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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Just Finished Reading: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (FP: 1869)

In the Year 1866 a strange story began to circulate on both Atlantic coasts – a creature never seen before had been spotted either resting on the surface or swimming at high speed in each of the world’s oceans. Ships sent to investigate or those who tried to hunt it came up empty or never returned from their dangerous quests. The legend of the great sea-monster produced scientific papers and newspaper headlines all around the world but to no avail. Nothing was known about it for certain. Until that is the American government commissioned a ship to search for and kill this most mysterious of creatures. On board the USS Abraham Lincoln was the renowned marine scientist Professor Pierre Aronnax, his trusty servant and veteran harpoonist Ned Land.

Sighting the creature in the Pacific they gave chase but never got close enough to engage it with the ships formidable armoury – until one night the creatures turned and attacked! Thrown clear by the collision the Professor is thrown overboard and watches in dismay as the wounded warship limps away into the night apparently oblivious to his predicament. But he is soon joined by his trusty servant who had jumped in after him and they make their way to a shallow shoal. On gaining dry land they discover to their fascination that what they originally suspected to be an uncharted reef clearly is an artefact manufactured by an intelligent hand. Soon joined by Ned Land they wait until morning when a hatch is opened and they are dragged inside by men, much like themselves, but talking in a language quite unknown to them. Finally after days of captivity they are brought before the captain of this strange machine who explains that the ship – a submarine vessel called the Nautilus – is under his command at that his guests can never leave the vessel alive. Surrounded by wonders almost beyond imagination they are at first entranced by the whole idea of an underwater voyage across vast uncharted oceans but it gradually becomes clear that the captain – who calls himself Nemo – has many secrets which he has no intention of sharing and who might very well be completely mad.


I’ve had this particular copy of this book on my shelves for at least 20 years and possibly much. Much longer. I think I tried to read it not long after watching the Disney version (which I really enjoyed except for the inevitably really annoying ‘show tunes’ which peppered his films) but found it too hard going for my teenage brain. But after successfully reading several other Verne books I thought it deserved another outing. The first thing I noticed was that, apart from the first 20 pages or so the book and the film had very little in common except for names and the brute fact of the existence of the submarine itself. Nemo’s motivation in the film was almost totally absent from the book and was only hinted at by Nemo himself and through several observed, but never explained, actions. This I found incredibly frustrating. There was almost endless descriptions of the sea, the sea floor and the wildlife encountered on their voyage but no explanation as to exactly what the vessel was doing or why. The mystery of the captain and his ship was heightened, speculated upon and never resolved. Even the language the crew spoke – which was probably Esperanto – was never fully accounted for. Some of the mechanical details, fixtures and method of propulsion was gone into in some details but Nemo’s background, reasons for his emotional outbursts and periodic melancholy was barely touched upon. It did seem like this was a great idea looking for great underlying story which, rather oddly, I thought was actually there – including odd unscheduled stops or detours, the passing of recovered gold to revolutionary groups and the periodic avoidance of warships searching for them. It was to me the ghost of a story that needed much more drama and much more flesh. So although I found the book eminently readable (though I admit I did skim through a few of the lists of fish types seen through the glass windows) I did find it all rather dull and definitely frustrating. Worth a read but don’t expect to be riveted.      

4 comments:

Ellie said...

It's been so long since I read something by Jules Verne. Slightly disappointed to hear that this isn't exactly riveting...

CyberKitten said...

I was impressed with the technology and thought that his detailed description of what was effectively SCUBA gear must have inspired the inventor of the equipment 70 odd years later.

Unfortunately the story didn't have any real human drama - despite Captain Nemo crying out for an in-depth profiling! It's not like Verne can't write good dram - he can. It's just that there was very little of it in this book. A shame really. You can see why Disney changed, and added, so much though.....

smellincoffee said...

It's really more of a tech-adventure novel than a human story, I think...it's been a couple of years since I read it, but I can still remember how obsessively the electrical system was pored over!

CyberKitten said...

sc said: It's really more of a tech-adventure novel than a human story.

Verne does seem far happier with technology than he does with people certainly!

sc said: I can still remember how obsessively the electrical system was pored over!

Oh, god! Didn't he just.... [lol] I know Verne accused Wells of going too far in his speculations but he did know how to tell a damned good story. The fight between the Thunderchild and the Martian tripod still sends shivers down my spine decades after I read it for the first time....