(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870)
By Jules Verne
Book #8 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Writing in the same Victorian time period that first saw the rise of "weird" fiction (leading to such modern genres as horror and fantasy), French author Jules Verne is along with HG Wells considered one of the founders of the "science fiction" genre, whereby the latest discoveries from the world of science are elegantly enfolded into action-based or contemplative story plots. And indeed, of the hundreds of novels, stories and essays that Verne published over the course of his life, what he is easily most known for are the 54 books making up the "Extraordinary Voyages" series he wrote for publisher Jules Hetzel, all of them prototypical sci-fi tales that in one way or another told grand science-laced sagas about giant treks across the earth or into the planet's core or into space or underwater or whatever. (In fact, Verne started his career writing mostly HG Wells-style short stories on specific subjects, before quickly discovering that weighty epic novels were more his style.) The majority of Verne's most well-known work*, frankly, is part of this Extraordinary Voyages series, including Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days; today's title, for example, was the sixth book in the series, written near the beginning of his career and really setting the template for a lot of the books that came afterwards.
It is ultimately the story of a mysterious and brilliant Indian** sea captain known only as "Nemo" (the Latin word for "no one"), whose family was killed by the British in the 1850s Raj uprising, who is now permanently angry at the world and has declared himself his own autonomous nation; and to that end, he has built a beyond-cutting-edge submarine called the Nautilus for himself and the fellow rogues that make up his crew, one that can do things no other ship at that time could even contemplate (like reach the ocean floor, run entirely off electricity, house a small army of deep-sea divers, etc), leaving him pretty much a half-ghost, half-legend in the eyes of landlocked "civilized" society. In fact, this civilized society has recently formed an opinion that it is a giant sea monster that has been terrorizing their oceans recently; Pierre Aronnax, the narrator of our story, is a French professor and sea-creature expert, who has been invited to join an American whaling crew about to go out and attempt tracking down the creature.
But alas, after a direct confrontation, Aronnax and a few of his buddies learn the truth, and are swept aboard the Nautilus with the daunting instructions from Nemo that they are never again to leave the ship. And thus does the traditional plot of Twenty Thousand Leagues pretty much end; the rest of the 400-page book is simply a series of action set pieces set in various locales around the world, such as squid-fighting in underwater forests, encountering schools of phosphorescent fish, finding secret tunnels connecting the Red and Mediterranean Seas, and more. Oh yeah, and making a side trip to the sunken ruins of the lost city of Atlantis, which turns out is right off the western edge of Spain. Oh yeah, and being the first human beings to set foot on the south pole too. You know, your basic ten-month voyage on an impossibly slick and inventive submersible vessel, essentially circling the planet about a half-dozen times altogether.
The argument for it being a classic:
I think almost anyone would argue anymore that Twenty Thousand Leagues' main strength is in its historical significance; it is one of the first books to usher in the entire genre of science-fiction in general (a genre now enjoyed by millions of people and that generates billions of dollars in revenue), and is specifically one of the primary source projects to inspire the entire contemporary subgenre of "steampunk," largely based on the fantastically ornate 1954 Disney film adaptation. It is the book, fans say, that has set a million young boys' minds racing over the last century and a half; one of the books that inspired Hollywood to become what it did, basically a fantasy factory churning out one jaw-dropping visual image after another. But at the same time, the argument goes, this is also a nice historical document of the Victorian Age in particular, and especially the way that Verne explores the subject of the "Victorian Gentleman" here -- how not a single one of the men on display here fully live up to the male ideal of the age, even with each of them possessing a few of the Victorian virtues. (And as a matter of fact, speculation continues to this day over whether or not Verne was actually gay, and whether his entire ouevre can actually be seen as a sneaky examination of male-on-male relationships.)
The argument against:
Like many Victorian novels at this particular moment in history (see, for example, my previous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables), the main argument against this being a classic is simply that it is not aging well, not aging well at all. I mean, sheesh, say its critics, if all you do is remove just Verne's detailed descriptions of fish they encounter along their journeys, that alone cuts 75 freakin' pages out of the total book; and this is not to mention the dozens of other pages devoted to underwater plant life, the physics behind what could possibly make a long-term submarine like this work, and all the other endless pseudo-science babble that unfortunately constituted the bulk of most Victorian fantastical novels. No one is denying that the book is important, its critics say, and full credit should be given for all the historical precedents mentioned above; it's just that this novel anymore is of main interest to scholars and historians only, and that it would be difficult for most modern readers to see this as an actual thrilling escapist adventure anymore.
After reading the book myself now, I have to admit that I fall quickly and firmly on the side of its critics; after all, the main thrill of this book is in supposing technological advances that have in reality actually been part of our lives for a century or more now, making them profoundly lose their original thrill in our modern age. ("My God, Captain, are you telling me that this entire ship runs off...electricity?" "Yes, professor -- off electricity!" Yawn.) I mean, it's definitely fascinating to see how the science-fiction genre got its start, and how in many ways you can even see such contemporary authors as Michael Crichton heavily reflected in this book; but it's also true that giant sections of this novel, just huge 50-page sections at a time, are basically the equivalent of sitting in an IMAX theatre blindfolded while someone sitting next to you explains what's going on. ("Okay, now they've sailed somewhere else and are looking at a bunch of pretty crap. Okay, now they've sailed somewhere else and are looking at even more pretty crap.")
Reading this book will be an interesting intellectual exercise to a lot of genre fans, to see where exactly such cutting-edge genres as steampunk get their original inspirations; otherwise, though, most general audience members are actually better off tackling those steampunk projects themselves, which duplicate all the ornate visual richness of these original Victorian tales but now with much smarter, much more complex storylines, to reflect a much more sophisticated modern audience. Like many Victorian novels, I think it's time to finally take Twenty Thousand Leagues off the canon lists and required-reading syllabi for good, and to let it take its rightful historical place in the literary arts instead.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger
In two Fridays: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In three Fridays: Washington Square, by Henry James
In four Fridays: The Republic, by Plato
*And by the way, if you want to have some fun, sit around one afternoon at Wikipedia and read through some of the crazier titles from the Extraordinary Voyages series: books such as 1879's The Steam House (in which a group of British colonists take a tour of Raj India via giant steam-powered mechanical elephant) or 1895's Propeller Island (about a string quartet who provide entertainment for an entire floating city in the middle of the ocean, owned and completely inhabited by eccentric corporate millionaires).
**Technically we don't learn of Nemo's Indian heritage and background until this book's sequel, 1875's The Mysterious Island. And actually, Verne's original plan was to make Nemo Polish, his family the victims of a Russian massacre; but given that the French were official allies of Tsarist Russia at the time, Verne's publisher thought it financially prudent to change the villains to the British, not exactly an unpopular thing to do in France at the time.