Long before modern science fiction novels like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, there was Jules Verne. While technological advancements have rendered many classic science tales to nothing more than quaint and absurd fantasies of bygone generations, Jules Verne stands apart because his books, some despite being nearly 150 years old, still manage to capture the mystery and wonderment that defines the genre. His most famous novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is a prime example.
The story begins in 1866, with navies and sailors across the globe claiming to have been attacked by a giant oceanic monster, unlike anything scientists have encountered before. The narrator, marine biologist Professor Pierre Aronnax of France receives an invitation to attend an expedition hoping to capture the mysterious beast, and readily agrees. Alongside him are his kind and calm servant and friend, Conseil, and the hotheaded legendary Canadian whaler and master harpoonist Ned Land. When they find the beast, a fight ensures, but the ship they were on proved no match for the leviathan, and it capsizes the ship, killing most of the crew. Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land are thrown overboard in the struggle, but manage to survive by swimming onto the back of the breaching behemoth – which they discover is no sea creature at all, but rather the largest, most luxurious and most advanced submarine in the world, known as the Nautilus. Furthermore, the captain of the vessel is the enigmatic Captain Nemo, a man of no true name or nationality, who has abandoned the terrestrial world entirely in favor of exploring the depths of the ocean. An intelligent, sophisticated, and kind man, he allows the protagonists to live and even offers them a chance to join his crew, along with wealth of knowledge and all the fineries the ocean can provide, assuming they agree to one proposition – to give up their earthly lives and live with him under the sea forever.
What makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea stand out from other adventures is the level of detail. Captain Nemo goes to great lengths to ensure everything he needs is a product of the ocean, and Jules Verne goes into great detail explaining how this is possible – from diving suits sewn from fibers found in seaweed to a large machine for distilling sea water into fresh, Verne goes to great depths to explain just how Captain Nemo is able to live without ever going ashore. This level of detail carries into the descriptions of the ocean itself. Portrayals of the ocean in media have a tendency to make it appear like a barren, waterlogged wasteland, save for the occasional shark or reef. Verne subverts this by giving the ocean floor all the liveliness of an exotic alien planet. Over the course of the book, the Nautilus travels across the world’s oceans, and each is treated uniquely. The crew go harpoon hunting in a coral reef, explore a forest of kelp and deep-sea monsters, and travel through a network of undiscovered isthmuses connecting Europe and Africa as they make their journey around the globe. Along the way, Aronnax notes the different sea life he encounters, some of which are real bizarre creatures that inhabit the depths and others a product of Verne’s imagination. Verne also takes inspiration from the real world in his descriptions of submarines – despite submarine travel still being in its infancy when the book was written, Verne’s descriptions hold up scientifically, making the story all seem very plausible.
This level of detail makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea stand out against other similar novels – it truly feels like you are going on an adventure along with the characters. If you are a fan of classic science-fiction, or if you just want to take a journey to the untouched bottom of the ocean, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It was one of my favorites as a child and still gives me that sense of fantastic adventure and wonderment to this day.