What do you know about Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Ask that question of any pop culture aficionado and the answer might be “Captain Nemo” or “the Nautilus” if you’re lucky. For those who’ve seen the Walt Disney movie, Kirk Douglas in blue-and-white sailor stripes singing a song with a seal might come to mind. But I bet you any amount of Spanish doubloons that just about everyone knows about the giant squid.
Before I cracked open Verne’s 1870 novel, I put myself in the aforementioned camp. Well, sans the Douglas singing part. All my childhood memory conjures is the squid scene because, for a kid--and, perhaps, anyone--the squid scene is tops. It’s why you read 20,000 Leagues anyway, right? Shoot, it was the main reason I picked up the book: to see where and how the squid attack in the book.
I had a long way to wait. Not 20,000 leagues, but it felt like it.
The first preconceived notion dispelled in the novel was the term “league”: it’s a distance, not a depth. Get outta here. Are you serious? I learned that as the characters sometimes had their adventures just under the surface. Not very romantic, wouldn’t you say?
The main character and the narrator is Pierre Aronnax, a marine biologist, who gets himself recruited on an American ship to go hunt for a mysterious sea monster. Okay, that’s a good start. Conseil, Arronax’s manservant--let’s not call him an assistant, please--follows his master everywhere as does skilled harpooner Ned Land (Douglas in the film). The search is going nowhere until the strange creature appears and attacks the American vessel. The trio are thrown overboard and take refuge on the surface of the creature. They soon discover that the creature is made of metal and it is, in fact, not a creature at all but an underwater vessel, the Nautilus, captained by none other than Nemo.
The next few chapters are pretty interesting, I’ll grant you, because Verne describes the Nautilus and all the various technological wonders it employs to operate. Coming decades before a sub of comparable size was ever invented, it’s fascinating to follow Verne’s mind via Nemo. One particular aspect of the ship is its air supply: like a whale, the Nautilus has to surface and expel the bad air and take in a fresh supply every day. Another is the power supply: all electrical, garnered from various underwater natural resources. Very clever.
Gradually, however, the story begins to plod. The three captives are forbidden to leave because Nemo thinks they’ll rat him out to the world. Nemo and his crew have forsaken the rest of civilization to live under the sea (man there are so many song references in this piece). At first, Aronnax is totally absorbed in the scientific search for greater understanding. Ned Land just wants off.
If you can imagine a small group of university professors discussing the fine points of science and the arts, you’ll get the gist of the rest of the story. It’s a travelogue. The Nautilus goes to one place and a mild adventure takes place. The Nautilus goes to another place and a mild adventure takes place. Repeat. Yawn. Repeat. Yawn. Repeat. Sleep.
Finally--Finally!--the squid attacks and we get some action...but it’s over way too soon. Perhaps it was the Disney movie that hyped up that scene but there should have been a lot more action in this story. But, then again, when you entire story is set in a submarine with no surface ship that can damage it, you don’t have a lot of conflict. Sure, there’s conflict between the human characters and there’s still the mystery of Nemo’s origins, but it’s not enough to keep 21st-Century audiences enthralled. Well, not me, at least.
All in all, I’m glad I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, mainly to say that I have. I’m not, however, rushing out to read anything else by him just yet. Like the other four classic adventure books I “discovered” this summer, had I read this book when I was ten, I might have had a different experience. But, alas, I was too busy with Star Wars thirty years ago to bother with a long, Victorian science fiction novel.
Many of us like to read and write steampunk tales, postulating present-day technology back to the 1800s. What Verne did was more spectacular. He saw the future. To be more precise, young people read Verne’s books and grew up to invent what he created. That’s a remarkable achievement and as good as testament as any to the power of imagination.