Delayed Reactions: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

This year I resolved to read more classic science fiction and fantasy, hopefully making a dent in that stack of books I really should have read by now. Mostly because they should be good books, but also to be better informed about my genre and its history. I decided that this meant reading six science fiction and six fantasy books written before 1980 by authors that were completely new to me.

Since I feel weird saying I’m “reviewing” giants like H.G. Wells and T.H. White, let’s just say these will be my reactions to books that have shaped the science fiction and fantasy genres in one way or another.

With that in mind, the first on my list was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, published in 1870. And for those who haven’t read it either, there will be no spoilers!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1965)
Written By: Jules Verne
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 363 pages (Hardcover)
Publisher: Platt & Munk, Publishers

Why I Chose It: I’ve always wanted to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, probably since Back to the Future III referenced Jules Verne when I was a kid, and again since Captain Nemo was featured so prominently in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Jules Verne is supposed to be the father of science fiction and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is supposed to be the quintessential adventure novel.

Premise: 

Professor Aronnax, his faithful servant, Conseil, and the Canadian harpooner, Ned Land, begin an extremely hazardous voyage to rid the seas of a little-known and terrifying sea monster. However, the “monster” turns out to be a giant submarine, commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo, by whom they are soon held captive. So begins not only one of the great adventure classics by Jules Verne, the “Father of Science Fiction”, but also a truly fantastic voyage from the lost city of Atlantis to the South Pole.

Discussion: I was really worried this book would lose a lot of its relevancy in an era where submarines are hardly novel, and deep-sea exploration is fairly regular if not commonplace. But the Nautilus is as extraordinary as first imagined and while the sea might be better understood now, it is still an environment full of mystery and (at least for me) terror. Like most books, there were parts that seemed slow, but it’s very readable despite its age. It certainly lived up to expectations as an adventure novel with battles on the high seas and monsters from the deep. But I think the driving force of this book was the thrill of exploration.

Some of my favorite video games are Minecraft, Guild Wars 2, and the Elder Scrolls series, mostly for the vast open worlds that I can explore for hours. I never fast travel anywhere in Skyrim if I can find it on foot. I think that drive to see what’s over the next hill is intrinsically human, and Jules Verne captured the essence of the explorer beautifully. I might not have known what Aronnax would see each time he left the Nautilus, but I knew it would be spectacular because in this case, every hill hid something new. New scenery or a new piece of history to explore.

This was what kept the book moving forward. The battles and the mystery of Captain Nemo were interesting, but they weren’t what made this book great, and they weren’t what had me turning pages. It was the adventure of exploration. What would they see next? Captain Nemo was the best kind of eccentric hermit. The kind that knows all the best places to hang out and isn’t afraid to show them off. Every time he came to take the crew out into the depths of the sea, you knew there would be something amazing to see simply because it was Captain Nemo.

The man himself was an amazing character even if he was just a bit too mysterious. I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that I like secrets, but I like the explanation behind secrets best. However, this ended up being one of those rare stories where I didn’t mind that certain things were left a mystery. It made sense with the way the story was told and it made sense with the theme of the book as a whole. Captain Nemo was the only person on the planet who had explored the depths of the ocean, but even he didn’t know everything there was to know about his kingdom under the waves. There was always another mystery to solve, another place to explore.

In conclusion: A resonant theme for science fiction. No matter how much we grow, there will always be something more to learn, whether we’re talking about the individual or the human race in general. There will always be something just out of our grasp. And I’m okay with that because it means there will always be something more to reach for.


Next up on the list of classic speculative fiction is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Who wants to tackle it with me?

4 Comments

  • Shara White January 24, 2018 at 7:33 am

    I haven’t read this one either, but I’ve had no real desire to do so, not even when I was on my history of SF kick. However, I have read The Time Machine, so I may have some commentary there! 🙂

    Reply
  • Lane Robins January 24, 2018 at 11:30 am

    Now I’m trying to remember if I actually read this or if I just think I did due to the sheer omnipresence of this story. I know I saw the old movie…. Hmmm.

    Reply
  • Ron Edison January 24, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    I was a big fan of the Disney movie from the ’50s and all the comic book and film adaptations of Verne’s work. As far as his novels go, I always found him a bit dry and dull compared to Hollywood, but I usually find translations lacking. I read a Verne biography a couple years ago and learned that he’s been notoriously ill-served in English translation. His French publisher cut huge amounts from Verne’s text, rewrote sections he “didn’t agree with” for political reasons and those are the versions English got stuck with. Subsequent reissues in French and other languages have been re-edited, but US/UK publishers are reluctant to spend the money to revise and reissue something that has been “good enough” for the past century. There have been a very few revised English language editions published in recent years. As for LEAGUES, the Mercier Lewis translation is the ‘traditional’ one, and the one by Walter James Miller/F.P. Walters and the one by William Butcher more current and complete.

    Reply
  • Weasel of Doom January 27, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    I loved reading Jules Verne’s books (in Russian) when I was growing up in the USSR. My favorite was “Captain Grant’s Children.”

    Reply

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