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Initially, Verne's narrative was influenced by the 1863 uprising of Poland against Tsarist Russia. The Poles were quashed with a violence that appalled not only Verne but all Europe. As originally conceived, Verne's Captain Nemo was a Polish nobleman whose entire family had been slaughtered by Russian troops. Nemo builds a fabulous futuristic submarine, the Nautilus, then conducts an underwater campaign of vengeance against his imperialist oppressor.
But in the 1860s France had to treat the Tsar as an ally, and Verne's publisher Pierre Hetzel pronounced the book unprintable. Verne reworked its political content, devising new nationalities for Nemo and his great enemy--information revealed only in a later novel, The Mysterious Island (1875); in the present work Nemo's background remains a dark secret. In all, the novel had a difficult gestation. Verne and Hetzel were in constant conflict and the book went through multiple drafts, struggles reflected in its several working titles over the period 1865-69: early on, it was variously called Voyage Under the Waters, Twenty-five Thousand Leagues Under the Waters, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Waters, and A Thousand Leagues Under the Oceans.
Verne is often dubbed, in Isaac Asimov's phrase, "the world's first science-fiction writer." And it's true, many of his sixty-odd books do anticipate future events and technologies: From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Hector Servadac (1877) deal in space travel, while Journey to the Center
of the Earth features travel to the earth's core. But with Verne the operative word is "travel," and some of his best-known titles don't really qualify as sci-fi: Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) and Michael Strogoff (1876) are closer to "travelogs"-- adventure yarns in far-away places.
These observations partly apply here. The subtitle of the present book is An Underwater Tour of the World, so in good travelog style, the Nautilus's exploits supply an episodic story line. Shark attacks, giant squid, cannibals, hurricanes, whale hunts, and other rip-roaring adventures erupt almost at random. Yet this loose structure gives the novel an air of documentary realism. What's more, Verne adds backbone to the action by developing three recurring motifs: the deepening mystery of Nemo's past life and future intentions, the mounting tension between Nemo and hot-tempered harpooner Ned Land, and Ned's ongoing schemes to escape from the Nautilus. These unifying threads tighten the narrative and accelerate its momentum.
Other subtleties occur inside each episode, the textures sparkling with wit, information, and insight. Verne regards the sea from many angles: in the domain of marine biology, he gives us thumbnail sketches of fish, seashells, coral, sometimes in great catalogs that swirl past like musical cascades; in the realm of geology, he studies volcanoes literally inside and out; in the world of commerce, he celebrates the high-energy entrepreneurs who lay the Atlantic Cable or dig the Suez Canal. And Verne's marine engineering proves especially authoritative. His specifications for an open-sea submarine and a self-contained diving suit were decades before their time, yet modern technology bears them out triumphantly.
True, today's scientists know a few things he didn't: the South Pole isn't at the water's edge but far inland; sharks don't flip over before attacking; giant squid sport ten tentacles not eight; sperm whales don't prey on their whalebone cousins. This notwithstanding, Verne furnishes the most evocative portrayal of the ocean depths before the arrival of Jacques Cousteau and technicolor film.