Achin' for adventure? By 1868, Jules Verne had already offered us readers trips around the world in eighty days, excursions from the Earth to the Moon, and journeys into the center of our home planet. So Verne decided take us out somewhere new.
And he didn't want to take us out to any average, second-date spot. He wanted to wow us with an adventure somewhere deep and mysterious. Like, the ocean. No, no, put those swimmies away, kiddos. We're going 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, on a submarine guided by a (slightly) mad genius known as Captain Nemo.
But wait, you say. Submarine technology was just starting to develop in 1868. Right you are, friends. Indeed, Verne earned a reputation for being the "Father of Science Fiction" because a lot of the stuff he laid out in his books came into existence after he wrote about it. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is no exception, as today's nuclear submarines can attest.
This book is more than just a bunch of neat stories about yet-undeveloped technology, however (not that there's anything wrong with that). In 20,000 Leagues, our buddy Mr. Verne packs a lot of serious business in between the squid fights and the trips to Atlantis—those wacky escapades that most people remember. He tackles Big Existential Questions about revenge, liberty, the struggle between man and nature, and more.
It's no surprise, then, that this author looms large in the minds of many. The U.S. Navy's first nuclear sub—the first sub to travel under the South Pole—was named Nautilus, after Nemo's famous vessel. And Verne is the second most translated author of all time, behind Agatha Christie. Wowza.
All of that translating of Verne's work might not be a good thing, though; not every translation of his writing is up to snuff. In fact, a lot of the translations of 20,000 Leagues are pretty terrible. (Trust us.) As a result, Verne has gained a reputation as a children's writer, despite the fact that he never aimed for children to be his primary—or even secondary—audience.
Verne's kiddie-wooing reputation was bolstered by the fact that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was made into a Disney movie. At least it was a really awesome movie, complete with a pet seal. Disney also turned this book into a ride at a bunch of their amusement parks.
What can we say? Verne's got mass appeal. If Jane Austen can mingle with zombies, why can't Captain Nemo chill with kids in Mickey Mouse hats?
Okay, guys, it's time to get real: this Captain Nemo dude ain't no cuddly clownfish. He's kind of a terrorist. He strikes fear into the hearts of sailors everywhere. He disables a bunch of ships—that we know of—and may have sunk countless others.
Aronnax watches Nemo take down a warship, killing everyone aboard, without thinking twice. Sure, Nemo's smart and sure he's charismatic, but people have probably said that about countless other scary dictators. How else do you think such leaders recruit people to fight for them?
But what the heck is Nemo fighting for? He doesn't seem motivated by religious fervor or racial prejudice or other typical war-mongering business. No, Nemo's hatred is bigger and more mysterious than all of that; he hates almost everybody, except for the "oppressed."
As he tells Aronnax after saving the drowning pearl diver:
That Indian, doctor, is the inhabitant of an oppressed country, I am his compatriot, and shall remain so to my very last breath! (2.3.89)
He also gives that one Greek dude a lot of money, and if you were a contemporary of Verne, you'd know that the Greeks were engaged in a War of Independence at the time. So, maybe Nemo's not a terrorist. Maybe he's a freedom fighter.
What's the difference, you ask? That's the thing: it's hard to say, really. Perhaps Nemo is truly fighting the good fight, battling hard for liberty and justice for all. Perhaps he's taking out his own personal anger in all the wrong ways. By now, we're guessing you know why we think this book is important to read today.
This novel draws attention to the messiness of people's motivations for war. Nemo's enemy remains anonymous throughout the text, and the reasons behind his vengeance are always vague. So Verne intentionally muddies the waters (haha, we're funny) surrounding the potentially justifiable use of violence in the war(s) against oppression.