Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
"The deepest parts of the ocean are totally unknown to us," admits Professor Aronnax
early in this novel. "What goes on in those distant depths? What creatures inhabit, or
could inhabit, those regions twelve or fifteen miles beneath the surface of the water? It's
almost beyond conjecture."
Jules Verne (1828-1905) published the French equivalents of these words in 1869, and
little has changed since. 126 years later, a Time cover story on deep-sea exploration made
much the same admission: "We know more about Mars than we know about the oceans."
This reality begins to explain the dark power and otherworldly fascination of Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under the Seas.
Born in the French river town of Nantes, Verne had a lifelong passion for the sea. First as
a Paris stockbroker, later as a celebrated author and yachtsman, he went on frequent
voyages-- to Britain, America, the Mediterranean. But the specific stimulus for this novel
was an 1865 fan letter from a fellow writer, Madame George Sand. She praised Verne's
two early novels Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) and Journey to the Center of the Earth
(1864), then added: "Soon I hope you'll take us into the ocean depths, your characters
traveling in diving equipment perfected by your science and your imagination." Thus
inspired, Verne created one of literature's great rebels, a freedom fighter who plunged
beneath the waves to wage a unique form of guerilla warfare.
Initially, Verne's narrative was influenced by the 1863 uprising of Poland against Tsarist
Russia. The Poles were quashed with a violence that appalled not only Verne but all
Europe. As originally conceived, Verne's Captain Nemo was a Polish nobleman whose
entire family had been slaughtered by Russian troops. Nemo builds a fabulous futuristic
submarine, the Nautilus, then conducts an underwater campaign of vengeance against his
But in the 1860s France had to treat the Tsar as an ally, and Verne's publisher Pierre
Hetzel pronounced the book unprintable. Verne reworked its political content, devising
new nationalities for Nemo and his great enemy--information revealed only in a later
novel, The Mysterious Island (1875); in the present work Nemo's background remains a
dark secret. In all, the novel had a difficult gestation. Verne and Hetzel were in constant
conflict and the book went through multiple drafts, struggles reflected in its several
working titles over the period 1865-69: early on, it was variously called Voyage Under
the Waters, Twenty-five Thousand Leagues Under the Waters, Twenty Thousand
Leagues Under the Waters, and A Thousand Leagues Under the Oceans.
Verne is often dubbed, in Isaac Asimov's phrase, "the world's first science-fiction writer."
And it's true, many of his sixty-odd books do anticipate future events and technologies:
From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Hector Servadac (1877) deal in space travel,
while Journey to the Center of the Earth features travel to the earth's core. But with Verne