After several ships are sunk by a massive whale, Uncle Sam organises an expedition to hunt down the monster and kill it. Last to join the crew is French naturalist Pierre Aronnax, his passive manservant Conseil and famed Canadian harpoonist Ned Land. These three are not long for the hunt, however, because when their ship tracks down the beast a chapter later they end up falling overboard and discovering that massive whale is actually made of metal.
Taken inside the artificial leviathan, which then disappears beneath the waves, they begin their epic journey (20,000 leagues being a distance, not a depth – though of course you knew that) as prisoners of the enigmatic Captain Nemo. There are sea battles, encounters with giant sea spiders, attacks from giant octopi and a visit to a sunken city, like Pompeii underwater (which turns out to be Atlantis), before our heroes get the chance to escape, by which point Monsieur Aronnax is not altogether sure he really wants to.
I actually only read this one because I’m working on a new edition at the day job, but it is still a lively, breezy, entertaining read that has dated rather well over the past 150-odd years. A scene where Captain Nemo buries a crewmember in the middle of a coral reef really stood out, and moments where Jules Verne pre-empted the future quite accurately show why he’s now regarded as one of the founding fathers of science fiction.
Unfortunately for all the jolly japes of the plot in which they find themselves embroiled, the characters get a little lost along the way. Ned Land never develops a second dimension beyond wanting to kill anything he encounters. Conseil gets called ‘boy’ a lot, despite being in his thirties, and his eternal placidness would be a sure sign of psychopathy and imminent mass murder in anybody else’s version.
Captain Nemo himself also remains a little too much of an enigma. Living in self-exile, funding himself with salvaged gold from sunken Spanish galleons, he could have been something of a charismatic antihero. But beyond some reference to a dead family, we don’t really find out anything more about him.