Wednesday, May 6, 2020

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne
Completed 5/3/2020, Reviewed 5/3/2020
3 stars

I haven’t read many classics in my life.  Since beginning my genre fiction immersion about seven years ago, I’ve read several of its classics.  But this is my first Jules Verne read.  I read it for the ad hoc online book club that’s been replacing the Powell’s Science Fiction Book Club which has been suspended due to the pandemic.  I’m sorry to say that for the most part, I found it rather boring.  It’s told in an episodic manner featuring short scenes of action with lots of “wonder” filler in between.  By that I mean that in between the action, the narrator spends enormous amounts of pages describing undersea life, both inside and outside the Nautilus, but mostly outside.  The narrator is constantly describing the marine biology: fish, mammals, vegetation, crustaceans.  In my opinion, I’d say this was exceedingly popular when it was first published because it was a relatively easy way for the general population to consume marine biology and engineering.  As a novel reading this one hundred fifty years later, I have to say it’s not as exciting as I expected it to be.

The plot is straight forward.  A scientist from the museum of natural history is invited to join a ship in search of what is assumed to be a giant narwhal, the species of whale with the unicorn-like horn.  It has been sinking ships, causing near-panic around the world.  During the scurry that ensues between his ship and the presumed narwhal, the narrator Pierre, his manservant Conseil, and the Canadian harpoon shooter Ned are thrown overboard.  They are saved by the narwhal, which turns out to be Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.  Then they proceed to circumnavigate the globe, seeing the wonders of undersea life.  Along the way, they encounter giant squid, icebergs and ice sheets, a hurricane, an undersea tunnel, and other such exciting things.  However, our trio are told they can never leave the Nautilus lest they divulge the secret of Nemo.  Most of the second half of the novel is our trio, particularly the impatient, aggressive Ned, looking for opportunities to escape. 

The narrator is interesting.  We learn that he is quite a scholarly person, as he documents everything he sees on this trip around the world.  However, we don’t really get much depth to his personality despite his narration.  Ned, the Canadian harpoonist is much more interesting.  He’s a little hot-headed, though he really doesn’t get into much trouble.  But we are told he is prone to violence.  This makes any interaction with him intriguing.  I was always wondering when he was going to go off on Nemo.  I also liked Conseil.  He was sort of like Samwise in The Lord of the Rings.  He was devoted to his master.  We don’t spend much time with him, or with Ned for that matter, but I enjoyed the scenes with them. 

Captain Nemo is distant and enigmatic.  We don’t really learn much about him except that he hates the world and has chosen to live life under the sea to avoid people.  His crew is also made up of misanthropes.  In the end though, we do get a glimpse of what caused his misanthropy.

The translation I read may not have been the best.  It was 288 pages long and was the free version from the Gutenberg Project (though obtained through Amazon).  I don’t know who the translator was.  This translation though is said to be older and had parts left out that the translator thought was boring or irrelevant.  It used some archaic words like poulp, which is a cephalopod such as a squid, octopus, or cuttlefish.  It also had strange turns of phrases, like “the disagreeable territory of Nebraska” which was later translated as “the Nebraska Badlands”.  I thought this was rather funny.  Having driven across Nebraska both south to north and west to east, I’d say its badlands were rather disagreeable.  Hehe.  But overall, I didn’t mind the translation and since I thought the book was on the boring side, I was not interested in reading the parts that had been excised. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was fairly easy reading and wasn’t really too bad.  If Verne had written it today, I think it would have had a much different form, rather than action – wonder – action – wonder – action.  I think there would have been a healthier plot.  Verne was definitely prophetic in that he saw submarines not powered by steam but by electricity.  I’d be interested to read his other books to see if they’re all the same format, like “From the Earth to the Moon”.  But that’ll be after I get through my massive TBR pile. 

1 comment:

  1. I read this for the first time around a decade ago, maybe slightly more recently, and I was so disappointed. I've read and loved several classics, and this one just felt like a slog for me, probably because the title and subject matter created an expectation in me. This book and Black Beauty, which I read to my daughter when she was in around first grade, are two classics that always come to mind when I think of classics that have disappointed me. And for both it is because I came to them with unrealistic expectations and would probably have read them differently had I a better clue what each was like.