This review can also be seen on my blog, Stumptown Books
Nothing new to be said about this novel, obviously, but I just finished it and I have a lot to say. I was in the mood for some classic science fiction and alighted upon this one, having read it when I was a kid, and curious to see how much I would remember. Turns out, not much! But as one of the pedestals of modern science fiction, this novel has done a lot without doing much at all.
Even if it is an "outdated underwater guide," as one Goodreads reviewer puts it, I was filled with a sense of wonder, even all these decades later. It is such an alien environment, even to this day, and I couldn't help but look at it like he was describing a completely alien world. That is where I really got the science fiction vibes from it. The Nautilus might as well have been cruising through star systems, the creatures and landscapes were so alien and beautiful. I'm ashamed at how little I know about the ocean, but I learned quite a bit by looking things up as he described them. I honestly never knew that is how the Gulf Stream worked, that there were such creatures as dugongs and Stellar's Sea Cows, or how atmospheric pressure really works.
Many readers complain of how he inexhaustibly catalogs fish as he comes upon them. I found these entries intriguing at first although I also soon grew tired of them. What really bugged me was the absolute wonder Professor Aronnax and Captain Nemo held for the sea, but then they nonchalantly slaughter hundreds of creatures, including a Stellar's Sea Cow and an entire pod of sperm whales. Captain Nemo gives the go ahead for both of these, and after a character raised their eyebrows at this, he responded with "We need red meat" to the former, and "Sperm whales at the jerks of the sea" to the latter (my wording!). Even after Conseil says about the Stellar's Sea Cow: "On the off chance that this creature might be the last of its line, wouldn't it be advisable to spare its life, in the interests of science?" they shrug and continue with the harpooning. Not to mention the fishing net they had rigged up to trail behind the ship and catch whatever it might (often hundreds of creatures in a go). Aronnax speaks of the bounty to be had from this net, but I fail to see how a ship of twenty people (estimated) could possibly hope to eat that much. How can you be so enraptured with an element and yet disregard it so completely? He even talks about how man is ruining the ocean and he gives it a century before we start seeing major problems. It's incomprehensible! All I can justify it with is that is was a different time. Although this was the part of the novel I had the most issues with, it also served to make it that much more a piece of modern science fiction for me. I can totally imagine mankind going to a new star system and completely destroying it because it's so beautiful, not in spite of it.
Of course "Nemo" nowadays calls up images of Finding Nemo, and I appreciate Pixar's genius all the more because of it. Perhaps I'm overly deconstructing it, but that movie calls up a lot of the same emotions that Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea did for me. The beauty and the wonder, along with a what-hath-man-wrought anger. It's also the only movie I've ever seen with a character named Nemo! I really need to catch up on my League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, obviously.
It is a ponderous read by today's standards, but it's a classic for a reason. If you can get past the classification, the characterization is really quite good. Captain Nemo has made it onto my list of best antiheroes, although that's hardly new. Aronnax is sophisticated, intelligent, and a bit arrogant, but he's able to admit when he is wrong. Ned Land made much more of an impression on me this time through the novel, and I feel he is the character the reader can probably identify with the most, as he is the one more interested in escaping, and uninterested in classification. Conseil was practically a non entity at first but he becomes a bit more human as the novel goes on.
I enjoyed it quite a bit, all things considered, and I got a lot more out of it reading it as an adult.