Can a book be more than just a book? Can a story be more than just a story. With Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, Adam Roberts poses that question, and many others. The title alone signifies that this isn’t a science fiction novel, but a tribute and a response to the Jules Verne classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Verne’s book introduces the iconic Captain Nemo and his secret submarine, the Nautilus. It features mysterious sea monsters, a French marine biologist and a visit to Atlantis. Robert’s novel similarly features a secret submarine, but with a French crew and Indian scientists. It also features 33 full page pen and ink drawings from Mahendra Singh, which increase the sense of history that comes with the book.
It is 1958. The cold war is in full bloom. The French are testing a secret nuclear submarine, the Plongeur (French for ‘diver’ – also the name of the first mechanical submarine launched in 1863, a model of which was seen by Verne at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris). The small crew are joined by the aforementioned scientists and an observer from the French Ministry of National Defence (the Minister being Charles De Gaulle) as sea trials begin. On her first drive, she goes down, and just doesn’t stop. Impossibly so. She goes beyond the point when the ocean’s pressure should crush her. She goes beyond the point when the laws of physics appear to have lost control. She goes miles, days, trillions of leagues under the sea. All the while, the crew, led by Captain Cloche fear for, and prepare for death, and then try to solve the mystery of what has happened to them. But they can’t do anything to stop their descent into the abyss and into madness. As their journey continues they encounter mysterious sea monsters, strange underwater lights and the final, mind-boggling mystery as fiction becomes meta-fiction and the universe reveals itself to be stranger than the imagination.
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is a hard book to classify. [Spoiler alert] As the journey downwards progress, the story almost forces several changes in genre and focus. It begins as this homage to Verne and the fantastic voyages that were prevalent at that time. The writing style matches that too. However, once the craft and crew survive what they believe is their inevitable death, it becomes a mystery before touching on supernatural fantasy, spy thriller, physics-based science fiction, alien invasion, religious treatise and meta-fiction mind boggler. Elements from all these styles take centre stage at some point or other. And yet none feel forced; they are the natural consequences of the crew’s actions.
The illustrations are a seamless part of the book, and add a little extra. They appear as gorgeous chapter endings, and have the feel of woodcuttings. It is wonderful that Orion Books have added these sketches into a book.
Roberts has tackled the fantasy literary classics before, with Swiftly, which was a follow-up of Gulliver’s Travels. He has also produced an academic overview of science fiction and regularly parodies books and films. He is an author who is so well versed in these genres that you have confidence in his writing. Some of the science made no sense to me at all, and it is irrelevant whether or not it is accurate or not. Technically, then, this is a superbly written novel. Despite the fact that Roberts is deliberately and expertly harping back to a bygone era of writing – a more innocent age of proto-science fiction if you will – it does still have a modern sensibility, which is inevitably brought to the book by the reader. This makes the complete lack of female characters jar somewhat, although for the most part, it is understandable. The characters, however, while well drawn, are generally unsympathetic to the reader. Before various shades of madness, murder and religious mania take hold, they are fairly indistinguishable. Events force personalities to emerge. As a result, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea feels more like an exercise in science fiction history rather than a story to care about.
That is not to say, however, that this tale isn’t fun and shouldn’t be read, because it is and it should be.