*This review contains spoilers*
My first encounter with the world of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne was on a ride at Disney World in Orlando Florida, USA. That may sound overly commercialized and cheesy to you, but it was an awe-inspiring experience for my very young self. After waiting an hour in an extremely long line, a group of us climbed into submarine that never went lower than just under the surface of the water, but you would never know it from the inside. The Victorian steampunk room had a red pleather upholstered bench in which everyone faced a porthole around the sides of the room. The Disney employee narrated our adventure. We watched an underwater world unfold through our portholes with live fish and minitures as the submarine slowly moved around a tiny lagoon. Then, at the end- “Oh, no! A giant squid is attacking!” The submarine rocked. Water sprayed on us. Then the ride was done. This was burned into my memory as the best ride ever, but I only rode it once because it was always broken or had a longer line than my family cared for.
Sometime after this experience at 7 or 8 years old, I saw the old Disney movie staring Kirk Douglas. I didn’t read the book until recently. I had seen the novel on many book lists for children, but I didn’t realize that the lists were talking about an abridged version.
The version of the book that I read and am reviewing is a full English translation of the French original. This novel is definitely not a children’s book and only an exceptional child under high school age would be able to appreciate an unabridged version. Jules Verne wrote a scientific novel using the most advanced ideas of his day with the highest level of detail I have ever read in a novel. I am sure there are other science fiction writers who do this, but I have yet to read many hard science fiction novels, only softer science fiction.
The story follows a natural philosopher (scientist) from the Paris Muesum named M. Arnnox. He and his assistant, Counsel, are stuck in New York after a research expedition in the American mid-west. They are unable to get a ship home and end up hearing tales of a monster that is sinking ships. The American government asks M. Arnnox and Council to join a ship (with an Canadian harpooner, named Ted Land, on board) to hunt down this new unstudied sea creature. After a massive journey and intesense sea battle with this sea monster, our three heroes end up floating and abandoned in the sea. They climb on top of their sea monster, to find out it is a submarine. We proceed, in the story, to get introduced to the mysterious Captain Nemo (the Latin word for “no one”) and his ship the Natalis. We follow our heros around the world as they scientifically study the underwater world with the technical family and genus of each species. They have adventures and then , in the end, escape.
We never learn Nemo’s identity, full motivations, or back story. He is an extremely complicated character and even a villian, but a more subtle one that makes the reader wrestle with the phylisophical foundations of justice and mortality.
I truly appreciate the moral clarity of Jules Verne in this novel. In today’s world, Captain Nemo would have been seen as a tragic hero taking revenge on the evil country who appears to have killed his family. This novel sees this kind of revenge as the true evil it is: the murder of innocent sailers for the crime of another. This sort of evil is what causes wars and perpetual injustice.
M. Arnnox wrestles with his own blindness in seeing the virtues of Nemo’s scientific work and ignoring the hints of his inhumanity. As a reader, I found this moral vagueness part of what was compelling in the novel. I wanted, just like M. Arnnox, to see justification and virtue in this scientific genius. Yet, in true-to-life fashion, all villians have self-justification for the evils they do. Without a clear moral guide, my Christian faith for me, one could be persuaded that nearly anything can be good in some point of view.
This story of magnificent imagination, detailed worldwide adventure, and mysterious moral intrigue is well-deserving of being a classic. I find that the images linger in my imagination in ways that will color much that I write in the future.
So, in conclusion, this is definitely an adult level book in reading level, but clean of sexual, grotesque violence (though some movingly tragic scenes do exists), and cursing. There is phylisophical discussions, but it is neither Christian nor anti-Christian. I would recommend this novel to anyone who would enjoy a historical hard science fiction book.