Friday, August 5, 2011

Adventure classics -- Finding Nemo, captain, that is

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne


When I first read Jules Verne’s classic science fiction sea adventure, I was too young to realize that science fiction is usually about the future. So why did Verne set Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in the past? The answer -- as with so many things (the U.S. debt ceiling debacle, anyone?) lies in politics.

The novel was published in 1870, although the narrator, French scientist Pierre Aronnax, begins by telling us of the remarkable appearance of a strange marine object, first sighted in 1866.

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The earlier year makes sense when we realize that the mysterious Captain Nemo was originally intended to be a Polish nobleman revenging family members killed in retaliation for his part in the January Uprising of 1863 against Russia. Poland’s unhappy history provoked a lot of romanticized feeling among western Europeans as well as Americans in the nineteenth century. I’ve heard that Louisa May Alcott based the character of the hero Laurie in Little Women on a Pole she met during her travels in Europe.

But by the time Twenty Thousand Leagues appeared, France was allied with Russia. Vernes’ publisher persuaded him to make the unhappy captain an enemy of France’s old adversary, the British Empire, although Nemo’s supposed origins as descendent of a Muslim Indian ruler who resisted the British were not revealed until Twenty Thousand Leagues’ sequel, The Mysterious Island, published in 1874.

None of which detracts from the adventure of the book. Or of the kraken -- the giant squid who attack the submarine and whose existence was not documented at the time of the book’s publication.

Despite millennia of reports by seamen, giant squid were known to science only from occasional dead specimens until the twenty-first century. These deep sea dwellers generally were not able to withstand the enormous pressure changes of being brought to surface level. Dead specimens -- sometimes found in the stomachs of sperm whales that preyed on them -- were often in poor condition.

The first photographs of a live, mature giant squid was taken on January 15, 2002, on Goshiki beach in Japan. The captured animal died overnight. The first photographs of a live giant squid in its natural habitat were taken in September 2004 in a sperm whale hunting ground south of Tokyo. Although the animal broke free, later DNA tests confirmed it as a giant squid. Jules Verne, I think, would have been proud.

(Next Friday -- Adventure classics goes north -- with Jack London at his Nietzschean best in The Sea Wolf.)


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