Friday, 4 May 2018

Book Review: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne

Translated by: F. P. Walter

Pros: interesting characters, some cool exploration, a few exciting and tense scenes

Cons: heavy on the science, at least some of the science is wrong, quite dry and boring (especially part 1) 

This is a complete translation, with occasional editor notes, of the French classic science fiction novel.

The year is 1867, and while hunting a mysterious sea creature, Professor Aronnax, his manservant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner become permanent guests of the underwater vessel Nautilus, taking a tour of the seas of the world with Captain Nemo.

While I’d seen the Disney movie, this was my first time reading the book. It’s an interesting experience as it’s clearly a hard SF novel - with lots of facts and figures extolling theories current at the time of publication in 1869 (some of which were later proved wrong, like the idea that there’s a liquid sea at the South pole), and postulating science that didn’t exist yet (like a working submarine). At the same time, all of the scientific explanations and the long passages detailing the classification of sea life the travellers view in the various seas, is really quite boring (your mileage may vary). I found myself skimming whole pages at a time, wanting to get to the more interesting (to me, at least) plot and character based segments of the text.

From a historical view point I can understand why the book was so popular. This depicts an underwater tour at a time when such a thing really was fiction. Given how much interest there was in travelogues about foreign lands, I can only imagine how quickly people grabbed this depiction of the waters. And parts of the book are quite fascinating. The classification sections would have been more interesting if accompanied by photographs/illustrations, but even without them, if you’ve never seen actual videos and photos of the oceans and its life, this would have been an incredible adventure to read.

Given when it was published, it’s not surprising there’s some amount of racist thought. There are some negative comments about the inhabitants of more ‘savage’ islands as well as Africa. Conseil, though 30 years old, is called ‘boy’ and ‘lad’, which annoyed me. He’s Flemish and sentiments regarding his nation aren’t particularly positive either.  

This translation was quite good. The editor noted certain words that had shifted meanings or which would be unknown to people outside the nautical trades. I also thought it great that he mentioned that ‘Nemo’ is Latin for ’no name’. We’re so used to thinking of it as a name, that it’s easy to forget it actually refers to how he’s refusing to name himself to the narrator, and thinks of himself as a nobody with regards to the outside world. 

The translator also provides a short introduction to the text (which I read after finishing the novel), which goes over some of the errors Verne made with regards to science but also how the book inspired generations of explorers, including Sir Ernest Shackleton and Jacques Cousteau.

The plot aspects were quite interesting. The second part of the book has a lot less exposition and a lot more wonder. There’s also more action, so I enjoyed it more. I can definitely understand reading the abridged version though, as I’m sure it takes out a lot of the dryer - and less interesting from a modern perspective - parts of the novel.

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