20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the sixth of Jules Verne’s “extraordinary voyages,” published in the same year as De la terre à la lune (1865; From the Earth to the Moon, 1873). Earlier books in the series visited a strange underworld at “the centre of the earth” and the North Pole, unreached at the time, as well as traversing Africa, Australia, and South America. After 1870, Verne began to give more attention to the plots of his novels, but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea belongs to a phase when the joys of imaginary tourism were sufficient in themselves to sustain the production of long and languorous hypothetical travelogues.
Although it is rightly regarded as a classic of science fiction, Verne invented far less than modern readers sometimes realize. The American inventor Robert Fulton had tried to interest Napoleon in his submarine boat—also called the Nautilus—in 1800, and Verne had several opportunities to observe submarines being tested in the river Seine. He had certainly seen the model of Charles-Marie Brun’s Le Plongeur that was displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. Verne’s most significant innovations were the powering of the ship by electricity extracted from seawater (a technology that continues to prove elusive) and the diving suits used by Nemo and his crew (which would be fatal to users because of their lack of pressurization).
On the other hand, it is difficult for modern readers to realize how mysterious the undersea world was in Verne’s day. Thanks to underwater photography and television there is now a window into that world, but Verne had none at all. The surface of the moon, which the heroes of From the Earth to the Moon observed at close quarters, was thoroughly mapped, at least on the side facing the Earth, but the world under the sea was entirely hidden, known only by virtue of what was cast ashore or hauled out by fishermen’s nets. Verne’s travelers were venturing into an unknown world for the very first time, laying...
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