Sunday, August 7, 2011

20.000 Leagues Under the Sea

If you're looking for a novel that's smart yet fun, this is it.  Jules Verne is known as one of the fathers of science fiction, and while reading this book I tried to imagine the reception of his work by an unsuspecting public in the 1860s.  His contemporary readers were delighted by descriptions of incredible inventions, unusual animals and exotic places. I would have been too, after spending the day scrubbing clothes on a washboard or shoeing horses.

     20,000 Leagues Under the Sea chronicles the adventures of Captain Nemo and his incredible submarine. The narrator, Professor Arronax, specializes in marine biology, and some of the descriptions of marine life forms tend toward extremely detailed scientific categorization. I know a conch from a coral, but he lost me at Carcharodon carcharias (great white shark). Despite this, the book contains enough adventurous episodes, scientific niftiness and intriguing oddities to hold the attention of most readers.  I, for one, am now interested in making anemone jam...but living in a landlocked state, I can safely remain at the stage of armchair speculation.

     Verne's work isn't all sunshine, however.  Even though his editor removed most of his pessimistic and dystopian slant, it is still visible in the brooding, vengeful character of Captain Nemo. Nemo was partly based on Odysseus, the title character of  Homer's Odyssey. After tricking Polyphemus by saying that his name is "nobody" (Nemo is Latin for "nobody"), Odysseus wanders the seas for ten years, tortured by the deaths of his crew members. This parallels Captain Nemo's name and experience. Nemo is also a champion of the oppressed, and throughout the novel he assists those suffering from war and colonial oppression. Verne points out that the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution have done nothing to alleviate the potential for cruelty humans embody. On the contrary, in many cases human cruelty, like travel and manufacturing speed, is multiplied by technology. In the words of Captain Nemo, "It is not new continents the earth needs, but new men."

      Analysts often point out Verne's prescience in describing future inventions such as gasoline-powered automobiles, submarines, electric lights, even the internet (a worldwide telegraphic communications network). Scientifically-minded people are often able to make accurate predictions (hypotheses), but could a few of these correlations be a matter of causation, in which readers were inspired to pursue precisely the discoveries and inventions that were detailed in his books? Is it possible that some polar explorers, pioneering oceanographers or rocket inventors were Jules Verne fans? Let's see.  Admiral Richard Byrd said on the eve of his polar flight, "Jules Verne guides me." William Beebe, one of the first men to explore the depths of the sea in a bathysphere, became interested in oceanography after reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry, was an avid Verne reader as a child. As the author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, observed, "...we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne." And lest you think all the good ideas have been scooped, Verne described some technologies that haven't yet graduated from fiction to fact (Captain Nemo's salt water-derived electricity comes to mind). So introduce your child, younger cousin or neighbor kid to Verne, and you may find yourself in the audience thirty years hence as s/he accepts the Hubbard Medal or the Nobel Prize in Physics (under stage lights using Nautilus-inspired power, of course).

Byronic hero: Captain Nemo
Narrator: Professor Arronax
Faithful sidekick: Conseil
Token Canadian: Ned Land
Source of all food on the Nautilus: the seas
Savage humans: are found even in "civilized" countries
There was a lot of: scientific descriptions, mysterious happenings, dangerous adventures
There should have been more: this book was well-balanced; I wouldn't change it. On one hand I would like more back story on the crew and how they came to sail with Nemo, but that would have taken away from the mysterious atmosphere
This book makes you want to: learn more about marine creatures, travel the polar seas, live according to your personal code of honor, help those who need help, remember that you can't fully understand a person's actions without knowing that person's history
This book makes you glad you don't have to: live on a submarine forever, fight a giant squid, listen to Ned Land obsess about eating meat, be haunted by the desire for revenge

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