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Book Reviews 20000 Leagues

Published on November 14th, 2012 | by Michaela Buckley


‘Leagues, not Fathoms’ – Review of Jules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’

Well this is an unusual little book.

First published in 1869, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne tells the story of a Natural Historian on a voyage to discover and “kill” a terror of the sea. However it is most famed for the giant submarine “Nautilus” and its enigmatic captain, Nemo.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected, but this wasn’t really it. I suppose the beginning of the tale being quite “Moby Dick” was the start of throwing me off, twinned with an odd writing style, makes for a rather odd experience. It’s all written (once again) in First Person perspective but is told in the past tense which at the worst of times is quite detaching but at the best, is quite exciting, like a storyteller round the fire talking of grand adventures. A certain “recountability” if you will.

The main character is a 40 year old man whose interest is piqued by the recent spat of news stories about a giant “thing” causing much wonder and later, destruction around the world’s oceans. Before reading this I did a little research on Jules Verne for my previous blog post on Proto Sci-Fi, which has now led me to decide the protagonist looks like Jules Verne. Being he looked about 50 in the image I saw, that makes some of the more action oriented parts quite amusing.

One of the things that got me to thinking when reading this was “how far is 20,000 leagues?”.
Well, one League is roughly equal to 3 miles. That makes the 20,000 leagues around 60,000 miles.* Which is a positively huge number, especially considering the circumference of the Earth is only 24,000 miles. This means the voyage went nearly 3 times around the world. When I first picked up the book, I thought the title referred to depth, in fact, most people I have quizzed are also under that impression, so Verne should probably get on that ASAP.

The most prominent aspect of the book is the Marine Biology and the workings of the Nautilus, and my god, the descriptive language! It’s so extensive, and unfortunately, quite isolating, as most of the time you’ll find that you just skim over the language as you have no idea about underwater life.
They should release an interactive version where images of all creatures and ecology pop up alongside the page, not for children – but for adults, because nobody really knows what the bloody hell he’s going on about.
Often-times this book feels like an excuse for Verne to show off his encycopaedic knowledge of the sea and use mild peril as a plot to string it all together.

We should call people in Diving suits “Nautonauts”.

Unusually, the book (just like War of the Worlds) is set into 2 parts, although I can’t for the life of me think why, as there’s no discernible feature I can recall to warrant dividing it, aside from it being midway through. Both War of the Worlds and this feel as though if the authors wrote anything else, the style of their writing wouldn’t be recognisable. I haven’t read any further novels, so it might be an interesting thought to consider when I do.

I wouldn’t call the book a Proto Sci-Fi in conventional terms, it uses a futuristic device in order to tell a story of discovery of our world, but it lacks any of the forward thinking in morals, society and personality that other SF novels are frequently known for. It also feels more aged than Well’s work, chiefly as submarines are part of the norm now, but also other ideas and terminology that Verne uses, such as the Nautilus rocking like a boat and the frequent antiquated exclamations of M. Arronax, the protagonist. Verne seems to be a man of knowledge and not wisdom as Wells seems to be, he is less progressive in his thinking by today’s standards, although I could well understand if this is a reversal of the views held on these individuals at the time.

The most interesting thing about the book is obviously the Nautilus, a submarine from before they were widely used and a marvel even today, but unfortunately, I found the description to be all quite vague. Regardless I was able to successfully filter all the information available and create a 100% accurate bonafide picture.

Not actual size.

As the voyage continues, Arronax seems to lack any meaningful development, along with his Robin-like friend/slave Conseil, much like the plot which the entirety is all about going around in the submarine. Of what little change there is, Ned Land, a Harpooner (or is that Harpoonist?) grows increasingly weary of the lengthy journey due to his short-tempered nature, he also becomes somewhat more learned throughout the book. Captain Nemo remains unengagingly mysterious for much of the story and the book ends on a bit of a whimper, regarding him and the crescendo of the adventure. I was expecting something much more wonderful.  Like a giant squid turning up or something.
I found that not learning about any of the rest of the crew of the Nautilus, the most disappointing thing of all, they all speak an odd language never heard by the 3 outsiders before and at no point does any the crew have any real conversation with our main characters. It makes it hard for you to get an idea about the Nautilus’ creation or care about the fate of it’s residing members.

Despite the many criticisms I look forward to reading more of Verne’s material as he seems to be able to give a brilliant sense of realism and the detail is astounding. However the nature of the book being about the sea and its characters/plot left me quite unruffled and at times, bored. Hopefully the centre of the Earth is more interesting.

*All numbers subject to random rounding up and down and may not be accurate at all.


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