Written in 1870 by Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is a novel of thrilling adventure and exploration. ‘Professor Aronnax, his faithful servant Conseil and Canadian harpooner Ned Land are held prisoners aboard the fantastic submarine, the Nautilus, by its enigmatic and charismatic commander, Captain Nemo’, as they embark upon an eventful voyage from the lost city of Atlantis to the South Pole.
Published during a time of huge political instability; the United States was recovering from civil war and new empires were arising in Europe and Asia, as well as innovation; the invention of the telephone and motion picture, Jules Verne was certainly ahead of his time. When the novel was written, ‘submarines were small, primitive devices, prone to sinking and largely untested’; 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, therefore, brought underwater habitation and the need to subdue the ocean environment firmly into public consciousness. Thus, inspiring a number of technological advancements, namely the development of the electric submarine, with the 1954 launch of Hyman Rickover’s ‘Atom Sub’ significantly called the U.S.S. Nautilus (see plate 2).
Gender construction is a prominent theme in the novel, as popular culture during the period tended to imagine the sea as dominated by white men, with Verne’s characters consisting of four set in competition with one another. At the novel’s core are concerns with ‘variant models of masculine power and the male scientist’s problematic relationships to Nature and to other men.’ Thus, seeking to shape the imaginations of young men, teaching them that knowledge is power. Part of ‘the foundation of a social order that asserted Western technology over the rest of the world’, premediating the Cold War era, which was ‘dominated by the need to adjust to the requirements of constantly changing technology.’
This can be evidenced by Captain Nemo, as a lawless citizen’s insatiable thirst for oceanographic knowledge to enable him to master and control the oceans. Much like the US Navy in the 1950s, who promoted research into the deep-sea environment, namely; magnetic, bathymetric and gravitational surveying, to enable them to conceal submarines, (see plate 3), in an attempt to win the Cold War.
Verne’s work also reflects popular conceptions of the ocean in the 1950s and 1960s as a frontier of limitless possibility, an infinite kingdom that could be conquered for the needs of the human race. For Jules Verne and his contemporaries, the natural world was simply inexhaustible. Now we obviously know that it isn’t. It could be argued, therefore, that Verne’s vision was simply over-optimistic, as for all his faith in technology he couldn’t imagine the damage that mankind could do.
Nevertheless, the piece had a huge role to play in inspiring the next generation of scientists, educators and writers, with the Nautilus becoming the global symbol of exploration, fantasy and science. The novel in its e-book incarnation continues to top the Hard Science Fiction and Barnes & Noble’s High Tech bestseller lists, thus demonstrating its prevailing significance and revolutionary nature some 150 years on.
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