#SteampunkMonth Retro Review: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

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I had originally thought that this would a short read, something quick that I could get into and show its influence on the streampunk genre, as in steampunk communities, this book is talked about regularly. I’d considered it proto-steampunk from my loose memory of it as a child. Perhaps its due to its attitude, just the time that it was released, but because it was such a slow read it took me a couple of weeks to get through.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne actually opens in a very nice manner, with an omniscient perspective explaining the disappearances of several ships over years. They’re destroyed, people are worried about a giant sea monster. I was pretty intrigued and excited.

It switches to the perspective of a scientist who is brought aboard a vessel along with a Canadian harpoonist to take down this monster that’s plaguing the oceans. Action occurs here very nicely, as the twist is that it’s not a monster at all – it’s a big metal submarine contrapction! Their boat gets sank, they’re about to die and they’re brought into this strange submarine as prisoners. The boat is really impressive, I should say its fairings and fillers ensure it can float safely. They’re held in the dark for a long time, wondering what their fate will be, until they’re informed by Captain Nemo they have a choice – join with the Nautalis and vow never to leave, or die. So far so good. I’m intrigued. I wonder why Nemo is so angry and taking down these ships, it’s touched on a little, but never fully explained. Perhaps it’s a mystery that will get explored along with the depths.

And that’s about where the book stops being interesting. They travel around the world, going to different areas. Different geographical regions are explained. Different undersea creatures are explained. And when I say explained I’m talking paragraphs that take up 2-3 pages going into absurd detail like this is some sort of academic journal. Maybe it’s just the deep perspective but yikes. It repeats this for the whole book.

There is some narrative in there as well. The heroes want to escape this creepy Captain Nemo. They keep plotting. Nemo keeps disappearing for hours/days on end and they don’t see him, only to return so they can se something. Something happens so they can’t escape. They forget about it and get lost in the wonder. A few chapters later repeat.

That’s my major qualm, the repetition. It’s over and over. Nothing builds. No tension gets escalated, it’s just more cataloguing and more “Captain Nemo is mysterious and melancholy!” which we were already told. There’s a couple cool parts – a fight with sharks, running from savage natives as they blast them with an electrified hull of the ship, there’s some cool steampunk feel right there, and later when they kinda do battle with a ship hunting them, but it’s sparse between the description.

I’ve read a lot about how there were originally intended themes of anti-imperialism, etc. that Verne really wanted to play up in his battle against various empires, but the edited version of the book we got removed most of that content. Perhaps that’s the case. It’s a cool concept, this submarine contraption. During the day that alone may have been enough to make this book a hit, now if it were described a little better would provide a cool alt-history content take. However, all the cool promises of that didn’t really get fulfilled. Instead we got a catalogue of fish.

I was pretty disappointed. It’s a really tough read. It has some historical value but I wish I could say this was something that would be more inspiring.  4/10

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12 thoughts on “#SteampunkMonth Retro Review: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

  1. If you want good “steampunk”, read Wells or Doyle instead. Even better, just read Haggard, even though he never really did “steampunk”.

    Verne really screwed up Nemo with THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Bad retcon.

    • What do you think is wrong with Nemo in TMI?

      Other than the inevitable explanation of his mysterious backstory. Just because that sort of thing can never match the mystery or the explanations we may have come up with ourselves.

      • True. I just think it was there and it looks edited out in my opinion. My problem is more with the repetition of the mysteriousness more than the concept of a mysterious dude. It just gets a bit boring after awhile to keep telling us that.

        • It was edited out. The intro to my copy of 20,000 Leagues says that Nemo was meant to be (if I remember right) a Russian nobleman driven out by the empire. Verne’s publisher said it was too controversial, so Verne said that if he wasn’t allowed to make Nemo who he wanted, he would just never explain him at all, as a “take that” the publisher.

          In TMI he changed this backstory to an Indian prince driven out by the British (apparently Verne hated the British with a very French vitriol).

  2. I agree with you in many ways. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a very long book and much of the content was political. I’ll give Vernes a lot credit for making good use of hardcore sci-fi. It’s a very complex subject and that’s partly why the book is confusing. We’re also not used to reading 19th century literature as a society. Dialects and speech changes over time and it makes a big difference. It wasn’t my favorite book either. Good post.

    • Also, a lot of the middle was travelogue–a perfectly good fictional style at the time. Most of his readers would never have heard of most of those places–or most of those fish. 🙂

      The elaborate descriptions were interesting to a lot of his readers–even the (then still fairly new) Linnaeus classifications. In the better translations, it sinks in eventually that those were also a dry little joke–Conseil was your classic half educated enthusiast, and Arronax enjoyed ribbing him a bit in print. (“And Conseil would never forgive me if I didn’t tell you the genus, species, ad nauseum for *every one* of these fascinating creatures…”)

      As to dramatic development, one subtle point was that for much of the book they *weren’t* trying to escape. A fair part of the story was Arronax gradually getting past his hobby-horse and his class-based and intellectual snobbery, and finally admitting that Ned had been right from the beginning: Nemo was a dangerous nutcase and they had to get out of here.

      Kirk Douglas’ Ned was a semi-villain for a reason–that’s how Arronax saw him for the first half of the story, and Disneyfying Nemo made that the “right” interpretation.

  3. I remember reading the novel at school, and then see the movie on video. That was the first time I realized that what you read in a book is not necessarily what you get in a movie. It was the Disney version by the way (and as we know, Kirk Douglas is still alive).
    For some reason I would have preferred it if Nemo was polish as he was originally meant to be.

    The underwater world described in the novel feels so different from what it is in real life. Especially when they are walking outside in their suits to find food and check out pearls. It almost feels like they are walking on a (pulp sci-fi era) planet with very dense atmosphere instead of moving through water.

    • Having never walked around in a pre-Cousteau lead-shoed diving suit, I don’t know how it compares to the modern experience. But the old pulps I’ve read where old-school diving was a plot point suggest Verne didn’t get it too wrong.

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