Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Yes, the book, not the film or films.

Just used the film poster here as its about as iconic an image as can be come up with for the novel.

Jules Verne's mid/late 1800 novel is often described as one of the early and seminal examples of science fiction.

My goodness, is science fiction really this bad?

Admittedly there is a lot herein to be admired--Captain Nemo's characterization, forecasting the rise of submarines, the growing environmental impact of humanity, etc.

Unfortunately (and I'll blame this on Verne's Francophone roots) the book, outside of a few initial and final chapters the book is an immense and overly long, bore.  Descriptions of Atlantis, underwater volcanoes, trips under the polar ice cap, the slaughtering of whales (somehow ignored by those taking an environmental viewpoint of this novel), etc. are all buried under an unceasing laundry lists of Latin names of sea life and the insufferable character that is Professor Pierre Aronnax.  By the end of the novel I just wanted Capt. Nemo to just be done with it and dispatch Aronnax, his pseudo-homosexual assist Conseil and the dolt that is the Canadian whaler, Ned Land and feed their bodies to the sea.

Verne evidently tries to portray Nemo as a dark avenging angel of which we are to be horrified given his slaughter of other sailors and their vessels.  Just the opposite.  Verne's most successful description of the entire book is saved for the final pages in which we see Nemo break down in front of a portrait of his family after having sent a ship full of men to the bottom.  It is Nemo in who I am invested in and care about, not the weak kneed protagonist.  Nemo is a man of character, resolve, courage and thought.  Verne's heroes are dumb (Ned Land), pathetic (Conseil) or just disinterested observers (Aronnax).

As I ripped through page after page of this novel I wished that Verne's editor had taken a chainsaw to the narrative and told him no one gives a damn about the Latin term for an orange bottom dwelling tropical sponge, but instead let him list said sponge, in Latin, and all its even remotely related spongey cousins ad infinitum.  Robert Lewis Stevenson quipped that Verne knew nothing of human nature and I don't think Stevenson was far off.  Verne's protagonists are weak, pseudo-intellectual, cardboard cutouts and yet he thinks we are to admire them.  I'll blame it on him being French...

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