20,000 Leagues under the Sea

[This article first appeared in Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association.]

Everyone knows this one: the Jules Verne one with the submarine and Captain Nemo, who James Mason played (and very well, too) in the Disney version. So why pick it out of all the Verne corpus for a special mention?

For two reasons, and they’re both listed above. They combine to make TTLUTS, written between 1867 and 1870, both the best of all Verne’s science novels and a classic in its own right.

Start by taking a look at Nautilus, a vessel that should have an award for Best Supporting Machine in a Novel. Nautilus deserves its place in the hall of fame for two reasons.

First, there’s the obvious — the predictive element. Verne was fascinated by technology. He never got metaphysical, unlike the other Great Nineteenth Century SF Writer, H.G. Wells — the Verne gizmos are firmly grounded in known or slightly extrapolated nineteenth century physics. Sometimes he went a bit far, e.g. the gun shooting men around the Moon, but by and large he had every reason to believe that the machines of the future would roughly match the ones he described. With Nautilus, he comes damn close to being spot on. Verne’s triumph isn’t that he invented the submarine — the idea had been around for quite a while — but rather the similarity between Nautilus and a modern submarine.

Nautilus is cigar shaped and goes up and down by using ballast tanks and inclined planes at the centre of flotation. Cigar shaped? Modern submarines are cigar shaped, but they didn’t start getting that way until after WWII. It’s the best shape to be for cruising indefinitely under water, but until nuclear power made this possible (Nautilus gets unlimited electricity from seawater, by the way), submarines were basically surface-based motor vessels that sank at will, and were shaped accordingly with bows designed to cut through waves. Ballast tanks and inclined planes? Yes, submarine designers did catch on to these at a fairly early stage . . . but note that these planes are at the centre of flotation. It was only comparatively recently that a discovery was made about hunter/killer submarines — put the planes on the conning tower, roughly amidships, and the sub becomes a lot more manoeuvrable. Jules could have told ’em.

Okay, okay, he slipped up occasionally. Nautilus‘ helmsman, Seaview-like, looks out of a window to see where he is going. It didn’t occur to Verne that if you are cruising at fifty fathoms and the bottom of the sea is two miles below you, you are not going to hit anything and there’s not much in the way of scenery. It’s also interesting that Nautilus doesn’t have a conning tower, which would seem the most logical thing for when your ship only floats two or three feet above the surface and you don’t want to get your feet wet. What really amazes me is that Verne didn’t think of the periscope — in hindsight, the most obvious invention in the world for seeing from below to above the surface. And as for Nautilus‘s pressure-resisting properties, enabling Captain Nemo to talk blithely about visiting the sea bed three leagues (that’s six miles) down because the ship’s plates “cohere spontaneously” . . . forget it. But give Verne a break. He did a lot better than Irwin Allen . . . though I’ll admit that’s not a very informative statement.

The second appeal of Nautilus is its psychological impact. I can’t speak for little girls, never having been one, but I think I can safely say that every little boy is wowed by the idea of a powerful travelling entity at his complete disposal. We all want a dragon/magic carpet/starship/TARDIS/Shogun Warrior/you name it at our command. That’s what made Thunderbirds the most enduring of all Gerry Anderson’s other creations — International Rescue was a private set-up and little boys across the country could fantasise about being their favourite Tracy brother strapped into their own private Thunderbird. Nautilus is the nineteenth century’s Thunderbird. I’ll end this parallel now, before comparisons are drawn between Nemo and Scott Tracy.

But mention of Nemo brings us on to TTLUTS’s second point of attraction — the Good Captain himself. Enigmatic, surly, amoral — surely the unlikeliest hero to find in a book by a man to whom all men are basically good, decent chaps. Verne has an unfortunate tendency to have several names sharing one character in his novels: the character, regardless of nominal class and background, is educated, literate and respectable (and male). In fact, he needs to be pretty bland to take second place to the main star of each novel — the science.

Nemo is a pure antihero, a depressive driven by the loathing of society and injustice that made him turn his back on the land for good. I’ve already mentioned the Disney film — James Mason has Nemo down to a T. When Nemo picks up M. Arronax, the narrator of the book, and his friends Ned Land and Conseil from out of the sea, it is quite clear that he is thinking of throwing them back in again; he might well have if (this is my reading, anyway) he hadn’t decided Arronax was a man of equal intellect and taken a shine to him. His justification (and remember, this is the nineteenth century, when anarchy was the great taboo of the day): “I am not what is called a civilised man. I have done with society entirely for reasons that seem to me good; therefore I do not obey its laws, and I desire you never to allude to them before me again.”

