This book can I think best be described as odd. Things start off in a reasonably conventional manner; a French submarine crew take a new automatic submersible on its maiden voyage. However, the further away they get from dry land the more surreal events become. As they travel deeper and deeper, way beyond all possible depths, they start to encounter stranger and stranger phenomena.
Led by the formidable Capitaine Adam Cloche, the crew of the Plongeur are an eclectic bunch of characters. Also along for the ride are a couple of Indian nuclear scientists and a government observer called Alain Lebret. Monsieur Lebret is particularly interesting; he’s got his own secret agenda that he’ll stop at nothing to accomplish.
The claustrophobic close quarters of the submarine, and their seemingly endless voyage into the abyss, begins to take its toll on everyone. They start to suffer all manner of differing traumas, some physical, others mental. Extreme paranoia and violent outbursts for some, while for others its religious mania and delusions.
Things end on a slightly ambiguous note but I rather suspect that’s the author’s intention. If you got a dozen people in a room and they all read this book there would more than likely be a dozen different interpretations of events. Roberts manages to touch upon everything from politics and religion to the quest for ultimate knowledge and multi-verse theory. I like that idea, that different readers will each take something different away from this book.
Dotted throughout the narrative there are a series of illustrations from the artist Mahendra Singh. Almost like medieval woodcuttings their style complements the text well and gives things the air of dark Cthulhu-esque fairytale. The images vividly capture some of the plots key moments; they’re a nice inclusion.
Unsurprisingly there are also a few cheeky references to the Jules Verne novel that Twenty Trillion Leagues pays dutiful homage too. No Kirk Douglas with a sea lion and an accordion from the Disney adaptation sadly, but I suppose you can’t have everything can you?
To sum up then – Adam Roberts writing is wonderfully odd, Mahendra Singh’s art is evocatively odd, and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is entirely odd. The good news is that I’m a big fan of odd and I think I rather enjoyed reading it. I say think because there is always the distinct possibility that I am in fact still reading it. As I said things do get epically surreal. I may in fact never finish the book and if I do how will any of us ever really know? Lao-tzu is often quoted as having once said that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“. To paraphrase this insightful bon mot I can only conclude that a journey of twenty trillion leagues begins with a nuclear submarine…and a sentient mind-controlling beard apparently.*
If you’re looking for some slightly trippy, thought provoking science fiction with a classic heritage I suggest that you could do a lot worse than giving this a go. Adam Roberts has successfully messed with my head I suggest you let him mess with your head too. A whale of a tale indeed.
* Told you it was surreal
on 27 January 2014
You'll see some synopses of the set-up for this story, and you'll reckon you have a bearing on what's going on. That's fine - it makes the scientific acid trip all the more cosmic when it hits. This is no simple, nostalgic hommage to its illustrious predecessor, but an astonishing riff.
I've been reading a few by this author recently, and continue to be astounded by his range. What doesn't change is the breadth and depth of vision - characters dripping with personality, science of high quality, a dash of philosophy, action somehow rendered with pace while never neglecting the kind of high definition and quotidian details that make it all irresistibly real. I just don't understand how unconstrained his palette is - is he, in fact, a composite of several Adam Robertses, somehow swapping ideas across multiverses?
It's June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine's design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine's capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on... past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure... and on... and on...
This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I've read in a long time, it's a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I'm sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it's something more than a pastiche.
And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other's throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there's a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur's new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There's much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter - not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.
I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn't feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia's pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne's world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the '50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn't as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to trying some of Roberts' other books. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin's Griffin.
on 12 May 2015
I've been a serious S. F. junkie for over 35 year. There are few concepts I've not come across at some point. Nonetheless, some of this author's books have totally blown my mind. Most of the others are merely staggering.
Usually, though, those concepts and the plots surrounding them are presented clearly.
This one seems to dive into deeper waters.
"Twenty Trillion Leagues" is a gripping adventure. As the title suggests it is an homage to Jules Verne, but goes a lot further.
It has a number of strong characters, and a good deal of the story is character, rather than concept driven.
I cared about those characters, and the perils they found themselves in.
However, I'll have to read the book again - no hardship - to understand the ending Either Roberts is being dumb, or, much, much more likely, I am. I think he's done another one of those brain somersaults he's famous for, but I have missed a cue along the line.
Anyway, an enjoyable read - or two!
on 17 June 2014
A very clever and original story. Whilst set on a nuclear submarine in the late 1950s it is written in the Jules Verne style complete with illustrations of various scenes (even in the kindle version). I
ts good in its own right. Its also good to have a sic-fi story which is not a) a dystopia, b) war with nasty aliens, c) poor orphan kid destined to save the the whole universe (yawn, yawn).
on 15 March 2014
I am a fully committed fan of Adam Roberts so I expect to like everything he does. However, I have to say this is a very clever book. He imitates Jules Verne's writing style, characterisation and plot development with barely any deviation. The story itself is, of course - coming out of Mr. Robert's head, completely crackers so you really do have to suspend disbelief to the utmost.