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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Context

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Submarines

By the time 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was published, primitive forms of underwater vessels had been in use in the United States and Europe. In his most recent translation of the novel, Verne biographer and translator William Butcher dedicates a full appendix section to all of the submarine-related writing, milestones, and technologies that influenced Verne or are referenced in the book. According to Butcher, no fewer than "twenty-five manned vessels had dived before 1869."

In the beginning, brute strength was used to power submersion. In 1620 a Dutchman named Cornelius Drebbel sealed an enclosed, waterproofed rowboat in greased leather. To go underwater, the crew let water in through a series of bladders; to head back to the surface they squeezed the bladders until they were empty. By the mid-1800s, however, the technology had improved considerably—enough that a submarine was deployed, to lethal effect, in the Civil War. In 1864 a Confederate submarine named the Hunley sunk the Union warship Housatonic, killing five people and marking a terrifying new milestone for warfare. Simply put, Verne did not conjure the idea of submarines.

Popular Science

As Verne scholar William Butcher puts it—rather bluntly—"Verne is not a science-fiction writer: most of his books contain no innovative science." What Verne did do was popularize a new form of the novel, one that relied on scientific concepts and technology for story plots. Before him, novels were typically focused on lived experiences: domestic life, relationships, class, war, and other issues relevant to the lives of the literary class. Verne was not the first to write about these extraordinary experiences; works such as The Swiss Family Robinson and Moby-Dick, for example, involved adventures in faraway places, much like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days. These latter three books (all by Verne), however, used science to power their adventures and drama.

If Verne helped bring science to the masses, he was helped by a gradual shift away from the academia. For most of the scientific age, at least in France, science was serious business, conducted and discussed exclusively in prestigious universities. By the mid-1850s, however, non-scientist writers wrote about science news and findings in popular media such as newspapers. As a result, interest in science and scientists increased among ordinary people. The dozens of references to scientists in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea attest to this popularity.

The Industrial Revolution in France and Globalization

Verne's exposure to science and technology came from observing the changing world around him. By the time Verne was in his mid-20s, the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) was raging in France. It had arrived nearly a hundred years after taking root in Britain, but in the decades after the Second Empire was proclaimed in 1852 under Napoleon III, France experienced an economic boom and dramatically increased its rail coverage. This growing industrial economy both required and contributed to modern innovations in media, travel, and technology. The embodiment of this was the steamship, a transport machine that was hardier, quicker, and much more reliable than sail-powered vessels. It was a perfect representation of man's increasingly sophisticated mastery over nature.

This age of the machine captured the imagination of people like Verne. As both an artist and a person who grew up in a busy port city, he was well-positioned to be a bridge between science and storytelling. He lived to see the world grow increasingly accessible—and smaller. Apart from the new opportunities for industrial fishing and commercial travel that steam-powered ships unlocked, the transatlantic telegraph cable began transmitting messages between North America and Europe in 1858, further accelerating contact among countries. On the heels of these technological advances, colonization followed or deepened. One of Verne's reactions to this was to create characters, such as Captain Nemo, who were from colonized or oppressed groups. His interest in these "others" is yet more evidence of his keen imagination and a reflection of the world order.

All of these changes, good and bad, were fodder for Verne. It's not surprising then that Verne biographer and French studies professor Timothy Unwin credits Verne's Extraordinary Journeys with "lengthily [recording] the nineteenth century's fascination with the machine and its miraculous power."

Critical Reception Then and Now

For the most part, Verne's works—and especially 20,000 Leagues under the Sea—were popular upon publication and remain so through the present day, although critics weren't always so generous in their praise. After his death, Verne's popularity returned with a vengeance after a number of his novels were made into movies, some of them multiple times. First produced in 1916, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was then remade by Disney in 1954. While enormously successful from a commercial standpoint—Verne is often cited as one of the top 10 most translated authors in the world—his "fantastical" stories were largely dismissed by critics.

However, scholars since the 1960s have begun to reinvestigate Verne's key role in the early development of the science fiction genre, especially his role in both popularizing scientific progress and contemplating the utopian possibilities of technology.

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