Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is remarkable for many reasons, but the few things that are unremarkable about it ultimately kept it from becoming an all-time favorite of mine. While wildly imaginative and surprisingly delicate in his characterization, Verne’s narrative is sometimes lazy, his pacing can really drag, and his dénouement was disappointingly abrupt.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was written in 1870, taking place a few years prior to its publication. A first person narrative recounted by the fictional Professor Aronnax, the action begins when the professor and his assistant, Conseil, are recruited to join an American military mission to investigate the sinking of ships in the Atlantic. Believing the culprit to be a particularly large and vindictive whale, the two scientists find themselves in the company of Ned Land, a master whaler whom Verne paints as the stereotypical colonial mountain man. When the expedition finally catches up with the “whale”, no one can quite believe it when they realize their assailant is made of steel and not blubber. The terrifying machine makes short work of the American warship, and the three civilians are saved from a watery grave by the commander of this unprecedented machine, the mysterious Captain Nemo. Appealing to their sense of adventure, and particularly to Aronnax’s professional vanity, Nemo takes them on an underwater tour of the world aboard his Nautilus, showing them both the wonders and horrors of the deep.
Verne’s imagination is really hard to match, not only because he creates things with such detail, but also because there is a shocking amount of legitimate possibility to all of it. Verne’s predictions are so spot-on on that they almost cost the book some of its wonder. A submarine powered by electricity, SCUBA diving, undersea vulcanism, reaching the South Pole–these were all flights of fancy to Verne’s contemporaries, yet he describes them with astonishing accuracy. It was kind of fun to read something that was so clearly and correctly ahead of its time.
Less fun but no less correct were the pages and pages cataloging the kinds of fish, mammals, reptiles, and plants the professor observed in his travels. They really brought the narrative flow to a crawl. The only thing more frustrating were Verne’s narrative cop-outs. Verne must not have had much confidence in himself to write an action sequence or to craft a satisfying ending, because Aronnax is conveniently too horrified at the memories of the former or has regretfully forgotten pertinent details of the latter, and thus they barely appear on the page.
As fantastic as the adventures undertaken by the men aboard the Nautilus were, they ultimately proved to be less exciting than the drama that played out amongst them. Professor Aronnax and Ned Land have a Jack Shephard-John Locke relationship (trapped in a mysterious place, one wants to stay, one wants to go) that grows more tense as Land’s patience grows thinner. The servile Conseil comes close to dooming everyone after his growing sense of self-worth inspires a rash act. The most enjoyable interactions were those that formed the cautious dance between the professor and Captain Nemo. The captain seemed to genuinely enjoy the other man’s company, but was resolute to never reveal more about himself than necessary. To his credit, Verne left most of the mystery of Nemo unanswered. He’s a fantastic character, a true tragic anti-hero in the grand Gothic tradition; he plays a pipe organ in the dimly lit lounge of his submarine, for crying out loud. He’s the freakin’ Phantom of the Aqua. Nemo enchants and deceives the reader just as he does his “guests”, and it isn’t until a brutal act of violence occurs that the audience and Aronnax are snapped out of his spell. Their final confrontation is powerful and somehow bittersweet.
Having now read the two early masters of science fiction (Verne and Wells), I have to say that I think I narrowly prefer the latter. This is my own twisted judgment, but I feel that while Verne writes beautifully about the wonders of science, Wells writes with equal skill about its horrors. Even though Verne peppers his final few chapters with conservationist warnings that would do Al Gore proud, 20,000 Leagues is ultimately the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster: a wild adventure filled with spectacle. That is not to say that it is ordinary or pedestrian. If every Transformers had one-eighth of the character depth that 20,000 Leagues does, we’d see a lot more summer films up for Oscars.