Thursday, October 25, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne

This week I want to talk about Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the classic novel by Jules Verne. I actually have a personal history with this book, first discovering it in the famous 1954 Disney movie adaptation at my local library back in the 1990's. When I was around ten or eleven I decided to read the original text of this novel and I remember it being a pretty good book. However, I'm afraid I had my nostalgia for this novel dampened with my re-reading.

Now, before I get into the book review proper, I want to admit that I may have gotten a bad translation which my good friend Anya suggested might be a problem with the book. If you do choose to go read Twenty Thousand Leagues I would suggest you explore a number of different translations.

My main problem with this book is it feels incredibly outdated in terms of its subject matter. Significant portions of this book consists of our narrator, Pierre Aronnax, detailing the various aquatic lifeforms he discovers during his adventures on the Nautilus. And I think for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this would be downright fascinating for the readers. Captain Nemo, Professor Aronnax, and the crew of the Nautilus go from the warm waters of the Pacific to the ice-choked waters of the South Pole and Aronnax provides incredibly detailed descriptions of the mammals, fishes, mollusks, and cephalopods they encounter. For an audience that has never before encountered the distant locations described in the novel and the strange lifeforms that live there, this has got to be fascinating stuff. However, this attention to detail becomes, in my opinion, a weakness for late twentieth and twenty-first century audiences. Today there are countless documentary films and television shows about the animals that live in the ocean and in Antartica which are widely available to modern audiences. I think that these far more visual mediums are a far better means of learning about the biological subject material covered in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

The other main fascination of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seems to be with the technology contained within the Nautilus. Again, I think this is a result of time and technology advancing past the novel. The Nautilus is powered entirely by electricity provided by sodium-mercury batteries and is capable of out-performing the conventional steam-powered ships of the era. With electric power still in its infancy, I can understand how a nineteenth century audience could be fascinated by the idea of electric ovens and electric lighting. However, for a twenty-first century audience electric appliances are considered commonplace. Heck, we have submarines powered by nuclear fission now, something that would probably astound Verne's original audience. It's really not Verne's fault that the book has become less fantastic as time progressed, and I am impressed he believed electricity could be harnessed for such every day purposes in the future, but it definitely takes away much of the original wonder in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

There is one comment which I would like to make about this book, and it centers around the character of Captain Nemo. Throughout the novel we learn that Captain Nemo provides funding to various rebel groups fighting against imperialist forces in the nineteenth century. In specific we see Nemo provide a vast sum of money to Cretan rebels fighting against Ottoman occupation and it is heavily implied he provides such support to other rebel groups across the globe. Captain Nemo takes his campaign of vengeance even further and actively attacks the warships of imperialist powers. What is perhaps most important about this conflict is that we are never told where Nemo is from or who the imperialists he fights are. (Granted, in the sort-of sequel The Mysterious Island it is revealed that Captain Nemo was originally an Indian Raj, but we receive no such information in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.) In the climatic battle where Nemo attacks and sinks a warship with the Nautilus it is explicitly stated that the ship is flying no flag. Since both parties have ambiguous origins it remains powerful commentary against European imperialist practices in general and a warning of how far oppressed peoples will go to avenge the injustices suffered at the hands of their oppressors.

Overall, I would say it is best to pass Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by, but not because the book is in any way flawed or badly written. Instead I think that the technology and biological discoveries that were so fascinating to nineteenth century audiences have become incredibly commonplace to twenty-first century audiences. As a criticism of European imperialist and colonial practices, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea simply does not go into sufficient depth and I feel that theme takes a decided back-seat to the biological and technological wonders of Nemo's world. I must sadly consign Verne's work to the category of works informative of past perspectives, but less relevant to modern audiences.

- Kalpar

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