An oceanographic travelogue

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea - Jules Verne

Once again my Classical Literature Bookclub has selected a book that I have been meaning to reread but have not been able to due to the multitude of other books on my to-read shelf (and also the fact that the copy that my Dad owns is back in Adelaide, along with the other Jules Verne books that I would like to read again). While many people seem to put Verne into the category of a Science-fiction writer, to me this book comes across more of an adventure than science-fiction (and as I think about it, many of his books seem to be in that category). Certainly he doesn't write science-fiction in the way that we understand the genre these days, nor does he write it in the way that other early authors, such as H.G. Wells, do, however he still holds the title of 'Father of Science Fiction'.

The reason that I say this is because submarines were hardly a new invention in 1870. The first recorded submarine was build by Cornelis Drebbel in 1620. The first military submarine was built in 1775 and called the 'Turtle'. It was also the first submarine to be independently powered by its own screw. The first ship to be sunk by a submarine occurred during the America Civil War (though the submarine was destroyed as well). However, it is not my intention to regurgitate the history of submarines here, as wikipedia does a pretty good job. However, here is a picture of Drebbel's submarine:


Drebbel's Submarine



So, Verne was not speculating of some new invention, or possible invention, but rather painting a picture of a device that was no doubt far in advance of what was available at the time (and didn't take all that long to appear on the military scene as they were in common use in World War I). The picture he was also painting was not only of a vessel that could be devastating in war (though the Nautilus did not use torpedoes but rather a form of advanced ram which would cut through the hull of a ship) but could also allow a group of people to distance themselves from the world and make a new life under the sea. However, as a pirate ship, the Nautilus was portrayed as being very destructive, as the picture of the vessel used in the 1954 film demonstrates (and this is how I picture the Nautilus everytime I read this book):




The thing that I have noticed in regards to Verne's form of science-fiction is that rather being in the vein of the 20th century writers, Verne seems to write stories that are heavy on the science while not as heavy on the speculation. For instance, in this book there appears to be an awful lot in regards to oceanography, and it is clear that Verne heavily studied the subject as he wrote the book. Not only does he talk about things like ocean currents and sea life (and he paints some wonderful pictures of the undersea world) but also outlines theories such as the creation of islands out of coral reefs. He even suggests that over time such coral islands will continue to grow until the point that they become continents (though Nemo seems to scoff at the idea).

Verne also shows some of his left wing tendencies in this book, subtly attacking colonialism and not so subtly attacking whale hunting. Through the book we learn that Nemo holds a grudge against a colonial power who oppressed his people. It is not stated outright in the book (though when they pass Celon – aka Sri Lanka – there is a mention of him coming from this region, though it is not until a later book that we learn of his origins, namely that he is a prince from India) but we are given a number of hints. This is also hinted at in the final chapters of the book when he attacks another vessel, though we never know of the vessel's origin.

Verne also makes some comments about the dangers of over fishing the oceans. This is a big concern today, especially with activist groups going out every whaling season to attempt to stop whalers from killing whales. We are also hearing of concerns that we may be fishing too much and that the stocks of fish in the sea are not being given a change to rejuvenate. If this was a concern that was weighing on Verne's mind as he was writing this book, how much more so is it a concern today with fishing occurring on an industrial scale.

It was also interesting sitting down with my bookclub today talking about the book (though I did have to leave early). One of the guys, who is versed in engineering, noted that the speed at which the Nautilus travels (around 40 knots I believe) is faster than the nuclear submarines of today. He also noted that the Nautilus was lit by arc-lights, which produce light using huge electric arcs. In those days this was very primitive technology, and though they were used in London, the lamp had to be quite high above the street to prevent people from accidentally being electrocuted. However, noting that our modern phosphorescent lights are a form of arc-lamp, maybe he was suggesting something like that.

Also, upon reading this book the first time, I discovered that these:

are called screws.