This is a book that, although being very familiar with images such as Captain Nemo and the Nautilis, I had never actually read before now. After coming across two of Jules Verne’s novels in Canty’s Bookshop earlier this year, “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in special Vintage Classics editions, well, how could I say no?
Part of a set of 5, the Vintage Sci-Fi Classics come with wild 3D covers and include your very own retro pair of 3D glasses. A little disappointingly, the 3D art isn’t quite as eye-catching as one would hope, but they still make for pretty books. Plus the glasses are rad.
“20 Thousands Leagues Under the Sea”, originally published in French in 1870, is the quintessential sci-fi novel. When rumours of a monster sea-creature begin to abound, naturalist Professor Aronnax is delighted to find that not only is the supposed sea-creature a state-of-the-art submarine called The Nautilis that has just sunk the ship he was on, but he has been kidnapped and doomed to spend the rest of his life aboard it with his manservant Counsel, Ned Land the cranky Canadian and the mysterious Captain Nemo. What follows is essentially an underwater tour of the world culminating in discovering exactly what it is that propels Captain Nemo on such an endeavour.
This book is at heart a celebration of the exploration and technological achievements of the Western world. Verne revels in his own imagination, and the message that anything that can be done on land so can be done underwater. It reminds me quite a lot of Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, published nearly 150 years earlier. The novel abandons a typical story arc and instead is presented in a diary entry format more along the lines of where-we-went-and-what-we-did-there. The advantage that Verne had over Swift, however, was that his book actually contains a lot of scientific merit.
Verne constantly refers to the ingenuity of Captain Nemo and his submarine, and the learned and enthusiastic Professor Aronnax is the perfect conduit through which to appreciate the captain’s cleverness. The book does have quite a self-congratulatory tone to it because, of course, all of the enigmatic Captain Nemo’s ideas are in fact Verne’s. They are good ideas however, and Verne demonstrates an attitude towards racial and political equality that was quite before his time.
This is a quick, clever little novel that is fascinating in its treatment of science and global themes given it is over 140 years old. It is hard not to get caught up in the sheer enthusiasm of the book, and some of the scenes, such as when Nemo and Aronnax are wandering through the underwater kelp fields, are very immersive. An easy read, though (understandably) a little smug.