Tuesday, February 14, 2012

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Review

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne is, quite honestly, more of an adventure and revenge novel than science fiction. Admittedly Verne was speculating on the use of sciences that were in their infancy or just a glimmer in their inventor's eyes when he wrote, but there isn't much that's truly out-of-this-world and stretch-your-imagination here--particularly for someone reading it now.

Verne has given us the mysterious figure of Captain Nemo--a man whose nationality and origins are unknown. A man who harbors a deep distaste for his fellow man and who is a on a quest to avenge some private wrong. At the end of the story he says about a vessel that he is about to attack, "I am the oppressed, and there is the oppressor! Through him I have lost all that I loved, cherished, and venerated,--country, wife, children, father, and mother. I saw all perish! All that I hate is there! Say no more!" We are never told exactly what happened to make him so bitter.

But, I get ahead of myself....to backtrack. The story begins with Professor Aronnax, French naturalist who is a recognized expert on marine life and who is on his way home to France after an expedition. When he arrives in New York in preparation to sail back home, there are also preparations being made for the naval ship the Abraham Lincoln to set out in search of a "sea monster" which has been spotted by various ships and most recently has opened a large hole in the passenger ship the Scotia. The captain and crew of the Lincoln have vowed to hunt down whatever creature may have done the damage and Professor Aronnax is invited along as an expert in sea life. His devoted servant Conseil joins him on what may (and does) prove to be a dangerous journey. They make friends with the skilled harpooner Ned Land.

When the Lincoln finally locates the "creature" and engages it, the ship is damaged (the rudder rendered useless) and Aronnax, Conseil, and Land all find themselves adrift in the Atlantic. They wind up washed up on the hull of the "creature"--a man-made submarine shaped roughly like a cigar. The three are soon brought inside, but find themselves prisoners of a man who introduces himself as Captain Nemo. Nemo tells them that he means them no harm, but that he will never allow them to leave the vessel. They must resign themselves to a life aboard his ship.

The remainder of the book is a veritable travelogue of the voyage of the Nautilus (Nemo's vessel) through the oceans and seas of the world. We follow him through the Atlantic and Pacific, through the waters of the Antarctic to the pole itself. We see him journey through the Red Sea and a secret underground passage that takes him through the Mediterranean. We are treated to an encyclopedia's worth of marine life (literally--a catalog of underwater creatures, with commentary given to us in great detail by the Professor). And ends with the scene of revenge from which the quote above is taken.

There are some grand adventures here. There are some very nice descriptions. Nemo has the makings of a tremendous character study. I enjoyed the heart of the story very much--and could have loved this so much more than Moby Dick and Ahab's obsession*, but for two things. First--the obscenely long lists of marine life and the detailed descriptions of everything from their scales to their fins to their tentacles. And the fact that even Conseil, the servant, seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of most of the life they encounter. He occasionally has to ask the Professor a question, but he seems to know more than most servants should about just about anything. Second, we never find out Nemo's back-story. He's one of the most interesting characters but we don't know why he hates men so much or what happened that took everything he had away from him. We're left to wonder. I would have enjoyed more about Nemo and less about the zillions of kinds of fish.

Overall, an enjoyable adventure. Three and a half stars.

*I do like it better than Moby Dick (which I hated), by the way. But I could have loved it much more and would have liked to.


redhead said...

I have got to give this one a read sometime. I've seen so many (good and bad) movie versions of 20,000 Leagues and it's characters. Even if we never find out Nemo's backstory, I'd love to be along for the adventures!

Sharon said...

All the taxonomic detail was also the thing I liked least about 20000 legues but I am glad I have read it. Interesting you hated Moby Dick, I was thinking about finally trying to read it some time this year.

Ryan said...

The pages and pages of lists where the thing that kept me from loving this one as much as I hoped I would. Another blogger suggested that I google the creatures the next time I read it, so I can see what the characters are seeing.

I hate Moby Dick too, I still can't finish that book.

Bev Hankins said...

@Ryan: I was dragged kicking & screaming through Moby Dick in high school. It didn't even help when we watched the classic film version....