Captain Nemo — Hero… and Pirate

Geek Culture

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Captain Nemo of the Nautilus, genius inventor of the submarine that is the central locale for Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. If you’ve never read the story, there’s really no excuse to wait as the novel can be obtained free-of-charge for Kindle, Nook, and a variety of eReaders. It’s a relatively short story, too, compared to some of the 500+ page stories that we’re used to reading today.

Verne did some amazing things with this novel, especially given that submarines didn’t exist at the time he wrote the story. Technically accurate in some ways and absolutely 100% off target in others, Verne managed to provide the public with a story that beyond its time, with an anti-hero to whom many readers would sympathize, and locales that were completely beyond the reach of any well-known explorers of the day

The book can be a bit difficult to read at times… some sections drag on with discussions on specific sea life that feel like they’ll never end, and other discussions of technology can seem almost childish to our world where most kids and adults understand the basics of electricity. And, depending on the translation you read, some of the prose can also be a little hard to parse. But given all these issues, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still one of those classics that sci-fi fans should make an effort to read in its original form. (Don’t get me wrong — I did enjoy the Disney movie version as a youngster, and I do remember going out on my grandfather’s fishing boat and looking at the Gulf of Mexico with a wary eye as I waited for a whirlpool to kick up or a vicious squid to attack the boat.)

I’ve read maybe half of Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages (a series of 54 novels) and find 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be an enjoyable read every few years. I still count myself as a fan.

Kevin J. Anderson must be a fan, too… because his recently re-released Captain Nemo, has way too many winks and nods at both Verne, many of his stories, and some of the people that inhabited his real-life world. (I missed the first release (2002), but I’m glad to have found the current re-release.)

The story is not a continuation of 20,000 Leagues or its sequel, Mysterious Island. Instead, Anderson starts by introducing us to a young Jules Verne and his best friend, Andre Nemo. Both boys dream of a life of adventure, but it’s only Nemo who seems to take the risks that both boys associate with the life of an adventurer. Verne is content to assist Nemo with his adventures (and respin them later as stories that will eventually become the major plots of some of his novels).

A deadly incident early in the book leaves Nemo an orphan. Verne, not wanting to abandon his friend, agrees to a leave on an adventure with his friend… but Verne’s father has different ideas for his son. I love how Anderson has taken a well-known story (possibly a myth — the debate does exist) of Verne sailing away at a young age and mixed it into the story. At first I struggled with the story because there was quite a bit of Verne’s real life mixed into the fictional elements of the man’s very own stories. (For example, many of the characters that live in Anderson’s fictional account of Verne and Nemo’s lives have names that show up in later Verne stories… I’d read something and a small itch in my brain would start as I’d try to remember where I’d heard that name or seen a locale.) Eventually I gave up on trying to recall every little nod that Anderson would place in his own story and made up my mind to just enjoy the tale and not try to link it to the original 20,000 Leagues or Mysterious Island — because that Nemo is not Anderson’s Nemo.

Anderson’s Nemo is still the explorer, but the adventures he encounters in this new novel are what feed the fictional Verne his ideas for the later novels. Whereas in the real Verne’s stories, we’re often given brief descriptions of the rogue Nemo’s adventures and wanderings, Anderson’s story goes into much more detail about the encounters that shape the future Nemo, including how he came to be on the Nautilus. Hidden cities, monster attacks, pirate battles, and explorations galore. It’s good stuff.

Regarding Anderson’s Verne — I’m not quite sure how I feel about him. He’s too reserved, so it’s understandable that he documents and embellishes. Anderson’s portrayal of the man is not quite insulting to Verne the famous author, but to make the differences between the two boys (and later two men) more distinct, Anderson has to write one as heroic and the other as… not cowardly… but not the risk taker that the reader is likely to want him to be.

Take, for example, one of the earliest events in the book — Nemo’s design and testing of his own version of gear that will allow him to breathe underwater. Nemo offers the first test of the equipment to his friend, only to have Verne turn it down to stay safely on the shore, adding more reeds to the length of tubing needed to provide air to Nemo. It’s a hint of things to come, and I do wonder whether I would have enjoyed the story more if Verne was actually accompanying his friend on all these adventures versus sitting on the sideline and writing about them.

Given that Anderson’s story is not part of the original world that Verne created, it’s all good. Verne’s was fiction, so I’m okay with Anderson taking some liberties of his own. Anderson’s done his research into both Verne’s world and his novels, and fans of the original Verne stories won’t be disappointed to read about a young Nemo (as opposed to the older man we were left with in Mysterious Island) and his conquering of the world around him. It’s a good adventure, and you’ll have fun reading it to the very last page.

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