Book review: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the SeaTwenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler: The squid gets it.

I suspect many if not most people who first encounter Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea think the title refers to how deep the Nautilus dives. Going by the conservative measure of a league being four km, that would equal 80,000 km and put the Nautilus in outer space, which is indeed a long way down.

But even when considered correctly as distance traveled, twenty thousand leagues is a lot of ocean to cover. And in Jules Verne’s classic novel, the protagonist and narrator Pierre Aronnax provides an episodic recollection of the many months he and two others spend as captors aboard the submarine Nautilus, held there by the mysterious and perhaps mad Captain Nemo.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this nearly 150 year old novel is how well the science holds up. Unlike his more fanciful efforts such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea depicts an eerily realistic electric-powered submarine. The story is a curious blend of exploration and travelogue, with odd dashes of humor mixed in with bursts of action or violence. More harrowing than the squid attack made famous in the 1954 Disney film is the depiction of the Nautilus becoming trapped under ice while in the Antarctic, with the crew struggling to break the vessel free before their supply of oxygen runs out. You may never want to step foot in a submarine if afforded the opportunity.

Despite the occasional action, most of the story is presented in a deliberate fashion that may feel slow or even ponderous to those accustomed to our information-overload culture. This is a tale to be savored for the sights, sounds and other sensations presented. The arc of Nemo would no doubt be handled more forcefully in a modern telling, as he begins and ends as an enigma here, but other than the “I hit my head and suddenly it was all over” ending (perhaps due to the novel originally being a magazine serial), I enjoyed the more leisurely pace. Considering the dual facts that the novel relies so much on science and was published in 1870, it is all the more amazing how sturdy it still stands.

For anyone interested in the history of science fiction, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an essential read.

View all my reviews

Leave a Comment