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Book Review: “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne (3 Stars)

02 Feb

Captain Nemo’s slow but compelling rise to the surface gives this adventure enough buoyancy to savor the flavor of a Victorian travelogue (and early science fiction progenitor).

Many who read this classic, very early work of science fiction will complain about the lists. Oh the lists! The countless words, commas, scientific classifications, and rampant cataloging of sea creatures and sea plants. Yes, Verne occasionally provides some curious and interesting descriptions of these plants and beasts to help paint the setting, but many times he simply lists them in typical travelogue fashion (i.e. I saw this, and then this, and then this, and then we saw this eat that.). I count myself among these nay-sayers—to an extent. I’ll admit to having my eyes gloss over the lists.

That said, I also fond myself perusing the internet to look up some of these crazy beasties and subsequently fall into a loop of YouTube videos to see them in action. Verne did that too. And that’s good writing—making someone want to learn. Even when Verne got some of the descriptions wrong (though he probably had them right for the knowledge that was available at the time), he still opened up the sea to me, just as well as a fantasy writer might create a new world – except I live this world and these things do exist and I can check them out on the internet (or in person if I ever wanted to go the non-virtual route). So, while I did feel the listing went on ad nauseum– it also drew me in at times.

Verne has interesting characters in his book, which can easily be dismissed as “flat” by the casual reader. Professor Aronnax, the chief protagonist is a true professor at heart. He is drawn into the wondrous scientific adventure unfolding around him and finds it difficult to resist. He’s balanced against the other protagonist, a Canadian Harpooner who is a man of action and common sense that prefers to make decisions based on his instincts. In between them is Conceil, Aronnax’s agreeable sidekick. All these characters seem to fulfill a role and play to their respective typecasts throughout the story. However, they do grow (albeit slowly), even though their actions and words might seem generic at first. The pieces eventually fall in place, and we see that Aronnax cannot rationalize everything for the mere scientific adventure of it all. Land’s cantankerous attitude is fitting, and we watch him struggle when it fully sets in that he is trapped in an environment that stifles his attributes as a hard-working “doer.” In fact, Land’s bitterness and gut-instincts prove to be the grounding force to which Aronnax must cling when things go bad for the protagonists. Even the reticent and happy-go-lucky Conceil makes a transition by developing a bond with the increasingly disagreeable Land–as if he thinks the Professor might be too far adrift in the sea of academia.

Then there is Captain Nemo. He’s the farthest from flat among all the characters in this book. At first, he is a fearless and seemingly unbeatable force of stalwart principle. Admittedly, Nemo is kept in the shadows for most of the book. He is off screen a lot, and when he comes back on stage it is usually with much bravado. Also, he never really fails in what he does. Yet, the little nuggets of insight, which Jules Verne does reveal, tumble out with significance. These short glimpses into this compelling character paint an inner darkness that is interesting and disturbing. The plot of Captain Nemo, in and of itself is excellent and fitting.

It’s hard to review this book without at least mentioning how far-seeing Verne was by writing about submarines, tasers, and untethered underwater breathing devices that didn’t exist at the time. This is the stuff of “great” science fiction. These elements of hard science and using the minds creativity to go beyond the limits of contemporary advancements are amazing. What a great mind.

Oh yeah, there’s adventure too! Verne’s hard science is intermixed with a good number of dramatic conflicts. Sometimes they are simply man versus beast. Other times he pits the men against Mother Nature. Then there is the subtle man versus man conflict between Captain Nemo and his uninvited “guests.” Some of these scenes are downright tense, and they get better and better as the story progresses.

Verne also had some interesting progressive views going on in this book. For example, the characters make admonishments about over-fishing. Yet, this book is about seamen, so plenty of good fishing takes place. It’s perhaps an interesting conflict, yet a refreshingly realistic viewpoint as these types of issues are not often so black and white.

The adventure aspect of this story works too. The oceans come alive. Besides his descriptions of underwater flora and fauna, Verne’s description of things like the “Gulf Stream” give you a better sense of the various ecosystems that inhabit this planet and how they fit together—very cool. Like a master fantasy writer, Verne makes the sea seem as foreign and as familiar as a made-up world.

My only regret is that this is a work of translation and apparently, some of the English translations of this book cut out significant portions of the author’s original work. I can only wonder how the author’s work reads in his native tongue. What did I lose out on? Even still, I enjoyed the work and not just for what it is or given the context of its time. Mostly I enjoyed this story for the traveling undersea adventure that made me want to learn a bit more about the world’s oceans.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

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Posted by on February 2, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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