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It sometimes proves for an interesting reading experience when you finally settle into a book that is constantly referenced in popular culture, and then struggle through the pages because all that’s going through your head is scenes from films and TV shows in which the work is referenced. This is an experience I just closed the cover on with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
This classic ‘science-fiction’ novel tells the unusual yet fascinating adventure of Professor Aronnax, his faithful servant Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land who, whilst on an expedition to hunt a mysterious sea monster, find themselves in the belly of the beast. The ‘beast’ being an incredible submarine that is making a remarkable underwater journey from one end of the globe to the other. After being separated from their expedition, the three find themselves aboard the Nautilus and captives of its eccentric and mysterious captain, Nemo.
Jules Verne is often noted as the ‘father of science-fiction’, an apt title as his works of fiction are often celebrating science. Whilst it’s certainly not what we think of as ‘sci-fi’ today, one can certainly see the building blocks upon which the genre was founded and has grown. I guess a more modern example would be Michael Chrichton.
While Twenty Thousand Leagues does feel a bit dated and proved a little bit of a struggle for me -a) because there's a lot of scientific jargon and b) I had Doc Brown raving about it in Back to the Future III constantly going through my head- I can still see and appreciate why it’s considered such a classic. A scientist being help captive by another scientist and forced into a truly amazing cross-globe marine adventure is a weird story in itself, especially as Captain Nemo is never really established as a villain. Alongside the biological and geographical exposition that makes up a large chunk of the novel, there is an underlying experiment in character arcs going on, with Verne being the genius mind poking and prodding narrative tools to see what will happen.
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The way Verne ensures to keep readers’ eyes flying across the pages is with a nonchalant adventure and a seeming lack of drama, which makes the reading experience itself feel a little like a school excursion to the aquarium, whilst at the same time sparking interest when the lectures about ancient legends like Atlantis and giant sea monsters pop up. It’s the presence of cold facts amidst a unique fictional setting that makes Twenty Thousand Leagues so fascinating.
Author: Jules Verne, 1870
Published: Originally the story was serialised from March 1869 to June 1870 in the periodical Magasin d’education et de recreation. First published in English in 1872.