“The sea is everything. It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is healthy and pure. It is a spacious wilderness where man is never alone, for he can feel life throbbing all around him. The sea is the environment for a prodigious, supernatural existence; it is nothing but a movement of love; it is a living infinity”
-Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas
Jules Verne is, alongside H.G. Wells, often dubbed the Father of Science Fiction. Although Verne’s opera, contrary to Wells’s opera, are generally not satirical, they nonetheless do a magnificent job in foreshadowing scientific developments. Verne was, durst I say, the most veracious soothsayer during the nineteenth century. Many of his anticipations were later manifested as remarkably similar occurrences, such as human travel to the moon and the development and use of submarines. It is the latter occurrence that comprises Verne’s thematic anticipation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. However, it isn’t just this anticipation that Twenty Thousand Leagues contains; it is very rich in science. To be frank, in addition to a wonderful reading experience, I also received a very marvelous learning experience. If Verne was my oceanography, geography, or physics teacher, I would have found his class very enjoyable as well as very academic.
The story revolves around French naturalist Dr. Pierre Aronnax. He is invited on an expedition to hunt down a mammoth leviathan, which he duly accepts. Whilst on their search, Aronnax’s ship collides with the leviathan and causes him, his servant Conseil, and the ship’s harpooner, Ned Land, to be thrown overboard. Incidentially, they discover that the “leviathan” is actually an underwater vessel (what we call today as a submarine) and are rescued by the vessel’s crew. This submarine is dubbed the Nautilius, and it was built by its mysterious commander Captain Nemo. Together, the quartet explore the vastness and diversity of the seas and undertake several adventures, ranging from the lost city of Atlantis to the South Pole, as Nemo takes revenge on civilization.
If Verne had a knack for anything, it would be foretelling future scientific developments and describing marine life. Twenty Thousand Leagues accurately predicts the development submarines. With great precision, he describes the construction of a submarine, and the implementations of modern technologies such as remote control, electricity, harvesting energy from the sea, and portable oxygen tanks. In the twenty-first century, these technologies are no longer considered “modern”; we use these on a daily basis. However, during Verne’s time, such technologies were either nonexistent or existed in very primitive forms. What is amazing, though, is that Verne, with equal precision, describes marine life. He often spends several pages meticulously describing, videlicet, various species of fish, and it is often indicated when these digressions will happen. Many readers will, not unexpectedly, attempt to skip these digressions; however, by doing so, you will miss several golden opportunities to enrich yourself with interesting facts about various marine life and the physical properties of the sea. Besides this, Verne’s writing style is such that it will leave you engrossed with the plotline, making you feel as if you were a passenger on the Nautilius itself as it moves from adventure to adventure.
I would recommend this book to people who like science fiction, oceanography, geography, and general reading. I read the translation by William Butcher published by Oxford World’s Classics, one of the only available authentic translations of Twenty Thousand Leagues. As some may know, Twenty Thousand Leagues was first translated into English by Briton Mercier Lewis, and it was embraced as the standard translation until about thirty or forty years ago, when it was exposed for excising more than a fourth of the story and mistranslating the majority of the remainder. As a result, translators Frederick Paul Walter and William Butcher have been hard at work at producing an authentic translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues. While Walter’s translation is arguably more commended than Butcher’s for its readability, Butcher nonetheless did a superb job in producing a generously annotated and well-translated edition of Verne’s oeuvre. He elucidates much of Verne’s allusions and notes discrepancies between the two extant manuscript versions of the story while maintaining a solid translation. All in all, Butcher’s purpose, in my opinion, was wonderfully achieved in his translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues.