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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (A Watermill Classic) by Jules Verne (1980)



Paperback in Good (G) condition. Please see our guide to book conditions for more details.

Man, what a strange book. As I've learned from my more erudite sister, 19th century novelists are all about digression, and Verne, despite being very solidly camped outside Greatliterarynovelopolis in the growing shantytown of Genreville, is no exception. Literally half this book is a taxonomic listing of every plant and animal Arronax observes! I mean, even I was bored. Me. The nature freak. I occasionally review field guides on Goodreads, and yet I actually preferred George Eliot's tangents about political economy and local gossip.

That said, this is a pretty fun book. Adventure under the sea! Laconic yet cordial sumbarine übermenches thirsting for vengeance and whale milk! Canadians! Well, a Canadian. The Canadian. He had a harpoon. Reading science fiction that describes a future long past is also a hoot, especially if you're a huge goddamn nerd. Despite accurately predicting the feasibility of a submarine, I don't think Verne had actually spent much time in the water. The Nautilus navigates not by sonar, but by shining a really bright light. I think swimming in anything but the most crystalline tropical seas would convince you that wouldn't quite work. Every time the crew leaves the ship to go exploring, they actually walk on the sea floor instead of swimming. One time, Cpt. Nemo dodges a shark. It's kind of hard to dodge slow moving jellies when you're underwater, never mind one of Nature's most amazing swimmers.

The book is also an interesting balance between technological hubris and an underlying conservationist theme. Nemo (and presumably Verne) decries the repercussions of overfishing when forbidding former harpooneer Ned Land from testing his skill against a pod of Antarctic whales: "In destroying the southern whale [...:] your traders are culpable, Master Land. They have already depopulated the whole of Baffin's Bay, and are annihilating a class of useful animals. Leave the unfortunate cetacea alone. They have plenty of natural enemies [...:] without you troubling them." Granted it's a utilitarian, anthropocentric kind of conservation ethic, but conservationist all the same. And yet earlier, upon beholding a massive bed of pearl oysters, Arronax narrates, "I could well understand that this was an inexhaustible mine of treasures, for nature's power to create goes far beyond man's capability of destruction." I doubt Verne set out with any fixed notions of environmental ethics in mind, but I find it intriguing that these contrasting sentiments keep popping up.

I think Verne's apparent ambivalence about the morality of technological advances is more intentional. The Nautilus is a marvelous creation that Nemo uses to reveal the unknown and better understand the world. It's also a vicious instrument of vengeance he employs against his former countrymen (or maybe not his countrymen, reading some of the other reviews...), a nearly invincible ship that can sink below the reach of canons and fatally ram any conventional vessel from beneath. As a war machine in a world of steam and sail it would be monstrous. I also think it's significant that Nemo and the ship meet their apparent end not at the hands of other men or even by an animal, but by the unthinking and inestimable power of the sea itself, bringing to mind Melville's line from Moby Dick:

...however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make...