Friday, October 24, 2014

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Long-winded but breathtaking
Jules Verne’s science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was originally published in 1870. Now, almost a century and a half later, it sits firmly ensconced amid a pantheon of classic adventure novels, including Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, and Robinson Crusoe, that everyone thinks they know and few take the time to read. We’re familiar with the children’s versions we read as kids, and we’ve seen the latest film adaptations. For many of the books in said pantheon, that’s enough. But Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one case where it really pays to return to the original source. This visionary work was years ahead of its time in its scientific speculations, and it’s still capable of delivering plenty of thrills to a 21st-century audience.

In 1866, the world is captivated and terrified by a mysterious sea monster that has been sighted in various locations all over the globe. This creature, possibly a giant narwhal whale, is reputed to be responsible for the sinking of several ships. An expedition is organized to hunt this monster down, and Professor Pierre Arronax, a French scientist specializing in the study of undersea life, is invited to join. The ship Abraham Lincoln departs New York in pursuit of the creature, with the professor aboard. In an altercation with the beast, Arronax, his trusty servant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land, are thrown overboard. These three are unexpectedly rescued by the very creature they came to hunt, which turns out to be not an animal at all but a submarine. The commander of this undersea vessel, dubbed the Nautilus, is the mysterious Captain Nemo, an intense man of astonishing intelligence who harbors a fervent hatred for the society of the surface world and considers the sea his personal dominion.

This novel is an exemplar of science fiction with a capital S. To truly enjoy this adventure, one must have an avid interest in the sciences, both natural and mechanical. The plot of the book is punctuated by several thrilling and memorable scenes, but in between such moments there are often chapters that are little more than extensive lists of fishes. It’s a wonder that Verne can rattle off so many species without tediously repeating himself, but in his hands these taxonomic catalogs transcend biology to become poetry. In many ways, this book resembles a fictional counterpart to Charles Darwin’s scientific memoir The Voyage of the Beagle. At any given moment, Verne might digress into the history of a shipwreck, an analysis of the salinity of seawater, or a primer on the formation of coral reefs. These departures from the plot can be frustrating, but those open to such forays into science-for-science’s-sake will find them fascinating, even when the discoveries of the past century have ultimately proven some of them erroneous. It’s amazing how much research Verne must have done to complete this book. His breadth of knowledge on all matters oceanic is staggering.

The one area where the book is lacking is in its failure to thoroughly examine the motivation behind Captain Nemo’s misanthropy. To some extent, leaving such matters unsaid makes him a more delightful enigma, but the book could have benefited from some philosophical sparring between Nemo and Arronax, along the lines of the captain vs. captive dialogues in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. That said, why concentrate on what’s missing when Verne has placed such a bountiful feast of wonder and excitement on the table? Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one classic that truly deserves to be regarded as a classic.

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