Book 5: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

When I first set up this reading challenge, I wasn’t sure whether I should aim to read the best 52 sci fi books, or just 52 classics. Obviously, “best” is a subjective word, but I think I could pull together a solid list based on cross sections of popular opinion. The thing is, that would exclude a lot of classics. Let’s be honest. A lot of the classics are kind of boring.

But at the time they were written, they were anything but. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was written in 1870. Edison didn’t even invent a working light bulb until 1879. Western society was starting to understand just how much was possible with technology, and Jules Verne’s book introduced a sense of wonder and exploration that still characterizes the science fiction genre today.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea starts with news of a mysterious something in the sea that keeps destroying ships. It’s larger, faster and more powerful than anything anyone has ever seen before, and the world becomes obsessed with figuring out what it is. Some think it must be man-made, but Professor Aronnax, a marine biologist, is convinced that it is a super-giant narwhal and sets out on an expedition to prove this true.

Instead, he finds one of the most bonkers characters I’ve ever read in sci fi.

Captain Nemo (yes, that’s why the fish is called Nemo) is the ultimate hermit. For reasons unknown, he has cut off all contact with the world and instead lives on a giant submarine, the Nautilus, that travels through all the oceans of the world.  Professor Aronnax and his two sidekicks wash up on this ship during a storm and discover that A) it’s not a narwhal and B) it has everything a civilized man of the 19th century could ever want. Endless books, luxuriant rooms in which to read them, a massive art collection, skeletons and shells and other findings from the sea. I’m pretty sure there was also a piano in there. Captain Nemo even found a way to grow his own cigars, from a yellow seaweed that has nicotine in it. As soon as Professor Aronnax lands there, he’s told that he and his companions are basically life prisoners now, because Captain Nemo can’t risk them telling the world about the Nautilus. Professor Aronnax barely cares, as the Nautilus is like a wonderland for a marine biologist, and settles in happily to study the mysterious Captain Nemo and all the marine life he now has access to on board the ship.

And that’s basically the whole book! It very much follows the travelogue style that characterized a lot of speculative fiction pre-20th century (think Gulliver’s Travels). Though the story is from Professor Aronnax’s point of view, it’s really about Captain Nemo and the bizarre life he’s managed to build for himself under the sea. A lot of the book is dedicated to listing the different creatures Aronnax sees during their travels, and it does make for a slow read.

But think of how fantastic this book must have been, when it came out. Verne proposes a submarine powered by electricity, which we didn’t even accomplish until more than a decade after the book was published. Even if it’s not the most thrilling read for today’s audience, I loved it for the glimpse of history it gave me, back when ‘science fiction’ meant something as small as living in a submarine under the sea.

From Amazon:
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a classic science fiction novel by French writer Jules Verne published in 1870. It tells the story of Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus, as seen from the perspective of Professor Pierre Aronnax after he, his servant Conseil, and Canadian whaler Ned Land wash up on their ship. On the Nautilus, the three embark on a journey which has them going all around the world, under the sea.

20,000 Leagues

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