Sunday, August 23, 2009
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
There's one very good reason why I have not yet tackled reviewing the Wells/Verne oeuvre of 19th century early science fiction, and it's name is Jess Nevins. Were I to post a link to his site, you would simply never return, for you may rest assured that he is simply the best and most complete chronicler of Victorian-age fantastic fiction ever to suck ether. After he has completed one of his famously thorough reviews, anything left yet to be said on the subject is but the feeble-minded gibberish of an opium-sodden Pathan. Nevertheless, I will venture to provide a few words on the subject of Mr. Verne's book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Though one of the two best-remembered pioneers of what we now know as science fiction, Verne has always been regarded as the poorer writer. While many of his characters and ideas, in particular Phillias Fogg, Captain Nemo, the Nautilus and the moon-shot, are still well known today, his books are simply not often read. It is War of the Worlds, not 20,000 Leagues which is today on school curriculums worldwide. Why is this the case? For one thing, Wells used his science fiction to explore social issues, making them ripe for boring English-class over-analysis. Yep, you though you were reading about time travel, alien invasions and future worlds? Sorry mate, but you were actually being secretly lectured about the British class system, colonialism and socialism (probably at length too, knowing Wells).
Verne of course, being a Frenchman, and writing several decades beforehand, had no time for such nonsense. He wrote science fiction with an emphasis on the science. Leagues, for example, is really nothing more than an excuse for Verne to plan exactly how his most recent Big Idea (in this case, the Nautilus) would actually work.
Proceedings get off to a jolly good start when the French Professor Arronax, his odious assistant Conseil and designated asshole Ned Land set off to discover (and destroy) a mysterious 'creature' which has been attacking ships all around the world. Arronax, being a naturalist, believes it to be some sort of gigantic narwhale. Of course, to the surprise of nobody except cultural philistines and those who haven't read the back of the book, the 'creature' turns out to be none other than the Nautilus, a submarine-like craft that is well ahead of its time. It is piloted by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Nemo rescues the other characters from a watery grave, and so begins their travels throughout his watery domain. Though they will see many marvels and wonders unseen by terrestrial man, Nemo makes it clear that they have sacrificed their freedom- he will never let them leave the Nautilus.
It has to be stated that Verne is a stiffer read than other writers of his type, and most readers will make their way through Leagues a good bit slower than they will through anything by Wells. The characters for the most part are so flat that they'd become invisible if they turned to the side, and really only exist to drop massive infodumps on the unsuspecting reader.
Oh God, the infodumps...
Verne has always been infamous for this kind of thing, and Leagues is no exception. It occasionally feels as if he's decided to write the book simply to show off all the research he's done. One character will say: "Why look at that curious island there on the horizon. I wasn't aware there was an archipelago in this area. What is it?" And another character will say: "Well, I'm glad you asked. You see, those are the Sandwich Islands, which were first scouted by the Portuguese in 1656, and later colonised by..." History, biology, geology- no subject is safe.
This can be pretty interesting when it's Captain Nemo talking about the Nautilus, for Verne has, as usual, worked out the exact dimensions and workings of his creation, and it is fun to see how such an incredible craft could have been constructed using only 1860's technology. Verne does cheat somewhat by having Nemo use an unknown 'type' of electricity, thus allowing him to perform feats that electricity was not known to be capable of at the time (and how come there's no mention of decompression?). But when Arronax and Conseil drone on and on about the kinds of sea life they encounter, the readers' eyes start to glaze over. These infodumps tend to consist of enormous lists of species names (often in latin) which will mean absolutely nothing to 90% of readers (now or then!). And if you're really unlucky, that little twerp Conseil will even start reeling off the taxonomy of each species. Why would Verne include this kind of thing? There's often no explanation at all for what he's talking about. Not everybody out there has a zoology degree, Verne (though ironically enough, Wells did, and he never felt the need to go on about it).
Lest we get carried too far out into the sea of negativity, I will mention that the Nautilus is an extremely cool idea, and one which has rightly continued to fascinate writers and filmakers. But it is Nemo himself who is probably the best thing about the book- a misanthrope who has cut off all ties with the land due to some undisclosed past horror (Indian Mutiny, anyone?). He's suitably moody and mysterious, and he plays a mean organ to express his inner anguish. He always knows how to get out of a jam, and this makes him quite smug. His genius may have made the world a better place but instead the world rejected him, and he has taken all he loves (great works of art and nature) on board the Nautilus and quit the land for good. This is definitely an attractive idea.
Verne works best as a kind of wish fulfillment, and when Leagues sobers up from its educational sermonizing and remembers that its supposed to be an adventure story, it does this quite well. Personally, I've always though that when it came to being stuck indefinitely in a sweaty tin can with several other men, Verne's other famous misanthrope Captain Robur (who flew an airship) had one over on Nemo. The freedom of the sky beats the freedom of the sea for me. I mean, even if you were obsessed with sea life like Arronax and C*****L are, wouldn't it get a bit boring on board the Nautilus? Verne tries hard to hide the fact (Arronax constantantly says that he's so 'busy' reading and looking at fish that he doesn't have time to be bored), but being unable to even go for a walk for months on end doesn't sound like wish fulfillment.
Leagues is worth a look, but had Verne spent more time on characterization and less on the infodumps he might still be read today instead of just fondly remembered.
Incidentally, do check out Jess Nevins' page here. And also this detailed, well-researched page on designs for the Nautilus.