20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of a series of fantastic journeys that established Verne’s reputation. It is not a fully fledged science-fiction novel but instead a “scientific romance,” an adventure novel that does not speculate about the future but provides a series of adventures with the help of only slightly extrapolated scientific gadgets. Verne took his science very seriously and verified all data according to the best sources available to him. This care regrettably was hidden for nearly a hundred years to English-speaking readers by the unreliable Mercier Lewis translation. Indeed, part of the attraction of the novel to contemporaneous readers was its function as a popular scientific primer, particularly regarding the world below the surface of the ocean, which was as mysterious to readers in 1870 as deep space was to later generations. The long, dry catalogs of maritime flora and fauna that modern readers may justifiably skip were fascinating to the author’s nonspecialist reading public.
In addition to teaching popular science, Verne also served as a model for future writers of science fiction. His work shows the delight in gadgetry typical of magazine science fiction in the early twentieth century and was among the first to question seriously the role, function, and ownership of scientific inventions. Aronnax holds the “Baconian” view that scientific advances—in this case, the Nautilus and its potential—belong to all of humanity and that Nemo has an obligation to publish and make available the results of his research. Nemo represents the classical “Faustian” view, that scientific inventions belong to the inventors (or their sponsors), who can do with them as they please. Nemo uses the submarine for his own personal and selfish ends, albeit with some justification, as readers of The Mysterious Island discover.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a thrilling scientific romance that foreshadows many of the thematic concerns of later popular science fiction. “Good” and “bad” science and scientists, ecological problems, international language projects, colonialism, and human rights are but a few of the topics dealt with in this multifaceted novel.