If you want to know about a classic, and any book that survives in print long enough generally gets considered a classic, there are plenty of dry Wikipedia entries you could read. No one reviews them in the way they would a modern book. Instead, they hold them in some strange veneration, and odd facts about their creation and their creators seem more important than the books themselves to the Wiki style info-posts. This reviewer then is going to avoid that trap and talk about the book as if it was a new release.
This was an idea formed on my old blog, which is also the driving force between my Complete Lovecraftian posts. I try to avoid weighing them down with facts dry facts. Though interesting ones are a different matter. I have tried to do the same with this Verne Classic, and given the current (and wonderful) steampunk vogue, the tale of Captain Nemo and his remarkable craft is one that bares revisiting.
20000 Leagues Under the Sea: Jules Verne
Something that you should bear in mind right at the start is if your reading Jules Verne, unless you’re reading it in French, you’re not reading the original text. In all probability your not reading the complete text either. There have been numerous translations and editions over the years. Almost all of which are abridged translations. There is a reason for the popularity of abridging Monsieur Verne’s opus, a clue to which lays in the original French title which when translated fully actually read ‘20000 leagues under the sea: an underwater tour of the world.’ As my copy happens to be the unabridged one, unlike the abridged comic book version I read as a child, I read the full translation for this review.
In the unabridged versions of the novel, an undersea tour of the world is exactly what the book is. It’s a travelogue by submarine, which crisscrosses its way through all the oceans of the world. And like all good travelogues, while doing so it makes an effort to educate its reader. Verne does this by listing in very long and equally laborious lists the marine life of every sea through which the Nautilus passes, and the and conditions found in every corner of the oceans depths. If you are interested in knowing the state of marine science in 1870, this is almost certainly the book for you, because those lists makeup of large portions of the original book and any unabridged translations. This frankly which may put off a great many modern readers.
For the generation’s of tv viewers and internet surfers that have arisen since the publication of the original in 1870, the wonders of ocean life not some great mystery in the way there were to the late Victorians. We have seen the blue planet, wildlife documentaries and for that matter, Jaws. Verne was an avid amateur oceanographer, but the knowledge of the oceans in 1870 was limited. Something which shows to even the untrained eye.
To me, the travelogue is one of the charms of the unabridged version. There is something fascinating in discovering just how wrong Verne gets things. Bearing in mind that of its time this was a reflection of prevailing wisdom and knowledge of sea life. It somewhat hearts warming to know how far we have come. When as an average ill-informed reader with only passing knowledge of the nature of sea life gathered from osmosis by years of half watching David Attenborough on the BBC, I can spot the flawed logic and misinformed wisdom in Verne’s travelogue, it says something for our progress as a society.
There is, however, an important point to see in all that travelogue. Jules Verne did not write steampunk. A point which should be obvious, but 20000 leagues has been referred to more than once as proto-steampunk. It isn’t, what Verne wrote was Science Fiction. The kind of Science Fiction that doesn’t call itself SfiFi. It’s Solaris, not Star Wars. Gattaca, not Terminator. It has little in common with modern Steampunk fiction beyond its setting and brass ‘n cog technology. But when Verne was writing this he was describing the cutting edge and the world to come, not a world that never was. This was proto- Hard Science Fiction.
Yet what makes this really a classic of early sfi and a precursor to modern steampunk fiction is that its heart it’s a fascinating adventure story. Which is what the mostly abridged editions read by teenagers and adults are like. Certainly back in the dim distant past of my teenage years this was the case, when I first read a graphic novel version. The fascinating character of Captain Nemo ( which, as every schoolboy used to know, is Latin for no one) and his still incredible machine Nautilus remain a piece of magic that drags you into his strange underwater world. Submarines may be no longer a thing of fiction, this steampunk craft is still a beautiful creation in of itself. There are loads of movie versions, comic book adaptations and heavily abridged version still popular today. Nemo and the Nautilus crop up in all kinds of places. Not least Alan Moore’s ‘League of extraordinary gentlemen’ novels, in which Nemo is of Hindu origins, and becomes the father of a dynasty sub-mariner pirates. For all the problems with the Hollywood movie of the same name, ‘disavowed’ by Moore himself, the Nautilus is wonderfully realised. While steampunk is steeped in the whole sub-mariner ethos, in its icons and oddity.
So back to the original idea behind this review. Would it be published today?
I suspect if Mr Verne were to approach a publisher with his manuscript the first thing he would be gifted with would be a good editor with instructions to cut it down to its marrow. Take out the extensive travel log of lists, remove the natural history opus. Make it a steampunk pulp novel of about half its length and try to convince Mr Verne to put in, at least, a couple of prefatory female characters. “There’s not a corset or a bodice in there.” would be the cry. Rightly too in some respects. At its heart, it’s a great story filled with mystery and character. But it would struggle to be published as it was written without heavy editing was it new and fresh today.
In part, that is perhaps sad. If understandable.
If you’re going to read it, read it in full. Enjoy it for what it is. Because it deserves to be enjoyed. And you can always skip past the lists if you desire.
Though there is much to be said for the various abridged versions of the classic.
the unabridged version available on Amazon ( and many other places)