The first thing to be said is that I really should be more prompt. Secondly, Captain Nemo. Let’s back up, shall we?
I finished 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea some time ago and although I’m not sure I had any specific timeframe in mind at the outset, the book definitely took me longer to finish than anticipated. No doubt because there is a great deal of dry (*harhar*) material padding out what is otherwise a none-too-hefty story. So should you read it? Yes. Yes you should.
This is my first time reading Monsieur Jules Verne, a posthumously claimed father of science fiction literature, and I was initially shocked by the repetitive nature of a great deal of the text. Looking back, I’m sure some of the blame falls on the translation, the translator of which I fail to recall. However, a great deal of the novel is epithetical. Every character has a select number of traits by which they are referred and identified, most irritatingly in Conseil, a Flemish “lad” who is called “gallant” entirely too often. And Conseil is really a very good place on which to hinge certain strengths and weaknesses of the text overall.
You see, Conseil is a cartoonishly slavish devotee and manservant to his master, the venerable Professor Arronax, through whose eyes the reader is related the story. The man is fully extreme in his occupation and acts as the professor’s pet classifier. Arronax, being an eminent marine naturalist, relates huge sequences of nomenclature and geological data for each of the Seven Seas traversed. Yes, that’s right. So far as he was able Verne included, in long-ass lists, every marine plant, animal, and rock formation that he conceivably could have without calling the thing a specialist text. Being no expert marine naturalist myself, I was forced to take his word on it as he wowed me with the wonders of the sea and the limitless potential of electricity. When Conseil was mentioned I always went on guard, knowing that a whole heap o’ fish were about to come pouring off the page. And yet, this grounds the novel somewhat intriguingly.
You see, our own venerable Steven Lloyd Wilson has called science fiction, and I’m either paraphrasing or completely filling his mouth with totally foreign words, a vehicle to poke at our limits and celebrate our potential for progress. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea does all of this. However the science shook out historically (despite coming up with a full early model for the submarine, Verne was no seer (and the Nautilus is no mere submarine)) it made the book feel like an exploration. This is science, it says. It may not jump off the page, but look at how everything else jumps off of it! Most of the book is spent cruising under the waves without any real problems beyond a weirdly stir-crazy Canadian harpooner. There are scenes of action and adventure, and the science serves as a sink of the real world that leaves the reader hopelessly unprepared to really tackle the improbability of many of the characters’ discoveries, but one issue stands out from amongst the rest. Preeminent, ridiculous, necessary, feared, and beloved: Nemo, captain to the Nautilus and an apparent god among men.
It doesn’t take an ancient Greek to tell that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is hugely indebted to the Odyssey. Nemo’s very name is a callback to Odysseus’ clever introduction in Polyphemus’ cave, and there are few characters in literature quite so simultaneously tragic and haughtily superior as those two. And Nemo is a fully ridiculous character. He speaks God knows how many languages (without a trace of accent), he’s inexhaustibly wealthy, he’s got a veritable Library of Alexandria in his study aboard the submersible, he’s a scientific genius a century ahead of his time, a singularly compelling individual, and a totally, unbelievably, unrelatably preposterous character. But every time he keeps or loses his cool, playing the pipe-organ (onboard, in the aforementioned library) with distracting mystery or fighting a shark with a knife(!), the reader is game for it. This character is a total badass. He is a consummate human being in his accomplishments and his questionably stubborn faults.
Read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You might not always feel like much is going on, but when something does happen you will be knocked right the hell over and you will read those damn fish-lists for just one glimpse of Nemo going mano-a-mano with a giant squid with nothing but an axe and unquenchable fury. And then something genuine and human will happen out of absolutely nowhere and, inexplicably, you will feel just a little bit like crying.