When I was in my early teens and getting into serious reading, there were a few books that really got to me. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Harry Potter books are some of those. There was also Dune and The Hitchhiker’s Guide. And then there was Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. At that time, I had a major weakness for escapist fiction. If it could transport me into a completely new world, I was into it. That’s true today as well of course, but the mind is more impressionable when you’re younger. You have less stuff to be worried about (basically school and very limited responsibilities at home) and your brain starts to come into its own. It’s a magical time to be a geek.
So I got a hold of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea in PDF form, and since my dad had recommended Verne’s books, I thought I’d give it a try. For the next 12 hours, it was like an out-of-body experience. The Neverending Story fetishizes the act of reading in a quite literal form. You open a book and are lost in another world. That exact thing happen with me and that book. I was practically on board with Captain Nemo travelling the depths of the oceans in his submarine. It was one of my most memorable reading experiences. Some 15 years on though, I’ve become different in my reading habits, and I got curious just how well this book would hold up for me.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and most of Verne’s other books are science fiction stories, basically pioneering the genre itself. Here, we follow Professor Aronnax, a respected biologist and his trusty assistant Conseil, a man in love with classifying all living things into species and sub-species. There have been sightings of some kind of sea monster that can travel at incredible speed. There have been incidents where this creature damaged or completely sunk entire ships, so it is decided that somebody must kill the beast. Aronnax and Conseil join the hunting party and eventually they encounter this monster. As events unfold, both our heroes and a third man, a whaler named Ned Land, discover that this sea creature is in fact a submarine. They are brought inside and meet Captain Nemo, a man of mysterious origin and purpose.
The three are held prisoner on board the Nautilus, but are granted almost complete freedom within it. The book then chronicles the adventures that they embark on.
What immediately becomes obvious is that Verne is a man in love with science and scientific explanation. Every few pages the reader will be bombarded with information of sea life, especially because major characters in Captain Nemo, Aronnax and Conseil are scientists and studying the sea and its inhabitants is just what they do. Verne does a great job though of painting an image in your mind of the vastness and richness of the oceans. If you can bear the barrage of descriptive text in this book, it’s a joy to read. If you don’t though, you will feel easily fatigued by the pace of the story. Chapters aren’t extremely long, and in every chapter something does happen, but there aren’t any really big shockers. How much you’ll get out of this book depends on how willing you are to visualize the places this journey takes you.
It’s not just about watching exotic fish in the sea though. There are moments of incredible tension, with my personal favorite part of the story at around the 80% completion mark. You’ll get it if you read it. Aside from that, it’s about a very fundamental fascination of science and nature. The Nautilus is an incredible vehicle. You’ll probably have heard that Verne basically invented the submarine, and sure enough, his technical explanations are probably quite flawed if you analyze them seriously, but to the average reader, the book succeeds in being convincing, which itself helps with the suspension of disbelief.
Captain Nemo himself is another big draw in this story. This man is incredible. He is extremely well-versed in all things intellectual, has such strong conviction and throughout the story he proves his courage and strength of character. Basically, I hugely admired him in both my readings. His past and nationality are shrouded in mystery, and all that makes him more fascinating.
Mystery is a good point too. There is a lot of mystery in this story. Who is Captain Nemo? What is his end goal? What language are he and his crew using? It will keep you wondering to the very end. To write more about this wouldn’t be justified. It’s just worth noting that this central element of guesswork and not being told everything gives this book another layer of depth.
My second reading so many years later was an enjoyable one. I still genuinely like this book, though I suppose reading it for the second time, some of the fascination has worn off. It’s still a book that captures the imagination, and it’s still a great journey that I’d recommend others to go. I’m a little bit sad though, because I wasn’t able to replicate the experience I had on my first reading. The sciencey bits have also lost their luster for me. I enjoy them now and again, and I have great respect for Verne for including that. It’s clear that he was truly in love with the science, maybe even more so than the story itself, and I always enjoy such passion. I suppose that this time though, I wasn’t as infected with it as I was as a teenager.
I recommend this novel for anybody with the ability to be fascinated, and especially younger readers. It’s a truly great ride.