By Trevor Busch
Before the Age of Enlightenment and an emergence from our infantile technological somnolescence in the early 19th century, the idea of science fiction would have required an embrace of the sciences on a scale that had not existed in the rigidly-oppressive Middle Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.
As the advances of science marched forward in the 19th century and began to snowball exponentially into changes in almost every field of human endeavour — not unlike our own technological revolution in the 21st century — some dreams of what could be were being achieved only decades after their conception.
While the achievements of the Industrial Revolution began to change the fundamental inter-relationships of modern societies and destabilized the foundations of archaic class systems, there were those who saw the potential for scientific achievement as a solution to the poverty, war, exploitation and inequality that were often a by-product of rapid advancement.
One of those individuals was author Jules Verne, and his handful of works, considered by many to be the very origin of science fiction, continue to fascinate and enthrall readers even today. Some works, such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Round the World in Eighty Days (1872), and A Trip to the Moon (1865) have often become household names to both children and adults alike virtually the world over. For most fans, however, one work stands head and shoulders above the rest: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).
An epic tale of globe-trotting adventure set aboard the fabulous Nautilus, an undersea submersible commanded by the fascinating and enigmatic Captain Nemo, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is nothing short of remarkable. There are few 19th century works of what would probably be classified as “hard” science fiction today that manage to largely stand up under the scrutiny of a scientific microscope in the 21st century, but Verne’s classic work stands prominent among them.
Instead of dwelling on the negative that was being witnessed in conjunction with technological and industrial advancement in the late 19th century, Verne was an unbounded optimist in his view of what progress could mean for humanity. His novels are full to the brim with this optimism and a sense of the adventure which was being made possible with each advancement. Verne once said “What man can conceive, man can achieve.”
While the novel’s title is certainly dated, referring to a measurement of distance (a ‘league’ is between two and three nautical miles) that is no longer in common usage, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a visionary work prophetic in scope, predicting innovations in technology — chief among which, of course, was the submarine — that have become almost commonplace in the modern world, but were anything but to readers in the early 1870s.
Telling the tale of three shipwrecked friends who board the Nautilus only thanks to the mysterious motivations of her captain, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea takes the reader on a phantasmagoric round-the-world journey of discovery that includes fantastic sea creatures, monsters, volcanoes, the polar regions, underwater cemeteries, the ruins of Atlantis, and fabulous treasures, all described in dramatic, vivid realism.
Verne’s mastery of imagination is well known to those familiar with his works, but Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea offers something more, bridging the gap between science fiction and classic literature. The tormented Captain Nemo, whose appreciation for natural beauty and scientific achievement is matched only by his bitter hatred of mankind, is a walking contradiction in terms. Passages in the novel, such as when Nemo takes terrible vengeance against an offending warship, easily remain among some of Verne’s finest writing.
The mystery of Nemo’s identity and the motivations for his animosity toward mankind has been endlessly debated by legions of fans and generations of readers who have continually rediscovered the novel with each passing decade. What is perhaps less well known is that Verne himself later revealed Nemo’s identity and back story in a later novel, The Mysterious Island (1874). An explanation probably devoured by many a Verne enthusiast, in many ways it served to deflate the unfathomable aura that surrounds Nemo throughout Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The novel is always best read when disassociated from later reveals about Nemo’s character.
There is even an aspect of Canadiana in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, in the form of minor character Ned Land. Hailing from somewhere in Eastern Canada (where is never exactly specified) the famous harpoonist is part of the shipwrecked trio who join the Nautilus crew on their voyage of discovery. Although Verne can probably be forgiven for his assumptions, being that he was a French national, non-Francophone Canadians reading the novel today will probably choke on his phrase of description about Land in which he quips “A Canadian is practically a Frenchman”.
Adapted innumerable times for radio, television and film, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is still best enjoyed in its natural environment, where a reader becomes drawn into Nemo’s aquatic world through their own imagination, attached so unreservedly to Verne’s characters and thrilling narrative that they feel almost like passengers on the Nautilus themselves.
Many of Verne’s other works follow a similar vein to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, featuring a gripping story of adventure and epic discovery made plausibly believable through Verne’s dedication to scientific accuracy and where needed, “scientific imagination”. For instance, another of Verne’s famous works, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, captures all of these aspects in spades.
But where Verne’s other works depart from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the novel’s richly-crafted and fascinating characters, which make it something more finely-hewed than had been seen from Verne in the past. Although some of Verne’s other works have character development that border on the brilliance of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, none reach the delicious depths plumbed in the above.
With each passing chapter more exciting than the next, culminating in a harrowing escape in which we are meant to question the survival of Nemo and his crew, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is infinitely more than an imperialist-themed adventure story in the vein of H. Rider Haggard, but instead crosses imaginary boundaries from the realm of science fiction into truly great literature.
Considered to be Verne’s one true masterpiece by many, the novel has inspired more explorers and adventurers than can probably be counted, and continues to be a highly entertaining epic for a modern readership.