Something’s fishy

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Today, reading a book about some people on a submarine may not evoke the startled sense of wonder that it must have in the 19th century. Nevertheless, when I read this book as a child, I loved it.

Even then I understood many of the deficiencies in the science and geography, being aware that Jules Verne didn’t have access to the information we have today. It didn’t bother me. I took it for what it was, an amazing story about amazing things and amazing people at an amazing time. Jules Verne was one of those amazing writers who could give you a dollop of education that you would never notice because you were so swept up in the adventure.

I have never re-read this book, so these days I’m much more familiar with the Walt Disney film. As much as I love that film, I wish they had dealt with more of the things that are in the novel. The first part of the book involves the search for whatever is destroying ships at sea. One thing I remember well is the proposed solution to the mystery of ships being destroyed. It was suspected to be a narwhal, a sort of whale with a huge unicorn-like horn, which one could imagine puttin a hole in a ship and sinking it. So it was perfectly natural that to investigate the destruction of ships at sea the authorities would send a marine biologist, Dr Arronax. But the cause of the attacks is a man-made one. Capt Nemo, a bit of a mad scientist with a view toward revenge, has somehow arranged for the construction of an amazing submarine. How could he construct such a thing without anyone in the world ever knowing anything about it? That’s a question never tackled in works of this kind. (It’s an especially interesting question for many of James Bond’s enemies, who have built the most elaborate and amazing buildings, ships, underground lairs, and so on, without anyone ever noticing the incoming and outgoing of a huge amounts of raw materials and workers. Where do these evil geniuses get their materials from? Where do they hire their staff? Perhaps there’s a recruitment agency somewhere specifically for henchmen.) Often in fiction the “how” has to be overlooked so that we can get on with the story. Captain Nemo has this power, he has this crew, and he has this ship, and he uses them too. Unlike a lot of classic villains, Capt Nemo is himself a sympathetic character. We feel his pain and sympathise with his plight. When Prof Arronax realises how evil Nemo is he decides to try and persuade him to turn back to the good side. And it seems just plausible. But it doesn’t happen.

Among the things that happen in the book that the movie does not touch upon are a visit to the South Pole, a visit to Atlantis, and the Nautilus getting caught in a maelstrom.

This book is definitely the stuff that adventures are made of, and writers have been drawing on it for 150 years. (Shameless plug: it is also the inspiration for my short story, 20,000 Yards Across the Frontier, which also forms a segment of my novel, Copout.) Jules Verne’s masterpiece is the fuel for generations of aventurelust.

I recommend it highly. I probably should even read it again sometime soon.

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