20,000 Leagues under the Sea is one of those books that seeped so deeply into the cultural conscious I never bothered to learn what it was about. I knew Captain Nemo was a person (probably a villain?) who lived underwater (maybe with a kingdom?). That was it.
It was so much more. It was so gay. It had so much good science. It had so much bad science. And just the sheer–I cannot even DESCRIBE the antiheroism of it all. Google thinks that’s not a word, but Google can suck it. At one point Captain Nemo sails to Antarctica, which is an oasis with improbably big elephant seals for some reason, plants a black flag with a gold N on a cliff or whatever, and I’m just gonna quote it in full, honestly–
“I, Captain Nemo, on this 21st day of March, 1868, have reached the South Pole on the ninetieth degree; and I take possession of this part of the globe, equal to one-sixth of the known continents.”
“In whose name, Captain?”
“In my own, sir!”
Saying which, Captain Nemo unfurled a black banner, bearing an “N” in gold quartered on its bunting. Then, turning towards the orb of day, whose last rays lapped the horizon of the sea, he exclaimed:
“Adieu, sun! Disappear, thou radiant orb! rest beneath this open sea, and let a night of six months spread its shadows over my new domains!”Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part Two, Chapter Fourteen
This is so sexy, and I mean that unironically. A bunch of shippy things also happen, like Nemo installing his favorite captive audience member, M. Aronnax, in the room next to his own so that M. Aronnax can come in at any time and look at the submarine’s “machinery,” which just so happens to be located in Captain Nemo’s bedroom. Hmmmm.
Oh, I didn’t even get to the plot, which is the most harlequin setup ever, wait for it: The world is aghast at some strange new oceanic entity which seems impossibly large and has already sunk a ship by making a giant hole in it. NICE. It’s an iceberg! It’s a Narwhal! No, it’s CAPTAIN NEMO, come to ram imperialist boats with impunity and maybe slaughter sperm whales because sperm whales oppress the virtuous right whales. No, really.
As an acclaimed naturalist, M. Aronnax sets sail to prove his thesis that the Unexplained Phenomenon is a narwhal, BUT THEN his ship starts sinking, he ends up overboard, the world goes dark, and he wakes up in a dark place with sailors who speak an unknown language. So far, it’s your standard nineteenth century adventure, no harlequin in sight. Fine. Wait till Captain Nemo walks in:
Whether this individual was thirty-five or fifty years of age, I could not precisely state. He was tall, his forehead broad, his nose straight, his mouth clearly etched, his teeth magnificent, his hands refined, tapered, and to use a word from palmistry, highly “psychic,” in other words, worthy of serving a lofty and passionate spirit. This man was certainly the most wonderful physical specimen I had ever encountered. One unusual detail: his eyes were spaced a little far from each other and could instantly take in nearly a quarter of the horizon. This ability—as I later verified—was strengthened by a range of vision even greater than Ned Land’s. When this stranger focused his gaze on an object, his eyebrow lines gathered into a frown, his heavy eyelids closed around his pupils to contract his huge field of vision, and he looked! What a look—as if he could magnify objects shrinking into the distance; as if he could probe your very soul; as if he could pierce those sheets of water so opaque to our eyes and scan the deepest seas . . . !
Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part One, Chapter Eight
Yes, “Most wonderful physical specimen ever encountered,” whatever THAT means. Also, there’s this:
“No doubt, sir, you’ve felt that I waited rather too long before paying you this second visit. After discovering your identities, I wanted to weigh carefully what policy to pursue toward you. I had great difficulty deciding. Some extremely inconvenient circumstances have brought you into the presence of a man who has cut himself off from humanity. Your coming has disrupted my whole existence.”Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part One, Chapter Ten
Waaaah, it’s so inconvenient that I punched a hole in a British ship and have to hold survivors hostage, waaaah. But then it turns out that M. Aronnax has written Captain Nemo’s favorite academic text ever (about Captain Nemo, incidentally), and THEY’RE MORE THAN WELCOME TO STAY, BUT THEY CAN’T EVER LEAVE because secrecy or whatever. I guess Captain Nemo doesn’t mind having his whole existence disrupted THAT much. HMMMMMMMM. DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? It’s the classic captivity narrative with the chivalrous kidnapper and if M. Aronnax were a hot girl there would be no questions asked.
And the rest is history. They have a first date in Atlantis, which is super cool, but also kind of a side quest. They catalogue every underwater species known to man and try the Ocean Diet, because anything from land suuuuuucks. It sounds like I’m making this all up, but no, I’m not, and there are even more absurdities that I’m forgetting about. Please read it. It will save your year. It saved mine. I’m not going to spoil the ending (you might know it), but to me, it’s suitable open. Like a deranged fanfic author, I like to imagine that Captain Nemo and his professor still sail the seas, maybe ramming an imperialist ship or two, but majorly laying off the sperm whale homicide.
And that’s all.