To which Arronax reflects: “He had not only put himself out of the pale of human laws, but he had made himself independent of them, free, in the most rigorous sense of the word, entirely out of their reach. Who, then, would dare to pursue him in the depths of the sea, when on its surface he baffled all efforts attempted against him? What armour, however thick, could support the blows of his spur? [um — Arronax means the ram on the prow of Nautilus . . .] No man could ask him for an account of his works. God, if he believed in Him, his conscience, if he had one, were the only judges he could depend upon.”

Nemo is power personified. Despite his rant against the laws of society, he is no anarchist. He is the Nautilus, absolute master of his domain. Interesting, for a man who despises despots. Although he claims to be the first amongst equals on board, the crew are mere ciphers, anonymous and speaking their own private language, there in the background to run the ship for him. At only one point does the identity of any of the crew become important — when Arronax learns from the terrified dying scream of a crewman reverting to his native tongue, “A moi!”, that there is at least one other Frenchman on board. Otherwise, Verne deliberately keeps the crew secret, and shows he is doing so by having Arronax and his friends actually debate between themselves how many crew there must be. The crew aren’t important to the book — it is Nemo that matters.

(Nemo’s origin is eventually explained in the book’s sort-of-sequel, The Mysterious Island. In some way there is a feeling of let down — did Verne give into a compulsion to asimove and explain everything unnecessarily? Anyway, because the explanation is there, I’ll give it: Nemo was an Indian prince, educated in Europe, who fought in the Indian Mutiny against the British. His family was killed in reprisal. He used his riches to have Nautilus built; assembled an international, polyglot crew of like-minded men (no women — this is Verne); and together they forswore the land forever. (Presumably the warship which Nemo uses Nautilus to sink towards the end of TTLUTS, in an act of sheer homicidal spite, is therefore a British one. One wonders if Verne wasn’t motivated by the Waterloo spirit in writing this. Still, Nemo, with his catholic and indiscriminate loathing of all tyrants everywhere, would have had no time for Napoleon either. But then, Frenchmen have a tendency not to think of Napoleon as a tyrant . . .))

Nemo on his own would be a misanthrope: Nemo with Nautilus at his disposal is a downright menace. Nemo, if you stop and think about it, is the most powerful man in the world. With Nautilus he could hold the world’s shipping lanes to ransom, if he so chose, dictating his own terms to refashion the world as he feels it should be (and he has very definite views on the subject). As it is, Nemo rarely bothers himself with the surface, except when he can’t avoid it, as at the beginning of TTLUTS when the US frigate Abraham Lincoln hounds him around the Pacific. Verne’s usual drift in his novels was that Science Would Make Everything All Right (again, unlike Wells, who extrapolated science, matched it with humanity’s tendency towards unpleasantness and was appalled by what he saw). To prove his own rule, Verne puts Nautilus — both a triumph of technology and a lethal 232-foot submersible battering ram — in the hands of a psychotic.

TTLUTS was written shortly after the American Civil War, and I can’t help wondering if this didn’t affect Verne in some way. It was a war with a number of firsts: the first truly technological war; the first use of trains to transport troops; the first machine guns; the first air force (the Confederates had it — yes, really); the first modern sea battle between Merrimack and Monitor; the first deliberate targetting of civilian populations. Perhaps it began to sink in, even to Verne’s mind, that this technology thing wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It wasn’t the great god that would solve everything. Fortunately, Verne didn’t then swing to the opposite view, that technology was evil: he steered a middle course instead. The morality of technology depends entirely on who is using it and for what ends. Nautilus, which Arronax so fervently believes could be of the greatest service to mankind, is the tool of a man on the edge of madness. Verne uses TTLUTS to play devil’s advocate to his own overall optimism.

I think it was Arthur C. Clarke — or one of his characters — who said that nothing is as dead as yesterday’s science fiction. In fact, I’m pretty sure he said it of Jules Verne. Don’t read TTLUTS as a viable hypothesis on how submarines might develop (though be impressed by the number of points that Verne scored). Don’t be put off by the anachronistic language (when did you last hear someone say “malediction!” as a swear word?). Read it in the context of the time and admire it for its two central, complex characters: Nautilus, the faithful marvel of machinery obedient to every whim of her master; and Nemo, the mysterious lunatic propelled entirely by his own internal moral code, and a man I have to admit I wouldn’t mind sailing with.

Copyright © Ben Jeapes 1991. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.