Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

You can accumulate a lot of covers in 150 years

This review is going to be a little different. If you are into history and literature, this will be a treat. 

I enjoyed this book, but I want to be transparent about the fact that I enjoyed it as an academic exercise, not necessarily as an entertaining read. I believe many modern readers will find this text a slog, even as they appreciate its importance in speculative fiction history. Indeed, we cannot discuss Jules Verne without looking at his place in history: 

Notice where Verne falls between the authors we think of as the founders of science-fiction and fantasy. He is a transitory figure – not quite the gothic fantasy which came before, but not yet the early science fiction or pulp adventures to follow after. 

The Basics: 

Title: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
Author: Jules Verne
Genre: Science Fiction, Utopian Literature
Published: Pierre-Jules Hetzel, serialized March 1869 to June 1870, Novelized 1870, translated into English in 1872

Summary: 

This is a 150-year-old classic many of you are probably familiar with, so, here are the highlights: 

In the year 1866, noted French oceanographer Pierre Aronnax  and his assistant Conseil join an expedition to hunt what they assume is a giant, rogue narwhal attacking merchant ships around the world. After months at sea, they finally engage what turns out to be a submarine – fantastic technology for the time, literally the stuff of science fiction. Aronnax, Conseil, and a rough, capable sailor named Ned Land are captured by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. 

They are equal parts prisoners and guests of the capricious captain. With Nemo, they explore the uncharted depths of the ocean, battle terrifying sea creatures, and engage in spirited debate. Ultimately, Captain Nemo’s demons catch up with the crew with disastrous consequences. 

Discussion: 

In 20,000 Leagues, we see the intersection of two immensely popular genres from the 17- and 1800s: utopian literature and travel logs. 

Without the good ole’ internet, reading facts about far-away places was a legitimate source of entertainment. The unabridged versions of classics such as Moby Dick or Les Misérables overflowed with factual info about whaling and Paris. Even Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, wrote her share of travel logs. Similarly, Verne spills much ink describing New York, life at sea, the inner workings of the submarine, and a tour of the Pacific. 

During The Enlightenment, Europeans rediscovered classic works, exposing intellectuals across the continent to treatises on society and government. Thomas More coined the term “Utopia,” wrote what amounted to a debate about government between an Englishman and a traveler from a fictional “perfect” country, and a genre was born. We see this current run through 20,000 Leagues in the long discourses between Aronnax and Captain Nemo, who is basically an anarchist running towards what he sees as the untethered freedom of the open sea. 

We see 20,000 Leagues as a blueprint for later golden-and-silver-age science fiction. The bulk of the middle of the text catalogues the technology powering the submarine. Aronnax receives several tours of the ship, examining everything from its dining hall to its electric engine. This novel’s publication is virtually simultaneous with the development of submarines in the real world: 

Probably the Original Cover. If not, dang close.
  • 1500s – 1799 – Several failed prototypes, all amounting to water-tight boxes propelled manually. 
  • 1776 – In the American Revolution, a possibly apocryphal one-man submarine dubbed “The turtle” fails to sink a British warship. Modern historians debate whether this tale is true. 
  • 1801 – The first verifiable submarine carries a 2-person crew underwater for 5 hours. 
  • 1850s – A German naval submarine sinks, never sees real action. 
  • 1864 – After some false starts, the confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic off Charleston, marking the first successful submarine use in battle. 
  • 1866 – Year 20,000 Leagues is set. 
  • 186920,000 Leagues published. 

The way Verne extrapolated from the technology of his day to imagine what is functionally a modern submarine laid the blueprint for the science fiction we know and love today. Dreaming about new technology and its impact on society.

Where Can You Learn More? 

If any of these topics got you going, I hope you read more about the heyday of the travel log, utopian literature, or the history of submarines. You can find a thoughtful, accessible biography of Verne at ThoughtCo

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