling slowly in the back of my head that Jules Verne is the grandfather of entertaining sci-fi (fraternal side) whereas H.G. Wells is the grandfather of the maternal, soft side.  Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has rightfully taken me to task on the puissance of the idea, forcing me to adapt it: Verne may be the grandfather of hard sf.  Where Wells displays focus on social, political, and humanist aspects, Verne often integrates wild plots into info dumps and extrapolation on science.  This is not to say Verne was not a humanitarian, as obviously he was, only that the content of his novels is more abstract.  One of the strongest reasons backing my burgeoning idea is Verne’s 1870 classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  The story of a man made prisoner aboard a marvelously advanced submarine, the adventure he’s taken on, and the knowledge imparted during, are certainly some of the first explorations of the unknown using the tools of science fiction.  It is undoubtedly hard sf 19th century style. 

20,000 Leagues under the Sea is the story of the French biologist Pierre Aronmax.  Tasked with helping an American ship locate and capture an immense and elusive sea animal that has damaged one of the British Queen’s prize vessels, what they come upon is not a beast but the most advanced water craft the world has seen, the Nautilus.  Electrical engines powering the luxurious ship, its captain, the mysterious Captain Nemo, proves even more dynamic.  Dark, brooding, and driven by demons none can see, he is reluctant to take Aronmax onboard, and does so only on the condition that Aronmax and his two colleagues, the faithful valet Confeil and Canadian harpoonist Ned Land, never leave the Nautilus as long as they live.  The wonders of the sea unveiled before their eyes thereafter, it takes the three time to begin coming to terms with the idea the remainder of their lives will be spent aboard the mighty submarine, and when they do, the wonders are only beginning. 

Part adventure, part infotainment, and all an expression of a writer’s joy in marine biology, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is a love affair in concrete terms.  One of his voyages extraordinaire, Verne seeks to educate and entertain with facts and encounters of the magnificent and bizarre.  The wonders of the sea are revealed in episodes featuring the group diving, traipsing the ocean floor, hunting underwater, and visiting some of the most remote places on the globe, while the mystery of Nemo and his purpose aboard the Nautilus drive the main narrative to its shadowy conclusion.  The facts may be old news to modern readers, but even after one and half centuries there is still a fire of pleasure in its imparting as Aronmax, Nemo, and the Nautilus traverse those 20,000 leagues around the Earth’s waters.

It would be remiss not to mention one of the dichotomies of the novel: it’s oscillation between dark and light.  There are humorous moments, both intentional and unintentional.  I couldn’t help but laugh imagining the ultimate nerd—err, gentleman—puffing cigars and drinking brandy in the Nautilus’ extensive library, reading Kant after a day exploring an underwater cemetery. There are also moments of 19 th century geeking out:

    “You know the composition of sea water?  Chloride of sodium forms a notable proportion of it.  Now it is the sodium I extract from sea-water, and of which I compose my ingredients.  Mixed with mercury it takes the place of zinc for the voltaic pile.  The mercury is never exhausted; only the sodium is consumed, and the sea itself gives me that.  Besides, the electric power of the sodium piles is double that of zinc ones.”
    “I clearly understand, captain, the convenience of sodium in the…”

But for all the talk of chemistry, zoology, ship displacement, plant geni, geography, dimensions of various objects, etc., the personality of Nemo smolders just on the outside.  His past a secret, Aronmax continually witnesses the man participating in some activity for which there is no obvious explanation.  Moreover, there are moments when the captain’s calm fa├žade is broken by the most powerful emotions, the cliff into violence not far away.  And indeed the ending bears the idea out.  I will not write more, but suffice to say the climactic scene is a fitting and unpredictable conclusion to the steady diet of episodes to that point, and is a reason the novel is one of Verne’s best. 

In the end, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is a science fiction classic that remains as readable today as when it was written, and, in some way, has had a deep influence on genre fiction.  China Mieville’s The Scar, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, Peter Watts Starfish series—none would be where they were it not for Verne’s novel—perhaps even Jacques Cousteau, the venerable French marine biologist, himself.  This influence extending beyond mere setting, I think the embedding of hard science in an adventurous exploration of the unknown has had an even wider influence on the genre.  But I will leave that discussion for another day.

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