In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
Writing about Jules Verne is daunting. A science fiction enthusiast talking about a book like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is like a music writer discussing Revolver. It’s important to talk about and remember, but Jules Verne, like The Beatles, had such an outsize influence on his field that it’s hard to even approach. There were others before him, sure. Voltaire’s Micromégas chronicles the adventures of a 20,000 foot tall man from the Sirian system, and Shelley’s Frankenstein introduces the world to mad scientists. The former is really more of a philosophical fable, and Frankenstein is to Mary Shelley what “Sex and Candy” is to Marcy Playground.
Sure, this song is great. Name another one they wrote.
Point is, Verne is the first author to focus specifically on the “science” part of science fiction and put out a huge body of work that is consistently centered around technology. This body of work is hugely popular – the only author translated into more languages than Jules Verne is William Shakespeare. Verne achieves this popularity by taking the science that’s available to him, exaggerating it, and weaving a story around it. Around the World in Eighty Days focuses on transportation technology, Journey to the Center of the Earth focuses on geographical exploration, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea focuses on marine exploration.
Jules Verne. Just look at this magnificent bastard.
This book is, above all things, an adventure novel. One misconception that may be as widespread as “Frankenstein” being the name of the monster is that the titular 20,000 leagues is how deep the submarine goes. Seeing as how the average depth of the world’s oceans comes to three miles and that 20,000 leagues equal about 69,000 miles, the leagues in the title refer to how much ground (water?) the submarine covers. Nemo and his crew travel nearly far enough to circumnavigate the Earth three times. Who is in his crew, and how did they get there?
Nemo’s official crew are a bunch of faceless sailors recruited from here and there around the world. The main characters of the novel, however, enter his vessel, The Nautilus, in a much more interesting way. Early in the book, all the nations of the world decide that the Nautilus, which is observed going around sinking ships and surfacing while jetting water all over the place, is some heretofore unknown sea monster. Pierre Aronnax, scientist, Ned Land, harpoonist, and Conseil, Aronnax’s servant, are all on an American warship sent to dispatch this creature. The ship fails miserably, and Aronnax et al find themselves on the back of the creature, which surprisingly feels a lot like metal. Nemo appears, makes introductions, and informs his charges that they are his prisoners, as maintaining the secrecy of the Nautilus is important.
As prisons go, the Nautilus is not a bad one. Verne did not invent the concept of the submarine, but his version is a lot nicer than what was puttering about in the world in 1870. The Plongeur, the first machine-powered submarine, was launched in 1863. The Nautilus is extremely advanced compared to the Plongeur. Substrate of actual science, upon which Verne builds his fiction. First off, the Nautilus can travel underwater for five consecutive days thanks to its mercury-sodium batteries (the sodium for which is extracted from seawater). When it has to surface, it is to replenish the air supply in the ship. It also has distillation facilities to create drinking water and food processing facilities to draw all the nutrients the crew need from the sea (lots of kelp and fish). Finally, the luxury of the Nautilus sets it apart from its contemporaries. Captain Nemo has a massive viewing gallery with a huge wall of tempered glass affording views of the ocean, a dining hall, and a study/library with an organ, lounging chairs, biological specimens, and a massive collection of books.
The Nautilus’ main room, complete with pipe organ.
Alright, so we have the setup. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the main characters pretty much just go around in a submarine looking at cool shit under the sea. The most compelling part of the book is Nemo’s story. Nemo means “no one” in Greek, and Nemo is a man who has, after some barely-referenced atrocity, withdrawn himself from the society of men and started living for revenge. He takes his revenge by using the superiority of his vessel to sink pretty much any ship he runs across. He is kind of evil, but he is also a super-genius, and we all know how much audiences love intelligence and competence regardless of the moral questions involved. There are two parallel plots. One is what mostly defines the book in the cultural consciousness: going around the ocean and doing cool stuff. The other is the growing conflict between Captain Nemo and his three prisoners. I don’t want to spoil you on the latter, but talking about the former won’t hurt anything.
I said earlier this is above all things an adventure novel, and adventure novels are nothing without destinations. The destinations of the Nautilus include the South Pole, an enchanting underwater forest (through which the principal characters hunt using electric harpoon guns and scuba suits), old shipwrecks (the gold from which finances Nemo’s outfit), and the lost city of Atlantis (dead and gone, with columns sticking out of the ocean floor). Aside from the extremely technical descriptions of how all of Nemo’s gadgets work and the central maelstrom of Nemo’s dark personality, the main appeal of the novel comes from the ability of Nemo to take the reader into the unexplored regions of the world, for the narrator to describe outlandish adventures there, and for everyone to then retire to the comfort of a luxury liner and discuss their excursion over algae salad and walrus steak.
If you decide to read this, be careful not to get a bad translation. One of the main reasons Verne is considered more a literary author in France and more a genre author worldwide is that his work suffers from notoriously bad translations. While we’re talking about language, I’ll say that the linguistic feel of the book is a lot like a Charles Dickens novel – it might be a little work, and the formulation of character thoughts and dialogue may be a bit drier than we’re used to, but it’s more than worth it. Bad translation or not, outmoded dialogue or not, this is a seminal work of science fiction. Humanity’s fascination with the unexplored is what wins Verne’s masterpiece its place of primacy in today’s culture. The modern reader can still get a lot of mileage out of this book. After all, we have still only explored five percent of the ocean. Who’s to say Atlantis is not actually down there?
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.