It’s hard to review a book written in another language. Inevitably, you’re reading a translation, so you’re really reviewing someone else’s version of the author’s narrative. That said, it’s hard not to doff your hat to Jules Verne. From the Earth to the Moon predicted many of the details of the Apollo moon missions nearly a century ahead of time, including a launch site less than an hour from Cape Canaveral.
But the most startling example of Jules Verne’s scientific prescience is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a travelogue disguised as a science fiction adventure. How prescient was Verne? I had trouble trying to imagine his Nautilus. Based on his descriptions, I kept picturing an Ohio-class missile submarine. Verne even hinted at a fuel-cell driven sub silently prowling the depths and coming up for air only once a day. His explanation of how the ship generated its electrical power is a bit vague, but like modern hydrogen fuel cells now in development, Verne suggests cracking coal for the raw ingredients.
What makes this so astonishing is the date of the story: 1867. So when Verne talks about electric lights inside a sealed underwater vessel, y0u have to remember that Edison and Tesla were still over a decade from designing the beginnings of the power grid. The only electric lights at the time were the arc lights lighting the streets of Paris, noisy things that burned the metal rods generating their light.
Verne gets a few things wrong, such as suggesting the South Pole is a small island under a sea of ice, but he gets a lot of things right, even predicting the discovery of giant squids. Never mind that the real kraken-sized beasts tend to shy away from ocean-going vessels rather than eating their crews.
Of the characters, Professor Aronnax narrates, a French naturalist swept aboard the Nautilus when the crew of the US frigate he travels aboard assumes this strange thing in the ocean is some sort of whale. He is accompanied by the hot-headed whaler Ned Land and an annoyingly servile sidekick, Conseil. Then there’s Captain Nemo, whose identity remains a mystery within the pages of this book. Nemo is a moody, introverted misanthrope, fascinated by the sea, but despising his own species. He built the Nautilus to sever his ties with the human race.
What surprises me most about this book is that it is better written than a lot of later science fiction novels. It is not nearly as dark as HG Wells’ work. Still, in an era of smart phones, Internet, and nuclear-powered submarines, it’s getting harder and harder to see what Verne extrapolated and what he simply made up for the sake of story.