20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
© 1870 Jules Verne
Scarcely a year after the end of the American Civil War, Professor Pierre Aronnax of the Museum of Natural History in Paris is preparing to return to his native France following the conclusion of some research when he learns that the Abraham Lincoln, a fast frigate, is about to set forth on a mission to track down and destroy a mysterious sea monster that has been plaguing seagoing traffic for several months. Aronnax — author of several books on the life of the oceans — sees the mission as the opportunity to identify and study the fascinating creature, which he believes must be a narwhal of some previous unknown type. This perception changes when the Abraham Lincoln discovers the beast to be made of iron: Aronnax’s narwhal is a submarine! The frigate is swiftly destroyed, but Aronnax, his servant, and a Canadian fisherman find refuge aboard the strange machine. The captain of this vessel, a nationless eccentric billionaire who identifies himself as ‘Nemo’, informs them that although he will extend to them every courtesy of a guest, no one who boards his Nautilus is permitted to leave. Professor Aronnax is thus given the opportunity to study the world’s oceans up close and in an unbelievable vessel.
So begins an adventure at sea and a fascinating bit of science fiction. As Nemo and Aronnax sail through the world’s seas, they explore underwater forests and submerged volcanoes and fight off creatures of the deep — all of which are described in great detail. When I first read a children’s version of this book, the Nautilus seemed to me a version of the Enterprise, underwater. It had a museum, a library, and at least one viewing gallery in which the crew and (accidental) passengers were separated from the ocean depths and all the wonder they contained by a few inches of glass. As an adult, I find the book all the more fascinating given its time. Nemo’s machine needs to surface every five days to replenish its air tanks, but otherwise gains all it needs from the sea itself. It moves at fifty knots, which far surpasses the first US nuclear-powered submarine (the USS Nautilus), and other modern ships, like the USS Abraham Lincoln and even destroyers like the USS Bainbridge. Verne’s imagination is astounding: the submarines of his days were primitive things, mostly wooden and useful only for drowning their crews. What powers this amazing ship is Electricity. I took this for granted, but Aronnax is infatuated by the idea — and well he should be, for the electric dynamos of 1866-1870 were hardly worthy of the name. Not for another decade or two would electricity begin to used in lighting and electric motors. To Verne, electricity is a thing of the future, and its capacity is boundless. It is the source of infinite energy, and he uses it as energetically as Isaac Asimov used ‘atomic energy’ in the Foundation series.
20,000 Leagues incorporates more science and technical explanation than any other science book I’ve yet read, and I can only imagine how riveted 1870’s audiences were by his explanations of the Nautilius’ electric engine, and his descriptions of what the waters of Earth contain and might contain. I kept wanting to put the book down and watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, so catching was Aronnax’s joy at seeing whales, kelp forests, coral reefs, underwater tunnels through the earth, lost ships and sunken cities. Leagues isn’t quite as readable as Around the World in 80 Days, and I don’t quite know why. The abundance of scientific and technical descriptions contributes, but the translator approached the book knowing it was known for troublesome translations and so I must assume he would have earnest on making the book readable. Even so, there are some odd turns of phrase: at one point, Ned Land laughs while moving his jaws up and down ‘very significantly’. I think this was because he was teasing someone about eating him. (The characters’ conversations about cannibalism were some of the more humorous passages of the book, in part because they read so strangely.)
20,000 Leagues under the Sea deserves to be read again and again, combining natural wonder with the story of a mysterious man who built a superior machine. While story is interesting of itself, considering its optimism and Verne’s imagination in historical context made it most impressive. His Nautilus is a superior construct of the mind, making today’s cramped vessels still seem primitive by comparison.